Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #25: Damn Good Food

Are we really up to our 25th Cookbook Challenge?  Wow!  In honor of this milestone, how about we do something that is adventurous and a little bit elaborate?  For this challenge, I cooked from the pages of Damn Good Food by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer.

Not darn good food; damn good food!
Damn Good Food features 157 recipes from Hell's Kitchen, a popular Minneapolis restaurant that I am embarrassed to say I have never been to.  (Yet somehow, I own the cookbook!)  The restaurant gained national notoriety when the Stern's of Roadfood fame said the peanut butter here was the best they have ever sampled.  It has been in business for the last decade, and the book contains numerous recipes from the restaurant.

But this is more than a cookbook.  It is also a memoir of the man behind the restaurant, Mitch Omer.  The cover of the book has a quote from Chef Jacques Pepin saying that Omer "makes Anthony Bourdain look like an altar boy."  After reading the book, you might be inclined to agree.  Omer has led an interesting life, to say the least.  He has battled bipolar disorder, depression, weight issues, addictions to drugs, and bounced around from job to job.  The stories in the book are humorous, real, sad, redemptive, and downright crazy.    

The recipes in the book are centered primarily around those from the restaurant, but there are also chapters containing recipes from Omer's early years, an entire section on fish and wild game, as well as recipes for other various sacred rites.

In the chapter "Drugs, Sex, and Gluttony," there are tales from Omer's years working as security for rock bands.  One story involves the band Van Halen, who Omer loathed.  Bands have certain eccentricities, and Van Halen reportedly requested five pounds of M&M's at each tour stop.  That is, five pound with the brown M&M's picked out.  When one venue refused to do this, Van Halen responded by flipping out, trashing the place, and smearing lasagna into the arena draperies.  A perfectly reasonable response, no? :)   

So I decided to make the recipe for "Lasagna, Van Halen Style."  It is a fairly involved recipe including a tomato-red pepper sauce with spicy Italian sausage, and lasagna noodles spiked with basil and crushed red pepper. 

Everything in this dish was homemade.  I used my own spicy Italian sausage.  The tomato-red pepper sauce was basically a well-seasoned, tomato-based red sauce with the addition of some pureed roasted red bell peppers.  And for the noodles, it was time to break out the pasta machine! 

Rolling out the pasta
The pasta was fun to make, and it proved to be rather colorful with the streaks of fresh basil leaves and crushed red pepper.  After rolling out the pasta, cutting it into large ribbons, and boiling them, the assembly process began.  I layered the noodles, ricotta mixture, sauce, and cheese, topping the final layer of noodles with the last of the mozzarella.  I loved how the pasta still retained the colors of the basil and red pepper after being cooked.  

Layering the lasagna with the cooked noodles
Once the last of the cheese was added, it was ready for the oven.  I baked the lasagna until hot and bubbly, and nice and golden on top.  Let me say that few things smell better than anything with tomato and ricotta baking in the oven!  Here is what it looked like when it was ready.

Out of the oven, and looking good!
The book jokingly said that to serve it, you were supposed to smear the lasagna into the drapes like Van Halen might have done.  As you can see, I opted for the plate method.  A little easier to eat it that way!

Lasagna, Van Halen Style, plated up with some steamed broccoli
The lasagna had a ton of flavor.  It was fairly spicy, too, thanks to a hefty dose of red pepper in the pasta, sausage, and the sauce.  The sauce was delicious, with the roasted peppers adding a nice bit of sweetness.  While it was a fair amount of work, it is worth it to make your own pasta.  It has a great homemade texture and chew to it, and of course, you aren't going to find fresh pasta with basil and red pepper on your supermarket shelves.  This is food fit for a rock star!  A very successful dish, and truly one of the best things I have made as a part of this Cookbook Challenge series.

Damn Good Food is a damn good book.  The stories are compelling, and Omer's life journey has been an amazing one - amazing that he is still alive, and also amazing that he pulled his life together enough to create this successful restaurant.  The other recipes in the book look bold and flavorful, and there are several I would like to try.  And perhaps one of these days I will actually make it to Hell's Kitchen to try their food?        

