Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Winter mushroom soup

 It was raining for two days straight. This is when this soup was born. It's dark, heavy body, earthy mushroom and vegetable fragrance, a fire in the fireplace, and a glass of wine - all you need to accept the long cold nights and days that look like early mornings. Now it's nice and sunny again in our unpredictable "sunny California", but I know there will be more rainy days, so here it is.

It looks like a cream soup, but the cream (creme fraiche) is actually just used for serving. The creamy body of the soup comes from root vegetables that are cooked with mushrooms in homemade chicken stock and then pureed. For a vegetarian version, replace chicken stock with vegetable broth.

 The magic of this soup comes from a handful of dried porcini mushrooms. Their smell is comforting and totally irresistible, and is supported by a flavor base of winter vegetables. Make sure to add the liquid that you used to soak the mushrooms - a large part of the mushroom essence is in it.

This recipe makes four large servings of very thick soup, as is appropriate for the season. Or use more stock for a thinner version and serve it in espresso cups as an appetizer for a party.
Mushroom Soup
Serves 4

1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 leeks, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
1 parsley root, chopped
1 shallot, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
8 oz white mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 qt chicken stock
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 juniper berries, lightly crushed
salt, freshly ground pepper

To serve, optional: creme fraiche, minced parsley, fried shallot.

Cover dried mushrooms with hot water and soak until soft, 15-30 minutes, depending on the quality of the mushrooms. Remove mushrooms, squeeze dry, and chop, reserving the liquid. Strain liquid through a fine mesh strainer.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil and butter in a large saute pan. Add leeks, carrots, parsley root, shallot and garlic. Sweat over medium-low heat until soft but not browning, 10-15 minutes. Add porcini and white mushrooms, cook another 10 minutes. Add mushroom soaking liquid, sherry, chicken stock, thyme, bay leaves, juniper berries, and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer gently over low heat for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.
Remove and discard thyme, bay, and juniper berries. Puree soup in blender to desired texture. I like to leave the soup a little chunky. When pureeing hot soup, work in batches, and hold the lid down firmly with a towel, to make sure that the steam doesn't force the lid off and the hot liquid all over the kitchen and the cook (been there, done this). Pour into a pan and re-heat gently.

Serve in soup bowls, garnished with creme fraiche, parsley, and/or fried shallot.
This soup, served with a large slice of bread, can make a dinner on it's own. Or, here is a comforting second course to match:
Place pork medallions (thick slices of pork tenderloin), crushed bay leaves, sage, thyme sprigs, sliced garlic, salt, pepper, and a little olive oil in a plastic bag. Vacuum seal (I vacuum seal everything these days) or close the bag tightly. Refrigerate overnight. Remove medallions, rub off marinade, and dry with paper towels. Saute in a little olive oil over medium-high heat to medium-well (barely pink in the middle).

Here, served with sauteed Brussels sprouts and baby cauliflower, with my apple butter, and my killer tarragon mustard. The apple butter tames the heat of the mustard a bit, so it doesn't make me cry all the way through the dinner. And I have plenty of this apple butter to last me and everyone around me through the winter.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! Save a turkey!

No turkey suffered to make this post. While the whole nation was feasting on millions of turkeys, we decided to save a turkey, and went for the other white meat. It happened to be pork.

We started with pork rillettes that I made in advance: I just cooked the hell out of a fatty porl shoulder, cut into cubes, seasoned with thyme, bay leaves, juniper berries, salt and pepper, covered with water. After about 6 hours of low and slow cooking, the pork was tender and easy to shred with two forks. I then strained and degreased the cooking liquid (save the fat), reduced it a little more, packed the pulled pork into small containers, spooned some of the reduce liquid over it to make jelly, chilled, and then sealed it with reserved fat. At the time of serving I scraped the fat off, and we spread the rillettes on slices of walnut bread and ate it with my homemade tarragon killer mustard. The mustard made me cry, but otherwise it was all good.

