Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Healthy Option: Kabocha Squash and Lentil Soup

The Holidays are almost over and it is time to eat some healthier foods. I can't believe the abundance of candy and cookies around the holidays. I'm weak, so when they are around I eat them. I didn't make a single dessert this Christmas, but I probably ate more sweets during the last two weeks than I did during the previous four months. For my next few posts I am going to try to post some healthy meals that don't sacrifice flavor.

This recipe is based on a recipe I found on one of my favorite food blogs. The original recipe can be found here. I forgot to get a fennel bulb when I went to the market, so I improvised using what I had on hand. I plan to try this recipe again using the fennel bulb, but I am quite pleased with the outcome. This soup features the Kabocha Squash which is an excelent roasting squash, but any smooth textured squash would suffice. The addition of the kale worked very well and the garlic croutons puts this soup over the top.

(Kabocha Squash and Lentil Soup recipe follows)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Moroccan Tagine?

If you know me well, then you know I have a bit of an obsession with cookware. Recently I acquired a new pot like no other pot in my kitchen; it's a stove top and oven safe ceramic pot by Emil Henry. You read the title, but it's not a tagine. It's a 5.5 quart stewpot. I've wanted something like this for a long time. I have some very nice Le Creuset which are wonderful enameled cast iron pots, but this pot is like having a crock pot for the stove or oven with the advantage of being able to brown ingredients over higher heat. The vessel is the perfect size for soups and stews (I guess that's why they call it a stewpot.) It doesn't heat quite as evenly as cast iron, but the heat retention is considerably better than cast iron. I actually think this makes for better stews. This pot is a terrific alternative to the Moroccan Tagine. While I think the Tagine is a beautiful and very unique piece of cookware its utility is fairly limited. My new ceramic pot serves the same purpose as the tagine with more versatility. It is inevitable that I will someday acquire a tagine (maybe when I build my wood fired pizza oven), but for now I can't think of a disadvantage to this pot.

I've never made a stew in this style, so I wasn't sure my first attempt would end up worthy of an Oakland Skillet post. I should have had more faith in my skills and intuition. I based my recipe on two recipes I found on the internet. The first recipe is by Jamie Oliver and the second was published in Cooking Light. Neither of these recipes were exactly what I was looking for. The second recipe from Cooking Light suggests this can be done in 45 minutes which is preposterous. If you make this in 45 minutes, as the recipe suggests, the meat will be way too tough and chewy. Long cooking time at a low heat is the only way to make these inexpensive cuts of meat tender. Jamie's technique is of course right on, but I didn't have some of the ingredients his recipe called for and I wanted something a little richer. My recipe uses more spices and a richer stock. My first attempt at a Moroccan style dish could not have turned out better.

(Recipe for Moroccan Style Lamb of Beef Tagine with Butternut Squash Follows)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Black Bean and Calabrese Sausage Soup

The Calabrese or Salsiccia Calabrese is a pork sausage made traditionally in the region of Calabria, Italy. It is most similar to what most Americans know as the spicy Italian sausage. Calabrese is made with fennel seed, dried ground hot peppers like the cayanne, and a sweet paprika sometimes called pepe rosso which gives the sausage its deep red color. If you have never had a Calabrese and live in the Bay Area may I recommend: Top Dog. This spicy sausage is entirely underrated.

If there is one culinary custom I inherited from my mother it's soups. Growing up my mom would make a pot of soup nearly every week in the evening and we probably ate that soup for 4 meals that week. For a while I might have said I was fed up with soup. But soups are so essential to my culinary roots I could never get by without them. And, lets face it, as much as I love to cook I can't cook every day. I make a pot of soup on Monday and I'll have lunch and dinner for two or three more days.

This soup is my own recipe and I will admit it is a culture clash, but please don't call it fusion-food. The Calabrese is there as a flavor component and not the bulk of the soup. I think you'll find the bright heat from the New Mexico chili powder and the manzano pepper along with the moderately smokey flavor from the bacon and roasted pepper topped off with garlicky bitter greens a perfect combination. This soup will warm your insides as the winter continues to blow in. I promise you will love it.

(recipe follows)

My Bread and Butter

My Whole Wheat Bread
It seems the My Bread post was quite popular. I have been baking a lot of bread since that first loaf. It still blows me away that I can make an artisan bread at home in my 55 year old oven. I have tried a few different breads besides the standard Italian loaf from the original recipe. I've experimented with Olive Bread, Cheese Bread, Olive & Cheese Bread, and even a Pumpkin Yeast Bread. All of those are very good, but the recipe I have perfected is for a whole wheat bread. I started with the wheat bread recipe that was published in Jim Lahey's book "My Bread." However, I felt like his wheat bread recipe wasn't as wheatie as I like. I experimented with several ratios of bread flour and whole wheat flour until I got close to what I was looking for. Then, I could taste what was missing. In my recipe there is a small amount of rye flour. The rye gives the bread just a little bit of that tangy rye flavor. I really think it makes a wonderful whole wheat bread.

