Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

Save

Beef Stroganoff Meatballs

2015 Blog October-0554These are the meatballs that started it all. On a whim, in a post I wrote to publicize Shauna’s (at the time) most recent cookbook, I mentioned off-hand the idea of roasting the mushrooms in the Russian classic beef stroganoff – a savory stew of long-cooked beef with onions and mushrooms, often draped over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

2015 Blog October-05462015 Blog October-0548Somehow, as it simmered in my head, the concept of roasted mushrooms, well, mushroomed, and turned instead into adapting the whole dish into a meatball. Onions and mushrooms, sautéed down in butter until tender and moist, studding a beef meatball floating in a beefy wine sauce, finished with a generous dollop of sour cream. It sounded exactly right, and though a few ingredients added themselves to the mix – thyme in the meatballs, a bay leaf in the sauce and a sprinkling of fresh herbs of the top – they stayed in basically the same form as the year stretched on. From there, in fact, they launched the whole meatball project: if beef stroganoff could be remade in meatball form, why couldn’t other classic dishes? And if I could come up with enough of those, I was set with a project for the year. It became a plan.

2015 Blog October-05492015 Blog October-0551As ideas came thick and fast, and the seasons grew warmer, stroganoff was put off month after month. Finally, in a rare cool weekend, I was able to return to the idea and let me tell you, it was a worthy origin story. My sauce broke, but yours won’t, because you will start with your sour cream at room temperature and add it slooooowly with the heat off, won’t you? And your meatballs will be tender and moist, after simmering but not boiling in the rich, slightly thickened sauce. And though you can certainly serve these as we did, piled atop pan-toasted gnocchi, a pillow of sour cream mashed potatoes or a bowl of egg noodles would be equally welcome.

2015 Blog October-0552

Beef Stroganoff Meatballs
Makes 24-28 tablespoon sized meatballs
45-60 minutes, very approximately
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup minced white onions
1 cup minced mushrooms (I like crimini)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pound ground beef, preferably 85% lean / 15% fat (any leaner and the meatballs run the risk of being dry)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
1 egg
1 cup red wine
2 cups low-sodium beef broth
1 bay leaf
¾ cup full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
1-2 tablespoons each minced dill and parsley, to garnish
pan-fried gnocchi, egg noodles, or mashed potatoes, to serve

 

  • In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir once, then let cook gently while you prepare the mushrooms.
  • Add mushrooms, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and the thyme to the gently cooking onions and raise the heat to medium, then cook, stirring frequently, until tender and lightly browned – around 5-8 minutes. Let cool.
  • In a medium glass bowl, combine ground beef, salt, mustard, egg, and the cooled mushrooms and onions. Use your fingertips (preferable) or a spatula to lightly bring everything together; we are aiming for a mixture in which the aromatics and seasonings are evenly distributed.
  • In the same skillet you used for the onions and mushrooms, heat a few drops of olive oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add a teaspoon-sized patty of the meat mixture and cook on both sides until done. Taste for seasoning and adjust for the rest of the mixture, if needed.
  • Using moistened hands, roll tablespoons of the meat mixture into tight but tender spheres, setting each on a plate until all are rolled. In the same large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the meatballs in a single layer, not touching each other (this will probably take at least two batches). Cook until browned on all sides (2-3 minutes per side), then set aside on a clean plate. Repeat until all meatballs are browned.
  • When all meatballs are browned and set aside, add the red wine all at once and use a wooden spoon or spatula to loosen the browned bits from the bottom. This is called fond, and it contains a lot of flavor. Add the beef broth and the bay leaf, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let the broth and wine mixture simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Carefully add the browned meatballs back into the liquid and return to a simmer, letting the meatballs roll in their broth and wine bath for 10 minutes. At this point, it would be wise to get the starch component ready as well.
  • When the meatballs are cooked through, dish them out with a slotted spoon to a temporary storage plate. Turn off the heat and slowly whisk in the sour cream ¼ cup at a time. Don’t add it all right away, and by all means don’t add it straight out of the refrigerator – this will cause it to turn grainy and look curdled (though it will still taste okay). Slow incorporation is key.
  • Once sour cream is fully incorporated, return skillet to low heat, add the meatballs back in once more, and cook just until sauce and meatballs are warmed through.
  • To serve, pile meatballs with a healthy helping of sauce atop pan-fried gnocchi, mashed potatoes, or egg noodles, and garnish with a sprinkle of fresh dill and parsley.

