So Much for Scraps

Perhaps you too suffer small twinges when faced with throwing away odd scraps of food.  These days I’m becoming increasingly aware of the waste factor and I try to think before chucking food.  In the heat of the moment there are still plenty of times when I’ll do the ‘should I, or shouldn’t I?’ shuffle and toss away—only to regret it later.

The latest such event proved to be a good lesson in why I need to pay attention when that twinge hits.  It happened while prepping tender red chard leaves for a fast brunch dish.  At the time I wasn’t much interested in the stems, they were in my way and I was ready to pitch.  I took another look at the intensely  beautiful burgundy stems, and in that moment my better self intervened. Instead of sending them arbitrarily to the trash I dropped them in the fridge instead. I’d deal with them later.

The next day I consulted Lindsay-Jean Hard’s Cooking with Scraps cookbook to get her take on chard stems. She says they are well worth roasting, grilling, pickling, even steaming… and my plan began to take shape.

I considered my obvious resources and centered on a small spaghetti squash that needed attention and a jar of fresh mozzarella balls marinating in a yummy garlicky evoo herb blend.  I’d keep it simple; I’d steam the squash and stems, liven them up with a little of the marinade, perhaps tuck in a bit of cheese, maybe some fresh basil, and see how that all works.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Despite its appearance, spaghetti squash is very forgiving to prepare—I’ve even had success cooking it in the microwave. For manageability, I prefer smaller squash, 1½ to 2-pounds in size. My plan here is to cook both the squash and stems at the same time in the Instant Pot. It’s the pot-in-pot concept in which you layer 2 or more dishes or items into the pot and steam them simultaneously.

I’ve read cutting spaghetti squash in half, across its mid-line, will cook faster than lengthwise, plus yielding longer strands and using less space. I accumulated over ½ cup of seeds while scraping them out of the squash, and sampled one; they were mild and meaty. Again, my better self stepped forward and I set them aside;  they were well worth saving for a short brine and fast roast in the microwave.  I figured they might not make it today, but they’re enough for a later snack, a salad topping, or other such.   I’m on a roll with scraps—when I’m paying attention there are benefits all over the place!

Marinated Red Chard Stems & Spaghetti Squash

I move on and place the two squash halves in the Instant Pot on a trivet with 1 cup water. The stems are cut into smaller lengths, tossed with a bit of marinade for flavor and moisture, and sealed in a foil packet.  It’s all layered in the Instant Pot and set for 7 minutes under pressure. That’s it.  Once cooked and removed, the squash drains a few minutes to release excess moisture from steaming.

Ah, the stems, the stems… what a surprise. They are earthy, tender, and absorb just enough marinade to elevate them straight to delicacy status.  The sweet spaghetti squash is a perfect foil, lightly seasoned with salt, red pepper flakes, the marinade further helps to separate the strands. The ruby red stems are folded in like jewels and pieces of mozzarella meld into the warm spaghetti squash.  This is an affirmation to slow down and give scraps a chance.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Ingredients
1½ – 2 pounds spaghetti squash
stems from 1 bunch red chard
Marinade
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic mash & sliver
1 tsp fresh rosemary or thyme
¼ tsp sea salt and coarse ground pepper
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 fresh round mozzarella or 1 cup other melting cheese
¼ tsp crush red pepper flakes
fresh basil or other herbs

Instructions

  1. To prepare marinade, combine olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and whisk in the vinegar. If time permits, marinate the mozzarella overnight in the fridge.
  2. If the chard stems are large, cut them lengthwise into ½” thick strips and then into 1-2” lengths and place in medium bowl. Lightly drizzle with about 1 Tbsp of marinade and toss to coat.
  3. Carefully cut the spaghetti squash in half across its mid-section. Remove seeds and set them aside.
  4. In liner of Instant Pot, add 1 cup water and place trivet in bottom.  To preheat, set pot to Sauté More.  Wedge the squash halves sideways in the pot on the trivet.  Place 18” length of foil on work surface and pile chard stems and marinade in center; wrap and fold foil to seal packet and wedge into pot with squash.
  5. Seal lid and set pot to Hi Pressure for 7-8 minutes, depending on squash size. When time is up, disconnect pot, let stand 5 minutes and then release remaining pressure.  Carefully open pot. The squash should be fork tender; remove the squash to drain upside down for 5 minutes. Open foil packet and check stems, they should be tender and fragrant.
  6. To assemble, loosen squash with fork into spaghetti like strands and place in medium bowl.  Season lightly with marinade, salt, red pepper flakes, and toss. Gently add the chard stems. Slice the mozzarella and tuck into the warm squash to soften. Sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serves 2.