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Pretty leaves

I ran 23 miles this morning, so preparations for Surf the Murph are going well.  It was a good morning out there, too.  Nice, cool, and crisp, and almost downright chilly running through the park.  This kind of weather feels great after the summer we had!

Palm warblers have arrived in the Twin Cities.  That is a sign that most of the warblers are out of here.  The palm is always one of the first to arrive in the spring, and the last to bug out in the fall.  I also heard some white-throated sparrows, so they are passing through and heading south.  Still a few eastern phoebes and gray catbirds around as well, but they will be gone very soon.  Additional sightings include trumpeter swans, lots of blue jays and northern flickers, a pied-billed grebe, pileated woodpecker, and a Cooper's hawk. 

Also of note, I rescued a woolly bear caterpillar from certain doom on the trail.  He was almost entirely black with a tiny brown band.  If you believe in folklore, a narrow brown band on the woolly could be indicative of a harsh winter.  Hmmm... :)

The big highlight of the weekend?  The fall colors.  The leaves were spectacular this week, but especially today, and the forests are glowing with color.  We have to be nearing our peak.  Below are some images from this week.  The first two are from Thursday, and the rest from this morning.

Pretty yellows, and some trumpeter swans way off in the distance along the shore

Calm day on Fish Lake

Yours truly on the trail, surrounded by colorful maples

Medicine Lake Regional Trail

Gorgeous colors at Fish Lake

Pretty maple on the peninsula at Fish Lake Regional Park

Yours truly on the beach at Fish Lake

Fish Lake shoreline

Beautiful reflections on Fish Lake

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thai Basil Chicken

One of my favorite stir-fry dishes is Thai basil chicken.  There is something completely magical about the flavors of this dish.  Spicy, sweet, salty, and pungent, perfumed with the minty scent of basil.  Yum!

The following recipe is my own concoction after lots of experimentation.  It is a very simple stir-fry with nothing more than chicken, onions, chilies, garlic, scallions, and the Thai basil.  I make no claims of authenticity.  All I know is that I think it tastes really good.

There are a few special ingredients here.  We've talked about a few of them before.  Some you might need to search for, but it is worth the effort.

1.  Thai Basil - This is the traditional form of basil used for this dish, and it has an almost minty/licorice-like flavor.  If you can't find it (and many times, I can't), regular Italian sweet basil can be used as a substitute.  The flavor of the Italian is slightly different, but it will work in a pinch.

2.  Sweet Soy Sauce, also known as kecap manis - This is a very thick, almost molasses-like soy sauce.  It is not at all like your standard bottle of soy sauce.  Not only does it add a great sweet and salty flavor, but it also helps to thicken the sauce and creates a nice glaze.  This might take some searching, but your better grocery stores with a well-stocked Asian foods section should have it.  If you absolutely cannot find this, I would just substitute regular dark soy sauce and perhaps add a little corn starch to help with the thickening.  But it is worth trying to find.

3.  Roasted Chile Paste - This is a concentrated chile paste, similar to the consistency of tomato paste.  It is not particularly hot or spicy, but it adds a nice roasted red chile flavor to the finished sauce, and it does help to thicken things as well.  Roasted chile paste is actually pretty easy to find, and most Asian food sections in your grocery store will have it.  The brand most readily available is Thai Kitchen.   

4.  Fish Sauce, or nam pla - Fish sauce is to Thailand what soy sauce is to China.  It is an absolute staple of Thai cuisine.  It smells slightly nasty on its own, but somehow it magically transforms into a beautiful sauce when cooked and paired with other ingredients.  Just about any good grocery store will have this, and you should have no problem tracking some down.

5.  Chile-Garlic Sauce - Most grocery stores will have some variety of this concoction of ground chiles and garlic, and you should be able to find this sauce easily.  Be careful though, as I have found there can be a considerable heat difference between different brands.  My favorite is Huy Fong, which is comparatively mild with just a little bit of sweetness.

On to the recipe!

