Friday, April 30, 2010

Cookbook review: Salty Sweets

My cooking is reverting back to the basics for the next couple of weeks. I'm busy thinking about the wedding and my pantry is largely bare, so my brain power is being diverted elsewhere. Plus, it's not like you really want my 900th variation on bean soup. I myself don't want my 900th variation on bean soup. I swear if I don't get some gourmet cheese in me soon, I may die.

And you all think I'm an alcoholic, from all the wine reviews I've been posting on here lately, so I'm taking a different tactic and telling you all about my favorite cookbooks.

At its base, cooking is just following directions. That's it. You can follow directions, can't you? I admit that it's often intimidating to just go into your kitchen and start banging things around. It's tough to admit you can't do something. But hey, that's what life is. Learning to do new things. My most egregiously burnt cooking mistakes still tasted better than Healthy Choice microwave dinners.

Part one of learning how to cook is to get a good cookbook and start making things out it. I'm at the point now where I buy cookbooks for sheer inspiration. It's less about needing an actual recipe and more about needing new ideas.

The gold standard of cookbooks is, of course, Joy of Cooking ($23.10 at Amazon). If you only ever own one cookbook, it should be this one. I'm already on my second copy--the first one fell apart from too much use. I may very well be onto my third soon, because the second is looking pretty shabby, as well. The binding's coming apart, half the pages are warped from various spills, and flour sifts out every time I open it. That's how you know it's a good cookbook.

Salty Sweets is my newest addition to the collection, a small book of dessert recipes with a healthy dose of salt. $13.57 at Amazon. Those of you who know me, know my sweet tooth has gradually faded into almost nothing and been replaced with a ravenous salt tooth. (Don't confuse salt with sodium--sodium comes from pre-packaged convenience foods, chock-full of sodium and preservatives and chemicalized fat. If your doctor tells you to cut out the salt, he's talking about sodium. He means quit eating so much junk food. Salt, real salt, the kind you use in home cooking, is a negligable amount and does not need to be avoided. Also it tastes better.) These are my kind of desserts--pecan praline, salty caramels, peanut butter cookies. Not too sweet, not too salty--they're just right.

There's already a caramel spill sticking some of the pages together.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wine from my collection: Fly Catcher Pinot Noir 2008

Fly Catcher Pinot Noir 2008
Retail: $19.99
Four glasses: This is actually the best new (to me) pinot I've tasted in a while. It'll definitely become part of my stock collection. Young, fruity, happening. Now if I could only find a pinot I like for less than $20! If you can find this, definitely stock up.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Variations on a theme

It's been kind of boring on here lately. Sorry about that. What I've been cooking hasn't been very exciting, either. Pantry supplies are LOW. We may just be able to squeak by with not buying any groceries between now and the time we leave for the wedding, (16 more days), but there's going to be a lot of beans and rice and spaghetti in the next 16 days.

Lately it's just been variations on a theme. I made a minestrone ("minestrone") last night that consisted of:
an onion, some garlic
two kielbasa sausages
two cans of tomatoes
lima beans
bulgur wheat
a head of broccoli
vegetable broth, seasonings
The other day, I made a hoppin' john casserole, in which I left out the rice but mixed the tomatoes in with the meat (kielbasa sausages again) and black-eyed peas and baked that all together. I also used up a bunch of green spring onions, and I think I may permanently amend my hoppin' john recipe to include green onions. That was pretty damn good.

Tonight I'll be making red beans and rice with the last of the red beans. Later this week I'll be making pasta with puttanesca sauce, using the last of the capers and anchovies. I've got just enough ricotta and mozzarella left for one final batch of pizzas. I have a side of bacon, two packages of tasso ham, one whole chicken, and a package of veal sweetbreads in the freezer, and that's all the meat I have left. The tasso and the chicken will be gone by the end of this week. I've got a final bit of milk and buttermilk to be used up, and then that will be gone. There's only two eggs left. And so on.