Sweet Dreams

We all have our favorite places and cultures to visit. Mine has long been the northeastern corner of Spain, the mysterious Basque country and the Pyrenees Alps. It’s got the total package, a rugged coastline and breathtaking mountains, plus resourceful, resilient people with a world class cuisine.

Basque food has the unique ability to reach into the heart and linger there, and such is the case with the notorious Basque Gateau.  Popular versions of it crop up across the border in the Pays Basque region of France and down into the southern reaches of Spain.  It’s a simple pastry marked by crosshatches across the top and filled with either cherry jam or pastry cream. So, what’s the big deal?

People praise the cake’s holding powers and reverently speak of it as the item to take when traveling or visiting friends.  Admittedly, I’ve had my own visions of romantic adventures complete with this charming cake—safe in the knowledge it would sustain in any conditions.

I’ve considered making a Basque Custard Cake but have been put off by the complicated process and rich pastry. However, there is one recipe I have held onto for quite a while. It’s an interesting take from the French perspective by accomplished chef Michel Richard.  In my notes, he describes it endearingly as a “pastry cream encased in two cookie crusts; aka a weekend cake in France because it holds so well.”  Sweet.

The more I’ve studied Richard’s approach, the more I like it. For example, pastry cream often uses egg yolks with cornstarch for thickener because cornstarch does not not lump when added to hot liquid; however, it can break down with prolonged cooking.  Richard’s version opts for flour instead, which makes sense since this pastry cream cooks twice.  His should hold up very well and continue to maintain mass at room temperature or cold.

I’m impressed with Richard’s brilliant crust solution, too. Rather than a labor intense, buttery pastry, he elects to use the whites left from the custard.  He cleverly incorporates them into a light, resilient cookie/cake-like base. The first thin layer is baked just to set, the filling is added, remaining dough is spread on top and it is given a final bake.  Simple enough.

Basque Gateau

I decided to give it a try.  Here are a couple of notes:  I further simplified Richard’s custard by using double the vanilla extract, rather than soaking a vanilla bean (which I was missing) for an hour in hot milk.  It also makes twice as much as needed, but that’s fine; it came in handy.  I also dabbed a small amount of cherry jam on the baked bottom crust before the pastry cream. It appears that cookie/cake dough is quite scant.  However, it blends beautifully with the pastry cream and works out fine.

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

So, there you have it.  I will definitely make this Basque Custard Cake again. (Actually, I did make it again. It was easier the second time with remaining custard and refined method. I kept my fingers off of it and it was just as good the next day!)  The cherry and custard combo gives it real character, but you could use either.

I dare you to eat just one piece—evidently, I practically polished an entire cake by myself!

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

Inspired by Michel Richard, Baking from the Heart

Ingredients
Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup sugar,  divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
Cookie Dough
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, room temp
½ cup AP flour, plus 1 Tbsp
½ cup cherry jam, optional

Instructions

1. Make Pastry Cream
In 4 cup microwaveable measure, heat milk in microwave with salt, and ¼ cup sugar for 2-3 minutes to dissolve sugar, add vanilla extract.
In small mixing bowl, beat yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow, 2-3 minutes.  Mix in flour.  Gradually pour in the hot milk and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a small pan, set over medium heat and continue whisking as it thickens to avoid lumps and curdling.  Reduce to medium low and cook 2-3 minutes, whisking to keep smooth and not curdle. Off heat stir in butter and remaining vanilla. Scrape into a bowl and cover top with film. Chill 2-3 hours until cold, up to 1 day ahead.  You should have enough for 2 cakes.

2. Make Dough
Preheat oven to 350-375°F. Thoroughly butter and flour 9″ tart or springform pan.
In mixing bowl beat butter, add sugar in 3-4 batches, beating well after each addition until light. Beat in egg whites one at a time, incorporating after each. Stir in flour to just combine and form a soft batter.

3. To Bake
Spoon enough batter to thinly cover bottom of pan, about ½ cup spread ⅛” thick.  Bake 10-12 minutes, until dough is firm to touch, and edges turn golden brown.
If using preserves, randomly dot spoonfuls onto crust spreading away from edges. Top with cold pastry cream, leaving ½” border at edge.
Carefully spoon remaining dough evenly over all, spreading to cover cream and fill in border edge.  Bake 25-35 minutes, rotating pan until golden brown.  Cool completely on wire rack.  Release cake from pan and slice into wedges.  For best flavor, allow to come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to serving.  Cover and chill for storage.   Serves 6-8

Clambering for Clams

In Oregon we love our clams. In fact, steamers are so abundant here we clam for them year ‘round. Still, we keep the old rule of thumb in mind that shellfish is best eaten in the colder months, or those ending in R. That tends to cover most troublesome issues like spawning, red tides, warm water temperatures, and such.