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone

Food Blog March 2015-0498It would seem that I’m developed a bit of an obsession with well-oiled, aggressively seasoned mushrooms, patiently pan-roasted until deeply, deeply browned and edging toward crisp. Still bouncy on the inside, these golden crusted, meaty little nuggets are finding their way into my cooking more and more frequently. This would be, I think, an entirely good thing in terms of health and waistlines, except I keep drowning them in small mountains of cheese. Last week it was the quintessential quesadilla (which, if you’re wondering, is also stellar in taco format with the addition of tempeh, per my friend S.). This week, a calzone filled with deeply caramelized mushroom quarters, a chunky adaptation of my favorite puttanesca sauce, and of course, the requisite cheese all folded up and pinched inside a swollen half moon of dough.

Food Blog March 2015-0464Food Blog March 2015-0479I love a good calzone, but N. is a little resistant for the same reason he is resistant to lasagna: the not-smooth-enough texture of ricotta cheese. Its strange milky loyalty to both savory and sweet applications is not quite cheese-flavored enough, and the slight graininess of the tiny, tiny residual curds lingering in there weirds him out. Fortunately, in this case as with most cheese-related conflicts, the answer is more. Mashing a healthy dose of grated mozzarella in with the ricotta adds a stronger cheese flavor and ups the salt content, which I think ricotta often needs. Here, I’ve bumped up the flavor and interest even more by folding in a small pile of chopped herbs and some lemon zest. This provided welcomed brightness against the deep earthy mushrooms and puttanesca.

Food Blog March 2015-0471Food Blog March 2015-0476The trick with calzones, as you might expect, is moisture. Because you are sealing up this lovely little packet, it should be baked at a lower temperature than a pizza – the dough tends to be a bit thicker, and because half of it is on the inside, it needs more time to cook all the way through without burning the outside. But what you’ve stacked up inside also has more time to release its own juices, which can result in a bottom crust which is a bit, well, mushy is such an ugly word. Let’s call it soft. Ours certainly was. Calzone dough should be chewy and slightly pillowy but still, there’s a reason it’s called crust.

Food Blog March 2015-0481Food Blog March 2015-0482My thoughts on preventing this are as follows: ensure you are using only the chunky vegetable bits from the puttanesca sauce for the inside. Save the sauce component to spread over the top of the calzone. Additionally, if you have the time, drain the ricotta lump in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Even an hour would allow some of that moisture to escape, which means it would end up in the sink rather than the bottom crust of your dinner.

Food Blog March 2015-0484Food Blog March 2015-0485Food Blog March 2015-0488But even if you do end up with a bottom crust that isn’t as, well, crusty as you might like, you won’t be hurting for flavor. Mushrooms and ricotta – particularly a ricotta jazzed up with mozzarella and aromatics – play incredibly well together, and somehow both hold up to the briny strength of the sauce.
Food Blog March 2015-0492It’s a good dish, then, with which to bid March farewell: still those dark, warm notes of winter, but a lovely springy freshness too, all wrapped up in a chewy, melty package, and just as delicious the next day.

