Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Weird weather week

This was the scene on Sunday:

The view from my house.  Snow!
By Sunday afternoon, we had a mix of freezing rain that turned to snow rather quickly, giving us a quick couple of inches.  It is the first real snow we have had in ages.  Mild temperatures right around freezing created some interesting driving conditions on Monday, and again on Tuesday thanks to some refreeze (I backed out of my garage and promptly slid right into the street!).   Now on Wednesday, we are dipping back into the deep freeze.  A high of 1 F is predicted for tomorrow.

Amazingly, running was really good on Monday, Tuesday, and even tonight.  My city really got after it on Monday and had all the trails plowed, which was good because the warmer temperatures helped to clear everything off.  I am guessing the plow guys were excited to have something to do!  In any case, it was nice to run on clear trails and to dress down a little bit on Monday and Tuesday.  Had to bundle up a little more today to fight the wind and cold, but it certainly could be worse.

And, it's only 47 days until spring... ;-)

Unrelated  to anything, I made a delicious Thai-style chicken stir-fry on Sunday.  

Tasty stir-fry
The sauce recipe came from this recipe, and it consisted of chicken and a bunch of veggies - onions, carrots, mushrooms, water chestnuts, snow peas, Napa cabbage, red bell pepper, lemongrass, and scallions.  Colorful and spicy, it hit the spot on a snowy day and made for some nice leftovers this week.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cookbook Challenge #34: The Great Minnesota Hot Dish

Ya, sure, you betcha!  The latest Cookbook Challenge takes us to my beloved home state where we explore the wonder that is the "hot dish."  For this installment, we cook from the pages of The Great Minnesota Hot Dish by Theresa Millang.

Hot dish is "Minnesota nice!"
I have written about hot dish on my blog before.  It is basically a Minnesota/Midwest regional term for a baked dish that would be referred to as a "casserole" just about anywhere else.   

A hot dish can be many things, and the variety of recipes is endless, typically consisting of a meat, some kind of starch, cheese, often times bound together by a can of condensed "cream of something" soup out of convenience (but there are plenty "made from scratch" hot dishes as well that utilize some sort of homemade sauce instead).  We are talking hearty fare, here - good "winter warmer" meals designed to feed a crowd, and no church potluck in the state is complete without a hot dish or two!  Millang's book, which would not be out of place in any gift shop in the state, is a vast collection of such hot dish recipes, with chapters broken down by the main ingredient (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, seafood, etc).

One hot dish that Minnesota is probably most famous for (or at least it is the most indigenous) is Wild Rice Hot Dish.  This is a casserole typically made with beef or chicken, a cream sauce, mushrooms, and Minnesota's native wild rice, which is an absolutely delicious local specialty.  And perhaps one of the best known hot dish to those outside of the Midwest is Tater Tot Hot Dish, a ground beef and green bean casserole topped with delicious, crunchy tater tots.  It was no doubt present at many a school cafeteria lunch.  (On a related note, I have also made a Buffalo Chicken Tater Tot Hot Dish for a fun twist on the classic!)

Of course, the book contained examples of both of the above.  But I prepare these two types of hot dishes often enough, so I went a different route. 

I chose to make the "Taco Hot Dish."  There is nothing Minnesotan about it.  For all intents and purposes, this is what is known in Texas a Frito pie.  But here in Minnesota, we are all about equal opportunity and embrace hot dishes of all kinds!

The ingredients
The ingredients are ground beef, kidney beans, a little onion and garlic, tomato sauce, a packet of taco seasoning (I used a homemade substitute - Alton Brown's Taco Potion #19), corn chips, and cheddar cheese. 

You make what is almost a quick version of chili with the beef, onions, garlic, beans, sauce, and seasoning, and then you layer it in a baking dish.  Take half the meat and bean mixture, top it with a layer of chips and cheese, add the remaining half of the mixture with a final layer of chips and cheese on top, and bake until bubbly.  Once baked, you can serve it with your traditional taco accompaniments - shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sour cream, chopped onions, and black olives if you wish.  (I couldn't find the specific recipe online, but there are numerous examples of Taco Hot Dish and Frito Pie that are all very similar in principle)

Out of the oven, it really doesn't look like much.  In fact, it kind of looks like a big 'ol taco-like mess!

Right out of the oven - a scary looking hot dish!
But plated up, with all of the standard taco accoutrements, we end up with a pretty colorful and decent looking plate of food.