Clammers are a regular site on the Oregon coast, in all weather—you’ll see us out there lining the beaches, optimistically digging for our dinner.  But living further inland, availability can be tricky and we can’t always pick up and dash to the coast for a fresh supply. Local markets do their best to meet demand, but they must also have contingency plans for when that’s not possible. One option is to bring in fresh meaty Venus clams from as far south as the Mexican Pacific coast.

Steamed clams and zucchini

Such was the case this past week when I thought I’d pick up 2 or 3 dozen fresh clams for an easy dinner. I was excited about trying a new twist on an old favorite steamer clam recipe. It’s a cleaver approach inspired by Lidia Bastianich’s Italian pairing of clams with zucchini.

Well heck, back at the store, there were no Oregon clams. Once again, I am confronted with a Plan B situation. Assured they were very fresh, and they looked quite good, I walked out with fat juicy Venus clams.

Clams and Zucchini Duo

Turns out, clams and zucchini are a brilliant combination. They are both mild, neither likes to be overcooked, and they compliment each other beautifully.  In this case, they take on eye-rolling proportions when the usual garlicky clam nectar is further embellished with sweet leeks and tomatoes. It’s all transformed into a charming meal as the clams and zucchini mingle and develop more character in this hearty broth.

It’s fast and fabulous. Within 20 minutes it’s ready—the clams have popped open and released their brininess into the pot. You could serve smaller portions with drinks. Or, as a lingering meal, ladle it all into wide bowls over crusty grilled bread. It’s lovely followed by a lush salad of blue cheese, apple and caramelized nuts with vanilla balsamic vinaigrette…

Steamed Clams and Zucchini

Inspired by Steamed Clams & Zucchini in Lidia’s Celebrate like an Italian by Lidia Bastianich

Ingredients
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup leeks, halve lengthwise, cut into ¼” slices or ½ onion, slice
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
¼ tsp each dried oregano & red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
1 cup crushed diced tomatoes
½ tsp sea salt
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1½”x ¼” strips
2-3 doz. or more butter or steamer clams
Finish:  ½ cup parsley, olive oil for final drizzle, toasted or grilled sliced baguette

Instructions

  1. In a large pot set over medium heat, pour in olive oil. When hot, add leeks and cook to soften @ 2 minutes.
  2. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes to taste; , cover and cook 3 minutes. Add the white wine, cook down briefly; add the tomatoes and set to simmer. Cook 5 minutes reducing slightly to a thick broth and set aside.
  3. When ready to serve, bring vegetables up to a simmer and add the zucchini; cook 2-3 minutes, until softened.  Increase heat to a boil, add the clams and enough fresh water to barely cover.  Add lid, reduce heat slightly, and steam for 5-6 minutes until shells open.  Discard any that remain closed. Ladle into shallow bowls over toasted bread. Sprinkle with parsley, drizzle with more olive oil.  Pass more bread.  Serves 2 or more.

Curds the Word

It was my buddy Keith’s birthday this past Sunday (also Groundhog’s Day & Super Bowl Sunday), so there were plenty of reasons to celebrate. For my part, I made my first batch of homemade cheese curds the day before… and oh, were they good!

Fresh cheese curds

I won’t bore you with the tedious details. Suffice to say, it was a marathon 8-hour procedure which I further complicated by throwing in a sous vide for temperature control, but well worth it. If you happen to be a curd lover, you might want to check out the thorough directions at New England Cheese Making Supply Co.

Mild cheese curds are at their best when eaten fresh, while their prized squeakiness is at its peak (within a day or so of making). Keith got his lovely curds on time and I had enough left for a very tasty riff on a pizza Margherita. I realize I am past due for a [Friday] pizza blog, so here we go!

I was curious to see what the curds would do on the pizza. Would they melt or turn rubbery? I would keep ingredients on the tame side as to not overwhelm the curds. All that was left was to assemble a few ingredients and give it a quick bake in a hot oven.

I started with a pre-baked crust made earlier in the day. To get my quota of garlic in, I opt for a gentle smear of garlic confit. I like to keep a jar of it in the fridge for occasions such as this, as it gives a mellow garlic flavor that blends well but does not dominate. For a substitute, see the recipe for easy alternative.

Pizza with Curds and Tomatoes

In rapid succession, it’s layered with sliced onion and spicy pasilla pepper; then a bit of salt and pepper and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary and thyme. Our featured sliced tomatoes and cheese curds get dotted about; if you don’t have curds, use any fresh cheese, such as mozzarella. It’s finished with a light dusting of Asiago or Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, and popped into a hot oven until the top is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. Once baked, fresh basil is scattered across the top and it’s served.

