Saturday, May 30, 2015

Food Culture- The Office Food Day

It's as American as apple pie. The pot luck. The pitch in. The food day. It's obvious that food is the center of many social events in our lives, and the workplace is no different. Whether it's holiday or theme, a big announcement or a farewell lunch for a departing co-worker, offices all over the U.S. hold food days as a way to socialize, and EAT.

The last few years I worked in an office of just three people. Not a lot of opportunity for food days there. Most days  I was in the office alone anyway. That's all changed, and now I worked for a major insurance company with lots of coworkers and lots of social activities and that often includes food days. This time around we are saying goodbye to a team member and enjoying a variety of delicious goodies. As a relatively new employee at my company I haven't been able to get to know many of the other employees very well yet, but that doesn't mean I won't miss our team analyst after his last day today. During training he was so patient and helpful, and encouraged me to think through the problems and questions myself when I got stuck. I swear he knows everything there is to know about annuities!

Our fearless leader Darla checks out the spread

Lots of yummy choices!
I came home all excited about Food Day. The Chef has graciously offered to take over the preparation of my contribution to the party. What's going on in our kitchen? Mini Meatball Subs with The Chef's famous marinara sauce. I didn't even have to ask, I just mentioned we were having a food day and he volunteered to make his famous meatballs and sauce.

The Chef's meatballs are super delicious- starting with good ground beef, not the super lean grind. You have to have some fat for tender juicy meatballs. Chopped onion and garlic go in the mix, along with seasonings, herbs, and Parmesan cheese. The meatballs are baked and then simmered in his homemade marinara sauce.

A crockpot full of meatballs becomes mini meatball subs with sliced mozzarella cheese and soft dinner rolls. These little sandwiches are a snap to put together at lunchtime and make a great party food too. They are a clever alternative to the typical potluck foods.

So as we give our coworker and friend a fine send off, loaded with food, there were lots of words of congratulations and well wishes. Of course, loads of food- from donuts to crackers and dips to crockpots full of smoky links, Buffalo chicken dip, a variety of chips and salsa and taco dip, fresh fruit, and bagels.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Roundup of Recipe-free Cooking

Cooking success includes a good repertoire of recipe-free cooking- a few classic, easy to alter dishes that you can whip up with little effort, using ingredients you have on hand, and can switch up based on what you like and what's in the fridge. Especially on busy weeknights, a couple super easy side dishes and a fast chicken saute are just what you need to get food on the table pronto.

Let's start with the chicken. One of my favorite dishes, a Des Moines classic, rarely if ever seen outside Iowa, is Steak De Burgo- tender steak, usually filet, pan seared with garlic and herb butter sauce. Simple, decadent and so delicious. Filet mignon is not in the budget this week, so we're going with chicken- same cooking method, same ingredients, delicious results. 

Start with a package of boneless, skinless chicken breast- either chicken breast halved or tenderloins- both work great in this dish. Add some Italian seasoning (heavy on the basil if you're making your own), butter and a bit of roasted garlic (more on that later) and a touch of olive oil. Super. Easy. Delicious. 

Season the chicken with salt, pepper, and a good sprinkling of the Italian seasoning. I used Graziano Brothers'  hand-blended seasoning which is heavy on the basil, and that's important for a really good De Burgo. 

Melt the butter in a large heavy skillet. Add a couple cloves of roasted garlic, breaking it up and mixing into the butter. Add the chicken and saute until golden, Turn and cook on the second side. Serve with the butter sauce drizzled over.

Now what should we serve with the chicken? Are you a Pinterest follower? Something called a Hasselback Potato is making the recipe rounds on social media, so let's make some. 

Plan on one potato per person. Scrub them well and leave the peel on. The thing that sets the Hasselback potato apart from a plain baked potato is the slicing. You want to carefully cut the potato into slices but DO NOT cut all the way through. You want it to stay together. 

Place the potatoes in a baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Add a pat or two of butter to the top and place in a 400 degree oven. Bake for about 40 minutes, then baste the potatoes with the melted butter in the pan. 

Return to the oven and bake about 20 more minutes until tender and browned. You can sprinkle the finished potatoes with cheese, seasonings, top with sour cream, herbs, whatever you like.

