the Drunken Housewife cooks

Monday, October 1, 2007

beets for beet haters

I grew up eating fresh beets from the garden, and I've always loved them. Growing up, I ate beets which were just boiled and served plain, but they still tasted wonderful because they were so fresh. As a grown-up, I've steamed beets or boiled beets and added lime juice, which is so easy and so delicious. As I became more of a gourmet cook, I also shredded beets and cooked them with wine, which is magnificent (in particular, several times I made an elaborate lobster on fettucine in fennel sauce with a garnish of beets cooked in wine. This is a showpiece for a dinner party, and the beets are a surprisingly perfect complement to lobster). I've also made beet salads, beet side dishes with mustard sauce, and beet risotto, all so startlingly technicolor. Several times I made Melissa Clarke's fettucine with beets and poppyseeds, so delightfully crunchy between the teeth. So, as you can tell, I am a confirmed lover of beets.

Recently I've run across a couple of people who hate beets. Now, that isn't so rare. There are a lot of people whose experience of beets has been limited to canned ones. Usually these people are astonished when they first try a nicely prepared fresh beet. "Oh my God, I thought I hated beets!" they will blurt out. My own husband is in that category. He first ate beets at my table with great reluctance, but soon was sucked in. "I love them!" he said, astonished.

These recent beet-haters, however, contend to have sampled, to their disgust, beets prepared in numerous gourmet ways. I'm inclined to believe them, since they live in a good eating city (San Francisco, land of a thousand flavors) and eat out frequently. Indeed, my friend Joyce whole-heartedly condemns beets. "I can't understand why anyone likes them. They taste so metallic and earthy!"

Now I am willing to allow anyone their personal food persnickitiness. Taste is so subjective. But I will issue a beet challenge: I defy beet haters to despise chocolate beet cake. Beets make a chocolate cake dense, moist, and so darkly colored, not to mention that they add so many vitamins and minerals. Dark chocolate itself has so many antioxidants and health benefits that a chocolate beet cake can perhaps be regarded as a health food (and a delightfully decadent one at that).

I made this cake once for a friend who was recovering from foot surgery. It's a perfect convalescent food, yummy but nutritious. I've made it several times for my fussy children, who delight in it. Indeed this brought me to a sort of psychic low, where the children were begging for "More cake, more cake!" and I sneakily thought, "You mean more beets, more beets!" I caught myself in this soccer mom moment and despaired for my soul. How has it come to this, I'm secretly congratulating myself on sneaking beets into the maws of my children?

Anyhow, try this cake if you are either a fan of dark, rich chocolate cakes or sneaky and passive aggressive, the sort of person who will get off on secretly serving beets to junk food junkies or beet-haters. Either way, this cake is for you.

Chocolate Beet Cake from "Farmer John's Cookbook" by Farmer John Peterson (Gibbs Smith 2006)

oil and flour for cake pan
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 C mild vegetable oil (preferably canola, the healthiest oil)
3 eggs
1 3/4 C sugar
3 medium beets
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 C flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/3 tsp salt
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375. Lightly coat a 10 cup Bundt pan with oil and dust it with flour.

Peel the beets, roughly chop them, and steam them until very tender. Puree them in a blender or food processor. You should have about 2 cups of pureed beet.

Partially fill the bottom of a double boiler with water and bring to a boil, but then reduce to a simmer. Put the chocolate and 1/4 C oil in the top of the double boiler. Heat just until the chcolate melts. Remove from heat and stir until well combined.

Combine the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and beat until fluffy. Slowly beat in the remaining 3/4 cup oil, chocolate mixture, beets, and vanilla.

Sift the flour into a large bowl. Whisk in the baking soda and salt (or stir well with a fork; it's a horrible thing to bite into a bit of baking soda). Gently stir the flour mixture into your chocolate batter, just until it's mixed in. (You do not want to over-mix at this point; you want it to get into the oven before it starts to rise). Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake about 45 minute, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 30 minutes. Carefully invert on a plate and remove the cake. Dust the top with powdered sugar. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

intense flavors from an intriguing source

"Farmer John" is a man who affects a feather boa with his overalls (at least for his photo shoots), passionately devotes himself to organic farming, and has the sorts of creative ideas about vegetables which leave one to wonder just how often he has taken hallucinogens. Need I say I love this man?