Taco Hot Dish (or Frito Pie), all dressed up
The chips and cheese on top almost weld together and get super crispy, offering fantastic crunch and textural contrast.  The beef and bean mixture thickens up quite a bit and has great taco flavor.  Dressed up with lettuce, tomato, chopped onions, black olives, and a little sour cream, it is almost like a meat-and-bean-heavy taco salad.  Very nice!

The leftovers, while still tasty, are slightly less lustrous, as the chips on top lose some of the crunch.  And the chips in the center have turned into a cornmeal mush, completely absorbed into the sauce.  Some hot dishes make for good leftovers.  This one, probably not so much.  I would say the taco hot dish is best served the day of, right out of the oven.  

The Great Minnesota Hot Dish is not about haute cuisine.  And I'm certainly not going to say every recipe in the book is a winner.  In fact, some recipes seem downright strange ("Fish Sticks Au Gratin?"), and others call for ingredients like a full cup of mayonnaise or a 12 oz. bottle of Thousand Island dressing!  The book is about the hot dish, a simple food.  It's about getting a hot meal on the table without a lot of fuss.  It's about a regional tradition with recipes that become a part of the local culture.  And sometimes, that is all you need.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


We've had a bitter cold week.  Several mornings, we have had temperatures in the double digits below zero.  One day, the high temperature never made it above zero.  And it was windy, too.  In addition to the low temps, the wind chills were ridiculous.  Embarrass, MN had -42 below zero this week (and that was actual air temperature, not wind chill).  Welcome to January in Minnesota.

The cold makes running more challenging.  We don't have any snow to speak of (which is weird), so the trails are free and clear.  And I don't mind running on really cold days.  But when the wind is blowing, running is not fun.  There were a couple of days where I thought the peninsula in the park was relocated to Embarrass, MN.  Brrrrr!

Today's run was pretty good, however.  I managed a nice 14 miler.  It was zero when I started and 5 degrees when I finished, but there wasn't much wind, which made things rather pleasant.  I even heard some chickadees, cardinals, and blue jays singing, which was fun.

Tomorrow it is suppose to get up to 32 degrees!  However, we are under a Winter Weather Advisory for mixed precipitation and possible freezing rain.  Ugh.

At least we get some nice winter sunrises....

A pretty January sunrise from the other week
Only 52 more days until spring.  Think spring! 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cookbook Challenge #33: Susan Feniger's Street Food

The Cookbook Challenge is taking it to the streets.  Street food, that is!  For this installment, we cook from the pages of Susan Feniger's Street Food.

Cooking from the streets
Old school viewers of the Food Network will certainly remember Susan Feniger as one of the "Too Hot Tamales."  Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken were some of the early faces on the Food Network, and have also appeared more recently on Bravo's Top Chef Masters.  They are the co-chef/owners of the Border Grill, a pioneering restaurant featuring "modern" Mexican cuisine.

Feniger recently started a new restaurant venture, STREET, which features various "street foods"  - cuisine from food carts and hawker stands around the world.  Her cookbook is an extension of this, providing the home cook and opportunity to make these dishes at home.

There are numerous intriguing recipes calling for many exotic ingredients.  Feniger makes no bones about it and intends for this cookbook to challenge the home cook to seek out such ingredients and try new things.  Recipes requiring ingredients like miso paste, cactus paddles, shiso leaves, and mung bean dal?  Yeah, this is going to require some effort to pull off these dishes!

The recipe I chose to make was the "Waipio Valley Sweet Fried Rice" (recipe can be found here with some scrolling).  True to Feniger's word, there would be some interesting ingredients to track down. 

What is this strange object?
This is a Hawaiian fried rice dish, named for the Waipio Valley on the big island of Hawaii, which has a number of taro farms.  Taro root, a starchy tuber that looks like a hairy kiwi fruit is something I have never purchased or used before.  But I managed to find one for the recipe.

More fun ingredients
There are a couple other slightly unusual ingredients that I needed. There is kimchi (or kimchee), a spicy Korean fermented cabbage. I would need some sweet soy sauce (also known as kecap manis, which I had on hand), a thick, molasses-like soy sauce.  And spicy sesame oil...which, I could not find.  I did not know if this was the same as the generically labeled "hot chili oil" in the Asian food aisle.  Instead, I used some of my pure sesame oil with some crushed red pepper.

The rest of the ingredients were pretty straightforward - brown rice, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, ginger, green onions - nothing too difficult to find.  And easy to prepare, too.  In a large skillet, brown the carrots and taro root.  Then add the mushrooms.  Then add the kimchi, green onions, and ginger.  Then add the rice and sauce, cooking until everything is heated through and the sauce is absorbed.

