Monday, January 28, 2008

Jacob's Creek Shiraz South Australia Reserve

It's been a while since I've added a wine to our house list. Have had a lot of wonderful wines in the last several months, but they've not had the quality to value ratio that they must have to become one of our "go to" wines. At $12 with great flavor (and 90 points from Wine Spectator)here's one that made the cut.

Learned about it from the weekly e-mails I get from Wine Spectator. Normally, the tasting notes they provide are a launch for my own thoughts. In this case, every word is dead on. So, with apologies for plagiarism, here are the tasting notes for this delicious Aussie Shiraz.

Jacob's Creek Shiraz South Australia Reserve
(2004 vintage is currently available.)
"Smooth and open-textured, with cherry and savory red pepper flavors that mingle effectively on the mineral-tinged profile, lingering against refined tannins on the long, expressive finish."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cucumber-Carrot Bites...A Healthy Snack

I'm trying to keep up with my New Year's resolution to eat more healthy snacks during the day. I've discovered that's the thing that keeps my metabolism going and helps me lose weight. But I can get tired really quickly of carrot or celery sticks or an apple.

Here's an easy recipe that I mixed up tonight to take to work with me tomorrow. It's delicious. I'm trying to think of another application for the carrot mixture...maybe as a spread for a turkey sandwich.

Cucumber-Carrot Bites
From Martha Stewart's Everyday Food.

1/2 English cucumber, cut crosswise into 8 rounds
Kosher salt and ground pepper
1 medium carrot, coarsely grated
3 tablespoons reduced fat sour cream
2 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar

Season cucumber slices with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, mix together carrot, sour cream, scallion whites and vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Divide mixture evenly among cucumber slices;garnish with scallion greens.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Spinach and Cheese Puff

O.K....nothing healthy about this one. But it's out of this world and worth the caloric splurge. It's a great side dish for everyday, but would be perfect nestled next to a medium-rare ribeye.

Spinach and Cheese Puff
From Martha Stewart's Everyday Food.
Serves 8.

Butter, for baking dish
3 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (about 6 ounces)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a shallow 1-quart baking dish.

In a large bowl, combine spinach, half-and-half, eggs, 1 cup Gruyere, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg; stir to combine. Spread evenly in prepared baking dish, and top with remaining 1/2 cup Gruyere. Bake until set and top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Deviled Crab

Gourmet magazine's January 2008 issue is one of my favorites to come along in quite some time. Much of it is dedicated to Southern cooking...something near and dear to this Texas boy's heart. Quite a few recipes in there that I'll be trying over the next weeks and months. Might even have to take the plunge and make my first homemade biscuits!

Here's a recipe for deviled crab that is simple with delicious results. It's great on its own as an elegant first course, but would also be wonderful on crackers or toasted baguette slices. You can also use leftovers as an omelet filling.

Deviled Crab
From Gourmet magazine.
Serves six as a first course.

1/3 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 stick unsalted butter
3 (1/2 inch thick) slices good-quality white sandwich bread (I used Pepperidge Farm), crusts discarded
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook onion in butter in a small heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.

Tear bread into very small pieces, then spread in one layer in a shallow dish or pie plate. Pour onion and butter mixture over torn bread and let stand 15 minutes.

Add crab, egg, cayenne, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and gently toss.

Divide mixture among six shallow ramekins and bake until crab is just starting to brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Wine to Try: Los Cardos Chardonnay

Here's a bargain wine to add to your everyday cellar. The Los Cardos Chardonnay is an Argentinian white that is quite food-friendly with great fruit-forward tropical flavors of the warm climate in which the grapes are grown. It has rich aromas and flavors of honey, pineapple and apricot.

I served it with a simple baked fish topped with breadcrumbs and that brought out a nice toasty note. And just a bit of an almost creamy vanilla.

Retailing at around $8, it's an affordable wine you can be proud to serve.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Homemade Vegetable Cream Cheese

Although I avoid most carbs these days, sometimes a guy simply has to have a good toasted bagel. To help make it a little more guiltless, I whip up a batch of this veggie cream cheese. After spreading it on a weekend morning bagel, I store it in the refrigerator for a couple fo days and use it on whole wheat toast or as a dip for crunchy celery sticks or baby carrots.