If you live in the Chicagoland area, you could subscribe to Farmer John's organic vegetable service. Or then again, maybe not. I'm informed that there's a waiting list. But although we may not eat the vegetables grown by this boa-sporting agricultural hero, we may enjoy his ideas.

Among other flights of creativity, Farmer John bakes vegetables which are traditionally served raw. Baked cucumbers in cream were a huge hit (albeit my skeptical friends observed that anything baked in cream is automatically good). But the one Farmer John recipe which truly amazed me, which left me speechless, just pondering the amazing sensations in my palate: baked radicchio.

Baked Radicchio from "Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables" by John Peterson

1 med head radiccio, sliced into slivers
1/4 C olive oil
balsamic vinegar
4-6 oz Gorgonzola sliced

Preheat oven to 400 Lightly oil baking dish. Take your radicchio and slice it. It will be in little thick rounds you can lie on their sides. Brush radicchio generously with olive oil (preferably a good olive oil, meaning extra virgin and cold-pressed; bonus points if it is from Spain, Italy, or Greece) and place in single layer. Season with salt and pepper. Bake 20 minutes, turning once. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and top w/cheese. Return to oven until cheese is melted.

Do not neglect the balsamic vinegar! I made this once without it, and it was a pale shadow of this normally dynamic dish.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

wan' cake!

Who doesn't love cake? When my daughter, Iris Uber Alles, was just a toddler, she seized upon an issue of "Food & Wine" with a cover of an extravagant cake. She carried that magazine about for days, plaintively demanding, "Wan' cake! Wan' cake!" Various grown-up friends of mine adopted that as a motto: "Wan' cake!"

Cake is a pleasure usually indulged in seldomly, typically on birthdays, and the tragedy of it is that usually birthday cakes are sad, dry, and flavorless, made from mixes. It's even sadder that the recipients usually are grateful and don't know any better, possibly never being exposed to a decent cake made from scratch.

I don't understand why people think making a cake other than from a mix is so hard. A lot of very good cooks say, "I just can't bake. I can cook, but I can't bake." This distinction between "cooking" and "baking" doesn't really make that much sense to me. When I'm "cooking", I often bake things in the oven, which seems a lot like, oh, let's say, "baking."

If you're one of those people who uses cake mixes or who says, "I just can't bake", please let me take you (in a virtual sense) by the hand and gently lead you into the kitchen. You CAN bake a cake. You CAN make the very best birthday cake anyone has ever tasted, which will leave them begging for seconds and thanking you extravagantly. Just trust yer old Drunken Housewife and come along on this ride.

Chocolate Cake Over the years I've made a lot of birthday cakes for family and friends, and I've settled on this one recipe as my all-time favorite. I originally found this recipe in the 80's on a box of baking chocolate. It always comes out well and never fails to please.

3 oz semisweet baking chocolate (it's lovely to get a premium chocolate, like Guittard's or Ghirardelli, but you can also use the cheapest supermarket baking chocolate with good results)
1/2 C water
3/4 C butter (leave the butter out ahead of time so it reaches room temperature. If you forget to do that, you can still make the cake, but you'll have to spend a lot more time mixing. NEVER, NEVER soften butter up in the microwave. That will make a flat, greasy cake)
2 1/4 C brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 C unsifted cake flour OR 2 C regular flour (use whatever you have; it comes out fine with or without cake flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C water
OPTIONAL: 1 pint fresh raspberries and some slivered almonds
Jar of prefab frosting (preferably dark chocolate)

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two layer pans, either 8" or 9."