Final curd outcome: the curds melt slightly, brown on top, and become creamy. Once cooled, they firm up and go back to their original texture, albeit a tad drier. Pretty much what you would expect. No rubbery cheese here!

Pizza with Cheese Curds and Tomatoes

Ingredients
½ recipe pizza dough, or medium purchased
1 Tbsp garlic confit, or 1 Tbsp olive oil heated with 2 cloves garlic, smash
½ onion, slice
½ pasilla or other pepper, slice
salt and pepper
1 tsp fresh rosemary and/or thyme
3 Roma tomatoes, slice
1 cup fresh cheese curds, cut bite-size
½ cup Asiago or Parmesan cheese, grate
2 tsp olive oil
5-6 fresh basil leaves, tear smaller if large

Instructions

  1. Prepare one 9-10” crust. Preheat oven to 425-450°F.
  2. On fresh or pre-baked crust, evenly spread garlic confit over the surface, coating edges.
  3. Add a layer of sliced onion and pepper. Season lightly with salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh herbs.
  4. Top with sliced tomatoes and dot with fresh cheese curds. Sprinkle with aged Asiago or Parmesan cheese and drizzle the top with olive oil.
  5. Bake 15-20 minutes, until bubbly on top and crust is golden brown. Scatter with fresh basil leaves. Makes 1 medium pizza.

(Dirty-Little-Secret)

I spend a lot of my free time reading cookbooks and checking out online recipes. It’s my form of relaxation. But there are times when all I really want is a familiar, well-tested recipe; one that delivers what I expect.

When I’m thinking ‘casual cake’, here’s a contender. Not only is it always good, it is basic and highly adaptable. I especially like tinkering with this one because it  easily changes with the season—and it loves fresh fruit, too.

At its heart is a well constructed European-style cake that rises high and fills the pan. It uses 3 eggs, which I consider generous, but they are core to its success: they add structure and don’t fade into the background. To control the fat quotient, I tend to use plain yogurt for tenderness and moisture and then fold in a little olive oil on the finish.

While this cake benefits from a good beating to get the eggs and sugar fully integrated, I have taken to forgoing a mixer in lieu of a whisk. You could call it a dump cake, because the dry ingredients are quickly added to the wet. Olive oil is gently folded into the batter and it’s quickly popped into a moderate oven.

That’s it.  Since any additions and flavorings incorporated will become quite apparent, I tend to use a mild olive oil because a bold extra virgin oil can overly dominate. Which brings us to what prompted this cake…

At my market they have been actively promoting beautiful blueberries from Chile.  Of course, I would pause and stare. I’d mentally note that it’s a long way to go for something that grows like crazy in Oregon, and then I would move on.  It’s wrong—on so many levels…

That argument blew up today. They reduced the price of the blueberries, and I buckled. (My dirty-little-secret.) So, today’s cake features two of my favorite things:  blueberries and polenta.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

I’ve gone with a simple upside-down cake that features sweetened blueberries topside and includes a bit of fine polenta in the batter for taste and texture. These two are true partners in crime, and what a color combination!

Since blueberries have an affinity for lemon and nutmeg, they flavor the cake beautifully and bring it all together.  Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream would be worth considering, too.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

Ingredients
Berry Layer
1 tsp butter
1½ cups fresh or frozen blueberries, picked and rinsed
⅓ cup granulated sugar
Dry Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup fine polenta or cornmeal
½ tsp each baking powder and baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg
Wet Ingredients
3 eggs, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup plain yogurt, room temperature
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
⅓ cup mild olive oil

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Butter a 9″ cake pan and spread the blueberries evenly in the bottom of the pan; sprinkle with sugar and set aside.  On wax paper, blend the flour through nutmeg and set aside.
  3. In mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until light and gradually beat in the sugar.
  4. Add the yogurt, lemon zest, vanilla, and mix.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate. Fold in the oil; don’t over mix.  Scrape bowl down and spread the batter evenly over the berries.
  5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, rotating to brown evenly, until center springs back when touched.
  6. Cool on rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of pan to loosen the cake, cover with a serving plate, quickly flip to invert cake onto it and cool.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve. Serves 8-10.

Sandy beaches are nice…

As much as I love winter soups and stews, this week I reached my limit.

It wasn’t all that evident until I dashed out of the rain and into the market for a few staples, wrapped in a fleece jacket and wool scarf. Straight ahead in the produce section, I came to a screeching stop in front of a large display of fresh mangoes.

I was not prepared for this.