Waipio Valley Sweet Fried Rice
This was a very tasty fried rice dish.  The taro root is almost potato-like in texture, but there is some nice sweetness with it that is delicious.  Loved the carrots and the mushrooms for textural contrast.  There's freshness from the green onions, some spice from the ginger and kimchi, and the rice soaks up the soy and sesame-flavored sauce beautifully, giving the dish a deep, dark color.  So, so good.

Feniger made a comment in the book about having fried rice with a fried egg on top.  I couldn't resist.

...with egg.
While Susan Feniger's Street Food is not going to be your go-to book for putting dinner on the table on a busy weeknight, it certainly is a compelling book that will challenge the adventurous home cook.  I had a lot of fun tracking down ingredients for this dish. 

Next up: perhaps Feniger's "Thai Drunken Shrimp with Rice Noodles."  Now, where can I get some Thai green peppercorns? 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Let's race!

My 2013 race schedule is starting to take form.

My first race will be the Irish Run St. Paul 8K in March.  This is what used to be called the St. Patrick's Day Human Race.  It is the 40th running of the race, and this year they not only renamed it, but they are moving the start/finish line, so the race will have a different look and feel.  I do this race every year (only missed 2011 on account of the weather) because tradition is tradition.

In April, I am going to run the Zumbro 17 Mile Trail Race down by Wabasha.  This is held in the bluff country of the Zumbro River Bottoms Management Area in conjunction with the Zumbro 100 and 50 mile races (the 17 miler is a new offering this year).   100% trails, over 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, so it will be nice and hilly.  I thought this would be good preparation for the next race.

The next race?  May brings the Superior Spring Trail Race 50K in Lutsen.  This will be my "big" race for spring, so I will be hoofing it up and down the rugged Superior Hiking Trail.  I did the 25K at this event back in 2008, and it was one of the toughest races I have run, so the 50K ought to be rather exciting.

So, that's the plan for the first half of the year.  Let the fun (and training) begin!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pork Chile Verde with Guajillo Chile Salsa

I saw this recipe for Pork Chile Verde with Red Chile Salsa in Bon Appetit close to a year ago.  I had been wanting to try it, and I finally got around to doing so.  A stew of pork and potatoes, slow cooked in a vibrant salsa verde, looked delightful and comforting on a cold winter's day.  Also, the addition of a dollop of a red chile salsa on top is a fantastic idea, bringing some wonderful red chile flavor to the party, along with a pretty color contrast.

In reviewing the recipe, I decided to make some variations for my own dish.

1.  Some of the chicken stock was replaced with beer.  When I make my own homemade chili, I always include beer in the recipe, as it adds a nice tangy flavor.  I figured there is no reason this wouldn't work in a green chile stew as well.

2.  I decided to pan-roast all of the tomatillos, as well as the garlic.  The salsa verde portion of the recipe calls for adding part of the tomatillos and all of the garlic in raw form.  When I make salsa with tomatillos, I always pan-roasted them, along with the garlic, to impart some roasted flavor and additional complexity.

3.  For the cumin, I opted to grind the seeds, and I also added the Mexican oregano to the onions and the remaining tomatillos along with the cumin.  Both benefit from a little toasting, so I figured it made sense to add them at this stage.

4.  Finally, instead of the red chile salsa called for in the recipe, I simply made my own batch of homemade guajillo chile salsa.  It is a slightly different salsa made with guajillo chilies instead of anchos, but it will accomplish the same mission.  And it is one of my favorite salsas on earth, so I just wanted an excuse to make a batch!

I think the Bon Appetit recipe would be outstanding as written.  That being said, I really enjoyed the tweaks I made.  The beer adds another layer of flavor, as does the pan-roasting of the tomatillos and garlic.  And I love my guajillo chile salsa, and it tastes so good when stirred into the salsa verde.  This is some good, warming comfort food.  As with so many stews, it is even better the next day and has been making for some quality lunch fare this week.

Pork Chile Verde with my Guajillo Chile Salsa...delicious!
Here is what I ended up doing.

