Monday, April 30, 2012

Last day of April

A couple of images to close out April...

April 29th - first baby geese of the season have hatched
Getting green on the trails.  The maple leaves are fully out!
It has been a crazy, early spring.  Can't wait to see what May has in store!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #10: American Flavor

We are up to ten Cookbook Challenges already.  Let's do something slightly more labor intensive to celebrate!  For this challenge, I went to my copy of American Flavor by Andrew Carmellini.

A myriad of flavors
Carmellini is a well known and highly respected New York chef, also the author of Urban Italian, a book that I own and have cooked from (and will cook from again for one of these challenges).

Like Urban Italian, his newest book, American Flavor, is structured quite interestingly.  The first thirty or so pages contain a collection of food-centric stories.  Stories of past jobs, family vacations, crazy road trips, culinary revelations, often imparted with humor.  The introductions of both books are wildly entertaining reads. 

But here, we are talking about American Flavor.  The introduction is entitled "Stories from the Road."  Carmellini talks about the various culinary inspirations he received from his trips around the country from various stages of his life.  Through the stories and the recipes, we see that "American flavor" is really made up of different ethnic cuisines and regional influences.  His recipes borrow from classic American, Mexican, Polish, Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern, and American regional cooking, to name a few.  Lots of really appealing recipes in this book.   

I chose to make his  dish, "My Chicken Pot Pie" (recipe found here on Serious Eats).  The recipe takes a little bit of work to put together, you need to do some prep in advance, and there are a lot of steps.  But there is nothing here that is too complicated.

Full disclosure - his recipe called for three pounds of chicken legs.  I used a three pound whole chicken.  It was roughly the same price, so I hope Carmellini won't mind!

His crust is thin and cracker-like, unlike the more traditional biscuit topping.  Carmellini said that biscuit dough gets wet and heavy when in falls into the pot pie, which he doesn't like.  The crispy cracker crust is meant to break when you cut into it and fall into the pot pie, kind of like crackers in soup.  He added, "And who doesn't like crackers and soup?"

I spread the work out over a couple of days.  Saturday I made the dough for the crust and let that rest in the fridge until today.  I also made the stock and cooked the chicken on Saturday, which allowed me to chill the stock and remove most of the fat.  Having this out of the way accomplishes some of the heavy lifting, so today I created the sauce with the chicken and veggies and assembled the dish.

In the recipe, Carmellini uses individual ramekins for personal sized servings.  He also said you can do this in one big dish, which is what I did, as I do not have ramekins. 

The dough is really hard to roll out.  That is what took the most work.  After that, I assembled the casserole and put the crust on top.  The idea is that the steam from the chicken mixture will sort of inflate and lift the crust, giving sort of a domed effect.

Here is what it looked like coming out of the oven.  I sort of had a half inflated, half deflated "collapsing Metrodome effect" on one side because I didn't seal the edge well enough.  Oh, well!

The Metrodome of pot pies!
However, breaking into the crust revealed the steaming hot chicken and veggie mixture.  Mmmmmmm...

Looking good...
This was a very tasty pot pie.  The chicken and veggies were swimming in a creamy sauce spiked with a lot of fresh thyme.  The addition of Tabasco chipotle sauce is devious and clever, adding a little smoke and spice to the finished product.  Nice!  The crust, seasoned with a little salt, pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, was delicious and served as great sopping material for the stew.  Just like a big cracker!

"My Chicken Pot Pie" from American Flavor
All in all, a very homey, flavorful meal.  It's definitely not something you can knock out in an afternoon, and it is a little involved, but worth the overall effort.  American Flavor is a cool book.  I like all the crazy stories, and if the other recipes are this good, I sense some fun cooking in the future.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Friiday long run

The weather today isn't very nice - chilly, drizzly, generally gloomy.  So I opted to do my long run after work yesterday.

It was a busy day, and I didn't actually get home until 5 PM.  So I hit the trails, figuring I would be really tired.  But no!  I felt rather spirited and full of energy.  And the weather was good for running, too.  Low 50's, a fair breeze, with only a couple of stray raindrops at the finish.

I saw some American coots on the lake, my first of the season.  Also spotted a furry woodchuck, some wood ducks, Mallards, tons of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles, red-bellied and hairy woodpeckers, and several areas of the forest floor have exploded with wood anemones.  The maple leaves are huge now, too.  Amazing how green it has gotten around here.

I managed a shade over 17 miles, and the run felt great.  My reward?  A late-night sourdough pizza! 

