Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Healing Qualities of Cheese and Beer

Recipe: Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup and Homemade Pretzels

Before I get on with my post, I need to mention the upcoming nuptials of one William the Prince and Catherine Middleton which occur tomorrow at exactly 4 AM. I am excited, yes, as any good American girl would be. There will be pretty dresses (and one extremely pretty white dress), beautiful hats, flowers, famous people (hello Elton John), and of course delicious delicious food (with the exception of the wedding cake... fruit cake? gross.) Many people have been doing posts on what to eat for Royal Wedding Parties (scones! tea! cookies!), but as I probably won't be getting up in the middle of the night to watch some handsome guy and pretty girl (His and Her Highness) tie the knot (if it were at 9 AM that would be a whole other story), I am just going to get on with business as usual.

It has been a horrible spring here in the midwest and all this bad weather gets me thinking about soup. I realize that most of my posts begin with some musing about the weather or changing of seasons but that is how I decide what to eat most weeks. Anyways, I haven't seen the sun in weeks and maybe part of it is due to the fact that I work in a windowless room all day but also it has been raining a lot. On days (weeks!) like that I want to laze around the house eating hunks of cheese and sipping on beer, as most people would (and no "Sconnie" jokes, please).  There is something wonderful about a nice piece of cheese that gets me excited. Think about it, cheese is a mixture of the culinary and the scientific. Who first thought to eat fermented milk? It's really a miracle that we eat it at all. But, the flavors can be so complex and deep and interesting in a nice piece of cheese, that I often find myself having a Ratatouille moment when I eat it. Its such an easy way to brighten a little spot in my day.

Forget pairing cheese with wine! A good Wisconsin girl like myself would reach for a beer to pair with cheese. That combination, of beer and cheese, turns a really terrible day into a good one. Well, maybe I am being a little overly dramatic, but a really good pairing can push me over the edge sometimes. I, then, remembered that there is such a thing as beer cheese soup, thus combining all of my favorite things for a rainy day, and I decided to make it.

What pairs well with beer cheese soup, you ask? A nice soft pretzel! When I was younger I was amazed that you could make things at home that you usually bought at the store. For instance, I grew up on canned pasta sauce and the first time I had it homemade was a huge revelation. From that point forward I tried cooking all sorts of things that I usually purchased (cookies, breads, cream puffs....), and dragged my friends in the projects too. I think this is one of many reasons why I ended up as a professional cook. In any case, homemade soft pretzels are something my friend and I would make to pass the lazy summer afternoons. We would get the dough made, and then turn on Ever After while the yeast kicked in. Once we shaped the dough in to the first letter of all our friend's names and then hand-delivered the gifts. Nothing says love like a hand-shaped pretzel.

If you have a case of the rainy day blues spend the day indoors and try out this recipe. Maybe it would have quite the same healing power as it did on me, but you will enjoy it nonetheless.

Soft Pretzels 

I had a little trouble with this recipe (namely the shaping of the pretzel and the par-boiling. (See the ugly looking pretzel below.) I also had some Hawaiian black salt on hand, instead of pretzel salt so that's what I used to season.

Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup

5 tablespoons butter
1/2 leek cleaned and diced
3 carrots, cleaned peeled and diced
1 large onion, diced
4 ribs of celery, diced
5 tablespoons flour
2 12 oz bottles of beer, use a pale ale or a lager
5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup milk
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons ginger powder
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Garnish with chopped chives

1. Heat beer in a sauce pan bring to a boil and reduce by half. Add vegetable stock and milk and heat.

2. Sweat leeks, carrots, onions, and celery in butter until softened. About five minutes. Stir in flour. Slowly whisk in hot liquids and bring soup to a simmer. Add cayenne, ginger, and paprika and simmer soup uncovered over medium low heat for 30 to 45 minutes.

3. Take soup off stove and puree with an immersion blender or in small batches in a food processor. Strain into a clean pot.

4. Return to heat and slowly whisk in cheese in small batches, allowing the cheese to melt before adding more. Strain again if necessary. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot with chives, a glass of beer and a nice soft pretzel.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Big Hunk of Veggie on the Grill

Recipe: Cous Cous Salad with Curry Scented Grilled Vegetables

The Grill is a steely masculine piece of machinery. It's hot. It's powerful. It's smokey. Nothing can excited a crowd so quickly or so efficiently like the phrase "Char-Grilled." The Grill pairs well with a hunk of meat, barbecue sauce, and a summer barbecue. But just because it was made to cook meat it does not mean that meat is the only thing you should cook on it.

Summer officially begins the day your grill comes out of the garage and into the yard. It could be a 60 degree day in the middle of February that calls your grill out of hiding, but the calendar date doesn't matter. Once you grill summer begins. Most of my summer memories are filled with grill brats, hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs. Occasionally we would have some veggie side-dishes (corn on the cob, potatoes wrapped in foil, char-grilled butter), but firing up the grill usually meant meat meat, and more meat. Now, as I'm trying to cut back on my so-called meat addiction, I still salivate when I think about the grill. But, I need to find a healthier (vegetable-ier) way to use it.

Grilling vegetables great way to extract a lot of flavor from an otherwise "boring" vegetable. Personally, I hate eggplant, but toss it in some oil and spices throw it on the grill and I'll eat it. Most of the summer vegetables (summer squash, zucchini, bell peppers, eggplant) work well on the fact most vegetables work well on the grill. The following salad uses aforementioned summer vegetables mixed with pearled cous cous, arugula, and a curry spice mixture to create a smokey and flavorfully salad sans meat.