My imagination immediately transformed this sight into a sandy beach lined with palm trees. I felt a warm tropical breeze envelope me… and there was a colorful bowl of fresh mango salsa.

mango salsa

No, this was not hot flashes…

Before I knew it, my cart not only held mangoes, there were limes, peppers, onions and cilantro. Down the aisle at the meat counter, they were featuring pork tenderloins. I’ll have that, thank you. Into the cart it went. This would need a quick and easy marinade; I’d go with a basic sesame-soy blend. Whatever else I needed, was immaterial. I was done.

Back at home, the pork was marinating in no time. I dusted off my old tropical salsa recipe and quickly pulled it together. Although mango is my favorite, I’ve made this with all sorts of fruit, including papaya and peach. Fresh pineapple is a good addition if the fruit is not real ripe.

This refreshing salsa goes with just about anything (I was even considering cereal at one point), from grilled fish to pork or chicken—and any sort of fried food.

The marinade is one I had been working on for Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches, so that will likely still happen. It has a bit of sweetness to help with the caramelization process. I dropped the marinated pork into a hot pan for a quick sear and finished it in a medium hot oven.

The tenderloin barely made it out of the oven before I was wolfing it down with the lovely mango salsa. Ah yes, I was back on that sandy beach with tropical breezes wafting through the palm trees. So nice…

Tropical Salsa

Ingredients
2 large ripe mangoes, peel 1/2″ dice
½ red pepper, seed and dice
½ jalapeno, seed and dice
¼ cup green onions, chop
¼ cup red onion, dice
juice of ½ lime
2 Tbsp cilantro or 1/2 tsp thyme, mince
pinch salt and sugar, to taste

Instructions
Combine all and chill 2 hours or up to a day ahead. Adjust to taste with lime juice or sugar. Makes about 2 cups

Soothing Split Pea Soup

My daughter, Shannon, recently mentioned how much she missed and enjoyed a comforting bowl of creamy split pea soup. I agreed, it reminded me that there is something highly restorative about this soup; it penetrates all the nooks and crannies of my body and fills it with heartwarming goodness.

It’s cold and rainy in Oregon today and waaay past time for a soothing bowl of homemade split pea soup.

Homemade Split Pea Soup

The ham hock and vegetable speckled soup my kids were raised on was inspired by the pea soup we loved at Andersen’s in Buelton, CA.

It takes about 3 hours on the stove top. Seriously, who has that much time anymore? I got to work updating the old recipe, and brought it into the 21st century, thanks to the power of the Instant Pot.

With all my fiddling, the soup was complete in under an hour, including rummaging, prepping, pressure cooking and release time. Under pressure, the soup only takes 25 minutes. While that was happening, I decided to whip up soup toppings for extra protein and interest.

In the fridge I found a small package of garlic chicken sausage which I sliced up and quickly seared. I chopped up and added a few other odds and ends to the skillet: a partially used onion, pasilla and yellow peppers, and fresh rosemary. I grated up a small bowl of rosemary Asiago cheese and stepped away.

When the soup was complete, I pulled out the ham hock and bay leaf and gave it a quick blitz with the immersion blender to bring it all together. The meat from the hock was still smoky and flavorful, so I picked it off the bone and added to the pot.

Split pea soup is notorious for its thickening attributes. If it is cooked on the stove top, it’s a good idea to regularly give it a stir to keep it from sticking and burning on the bottom. Since there is no stirring while cooking under pressure, add more liquid than you think you will need and give it a good stir before sealing the lid. We know the soup will thicken and continue to do so as it cools. It’s a very good thing.

Homemade Split Pea Soup

Ingredients
6 cups water, or more
1 ham hock, or 3 strips smoky bacon, slice
1 onion, chop
1 stalk celery, plus leaves, chop
1 large carrot, chop
1 clove garlic, mince
2 cups dried split peas, rinse
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

Instructions

  1. Begin by preheating Instant Pot by placing 4 cups of water in liner of pressure cooker and set to Normal or Medium Sauté.
  2. Meanwhile add all ingredients to pot as prepped. Add remaining 2 cups or water and give a stir. Add lid, seal pot to Hi Pressure, set to 25 minutes.
  3. When complete, turn off and disconnect pot. Allow 10-minute natural release of pressure, then carefully release remaining pressure. Open lid and stir up from bottom.
  4. Remove ham hock and bay leaf. For a more homogeneous soup, give it a quick blast with an immersion blender for 20-30 seconds or longer. Pick ham from bone and add to the pot; adjust seasoning. Serve with grated cheese.

Using stove top: As above, simmer for about 3 hours, stirring occasionally until thick. Serves 6