In another slightly amusing twist, we've been letting the liquor supplies deplete, as well. There's still plenty of wine, but we're long out of vodka, gin, rum and bourbon. We're now trying to create drinks out of what's left. I created a surprising good drink using Calvados, Grand Marnier and sweet vermouth. But you know the situation is getting desperate when you're trying to make a cocktail out of Chartreuse and absinthe.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wedding update

Less than a month to go! If you haven't RSVPd yet, you really need to.
An updated menu:
Wednedsday night: Sinatra night. A Boomershine family tradition in which the men cook vats of meat sauce and spaghetti, listen to Sinatra, and drink dirty martinis.
Thursday night: roast free-range organic artisanal breed chicken, with veggies from my mother's garden.
Friday night: crawfish, shrimp and alligator sausage gumbo; chicken and andouille sausage gumbo; and vegetarian vegetable jambalaya.
Saturday: roasted pork, barbecue sauce, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, green salad, fresh fruit, and specially imported Louisiana potato chips.
Sunday brunch: something yummy from my mom.
Plus, of course, full bar, full desserts (plus sundae bar on Saturday), fresh eggs and bacon for breakfast, and fresh bread all week long. I can't wait!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wine from my collection: Stags Leap Ne Cede Malis Petite Syrah 2006

Stags Leap Ne Cede Malis Petite Syrah 2006
Retail: $75
Five glasses: Make a special effort to find/drink this wine. You know my budget doesn't extend to many $75 wines (okay, any), so the fact that I found it necessary to pick up not one but two bottles of this in San Fran last summer speaks highly of it. Read what Stags Leap has to say about it, that says it all. Old vines, carefully blended. A beautiful, rich, complex wine that's both Old World and New World at the same time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Wine from my collection: Bridlewood Viognier

Bridlewood Viognier
Retail: $19.99
Four glasses: Really good, stock up if you see it. It's not as good as my fave viognier, Brooklyn Oenology--but seeing as how I live in California now and not Brooklyn, my chances to drink Brooklyn wine are going to be few and far between from now on. So now I have a good California viognier that I like--which is awesome, because viognier is magnificent when done correctly, but unfortunately is not often done correctly.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wine from my collection: Valley of the Moon Pinot Noir

Valley of the Moon Pinot Noir
Retail: $22.99
Three and a half glasses: Somewhere between fine and good. Again, it's good, but for $22.99 there are others I like better.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wine from my collection: Bannus Reserve Pinot Noir

Bannus Reserve Pinot Noir
Retails for $24.99
Three and a half glasses: Somewhere between fine and really good. I like this, it's a good pinot, but for $24.99, there are a lot of other good pinots I like better. Fortunately I got it on sale.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wine from my collection: Hogue Riesling 2008

I'm introducing a new wine rating system (because that's just what the world needs, another wine rating system).
Five glasses: You need to make a special effort to find/drink this wine. Price is no object.
Four glasses: This is really good. Stock up if you see it.
Three glasses: This is perfectly serviceable.
Two glasses: It's fine.
One glass: Stinky.

Hogue Riesling 2008
Retail: $12.99
Three glasses: perfectly serviceable, a good value for the price.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Wine from my collection: Vinum Cellars 2006 Chard-No-Way Chenin Blanc

According to, Vinum Cellars "creates some of the best wine in California not named chardonnay or merlot." I'll support that. This is a cheap surprise ($12) that I grabbed during the oft-lauded BevMo buy-one-get-one-for-five-cents sale, chosen essentially at random. It was chosen at random again this weekend, when I wanted a bottle of wine to go with my roasted cauliflower pizza and grabbed the first non-chardonnay-or-riesling bottle I came to in my wine cellar. ("Wine cellar" = three cases of wine shoved into the corner of my pantry with a waffle iron and some Miracle-Gro balanced on top.)

It was a lovely surprise. Crisp, bright, and it held up well to the pizza. I don't know why chenin blanc isn't more popular. I'm eager now to try some more of their wines.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Roasted cauliflower pizza

Yet more proof of my theory that anything is good on pizza.

