Monthly Archives: February 2016

FRENCH ONION SOUP AND COLORADO’S MOUNTAIN MEN

We spent a few days in Estes Park giving our sister-in-law/sister a helping hand during her recovery. Before it was time to go, we drove around town. There were sights to behold. The Stanley Hotel sits high over the town. It is a beautifully preserved white clapboard hotel of the same era as the Coronado Hotel in  San Diego and the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. It has one further attraction – it served as the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, even though the very scary movie was filmed at the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood with interiors styled after the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. Every room in the Stanley is said to be haunted, but room 217 where King stayed is the epicenter of supposed paranormal activity.

The Stanley Hotel. Ask for room 271.

The Stanley Hotel. Ask for room 271.

The other sight we enjoyed was the herds of elk grazing on the lawns of various homes in the city. The elk are not tame, but you certainly wouldn’t know it. I’m not sure that I would like elk in my front yard, especially during rutting season, although they probably enrich the soil.

Elk herd grazing in the subdivision

Elk herd grazing in the subdivision

Front yard grass is the best

Front yard grass is the best

We left Estes Park by way of the Peak-to-Peak Highway, a winding but excellent road that clings to the Front Range, including the spectacular 14’er, Long’s Peak. The day was warm; the skies were clear and deep blue; so the white snow on the peaks and the dark green of the conifer forests was truly breath-taking. We saw herds of deer and even a flock of big horn sheep.

Along the Peak-to-Peak Highway

Along the Peak-to-Peak Highway

Long's Peak

Long’s Peak

After a short bypass on I70, we headed off into South Park (the real South Park), an enormous valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks including the Collegiate Range – Mt Princeton, Mt. Harvard, and Mt. Yale. Then we headed over the pass into the San Luis Valley decorated with a wall of several 14 thousand foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. It was humbling to think that the famous Mountain Men were the first Europeans to see this country, but the names of rivers – St. Vrain , Platte – reminded us of them.

Then on to New Mexico where Kit Carson hung out, and the mountains were every bit as beautiful. When we got home we discovered catkins on our backyard aspen. Spring cannot be far away.

Aspen catkins

Aspen catkins

Unfortunately, the cupboard was bare. We had a few onions, so I decided to make French onion soup. I took some modest shortcuts with Julia Child’s recipe. It turned out to be remarkably easy, and the result was delicious. It is hard to understand why French onion soup in restaurants often tastes so bland and watery.

RECIPE

French Onion Soup

Ingredients

  • 3 medium yellow onions
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil + some for croutons
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 42 ounces beef stock
  • ½ cup dry vermouth
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2  ½-inch slices good quality bread
  • garlic powder
  • 4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated

Method

  1. Peel the onions, and with a mandoline slice into thin rounds.
  2. In a heavy pot over medium-low heat, cook the onions, covered,  in the butter and oil for 15 minutes until they are wilted and translucent but not browned.
  3. Remove the lid, stir in the salt and sugar, and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onions are caramelized and golden brown. Stir in the flour, and cook for a few minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour.
  4. Stir in the beef stock and vermouth. Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add water if the soup gets too concentrated.
  5. In the meantime, use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the bread slices with olive oil. Sprinkle on garlic powder. Cut into ½-inch cubes and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake in the middle of a 170°F oven for 30 minutes or until the bread cubes are thoroughly dry. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  6. Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls. Arrange croutons on top. Sprinkle with the grated Gruyère and set on a baking pan. Place in the middle of an oven heated to 400°F and warm until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbling, about 5 to 15 minutes. Watch carefully to prevent burning.
  7. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
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KING RANCH CHICKEN

We have gone to Colorado to visit my sister-in-law who is recovering from a hospital stay. Since she grew up in Texas, we thought some easy-to-eat Texas comfort food would welcome her back home.

If you have ever lived in Texas, you have probably eaten King Ranch Chicken. If you have never lived in Texas, it’s likely you have not even heard of the dish. King Ranch Chicken is served at Texas weddings, funerals, conferences, and of course women’s luncheons. It has even been suggested that the Texas State Legislature should designate KRC as the official State Casserole. A major function of the legislature seems to be to recognize the official state bird, fish, tree, etc. Some wags would  suggest that that is the most important thing they do.