Food Blog March 2015-0499

Mushroom Puttanesca Calzone
Serves 6-8
16 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought
8 ounces crimini or button mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of pepper
sprig of thyme (optional)
4 ounces ricotta cheese, drained if desired
8 ounces (1 cup) low moisture mozzarella cheese, grated and divided
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
For sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers, minced
¼ cup coarsely chopped kalamata olives
2 anchovy fillets
pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ cup dry red wine
8-10 ounces diced canned tomatoes, with their juice
  • On an oiled pizza pan, spread out the pizza dough in a rough circle 12 inches in diameter. If it springs back, no worries; let it rest for ten minutes and then stretch it out again. At least half an hour before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F with a rack in the middle position.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, the pinch of pepper, and the thyme sprig if desired and cook until the mushrooms are well-browned. This should take 8-10 minutes with occasional stirring, during which time the mushrooms will suck up the oil, release their liquid, and then accept some of that liquid back again.
  • While the mushrooms cook, combine the ricotta and ½ cup of the mozzarella cheese in a small bowl with the fresh parsley, fresh basil, lemon zest, and pinch of salt to taste. I find a rubber spatula works well for this. Reserve the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella for the top of the calzone.
  • When the mushrooms are done, set them aside in a small bowl and discard the thyme sprig, then put the skillet back over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the minced garlic. Saute for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is soft and aromatic and edging toward golden. Add the anchovy fillets and mash them around with a wooden spoon to break down. Scrape in the capers and olives and saute for an additional 1 minute.
  • Toss in the red pepper flakes, the basil, and the ½ cup of red wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomatoes with their juice and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit and the flavors are well combined. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
  • To assemble, spread the cheese mixture over half of the stretched dough, leaving a healthy inch margin around the edge. Pile the mushrooms on top of the cheese, and then use a slotted spoon to add the chunky portions of the sauce – the tomato and olive and caper bits – on top of the mushrooms (again, keep and respect that inch margin).
  • With slightly moistened or lightly oiled hands (especially if your dough is sticky), grab the edge opposite the area you’ve been filling and pull up, folding over to meet the half-circle edge along your margin. You’ll form a half-moon shape with the dough. Crimp the edge by pulling the bottom layer of dough up slightly over the top layer in a series of small segments. Press and pinch each one tightly into the top layer of dough about a half inch from the edge. This will form a seal to prohibit the top from opening up during baking. It also looks pretty. Because we care about that.
  • With the calzone fully sealed along the circular edge, brush the top with some of the remaining puttanesca sauce, then sprinkle on the remaining ½ cup of mozzarella cheese. Carefully place into the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cheese on top is melted and crusty, and the dough is golden and cooked through. After removing from the oven, wait 5-10 minutes before slicing, then serve hot with any remaining puttanesca sauce, if desired.

Mushroom Kale Quesadillas

Food Blog March 2015-0538Because I have the habit of wanting to impress you, the simple, day-to-day dinners I make often don’t end up here because they don’t strike me as “blog-worthy,” as I’m fond of saying. But much as I want to blow you away all the time, this is a silly habit. The point is not over-the-top impressive, outrageously original, faultlessly styled plates. At least it shouldn’t be. The point is good food. And yet because I get sucked in by things like Pinterest and Tastegawking and Foodspotter and vice versa, we had these mushroom kale quesadillas three or four times in a month because they were so damn delicious I couldn’t stop thinking about them before I realized they might be something I should share with you. Even though they are simple. Even though they are just quesadillas.

Food Blog March 2015-0533Because, seriously? Mushrooms. Kale. Cheese. Toasted tortillas. What a combination! Quesadillas are, weirdly enough, a kind of touchstone for me. If I wrote one of those memoir/cookbook mash-ups, a quesadilla would have to find its way in there somewhere, because when I stop and think about it for three seconds, my life contains a number of memory-charged quesadilla incidents. Example: when my family moved from Southern to Northern California shortly after I graduated from high school, some of the first ingredients in our new fridge were tortillas, cheddar, and salsa. As my mom unpacked the kitchen and the movers unloaded box after box after box from the massive truck into our new garage, we realized the morning had wasted thin and we were starving. Cue Chelsea at the stove with a skillet and spatula rinsed free of box dust seconds ago, flipping quesadillas. They weren’t magnificent, because they were just cheddar folded inside a flour tortilla, but when the cheese melted and sizzled out the sides, and the fat hidden in that deceptively dry flour tortilla browned in huge freckles all over the surface, no one wanted anything else for lunch, including the movers. We used up the whole package of tortillas and most of the cheese, but it was nice to watch everyone unfolding the fried half-moons and pouring liberal doses of salsa over the molten orange goo inside.