Jean's Thai Basil Chicken


Sauce:

-3 T. fish sauce
-1 1/2 T. sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
-1 T. chile-garlic sauce
-1 t. roasted chile paste
-1.5 T. sugar
-1/4 c. white wine


Stir-fry ingredients:

-1 T. oil
-1 1/4 lbs. chicken thighs, diced
-3 cloves garlic, minced
-1 serrano chile, seeded, minced
-1 Fresno chile, seeded, minced
-1 sweet onion, sliced
-4 scallions, sliced
-Handful of Thai basil leaves (or regular Italian sweet basil)
-Jasmine rice for serving


Mix the sauce ingredients together and set aside.

In a large skillet or wok, add the oil and stir-fry the chicken with the garlic, chiles, and onions over medium-high heat until chicken is no longer pink. 

Pour in the sauce.  Cook until the chicken is cooked through and sauce is bubbly and slightly thickened.  Add the scallions and the Thai basil at the last minute, give it a quick stir, and serve immediately over jasmine rice.  Makes 3-4 servings.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fall

Today is the official first day of fall, but fall has already been making its presence known.  In just the last week, the colors have really started to turn, the maple and sumac in particular.  Other trees are developing a yellowish hue.

I did a 20 mile run this morning.  It was 42 degrees with a wind chill of 36!  Had to dig out a few pieces of cool weather gear, but it was a fantastic run.  I love running on cool, brisk days like this.

In addition to the colors, I saw other signs of fall.  Huge flocks of geese heading south, flocks of blue jays making their crazy fall noises, a common nighthawk (first one I have ever seen in the daylight - they usually do their southbound migration at night this time of year), and the New England aster is blooming, our last of the summer flowers to bloom.  I also saw trumpeter swans, a bald eagle, many northern flickers, an eastern phoebe, the gray catbirds are still here, and I stopped to chat with three deer at Elm Creek.  Lots of wild activity!

It's getting very pretty here.  The next couple of weeks should be amazing.

A few images from recent days:

Entrance to Fish Lake Regional Park

Dried leaves, bright shoes!

Edward Lake - turning leaves and a pretty sky

Some aster in bloom

Brilliant maple leaves

Fish Lake - the leaves across the way are turning

Trail at Fish Lake

Yellow leaves along the trail

Yours truly at the Pierre Bottineau House in Elm Creek Park Reserve

Bright sumac leaves - the trails are gorgeous right now

Yours truly along the Medicine Lake Regional Trail

Trail sunlight

Lots of color at Fish Lake Regional Park

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #24: Jamie's Italy

We visit another book from a chef we have previously cooked with during a Cookbook Challenge.  This time I prepared a dish from Jamie's Italy by Jamie Oliver.

Italian cooking with the Naked Chef
During Challenge #14, we cooked from Oliver's first book, The Naked Chef and made a darn tasty roasted chicken.  In Jamie's Italy, he focused exclusively on Italian food.  Not just the food itself, but the inspiration he has received from Italian food, along with stories of his experiences traveling, cooking, and eating in Italy.  Great selection of pizza, pasta, salads, meat dishes, vegetables - very real food, all made from scratch.

I chose to make Jamie's "Spaghetti Tetrazzini" (the recipe can be found here), a baked spaghetti dish with chicken, mushrooms, basil, and cream. 

In the book, and on the website in the link above, he writes: "I remember meeting a lovely old couple outside my parents’ pub and when they heard I was going to Italy they told me to make sure I cooked turkey tetrazzini – I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about and then, by chance, I saw a recipe for chicken tetrazzini in an old Italian cookbook and it’s great – really tacky but gorgeous!"

His initial lack of familiarity might be because Tetrazzini is actually an American dish, said to have originated in San Francisco, and is named after Italian opera singer, Luisa Tetrazzini.  I am most familiar with Tetrazzini being made with turkey, something of an old culinary warhorse of Thanksgiving leftovers.  This recipe's inclusion in the cookbook seems slightly out of place given the origin.  However, I am really glad he put it in the book.  It is fantastic!

