Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portobello Fajitas

T has been off mammals for a while now, and mushrooms are finding their way into our dinner menus more frequently than ever. While I generally reach for shiitakes, portobellos are a perfect for grilling. Their size and texture make me feel like I am eating a meal fit for a ravenous meat eater.

You can roast or grill these mushroom fajitas and get great results either way. Chicken fajitas, move over! A new 'shroom is in town!

Portobello Fajitas with Pineapple and Peppers
Serves 4 

For the mushrooms:
4 portobellos, cleaned 
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon each ground cumin, onion powder, and black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced fine
Olive oil

Combine the cilantro, spices, garlic, and enough olive oil to coat the mushrooms. Cover mushrooms with marinade and set aside for up to an hour.

To roast: slice mushrooms into 1/2-inch wide pieces and roast on parchment paper lined baking sheet in 400-degree oven until mushrooms are tender, about 20 minutes, flipping after 10 minutes.

To grill: grill mushrooms stem-side up over direct coals until liquid starts to form in center of mushroom, about 4 minutes. Flip and continue cooking over direct heat an additional 4 minutes or until grill marks appear. Move mushrooms to indirect heat, cover, and cook stem-side up an additional 12 to 15 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender on the inside. Cool and slice.

For the pineapple and peppers:
1 red or yellow bell pepper
1 red onion
3 assorted chili peppers (such as Poblano, Anaheim, jalapeno)

8 ounce can of Pineapple chunks, reserve juice
Olive or canola oil
3 tablespoons tequila
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper

To cook on stovetop: Slice peppers and onion into thin strips. Saute, in batches so you don't crowd the pan, over medium high heat in a bit of oil until tender and slightly caramelized; about 5 minutes. Flavor with salt and pepper. Add all cooked peppers and onion back to pan, add pineapple and juice, lime juice, and tequila, and cook until liquid is reduced by half. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To grill: cut peppers and onion into cubes and thread on skewers. Whisk together a few tablespoons of oil, the tequila, lime, and salt and pepper. Grill kebabs over direct heat, frequently brushing with marinade and turning when grill marks appear. 

To serve: layer mushrooms, pineapple and peppers on warm tortillas. Serve with pepitos, guacamole, salsa, cheese, and cilantro. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cat Blogging: The Sims, Neko Atsume, and imaginary friends

Sometime back in the early aughts T and I took a week off between Christmas and New Year's Eve (aka our wedding anniversary). We spent our time relaxing, watching TV, and playing video games. In fact our daughter had recently introduced me to a new game called The Sims. I loved playing Sims so much that we brought our bulky PC into the living room where we were camped out so that I could play from the comfort of our holiday nest. When a friend called to invite me for an afternoon of skiing, I explained to her that I was playing an imaginary game of life that, at the time, was more appealing than the real thing.

For the uninitiated, The Sims is a world that players create by building homes and neighborhoods and filling them with furniture and people (and in later versions: animals, cars, malls, restaurants, etc.). The object of the game (I think) is to create individuals who live happy successful lives. Sims (the people who live within the game) must be monitored to make sure they are fed, clean, and emotionally fulfilled.

That first week of playing Sims was wonderful. I built pretty little houses filled with comfortable furniture and random art. I grew beautiful gardens in the yards and every home had a pool. I memorized the cheat codes so that none of my characters had to work and there was always enough money to add fancy additions, hire a maid and gardener, and order pizza delivery.

I was never very good at The Sims. The character monitors would flash messages to me that my Sims were sad, hungry, dirty, or in desperate need of the bathroom. The one room without a smoke detector would erupt in fire, the house without an alarm would get robbed. The maid would stop showing up and the houses filled with garbage. The gardener disappeared and all of the gardens withered. My Sims usually died within a few hours of creation.

Recently I began playing a new imaginary game of life, although rather than attempting to keep Sims alive I am now collecting Neko Atsume cats. Neko Atsume is a phone app which guides players to lure kitties to a cartoon yard/room into which we place various toys, kitty condos, and food. I fill my little kitty photo album with images of them sleeping in cushions shaped like a burger and playing with a bunny-shaped toy. I am giddy when one of them leaves me a memento (A memento is an imaginary gift that demonstrates the cat's affection toward the player. Mementos vary according to cat. So far I have received mementos such as a shiny acorn, damp matches, and a small bell that does not ring. According to the app creators, when a cat leaves you a memento it is proof that the receiver of the gift has become a cat's friend. Let's face it, we can all use a few more friends, whether real or imaginary.). The object of the game (I think) is to collect all of the cats who may possibly wander into your yard and receive mementos from them.