Food Blog March 2015-0527Quesadillas are best when you don’t think about them too much. What I mean is, they are best when they contain a quantity of cheese you’d rather not cop to. During our second year of living together, my college roommate K. wondered briefly why she liked my quesadillas so much more than hers. Part of it was undeniably the fact that food tastes so much better when someone makes it for you. But part of it, we determined, was that I used more cheese than she did. Great blocks of monterey jack sacrificed themselves to feed our quesadilla longing, and K. placed me permanently in charge of quesadilla production, as long as I never told her how much cheese I was folding inside. In those days, we upgraded from spooning a scoop up jarred salsa inside to smashing a velvet green half of avocado over the top, and maybe a luscious scoop of sour cream. These lunches were probably, now that I think about it, the base of much of my weight gain that year (the post-break-up pints of Godiva ice cream were likely the other culprits). But in retrospect, my “sophomore sixteen” is so much less important than how good those quesadillas were with their different kinds of softness and the crisp, almost oily tortilla in between.

Food Blog March 2015-0523Food Blog March 2015-0525Though I’m still on board with a simple monterey jack quesadilla with avocado, guacamole, or salsa of any kind smeared over the top, I gradually realized quesadillas could also be employed to funnel vegetables into us. I don’t skimp on the cheese – no sense forgetting what I’ve learned – but now I jam in layers of corn or spinach or, in this version, thinly sliced mushrooms pan roasted until golden and almost crisp, folded together with torn leaves of kale barely wilted with some olive oil and salt. In quantity, cheese is non-negotiable, but the variety you mound on is a personal choice. I’m partial these days to pepperjack for that lovely extra kick, but regular, dependable old monterey jack, or a combination of jack and fontina or gouda would also be glorious. Here I’m using spinach tortillas in a combination vain attempt to make these seem healthier, and because I just dig the flavor, but you could use plain flour tortillas, or even corn, though they will obviously require less filling.

Food Blog March 2015-0528I’m not going to make the claim that these quesadillas will turn a mushroom and kale hater into a mushroom and kale lover, because we’re really not hiding the vegetables; we’re celebrating the way they complement the cheese and toasty tortilla. But they might turn a mushroom tolerator into an almost-fan, and someone who is tired of kale might find in them a gasp of fresh breath. And they will without question provide you with a quick, delicious dinner item that is absolutely perfect with a side of these beer braised beans.

Food Blog March 2015-0540

Mushroom Kale Quesadillas
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4-6 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons olive oil
16 ounces crimini mushrooms (1 pound)
5-6 ounces kale, tough stems removed
2 cups monterey jack or pepperjack cheese, or a mixture of soft white cheeses
4 burrito size tortillas (I like the spinach ones)
  • Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until glistening. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté over medium for 8-10 minutes, until they are nicely golden and some are barely crisp.
  • Add the kale to the cooked mushrooms and sauté for another 3-4 minutes until barely wilted but still bright green; season with salt and pepper if desired. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
  • To build the quesadillas, lay out the bottom tortilla and scatter ⅔ cup of the cheese evenly across it. Add half the mushroom and kale mixture, then scatter ⅓ cup of cheese on top of the vegetables. Top with the second tortilla. This construction – cheese, vegetables, cheese – holds in the vegetables because the cheese melts on both sides of them, binding them inside. This makes for easier, cleaner flipping.
  • Cook the quesadilla in a dry pan (I use the same one I cooked the mushrooms and kale in, just wiped clean with a paper towel) over medium to medium-high heat until the bottom tortilla is nicely browned (or slightly charred, if you like that), and the bottom layer of cheese is well melted; 3-4 minutes. Flip and repeat.
  • While the first quesadilla cooks, build the second one as described above.
  • When both sides of the quesadilla are nicely browned and crisp, remove from heat. Wait 1-2 minutes before slicing to avoid losing too much cheese. Repeat with second and all subsequent quesadillas.
  • Repeat with second and all subsequent quesadillas.
  • To serve, cut in quarters (or smaller wedges) and offer with guacamole, sour cream, salsa, or just bare and crisp and oozing and perfect.

