Monday, March 25, 2013

Irish Run St. Paul 8K

Sunday I found myself in St. Paul to partake in an annual Minnesota running rite of spring, the Irish Run St. Paul 8K. (formerly known as the St. Patrick's Day Human Race)

Feeling a wee bit Irish
A bevy of St. Patrick's Day-themed races have popped up in recent years.  But the Irish Run St. Paul has the most history (taking place since 1973), and it is a bargain compared to some of them. (I'm looking at you, Team Ortho)  The race is also host to the Minnesota USATF 8K championship, so the mostly flat and very speedy course always attracts the best area runners and running teams.

This year, along with the name change, there was another new twist; it featured a revamped course layout.

The University of St. Thomas, the normal race headquarters, had a big event going on this year and was subsequently unavailable.  So the race director changed things up and moved the race east to Ramsey Jr. High School.  It would still be a sort of out-and-back down Summit Avenue, but the start and finish lines were changed.  Now they were much closer together.  The new location also featured a fast, slightly downhill finish. 

Long time readers might remember last year we had a freakish warm snap and the temperature was in the upper 70's.  Sunday was more like what we have been used to; 31 F, windy, damp, clammy, with occasional snow flurries.  No tank top and shorts this year!

Slightly more bundled up at this year's Irish Run
My race was enjoyable.  The temperature was good for running, the wind a little raw, but overall much more comfortable than last year.  I thought the course changes were all positive.  With the new layout, there were two turns instead of one, so you got to meet the leaders twice. (And let me tell you, those guys were moving - the winner ran it in 23:34!)  Also, the downhill finish was awesome.  Lots of fun to build up a little speed coming into the chute!  I really liked the revised course. 

I finished with a chip time of 37:23.  No complaints from me, as I can't really say I have been training to be fast!  So it was nice to see that I could still crank out some 7 1/2 minute miles if necessary.  I also got to catch up with Wild Knits, which is always a treat.  We both agreed that these short races are really hard and greatly prefer the longer distances because they are "easier." :)

Finish line photo from The Sporting Life - I look like I am performing "Riverdance!"
With that, another St. Patrick's Day Human Race Irish Run St. Paul is in the books.  This was actually the 8th time I have participated in this race.  In fact, it was the first "official" race I entered all the way back in 2005, so this one is always special.  Seems like attendance is down over the years, which is a shame.  With so many other races to choose from, I suppose it is bound to suffer.  But like the race director said, the goal is to make this your favorite race, not worry about being the biggest.  And my favorite St. Patrick's Day race it is!  A fun time, and a great way to kick off the spring running season.

Now, if only spring would decide to arrive, we will be in business.       

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stuffed Shells with Proscuitto and Chives

Today I had a hankering to make some stuffed pasta shells.  I haven't made them in ages, and it sounded so good.

I used this recipe from 101 Cookbooks as my guide with a few variations.

First, I opted to use a can of Trader Joe's Marinara sauce rather than prepare the sauce in the recipe.  It's a good product, the ingredients list contains recognizable, natural ingredients, and it serves as a great shortcut.  Not ashamed to use this stuff in the least and always have a few cans in the pantry.

Shells and sauce
Then I added a mere quarter pound of my homemade spicy Italian sausage to the sauce.  I wanted to keep the sauce light, so the addition of the sausage was more for seasoning as opposed to a featured ingredient.  Basically, you get the taste of a meat sauce without much meat. 

Also, I julienned some proscuitto to add to the cheese mixture (again, just to add some porky goodness to the dish), along with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Stuffing the shells
Finally, I included some extra mozzarella cheese to sprinkle over the top.  Why not, right?

Stuffed shells, out of the oven
Few things smell better than tomato sauce and cheese baking in the oven, and the shells were quite delicious.  The filling is nice and has a certain lightness to it.  I like the little bits of proscuitto and the onion-like flavor of the chives.  Lemon zest is a powerful force.  It is amazing how the zest elevates the flavors, giving the dish a brightness and freshness.  The small amount of Italian sausage really does season the sauce quite nicely, and it will keep the carnivores happy.  It definitely made me happy! 