Kalettes are a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts. If
you find them in the store try them! Delicious!
We need a veggie to go with all this deliciousness. Might as well roast some since the oven is on, right? Grab what you've got hanging out in the vegetable drawer and cut into bite sized pieces. Toss with some olive oil and a seasoning mixture of your choice- I used Montreal Steak Seasoning with this batch.

I tossed together sliced carrots, green onions cut into one inch chunks, a bag of kalettes, and a bunch of asparagus- trim off the tough ends then halve the spears crosswise. Toss with olive oil and seasoning and spread out onto a sheet pan. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes until veggies are crisp tender. 

I mentioned roasted garlic earlier, and I'll tell you, that is one thing you really should keep on hand. It makes delicious pasta sauces, adds kick to salad dressings and is super easy to blend into butter for speedy garlic toast.

I'm weird because I love peeling garlic. Everyone tries to give me secrets to peeling garlic in 30 seconds but I ignore it all- I love sitting in front of the television peeling the cloves of 10 or 15 heads of garlic. It's therapeutic for me I suppose.

To roast a bunch of garlic, peel a bunch of heads of garlic. Place the cloves in a baking pan, like a 9x9 pan and toss with some olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Roast, uncovered, at 300 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, checking frequently until the cloves are golden brown and tender. Don't let it burn!! Cool, then pop in the fridge. You can also freeze portions for longer storage.

This is just a TEENY example of easy to whip together meals and shortcuts to make life a lot easier when you're rushed. I'd love to hear some of your shortcuts and easy meal ideas- let's get a convo started!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chef's Day Off with Chef Todd Leech

Morel mushroom season is just about wrapped up here in Iowa. The Chef and I ventured out on a handful of occasions and came home empty-handed each time. Darn it. I had big plans for those little woodland wonders. Our quest for spring foraged foods was fruitless- we found the stumps of already-snatched wild asparagus and one single, sad pheasantback mushroom that was a day past it's prime and too tough to cook. There's always next year.

Pheasantback mushrooms grow on a dead tree
In the meantime, we get to live vicariously through our friends. Our chef buddy Todd Leech lives in Wisconsin and while he primarily spends time in the woods taking amazing pictures of flora and fauna, he finds some of the most awesome wild mushrooms. Wisconsin is right next door to Iowa, just off to the northwest, and our climates are very similar. They have a harsher winter than we do here in west central Iowa, and I'd guess the cool spring weather hangs on a bit longer as well. 

Hey! What's going on out there?
Normally I ooh and ahh over his pictures of ducks and birds, deer and turtles. Loads of wildlife. Beautiful plants and flowers. Lately it's been mushrooms. Pheasantback mushrooms in particular. Of course this caught my eye immediately- not only the object I lust after while risking my life and limb in tick-filled muddy woods, tromping around like Bigfoot trying not fall and kill myself but also my favorite of all wild mushrooms (that I have been able to try so far, anyway).

The Chef and I found only ONE all season- Todd
finds them everywhere!
When I heard Todd was going to be on the news, I asked him to share the details with me. Always willing to help a friend he not only shared but provided all the fantastic photos for this story. So how did this all come about? Todd was out and about doing what he enjoys on his time off, wandering the woods looking for interesting subjects to photograph when we received a message from a buddy of his, Scott Steele, who is a weatherman on their local NBC affiliate, WTMJ TV. 

Chef Todd Leech with Scott Steele
Scott said he was working on a story about hunting wild mushrooms and wondered if Todd might be interested in doing a segment. Since he was already prowling the woods, he agreed. Good timing for the story too, as Todd had just found some downed trees with lots of mushrooms growing on the wood. The crew had never seen mushrooms like these, some were the size of dinner plates.

See the video.

Filming in the forest
Cooking with wild mushrooms is a real treat. Whether you bought them or actually found them yourself, they are unlike the plain old white mushrooms you can get in any grocery store. Morel mushrooms are often breaded and fried but they also are often braised and served with rich gravies and sauces. Caramelized with onions and draped on a pizza or a hunk of juicy steak is an out of this world preparation. The morels are hollow and are also great for stuffing. They are very versatile and have a mild flavor. As a chef Todd hasn't had the opportunity to use wild mushrooms all that often. He has prepared dishes for mushroom themed events in the past but used "wild" mushrooms from purveyors, not actually foraged. Many states prohibit using foraged foods in commercial kitchens.