The crown roast of pork usually takes a few days to absorb flavors of a dry rub that you put on it. Of course, I wasn't planning well, so I got the 3.5-pound 6-rib roast just the day before Thanksgiving. No problems! Technology comes to a rescue: my new gadget, FoodSaver vacuum sealer, doesn't just extend the life of the leftovers, it also helps to reduce marinating time of whatever meats you vacuum-pack with it.

I vacuum-seal everything these days. It does increase my carbon footpring; I toss much more plastic every day than I used to. OK, I use my canvas shopping bags to offset the damage, but I'm not giving up vacuum sealing. It's fun, it looks cool, and now R. can take weekend dinner leftovers for lunches all week long.

I've made a paste of garlic, sage, and rosemary, finely chopped with salt and pepper. Cut part-way through between the ribs and the meat of the roast, seasoned it with the paste inside and out, tied it together between the ribs, as if nothing happened, and vacuum sealed the whole thing. When I cut the plastic and roasted it the next day, the flavors in the meat were distributed very well.

The roast took a little over an hour in a 400-degrees oven to come to internal temperature of 135 degrees. I took it out at this point, covered with foil, and let it rest for about 25 minutes. The meat came out completely cooked, no pink, but still juicy.

We did the modern classics for the sides:
- Mashed sweet potatoes with parsley root, apple topping (of course, I'm still dealing with the tons of apples from my friend's garden)
- Roasted Brussels sprouts
- Arugula salad with fennel, pomegranate, and toasted almonds, pomegranate vinaigrette dressing

Finished with a simple puff pastry apple tart, served with Three Twins ice cream, and a glass of Amontillado sherry.
The last six jars of my apple butter are cooling in the canning pot right now. I think I'm done with the apples for this year. The orange season is close...

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Roasted pheasants

My friend K. doesn't just flood me with apples from his garden. He is also a hunter (about once a year), and in fall he sometimes supplies game for our dinner parties.
 Last year we had to figure out what to do with three wild geese. They ended up as a flavorful braise, made with prunes, wild mushrooms, and sherry.
 This time K. and his wire hound Martin got us three pheasants.

 Well, this one was easy: pheasants are very similar to chickens, these even had a little fat in them.

We rubbed them with salt and pepper, stuffed minced garlic, rosemary and thyme under the skins, put large slices of onions and garlic and a few juniper berries inside the birds, trussed them, and placed them in a roasting pan, surrounded by mixed cut vegetables (bell peppers, onions, garlic cloves, potatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes) - just like chickens. Since pheasant meat tends to be dry, we covered the breasts and legs with slices of apple wood bacon.

Roasted at 450 degrees about 20 minutes, then removed the bacon, took out those vegetables that were done, turned the birds over and roasted another 15 minutes. Then we decreased the temperature to 375, turned the birds breast side up again, and let them roast to internal temperature of 160 degrees. The potatoes and carrots had to stay in the oven for another 10 minutes to finish cooking.

I made a sauce with mushrooms, Marsala wine, shallots and cream to go with the birds.

One bird serves two.

The birds came out very tasty, and the breasts were juicy and tender, except a few pieces of lead that we missed while cleaning them; but the legs, although full of flavor, were tough. Next time, if we get pheasants again, the breasts will go on the grill, and the legs into a stew.

However, I am afraid that it may be a wild boar next time.

This is what I did with the leftovers.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

United colors of pasta

Fresh pasta is readily available in the refrigerator section of any supermarket. Love, fun and imagination are not.

So, let's get the palette ready (baked beet puree, butternut squash puree, chlorophyll extracted from spinach),

prep a canvass of semolina flour, bread flour, salt and eggs, and let the pasta fun begin.
Pasta sheets are like soft fabric; they are easy to cut with scissors, knife, or a pasta machine attachment into traditional (and not so traditional) pasta shapes.

My four-cheese, three-color ravioli are like no others.

Stracchi  means "rugs". Mine are colorful. How are yours?

Is pasta always the same color on both sides? It doesn't have to be!

I spent almost the entire day playing with my pasta and photographing it for the USPCA 2011 calendar (coming soon).