A very successful pasta dish.  Here is what I did:  

Stuffed Shells with Prosciutto and Chives
-adapted from 101 Cookbooks

-1 t. olive oil
-1/4 pound of spicy Italian sausage (ground, or removed from casing)
-28 oz. marinara sauce (prepared or homemade)
-1/4 t. crushed red pepper
-1 15 oz. container of ricotta cheese
-1 egg, beaten
-1/4 t. kosher salt
-1/2 t. cracked black pepper
-3 slices of proscuitto, julienned 
-2 c. mozzarella cheese, grated and divided
-1/2 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
-1 bunch of chives, finely minced
-Zest of a lemon, divided
-1 12 oz. box jumbo pasta shells

In a large Dutch oven or large, deep skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil.  Add the Italian sausage.  Brown the sausage, breaking up the meat into small bits.  Drain any excess fat (if necessary), and add the marinara sauce and the crushed red pepper.  Reduce heat and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

While the sauce is simmering, in a large mixing bowl, add the ricotta, egg, salt, pepper, proscuitto, 1 cup of the mozzarella, Parmigiano-Regianno, 3/4ths of the minced chives, and half the lemon zest.  Mix well.

Get some salted water boiling and cook the pasta shells according to package directions until they are al dente (do not overcook).  Drain and rinse with cold water.  (You will likely have some shells left over, but there are always a few blowouts, so better to have a few extra just in case!)

Heat the oven to 350 F.

In a 13x9x2 baking dish, sprinkle the remaining lemon zest over the bottom of the dish and add 1/3 of the marinara sauce mixture.  Fill each shell with the ricotta, proscuitto, and chive mixture.  Arrange in a single layer in the baking dish.  Spoon the remaining marinara sauce over the shells.  Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of mozzarella over the top.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake uncovered for an additional 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with the remaining chives and serve.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cookbook Challenge #37: Coyote Cafe

The Cookbook Challenge heads to the great American Southwest!  This time we cook from the pages of Coyote Cafe by Mark Miller.

Modern Southwestern Cuisine
Chef Miller is a very well known and well respected chef who has been on the scene for well over 30 years.  He got his start at the famous Chez Panisse in 1977, and has since authored 10 cookbooks and started more than a dozen restaurants.  One of those restaurants, Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, NM, was one of the true pioneering restaurants featuring an elevated style of "modern" Southwestern cooking.

The cookbook features an eclectic mix of recipes - salsas, sauces, soups, and tamales, along with a host of inventive appetizers, meat, game, and seafood dishes.  You have dishes such as Carnitas Ravioli, Tuna Tartare Rellenos, Lobster Enchiladas - creative interpretations of Southwestern-style cuisine with a modern twist.

Many of the recipes are quite involved, as you might expect from a restaurant cookbook.  There are a number of recipes where you need to make three or four different recipes from the book to complete a dish.  And some of the ingredients aren't going to be easy to find (green chile powder, prickly pears, for instance).  It is definitely not very practical for the home cook.  But it is still fun, and there are some useful recipes that you can draw inspiration from.

Let's make a sauce with chipotle peppers and tomatillos!
I chose to make a sauce - the "Tomatillo Chipotle Sauce," to be specific.  You have roasted tomatillos, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, onion, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro.  It is a vibrant, bright sauce with some smoky heat from the chipotles.

Smoky, brightly flavored sauce
Miller said the sauce is highly versatile and great on enchiladas.  So that is what I made.  I whipped up some braised pork and black bean enchiladas topped with the tomatillo chipotle sauce.  For the pork, I used this recipe, substituting pork shoulder for the chicken, and I stirred in some black beans.  I also used some of the red chile braising liquid, which is the red sauce you see below.  

Enchiladas with Tomatillo Chipotle Sauce
This was a delicious meal.  The tomatillo chipotle sauce adds smokiness and heat from the chipotles and a bright acidity from the tomatillos and lime.  It was wonderful on the enchiladas and served as a nice compliment to the rich flavors of the braised pork and black beans.  I really liked the sauce and can see where this would be versatile.  Some leftover sauce made its way into a breakfast burrito, and also served as dip for tortilla chips. 