In spite of all this fame, it is unknown how KRC got its name. One thing seems certain: it was not invented on the legendary King Ranch in Far South Texas. That assertion has been steadfastly denied by the wife of one of the past owners. A more likely explanation seems to me to be that it was invented and named by a home cook in the 1940s or 1950s during the heyday of The Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker when a can of condensed soup was the key to elegance. Perhaps the inventor developed the recipe for her local Junior League cookbook. Versions of the recipe are certainly legion in all sorts of community cookbooks.

The first time I remember eating KRC was at a noon conference for students at a West Texas university many years ago. I don’t recall the topic of the conference, but I do remember that not a speck of the KRC remained. I also remember that it was tasty, gooey, and a little bit spicy.

There are probably as many recipes for KRC as there are Texas home cooks, but there are six key components: chicken of course, corn tortillas (though recent recipes substitute Doritos – a heresy as far as I’m concerned), cheese (some recipes swear by Velveeta), canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cream of chicken soup, and Ro*Tel. If you absolutely can’t stand the thought of canned soup, you can substitute your own homemade béchamel, but then your KRC would not be completely authentic.

Ro*Tel is another Texas invention. It was created during the 1930s in a small town near the Texas-Mexico border and not far from the King Ranch. It is a secret mix of tomatoes, green chiles, and spices. It is a key ingredient of queso dip and for years was only available in Texas. The tiny company was eventually sold to Con Agra, so now Ro*Tel should be available in every grocery store.

This version of the recipe includes two other ingredients that are not always in the recipe, but in my opinion they are both essential to Tex-Mex cooking: Mexican oregano and ground cumin. If you are not accustomed to their flavors you may find them objectionable. In that case, leave then out. Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano, and the best comes as leaves, stems, and flowers that you crush between the palms of your hands,

Some folks think KRC is too mushy. If you worry about that, cut back on the liquid. One of the beauties of KRC is that you can make the recipe your own. Then you will enjoy widespread fame throughout your neighborhood.

RECIPE

King Ranch Chicken

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 18 day-old corn tortillas
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 6 crimini mushrooms, torn into pieces
  • 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
  • 1 can Ro*Tel
  • 4 ounces canned chopped green chiles
  • 1 cup chicken stock (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper
  •  4 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
  • sour cream
  • green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)
  • red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)

Method

  1. In a large pot, cover the chicken with salted water and bring to the boil. Cook at a low boil for 45 minutes or until the chicken is completely cooked. Cool until it is easy to handle. Then remove the skin, bones, fat, and any gristle. Cut the chicken meat into bite-sized pieces or shred with two forks. Set aside.
  2. Toast the tortillas for 15-20 seconds on both sides in a dry, hot skillet. Cut the heated tortillas in half and set aside.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir for a few minutes until translucent. Then stir in the mushroom pieces and continue to cook until the mushrooms are heated through and well-cooked. Stir in the mushroom soup, chicken soup,, Ro*Tel, green chiles, optional chicken stock, oregano, and cumin. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for assembly of the casserole.
  4. Prepare a 9″ x 13″ x 4″ glass baking dish by spraying the inside with baking spray. Ladle a scant half cup of the soup mixture into the baking dish and spread across the bottom of the dish. Arrange 12 tortilla halves to completely cover the bottom of the dish.
  5. Arrange about half of the cut-up chicken to cover the tortillas. Then top with a little less than half of the soup mixture. Top with about one-third of the grated cheeses.
  6. Arrange another layer of tortilla halves, topped with the remaining chicken and more soup mixture, reserving about 3/4 cup for the top, and half the remaining cheeses. Dot with teaspoonfuls of sour cream.
  7. Arrange a final layer of tortilla halves. Top with the remaining soup mixture and cheeses.
  8. Decorate if desired with the optional bell pepper rings.
  9. Bake for one hour in the middle of an oven preheated to 350ºF, until the top is well-browned and bubbling. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, and serve immediately.