Pheasantback mushrooms, also known as Dryad's Saddle, in many ways resemble the big portobella caps. They don't have gills to remove, which is a plus, but they must be found when young and tender- they quickly turn into a piece of inedible show leather if they are even slightly past their prime. Slice these beauties and you get to experience their watermelon-like fragrance. Saute is some butter and olive oil and use is any recipe you'd use mushrooms in. The definitely do not taste like watermelon. They taste like mushrooms, not as bland as button mushrooms but not overly woodsy either. Absolutely worth the effort to look for these guys.

In this part of the country there are many different kinds of mushrooms to hunt for, from chanterelles and oysters to chicken of the woods. Each one is unique and delicious. Be sure you have properly identified any mushroom you plan on eating. There are poisonous mushrooms in the wild and some are deadly. 

Creamy Potato, Leek and Morel Mushroom Soup

1 pound fresh morel mushrooms, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups chicken stock, divided
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper

Bring 2 cups chicken stock to a boil in medium saucepan. Add potato cubes, reduce heat, cover and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

In stockpot melt the butter. Add the chopped morels and leeks. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the morels are tender and leeks are very soft, about 15-20 minutes.

Add the fresh thyme to the pot and stir for a minute. Add the wine wine and cook until wine has almost evaporated (at least reduced by half). Add the remaining cup of stock.

Using an immersion blender (or regular blender if you don't have one) blend the cooked potatoes with the stock they were cooked in until smooth. Add to the stockpot. Taste for seasoning.

When ready to serve, add the heavy cream and heat thoroughly.

The soup is beautiful garnished with a sprinkle of fresh chives or additional thyme. This is such an upscale version of mushroom soup and it's just delicious. The potatoes add body and substance and the mushrooms are so earthy and savory. You can substitute any mushrooms you like.

So what happens if you spend a Saturday out hunting and you happen to get lucky and find....... well, tons of awesome mushrooms? Preserve them! Most mushrooms can be dehydrated and used later in all sorts of sauces and dishes. Some can be frozen as well, and in the case of Chicken of the Woods, the freezer is the preferred method of preservation.

Besides being an amazing photographer, Todd is the Executive Sous Chef at McCormick and Schmick in Milwaukee, where he is in charge of the day-to-day operation. He orders all the fresh seafood, produce and meats, handles fish fabrication and makes sure everyone in the kitchen has what they need to get the job done. He also manages the kitchen staff and monitors every dish for consistency, quality and plating. Every batch has to be the same, has to meet the same standards and if it doesn't, it's on him to figure out what happened. That is a lot of long days and late nights.

All photos by Todd Leech
Todd is a graduate of Des Moines Area Community College's culinary program. I asked him what he thought about culinary school versus real life experience and he feels a great chef can come out of either "school"- it's all about skill and execution. A successful chef, in his opinion, must have a mastery of butchering, knowledge of the mother sauces, and ideally started at the bottom and worked their way up, just as he did starting at The Embassy Club in Des Moines.

Originally from Des Moines, Todd moved to Wisconsin in the 1990s. He and his lovely wife Diane share their home with their two furgirls, Marley and Riley, and enjoy spending time with their family.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I'm still trending on quick pickles!

Not surprisingly, my obsession with quick pickling continues. As a member of an online home canning group I see all kinds of recipes for pickles and relishes, and yes.... it enables me to grow my hoard of food. Being a household of just two people though, we don't normally need 10 to 12 jars of everything. This is where quick pickling comes in. 

While it's never recommended to alter recipes for home canning it is perfectly ok to alter a recipe to use as a quick pickle, since we aren't concerned about pH and acidity and shelf stability. We just want fresh, good flavor and jars that sit in the fridge. 

With that in mind, a recipe was shared in that canning group the other day that really caught my eye. I love using unusual ingredients and this recipe is a kohlrabi pickle. You might remember, kohlrabi was the bane of my childhood. My dad grew it in the garden, my mom cooked the life out of it and served it boiled with butter. Not the best way to showcase any vegetable. Just last summer I finally got brave enough to buy a kohlrabi at the farmers market. I did not cook it, I used it in a slaw and fell in love, so of course I wanted to check out this pickle recipe.