Rye and Mushroom Stuffing with Chestnuts and Hazelnuts

Food Blog December 2014-0936A few months ago, my sister and her boyfriend engaged in a Whole 30 food challenge to help them feel healthier and more in control of their diets before the holiday season. As part of the challenge, and to silence naysayers convinced this would mean a barrage of boring, bland food, my sister took photos of almost every meal they ate. Some of these looked so good I was ready to hop on the bandwagon myself (though, as she admitted, going without cheese for that long was a hardship. First world problems, I know).

Food Blog December 2014-0930One dish in particular caught and held my imagination. R. called it “hazelnutted mushrooms.” The combination of two much beloved, earthy, woodsy ingredients made me think of Oregon and long for its damp autumnal glory as Los Angeles cycled through week after week of 80 degree days.

Food Blog December 2014-0929As the idea simmered in my mind, I kept thinking of other ingredients that would pair well with hazelnuts and mushrooms. Sage, certainly, with its dusty sharpness. Whiskey, to deglaze with that sear of burning honey. Maybe even chestnuts, with their curious texture and meaty sweetness.

Food Blog December 2014-0932Once chestnuts entered the picture, there was no doubt this was destined to become a stuffing. With half a loaf of dark pumpernickel rye bread in the fridge longing for an application, I took action. Butter, onions, celery, deeply caramelized mushrooms, and the crunch and odd sweetness of chestnuts bolstering the broth-moistened bread and toasted hazelnut bits. The whiskey adds just a gentle flavor and a great smell to the stuffing that backs up the flavor of the chestnuts and somehow makes them make more sense as an ingredient – I wouldn’t do without it, but you can if you wish.

Food Blog December 2014-0935You’ve likely noticed there are fewer photos here than usual – it turns out that though “brown food tastes goooood” as Anne Burrell is apt to note in her throaty growl, it doesn’t always produce the most flattering or interesting photograph. Regardless, this brown food is indeed good, and deserves your attention. Though we weren’t willing to put this on the Thanksgiving menu (we are boring sticklers, and this big a shift in the sides might cause turmoil), it has considerable promise as a winter companion to roasted meats at other cold-weather holidays, especially if you tend to go with pork or beef. I think stuffed pork chops would be a particularly nice application. We kept it simple, though, and went (almost) vegetarian, pairing moist, heaping spoonfuls with mashed sweet potatoes and salty, crispy roasted brussels sprouts.

Food Blog December 2014-0936

Rye and Mushroom Stuffing with Chestnuts and Hazelnuts
Serves 6-8 as a side
6-8 slices dark rye bread, preferably stale
¾ cup raw, unsalted hazelnuts
6 tablespoons butter
½ a red onion, diced
2 large ribs of celery, diced
¾ pound (12 ounces) crimini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
½ cup (6-8 ounces) cooked, peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
8-12 fresh sage leaves, minced
¼ cup whiskey (I used Jack Daniels – you use what you like, or omit it and use extra broth instead)
2 – 2 ½ cups broth, chicken or vegetable
Salt and pepper to taste (how much salt you use will depend on the sodium content of your broth)

 