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COEUR À LA CRÈME WITH STRAWBERRY COULIS AND FRESH STRAWBERRIES

There are two days of the year when we never go to a restaurant: Mothers’ Day and Valentine’s Day. There are several reasons, and they are all very simple. First and most important, everyone else goes out to eat on those days. The effects of that are that one absolutely must have a reservation; even with a reservation it is guaranteed that you will have to wait – sometimes for hours; the menu is usually limited and often with nothing that is appealing; even in the best of restaurants the rush impacts the quality of service and the execution of the meal – to suggest that it may taste like cafeteria food is probably an overstatement, but not much; and finally, none of the staff really wants to be there – they would rather be at their own table – and you can sense that in their lack of smile and even civility.

That’s a long-winded way to say that we always cook dinner at home on Valentine’s Day. This year it was pan-sautéed beef filet, french fries,  asparagus with aioli, hard rolls, and dessert.

Dessert was coeur â la crème made in a beautiful French ceramic mold that we have had for as long as we have been married. The Americanized version of the dish uses cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, and whipped cream. Since that didn’t seem like enough calories, I topped it with a fresh strawberry coulis, and fresh strawberries. The heart-shaped mold was a perfect ending to a quiet Valentine’s Day dinner at home.

RECIPES

Coeur à la Crème

Ingredients

  • 1 cup small-curd cottage cheese
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
  • ½ cup heavy cream

Method

  1. Place the cottage cheese, sour cream, and yogurt in the beaker of a food processor
  2. Blend thoroughly until the mixture is smooth.
  3. Pour into a medium bowl
  4. Whip the heavy cream and then stir into the mixture.
  5. Line a porous mold with three layers of moistened cheese cloth.
  6. Pour the mixture into the mold. Cover with the ends of the cheese cloth and place the mold in a rimmed plate.
  7. Refrigerate overnight.
  8. Unmold on a plate. Top with strawberry coulis. Garnish with fresh strawberries. Serve.

Strawberry Coulis

Ingredients

  • 1 pint fresh strawberries + more for garnish
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Method

  1. Place all of the ingredients in the beaker of a food processor and blend until smooth.
  2. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to three days until ready to use.

 

 

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SPUDS ‘N’ WHISKEY CHEESE

When we arrived back home, I downloaded my camera to see if I had managed to capture any images of our visit to California. Here are a few of those memories:

Among the things we found in our cooler from the trip were some fragments of cheese that we had bought in Lodi. The night before our return home, Peter and his family stopped by our apartment on their way back to the Bay Area from a ski day in Kirkwood. We enjoyed some local wine and a plate of cheese before we went out to dinner.

We had found the cheese at a great little cheese shop on School Street, the main drag of Lodi’s charming historic downtown. Cheese Central is owned by a very pleasant woman, Cindy Della Monica, who clearly enjoys what she is doing. Most cheesemongers seem to have a good time and love to talk about cheese. That, and free samples, helps them sell their products. Karen, Cindy’s very knowledgeable assistant, was happier and more enthusiastic than any other cheesemonger I have ever met. She shared some excellent samples and gave us some very good suggestions.

We wound up buying a French epoisse cut fresh from a three-pound log, a Spanish cinco lanzas, and a Welsh cheddar, along with some crackers and a bit of quince paste membrillo. The cinco lanzas is made  by Queso García Baquero in La Mancha in the style of manchego (even with a similar dark grass imprint on the rind) but instead of sheep milk, it is made from a secret blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk. It went well with the membrillo. The Welsh cheddar was the big surprise. It is called “Amber Mist” and is made by the Snowdonia Cheese Company. The surprise is that the cheese is soft and crumbly because of added Scotch whiskey which adds to the flavor without being overpowering.

We had a wonderful time with Peter’s family; the two girls loved the membrillo and all of the cheeses along with some heart-shaped water biscuits. Even at that, there were leftovers. But not enough for another cheese party when we got home. Still, the cheeses wouldn’t last forever, and they were too delicious to throw out. That’s when I decided to use them for a special mac and cheese. Our three cheeses went well together, but you should be careful with your choices. The cheese should melt, so no hard cheeses. Blue cheeses might overpower any others. Stinky cheese should not be included, and after a two-day road trip the epoisse came close to disqualifying itself.

Somehow mac and cheese seemed to be a bit prosaic. I substituted potatoes for pasta, added some more ingredients, and poured in a little extra whiskey to flavor things a bit more.  I used some Italian guanciale (cured hog cheek) but you can easily substitute pancetta or bacon or even nothing. Here’s the ad hoc recipe. It turned out pretty good, I think.

