Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Summer Serenade with Gazpacho

It might forever remain a mystery whether it was the jamón iberico or the gazpacho that began my love affair with Spanish cuisine. Both cornerstones showcase the mastery of simple ingredients. Jamón iberico comes from curing meat over time until it reaches such a state that it melts in your mouth and sings right down to your soul. Gazpacho is a cold, refreshing summer blend of ripe garden vegetables that reminds you why we miss this heat so much in the cooler months. Right now the most accessible of the two is gazpacho, which I have somewhat mastered in my own kitchen, collecting the perfect ingredients and simply blending and chilling before serving.

To me, Spanish food is the most minimalist of the great food cultures of the world, and yet the dishes explode into great allegories of flavor and passion--indicative of the people it came from. One of the best gazpachos I have had in my life was during a school festival, poured out of a tupperware pitcher into a caña glass taken from the bar across the street. I was literally taken by the hand by a coworker who insisted that I try the best gazpacho in Huelva. I obliged and agreed with her appraisal of this gorgeous coral blend of fresh, ripe tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, fine olive oil, and other ingredients specific to the chef.

In my experience, it is truly whether you love what you are cooking or not that makes it taste good. If you spend time smelling and squeezing and checking the color of your produce before purchase, then it will probably yield a finer product because you know your ingredients are going to sing. Using fine olive oil that speaks to a spectrum of flavors that really speak to you is another necessity. The regional nuances of Spanish olive oil do truly affect the taste of a gazpacho from Badajoz to Sevilla to Barcelona to Madrid to Huelva and etcetera. There are oils that are sweeter, some with a pinch in the back of your throat, some with a heavy spice, some with a floral base, and all of them to me are very beautiful. The best I've had are made with Arbequina olives, the tiny green buttery olives
that make a great snack as well as an olive oil that never disappoints.

I went to a Fería de Aceite de Oliva in Huelva, just happened upon it one day, and that is where I was able to sample the wealth of oils from all over Andalucía (the greatest producer of olive oil), and it made me truly appreciate olive oil on its own. As a result, I detest flavored oils with a passion--why infuse olive oil with garlic or rosemary and ruin an entire bottle of beautiful golden mirth? Please pair those flavors with great frequency, but do not cause a bottle of great olive oil to go rancid with some "added flavors"

En fin, gazpacho has taught me to respect the ingredients at their best, unadulterated by herbs and spices, and only enhanced by a touch of salt and maybe a crack of black pepper. Of course I would learn this from dear Spain, the land where the only condiment on the table is a large terrine of regional olive oil to douse whatever you ordered in upon arrival. I did add some olive oil croutons and toasted sunflower seeds on my most recent batch of gazpacho and it was glorious--I still think the Spanish would approve, seeing as that they also have a loving relationship with pipas (sunflower seeds)...and I continue to enjoy that large pitcher of gazpacho in my refrigerator, soaking up the flavors of summer and reminding me what sun tastes like.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

It's all about the bread

Bread is a basic staple that doesn't need to be reinvented. There are so many varieties that it can make anyone happy, except for those poor souls who are trying to keep it out of their diets...I feel sorry for you all.

One of my most vibrant gastronomic memories has to do with a warm loaf of bread coming out of a family oven in the French Basque Country. During that trip, I was so enamored by all of the haute cuisine gracing my plate, that I was actually told that I said in my sleep one night, "Oh my god, that was so delicious!" I wouldn't doubt that for a minute.

On this trip, my lovely roommate from Austria invited me into her family's home to celebrate the New Year. Of course we took a little day trip to Perpignan to have champagne on the beach at midnight, while throwing an around the world party with sample dishes from whatever country you dressed up as (I brought a Quiche Lorraine, dressed as a French woman...I know, how ironic). Then the rest of the trip was spent frolicking around the Basque Country, which is akin to the Shire for all you LotR fans, and much French-style celebrating was had.

It was one of those magnificent trips where you genuinely feel right at home, even though you don't speak the language, have a very limited knowledge of their traditions, and are worried which cheek you should kiss first--at some point you're just going to have to accept the fact that you will kiss someone's sister on the lips, as the pattern changes per village it seems. The family was warm and welcoming, they complimented my preposterous attempt at French, and they kept the fresh bread and cheese plate coming without fail. Oh yes, and they served tea afterwards in beautiful bowls that warmed both of your hands while you enjoyed the infusion--thank you.