Your might think that a person who lives with two cats would have no use for a fake yard of imaginary cats or a collection of illusory gifts. But our dear sweet ungrateful little beasts generally ignore me and only seek me out when they need something material, like a full dish or a clean litter box. They prefer T which leaves me with an empty lap. Pretending that fictional cats want to spend time near me fills a need that Oskar and Orson are not willing to meet.

Sadly, I am as rotten at playing Neko Atsume as I was at Sims. I've had the app for months and have yet to collect all of the rare cats. Only a small smattering of regulars visit my yard no matter how much expensive food I put out for them. Thankfully, the app developers have not yet added the "death" function to this game. For now, when a Neko Atsume cat is done with your yard, she simply wanders away. If my pretend kitties started shaking their fisted paws at me because I am unable to feed and entertain them, I'd have to stop playing. Heck, I already have that with my real cats.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Avoiding Death by Semlor

On Saturday I taught a spring brunch class at the American Swedish Institute, organizing the menu around Sweden's King Adolf Frederick's last meal (often referred to "Death by Semlor"). King Adolph Frederick feasted on lobster, caviar, kippers (herring), sour kraut, champagne, and fourteen sweet semlor steeped in warm cream. What a way to go.

Semlor (singular: semla), also known as Fat Tuesday buns, are chubby cardamom buns filled with almond paste and whipped cream. Back in the days of Catholic influence, Swedes ate their fill of the buns before their Lenten fasts. Modern Swedes reach for the buns as soon as  Christmas is complete and don't stop eating them until Easter disappears from the rear view mirror.

Our semlor brunch menu included a batch of cardamom buns; spring greens with citrus vinaigrette; quick pickled beets, cucumbers, and red peppers; fingerlings roasted with herbs and lemon zest; and gravlax and egg salad with roe on toasts. Next time I make this salad I'll serve it on rye toast. Delicious!

Gravlax and Egg Salad with Roe
Serves 12

For the gravlax:
12 ounces salmon
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
fresh dill
lemon zest
Dill or citron aquavit or vodka

Combine sugar, salt, dill, and zest and cover the salmon with the mixture on all sides. Spritz with aquavit. Pack in plastic and weigh down with heavy dish or pan. Refrigerate 48 hours, turning every 12.

Rinse or wipe cure from salmon and slice into cubes. (Retain skin to fry later.)

For the salad:
6 large eggs, soft to hard boiled and diced
8 to 12 ounces gravlax, cubed (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups)
2 shallots, diced
1/3 cup capers, drained
1 cup creme fraiche
1 tablespoon horseradish
Several tablespoons each minced fresh dill and chived, plus additional sprigs for garnish
2 or more tablespoons roe

Combine eggs, gravlax, shallot, and caper in large mixing bowl. In separate bowl whisk together creme fraiche, horseradish, and herbs. Gently coat egg-gravlax mixture with creme fraiche. Garnish with roe and herbs.

Serve on crackers or toasts.

To make inexpensive homemade creme fraiche:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk

Combine ingredients in glass jar and cover with plastic wrap; set out at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. Stir and chill.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Juniper Pork Tacos

A few weeks ago I mentioned to T that I've always wanted a tortilla press. A week later, a surprise package arrived for me, and a beautiful cast iron press was all mine. Romance in the kitchen equals a happy home.

A recent Fig to Fork delivery contained a couple of gorgeous pork chops and other amazing ingredients that I knew would make a unique and flavorful taco. It was finally time to use that tortilla press! While the pork marinated I pulled together a quick salsa-meets-crema of grilled tomatillos, chili peppers, avocado, onions, and garlic that I pureed with a handful of cilantro, lime and orange juices, and yogurt. I used Mark Bittman's Almost-From-Scratch Tortillas recipe to create a batch of warm corn wraps, and then grilled the pork for some of the most delicious tacos ever.

Grilled Juniper Pork 
Serves 2 to 4

Two large pork chops
1 tablespoon juniper berries
3 garlic cloves
Zest of two oranges
Handful of cilantro stems
Tops of 3 green onions
Black pepper
Olive oil

Grind or use mortar and pestle to smash together juniper, garlic, zest, and stems. Place all ingredients in large plastic bag, making sure that all parts of the pork is covered in marinade. Chill 2 to 4 hours.

Bring pork to room temperate (place on counter top about 30 minutes) and then wipe marinade off with paper towels. Grill over high heat, about 4 minutes each side depending on thickness of chops.

Serve with salsa and crema on warm tortillas.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Cat Blogging: Biggest Loser Update 2016

This year at Orson's annual check-up our vet exclaimed, "You have a waist!" We all admired Orson's svelte figure as he growled and paced, not pleased that we brought him in for an appointment during regularly scheduled mealtime. He hissed and glared at us. "Orson is hangry," our vet decided.