Vegetable Cream Cheese
From Martha Stewart's Everyday Food

Stir together:
1-8 ounce package reduced-fat (or no fat) cream cheese
1 medium carrot, grated
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Coarse salt and ground pepper

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mexican Everyday: Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

I have stacks and stacks and stacks of cookbooks. And one of my New Year's resolutions is to try and actually cook from some of them. It's so easy to get distracted by the recipes I find online or in the many magazines I take. So to get 2008 off to a great start, I opened a cookbook that I bought last year and have drooled over often but never cooked from: Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday. Bayless is a chef with several restaurants in Chicago and champions traditional Mexican cooking...something we don't get everyday, even down here in Texas.

The book includes recipes for Mexican basics, including tortillas and refried beans. But the taco and enchilada recipes include ingredients we're not used to--like zucchini, mushrooms and seafood salad. And there are some delicious looking recipes for fish, including Snapper with Zucchini and Toasty Garlic Mojo and Jalapeno-Baked Fish with Roasted Tomatoes and Potatoes.

I've marked several of those pages and will try as many as I can in the next weeks and months. But I started with something simpler. A delicious riff on salsa. This one isn't red and not even that spicy, but wonderfully flavorful with roasted tomatillos, onions and jalapeno. Delicious with tortilla chips, of course, but would also be yummy heated slightly and served over grilled chicken or roast pork. I adapted it slightly (I roasted the vegetables in a baking dish rather than in the cast iron pan Bayless recommends and he doesn't roast the onion but uses it fresh.), but Bayless still deserves the credit for the inspiration and the basics.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa
Adapted from Everyday Mexican.

4 medium tomatillos, husked, rinsed and halved
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 jalapeno, halved and seeded
1/2 small onion, sliced
About 1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro

In a greased baking dish, roast the tomatillos, garlic, jalapeno and onion in a 400 degree oven until slightly browned. (It will take about twenty minutes total, and you should turn the vegetables at least once to ensure browning on all sides.)

Scrape into food processor or blender and let cool to room temperature, about 3 minutes. Add the cilantro and up to 1/4 cup water. Blend to a coarse puree. Pour into a salsa dish and season with salt to taste, usually about 1/2 teaspoon.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Slow-Cooked Tex-Mex Chicken and Beans

Easy to make and delicious. This one's a winner. You might cook a little longer if you like your beans on the softer side. And beware of the sneaky heat that comes from the chiles in adobo created a heartburn situation with someone in my house. I loved the slow burn, however, especially when cooled by a big dollop of sour cream.

Slow Cooked Tex-Mex Chicken and Beans
From Martha Stewart's Everyday Food.
Serves 4-6.

1 cup dried pinto beans, rinsed
1 jar (11 ounces) mild or medium salsa (1 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup water
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 8)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper (ribs and seeds removed), chopped

In a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker, stir together beans, salsa, chiles, flour and 1 cup water. Season chicken with salt and pepper; arrange on top of bean mixture. Scatter onion and bell pepper on top of chicken.

Cover and cook on low heat for 8 hours. (Do not open lid or stir.)

Remove chicken from stew; shred into large pieces, and return to stew. Serve topped with sour cream and cilantro.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Cocktail of the Week: Punto Pomelo-Spiced Grapefruit Tequila Cocktail

It's grapefruit time again...the beautiful Rio Reds from South Texas are in stores. So of course my thought go to cocktails!

This one comes from a recent Food & Wine magazine article on a Mexican-themed meal. The recipe notes mention that mixologist Cyrus Keyhari created it for Socialista, a trendy Havana-themed nightclub iun Manhattan. The name of the cocktail means "the point of grapefruit," referring to the belief that citrus-based cocktails are great with spicy food.

I have adapated it slightly to highlight the delicious spiced simple syrup...seems to make it more appropriate for winter.

Punto Pomelo
From Food & Wine magazine.

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cinnamon stick, broken
3 whole cloves
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 cup silver tequila
1 cherry, for garnish (optional)

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, cinnamon stick, cloves and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool, then strain.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the lime juice, grapefruit juice, tequila and 2 tablespoons of the spiced simple syrup. Shake well and strain into an ice-filled collins glass. Garnish with a cherry, if desired.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Deviled Ham and Pecan Salad

I don't think I've ever had "ham salad" in my life. It reminds me too much of potted meat and other non-edible canned meat products, I think.