Thankfully, the gardeners came in the afternoon, and were looking in puzzlement at what I was doing. We shared a bowl of pasta, and there was nothing left to photograph.

Fall charcuterie

You don't think that just because I haven't blogged here for a while, I stopped cooking, do you? In fact, I was so absorbed in developing my Personal Chef business and bringing up the new USPCA Bay Area Chapter website, I just didn't have energy for my dear own food blog. But I'm going to change this. And I've been cooking all the time!

The changing season requires some cured meat. Simple country-style pâté can be a great comfort.

When it comes to bistro-style cooking I like to rely on recipes from Antony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. If Jamie Oliver is the naked chef, this is a chef, skin off. He takes classic recipes and strips them from all the bells and whistles, leaving just the bare 3-ingredient (well, sometimes 14) essence of the dish. And they work amazingly well!

Also, Bourdain's recipes withstand modifications very well. This is one of the very few cookbooks that I actually cook from. It's not just for browsing by the fireplace.

For my pâté de campagne I used chicken livers instead of pork liver. Marinated the livers, pieces of pork butt and pork belly with wine, cognac, and spices overnight, ground them using my old trusted manual meat grinder, and divided the meat into three portions. One I decorated with rosemary and thyme, the other with sage leaves, and the third with chopped almonds. Pictured here is the one with almonds. R. got both rosemary and sage ones to take to work for lunches during his crazy work week.
The sausages are pork with some beef. The red ones on the right have bright red, super aromatic paprika that a friend brought directly from Hungary. The ones on the left are mixed fresh herbs, and the light ones in the center are apple and cognac. If you are like me overwhelmed with tons of apples this season, check out my personal chef blog post on Dealing with all these apples for more ideas.
Here all three kinds of sausages are roasted and served with cannellini beans and tomato sauce.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Grilled trout in the park

This year, San Francisco Fleet Week falls on R. and my birthday weekend. The planned party on Angel Island  is out of the question. I had these parties a few times now, and every time we were lucky to catch the weekend before the Fleet Week. Friends had no trouble to get to the island, by boat, ferry, or even jet ski, and as an added bonus, we got to see the rehersal of the air show! This time, there will be crowds on land and on the water.

So the birthday party has to be elsewhere, but we decided to go to Angel Island anyway, and planned for this last Saturday. The morning of the trip, Y., who lives overlooking the Bay, called everyone and told us that the fog is entering, and Angel Island is covered already. Change of plans again.

One place that I know that the fog never reaches is China Camp park (in San Rafael, just across the highway from where I live), and I promptly suggested that we go there. By the time we were done calling back and forth trying to figure out where to go, most of San Francisco Bay, the Peninsula, and Southern Marin were covered with fog, so everyone was happy with my suggestion.
Supermarket farmed trout is a highly underappreciated fish. It's one of the few farmed fishes that actually taste good (farmed sturgeon is my second favorite), has few bones, looks great, and doesn't cost anything.
We paid $17 for this happy family of 6 fresh dressed trouts! Bright eyes, shiny skins, serves one each.

Season them inside and out with salt and fresh ground pepper, stick a rosemary branch, a sprig of thyme, and two-three slices of lemon inside, tie them with the kitchen twine to hold the herbs and lemon in, all the while keeping the bees out. Bees smell the fish from far away, and come to get a taste. Here, R. is fending the bees off with a paper towel, while I prepare the fish for the grill.

Brush the fish with olive oil. Grill over hot charcoals until the flesh flakes, about 6 minutes per side.

As an afterthought, we grilled a flat iron steak with cajun seasoning, and some corn on the cob.

Season the steak with Weber Cajun seasoning in both sides; grill, turning once, to internal temperature of 135 degrees for medium rare. Do not overcook: flat iron steak turns very tough if cooked beyond medium. Let rest 5-7 minutes, or as long as you can wait. Slice thinly against the grain. Serve with mustard.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chicken paprikash

My friends in Beaver Creek biodynamic winery make a chicken paprikash to die for. I know their secret ingredient, and I am going to tell you in a moment. Beaver Creek guys say it’s OK to publish their secret. It’s not going to help most of us to imitate their paprikash. In fact, those of us who have access to this secret ingredient, already know the secret, and have their own recipes to die for.