Here's what I did, in order: whole wheat crust. Olive oil. Ricotta. Caramelized onions. A little pre-cooked Italian sausage. Roasted cauliflower (two heads chopped, with olive oil, in a 400-degree oven for about 10-15 minutes). A few leaves of sauteed swiss chard. A sprinkling of fresh herbs. Mozzarella. Parmesan. Bake. Sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with a good chenin blanc.

And wow. Until now it would never have occurred to me to put cauliflower on pizza, but why not? It was really good. Certainly it was a tastier, and more inventive, use of cauliflower than just eating it raw with ranch dip, or boiling it into oblivion (the two most popular, and least tasty, American uses of cauliflower). The pizza (two pizzas, actually) didn't take long to put together and were infinitely more satisfying than anything I've ever had delivered. Veggie pizza = win.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A fun new spice to try: pimenton

The New York Times has a great article on pimenton, a smokier Spanish version of paprika. I remembered I had some in my spice collection, and added it to a potato-and-gruyere soup last night. Yum! If you can find some, I highly recommend picking some up.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Leek and swiss chard tart

The eat-out-of-the-pantry-and-not-buy-groceries initiative continues. The pantry is starting to look bare in places, and I'm forced to become increasingly creative, but I'm still reasonably sure I can stretch this out all the way up to the wedding--meaning we can leave with the refrigerator bare, and restock fully upon our return. (And boy, it will be FULLY.) The biweekly CSA box of veggies helps tremendously. Otherwise we wouldn't have any fresh fruits or veggies at all right now.

So when I picked up Sunday's box, I happily set about making a week's worth of salads and inventorying what I could make with the rest. Last night I made a leek and swiss chard tart, using a few sheets of phyllo dough for the crust (I was out of puff pastry, but you could use that, as well). The recipe is super-simple; slice and saute the leeks in a little butter until they're soft (10 minutes) and then add a few chopped leaves of chard. You can chop and add the stems as well. Mix 1 1/4 cups of heavy cream with four eggs in a separate bowl with salt and pepper and a bit of nutmeg. Stir the veggies in, pour that into a pie pan with your crust of choice, and bake at 425 for 15 minutes. Lower the temp to 350 and cook for another 15 minutes. If you use phyllo dough, like I did, brush a little soft butter or egg yolk on the exposed parts of the dough--otherwise it will turn really brown, almost burnt, at 425. It's like a super-veggie quiche. Serves two adults as a main course.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Wine from my collection: Black Widow Vintage One 2006

This is one of the very, very few dessert wines I actually like. Most of them are far too sweet for my taste, almost cloying. What's the point of drinking wine that tastes like Kool-Aid? I might as well drink the Kool-Aid. But this one, Black Widow Vintage One, purchased in Vancouver during my trip last summer, is a port-style wine made from Merlot, with enough acid structure to balance out the sweetness. A little sweetness is good; too much sweetness is bad.

Unfortunately, once this bottle goes, I have no way of getting more. I first had this wine at a lovely dinner in Vancouver, in which I was also introduced to Laughing Stock Chardonnay--which to date remains the best chardonnay I've ever put in my mouth. But can I buy it in the US? Noooooooooo. In fact, the only reason I have the lone bottle of Black Widow is because the bartender at the restaurant took pity on me and sold me a bottle. (Yes, in Canada you can buy whole bottles at the bar to take home. At retail prices, no less, not some inflated bar price.) At some point I will have to drive back to Vancouver and do a wine tour of British Columbia. And this time I'm bringing multiple cases of wine back across the border, regardless of what the border cops say.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Wine from my collection: Etude Fortitude Frediani Field Blend 2006

This week will feature the last gasps of the wine I bought on last summer's road trip--naturally supplies are dwindling on that front. I bought nearly a case of this in San Francisco, killing time at a wine shop before my dinner reservation at Gary Danko (ahhh...Gary Danko...dreamy sigh). If I remember correctly, it retailed for about $20 per bottle, and was worth every penny.