It's been two years since Orson's weight loss journey began and it has been a steady dropping of pounds for the former fatty. In fact, as of last week he has dropped a total of 9 1/2 pounds (from 25 pounds to just under 16).

But not all of this adventure has been smooth sailing. Orson makes a nuisance of himself when he believes it is time for breakfast (or dinner). He'll chew on any available surface: antenna, earbud, random wire, T's ear, my finger, furniture, doors, waste baskets, etc. Once we shoo him away from the chewed item, he begins his incessant meowing. "FEED ME FEED ME FEED ME." Poor guy is practically disappearing. I'd have more sympathy for his plight if it didn't wake me up at 3:00 in the morning.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Springing into dip

Rarely does a holiday go by that someone doesn't offer up a spinach dip. Be it a potluck or Christmas Day celebration, post-Thanksgiving appetizer party or Super Bowl pregame get-together: there is always a bowl of soft bread filled with creamy spinach dip. As spring began to shows signs of waking this year I realized it's been a few years since I've enjoyed a spinach dip indulgence. Where have all the spinach dips gone?

I took matters into my own hands and made a lightened up version, perfect for warmer weather.

Spring Spinach Dip
Makes a lot

2 cups plain Greek-style yogurt
2/3 cup each mayonnaise and sour cream
1 package Knorr Spring Vegetable Recipe Mix
14 ounce-can artichoke hearts, diced
10 ounce chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
5 ounce-can diced water chestnuts
1/4 cup each diced dill, radish, red onion, cilantro, and red pepper
1 shredded carrot
3 green onions, diced

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl and chill at least 2 hours. Serve with bread or chips.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Can-free, to follow your heart

It is true that the way to a man's heart is through his tummy. Even after seventeen years together, I am still learning this about T.

A common discussion on our way home from work is "What we shall have for dinner." More often than not T answers, "Chicken," and leaves it at that. "Chicken WHAT?" is my response. "Tacos? Pizza? Salad? Fried? Burgers? Meatloaf?" I rattle off a list of chicken options, and T just smiles and lets me decide.

Canned condensed soup was considered a convenience food when it rolled into grocery stores across America. In Minnesota, our grandmas and moms reached for Campbell's Soup to hold together casseroles, and an entire new food group was created: the hotdish. Campbell's cream-of-something was particularly popular, and remains so, mixed with some ground meat, vegetables, and a starch. (Throw the concoction into a slow cooker and you've got a meal worthy of any hardy Minnesotan and reminiscent of those elementary school lunches of long ago.) Edie Schmierbach recently defined hotdish (or hot dish) in the Associate Press:

To qualify as a hot dish, recipes should call for a combination of protein (tuna for example), a canned vegetable (peas are popular), a starch (maybe mashed potatoes) and a binding sauce, (perhaps a can of cream of mushroom). For crunch, cooks may add tater tots, chow mein noodles or crushed potato chips.

But let's not go the canned soup route today. I prefer making hotdish with can-free binders such as a thick sauce or gravy (preferably with melty gooey good cheese). Which is where my dinner discussion with T landed the other day. "How about tator tot hotdish?" I suggested to T. He thought about my idea and answered, "Yes, that sounds like it might hit the spot." It was a blustery not-quite-winter, not-quite-spring afternoon: damp and chilly. Our tummies were craving something warm and filling. Soon we were enjoying our dinner.

"Wow!" T exclaimed. "This is the best hotfish I've EVER had!" He paused long enough to take another bite. "Can we have hotdish every week?"

It's the little things that confirm our happiness with life, and it's appreciation of those little things that keeps a couple together.

No-Can Tator Tot Hotdish
6 servings

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons each butter and flour
1 tablespoon coarse ground mustard
1 1/2 cup milk
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1/2 teaspoon pepper

In saucepan melt butter and whisk in flour and mustard. Continue whisking over medium high heat until well blended. Add milk and continue whisking until milk starts to bubble and thicken. Turn off heat, whisk in cheese until melted, and season with pepper.

For the filling:
1 tablespoon butter
5 ounces mushrooms, chopped
1/2 white or yellow onion, chopped
1 pound ground turkey
1 large zucchini, spiralized or chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper

In large skillet melt butter over medium high heat. Add mushrooms and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms release their liquid and the onions become translucent; about 5 minutes. Add turkey and cook another 8 to 10 minutes or until turkey is cooked through. Add tomato paste and zucchini and cook additional 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the topping:
1 pound tator tots (you will not use the entire package)
1/4 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

To assemble:
Generously spray bottom and sides of 9x9 inch square cake pan with non-stick spray. Add filling and top with all but about 1/4 cup of sauce. Top with tator tots, remaining sauce, and shredded cheese. Cover with foil and bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until cheese melts, about 15 minutes.

Let hotdish stand for 10 minutes before serving.