Break the chocolate into little pieces. Melt in a small pan with 1/2 C water. Stir over low heat just until melted. (This will make you feel like you're a REAL PASTRY CHEF. You melted the chocolate to make your cake! It's unbelievably easy, but somehow so emotionally fulfilling). Remove from heat and cool.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixer bowl until light and fluffy. This is the make or break part of baking: people get lazy here and don't mix long enough. You want your butter and sugar to be pale in color and very, very fluffy, and it doesn't take work. It only takes patience to stand there while the mixer does the work for you. You really can't overmix this, you can only undermix it. Spend at least 5 minutes beating this, an honest five minutes, and if your butter wasn't at room temperature, you'll need to spend a lot longer. You can do it. I once made this cake beating this by hand as I had no mixer available to me, AND my butter was cold, and I did it. I stood there for about 30 minutes with a spoon, practically spraining my poor wrist. If I can do that, you can stand there for five minutes with your electric mixer.

Add the eggs and vanilla. Beat well. Add the liquid chocolate and blend in.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix it up good, so the baking soda is fully integrated; it's good to use a whisk, but a fork is fine.

Add the dry ingredients, alternating with one cup of water at a low speed. Beat just until blended. At this point, you do NOT want to overmix, as opposed to earlier. You don't want your batter to start rising while it's still in the bowl; you want it to start rising once it's in the safety of the oven. So just mix it until it's all mixed up together and then stop. Pour into the pans.

Bake until done (check by putting a toothpick in the center to make sure the middle is done). For an 8" pan, cook about 35-40 minutes. For a 9" pan, it's about 25-30 minutes.

Cool in the pan for a while, and then invert the pans onto plates. Frost the cake. I recommend getting a pint of fresh raspberries and some store-bought frosting (yes, in my opinion, it's fine to use the store-bought canned frosting. You went to all that trouble to make a lovely cake, so put yer feet up and use the canned frosting. It's just as good, really, as homemade frosting). I like to frost the lower layer, then densely lay raspberries all over the frosting, then put on the top layer and frost all the sides and top. On the top, I love to put some slivered almonds and fresh raspberries, but you can omit that. The beauty of the middle layer of raspberries is that the top layer compresses the raspberries a bit, and the taste of those raspberries and the rich chocolate flavor is orgasmic.

Once you've tasted this, you won't want to go back to using mixes. The lucky recipient of this cake will be extremely happy indeed. Bon appetit!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

viva Mexico

I remember idly squabbling once with an ex about the contributions Mexico had made to the world. He was of the opinion that Mexico, as a country and a culture, had not pulled its artistic weight. I strongly disagreed. I felt that the creation of Mexican food, one of the joys of my life and one of the world's great and distinctive cuisines, was good enough. On top of that, there are the amazing Aztec ruins of the Yucatan, all the Dia de los Muertos art, author Juan Rulfo (I read "Pedro Paramo" in college), and of course all the other things I am too ignorant to be able to recite off the top of my cabeza. Let us all take a moment, a silent moment, and ponder the wonders of Mexico, perhaps humming a merry Mexican tune as we do.

Now! As part of my esteem for Mexican food, I love fresh salsas. I went through a bit of a pepper craze with my ex-husband, reading about peppers, subscribing to "Chile Pepper" magazine, and gradually obliterating our taste buds until we could eat habanero peppers without reaching for a water glass. During that time, we visited the Yucatan, and we were so happy to get freshly made salsas everywhere. At every meal, we were presented a little dish with a salsa composed of sliced peppers, lime juice, perhaps some onion, and a bit of vinegar, and these were unfailingly delightful.

Once we got a rare compliment from a waiter in Merida. He served us a delightful salsa which was basically just some little slices of habaneros floating in a lime vinaigrette, served in a saucer, and we devoured it and called for more. This waiter told me we were the only gringos he had ever seen who could eat like a Mexican, and we puffed up with pride. (This compliment was up there with the time the Spanish customs official told me I was the only foreigner to ever correctly pronounce "Algeciras" in all his years at the border. Yes, I may never achieve anything on a large scale, but if you ever need anyone to assist you in saying "Algeciras", you may as well call me).