Coyote Cafe is a really great book.  But it is not one that you are probably going to cook from very often.  Even so, that doesn't mean you won't find inspiration.  There are plenty of recipe elements you can borrow for your own dishes, as I did.  Chef Miller even included a helpful glossary of special techniques and terms, an entire section on the different chilies, and even tips on wine pairings.  So the book is a good reference for Southwestern cooking terminology as well.

Let's face it - I am probably not going to be cranking out the "Yucatan Stuffed Wild Turkey" recipe anytime soon.  However, I will certainly be making the tomatillo chipotle sauce again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New stone

Last week I treated myself to some new bakeware.  I bought a pizza stone from Emile Henry, and I was pretty excited to put it to the test last night.

My new French pizza stone (that just sounds weird!)
The stone is from France and is made of all natural materials, including Burgundian clay. (Oooh, aaaaah!)  But the cool thing is that it's also enameled, making it scratch-resistant and and easy to clean.  The stone can be used in the oven, under a broiler, or even on the grill, supposedly withstanding heat up to a blistering 930 F.

Using my standard sourdough recipe, I christened the new stone with a humble Margherita. 

First pizza on the new stone - Margherita!
I'm very impressed with the results.  This stone is a little thicker than my old one, and it appears to distribute heat more evenly, resulting in a crispier crust.  The glazed surface is also really nice to bake on.  After the stone cooled, the residual flour pretty much swept right off, too.  Best of all, the pizza turned out awesome.

This is going to be fun.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cookbook Challenge #36: Charcuterie

After a brief hiatus due to a busy February, the Cookbook Challenge returns!  For this edition, I brought out the meat grinder and cooked from the pages of Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

A revolutionary cookbook
Ruhlman is regarded as one of the best food writers in America, and I have talked about him in my blog several times before.  His partner in this endeavor, Brian Polcyn, is an award winning chef and instructor out of Michigan.  He was prominently featured in Ruhlman's book, "The Soul of a Chef."  The two authored a fantastic book on charcuterie, and Polcyn is an expert in the subject.

What is charcuterie?  It is a broad term describing various prepared meat products (mainly).  As the subtitle of the book indicates, it is "the craft of salting, smoking, and curing."   Salt-cured foods, smoked meats, fresh sausages, confit, pâtés, terrines, dry-curing - Ruhlman and Polcyn cover it al.

Charcuterie was a game-changing, revolutionary cookbook when it was published in 2005.  For the most part, we tend to buy all of our cured meat products.  But the book made the art of making your own bacon, perhaps some pancetta, a little fresh sausage, or even other cured meat projects, seem accessible to the home cook.  In recent years, it has become common to see restaurants offering their own charcuterie plates as appetizers.  I believe that Ruhlman and Polcyn are largely responsible for bringing charcuterie to the masses.

For this Cookbook Challenge, I am being a little selfish.  I am not attempting any complex, cold-smoked Landjager sausage.  I am not curing my own corned beef in advance of St. Patrick's Day.  No, I am preparing a recipe I have made several times before, simply because I was out of breakfast sausage!  And the "Breakfast Sausage with Fresh Ginger and Sage" from Charcuterie is my go-to version. (Recipe can be found here).

Have you ever purchased one of those tubes of Jimmy Dean sausage at the grocery store?  This is basically a far superior homemade version.  Ginger and sage are familiar flavors for breakfast sausage, and the recipe is loaded with both.  In addition to the ginger and sage, there are only a few other easy-to-find ingredients that are necessary, and nothing too exotic - pork shoulder, minced garlic, kosher salt, black pepper, and some cold water. 

Pork shoulder, fresh sage, ginger, and garlic
It is very easy to make this if you have a meat grinder.  I have one that attaches to my KitchenAid.  If you don't have a meat grinder, you could always have your butcher grind some nice, fatty pork shoulder for you.  Whatever you do, don't use lean ground pork.  You will end up with a very dry sausage.   