Here is is coming out of the oven:

Jamie Oliver's Spaghetti Tetrazzini

The recipe doesn't say how long you should baking the Tetrazzini beyond "bake in the oven until golden brown, bubbling and crisp."  I monitored this closely and found that it took 25 minutes in my oven to achieve the desired golden brown crispiness on top.

The Tetrazzini plated up with some steamed broccoli
Jamie's version of Tetrazzini is really delicious.  Creamy, cheesy, great mushroom flavor thanks to the intense dried porcinis, and a nice contrast of textures with the soft noodles underneath and the crispy layer on top.  I used Barilla's "spaghetti rigati" - spaghetti noodles with little ridges - that worked well because the ridges further helped the sauce cling to the pasta. The wine, basil and garlic truly permeate the creamy sauce, too.  It's lovely and comforting!  A great dinner that requires very few ingredients, and it is easy to put together.  A definite winner. 

I have four of Jamie Oliver's books, and Jamie's Italy might be my favorite.  He cooks a fair amount of Italian food in his other books, but it was fun to see a book dedicated solely to his take on this cuisine.  Oliver speaks passionately about the food.  There are several pages in the book where he offers "My thoughts on..." a variety of topics (pizza, porchetta, meats, etc).  He is not afraid to share an opinion, and you can't deny his enthusiasm for cooking with the best ingredients, humanely-treated animals, and making real food.  I always seem to have good success with his recipes, too.  And I know this much; I will be making the Spaghetti Tetrazzini again, that's for sure!     

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Harmon Farms 10 Mile Trail Run

I had so much fun running a race last Sunday that I felt compelled to do another one this weekend!  Today I found myself in Inver Grove Heights for the Harmon Farms 10 Mile Trail Run.

Time to run some trails!
I did this race last year and hadn't really considered entering since I just did the City of Lakes 25K a week ago.  But a midweek e-mail blast from the race director, a dirt cheap entry fee, and a quick reminder to myself of how much fun I had at this race last September was all the convincing I needed.

Yours truly, ready to run at Harmon Farms
So it was back to the Harmon Park Reserve for the second year in a row.  Last year it was cool and rainy.  Today, it was sunny and warmer with temps in the upper 60's and not a cloud in the sky.  All things considered, a pretty nice day.

The race is run almost entirely on single-track trails though the woods and prairie.  It is a very diverse and beautiful park, and there is no flat ground to speak of.  No huge climbs, but we are talking a healthy dose of constant ups and downs, along with plenty of twists and turns.

Park map showing the trails.  There are just a couple of turns...

My goal was singular: to catch the gorgeous blonde lady running in front of me to treat this as a good training run and get some solid practice on trails.  I really just wanted to work on some techniques that I am not especially good at (downhill running in particular) and have some fun out there.

And lots of fun I had!  Temperatures were slightly warm in the open prairie area of the park, but there was a nice breeze, as well as some shade the woods, which made it more pleasant.  The colors are just starting to turn ever so slightly, and some of the underbrush and the sumac have turned red, so the woods was a beautiful place to be.

It was quite enjoyable running the trails, working on my footwork, and concentrating on my downhill efforts.  The switchbacks were an absolute blast, too.  Some of those corners are wicked and fast!  I finished in 1:26:45, which was about a minute and a half faster than last year, so I was very pleased.  Nice to spend some time playing in the dirt today. 

The 2012 shirt - I like their logo
There is nothing not to like here at the Harmon Farms Trail Run.  It is a bargain, bare-bones race at $25 (I know of one local fall 10 miler charging $60), but they have a nice shirt and goodie bag, and you get to run some awesome trails in a beautiful park on one of the last days of summer.  That's hard to beat.  I am glad I got that e-mail from the race director last week!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My shoes are so bright...

...I gotta wear shades!

It was time to get a new pair of my beloved Saucony shoes.  The electric blue pair that I had was plenty cool.  However, when I saw they had my model in the brightest shade of my favorite color, it was not a matter of simply wanting them.  I needed them. 

