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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Food Geekery for the Obscure!

Are you enough of a "food geek" that you use traditional, or obscure, holidays as an excuse to cook some foods you normally wouldn't have in your rotation? Do you use these occasions as a great excuse to host a dinner party? 

I fall into this category!! Whether it's Irish fare for St. Patrick's Day, or German goodies for Oktoberfest, or Cajun and bayou splurges for Mardi Gras, I love the opportunity to geek out. 

My mind really jumpstarted into thinking about this subject this past week. I had read a little about one of these obscure traditions that I had not heard of before: the Burns dinner. It is a dinner, seeped in tradition and ceremony, that celebrates the life and contributions of the national bard of Scotland, poet Robert Burns. Among some of his famous works is the song Auld Lang Syne. It's a fascinating affair of a dinner, and I will most likely post more about it in the future. 

So, I thought to myself... "Self, is it unusual that I like to cook appropriate and traditional dishes for strange holidays, that may not be holidays necessarily applicable to me, and why didn't I hear about this Burns night, previously, with the perfect opportunity to munch haggis and sip Scotch??"

Thus began my brainstorming of all the events that I like to geek out on, foodwise...

On the occasion of Mardi Gras, I favor the shrimp po' boy, complete with crunchy fried shrimp, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and, of course, a spicy & tangy remoulade sauce. Paired with a batch of fresh made dirty rice, golden hushpuppies, and some form of beans, you've got a delicious meal. You can go the route of the Hurricane or some Louisiana beers like Black Voodoo or an Abita offering. Gotta play some zydeco and backwater music! Oh, and don't forget the beads!!! 


For St. Patrick's Day, I have made such dishes as corned beef and cabbage (and corned beef hash for the following day, from the leftovers), colcannon, and Irish soda bread. Some things I will be tackling in future years may include Irish stew, or roasted lamb. And of course, I have to pair up the appropriate beverages, such as a nice, heady Guiness, a dram of Irish whisky, or even a lighter Harp beer. To set the pub mood, play some bagpipe music (I know, I know, it's Scottish, but still...), some Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, The Dubliners, or any other traditional, classic Celtic or Irish music. 

During Oktoberfest in Germany, I like to hold my own version. This year will be my 3rd annual Reiter Oktoberfest. I like to go crazy with this one! If any of you have had the pleasure of attending, you know how much I love this theme! 

Some of the foods I like to make include Jaegerschnitzel with hunter sauce, hot German potato salad, Brussels sprouts cooked with garlic and bacon, soft pretzels with Dutch mustard, red cabbage, pickled vegetables, a German/Swiss cheese selection, braunschweiger, zwiebelkuchen, strudels... I could go on and on, and on, and on... but you get the picture! And of course, the beer selection! I usually have a LOT of beer on hand for this event, including a variety of German beers. This past year, I even made an exception to include a semi-hometown favorite of mine: Mother's Brewing Company out of Springfield Missouri put out an exceptional Oktoberfest beer called Old School. I deemed it worthy enough to bend my domestics ban!  I like to complete the mood with Polka music and lederhosen! 

There are countless other holidays you could geek out on, including, but not limited to: Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day, the aforementioned Burns night dinner...

Now, it's YOUR turn... I want to hear about how you geek out for "foodie holidays". Which ones do you do something special for? Do you have a huge bash, or is it just a couples night in? Let me hear it... I will love reading about how you celebrate these kind of holidays with food!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Soup Season

When the weather turns cold, one comfort food really comes to my mind: SOUP!

Growing up, my mother made a potato soup that I have never been able to replicate, or find a recipe that comes out like hers did. It had a thin, milky base… actual CHUNKS of potatoes (not those mashed up, thick soups)… bits of crunchy white onions… a raft of butter floating across the surface… a nice seasoning of black pepper. I used to practically sop all the broth out of the soup with saltines. (This is probably when my “one sleeve per can of soup” saltine habit developed!) There is just something about that soup memory…

When we got into a cold spell in December, I came across a soup recipe online that sounded very interesting. It came out absolutely fantastic! I will reprint it below for anyone interested. It had some really deep, complex flavors that just meshed so well together, and provided just the thing we needed for a cold December evening. I’ve been ready to delve into some more soups, but it got a bit warmer out, to which we’ve become accustomed in Missouri. However, this week it has gotten frigid, again; and I felt it would be a good time to approach the soup subject with you.

So, tell me... What are some of your favorite soups, in the depths of winter? Do you have a family soup recipe that you just have to make every year? Or even, where do you go for a great bowl of soup?

I’ll be looking forward to your comments and feedback! 

Italian Sausage Soup with Tortellini

Note: This is a recipe that was submitted by a user named Mary P. on and can be found here. This is not my recipe, and I do not take credit for creating it. 