The Fortitude Frediani Field Blend brings together several unusual varietals--primarily Charbono with some Carignane, ValdiguiƩ, and Petite Sirah., grown in Napa. It's dramatic without being overwhelming, and is equally good with food or on its own. It's difficult to find, which is one of the reasons I grabbed nearly a case when I could (the rest of the case was filled out with Stag's Leap, which I'll cover later this week).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Slow cooker oatmeal

Steel-cut oats are to packets of instant oatmeal what Kobe beef is to dog food. If your only experience with oatmeal is the instant kind, you owe it to yourself to try some steel-cut oats. The texture and taste are completely different, and yet infinitely more filling and satisfying.

The problem with steel-cut oats is that they take a long time to cook down, which is probably why people abandoned them for Quaker in the first place. Never fear, though--you can overcome that obstacle with a Crockpot. Best of all, you can cook your oatmeal overnight in the Crockpot, so that you have a hot, filling and tasty breakfast waiting for everyone in the morning. That's even less effort than microwaving a packet of instant. I like to make a big batch at a time, portion it out into tiny Tupperware containers, and have a little for breakfast each morning during the week.

I use a cup of steel-cut oats with four cups of water and half a cup of cream, set on low for 8-9 hours. You can add what flavorings you will--dried fruit or brown sugar come to mind. Or make it plain, and add different toppings to the final product. In my last batch, I added a cup of dried cranberries and a cup of dried blueberries at the beginning, and cooked for 8 hours. The oatmeal turned a strange color--a deep bluish-purple, with streaks of maroon, the exact color of a bad bruise, but oh, it was yummy. You could use dried apricots, or figs, or apples, or some other combination of dried fruit less likely to produce such a lurid breakfast.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wine from my collection: Little Penguin Pinot Noir 2008

This falls into the category of "critter wines," which are usually inexpensive wines with some sort of wholly incongruous cute animal on the label--penguins, kangaroos, puppies, whatever (capitalizing on people's default method of picking wines at the supermarket--"oh, this one has a cute label, I'll try it"). But even so, it goes down easy. Really, at $7.99, you can't ask for more. It's a great bottle to have on your counter for a few days, drinking a glass at a time, one a night with dinner.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wine from my collection: Cosentino The Novelist Meeting '99

Another good bottle thanks to BevMo's buy-one-get-one-for-five-cents sale. Retails for $16.99. It's a blend Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, very bright, a little lacking in depth but a very good all-purpose white meritage.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Refried bean enchiladas

I have another enchilada recipe that involves black beans, spinach, corn and salsa, but, well, I don't have any of those things right now. I have no money, thanks to the upcoming wedding, so I'm eating out of the pantry and improvising once something runs out. I DO have refried beans. So, refried bean enchiladas.

Which are ridiculously simple. Tortillas, refried beans, grated cheese of your choice. (I used cheddar, that's all I had.) Oh, and I added two frozen jalapenos I found in the back of the freezer. That's it. I made a sauce out of a can of tomato sauce and a LOT of seasonings (dried red chili flakes, ancho chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, salt, etc.) and poured that over the top and added more shredded cheese on top of everything. Bake for 15-20 minutes or so. I served with the last of the sour cream, since I was out of salsa, and hot sauce.

Cost: tortillas, refried beans, cheddar cheese and sour cream bought in bulk. One can of tomato sauce. Final cost, maybe three dollars? Serves at least four.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lemon buttermilk sherbet

More fun with buttermilk! (You'll need an ice cream machine for this recipe...apologies.)

1/3 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
zest of one lemon
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Combine the water and sugar with the lemon zest in a saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool to room temperature, then chill thoroughly in the refrigerator. Whisk in the buttermilk and the lemon juice, and prepare in your ice cream machine.

This would be awesome with fresh fruit, or a fruit sauce, or warm caramel sauce.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pecan pralines

I got this new cookbook called Salty Sweets and I'm pretty much totally in love with everything in it. Here is the recipe for pecan pralines:

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (I used more)
2 teaspoons molasses
1 1/2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup lightly toasted pecan halves

Combine everything except the pecans in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Boil for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let cool just until the mixture stops bubbling. Add the pecan halves and stir them in, then dump the whole thing out on a baking pan lined with parchment paper and spread it out. (It will thicken very quickly.) Let cool completely, then break apart and eat.