Batteries not included
This particular model is most comfortable shoe I have ever run in, and the great thing is I can find them in a room without having to turn on the lights. ;-)

Monday, September 10, 2012

City of Lakes 25K

On Sunday, I ran the City of Lakes 25K in Minneapolis.  For some reason, this race has eluded me over the years.   But a friend of mine signed up and told me about it, so I signed up as well.  After all, who doesn't want to run a race on their birthday?

The City of Lakes 25K has a long history, and this was its 31st running.  It starts on the southwest corner of Lake Harriet, and basically you end up running an "8" shaped loop a couple of times around Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun.  A very pretty route around scenic lakes and through some rather tony neighborhoods.

I found my buddy Mark (you might remember we both ran Wobegon) minutes before the race started.  We ran the whole race together.  Neither of us were "racing," really; we were just using it for a long training run of sorts.  We both run at about the same training pace, so we ran the whole thing together.

What a fun event!  The day was absolutely spectacular.  Mid 50's at the start, a clear day, cooler, no humidity - runners wish every day could be like this.  The route around the lakes was very beautiful on this day.  Mark and I had a good time and some great conversation.  Topics included a variety of running and race-related items, but also stuff like the Vikings, and MTV's old "120 Minutes" show.

We got lapped by the eventual winner and a few of the runners-up as we rounded Lake Harriet for the second time (man, those guys are fast!).  But we were not at all discouraged, as Mark's wife and some friends were our "cheering section!"  We would see them at a couple of points on the course rooting us on.

Both of us had a really good run, finishing in 2:24 and change.  Nothing blazing, but we were not trying to be fast.  Although, our last two miles were indeed our fastest, so we paced ourselves very well.  This was probably one of the better long training runs I have had in the last month.  Mission accomplished.

In lieu of a t-shirt, they do something different for City of Lakes; you get a pretty sweet beer glass, and a key chain.  Kind of a cool idea.  Nice to have some different race memorabilia for a change!

It was a great day on the streets around Harriet and Calhoun. (Although the people living in the swanky Linden Hills neighborhood where I parked probably have a different opinion after having to watch me strip off my sweaty shirt in the middle of their street...sorry, folks!)  Got in a good long training run, it was fun to run with Mark again, and it was enjoyable chatting with some friends and fellow runners after the race.  Not a bad way to spend one's birthday.  

 A few photos from the day:

Lake Harriet, with the band shell and downtown Minneapolis in the background

Random sighting - an albino gray squirrel hanging out in a yard near the race start!

Yours truly at Lake Harriet before the race

To the victor goes the beer glass and the key chain!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cookbook Challenge #23: Joyce Lamont's Favorite Minnesota Recipes & Radio Memories

For this Cookbook Challenge, we cook locally and nostalgically.  I prepared a dish from Joyce Lamont's Favorite Minnesota Recipes & Radio Memories by Joyce Lamont with Linda Larsen.

Cooking Minnesota style
Joyce Lamont was a pioneering broadcaster on WCCO radio here in Minneapolis.  She was broadcasting as far back as the 1950's, the only female broadcaster doing so in the area at the time.  Over the years, Lamont was one of the most popular personalities on the air, reportedly receiving as many as 10,000 letters a month.

She also became known as WCCO's "on-air home economist," sharing countless recipes with listeners and those who subscribed to her monthly newsletter.  This book contains 300 of Lamont's favorite recipes, and it is also filled with great stories from those early days of WCCO radio where she was a woman working in a man's world.

The recipes are hearty, and have a certain nostalgia to them.  Lots of casseroles, soups, sandwiches, bars, cakes - things that will appeal to a wide variety of people.  It's not fussy food, but it's real food.  And it's good food.

I chose to make Lamont's "Pizza Casserole" - ground beef in a tomato sauce spiked with oregano, onions, mushrooms, garlic, and gemilli pasta, baked with some mozzarella and Romano cheeses with pepperoni on top.  (Recipe can be found here if you do some scrolling)  Sounds good to me!

Here is what it looked like coming out of the oven:

Joyce Lamont's Pizza Casserole
And here is a portion plated up with some steamed broccoli:

Plate of pizza casserole goodness!
A pretty darn tasty dish!  It is hard to go wrong with just about any baked dish involving pasta, tomatoes, and cheese.  The casserole does taste fairly "pizza-ish" with the healthy dose of oregano and the pepperoni on top.  And the recipe makes enough to feed an army, so it would be good for a crowd.  I've been subsisting on leftovers for much of the week.