Ready to grind!
Here is the finished product after grinding and before stirring in the cold water.  The water acts to distribute the flavors and seasonings, and also helps to keep the sausage moist.

Freshly ground breakfast sausage
You can stuff the sausage into casings if you wish, but I like to leave it in bulk.  From there, you can use it for dishes like biscuits and gravy.  I like to shape it into patties.  Then I wrap and freeze a bunch of them so I can have a nice stash of awesome sausage for many future breakfasts.

The flavor of the sausage is fantastic.  It's very well-seasoned and bursting with fresh ginger and sage flavors.  Also, it stays nice and juicy when cooked, especially when shaped into patties.  Excellent stuff!  You will never buy store-bought breakfast sausage again. 

Breakfast Sausage with Fresh Ginger and Sage
For my breakfast today, I used the sausage to make a very tasty toasted bagel, egg, cheese, and sausage breakfast sandwich.  Not a bad way to start the day, if I do say so myself.

Breakfast sandwich of champions!
Feel free to play with the recipe, too.  I have been known to add some crushed red pepper and pure maple syrup directly to meat to give it a sweet and spicy twist.  Who doesn't like a little maple syrup with their breakfast sausage?

Charcuterie is an awesome book.  I would encourage any enthusiastic home cook to pick up a copy if you don't already have one.  It got me to try my hand at curing meats, something I never imagined I would be doing.  Not too many cookbooks can truly inspire and open up a whole new world of possibilities.  This one does.  And it is also responsible for many delicious breakfasts.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

I am officially calling it spring

Of course, as I type the title of the post, there is a 100% chance of a rain/snow mix tonight.  But it is spring.   Let me explain.

The week featured a fairly decent winter storm, giving us a good 8 inches of snow on Tuesday.  I managed to get in a nice run on Monday as there was a break in the action.  Even got to break trail on a soft layer of untouched snow.

Monday's run - fresh snow on the trail
Also from Monday's run - always be wary of tractors
Last night we were under a Winter Weather Advisory for possible freezing rain.  Thankfully that didn't materialize, but it has rained and drizzled all day.  In anticipation of this, I did a long run of 14 miles on Thursday so I could stay dry.

Having to alter your running schedule on account of wintry weather?  Doesn't sound very springlike, you say?  It is spring, I tell you!

How do I know this?

The red-winged blackbirds have arrived!  On Friday's run, I heard their piercing yodel in the swamps near my place.  Last year they arrived on March 10th, which was the earliest I have ever seen them - and last year we had a really early spring weather-wise.  So this is a new record.   It was something of a surprise to see them, given our recent wintry weather.   But they are here.  And they are a true sign of spring in these parts.  So it's spring.

We have made it through to the other side!  (Or at least I am remaining cautiously optimistic that we have made it through to the other side...)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"Meteorological Spring"

So today is March 2nd.  We have hit what is known as "meteorological spring."  As opposed to going by the astronomical seasons (equinoxes, solstices, and all that science stuff), the meteorological season divide things up nice and even by months.  Therefore, the months of March, April, and May are considered "spring,"

I ran 16.5 miles this morning.  My bottle of Gatorade froze up after 6 miles. 

Gatorade popsicle!
"Meteorological spring?"  Hmmmm...

It was 7 F when I started and around 14 F when I finished.  A little frosty out there this morning.  About 13 miles into my run, I was passed by a young couple on the trail.  We exchanged pleasantries, and then the girl stared at me with a shocked look on her face.

"Oh my, you've been out here a while!"  She was seeing my frosted-over hat, frozen eyelashes, and the ice on my goatee.  We shared a laugh, and I told her indeed I had.  She said, "Well, at least the sun is out!"

Post-run frost
She was right.  There was abundant sunshine, and aside from having no hydration for 10+ miles, the morning was beautiful - not a lot of wind, and a touch of hoar frost on the trees.  Chickadees, cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers were singing.  Wild turkeys were gobbling.  The season is changing.  Slowly.

Still, it was cold.  Perhaps we will have better luck with "astronomical spring?"


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