Aside from the homemade fois gras from my roommate's grandmother, the perfectly cooked duck confit, the terrine of celery root and carrot, the fresh salads, and the little sips of wine, there was the bread. Let there be bread, I say, as it shines its warm glowing happiness all over the place. Sliced beautifully, offered liberally, and thrown on the tablecloth next to the plate for easy access. This bread came in a new form everyday because it was baked fresh everyday. Perhaps it was my lack of French, or perhaps it was that I felt like I was in a dream until we landed back in snowy Austria (another great story), but I neglected to get the recipe...ANY recipe before I left. Silly me.

However, three years later I am still dreaming of that trip. I finally got around to asking for the recipe, so I could try to recreate that magical moment on this side of the Atlantic. And my friend's mom kindly obliged! The result was a deeply flavored double-rise bread with a crispy, but not hard crust, and a beautifully spongy inside, perfect for sopping up sauces, absorbing olive oil, or melting sweet butter into its pockets.

It's reassuring to know that I can carry my friends around in my memories, and that they are always going to be there for a good catch up and some recipe swapping. A warm slice of this bread really does taste like that time of travel and adventure. What a powerful product made from four simple ingredients and some heat.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fresh spring start...

A chef in her whites and checks, and another in his stripes and whites having a well-deserved brewski at Garage Bar during Yappy Hour. We brought little Puff, my sister's mini Australian Shepard, with us to delight in the sunshine we were sorely missing. Seeing all the little pups making friends with each other, everyone stretching out under the rays, and good food popping up on those fuzzy recycled turf topiaries, was a landscape to marvel. I am definitely one for eating al fresco, and it seems that that's the trend of our fair city as well.

Spring has sprung, and so has my appetite, so I'm back with a new approach to the Louisville Lady Gourmet. This is still a continuation of my love affair of food, but instead of making you all endure my already minimalist approach to recipe writing, I'm just going to document my experiences with food, the way it was or I think it should be made, and then we're going to see if it flies.

There is something special about people's relationship to food. It is the primary activity we all share, aside from birth and death. Everyone likes their food to taste good, to come from the earth instead of a tin, and to provide nourishment enough to make it to the next meal. Beyond all of that, we find ourselves seeking out meal companions to share these moments with, when we can all sit down for a little break and enjoy the same activity no matter who we are.

We are lucky enough to have a great neighbor across the hall, who is willing to try out my food experiments, and offer an equal (and often greater) exchange of goods. So, one day I had some okra in the fridge, as I do now in fact, and I decided to whip up some fresh okra and corn fritters with a little red onion and garlic. I think fried okra is my favorite food, but these fritters hit the spot and stayed true to the delicious Southern tradition. I guess as long as corn meal and okra are paired, you can't go wrong. Not long thereafter, I shot a call across the hall to see if there were appetites to be assuaged, and what do you know? There were! So we trucked on over with our plate of fritters and soon we were eating them and drinking cold beers, with some pork cutlets and garlic rice thrown on the fire for our second course.

Homemade gnocchi
Post-thanksgiving turkey croquetas
Pooling food resources is a practice that I got into when I was living in Austria and I had 6 roommates and 10 other neighbors who loved to throw together food from all of our cultural backgrounds to feed everyone. We delighted in crêpes, bacalhau, tortillas, profiteroles, turkey dinners, croquetas, cornbread, Korean pancakes and glass noodles, muffins baked with fresh fruit, hot cereal with cinnamon and cardamom apples, gazpacho like you wouldn't believe, and so much love and big appetites around the table that we couldn't get enough. I remember those moments whenever good food passes my plate, which is to say quite often. We all ate--normally 2-3 times a day for us lucky ones--but coming together made something quite different...making cooking and eating, for me, completely irresistible.

This continued on my journeys in Spain, arguably the place where my most intense and rewarding adventures in food were. I have a dear friend, whom I am sure I've mentioned before, who also liked the idea of sharing food resources. I have a penchant for cooking whatever I have left in the pantry at the end of the week, and making a few courses of interesting combinations with nothing left to waste. She has the gift of blissful conversation, engaging rhetoric, and great friendship. This served us well on adventures with frushi (strawberries from Huelva rolled in sushi rice), grilled romaine hearts with dressing, beans and rice, fish, salads, omelets, basically anything that could be created from our laughable leftovers.

Jamón Ibérico
Finally, on the adventures with my now fiancé, we went back and forth along the entire country of Spain and well into Portugal, eating gigantic meals with loving family and friends, seeking out hidden paellas in beach villages outside of Barcelona, traveling to Bar Tomas (not actually the real name, but that was the owner's name) for the best patatas bravas in the world, moaning over tapas as big as our head in Granada, finding secret outdoor grills on Portugal's southern coast that offer no menu and will feed you until you burst with food that just jumped out of the sea, and making our own creations from the exaggeration of fresh markets that generously open their arms to fill my empty bags. I always found myself eating and cooking with people I loved, stranger or friend.

