Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A little home-grown produce goes a long way

Store-bought dough. Jarred marinara sauce. Leftover turkey pepperoni and shredded mozzarella hogging precious space in the fridge. Brown mushrooms in a Styrofoam tray.

None of these ingredients sound too special on their own. Together, they make a pretty easy, delicious weeknight pizza.

What really made dinner shine tonight? The bell peppers I brought in from the back yard, sliced thin and put on top of the pizza. Harvesting my little home-grown crops, whether it’s a smaller-than-grocery-store-standards pepper or a few sprigs of aromatic thyme or rosemary, never ceases to make me smile.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Don't be a chicken -- making stock's easy

One chicken can go a long way.

I picked up a five-pound bird for little more than $4 at the supermarket and roasted it the other day. I’m pretty new to roasting chickens, but I try to swing by the store when they’ve got whole birds on sale. Practice makes perfect, right?

Normally I’ll pick over the chicken after dinner, saving all the meat and throwing the etcetera into the trash can. This time, I saved all the odds and ends for my first attempt at making chicken stock.

The following is what I came up with after reading about a dozen different recipes. Barbara Kafka’s “Soup: A Way of Life” and Jamie Oliver’s “The Naked Chef” were good resources.

I also factored in a couple tips from friends. Kimmy told me to reserve the post-roasting pan juices, which I did, pouring into a ceramic dish and refrigerating overnight. It was really easy, using a soup spoon, to scrape the solid layer of fat off the top. Everything else went into the pot when I was ready to start the stock. I also employed Colleen’s suggestion, encasing my herbs in four stalks of celery, kept together with kitchen string to create a sort of veggie baton that helped keep the herbs intact instead of floating around, creating less little floaters to strain out.

Chicken Stock
18 cups water
Carcass from a five-pound chicken (I picked as much meat off of the bones as I could)
2 carrots, chopped
4 stalks celery, washed and edges chopped
3 sprigs rosemary
6 sprigs thyme
1 large white onion, cut into eighths
2 bay leaves
Salt, to taste

Throw everything but salt into a stock pot and bring to a boil, making sure you’ve got enough water to keep the carcass and vegetables submerged. Use spoon to skim fat and other residue off the top; discard. Lower heat and simmer gently, covered, for at least four hours. Remove from heat. Pour stock through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl or pot. Discard the solids. Salt stock to taste. Chill overnight. Remove fat from surface the next day.

I wanted to make something homey with my first batch of stock, to keep the homemade juju going in the kitchen. Chicken noodle soup sounded good, but no egg noodles in the pantry. So, I fudged my from-scratch aspirations slightly and make chicken and dumplings … with Bisquick.

Chicken and dumplings
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium white onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chopped carrots
3 cups chopped celery
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
10 cups chicken stock
4 cups cooked, shredded chicken
2 cups Bisquick
2/3 cups milk
1 teaspoon dried thyme

Heat oil in a large pot over medium flame. Add garlic, stirring for about a minute before adding onion. Cook for a couple minutes, until fragrant and slightly translucent. Add carrots, celery and Herbes de Provence, cooking for a minute or two before adding stock and chicken to pot. Bring to a boil. Combine Bisquick, milk and thyme in a bowl. Use spoon to create walnut-sized dough balls. Drop dough into the boiling pot, cooking uncovered for 10 minutes. Reduce heat, cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Potatoes, broccoli stars of this creamy, steamy concoction

I scored 10 pounds of russet potatoes for a whopping 97 cents at the supermarket, have a fridge full of veggies and had a craving for some creamy-yet-somewhat-healthy soup that wasn’t going to take all day to make. Here’s what I came up with.

Creamy Broccoli Potato Soup
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, sliced
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon marjoram
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced small
9 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 cups broccoli florets, fine chop
Four slices turkey bacon, chopped and fried

Equipment: blender

Heat olive oil in soup pot over medium flame. Add onions and cook for a couple minutes, until fragrant and slightly translucent. Add celery, garlic powder, thyme and marjoram and sauté for another minute or so. Add broth and potatoes to pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for roughly 30 minutes, or until potatoes are cooked. Add broccoli to pot and cook for a couple minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove soup from heat. Pour soup into pitcher, cover with lid and blend momentarily, just long enough to result in a smooth, even consistency with minimal chunks. Pour soup into bowls, garnish with a pinch of bacon crumbles, and serve.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An ode to delicious Oregon

Here are some tasting notes from our Oregon road trip.

Ashland was our first north-of-the-border destination, and once we checked into hotel, Chris and I walked into town for some late lunch at Standing Stone Brewery. I had the India Pale Ale and Chris opted for the Double IPA, and both brews packed a hoppy punch, and we split a blackened salmon sandwich (topped with coleslaw on sourdough baguette). At $14, this sandy was a little spendy, but it was quite tasty after the drive. After a bit of walking and a couple beers on the back patio at Caldera Tap House, we checked out Martino’s for dinner upon the recommendation of friend Colleen, a Southern Oregon University alumna. We split the Rigatoni al Pezzetto, a bowl packed with pasta, Italian sausage, onions, olives, red peppers and feta, and used bread to scoop up the pomodoro sauce. Yum.