Aside from being a culinary pleasure, fresh salsa is truly one of the world's under-appreciated health foods. My own husband is not much for eating vegetables, but he will devour anything served to him in salsa form. If he's been eating a lot of junk food, I'll make him a big bowl of salsa, and I know for the next few days, he'll be snacking steadily on raw vegetables. (Oh, the stealthiness of a spouse. I have a largeish life insurance policy on the man, but I'd prefer to keep him healthy). Whether one follows the new raw foods trend or, like me, one tries to "eat the colors of the rainbow" and make sure not to have a plate covered with beige food all the time, salsa does the trick. A junk-food lover, someone who eschews all salads, will dive into a dish of salsa and get several servings of vegetables, particularly if there are good chips and beer (I like Negra Modelo the best of the Mexican beers).

Disappointingly enough, salsa in the U.S. tend to be just bowls of tomatoes, often not even fresh, with a little onion and maaaaybe a little bit of cilantro. I don't really like raw tomatoes, and so I tend to say, "Salsa on the side" when ordering and just pick at it sadly. However, I realize that I'm in the minority on my views about tomatoes.

Aside from the joys of spiciness and healthiness, fresh salsa has a most ego-gratifying effect: people are invariably astonished that you made the salsa. It is extremely easy to make a basic salsa; you just chop up some things and throw them into a bowl. Most people, however, would never think of making a salsa and are used to crappy canned or jarred dips, and they are amazed to be served a real salsa. "You didn't make this! You made this?? Omigod, how did you make this?" You could serve them a perfect souffle and they'll treat it as though it took the same effort as warming up a TV dinner, but a fresh salsa is a show-stopper.

Here's a basic salsa which everyone but me loves (if I'm pleasing myself, I'll go to more trouble and roast the tomatoes or make a tomatillo salsa or something else more exotic and troublesome, but so often in life, my own pleasure takes a backseat. I often make this salsa because it's so easy and so popular). Take this to a get-together, along with a bag of Tostitos, and prepare to soak up the praise.

Salsa Mexicana from "The Great Salsa Book" by Mark Miller (Ten Speed Press 1994)

2 T finely diced white onion
8 Roma tomatoes (about 1 lb) diced
2 serrano chiles, finely diced, with seeds (if you can't find serrano chiles, you may substitute 1 largeish jalapeno)
2 T finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 T fresh lime juice (do NOT use Rose's bottled lime juice!!! If you do and I hear about it, well...)

Place onion in a strainer, rinse with hot water, and drain. Thoroughly combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Taste; add a little more sugar if the tomatoes are acidic, but not so much that the salsa tastes sweet. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to combine.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

how to impress your friends and family (even enemies)

Years ago a handyman did some work at my apartment, and afterward he asked me what I thought the hardest thing he did was. I can't remember what seemed difficult and impressive to me, but I was completely and predictably wrong. "Everyone always gets it wrong," said Matisse, the artistically named handyman. "They never understand what is hard and what is easy." (The hardest thing he did was to replace a mirrored sliding door without breaking the mirror, he said).

That's definitely true in cooking as well. What impresses people aren't the things you labor over, the tricky things you are so proud of. It's little, easy things that blow their minds, things which are so simple anyone could make them. In particular, it's the croutons.

My dear friend Kim (whom I've admired since high school) and I both love to cook. She's an amazing cook (in particular, I'll never forget a creme brulee she made for me, oh my). We laughed and laughed on one visit as I made some rosemary croutons to accompany a homemade soup. The croutons were practically an afterthought, an easy garnish, but as Kim said, "Every time I make croutons, people can't get over it." Imitating a guest, she said, "Oh my god, you made these?" with a moue of amazement.

I laughed and agreed. "Yeah, it's always the croutons. You could slave over a soup all day and spend two minutes on the croutons, but it's the croutons that they can't stop talking about."