RECIPE

Spuds ‘n’ Whiskey Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced, ½ inch cubes
  • 4 ounces guanciale, trimmed of skin and diced (Use pancetta or bacon if you prefer, or omit)
  • 2 medium crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 scallions sliced (include green tops)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups milk
  • 2 ounces Scotch whiskey (don’t use your 18-year-old single malt) or other whiskey*** Optional
  • salt and pepper
  • leftover cheeses (about 4 ounces)
  • butter for preparing baking dish and topping the casserole filling
  • panko
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Method

  1. In a heavy pot, cover the cubed potatoes with well salted water, bring to the boil, and cook for 10-12 minutes until the potatoes have softened but not cooked through. Remove from the heat, drain, and set aside.
  2. In the meantime, sauté the guanciale over medium heat until it is crispy. Drain on several thicknesses of paper towel and set aside. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat; add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until cooked through. Drain and set aside.
  3. Prepare the scallions and set aside.
  4. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter until it has stopped foaming. Add the flour and stir while cooking another 5 minutes until the mixture is cooked but not browned. Stir in the milk and continue to stir until the mixture thickens and comes to a simmer. Stir in the whiskey, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  5. Over low heat, add the leftover pieces of cheese to the white sauce. Grate the cheese if it is in large chunks. Stir until the cheese is completely melted.
  6. Stir in the sautéed guanciale,, mushrooms, and scallions.
  7. Combine the potatoes and sauce.
  8. Prepare a baking dish by liberally buttering the inside of a baking dish and coating the inside with panko. Transfer the potato-sauce mixture to the baking dish, and top with more panko and grated Parmesan. With a pastry brush, paint the top of the casserole with melted butter.
  9. Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 350°F for one hour until the top is browned and bubbling. Serve while still warm.

 

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HOMECOMING BEAN AND KALE SOUP

We are back from our long visit to Lodi, California. We had a great time and returned with a trunk filled with bottles of wine that we found at some of the more than 80 wineries in the Lodi area. We plowed through two days of rain and snow with tense times on the passes in Tehachapi, California and Flagstaff, Arizona.

When we got home, the cupboard was bare – or nearly so – requiring a little innovation on my part to come up with something to eat. I fell back on a post that I had just read a few days before. Diane Darrow writes an interesting blog, Another Year in Recipes. She lives in New York City but has spent much time in Italy and has authored two Italian cookbooks. She wrote of making a bean soup from one of her cookbooks when she was snowed in during the recent NYC blizzard. You should definitely check out her blog.

This is not Diane’s recipe, but it is certainly inspired by hers. I confess that I had run out of ditali and had to turn to elbow macaroni. I also had to run to the market for a bunch of kale, but otherwise everything else was in the pantry or in the little cooler we always carry in our car. The next day I went back to the store for a marathon journey through the aisles.

image

 RECIPE

Bean and Kale Soup

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup dry black-eyed peas
  • 2/3 cup dry black beans
  • 2/3 cup dry red beans
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • ½ cup celery chopped
  • ½ cup carrots, grated
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 8 ounces canned tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning blend
  • 1 tablespoon rubbed sage
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 bunch kale
  • ½cup elbow macaroni
  • 2/3 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
  • extra virgin olive oil (your best)

Method

  1. Pick over the beans, removing any stones, and place in a large, lidded, heavy pot. Cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for two minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and set aside until the pot has cooled. Drain the beans and set aside.
  2. Rinse and dry the pot. Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat, covered, for about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Stir in the celery, carrots, reserved beans, beef stock, and tomato sauce. Bring to the boil and then simmer covered for about 1 hour.
  3. Add the garlic, mushrooms, seasoning blend, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer, covered. Add water if needed.
  4. Meanwhile, wash the kale. Remove the stems and center ribs, soaking the leaves in cold water for an hour. Cut the kale into 3 x 3 inch pieces and add to the soup pot. Cover and continue to cook for another hour, stirring occasionally. About 15 minutes before you are ready to serve, stir in the macaroni.
  5. When the beans are soft, and the kale has cooked down, correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into serving bowls, top with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

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