Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How I'm Going to Drink Winter's Milkshake

I'm not going to let Winter push me around. I'm not going to let Winter know how I don't like walking the dog in Winter. I'm going to laugh in Winter's face when Winter tries to smack me upside the head with it's 2-degree days. I'm going to hot yoga. I'm not going to feel shame tromping around in my puffy coat, tall boots, mittens and ski hat. I might even pull out my fleecy poncho and furry boots!  I'm going to cook really warm foods with lots of sides. Last night it was Tacos with Mexican Rice, Guacamole and Black Beans on the side. Only I forgot to pull out my little bottle of hot sauce from De Cero, which Angela, the owner, gave me when I was there last week. I used to buy bottles of hot sauce every time I ate there - it's great on scrambled eggs.

I'm going to eat soup for lunch and have afternoon tea every day.

I'm going to pass out calorie-packed granola bars to all the homeless and hungry people who are getting pushed around by Mister Ten Below (a/k/a Mister Icicle, Mister White Christmas, Mister Snow, Snow Miser), along with info about the City warming centers.

I'm going to be careful about countdowns to spring because my cross country coach always advised against counting down miles on a long run because it was a negative approach, and because life is too short to count down. Instead, I'm going to make sure that every week I have something really super fun planned, even if it's just a low-key lunch with a friend. This week I'm meeting three dear friends at Little Goat and I couldn't be more excited. I popped in last week, emerging with a gorgeous crusty loaf of country sourdough from the bread bakery and an avowal to return for lunch, and possibly one of the Bloody Marys all the hipsters were drinking. While there, I'm going to see if they'll explain their decision to brew Stumptown Coffee (which heralds from Portland, Oregon) and see if it's because they agree with me that Intelligentsia ain't all that.

I'm going to get sucked back into Downton and the Blackhawks. I'm going to play piano and make some progress on Code Academy, and see Lincoln and Argo (Zero Dark and Silver Linings were great). Before I know it, it's going to be March, and I'll unplug my twinkle lights from the tree outside (I'm totally leaving those up until March 1), and tell Winter not to let the door hit it on its way to the Southern Hemisphere.

In the meanwhile, Winter needs to make itself useful and throw down some snow. These flurries are not cutting it.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hearty Winter Soup: Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli translates to Pasta and Beans. I haven't had this soup in ages. It was a staple when I was a child but owing to the dictates of the bean-averse in my household I hadn't considered making it myself. Until today. There were two contributing factors. One, I had to do something with the Great Northern Beans I bought last spring. I was planning to make confit but it never got off the ground. Two, my sister fed me some seriously yummy white beans when I was in New York in November and I've had a hankering for white beans ever since.

I consulted three cookbooks before settling on a recipe, ultimately choosing Dean & DeLuca as my guides. I've mentioned this cookbook before. It's a fantastic resource. It has a lot of classics but will also inspire you to try something new, though I have no intention of ever trying the recipe that precedes Pasta e Fagioli: Cabbage Soup with Paprika, Kielbasa, and Raisins. Blechk.

The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook is also good for a little recipe backstory. Of Pasta e Fagioli they say,

"Pasta Fazool, with its bizarre Brooklyn pronunciation, sounds like the ultimate Italian-American dish. And it was a staple for years of Little Italy's checkered-tablecloth restaurants - until the 'upscaling' of the eighties did away with such dishes. Today, of course, a new wave of rustic Italian restaurants in the United States is showing Americans that "pasta fazool" was based on something authentic; pasta e fagioli, or a steaming, satisfying soup of beans and pasta."

What the soup reminds me of most is Ribollita, another rustic Italian soup. Ribollita, which means twice-boiled, could also be called Pane e Fagioli, since it's basically a bean soup with stale bread cooked in. I'm making it sound gross but it's really good. If you want to try that recipe, I recommend going with the recipe in Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray's River Cafe Cookbook, which is sadly out of print, but a version of their recipe is accessible here.