The secret ingredient in the Beaver Creek winery paprikash is the chicken. A farm-raised chicken that had natural feed, a farmyard with plenty of sunshine and green grass and a comfortable barn for residence, rich social life among other free and brave chickens, and a lifelong relationship with the cook. The guy who makes the chicken paprikash is the one who bought a few days old chick from the breeder, gave it a name, fed it, protected it from the mountain lions, killed, plucked and cleaned it, and now cooks and serves it on the same day.

Other ingredients include the usual butter, onion, tomato, bell pepper, thyme, oregano, white wine, sour cream, and, of course, paprika.

I don’t have easy access to the secret ingredient. Some day, when I have a special occasion and plenty of time, I’ll drive 2 hours to the winery, buy one of their chickens, ask them to kill and clean it right away, rush it home, and make a paprikash almost as good as theirs. It will have the chicken’s name and the life story to go with it, and the wonderful old-world flavor. Some day…

For now, I don’t have the perfect chicken. But I have paprika. A Hungarian friend brought back a couple of kilos from a trip home a few days ago. I got two large bags – one sweet, one hot. Vibrant colors, sweet one pure crimson, hot – very bright brick-red; intoxicating smell; and as fresh as you get this side of the Atlantic. My own secret ingredient.

Our poor supermarket Rocky Jr. chicken is a cheap plastic imitation of what a chicken should be. Huge, super-fat, and almost tasteless. It’s a challenge to trim most fat from the thighs while still leaving the skin on, but it’s doable. On the bright side, each oversized thigh makes a perfect one serving.

I used fresh oregano instead of dried, out of sheer laziness: fresh grows right in front of the kitchen door, while dried is packed into my personal chef kit in the car; I would have to go get it. Oregano is one of the few herbs that have more intense scent when dried, so use more of the fresh when you have to substitute it for dried. Thyme is the other way: it loses scent with drying and storage, so a little fresh thyme goes a long way in recipes that call for dried thyme. I also used my homemade tomato sauce instead of tomato paste. There was only one cup left, and I didn’t want to freeze it.

Chicken paprikash
Serves 4

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
4 chicken thighs, skin on, bone in, trimmed of most fat
Salt, pepper
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 cup white wine
1 cup tomato paste
1 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp hot paprika
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
5-6 sprigs fresh oregano
½ cup crème fraiche
1 tsp finely chopped parsley, for serving

Heat oil and butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook , turning, to brown on all sides. Remove to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium. Add onions and bell pepper. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes.

Add wine, tomato paste, paprika, thyme, oregano, and chicken. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low. Simmer slowly until chicken is very tender, about 1 hour. Add crème fraiche, warm through without boiling. Serve over rice or noodles (or, in my case, with steamed cauliflower), sprinkle with parsley.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sautéed cod with cannellini bean ragout, and a flashback from the 80-ies

Some people never learn. I tried to buy frozen fish at Trader Joe’s many times, and it never comes out right. After careful defrosting in the refrigerator, all their three kinds of wild salmon turn mushy, and tuna and mahi-mahi are very dry. But I’m stuck here in Marin County with no Chinese grocery this side of the bridges, and if I want fresh fish, it’s either Whole Foods almost fresh at $30/pound, or traffic on the bridge. I decided to chance it again, and bough frozen Alaskan cod at TJ’s. These super-tough fillet reminded me of my lean young years back in the Soviet Russia, so I chose a similar cooking method.

In the late 80-ies my then husband V. and I worked hard at the first Internet start-up in Moscow (both words “Internet” and “start-up” were barely known at the time), and usually sat glued to our terminals till one or two in the morning. Except once a week I would leave early and go check the usually empty grocery stores for food. If I couldn’t find any – too bad, we’d survive on cans and dried pasta. But sometimes I would get lucky and find something frozen. And then we’d eat.