The true secret to success for a homemade soup is making your own stock from scratch, but the secret to getting tons of praise and admiration is making your own croutons. Do both, and you'll succeed on all levels. (And as for stock: don't use canned or boxed stock. Just don't. And as for bouillon or oxo cubes: just walk on by, walk on by. It's so easy to make a magnificent stock at home, and you can freeze whatever you don't need. I like to freeze it in one and two cup increments, so I can grab and thaw exactly what I need for a soup or risotto. To make the simplest, yet wonderful stock, just take a large pot of water and throw in whatever flavorful vegetables and herbs you have on hand, such as celery, a bay leaf, an onion, a potato, some shallots, parsley, carrots, the butt ends of asparagus, etc... Bring it to a boil, lower the heat, and let it simmer for at least twenty minutes. Discard the vegetables, and you have a magnificent stock! If you want to get fancy, you can roast your chopped celery, onions, and carrots first to create what chefs call a "mirepoix" first before adding the water and cooking the stock. I could go on, but the topic of du jour is croutons and how to impress without breaking a sweat).

As well as the croutons, the other thing which unduly impresses people is homemade salsa. Making salsa is the easiest thing on earth. You just chop up a bunch of stuff, bung it into a bowl, and serve with tortilla chips. There's usually no actual cooking involved, but the way it affects people is dramatic. I have so many times have people cross-examine me. "There is no way you made this salsa. You say you made this? You didn't buy it?" Those same truthseekers, eager to ferret out any culinary misrepresentations, ate souffles, risottos, perfect pie crust, homemade ice cream, and thousands of more difficult delights at my table without questioning their provenance, but the salsa that took five minutes seems too good to be true.

So the next time you make soup (or open up a few cans of Campbell's), make some croutons. Astonish your guests with your amazing culinary skills.

Fresh Croutons

Take whatever sliced bread you have on hand and trim off the crusts from several pieces (one piece per person at least). You could use a lovely yuppie bread, or plain old Wonderbread, whatever is handy. Cut the bread into small squares; don't feel too anal about getting them perfect (remember: the magic of this is how little work you put into it).

Pour about 4 tablespoons of decent vegetable oil into a broad skillet (you should always have good olive oil about. Also, if you have any exotic oils about, this is a good chance to use them. Walnut oil, grapeseed oil, etc...: delightful, but plain old olive oil is yummy enough. I wouldn't use expensive truffle oil on this, but then you might be much wealthier than me). Heat the pan on medium.

Strew your bread squares about into the pan. Have a good spatula on hand and lay out some paper towels for draining (as an eco-sensitive type, I like to use a clean kitchen towel for this, but given that I must then launder it, it's a good question as to whether I am actually saving any of the earth's resources). Flip your croutons over and remove them after both sides are toasted. You may not leave the room during this part, but it only takes a minute or two to make all your croutons.

Optional: chop up some fresh rosemary and warm that up in the oil before you make the croutons. Fresh garlic is also an option, but rosemary truly makes the most delicious croutons.

Now serve your soup, sprinkling the croutons on top, and bask in the praise.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

in the style of a glutton

Years ago I was thumbing through my well-beloved "Pasta e Verdura" by Jack Bishop (the single most used cookbook I own), and I ran across a recipe for pasta with pan-fried potatoes and ricotta cheese. I was rather taken aback by the recipe, which seemed so over-the-top in its liberal use of starch and cheese. I'd always avoided putting potatoes and pasta in the same meal, so heavy, but here they were cavorting about in the same bowl, and the potatoes were fried to boot. Bishop included two other pasta with potato recipes, but it was really the fried potato one which seized the imagination. In an author's note, Bishop wrote, "Although potatoes are commonly roasted with garlic and rosemary and served as a side dish or mashed and formed into dumplings called gnocchi, their use in the pasta sauces in Italy is rather limited. However, there are a number of regional recipes, mainly from the north, that call for potatoes."

Perhaps the brilliant Mr. Bishop, like me, has not yet made it to Sicily (sadly I have only been to Rome and Venice to date). Years after discovering his recipe, I ran across a note in "Sicilian Vegetarian Cooking" by John Penza (Ten Speed Press 1997): "Pasta in a potato sauce is called alla ghiota, 'glutton's style.' In fact, though it seems unusual, this tasty peasant sauce is an economical energy food."