My Pasta e Fagioli was fan-tastic. So perfect for a cold, wintry day. But, at 5pm this evening it was noticeably less dark and dreary. We're on the up and up, people. We have many soups days ahead but fortunately those days are starting to get noticeably longer. And here's that recipe:

Pasta e Fagioli
Print recipe only here

Serves 4 as an entree

1/4 pound (about 1 cup) dried beans - Great Northern or Cannelini
1 T olive oil
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Dried herbs: basil, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup water
1 14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 rind Parmesan (just trim the rind off of whatever size chunk of Parm you have on hand)
1/2 cup dried pasta (2 ounces) - use a small shape like ditali, orzo, elbows, or small shells

Pour olive oil into a soup pot and set over medium heat. Add the celery, onion and garlic and saute gently until softened, about 3-5 minutes.

Add broth, water, tomatoes, herbs, Parmesan rind, and beans and bring to a boil. Simmer gently until beans are cooked and soft, about 1-2 hours.

Remove cheese rind and bay leaf and taste for seasoning, adding salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Add dried pasta to soup. Boil gently until pasta is cooked thru.

Serve, garnished with fresh basil.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Low-Fat Greek Fries

We've long been fans of British chips and vinegar. I bake fry-shaped potatoes on smoking hot sheet pans (preheated in a 450-degree oven), then salt them generously once they're blistered and golden. We slosh Heinz malt vinegar all oven them, once served.

And we're big fans of the super yummy potatoes served up at the nearby Athenian Room. They do the thicker-cut steak fry, and if you get the Chicken Pita Plate, the dressing from the salad swoops on over to puddle around the fries making for a taste sensation. Only, sometimes there's not enough dressing so we always ask for extra. You might recall the terrifying event of 2010 when Tina Fey mentioned the Athenian Room on a web clip. Fear set into the neighborhood, prompting some neighbors to take their dinner at 5pm to avoid the hoards. We just avoided the place for about a month, until the excitement died down. And it did - they're back to drawing their regular crowd.

Lamb and Greek Salads are staples in the Pinch kitchen. It dawned on me a couple of months ago that I could totally reproduce a basic dressing and serve up some Greek fries (baked, natch) alongside our lamb burger. Whoa, baby! These things are good. We had them again tonight, which reminded me to write up the recipe Here it is:.

Pinched Greek Fries
Print recipe only here

1-2 Russet potatoes per person, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/2-cm thick wedges
Canola oil
one small garlic clove
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (they're not created equal - I ony use Colavita)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Generous pinch dried oregano

Put 2 sheet pans in the oven and preheat to 450.

Trim potatoes into steak wedges. Toss in a bowl with 1-2 T canola oil.

Divide potatoes between sheet pans, spreading evenly.

Roast for about 25 minutes, turning and shaking the pan halfway thru baking time to ensure they're cooking evenly. Meanwhile, make dressing. Combine oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano in a small measuring cup or serving bowl (I use a small ceramic pitcher). Use a garlic press to press clove into dressing. Stir to combine. Reserve.

Potatoes are done when slightly blistered, golden, and delicious. Toss with salt and serve on a platter with dressing on the side.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

On the Menu This Week

I've been visiting the butcher at Apple Market more frequently these days. I was there yesterday and picked up a gorgeous pork shoulder roast which was beckoning to be included in our weekend plans. Time for a bbq! I will need to grab some Kirby cukes (golly, will I be able to find them this time of year?!?) to make those yummy pickles inspired by Chicago Q and a cabbage for Slaw. Then we just need some Cornbread and Grandpa's Baked Beans.

Our last bbq feast was a few days before Thanksgiving, the day everyone arrived in from out of town. I tried something new - slow roasting the pork in a Dutch oven on a bed of onions in a braise of apple cider. That was based on a recipe I saw on Oprah's site - click here to see it. I like to "brine" pork shoulder in a dry rub overnight before bbq'ing. I use spice blends from the Spice House (Smoke House Seasoning and Milwaukee Iron are my personal faves), sprinkling them liberally all over the roast and then wrapping the roast tightly in plastic wrap. To cook, I set my oven to 175 (you could do this in a slow cooker, as well), slice an onion and line the bottom of a 3 or 4 quart Dutch oven with the slices. Unwrap the roast and place on the bed of onions. Add about 2 cups of cider (or stock) to the pot, then put in the oven for like 6 hours at least. Pull it out when it's falling off the bone.  I love smoking the roast outside on the grill (using Hickory chips), but, let's face it, this is a lot easier.