  • Preheat your oven to 350F and position a rack in the middle slot. Fill a baking sheet with your hazelnuts. Place a wire rack in the tray (it should fit over the hazelnuts) and spread out your rye bread on a single layer atop it. Toast in the preheated oven until the bread is quite dry and the hazelnuts are starting to look slightly oily; 10-15 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.
  • Meanwhile, heat your broth in a small pot or in the microwave – it doesn’t need to be boiling, but it should be quite hot. If it does boil, turn it down to avoid losing too much through evaporation.
  • Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the diced onions and celery and cook until softened and translucent; 5-8 minutes.
  • Add the mushrooms and cook for an additional 5-8 minutes, until the mushrooms have soaked up much of the moisture in the pan and are soft. They may begin to brown a bit; that’s a good thing.
  • Add the chopped chestnuts and the sage and let them warm through for 1-2 minutes.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, chop your hazelnuts into rough chunks (it’s wise to wait until they are cool enough to handle), then add them to the vegetable mixture in the skillet.
  • Turn off the heat and immediately add the whiskey, which should bubble furiously when it hits the surface of the pan. Stir to combine – much of the whiskey will evaporate.
  • Tear or cut the rye bread into small pieces or cubes. It should be quite dry. Add the bread cubes to the pan and stir well to combine.
  • Now, add 2 cups of the hot broth and stir to combine. If the bread still seems fairly dry, add the remaining ½ cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then put a lid on the skillet and let the mixture sit for five minutes to allow the bread to absorb the broth.
  • After five minutes (or more – allowing it to sit a while at this stage is fine), deposit the stuffing mixture into a greased 9×9 inch baking dish, spread or pat into an even layer, and bake in your preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, until the top layer is crusty but the interior is still nice and moist.
  • Serve hot, as an accompaniment for meat or veg.

Project Sauce: Veloute with “Blue Plate Special”

I am realizing, as I continue this sauce project, how few of the sauces I’m examining are used “as-is.” Most, including this month’s velouté – the last of the flour-thickened sauces I’ll explore (next month we move on to eggs. I’m scared!) – are made as a base. They are, after all, “mother” sauces, so called not just because they are quite common, but because they are literally mothers: foundations that give birth to more complex sauces.

Food Blog March 2014-3496Velouté is very similar to béchamel, with the exception that here the roux (butter and flour cooked together) thickens a stock or broth, not milk. The stock in question is most commonly chicken or fish stock, which also tells you with which products it is most frequently served. To be technically correct, the stock or broth is supposed to be “white,” that is, made with bones that have not been previously roasted. However, I wasn’t about to make a special batch of stock just for this application, so I dug into my freezer and emerged with some icy golden goodness I’d made from roasting a chicken some months ago. Not exactly traditional (I so rarely am, after all), but manageable for our purposes.

Recipes for velouté vary slightly on particulars. Some begin with mire poix (a French vegetable base consisting of diced onions, carrots, and celery), some recommend herbal accompaniments, some advocate finishing the sauce with a splash of cream, and the quantities of salt and pepper a cook should add differ depending on whose authority you accept. Some recommend adding heated stock to the roux, some call for the roux to be plopped into the heated stock. Either way, you essentially make a roux, combine it with the stock, whisk assertively to banish lumps, and settle in for a long, slow simmer during which time the sauce reduces, thickens, and develops flavor. Velouté means “velvet,” and when your sauce is done simmering you will understand why: it is so silky and fluidly pourable and soft. Mine was a pale matte gold, not quite thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, but sufficiently concentrated to pour in a solid stream rather than a liquid dribble. It smelled incredible – rich and meaty and flavorful – like midafternoon on Thanksgiving, the first time you open the oven to let the turkey aroma escape.

Food Blog March 2014-3486Yet for all its depth of flavor, prolonged cooking time, and high heritage, I couldn’t help but feel comforted by this sauce. There is something fundamentally homey and familiar about it. I realize Escoffier, the father of modern French cooking, will roll over in his grave when I write this, but it’s basically a simple gravy.