These experiences have made me into the person I am. I make food everyday that transports me back to these moments in time. I guess this slice of the virtual world is used to immortalize those moments and to remind me that they never really go away.

Today, with the language classes I teach, I am bringing my students into the kitchen and inviting the real world application of preparing food and kitchen conversation into foreign language acquisition. I've had some great response to it, both from my students' satisfaction and their progress. I don't know why I didn't act on it sooner. Most recently, I gave a Spanish class in which we prepared chiles en nogada, a traditional Mexican dish. A few weeks before that I prepared cactus, which is a staple to many people, but rarely eaten here. And of course I had to go back to my roots by whipping up some sopa de garbanzos, patatas bravas, and ensalada con queso cabrales.
Chiles en nogada with Mexican rice
Perhaps that is enough for today. Hopefully this has inspired you, dear readers, to go out and seek your own great food journey, alongside hungry friends, neighbors, or family. It has brought and continues to bring me infinite happiness. I'll continue rambling later...I have lots more to come!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Snack Attack: Homemade Parmesan Crisps

Okay, so I know that Louisville is psyched to have a Trader Joe's now, and I am too, but there are snacks that are completely doable at home. I had a nibble of the parmesan crisps the other day and thought to myself, this is definitely cheaper to do at home than $6 a pack. Seriously, it was a handful of toasts with some parmesan sprinkled on it....it wasn't delicacy that would necessitate such a sacrifice to the wallet. So, here is my version. It is easy, cheaper, delicious, and awesome when you get it crunchy out of the oven!

Homemade Parmesan Crisps
Sliced baguette (preferably day-old...which you can also get on sale)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese 
Olive oil (optional)

The very basic idea is to spread a cheese/butter mixture on your chosen bread slices and dry them out in the oven. I can't explain it any easier than that.

I heated my oven to 300º and arranged the bread slices on a cookie sheet. I melted the butter and brushed it on the bread slices. Alternatively, you can make a melted butter and olive oil mixture and brush that on. Just know that it will have a different (probably even more awesome) taste due to the olive oil. Finally, liberally sprinkle on the parmesan cheese and press down lightly so that it adheres to the butter-brushed bread.

I let it hang out in the oven for about 30-40 minutes. It will smell incredible, so prepare yourself for some serious salivation before these crispies come out of the oven. They should not be browning, but still the same color of the cheese as you put it in. If they do start to brown, lower the temperature of your oven and continue to bake until they are crisp.

Cool them on a wire rack to ensure maximum crispiness. 

Enjoy in one sitting...because they won't last any longer.

Buon appetito!!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Continuing a Zen Kitchen Study: Tamagoyaki

This is the third installment of this particular trilogy focused on Japanese cuisine. This will most definitely become part of a continuous series, as we move on through experimenting with new techniques.

Tamagoyaki is a wonderfully simple dish. My history with it started with a shared dinner in a third floor university dorm kitchen. A friend from Korea and a friend from Japan wanted to share a meal with us and prepare some traditional dishes for us to try. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited about soaking up all of that food information. This may have been the first instance in which I was paying attention and questioning cooking methods in order to replicate them in my own kitchen later on. Hm, funny how that came about. Our meal began with tamagoyaki.

If you are not familiar with tamagoyaki, it is basically an egg omelet rolled up on itself and sliced in to pieces, not unlike a sushi roll. Tamago, meaning egg in Japanese, is often seen on Japanese restaurant menus here in the States, and it comes cut into a rectangle and served nigiri-style atop some sushi rice and banded with a strip of nori seaweed (beware of pre-made packaged tamago...please, if you can't fry an egg, you really shouldn't be running a restaurant). The intriguing part for me was that tamagoyaki is sweet egg dish, and I had only ever had eggs in a savory fashion...usually doused in hot sauce or seasoned with chili powder, curry, salt and pepper. The sweet egg is a happy side to any meal, traditional Japanese or not. I found it especially calming when we were introduced to some spicy kimchi later on in our meal.

The only trick is in the technique, which I will detail below, but it will beg a little patience, especially if you aren't into multitasking inside a hot frying pan.