Pizza, pizza!
Very happy I chose to do the long run on Friday.  Now I can spend the weekend in the kitchen working on some projects!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #9: The Homesick Texan

This Cookbook Challenge takes us to the great state of Texas.  Over the weekend, I reached for my copy of The Homesick Texan by Lisa Fain.

The cuisine of Texas
I have been reading the Homesick Texan blog for years now and have always enjoyed Tex-Mex fare, so I put the cookbook on my list as soon as it came out.

Fain is a native Texan who lives in New York.  She found herself longing for the foods she grew up with and was having a hard time finding these dishes on the East Coast.  Eventually she ended up tracking down ingredients and trying to recreate these dishes on her own.  Which led to the birth of her blog so she could share with family and friends.  Which led to a huge following.  Which led to a book deal and this collection of 125 Texas-inspired recipes.

Serving as both the author and photographer, Fain has put together a beautiful book.  It highlights the diversity of the cuisine in Texas, which borrows a little from Mexico, west Texas ranch country, the Gulf Coast, BBQ culture, as well as the deep south. The book is filled with various anecdotes and personal stories about the food and the recipes.  It is really fun, and I am looking forward to cooking my way through this one.    

I have a little retroactive cookbook challenge with this one!  In February, I made the West Texas Asado from The Homesick Texan, and it was absolutely delicious.  You can read about that creation here.

West Texas Asado - a Homesick Texan creation from February
This time, however, I decided to go with a side dish.  I went with the Frijoles a la Charra, which is a popular side dish in Tex-Mex cuisine.  This recipe consists of pinto beans cooked with bacon, tomatoes, both jalapeno and chipotle chiles, and is spiked with a healthy dose of cilantro.

Unlike refried beans which get mashed up, the pinto beans are left whole in this preparation.  The recipe suggests pureeing the bacon, tomato, and chile mixture before adding to the beans to create a velvety texture, but Fain also said you could leave this mixture as is to create a chunkier texture - which is what I did.

The Homesick Texan's Frijoles a la Charra
The pinto beans are delicious and creamy, the tomatoes add a nice zip, bacon adds smoke, chipotles lend more smoke and some spice , jalapenos bring some fresh chile heat, and the cilantro gives some overall freshness.  

An excellent, flavorful side dish that was very easy to make.  And dare I say I would prefer something like this to refried beans?  I really like the whole beans, the different textures, spiciness, and the flavorful liquid that is created.  And I was glad I didn't puree the bacon, tomato, and chile mixture.  I thought leaving that intact is the way to go from a textural standpoint.  There is nothing not to like here.  A yummy accompaniment to my chipotle-glazed meat loaf!

Frijoles a la Charra, along side some chipotle-glazed meat loaf and asparagus
I am really liking The Homesick Texan.  It is a very enjoyable and pretty book, the recipes so far have been easy and delicious, and I am looking forward to trying more creations from the Lone Star State.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

21 done

Got a 21 mile run in this morning.  That is my longest run prior to the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon on May 12th.  The run went pretty well.  There was a section in the middle that was a low point where I felt really tired and uninspired.  But after the 16th mile, I got a second wind that lifted my spirits and carried me all the way home.  Ended on a strong note, so that was a good thing.

Lots of birds here this week.  Today alone I saw five wild turkeys, trumpeter swans, wood ducks, eastern phoebes, great blue herons, ruby-crowned kinglets, sandhill cranes, heard a flock of white-throated sparrows in the woods near my house, and the female red-winged blackbirds and the sedge wrens are back!  Very good bird morning.

Flowers are really blooming, too.  Purple and yellow violets have sprouted up along the trails.  And the wood anemones have started to bloom down here as well.

It looks like mid May!  Everything is getting green and lush.  Really very pretty.

A couple of photos from earlier in the week:

Violets in bloom along the trail
I'm being watched!  A furry friend in the woods just off the trail.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #8: The Minimalist Cooks at Home

For my latest Cookbook Challenge, I picked up my copy of The Minimalist Cooks at Home, by Mark Bittman.

Minimalist Cooking
Bittman is a food writer and columnist for the New York Times.  Long time readers might remember I applauded Bittman and Mario Batali for somehow convincing Gwyneth Paltrow and the lovely Claudia Bassols to join them in eating and drinking their way around Spain.  Bittman is also a marathoner who has written for Runner's World, so it only seems right that I cook a dish from one of his books. 

He used to write a column for the NY Times called The Minimalist.  This column featured recipes with simplified techniques, and usually just a handful of ingredients, to produce fantastic, easy meals.  The book contains a collection of these recipes.