This recipe is a hybrid of bread and butter and garlic dill, with crunchy kohlrabi and tart Granny Smith apple, it's sure to be a favorite around here. I am changing the amounts of ingredients to make it more "us friendly" and just a quart jar at a time, but will also include the complete directions for home canning, as provided by Let's get started.

Kohlrabi Apple Pickles

For each quart jar, you need:

1 purple kohlrabi*
1 large Granny Smith apple
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 sprigs fresh dill**
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
freshly ground black pepper

Wash, peel and julienne the kohlrabi and apple. I like a substantial "matchstick", not really small pieces. Pack into clean quart jar. Add garlic cloves (I like to split mine in half or crush them slightly, to release more flavor), the mustard seeds and dill.

In a saucepan, heat the vinegar, water and sugar together until sugar is dissolved and mixture is almost boiling. Add a grind or two of black pepper.

Pour the brine over the pickles in the jar. Pop the lid on and stick in the fridge.

Allow the pickles to age at least a couple weeks before using. If you like a little heat in your pickles, tuck a cayenne or other dried hot pepper in the jar too. Poke a few holes in it to allow the brine to infuse better.

* If you can only find green kohlrabi, those are fine also
** If you don't have fresh dill, use a teaspoon of dill seeds, slightly crushed or a tablespoon dried dillweed.

Since I am not processing in a canner I can use any kind of jar I want. This is a great way to recycle commercial jars- like glass mayo jars or old pickle jars, or even those cool jars with hinged lids that you find in the store. I also skipped the salt/rinse step- when I make quick pickles I don't do this at all. I like the veggies to be pretty much in their natural state when I make these recipes. If you decide to make these to store on the shelf- FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS completely!! Don't skip any steps! This recipe is tested as written for safety. Here is the recipe as written by Fresh Preserving-

Purple kohlrabi (relative of the cabbage) and granny smith apples thinly sliced, in a sweet pickle with spices. Best to open a jar 6-8 weeks after you've made a batch to allow time for the vinegar to mellow. Serve cold with grilled meats or as part of an antipasto platter.

6 purple kohlrabi
3 tablespoons kosher or pickling salt
2 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
2 1/4 cups water
2 1/4 cups white sugar
freshly ground black pepper
6 large granny smith apples
6 large garlic cloves
6 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
6 sprigs fresh dill

Prepare kohlrabi.
Wash, trim and remove stalks. Julienne finely. Stir in kosher salt and rub to distribute. Cover, refrigerate for 3 hours. Then press gently in a sieve to remove liquid. Taste, if too salty rinse gently then drain well.

Prepare jars.
Prepare jars by covering in water and boiling for 10 minutes.

Prepare apples.
Wash, peel, core. Finely julienne (same size as kohlrabi).

Prepare pickling solution.
Measure vinegar, water, sugar and pepper into a pan. Heat over medium until sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil. Add kohlrabi and apple, stir gently and bring back to a boil, then turn off the heat and bottle immediately.

Prepare lids.
While you are packing the kohlrabi mixture into hot jars, place the lids into a pan of previously boiling water. Do not simmer or boil, just let the lids heat through for a few minutes while you fill the jars, removing lids from the water when you are ready to place them on the jars to seal.

Ladle hot vegetables into hot jars.
Place a peeled garlic clove, 1 teaspoon mustard seed and a sprig of dill into each pint (450ml) jar, and spoon the hot vegetables into the hot jars, leaving 1/2 in headspace. Ladle hot pickling solution to the 1/2 inch headspace. Remove bubbles, check headspace is correct, then wipe rims and seal.

Boiling water canner processing.
Process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes. Start your timer when the water returns to a full boil.When the time is up, turn off the heat and rest jars in the water for 5 minutes before placing on a towel-covered counter overnight to cool.

Next day: check for seals.
Check jars have sealed before labeling and storing in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 12 months. Lids should not flex up and down when pressed. If jars have not sealed, refrigerate immediately.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lakehouse Island Fish Fry

We may not live on a tropical island but we DO live on a private lake, and that means lots of fishing. Sure, we can always do the usual fried fish, baked fish, even fish tacos, but they all have been on the dinner table here a few times too many. It's time to shake things up a bit.