4-6 Eggs
1 T or so of Sugar
Dash of Soy sauce
Cooking oil
Sesame seeds or seaweed for garnish (optional)

Tamagoyaki begins with fresh, bright eggs whisked to oblivion. You want to achieve fluffiness in between each layer. Whisk in your sugar and soy sauce and you're ready for the hard part.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat and drizzle with cooking oil. This can be canola oil with a dash of sesame oil for some flavor, or whatever you think tastes good. When the oil is shimmering, ladle in your first layer of egg. You want to make sure that it covers the bottom of the pan. When that starts to cook just enough that you can move it, you want to start rolling it up on itself--so take one side and roll it as you would a burrito. When you get to the other side, let the roll sit there and ladle in another layer of egg, making sure that it covers the bottom of the pan again--so do a little swish action if need be. When that layer starts to set, take your already existing roll and roll up the new egg layer in the opposite direction. You continue building these layers, rolling it back and forth until all of your egg is used up and you have a nice round roll of sweet egg!

Note rolling technique: Tamagoyaki
Take that egg roll out of the pan and slice it into pieces. It should be bite-sized, and the size of a sushi roll.

It's quick, easy, and a delicious and balanced accompaniment to any meal!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Roasted Chickpeas with Swiss Chard

I’ve recently noticed nice displays of bulk supply goods at our local supermarkets. This is particularly helpful for when I prepare my granolas because I want to try different combinations all of the time.
However, they also have bulk quantities of quinoa, couscous, nuts, dried fruits, brown rice, rolled oats… just a lot of wonderful things that you should have big bags of in your pantry. My recent investment was in garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas.
Garbanzos are probably known to most of you as the main ingredient to hummus, the Mediterranean dip comprised of Tahini (almond paste), garbanzos and olive oil. I personally love hummus, but I wanted to explore some more options with these glorious little beans. In Spain, we would slow cook them in a soup all day with onions, bell peppers, pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), and usually broth from whatever stock you had laying around the house. Still, I was looking for more inspiration…
I found my answer at the Douglass Loop Farmers Market, where I am often inspired on Saturday mornings to cover new culinary terrain. I bought the most gorgeous bushel of leafy green Swiss chard, and my mind was blown! Coincidentally enough, Epicurious had just the recipe for me, combining the Swiss chard with roasted garbanzos–a totally new way to approach garbanzo beans. The result was an unprecedented silkiness, achieved by the gentle roast of the garbanzos in golden olive oil and aromatics. I never thought that I would taste garbanzos like this. Then pairing them with Swiss chard, which was stewed on the stove with garlic and aromatics, and you have a delightful surprise awaiting. This bowl of joy was enough to satiate my appetite as a main course, and the leftovers just got better every day. I think this would be a wonderful filling for pita or as part of a salad, or served next to braised cabbage and a carrot slaw, like I did.
Roasted Garbanzos with Swiss Chard

3 C Garbanzo beans, rehydrated
1 Head of garlic, smashed and peeled
3 Bay leaves
2 Shallots, peeled and separated
Olive oil
1 Bunch Swiss chard
1/2 Head of garlic
2 Shallots, chopped
White wine
Chili powder

To start, you need to handle the garbanzo situation. I recommend starting with dried garbanzos because they yield a better taste and texture (you can use canned garbanzos too). Just think of garbanzos as any other dried beans. They require a good healthy soaking overnight, or the quick soak method, which involves boiling and changing water, but the overnight soak, all of the way up to 24 hours, is your best bet. Rinse and drain.
The easiest way to peel garlic is to smash it with the side of your knife and remove the skin. Crushed garlic can then be minced or sliced or whatever, but for this recipe you can just throw in the entire smashed cloves and be fine. Combine the garbanzos, garlic, shallots, and enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a 9”x13” glass casserole dish. Make sure it is a flavorful olive oil. Toss all of the ingredients together, cover the dish with foil, and throw it in a preheated 350º oven. You can tell it is finished when the garlic has roasted itself to softness. I stirred it a couple of times just to make sure everything was evenly roasting–my oven has a few hot spots.

While the beans are roasting in the oven, you can prepare your Swiss chard. Heat some olive oil over medium heat in a large pot and add the garlic, shallots, and bay leaf. Cook until fragrant and just on the verge of translucence. At this point, I decided it would be a good idea to deglaze the pan and basically steam the chard with white wine…this was an incredible idea! So, before adding the wine I took as much Swiss chard as I could fit (it is too much to add the entire bunch at once, so you have to wait until it shrinks down a bit), and tossed it around in the pot until the leaves were decently coated. Then I added the wine and put a lid on it for about a minute. The chard shrunk as expected, and I was able to add the remainder and continue cooking until everything was soft and tender. I chopped up the stem and all, because it is edible and delicious, you just have to cook them until they are easy to chew–by the time that was accomplished, everything was ready!