Honestly, most of the dishes contain ten or fewer ingredients (many times even less).  Bittman also gives clear instructions, and he also offers easy substitutions and additions to gussy up the dishes.  Lots of interesting, simple looking recipes to choose from. 

I chose to make his Shrimp in Yellow Curry.  Shrimp, onions, chile peppers, ginger, garlic, curry powder, coconut milk, fish sauce, and cilantro.  Serve it over some sticky jasmine rice, and that's about it.  I love these Thai-style curry dishes, so I figured this would be right up my alley.  I even had some homemade curry powder in my pantry that needed to be put to use.

Bittman's Shrimp in Yellow Curry
True to form, it was a really simply dish, easy to prepare, and it came together in no time at all.  And it was yummy!

The shrimp are more or less poached in the flavorful coconut curry mixture, and they stay really tender throughout the cooking process.  You can use whatever curry powder you can get your hands on, but the homemade stuff really brings a lot to the party.  And the fish sauce gives it that great Thai flavor.  A sprinkling of cilantro right before serving (and some chopped scallions - not called for in the recipe, so I cheated slightly) adds some freshness.

Very nice.  Complex, rich, spicy, and luxurious. This tastes very much like something you would find at your favorite Thai take-out joint.

A really successful dish, especially considering the small number of ingredients.   I would recommend The Minimalist Cooks at Home for anyone who likes to cook, and especially to those who are just learning about cooking.  Bittman breaks things down into simple recipes that are easy to make with little fuss.  Lots of excellent choices here for quick weeknight meals.

And for a guy like me who has been known to go a little bit over the top from time to time, it serves as a good reminder that delicious food need not be complicated.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Split pea soup with moving pictures

When life gives you ham bones...

I even incorporated a little running into this, so it is perfect for the theme of my blog.  Enjoy!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dried Serrano Salsa

My local supermarket started carrying dried chile peppers from Mariposa Farms in Grinnell, IA.  Nobody is paying me to say this, but these are some of the finest dried chilies I have ever worked with.

Good dried chiles should not be completely dry.  They should still be quite pliable, and these are just that.  Awhile back, I made a nice salsa with their fiery dried chipotle chiles, and recently ground some chipotles into a powder for a recipe.  Outstanding stuff.  Their chilies are wonderful. 

They had a chile that I had never seen in dried form before - serrano chilies.  I had to buy some to check them out. 

Dried serrano chiles
I like fresh serrano chiles well enough, with their bright flavor and clean burning heat.  But the dried serrano chiles were a completely different animal.  The characteristic clean heat is there, but they have an almost smoky flavor to them.  Not as pronounced as a chipotle, but a subtle smokiness that is really nice.  And there is an almost raisin-like fruitiness to them as well.  The dried serrano has many layers of complexity unlike its fresh counterpart.  I am in love.

Here is a quick salsa recipe I threw together with some things in my pantry.  This is a pretty hot salsa, even with the seeds and veins of the chiles removed.  But it is delicious if you dig the hot stuff.  Smoky, spicy, a subtle sweetness, and some freshness from the cilantro.  Yum!

If you don't have fire-roasted tomatoes (Muir Glen is my brand of choice), don't sweat it.  Regular tomatoes are fine, but the fire-roasted ones add to the smoky, roasted flavor of the salsa, and it plays nicely with the dried serrano chiles.  And don't skip the steps of pan-roasting the onions and garlic, along with toasting the spices.  This, too, adds layers of flavor to the finished salsa.

Dried Serrano Salsa
Dried Serrano Salsa
-makes about 2 cups

-14.5 oz can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
-4 dried serrano chilies
-1 small onion, sliced thick
-3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
-1/2 t. ground cumin
-1/2 t. dried Mexican oregano
-1/2 t. kosher salt
-A few grinds of black pepper
-1/2 c. cilantro leaves

Add the tomatoes to a blender.  Set aside.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the serrano chilies until fragrant.  Soak in hot water until soft.  Discard the water.  Split open, remove the seeds and veins (be careful not to rub your eyes, or wear some plastic gloves while doing this, because these seeds are fiery), and add to the blender.

Pan-roast the onion and garlic until slightly blackened and soft.  Add the onions to the blender.  Allow the garlic to cool just enough to handle, peel the cloves, and add to the blender.

Toast the cumin and Mexican oregano in the hot skillet, just for a few seconds until fragrant.  Add to the blender, along with the salt and pepper.