Veggies fresh of the grill
Cous Cous Salad with Curry Scented Grilled Vegetables

1 cup Israeli (pearled) cous cous
1 3/4 cup salted water or vegetable stock
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/4 cup canola oil
1 zucchini, sliced
1/2 eggplant, sliced
1/4 yellow bell pepper
1/4 orange bell pepper
1/4 red bell pepper
Juice of one lemon
Large handful of arugula

1. Bring salted water or vegetable stock to a boil. Toast cous cous in a hot saute pan for one to two minutes. Once water is at a boil add cows cows and cook until soft, about eight to ten minutes. Run through cold water to cool.

2. Toast curry powder, cumin, and paprika in a dry saute pan until spices are fragrant about thirty seconds. Mix with canola oil and toss with sliced vegetables. Heat grill pan or grill, clean and lightly oil the grill. Cook vegetables a couple of minutes on each side, until vegetables are soft. Cool slightly before using.

3. Small dice grilled vegetables and mix into cooked cous cous. Season with lemon juice and more salt and pepper if needed. Before serving toss in arugula.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

So I've Been Eating Fish.....

Recipes: Onigiri and Cumber Salad

I'm (slowly) cutting meat out of my diet partly because of the sustainability issues that are clouding the modern meat industry. Seafood too has major sustainability problems. Overfishing is a major concern; while efficiency in industrial fishing improved, the ability of the ocean to replenish itself has declined significantly.  According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, our ocean's are in a state of "silent collapse." The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program is a great resource for those who would like to research sustainable seafood options.

I have not always been a huge seafood fan. I've tried Salmon in Alaska at a traditional salmon bake and at no more than a bite. I've had sushi at 6 in the morning in Tokyo freshly caught (and I mean just off the boat) and was unimpressed. I've eaten at fine dining seafood restaurants and tolerated the meal if it was drenched in enough butter. But, I am not opposed to eating seafood the way I am about farm animals. (And I'm not even entirely opposed to eating farm animals.) It boils down to sustainability. If the fish was caught in a "green" way then I'll be more comfortable eating it.

According to my favorite resource, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch lists Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon as a Best Choice for seafood. To research other Best Choices click here or download the iphone app (SO HANDY.) As I mentioned before, I am not a huge fan of salmon. There is, however, one way that I love to eat it: with sushi rice and nori.

Onigiri (aka rice balls) are considered the Japanese soul food and are a nostalgic meal for me. When I visited Japan as a high school student, my last meal was homemade salmon onigiri made by my host mother that I ate on the train out of Kyoto.  When I studied in Tokyo almost 6 years later as a Japanese major in college, I would make late night runs to the 7/11 to grab a snack while I studied the night away. Now I make them at home and bring them to work with me for a light lunch. Onigiri is simply made by stuffing a ball of sushi rice with your favorite filling and wrapping the ball in nori (dried seaweed). It's similar to a giant sushi roll, but it's usually filled with cooked seafood, umeboshi (pickled plums), or a variety of other fillings. I prefer to fill the onigiri with canned salmon, which is weird I know, but I find the canned stuff has the flavor that is most true to my memory.

Whole Foods carries canned Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon so if you're feeling like seafood, give this dish a try. If you're on a strict vegetarian diet, you can also fill the onigiri with pickled vegetables, soy glazed bamboo shoots, kimchi, adzuki beans, or whatever else you can imagine. The trick to onigiri is to keep it really simple. My recipe has just six ingredients: Rice, water, nori, salmon, salt, and rice wine vinegar. Can't beat that simplicity.

Salmon Onigiri with Cucumber Salad

For the Onigiri
2 cups sushi rice
4 cups water
2 TBS rice wine vinegar
1 8 oz can of Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon
1 tsp salt
1 sheet of sushi nori

1. Rinse rice in cold water until water runs clear. Place rice in a rice cooker or pot and cover with 4 cups of water. If cooking in pot, cover and cook over medium low heat until rice is soft. Cool on a sheet tray in refrigerator about one hour. Once cool season rice with rice wine vinegar.
2. Drain salmon throughly and season with salt. Fill a small bowl with cold water and use that to wet your hands. Take the rice and form it into a small ball about 2 inches in diameter. Poke a small hole in the middle of the ball and fill with an ounce of salmon. Cover the hole and continue to shape the rice. If rice starts to stick to your hands rewet your hands with water.
3. Cut the nori into thin strips. Some nori come with perforated lines, so use that if applicable. Roll nori strips around the middle of the rice ball. Eat and enjoy.

For the Cucumber Salad:
2 cucmbers, washed and striped
2 carrots, peeled
3 TBS mirin
2 TBS rice wine vinegar
1 TBS sugar
1tsp sesame seeds, white, toasted
1 tsp chili flakes

1. Cut cucumbers and carrots into 2 inch long pieces. Using a mandolin or a slicer slice cucumbers and carrots lengthwise and julienne slices with a knife. Place in a mixing bowl.
2. Mix rice wine vinegar, mirin, sugar, sesame seeds, and chili flakes together and pour over carrot and cucumber mixture. Let sit in the refrigerator for one hour to overnight before serving.