When the beans are finished, remove them from the roasting pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to the Swiss chard mixture. You should have extra oil left in the roasting pan. Take the shallots and garlic along with it, but remove the bay leaves (from the Swiss chard as well). Reheat in the pot with the Swiss chard and add a few spoons of oil from the roasting pan if needed. Finally, season with salt and chili powder (or black pepper) and you are set to sail!
Bon Appétit!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Continuing a Zen Kitchen Study: Panko

This is a continuation of the trilogy that started with my new favorite snack, Onigiri. You can find that post linked here. Today we are going to talk about Panko, it's many components and applications, and my recipe for panko-crusted chicken.

I have a great love for both tempura and panko in their approaches to frying. There is something about lightly battered and flash fried goodies that makes my heart flutter. However, the miracle of panko not only lends itself to frying but also to baking, which is a recipe that I feature here today. If you want to read more about the approach to tempura frying, it is much more involved than panko, I also whipped up a batch of tempura okra that turned out to be legendary.

I believe that most people have tried panko fried shrimp, which is a wonderful dish completed by ponzu sauce, or whatever light Japanese-inspired sauce you can whip up. Honestly, it doesn't even make it to a sauce when I encounter a plate of panko shrimp, it just pops directly into my mouth. In my experience panko lends itself best to vegetables, fish, and lean meat, and I only say this because I can't imagine trying to panko encrust beef or pork...it just doesn't feel right, but perhaps there is a tradition somewhere that features such a protein selection. In my book, fish, chicken, and vegetables provide fine vessels for panko, allowing it to cook quickly, remain light, and deliver a satisfying crunch.

If you do want to fry using panko, let me recommend some techniques I've picked up from various places. First soak the chicken in milk for at least 30 minutes, then roll it in corn starch and tap off the excess, then dip it in an egg wash and press it into your panko crumbs. Fry as normal. This ritual is changed slightly while baking because that crunchy crust is not entirely necessary or achievable as with frying...but make no mistake, it is no less satisfying! The overhaul of dairy products not only provides adherence for the breading, but it also adds incredible richness.

Crunchiness is one of the aspects of mouthfeel that I desire almost to the point of addiction. If I am snacking on something, I typically want a crunchy snack. Perhaps it is my subconscious feeling like it's getting something done, or maybe my jaw enjoys the fact that there is percussion accompanying all its hard work. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way---otherwise, if it weren't for the inspirational crunch, how could anyone put up with the god-awfulness that is the "Cheeto"?

Let's return to something that will make your meals a little better, inspired by the beautiful breading that has become associated with Japanese fried goods, and now can grace your baked mains.

Note: I chose to crumble up some seaweed (sold now in packets as "Sea veggies", which I find amusing, as if the term "seaweed" was somehow not as marketable anymore....please) and mix it in with the panko crumbs. You could easily do this with roasted nori or sesame seeds, to add a little color and flavor. I found it delightful and it cooked up really well next to the panko, not changing the integrity of the breading.

Panko Chicken
Organic chicken breast, sliced thin
Sesame oil
Panko crumbs
Seaweed, crumbled to the size of the panko (optional)
Sesame seeds (optional)

Clean and trim your chicken breast of fat and slice it into even pieces. Cutting them smaller and even will ensure that they all cook at the same rate, and that they cook faster.

Heat your oven to 350º

Crack a few eggs into a medium bowl and beat them with a couple splashes of sesame oil. Put the chicken breast in this egg wash and let them sit in there while you are preparing your breading. If you want to do this ahead of time, the chicken could sit in the egg wash in the fridge, covered. However, it is always better to cook your food while at room temperature--you can be more accurate with timing and the food isn't forced to change its temperature at an unnatural speed. Trust me, adding fire is quick enough for room temperature food, then try to imagine it with something that has been frozen or refrigerated. I store my eggs on the counter at room temperature anyway, so I don't have a fear or letting chicken sit in eggs..but some of you might have, so just take note of the room temperature thing for when you prepare your food.

The breading should be spread out on a large plate that will allow you ample room for rolling around your chicken pieces. You can choose at this point to go straight panko, or add your seaweed and/or sesame seeds. I promise that the addition of these last two optional ingredients will only add to the flavor and crunch, as they do not suck up additional moisture and they do not burn in the baking process. Press the eggy chicken pieces into the breading, making sure that all surfaces are covered

Arrange the breaded chicken on a baking sheet....parchment paper might be a good idea, but it doesn't take much to get it off after cooking. I used a pair of tongs. I'd say bake it for 15-20 minutes. Check around 15. They should come out slightly golden. I served it with straight soy sauce, which in retrospect is a little heavy for my taste, so I'd go with ponzu sauce if any. I enjoyed the addition of seaweed to the breading, so that was enough for me!

I hope you try this little gem out, and try your hand at fish or vegetables. Play around, I'd like to see what else is happening outside my kitchen!