Don't know why this recipe jumped out at me then. Maybe it was the addition of pecans. Not sure, but I thought I'd give it a whir. It's delicious! And elegant enough that you could make tea sandwiches and serve at your next party.

Deviled Ham and Pecan Salad
From Gourmet magazine.
Makes about three cups (enough for 32 tea sandwiches).

1/2 pound cooked ham, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 medium onion, quartered
3 large sweet gherkins
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and cooled
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 cup mayonnaise
16 slices firm white sandwich bread
Garnish: chopped parsley and pecans

Pulse all ingredients except bread in a food processor until finely chopped and combined well.
Spread ham mixture (1/4 cup per sandwich) between slices of bread. Discard crusts, then cut sandwiches into triangles.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Great Book: What to Drink with What You Eat

My friends and family know all about this blog, and I'm proud to say that I have recruited several to the "Life Should Be Beautiful" philosophy. So it's not surprising (and welcome in my eyes) that some of my Christmas gifts have a food, wine or cocktail theme.

If you've been reading this blog for any time at all, you know that I am big proponent of wine (and even cocktail) pairings with food. So I was delighted to get a new book from some good friends of mine. What to Drink with What You Eat, written by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, says that it's "the definitive guide to pairing food with wine, beer, spirits, coffee, tea--even water--based on expert advice from America's best sommeliers."

That's a confident claim that deserved some testing. The book is arranged into two main sections--one which lists food and then drink pairings and one which reverses that, listing beverages and the foods with which to pair them.

I cracked the book open to two pairings that I knew should be listed as classics. Sure enough Chianti was listed with lasagna and both Champagne and vodka with caviar. And some of the alternate non-bold choices were intriguing as well. Led me to trust the authors' instincts.

So I'll explore some of the other pairing suggestions they make, including Beaujolais with salads and sweet Sherry with creme brulee. And I think the extensive section with suggested pairings for cheese will come in handy.

And while most of the listings are for wines, there are interesting pairing ideas for coffee (Italian roast with antipasto) and cocktails (oysters with gin) that are worth a look.

It's definitely worth adding to your kitchen resource library.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Avocado Inspired...

It's the middle of winter here in Texas, but is was almost 80 here today. A hint of summer weather inspired a taste of summer. Grilled chicken with a couple of "salsas" celebrating the rich buttery taste of avocado. Delicious and healthy.

This isn't really a recipe, but a "process"...I bet you can keep up.

For the avocado salsa, mix one avocado that you've diced with a half of an onion also diced. Add the juice from one lime and a pinch of kosher salt and mix (but don't want to mash the avocado any more than you have to).

I also included a warm salsa...nothing more than a red bell pepper and a half a red onion, both diced and sauteed in a little olive oil until slightly softened.

And, of course, the main ingredient...a grilled chicken breast that you've seasoned ahead of time with your favorite Mexican spices. Definitely a little cayenne pepper, maybe some cumin and lime as well.

To assemble, plate the chicken and put the red pepper salsa on one half and the avocado on the other. Top with a few sliced green onions and a little sour cream. You won't need any side dishes. Just make sure to open a Tecate or mix a margarita to go with....

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Baked Cheesy Penne Pasta

For one of our recent holiday gatherings, I wanted to fix something that was hearty and showed off some of my cooking chops. I didn't want to spend hours on it though, and, since we'd have several four and five year old's joining us, it needed to be kid-friendly. My spaghetti sauce is simple, but always a hit, so I figured out a way to "dress it up" and make it suitable for a dinner party. We ended up with the flavors and complexity of lasagna without all the work. With a nice tossed salad and some garlic bread, it was popular with all comers.

Note: This is not a "scientific" recipe and can certainly be tampered with to suit your tastes. More or less cheese. Your own favorite red sauce. You know the drill.

Baked Cheesy Penne Pasta
Serves 8-10.

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 pound ground meat (one or more of the following: ground beef, ground turkey, ground veal, Italian sausage (casings removed))
1 jar pasta sauce
Italian herb seasoning

In a saute pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and saute for two more minutes. Add red pepper and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add ground meat and cook until browned.