Like that time, when they were selling whole frozen cod, head on, very cheap. And there was no line yet. Of course, I bought one, 10 pounds or so. I brought it home, and tried to fit it into the tiny kitchen sink, to speed defrosting with cold running water. No luck. The sink was too small, the fish too big, it tried to slip away and hit me on the foot with its frozen weight, all the while looking me in the eye with its frozen eyes the size of a 20-kopeik coin (like a quarter). After an hour of fighting with the fish and loosing, I got desperate and called V. for help. V. held the fish firm in place while I heated the knife over the gas stove and sawed it into steaks, plus the head and tail for the cat. By 3 am we were done.

… A few weeks later, I left work early and went checking empty neighborhood stores in search for food. I stumbled upon very cheap whole cod. There was no line yet. I bought one, stone-frozen, head-on, 10 pounds or so…

I’m telling you, there are people who never learn. 15 years later, I was walking in El Granada fisherman’s marina, and there was a boat that just came in from a multi-day fishing trip and they were selling albacore tuna, deep frozen at sea. 10 pounds or so, head-on. I did not have a husband at that time, but my dear dinner guests had a lot of fun heating a knife over a gas stove and sawing the fish into steaks that would fit into the sink to defrost under running water, plus head and tail for the cat.

The Trader Joe’s super-tough frozen cod fillet brought back all these memories.

This is how we cooked it then:

2 Tbsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 red bell peppers, cored and sliced
4 large tomatoes, sliced
Salt, pepper, distilled vinegar, sugar to taste

2 Tbsp sunflower oil
About 1 kg cod, defrosted, skin and bones removed
Salt, pepper

Heat the oil over medium heat in a cast-iron pan. Add onions and garlic, cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add peppers, cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes; reduce heat to low, simmer until tomatoes start breaking apart, about 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a cast-iron skillet. Season cod with salt and pepper. Cook until golden on both sides, turning once, 2-3 minutes per side.

Remove cod to a deep serving dish, cover with vegetable mixture. Chill and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cold over canned white beans in tomato sauce.

How I cook it now:

For the beans:

1 cup cannelloni beans
Sea salt

For the tomato sauce:

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
3 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3 lb very ripe tomatoes
10 basil leaves
Salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, brown sugar to taste

½ cup fire-roasted peppers (bought or homemade)
2 lb Alaskan cod fillet
Salt, pepper


Soak beans in boiling water to cover for an hour. Drain. Place in a large pan, add water to cover by 2 inches, bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add 1 tsp salt, and simmer until tender, about 2 hours. Drain.

Tomato sauce:

Heat oil in a large pan. Add onions and garlic, cook until tender, 7-8 minutes. Meanwhile, cut a cross on top of tomatoes, cover with boiling water, let sit 1-2 minutes, plunge into ice water. Remove skins. Chop tomatoes; add tomatoes and basil to the pan. Reduce heat; simmer until tomatoes start falling apart, about 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, sugar, and vinegar. Puree in blender.

Heat oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Season cod fillet with salt and pepper on both sides. Cook, turning once, 2-3 minutes per side.

Combine beans, tomato sauce, and fire-roasted peppers in a deep pan. Heat over low heat. Spoon some tomato-pepper-bean mixture on a plate, place a cod fillet on top, top with more tomato-pepper-bean mixture. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New pot (just bragging)

I've been going in circles around this Mauviel oval braising pot for a long time now. I needed it. But I couldn't afford it. But I knew I had to have it. Finally, I found one on sale for just $150 (don't ask me where, there was only one, and it's mine). Look how shiny it is! It's pure cooper, hand-lined with tin, in the classic tradition of Normandy.

Here, it contains Marin Sun Farms grass-fed top sirloin, braising with white wine, garlic, onion and herbs.

Braised duck leg, chanterelles, roasted tomatoes, pea greens.

I'll be braising a lot now. Ready for the winter.