Homemade Butter Ball
When it comes to the standard Italian bread I like the bread by it self or with a really nice high quality olive oil. However, with wheat I tend to go for butter. Last night I was baking a loaf of my whole wheat bread for a potluck at work. I was thinking about going to the store to get my favorite brand of butter. I couldn't tell you what the brand name is, all I know is it is imported from Italy and it comes wrapped in wax paper with blue lettering and is riveted closed on both ends with brass rivets. The butter is quite different from your every day butter found in most grocery stores. This butter is slightly sweet and has a flavor closer to fresh cream than what I usually think of as butter. The trouble is I only know one place to get it and I didn't have time to go before the potluck today. My solution was to make my own.

I had never made butter before, but I can tell you it is quite simple and not very much work if you have some kind of machine to agitate the cream for you. I've been told that butter making is a great activity for kids. You give them a jar with cream inside and have them shake until it becomes butter. I can't wait to have kids some day. This should keep them occupied before meals. Anyways, I made my butter in my stand mixer, but you could also use a food processor or blender.

I think the key to making good butter since there isn't any real technique involved is to start with good cream. I used the best cream I could find at Trader Joe's since TJ's is only a short walk from my home, but I know that isn't the best cream available. The organic heavy whipping cream at TJ's is fine and it made a pretty good butter, but it is ultra pasteurized, something you should avoid if possible. Around the Bay Area and certainly in the East Bay we have a remarkable dairy, the Straus Family Creamery. The Straus Family Creamery's products are available in most better grocery stores. If it is convenient then by all means use their products, especially if you are going to go through the trouble of making your own butter. I will next time. Heavy whipping cream is all you are likely to find in the stores, but the best cream to make butter with would be manufacturing cream. Manufacturing cream has a butterfat content of 40% or more where heavy whipping cream is between 35% and 40%. It is really difficult to find manufacturing cream in the stores since the restaurants buy it all. If you find manufacturing cream please, please, please let me know where you got it!

Whole Wheat Bread and Home Made Butter Recipes follow

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dungeness Crab Risotto

Don't worry, he's smiling because I'm going to take care of him.
We are lucky here in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to beautiful beaches, hills, and parks. The weather here and in the surrounding areas lends it self to some of the best farming regions in the world (think Napa). Demand here for high quality ingredients is quite high, and the farmers and farmers markets cater to our call. We have incredible visionary restaurants and chefs who are leading our country's healthy food movements. For these resources I feel truly blessed to be living in this culinary mecca. There is one distinct food that is a native treasure of the San Francisco Bay Area that I only recently came to truly appreciate. Dungeness Crab*.

In my formative years I probably ate Dungeness Crab a hand full of times. It wasn't until one of my best friends started working at a butcher shop that I became really excited about Dungeness Crab. The Dungeness Crab, in my humble opinion, is a second to no other crustacean. Lobster has too much of a snap in its texture for me, and its flavor just doesn't come across as well while you chew. Dungeness Crab, on the other hand, has a wonderfully delicate texture, the flavor close to that of fresh sea air with just a hint of sweetness.

Due to the crab's delicate flavors and texture it should always be featured with ingredients that support its characteristics. Serving Dungeness Crab with cheese, heavy cream sauces, or along side any land dwelling animal would be a mistake in my opinion. Of course Crab Cakes, salads featuring crab meat, crab salad (with only a modest amount of mayonnaise), and just plain Dungeness Crab with butter are excellent ways that highlight this delicacy. I've made frittata's, eggs benedict, and simple pastas with Dungeness Crab. All with marvelous results.

One of my objectives with Oakland Skillet is to explore the seasonal foods and tune my recipes to take advantage of our regional opportunities. Yesterday I was I was thumbing through one of my cookbooks contemplating recipes for my next post to Oakland Skillet. I came across a recipe for Lobseter Risotto. Given my nature to one-up the recipe I immediately thought Dungeness Crab. I did a quick Google search to see if the Dungeness Crab season had opened. Good timing! Dungeness Crab season opened November 28, 2011.

*Dungeness Crab is also a responsible choice as far as seafood goes. It has been rated a Best Choice on the Monteray Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

(recipe for Dungeness Crab Risotto follows)

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Simple Seasonal Dinner (Fall - Winter)

Some weeks I just can't find the energy to cook a super fancy meal. In case you haven't noticed I still like to eat. This post is just a really simple meal using ingredients that you'll find aplenty in the late fall and early winter.

Roasted Chicken Breast, Roasted Beets and Braised Greens. These greens happen to be Swiss Chard, but if you buy your beets with the greens still attached then you might as well use those. I'm a big fan of greens. It's really about cooking them correctly and not overcooking them. The softer greens will cook quite quickly, so make sure everything else is ready before you start them.

Recipes for Super Simple Roasted Chicken Breast, Roasted Beets, and Braised Greens Follow