YUM. And since I already had all the ingredients on hand, it cost me practically nothing. Maybe a dollar total for the batch?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Crustless quiche

Quiches are like pizza--they're a great way to use up all those little lettover bits of things in the refrigerator. The combinations are endless. Here's what I put into mine:

lots of fresh parsley
a few leaves of fresh spinach
a handful of chopped sundried tomatoes
a handful of feta cheese
six eggs (though four would have done it)
a cup of heavy cream (though you could use less, and milk or half and half would work just as well)
salt and pepper

Other things in my fridge I could have used: bits of (cooked) leftover sausage or bacon, any kind of cheese, frozen spinach, frozen peas, frozen corn, onions, ham, broccoli, leeks, blah, blah, blah.

A crustless quiche is essentially a baked omelet. It's a fast and easy way to make a filling and healthy meal (don't be limited to having this for breakfast--a quiche makes a great dinner, too). Just mix everything together, butter a pie pan, and bake at 425 for around 20-25 minutes, or until the middle doesn't jiggle anymore when you tap the pan.

Cost: eggs at 17 cents each = $1 for the primary ingredient. Depending on what you've got on hand, let's say $1.50 total for four servings, for 37 cents per serving.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


I didn't start cooking to eat better or save money (although those are very, very important components). I really got into cooking because I love eating in fancy restaurants. Love, love, love. But my salary does not support such a habit very often (really, at all), so I started trying to recreate at home what I was eating in those restaurants. Now, at least half the time, my own cooking is better than what I get in restaurants. Cheaper, too. And I can eat it in my pajamas.

So I decided to celebrate my recent day off with escargots. I love escargots, but we all know that escargots are really just a garlic butter delivery system. Turns out that holds true at home, as well. I know no one out there is saying, "Finally! A use for that can of escargots in the back of the pantry!" so I'll skip the recipe. What's really important here is the sauce, as follows: a stick of softened butter in a stand mixer; beat in two minced garlic cloves and half a minced shallot, fresh parsley, a little salt and fresh pepper, and a tablespoon or so of white wine. Place in an oven-proof dish and heat until melted and bubbly. Soak it up with fresh bread and a good Chardonnay. Listen to some Edith Piaf and pretend you're in France.

A good butter sauce beats any dip or cheese ball all to hell.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Roasted beet, caramelized onion and goat cheese pizza

I got my second wedding present yesterday--a Pampered Chef stoneware pizza stone. Naturally I had to make pizza. And since I had some beets that needed to be used up...

This was a lovely pizza, not super beet-y at all. An inspired combination, if I do say so myself. I made a whole-wheat crust (one cup of whole wheat flour to two of bread flour) and built the pizza as follows: olive oil, mozzarella, caramelized red onions, roasted sliced beets, goat cheese, fresh parsley, black pepper, parmesan. Bake at 475 for 20 minutes.

Beets never tasted so good.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Variations on a standard recipe

Most recipes are adaptable, and some are endlessly adaptable. I could get all scientific and talk about ratios, but I won't. Just remember that a recipe can be a jumping-off point.

Case in point: last night's dinner. I have a recipe called Orzo with White Wine and Shrimp which has served me well over the years. Orzo is a rice-shaped pasta, and the dish is essentially a casserole with a tomato-white wine sauce, feta cheese, and shrimp. After making the recipe exactly a few times, I knew it well enough to make it without consulting the recipe. And once that happened, the substitutions started. No shrimp? Well, I have leftover chicken. Italian sausage. Kielbasa. Proscuitto. I've made vegetarian versions with peas, broccoli, asparagus. (Not all of them together, mind you.) I've used goat cheese instead of feta. Last night's was with broccoli and the standard complement of white-wine tomato sauce and lots of feta cheese. I had broccoli, orzo, canned tomatoes and feta cheese. It didn't matter that I didn't have any shrimp.

When it comes to making substitutions, feel free to get creative. Or just to use up whatever you've got lying around. But remember to make it a straight substitution--one kind of cheese for another, one kind of meat for another, or a vegetable instead of a meat, that sort of thing. You can't replace the pasta with artichoke hearts and expect to get the same results.