Blend until you have a slightly textured liquid.  Add the cilantro.  Pulse a couple of times just to chop up the cilantro.  Serve with your favorite chips, tacos, or however you like your hot salsa.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spring Wildlife

Lots going on here in the last couple of days. A few things seen on recent runs:

April 13th - Myrtle warblers arrived - the first warblers of the season!

April 14th - Brown-headed cowbird and the tree swallows are here.  I suspect the tree swallows were here earlier, but today was the first day I saw them.  Found some blooming purple violets.  Lilacs are also blooming, as are the flowering crab apple trees.

Also seen today on my run - wood ducks, Mallards, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, cardinals, chickadees, song sparrows, blue jays, Eastern phoebe, Eastern bluebird, pied-billed grebe, Canada geese, buffleheads, Northern flicker, Merlins, goldfinches, three deer, a muskrat, Dutchman's breeches, plum blossoms, and a hawk I was unable to identify.

Lots of good stuff happening this spring.

A couple of images from today:

The peninsula at Fish Lake, looking particularly lovely this morning

Flowering crab apple - these are just exploding right now

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #7 - Asian Noodles

Time to head back to southeast Asia for another Cookbook Challenge!

Love those Asian noodle dishes
Asian Noodles by Nina Simonds is a cookbook that I have had for a number of years, and I have prepared several dishes from it.  It is a nice collection of recipes - soups, salads, stir-fries, entrees - all containing some variety of Asian noodles, along with explanations about the different noodle types.

I don't know that you would call them truly "authentic" recipes (as you will see with the dish I am making).  But they are clearly inspired dishes with approachable, easy-to-find ingredients, that can easily be made in the American kitchen.

The recipe I chose to make is the Pad Thai - the national dish of Thailand with its flat rice stick noodles, usually tossed with some kind of protein, eggs, and various garnishes in a light, sweet, yet tangy sauce.  It's good stuff.  And there are probably as many different recipes for Pad Thai as there are people.

This particular Pad Thai recipe (found here - this is the same recipe that is in the book) is made with shrimp, rice stick noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, and a number of different options for customization - scallions, chopped peanuts, crushed red pepper flakes, fresh cilantro, and a squirt of lime, if you so desire. 

One seemingly unusual ingredient is used to make the sauce - good old fashioned ketchup!  Traditionally, tamarind paste is used in the making of Pad Thai, which helps impart a particularly sweet, yet, sour taste to the sauce.  Pad Thai purists throw a fit at the notion of ketchup being used as a substitute to help achieve this flavor.  I am not saying it is right, but let's face it - you might not be able to easily track down tamarind paste, and virtually everyone has ketchup available to them.

Pad Thai from Asian Noodles
The Pad Thai was very tasty.  Plump, nicely cooked shrimp, bits of scrambled egg, and bean sprouts tangled around rice stick noodles is pretty hard to beat.  I went with all of the customization options - scallions, cilantro, chopped peanuts, crushed red pepper, and some lime.  I would recommend doing the same, as these ingredients add freshness, along with interesting flavors and textures.

If you didn't tell anyone there was ketchup in here, they would never know.  Sweet, tangy, salty, sour - the dish is delicious and balanced.  And even though the book didn't call for it, I would also recommend having a bottle of Sriracha sauce at the table for those (like me) who want some extra heat.  Good stuff!  

All things considered, this is a nice cookbook with a wide array of recipes, and it is a good introduction to cooking with Asian noodles.  I have made other successful dishes from this book, including Thai basil chicken with rice stick noodles, as well as the Singapore noodles.  It is a book I keep coming back to when I want to cook an easy, approachable Asian noodle dish.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Gospel According to "G.P."

I have returned from an extended Easter break.  I went up north to visit my parents, and we had a great time.  Excellent food, fun hikes, a few really good runs (I even ran in snow flurries on Monday morning - April 9th for anyone keeping score at home), and watched one of the greatest Masters tournaments in recent memory.  Fun times!

There were lots of nice bird sightings as well - Merlins, golden-crowned kinglets, turkey vultures, wood ducks, purple finches, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and winter wrens.  Many birds are returning for spring.

But the coolest bird moment occurred when my folks took me to a ruffed grouse "drumming log."

In an attempt to attract and woo a lady grouse, the male will stand on a log and do a "drumming" routine, as if performing on a stage.  He will flap his wings, slow to start but increasing in speed.  This produces a low, muffled, thumping sound that somewhat resembles a very small engine starting up.  It is something that is frequently heard in the woods of northern Minnesota in the spring, but it is an act that is not often seen.