I made the recipe as written, but I could see this being modified in many ways, too.  Next time, I might add other pizza toppings - sausage, green peppers, green and black olives, hot peppers, artichoke hearts, different cheeses, and so on.  There's a lot you could do to customize it to your liking.

My only complaint is that Joyce called it a "casserole" as opposed to a "hot dish."  Here in Minnesota, we call baked dishes like this a hot dish, not a casserole! :)  Just teasing, Joyce!

Joyce Lamont's Favorite Minnesota Recipes & Radio Memories is a fun look back.  Entertaining stories from that era of radio in Minnesota, and recipes that still stand the test of time.  Nostalgia can be fun, and also quite delicious.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fundraiser for Wild and Free - update

Some truly extraordinary things have happened in the last week.

A month ago when I started my fundraiser for Wild and Free, I told them what I was doing so they were aware of what was going on.  They offered to help, too.  Suddenly, word was spreading.  My fundraiser got mentioned on their Facebook page, on their website, in their monthly newsletter, at their annual gala dinner, and even they put up a poster at the Garrison Animal Hospital (a partner of Wild and Free) advertising this.  More donations started pouring in from people I have never even met.

It gets even better.  Pfizer Animal Health is one of the drug and medical suppliers for both Wild and Free and the Garrison Animal Hospital.  They felt compelled to join in the fun and offered to match funds for up to $5000!  Yesterday we passed the $5000 mark on my fundraiser website, ensuring we will get the full match, which will result in at least $10,000 for Wild and Free.  What started out as a modest project is turning into the single largest fundraiser ever for this wonderful organization.

And you know what?  We're not finished!  There's still 52 days to go before my race, and anything additional we can raise would only help the cause.  If you would like to help us out, you can click the banner below to go straight to my fundraising website.  All donations are tax deductible and will go a long way towards helping Wild and Free as they continue with their work of rehabilitating injured and orphaned birds and animals.




I am stunned with the response this has received and look forward to all the good we can do for Wild and Free!  Thank you to the folks at Pfizer Animal Health for their generosity and willingness to be a part of this project.  And thanks to everyone for your unbelievable support so far! 

...and the birds and animals thank you, too!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Holiday weekend

It was a busy week, leaving very little time to blog.  But a long holiday weekend is upon us, so I am taking advantage of a few days off!

Saturday morning started with a 20 mile run.  I would say the run was OK.  The first 2/3rds was good, but with nary a cloud in the sky and temperatures creeping into the mid 70's, it began to take its toll.  Wildlife highlights included a couple dozen wood ducks, six baby turkeys, a Cooper's hawk, bald eagle, and a rather sizable whitetail buck.

Sunday's run was nicer.  I ran 5 miles on some of the dirt trails up at Elm Creek Park.  Really pleasant and cooler morning, and I got to run some trails that were new to me.  Lots of fun.  Saw some trumpeter swans, and I am also seeing some signs of fall.  Flickers, blue jays, and crows are starting to gather in large flocks.  Colors are starting to appear in the trees (partially because it is pretty dry).  And the yellow flowers (sunflowers, goldenrod) are really making their presence known.

A couple of shots from the runs:

Gorgeous sunrise over the lake

A huge sunflower along the trail
Trail run at Elm Creek.  The moon was still up.

Giant sunflowers in the morning sunlight

Yours truly at Elm Creek

Dew-covered spider web, and the underbrush is starting to turn color

Heading down the trail...

For Saturday night's dinner, I made a new recipe - the Asian ribs from Andrew Carmellini's "American Flavor."

Carmellini's Asian ribs...yum!


Mmmm...ribs...

Absolutely delicious!  And so easy to make.  Incredibly tender, delicious, sweet and tangy.  So unbelievably good that I can't wait to make them again.

A fun holiday weekend...and it is only half over!  I am liking this.

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