When it comes to fish, there are many different tastes and textures. Some fish, like mahi mahi, are very dense and meaty, while others, like sole, are very light and delicate. Catfish, tuna and salmon are the "oily" fish and have much more aggressive flavors. I like them all, but in different kinds of dishes.

Many times when I cook fish I like to pan fry it, or saute. Sometimes that means a light pan sauce, maybe with butter, lemon and capers. Since it's warming up outside I really wanted something a little different, tropical and fresh, like a sweet and spicy fruit salsa. Fish fillets crusted with chopped macadamia nuts and sauteed until golden make a very upscale version of a fish fry, and paired with a tropical fruit salsa with just the right amount of heat, and drizzled with a bright lime butter you've got something really special. 

For the salsa I decided to go with fresh pineapple and mango, with some lime zest and juice, red peppers, scallions, and fresh jalapeno for a little heat. Lots of fresh cilantro adds a nice herbal note. 

This dinner and recipe is unique for Rockin' the Kitchen because we both will be in the kitchen working on different components of the meal. The Chef will be handling the cooking of the fish, and I will be working on the supporting cast- chopping nuts, making breadcrumbs, the salsa, and prep work. The Chef has used nuts as a crusting ingredients many times in the different kitchens he has worked in, so he will be demonstrating his technique for using macadamia nuts to bring the tropical touch to the dish.

Lakehouse Macadamia Crusted Cod

4-6 cod fillets
half of a 6 oz. jar macadamia nuts
1 cup dry breadcrumbs or panko
1 tablespoon minced parsley
salt and pepper
3 eggs
cooking oil
1/4 cup butter
juice and zest of one lime

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the lime juice and zest. Set aside.

In a food processor, pulse the macadamia nuts to chop them well. 

Combine the nuts with the breadcrumbs, parsley and salt and pepper in a shallow dish.

Beat the eggs in a shallow dish. Dip the fish fillets into the eggs and then coat with the crumb mixture. Set the fish on a plate to rest for a few minutes while the oil heats.

In a large skillet heat several tablespoons of cooking oil. Add the fish fillets and cook, turning only once, until fish is cooked through and flakes easily with a fork. Serve fish with the Mango Pineapple Salsa.

Mango Pineapple Salsa

1 cup diced mango
1 cup diced fresh pineapple
small palmfull diced sweet red pepper
4-5 scallions, sliced or 1/4 red onion, diced
1 fresh chili pepper- I like jalapeno or habanero, diced
small palmfull chopped cilantro 
1 lime (juice and zest)
salt and pepper

Toss everything together in a bowl; cover and chill.

Let's talk for a minute about the fruit and peppers. In this recipe big hunks of fruit just wouldn't work well. I wanted very small dice, or brunoise, as it's called in the professional kitchen. TEENY dice. With such small pieces you don't end up with a big hunk of jalapeno unexpectedly, and it allows the flavors to meld better. Plus eat bite has more "stuff" and more flavors all at the same time- very important when you're making a dish with such unique flavors like mango, red bell pepper, jalapenos and pineapple. 

Make the salsa the day before if you have time. That way flavors can really develop. Fresh cilantro really makes this salsa, but if you can't get it, parsley will do. Don't waste the money on dried cilantro- it loses ALL flavor when dried. 

I used scallions in the salsa- white and green parts, but you can also use red onion for another unique flavor. The hot pepper is up to you. We like the heat around here so we choose a hotter chili, but you can use whatever is more in line with your heat tolerance. Just be sure and use something with a little heat, even if it's a pinch of chili powder or canned green chilies.

Ohhhhh buddy. The macadamia nuts are so so so delicious in the breading. The nuts add a super crunchy element to the crust. The macadamias had just the right amount of salt to perk up the bright salsa flavors. Even though it was made from fruit, the salsa is more savory than sweet really. The cilantro cuts the sweetness beautifully, and the lime adds the right amount of acid. The Chef paired this outstanding fish with a simple baked potato with no big glop of sour cream- just simply dressed with chives and butter, and some of that purple cauliflower I made pickles with yesterday. 

I have a feeling this dish will be making an appearance on the lake house table a whole lot in the future.