Pour in jar of pasta sauce and Italian herb seasoning to taste. (I've used as much as 3/4 of a bottle.) Reduce heat and simmer to allow flavors to meld. (The sauce is especially good if refrigerated overnight and then reheated before use.)

To prepare penne:
Cook 2 pounds penne pasta in salted boiling water until not quite al dente. (It will cook further while baking.) Drain and set aside.

For cheese filling:
Mix together 2 cups ricotta cheese, 1 cup grated Mozzarella cheese, and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. Add 3/4 cup chopped fresh parsley and a grating of fresh nutmeg. Set aside.

To assemble:
Stir cheese filling into cooked pasta. Pour into greased 11 by 13 baking dish and top with meat sauce. Sprinkle an additional 1 cup grated Mozzarella cheese over casserole.

Cover with foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15-20 minutes until center is hot and cheese is slightly browned.

Food/Wine Pairing:
I went to a great Italian wine you can always trust for this one. Of course Chianti is perfect for most pasta dishes with red sauce, and the Castiglioni Chianti was perfect. Nicely fruity with the slightly dirty leathery taste I love in "Old World" wines. It's a bargain too at 12 bucks a bottle.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Wintertime in Our Backyard

This is a "dingy" time in our backyard. We've had a couple of freezes, the big red oak tree has lost most of its leaves, and there's not a flower one to be seen. It's definitely a different vista from our kitchen window than it is during the spring and summer when the view is nothing but lush greenery and the riotous color of flowers. As I discovered last weekend though, it's still beautiful.

We've avoided yard work for a month or so now. Finally the leaves overwhelmed us, and my other half and I grabbed rakes to do a little winter clean-up. I had the pruner in hand to clip away the branches of basil and penta and lantana that had frozen to the ground. Pulled up tomato and pepper plants, some with stubborn holdovers hanging on to the branches bruised and blackened from cold weather.

Yet, if I was observant and looked closely enough, there was already promise of the spring to come. The pentas had new growth at their bases and many of the branches I trimmed were brittle, but still green, ready to burst forth again when the weather gets warmer. There were even a couple of Gulf frittilary caterpillars tenaciously munching on their passionflower vine host.

So I clipped things and scattered wildflower seeds from their dried pods before dumping everything into the compost pile. Of course we left some of the leaves in beds; they are a great mulch blanketing daylilies and iris for the cold weather still ahead.

It was a great reminder of how life (and Nature especially) can always be beautiful, even if not in the "traditional" sense. I'm going to make it a priority to bundle up and spend more time outdoors in the weeks ahead. Whether in our own garden or the neighborhood park, there is still much that is beautiful to be seen.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Brunch: Eggs with Cream, Spinach and Country Ham

Happy New Year! Hopefully, you're up and about today nursing your New Year's Eve hangover with a delicious Bloody Mary. And don't forget to start your pot of black-eyed peas, a quintessential Southern tradition.

Here's what we had this morning (ok...almost afternoon) for brunch. It's from Gourmet magazine's latest issue-which concentrated on Southern-style cooking. I usually poach eggs for brunch dishes...whether it's Eggs Benedict or something like Eggs Italiano. Baking them was a nice (easy) twist, and the creamed spinach adds a wonderful richness.

Eggs with Cream, Spinach and Country Ham
From Gourmet magazine.
Serves 8.

1/4 cup thinly sliced country ham, finely chopped
Scant 3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
10 ounces spinach, coarse stems discarded
8 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Spray eight ramekins with cooking spray.

Bring ham and cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, then remove from heat. Let steep, uncovered, about 10 minutes.

Cook onion in 1 tablespoon butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-low heat, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and season lightly with salt and pepper, then cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add spinach, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and cook, turning with tongs, until spinach is wilted.

Drain spinach in a colander, then coarsely chop. Divide spinach, then ham, among ramekins, spooning 1 tablespoon cream into each serving. Crack eggs into ramekins and season lightly with salt and pepper. Spoon 1 teaspoon cream over each egg. Cut remaining tablespoon butter into 8 small pieces and dot each egg with butter.

Put ramekins in a shallow baking pan and bake, rotating pan halfway through baking, until whites are just set but yolks are still runny, 15 to 20 minutes, removing from oven as cooked.