This is a good time to talk bbq sauce, one of my favorite condiments. My all-time favorite is Noh Hawaiian, and I've picked it up at Apple Market in Chicago, but I didn't see it there the yesterday. I'm also a fan of Sweet Baby Ray's Original, which I thought of as a small-batch Chicago product when we moved here seven years ago, until the day I saw it bundled at Costco. 

Turns out, I knew very little about bbq sauce seven years ago. I thought the only differences were in smokiness or sweetness. I had no idea that bbq sauce existed that wasn't tomato-based. Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, is the only place I know where you can get South Carolina mustard bbq sauce, eastern Carolina's vinegar bbq sauce and the tomato-based condiment I love so much. (If you're still curious about bbq sauce history, geography and origins, read this from Zingerman's founder Ari Weinzweig.)

Ok, off to look for cukes and cabbage!

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bonne Année, Bon Hiver, Bon Appétit!

Whew. 2012 was all about resistance training (a/k/a lifting heavy things). Only a fraction of that activity was based in my neighborhood gym - the rest was all emotional and intellectual. I skidded into the new year on fumes, having exercised every muscle past exhaustion, having stretched every sinew of faith and patience to their max. I spent the week between Christmas and New Years couched, supine, on a diet of ibuprofen to alleviate the literal pain in my neck.

Most of the pain is not even a result of personal circumstance but what I can only describe as heartache over the world as we know it (you know, life, death, illness), especially when people I know are affected, or when kids are involved.  (If you missed it, you might enjoy Maureen Dowd's Christmas column, Why, God?)

Anyway, 2013 finds me focused on rest and restoring the nutrients (pronounced nu-tree-UNTS, in remembrance of an episode in my daughter's first grade classroom too many years ago) needed to rebuild my weary soul.

Faith and patience take the most diligence to restore, but good music (such as the Avett Brothers, whose emotionally declarative hill-billy rock always strikes an uplifting or empathetic chord), the company of friends, and a good night's sleep are all restorative. I usually turn to Jazz in January. It's not the aliteration that drives the genre decision, it's carol-fatigue. I go on a Christmas carol bender each year for which Jazz is an effective hair-of-the-dog cure. Plus, jazz plays well in a room illumined by the bevy of candles I received for Christmas. But I'm not ready for jazz yet. Maybe next month.

Certain foods and beverages do more to rebuild than others. If I were only focused on my biceps/shoulders/triceps/hamstrings I'd be talking about the balance of protein and carbs. In my present case, it's about comfort foods.  I still enjoy my morning Americano, but afternoon tea has been a savior. I've been cooking classic winter foods that emphasize warmth and coziness: Spaghetti and Meatballs, Beef Bourguignon, Pesto Pasta with Haircots Verts, Soupe a l'Oignon. We've been steadily working our way thru a box of Ruby Red Texas grapefruit, a gift from my sister and one of my favorite foods, ever.

Going to the gym helps, too. A solid cardio workout followed by resistance training makes me feel invincible. Running with my insane dog is a good interval workout because of his compulsion to sprint for squirrels. Also, he regularly finds a 5 foot long stick to bring along, firmly gripping one end so that the remaining 4.5 feet travels at his land-speed and at my shin-height, meaning that I get in some plyometrics and laughs, concurrently. Except when I don't see it coming and I get hit. That hurts.

I'll leave you with some lines from the Avett Brother's Salvation Song, playing now on my winter playlist.

We came for salvation
We came for family
We came for all that's good that's how we'll walk away
We came to break the bad
We came to cheer the sad
We came to leave behind the world a better way.

Thank goodness for everyone who adds something better to the world. That alone is a great lot to be thankful for and a great distraction from the people and events that do not.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

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