In restaurants, it was traditional to have a pot of velouté simmering away, ready to be dipped into to create more complex sauces and flavor bases. I wanted to keep things simple and pure, though, to really understand the sauce and its flavor, so I only made a slight adjustment.

I’ve got two recipes for you. This week, I’m celebrating velouté for its simplicity. Next week I’ll share a preparation that turns this rich, velvety sauce into something a bit more complex, but superbly tasty and comforting.

Food Blog March 2014-3493For the first, capitalizing on velouté’s similarity to a simple poultry gravy, I considered meals that incorporate such a familiar staple, and ended up with a sort of blue plate special: crispy chicken cutlet, buttery smashed potatoes, and lightly steamed green beans.

I often try to trace my thought process as I put dishes together, since the influences I’m incorporating aren’t always obvious. One of the derivatives of velouté is called sauce allemande, which includes egg yolk and mushrooms added near the end of the cooking time. To give this a nod, I decided to incorporate sautéed mushrooms to my sauce. Leery of the egg yolk idea, though, I transferred it to my chicken instead, dusting the breasts with flour and then dipping them in beaten egg before giving them a crisp coating. The mushrooms reminded me of my mom’s rice pilaf, which includes sautéed mushrooms and toasted almonds. Almonds seemed like a good pairing for the chicken, so I chopped them fine and combined them with panko. Almonds are equally nice with green beans, as are mushrooms, so the dish was starting to look cohesive, especially once I imagined my fragrant sauce kissing the whole thing.

Food Blog March 2014-3481Food Blog March 2014-3482Deep and rich thanks to its prolonged simmer, and silky smooth from the flour granules just bursting with all that liquid, this velouté made me realize why the judges on Chopped (don’t laugh, it’s my favorite guilty pleasure show) are always on about how important it is to have a sauce accompanying your dish. This enhanced all of the existing flavors on our plates. I kept going back for different combinations: sauce with chicken, chicken and sauce with potatoes, potatoes and sauce with green beans. All good. It really, as the Dude might have put it, tied the dish together.  Food Blog March 2014-3495

Basic Velouté
Makes about 2 cups
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups chicken stock or broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sliced, sautéed mushrooms

 

  • Heat the broth or stock in a medium saucepan until it comes to the barest simmer.
  • In a small skillet, melt the butter. When it is just melted, sprinkle in the flour and immediately combine with a whisk. I find sprinkling the flour around the skillet, rather than dumping it all in one place, makes for easier combining.
  • Cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, whisking the whole time, until it takes on the consistency of a loose paste. You’ve now made a blond roux – minimal color, but maximum thickening power.
  • Either scrape the roux directly into the warm stock, or pour the stock slowly into the pan with the roux. Either way, whisk constantly to prevent clumping.
  • Simmer over low to medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes, whisking frequently to break up any lingering clumps or surface residue, until the liquid is slightly thickened, rich, and smells meaty. During this time, it will reduce by about a cup, leaving you with approximately two cups of sauce. You really do need to cook it for this long to achieve the desired consistency and depth of flavor.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Just before serving, stir in the sliced, sautéed mushrooms and warm through.

 

 

Sauce Velouté with “Blue Plate Special”
Serves 2
2 chicken breast cutlets (thin cuts of boneless, skinless chicken breasts)
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 egg
1 cup panko bread crumbs
½ cup sliced almonds, finely chopped
Olive oil, to cook chicken
2 large Yukon gold potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup heavy cream
½ pound green beans, stem ends trimmed
1 recipe velouté with mushrooms
Additional salt and pepper to taste

 

For the chicken:

  • First, set up a breading station. I like to use two large plates and a pie pan for this. On one of the plates, combine the flour, salt, pepper, and garlic powder and spread it out to cover the entire plate. If you want additional or different spices, this is your chance to personalize. On the other plate, combine the panko and almonds. Sprinkle some salt and pepper in there as well, if you wish, and again, spread the mixture out for even coverage. In the pie pan, crack the egg and beat it up with a fork. Set these out in order: flour, egg, breading (see above photographs for reference).
  • Preheat the oven to 300F so that the cutlets can stay warm while you cook other elements of the dinner. Place a baking tray with a wire cooling rack on it in the middle of the oven.
  • Now, take a look at your cutlets. We want them no thicker than ½ an inch so they can cook quickly without burning the almonds in the breading. If they are that thin, great. Skip to the next step. If they are thicker, we need to pound them out. To do this, place one cutlet at a time in an unsealed plastic zip-top bag, or just wrap it loosely in plastic wrap. With a meat mallet, a rolling pin, or a heavy saucepan, pound the chicken by beating it with steady, forceful hits that push toward the outer edges of the breast. In other words, you’re not just punching straight down. You’re striking at a slight angle, from the middle toward the outer edges, which helps the meat spread without tearing.
  • When your chicken breasts are evenly ½ an inch thick, it’s time to bread them. Working one at a time, dredge the cutlet in the seasoned flour, pressing it with your fingers to ensure even coating. Flip it over and dredge the other side. Repeat with the egg, then with the panko and almonds, again being sure you press it in firmly to help the breading adhere.
  • Heat a good slick of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once it is glistening, add the first cutlet, placing it down in the middle of the pan and then not moving it for four minutes.
  • After four minutes – no cheating! – peek at the underside of the cutlet. The breading should be golden and crisp but not burned, and thanks to being left undisturbed, not peeling and crumbling off the chicken! Flip the cutlet and sizzle on the other side for another four minutes until cooked through and crisp.
  • While you are cooking this cutlet, dredge and bread the second one.
  • When the first cutlet is golden brown and crisp on both sides, carefully move it from the skillet to your prepared, preheated oven tray. It is already fully cooked (at least it should be, if you’ve pounded it to a true ½ inch), so this will keep it warm and crispy until both pieces are done.
  • Repeat this cooking process with the second cutlet. If you need more time to prepare the rest of dinner, as I always do, these will hold in the warm oven for 15 minutes or so. You don’t want to go much longer than that, lest they dry out, but I was delighted by how moist ours still were.

 

For the potatoes:

  • Cut the potatoes into small, even sized chunks – the smaller you cut them, the faster they will cook. Plop them into a pot with plenty of salted water, then cover and set over high heat.
  • Bring the water to a boil, and cook, stirring once or twice if the water threatens to boil over, until the potato chunks are fork-tender. Depending on how small you’ve cut your potatoes, this could take anywhere from 10-20 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are done, drain into a colander and set aside.
  • Place the pot back on the stove over medium-low heat and add the butter and cream.
  • As the butter melts and the cream heats, put the drained potato chunks back into the pot and stir to combine. Using a potato masher or the determined back of a spoon, smash up the potatoes to your desired consistency. I like mine just a little chunky, with the thin skins still in there. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

 

For the green beans:

  • Heat a pan of salted water to a simmer.
  • Add the beans, stem ends trimmed, and simmer for 3-4 minutes, or until they reach your desired tenderness. We like them crisp-tender.
  • Drain the green beans, then return to the empty pan over medium heat with a slick of olive oil or a small knob of butter. Cook, tossing occasionally to distribute the fat, for a minute or two.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice or a tiny splash of white wine if desired.

 

To serve:

  • Consider your plate like a clock face. Position a scoop of mashed potatoes at 9 o’clock. Lay the green beans out in a curved little stack along the top few hours: let’s say 11-1. Now, lay the chicken breast partially atop the mashed potatoes, angling it from 9 down to 5.
  • Pour the warm, mushroom-spiked velouté over the chicken and the potatoes, so it slides and settles, gravy-like. Serve immediately to retain the crispness of the chicken coating.