Pork Chile Verde with Guajillo Chile Salsa 
-adapted from Bon Appetit

-1 lb. tomatillos, husked
-6 cloves garlic, whole, unpeeled
-2 cups chicken stock (more if needed)
-1 bunch green onions, green & white parts, coarsly chopped
-1 1/2 cups cilantro, leaves & tender stems
-Olive oil
-3 1/2 lbs. pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes
-Salt and pepper
-1 yellow onion, diced
-1 T. cumin seeds, ground
-2 t. Mexican oregano
-2 4 oz. cans mild, diced, roasted green chilies (about 3/4 cup)
-1 cup beer (brown ale or a lager would be a good choice)
-1 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, 3/4-inch dice
-Extra cilantro for garnish

-Sour cream (if desired)
-Guajillo chile salsa

In a large, dry skillet over medium heat, pan-roast the tomatillos and the unpeeled cloves of garlic until blistered and slightly softened.  Remove from the skillet, and when cool enough to handle, cut the tomatillos into half inch wedges.

Make the salsa verde - Add 1/4 of the tomatillos to a blender (set the remaining tomatillos aside for later).  Peel the garlic and add that to the blender as well, along with 2 cups of chicken stock, green onions, and cilantro.  Puree until smooth.  Set the salsa verde aside.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, brush the surface with a little olive oil.  Season the pork with salt and pepper, and, working in batches, brown the pork on all sides, about 4 minutes per batch.  Remove the pork and leave about 1 tablespoon of fat. (Add some olive oil if more fat is needed)

Add the onions to the pot and cook for about 5 minutes until browned and soft, scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen any browned bits. Add the remaining tomatillos.  Stir and cook for 2 minutes.   Add the cumin and Mexican oregano.  Stir and cook for 1 minute, just until the spices are fragrant.

Return the pork to the pot, along with any juices.  Add the diced green chilies, 2 cups of the reserved salsa verde, and the beer.  Refrigerate the remaining salsa verde.  Cover the pot and simmer over medium low heat until the pork is tender, about 2 hours.

Add the potatoes, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes until the potatoes are tender.  Add the remaining salsa verde, along with some additional chicken stock if you feel it is too thick and needs some more liquid (I did not need extra).  Bring to a simmer.

Serve in bowls with extra cilantro for garnish, sour cream if you wish, as well as a dollop of the guajillo chile salsa on top.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Back into the deep freeze

We had an unusually mild week last week.  Temps were in the low 30's for most of the week, and it nearly hit 40 on both Thursday and Friday.  It looks absolutely disgusting around here, kind of like late spring, as most of our snow has melted. 

However, it has made for some good running.

In fact, Friday after work I opted to do my weekend long run.  It was 39 degrees and drizzling, which sounds worse than it really is.  I put in 12 miles, and it was one of the better long runs I have had in recent weeks.  The reason I chose to do the long run on Friday?  This:

Lightly frosted
We plunged back into the freezer on Saturday.  Temperatures were in the low single digits with wind chills in the teens below zero.  The picture above was from this morning's run.  1 F, -13 below wind chill, just enough to put a nice frosty coating on the hat and facemask.

It's not bad.  Long time readers know I really don't mind running in this.  But it was definitely easier to get the longer miles done when it was 38 degrees warmer!     

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cookbook Challenge #32: The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter

We got a little "cheffy" with the latest installment of the Cookbook Challenge!  This time, we cook from the pages of The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.

Elegant cooking at home
"The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter" was a PBS series that aired in 1999.  It was hosted by...well, Chef Charlie Trotter, the highly regarded, Chicago-based chef of ...well, Charlie Trotter's, a world class fine dining restaurant (which recently closed after a 25 year run).  The book is a companion to this television series which is intended to demystify "the professional techniques and tricks behind Trotter's show-stopping recipes, making them accessible for home cooks."

Given that we are cooking high-end food here, most of the recipes in the book are quite involved.  These are not recipes that you can crank out for a leisurely weeknight meal.  There is a lot of prep work, planning, and (for most of the recipes) numerous ingredients that go into each dish.

The recipe I chose to make was the Dried Fruit-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin and Roasted New Potatoes and Bacon-Sherry Vinaigrette

Here is the breakdown: For this dish, you need to prepare a mixture of dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, golden raisins, currants) combined with fresh sage.  Then you need to essentially drill a hole through the pork tenderloin lengthwise and stuff it with the fruit mixture.  You have some roasted new potatoes to prepare, along with some wilted radicchio.  And finally, there is a bacon-sherry vinaigrette to serve as a dressing.  What I am saying is this; the recipe has a lot of stuff going on!