The next morning we both went for a run — I spotted 12 deer in the span of nine miles! — packed up the car and then hit Morning Glory for breakfast. Morning Glory is a charming spot located across the street from the college. Hot coffee, huge mimosas and warm blueberry muffins got us off to a good start. The menu was jammed with tempting options, but I finally settled on rock shrimp cakes topped with poached eggs and perfectly sweet/smoky/tangy tomato chutney. I couldn’t stop eating, it was so good. Chris went for an omelet that featured artichokes and a little too much crab, served with white-cheddar polenta. Favorite spot in Ashland for sure.

Our first night of camping was at Crater Lake, and we woke up pre-dawn to the sound of raindrops coming down on our tent. We hastily packed up camp in the chilly rain and had breakfast at the Crater Lake Lodge before hitting the road in search of drier, warmer conditions (no joke, we got some snow on our drive out of the park). It felt good to hover over mugs of hot coffee in the lodge. Breakfast wasn’t mind-blowing — my bison hash was a little oily, but the meat had a good flavor — but anything was better than sitting in the rain at that point, and we both enjoyed the lodge’s historical digs.

Our original plan was to camp at Silver Falls State Park that night, but due to continued gray skies, we opted instead for a cheap, dry night at the La Quinta in Salem. On our way we made a couple stops to check out the gorgeous Salt Creek Falls (see soggy photo, below) and the Lowell Covered Bridge. We grabbed lunch in Eugene at McMenamins High Street Brewery, where a quarter-pound happy hour cheeseburger goes for $4 and you can get some crunchy Cajun tots for $2 and McMenamins pints for $3.25.

We found some great spots in Portland that still haunt me today. Dinner at Laurelhurst Market was truly a to-die-for affair. Bon Appetit recently named Laurelhurst one of the top 10 best new restaurants for 2010, and we could see and taste why.

Chris had the Grilled Niman Prime Ribeye topped with blue cheese butter and fried sweet onion rings, while I enjoyed the Thundering Hooves Grass Fed Flat Iron and sautéed chard.

Making the meal even more rich was a perfectly browned, gooey side of macaroni and cheese topped with a Tim’s Potato Chips crust.

The day we left Portland was a double-breakfast morning.

First stop was Voodoo Doughnut, where, even on a Thursday morning, the line for doughnuts with names like “Old Dirty Bastard” and “Maple Blazer Blunt” stretched out the door.

Breakfast part deux went down at Pine State Biscuits, otherwise known (by me at least) as “heaven.” Anyone who knows me is well aware of my love for biscuits and gravy, and this place takes it to a whole new level.

Imagine a sandwich that starts with a big ol’ fluffy biscuit, stacked with fried chicken, country gravy, cheddar cheese and bacon. That’s The Reggie, and it’s what Chris and I each ordered (mine without bacon).

Absolutely divine on its own, but The Reggie was even better paired with an icy jar of sweet tea and enjoyed while listening to some good tunes — our soundtrack that morning included some New Order (who doesn’t love some “Bizarre Love Triangle” with their breakfast?) and Dee Lite’s “World Clique.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cooking up something speedy and satisfying while camping

Chris and I bid summer adieu with an Oregon road trip.

We explored our friendly state to the north for more than a week, and spent about half the nights in a tent. Our camping trips together had been on a smaller scale (overnighters in Tahoe) prior to this trip and required minimal meal planning. Once we booked all our lodging, I got to thinking about some outdoor-friendly menus.

When the Nicolaisen family piled into the minivan for camping trips, my mom kept the five of us fed using a Coleman two-burner stove to make huge batches of spaghetti or other one-pot wonders. We also kept milk, meat, cheese and the like in a large hard-sided cooler, something Chris and I didn’t really want to deal with. We just wanted tasty dinners that would be quick and simple to prepare on the two-burner stove on loan from our friend Bill.

For our first night of camping, at Crater Lake, I made chicken burritos. We’d stayed at a hotel in Ashland the night before and hit the grocery store on our way out of town, picking up some pre-cooked chicken breast strips and a green bell pepper. It didn’t take long to get some sizzle from the sliced pepper and chicken strips, flavored with taco seasoning. The meat and peppers, wrapped up in large flour tortillas with some refried black beans and some hot sauce, added some heat to an otherwise chilly night — lows in the 30s, and even some snow on our way out of the park the next morning!

I also picked up some huge Asiago rolls in Ashland, which added some class to cans of clam chowder. Brands like Progresso and Campbell’s even come with pull-top lids, which is quite convenient if you don’t want to pack a can opener with your camping gear.

Pre-cooked chicken sausages (thanks Portland Whole Foods!), sliced and heated up in a frying pan, tasted great when tossed in with some pre-cooked Trader Joe’s multigrain pilaf, a sassy little combo of grains, soybeans, tomato and onion. This dinner took 10 minutes tops to prep.

Instant oatmeal worked well for breakfast. I’d boil a pot of water, using some for the oatmeal, and would also make what I call poor man’s mochas—combine one packet hot cocoa, one packet Starbucks VIA instant coffee and hot water in a mug and stir. The rest of the hot water was dish water.

The morning we headed home, Chris and I resurrected a tradition that dates back many years. We had spent a weekend skiing, and opted to sleep in the back of Chris’ 4Runner in the Kirkwood parking lot, ensuring fresh tracks the next day. Our breakfast of champions that morning was Chef Boyardee Ravioli, heated in the can atop a backpacking stove and paired with frosty Newcastles. This time around I emptied the cans into a pot, and nixed the brews, but, silly and/or appalling as it sounds, the breakfast was delicious. I guess almost everything tastes better when you’re camping!