1 lb. sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 C. chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 C. beef broth
1/2 C. water
1/2 C. red wine
4 large tomatoes - peeled, seeded and chopped
1 C. thinly sliced carrots
1/2 Tblsp. packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
1½ C. sliced zucchini
8 oz. fresh tortellini pasta
3 Tblsp. chopped fresh parsley

1.    In a 5 quart Dutch oven, brown the sausage. Remove sausage and drain, reserving 1 tablespoon of the drippings.

2.     Sauté onions and garlic in drippings. Stir in beef broth, water, wine, tomatoes, carrots, basil, oregano, tomato sauce, and sausage. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.

3.     Skim fat from the soup. Stir in zucchini and parsley. Simmer covered for 30 minutes. Add tortellini during the last 10 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese on top of each serving. 

Notes from my personalized preparation of the soup

1.  You can use hot Italian sausage in place of the sweet version, if you desire. 

2.   I actually used dried basil, instead of the fresh. I used approximately the same amount, although you would normally use a 1 to 3 ratio when replacing dried herbs for fresh. (That is, for example, if you need 3 Tblsp. of fresh, you would use 1 Tblsp. of dried.)

3.   Instead of whole tomatoes, I used whole canned tomatoes, and scraped out the seeds. If you haven't notice in recent years, the tomatoes you purchase "fresh" at the store are horrible excuses for a true tomato. 

4.  I actually added the carrots while the onions and garlic sautéed, to add a little caramelization to them. I won't get into all the science and intricacies about caramelization (I'll save that lesson for another post, at a later time.), but anytime you put a little caramelization, or browning, on a food, it adds a richer, nutty, more complex flavor. It helps add a "pop" or pizzazz to your dish. 

5.  I topped each bowl of soup with some Parmesan-Reggiano ran over my Microplane grater, and served with a nice crusty piece of French bread. ( I split the loaf and put it under the broiler in the oven, until it had a nice crusty surface.) A nice glass of red wine compliments the layers of flavor from this soup very well. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Frank's Infamous Baked Ziti

Most people have a recipe or two up their sleeve that is a no-fail, go-to kind of dish. These are the kind of dishes that when you have to come up with something to take to a party, or event, or you have people over for a dinner and have to find something that would be a sure-fire hit, or you use as payment to friends for doing something for you, you can count on to fulfill the purpose. 

Anyone that knows me well, knows about my baked ziti. I use it whenever I need a quick dinner, a quick gift, or for a quick party dish. Heck, I've even sold it a la carte as a catering situation. I can prep it up to the point of baking, and freeze it. I can also cut it into squares and freeze for quick meal portions, at a later time. It can be paired with some garlic or cheesy bread and a nice salad for a full meal. 

I don't really use a recipe; I just used some of the basics of the dish, and made tweaks here and there. Honestly, I don't think I make it exactly the same way every time. But, out of a request once, I sat and tried to write down what goes in it. I thought I would share it with you. 

Frank’s Baked Ziti

1 lb. ziti
1 lb. sausage (you can use Italian, if you prefer)
2 reg. size jars of marinara/pasta sauce of your choice
~ 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced (or minced white onion) (optional)
Red wine or a fortified cooking wine (ie: Madeira, Marsala, Sherry) (optional)
Dried thyme
Dried oregano
Dried basil
Red pepper flakes (optional)
1 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese
Parmesan cheese
Italian seasoning

1. Cook the ziti in boiling, salted water for about 10-12 minutes. Test it, it should  
 be al dente.

2. Brown the sausage in a tiny amount of olive oil. Chop it up really well while it is cooking. When it is about halfway done, add the minced garlic (and shallot/onion) and cook the rest of the way, over medium high heat. You do not want the garlic to get dark, or burn. (Burnt garlic tastes very bitter!)

3. OPTIONAL: Turn heat to high, and add a little bit of red (or fortified) wine to deglaze the pan. Let it cook until the wine is basically evaporated away, or absorbed. This step adds flavor, and a sweetness to counteract the acidity of the tomato sauce. It provides a nice balance, and good cooking is all about balance of flavors. If you choose not to use the wine, add about a tablespoon of sugar.

4. Empty the jars of marinara/sauce into the pan. Turn the stove down to between low and medium.

5. Add in a couple pinches of basil, a pinch of oregano, and a pinch of thyme. Add in salt and pepper.  If you want, add some red pepper flakes. Do not add too many if you don’t want it very spicy. They will intensify in heat the longer it simmers, to a certain point.  Let the sauce simmer for about 10-15 min. Taste periodically to see if you need to add anything else. Often, if time allows, I will allow the sauce to simmer for an hour; this will cause no harm, and only intensify and deepen the flavors.

6. Mix the ziti into the sauce, and pour into a decent size baking pan, or casserole dish.

7. Top with the mozzarella, and sprinkle with Parmesan and a little bit of Italian seasoning.

8. Put into a 350º oven for about 20-25 minutes, if straight off the stovetop. If you stop and put it into the refrigerator, or freezer, thaw it and put it into the oven, foil-covered for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 15-20 minutes to brown the cheese.

9. Portion out leftovers and freeze for another meal.

Serve with a nice, fresh salad, bread, and a glass of red wine of your choice!