While I found it challenging to time everything (I am just a humble home cook after all, not a trained chef!), and you do have to be a little more aggressive than you might think when stuffing the pork to really show the pork who is boss - in the end, the pork tenderloin was outstanding.  The savory pork combined with the sweetness of the sage-infused fruit was a winner, and the bacon-sherry vinaigrette offered a smoky-acidic brightness to the plate that really elevated the flavors.  Roasted new potatoes with fresh thyme are very tasty accompaniments, too.  

Dried Fruit-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, a la The Kitchen Sessions
One thing I didn't really care for was the radicchio.  Too bitter for my liking, even if it did look pretty on the plate.  But oh, the pork and potatoes with that brilliant vinaigrette!  That was enough to overcome my negative opinion of the radicchio.  What a fun and delicious plate of food.

I think it is clear that The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter is not a book for everyone - definitely something for the more adventurous cooks seeing to prepare high-end restaurant-type dishes at home.  While not a book I would probably cook from very often, it is fun to attempt dishes like this from time to time, and the instructions Trotter offered allowed me to successfully produce a delicious and attractive meal.  And in that sense, the book definitely successfully achieves its mission.  

Plus, I now have an awesome and dazzling new pork recipe to add to my culinary arsenal. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hot & Spicy Chicken with Moving Pictures

Had a little fun in the kitchen yesterday and put together a video of me making my Hot & Spicy Chicken stir-fry recipe.  This is my rendition of a favorite take-out dish that I order all the time - a very simple chicken and onion stir-fry in a spicy brown sauce loaded with aromatic lemongrass.  A tasty and relatively easy dish to prepare, so I thought I would demonstrate how I make it.   

The production values are quite low, there are mistakes and errors, and I am no Giada.  But, then again, who is?  That being said, enjoy!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cookbook Challege #31: The Rose Pistola Cookbook

Happy New Year to all!  Let's kick off 2013 with another Cookbook Challenge.  This time we head to Italy's Ligurian Coast via the West Coast, cooking from the pages of The Rose Pistola Cookbook by Reed Hearon and Peggy Knickerbocker.

Ligurian cooking, San Francisco-style
Rose Pistola is a restaurant in San Francisco which focuses on Italian (more specifically, Ligurian) cuisine using local ingredients.  Reed Hearon was the chef who started the restaurant in 1996 (you might remember him  from Cookbook Challenge #11: Salsa), and it quickly gained national notoriety.  In 1997, Rose Pistola received "best new restaurant" accolades from both James Beard and Bon Appetit.  The restaurant was named after a legendary bar owner and cook from San Francisco's North Beach, and her name is, of course, Rose Pistola.  The book also shares a nice story of Rose, along with some interesting history of San Francisco, with several historical anecdotes interspersed throughout the chapters. 

I am not sure how I came into possession of this book, but I believe it was through a book-of-the-month club.  I have never been to San Francisco, much less the restaurant.  Still, it is a very nice collection of recipes - very Italian, and very seafood-and-fresh-vegetable heavy as you might imagine, inspired by the food from the Ligurian Coast.   Lots of beautiful pasta, pizza, entrees, and veggies, along with helpful tips and techniques.

The recipe I chose to make was the Goat Cheese and Roasted Pepper Pizza.  In the book, Hearon states that they make their pizzas in the style of the early Italian immigrants - thin, with very sparse toppings.  There are just a few ingredients - pizza dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella and goat cheeses, roasted red peppers, and Niçoise olives.  It is baked in a blazing hot oven.

Full disclosure: I did a couple of things differently.  One, I used my own sourdough pizza dough.  I had some in the fridge that needed to be used.  However, Rose Pistola's recipe is also a sourdough creation, and it was similar enough that I don't feel like I am cheating too much.  And two, I had Beldi olives on hand, so I used them in place of Niçoise.

Rose Pistola's Pizza with Goat Cheese and Roasted Red Peppers
This was a very tasty, very Mediterranean, super simple pizza.  The creamy goat cheese, red peppers, and olives pair so well together.  I did get slightly carried away with the cheeses - it could have used a little less for better browning on top, but I can't complain too much.  Even though I didn't use the exact dough recipe from the book, I believe it would have to be quite similar in flavor and spirit.  A tasty pizza!

The Rose Pistola Cookbook has a lot to offer.  I didn't really discuss any of the other recipes in the book in any amount of detail, but I am particularly interested in trying some of their creative seafood pasta dishes, as well as the cioppino (a classic San Francisco seafood stew, born from a similar dish in Genoa, Italy), which looks outstanding.  Even though I can't recall where I got this book, I am glad that I have it, and it will get used again.


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