The video below shows how the grouse do their drumming and what it sounds like:

The grouse will return to the same log, so if you can find a log (which is the really hard part), chances are you can locate the grouse. 

My Dad has been photographing various grouse doing their drumming for years now, but this was something I had never witnessed.  So I was taken to find "G.P.", as my parents call him.  That is short for "gray phase," since this particular grouse's tail feathers are gray (as opposed to the reddish phase, where they are something of a rusty color).

As if on cue, he was right where they said he would be, perched on his log.  And it didn't take long for him to drum for us.

Below is one of my Dad's photos of "G.P.":

"G.P." in mid-drum
I was able to stand 20 feet from "G.P." and watch him put on a show.  He started flapping slowly, building to a crescendo with a feathered frenzy, followed by puffing himself up and fanning out his magnificent tail feathers.  He's an absolutely gorgeous bird.  I got to see him do this four times.  We didn't stay long, as we didn't want to prevent him from finding a girlfriend.  What a sight!

At the Easter morning church service, the pastor spoke about the Gospel of Mark and how some things didn't seem to make sense.  Such as, why did Mark end with the women fleeing the empty tomb, and why didn't they tell anyone?

Earlier the pastor had spoken about working in an art museum and not understanding one of the paintings.  It wasn't until he stared at it intently over a period of time that the lighting, angles, and the artist's message became clear.  This, he said, was a revelation, and after that he began to see the beauty in the world around him.  And, this enabled him to see beauty in the empty tomb.

I thought about this in the context of the grouse.  At first glance, this doesn't make a lot of sense.  A rotund bird, standing all by himself on a log in the middle of the woods, flapping his wings wildly in hopes of finding a mate.  There's nobody around!

Yet, somehow this all works out for the ruffed grouse.  The species continues to survive by using these unconventional methods, and "G.P" will eventually attract a female.

And you can't help but be struck by the beauty of this display.  Few people ever get to see this in person.  A proud little bird, showing off, trying to impress the ladies with his drumming prowess and beautiful plumage.  What a unique and amazing thing to observe.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #6 - Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition

This time for my Cookbook Challenge, we venture to the Basque Country by cooking from Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition by Gerald Hirigoyen.

Yummy small plates
Spanish bar appetizers and snacks known as "tapas" are these small plate of food, designed to encourage sharing and socializing.  It's a pretty cool idea - groups of people having drinks, munching on small snacks, going from tapas bar to tapas bar, getting what's good and moving on to the next.  How can you not love that?

"Tapas" is a broad term that applies to a wide variety of dishes, and it varies depending on the region.  It could be something as simple as a plate of sausage and cheese, or something like fried seafood, braised dishes, small sandwiches, or items served on a skewer.

In the Basque Country, these tapas are typically referred to as "pintxos" (pronounced PEEN-chos).  Hirigoyen hails from this region and the book represents some of the small plates that are served at his restaurants (found here and here) in the San Francisco Bay area.

The dish I chose to make on Saturday night was the Spicy and Sweet Chicken Wings.  Nothing about this dish is Basque.  With ingredients such as ginger, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, and sriracha pepper sauce, it is decidedly Asian.  Hirigoyen says that these wings were inspired by his restaurants' close proximity to Chinatown.  But it is completely in the spirit of pintxos.

Hirigoyen advocates using the middle section of the wing for its better meat to bone ratio, but also said you can use the little "drummies" if you like.  My package of wings had both middle sections and drummies, so that is what I went with.  The wings are marinated in this sweet, spicy, salty concoction.  Then, the wings and sauce are cooked in a large skillet until they are cooked through and the sauce thickens up and glazes everything nicely.

Spicy and Sweet Chicken Wings
These wings were fantastic!  What a successful dish and a flavorful recipe.  

The chicken stays juicy and moist, being that it is cooked in the sauce.  I absolutely loved the sticky glaze, which was absolutely bursting with flavors of the lemon, ginger, garlic, and spicy chile heat from the sriracha.  The honey in the sauce balance out the heat beautifully (in fact, I might try using the marinade for making a stir-fry sometime - it is beautiful).  Excellent fare for watching the Final Four.      

There are a number of really interesting looking recipes in Pintxos that I would like to try.  This one obviously wasn't in the Basque genre, so perhaps it wasn't the best choice to learn about the more "classic" pintxos?  Regardless, it was an excellent dish, and a nice cookbook that will be fun to explore.  Note to self; some more "classic" pintxos next time.  And there will be a next time.


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