I couldn't resist trying Bishop's recipe, and it turned out to be my skinny husband's favorite recipe of all time. Over the years, I've cooked pasta in the style of a glutton many times and many ways, but Jack Bishop's recipe endures as a household favorite. It's a real crowd-pleaser, and dinner guests always guffaw as they learn they are eating "pasta in the style of a glutton." (Does that make me sound passive-aggressive, serving delicious food and then informing my guests that it's "in the style of a glutton"?)

Pan-fried Potatoes with Fresh Herbs and Ricotta Cheese from "Pasta e Verdura" by Jack Bishop (HarperCollins 1996) (rephrased by the Drunken Housewife, but all credit goes to the brilliant Mr. Bishop)

2 med. baking potatoes (about 1 1/4 lb)
1/4 C olive oil
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 T minced chives or other fresh herb (I ALWAYS use chives; chives are so magical with potatoes-DH).
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 C ricotta cheese (I buy the more expensive freshly made homestyle ricotta. My brother-in-law makes his own ricotta cheese from milk from his cows, and perhaps I should try making my own, although as a city-dweller I lack cows- DH)
1/4 C freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb pasta (penne or other tube shape)

Bring 4 qts salted water to boil for cooking pasta.

Bring several qts of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Scrub the potatoes but do not peel them. Add the spuds and salt ot the boiling water. Cook until a metal skewer slides easily into the center of the potatoes, 15-20 min. The spuds should be soft but not mushy or falling apart. Drain and cool. Cut into 1/2 inch cubes.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add the potatoes and garlic and fry, turning often, over med-high heat until the potatoes are golden brown and fully cooked, about 15 minutes. Add the chives, salt, and pepper and cook for another minute or so.

While cooking the potatoes, combine the ricotta and parmesan cheeses in a bowl large enough to hold the pasta. Add the potatoes and toss well. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasonings.

While preparing the sauce, cook and drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 C of the cooking water. Thin the potatoes cheese mixture with 1/4 C cooking water. Toss the hot pasta with the sauce, adding the rest of the water if needed in order to coat the pasta with the sauce. Serve immediately.

pull up a chair

I'm passionate about food and drink. As a child, I was a very picky eater, but when I moved away from home, I realized it wasn't so much that I was so incredibly picky, it was that my family's food was so terrible. I'm originally from Maine, and the prevailing cuisine was baked meat accompanied by boiled vegetables. The only spices in everyday use were salt and pepper. To be fair, there were joys, such as the one or two times a year my parents would splurge on lobsters, and corn fresh from our garden. I also enjoyed visiting my grandmother, who has always been a role model for me in the kitchen. Although she didn't own a single cookbook and cooked only traditional New England food, everything she made was excellent, and her industry was unparalleled. As a farm wife, she served a giant feast every day for lunch for everyone who happened to be on the farm that day, and her brown breads were legendary (my hot-tempered grandmother stomped out of her Protestant church in a snit one day and never returned for services, but she continued to provide her brown breads to all the church dinners).

After I moved away from home, I taught myself to cook, and the joys of great food began. I like to say that I'm the best amateur cook you'll ever meet, which is probably not that far off the mark. I've never worked in a restaurant or gone to cooking school, but I can make a twelve course meal (but only if I spend two days in the kitchen). My personal idols of food are Hubert Keller (Hubert, not Thomas), Jack Bishop, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Deborah Madison. I studied abroad in Spain, and I've never quite recovered from that. I make a mean tortilla espanola, and every now and then I go on a tapas jag. Now that I have small children, I can't serve the searing hot curries I used to love, but I won't let myself be limited to macaroni and cheese (although admittedly I do make it out of the box for the children on lazy days).

I've been blogging about my life for over a year now at the Drunken Housewife. Periodically I post recipes and talk about food I've cooked, but the blog is more about my crazy children, herds of foster kittens, and neuroses. I'd like to focus more on food, my passions and interests, trends, cookbooks, etc.., and so, if you like, pull up a chair and join me.