Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sausage and Bean Soup

Autumn is finally here - as of 12:03 Eastern time this morning, the exact time of the autumn equinox. The two equinoxes every year (autumn and spring) are the times at which the sun is directly over the equator and - theoretically, at least - day and night share equal time of 12 hours in both the northern and southern hemispheres of the Earth.

In the northern hemisphere the nights are longer going forward and, particularily in New England, you'll certainly start feeling a chill in the air. We brought our first pumpkin home yesterday to celebrate our favorite time of year and - after a wet and chilly day walking around to the annual yard sales around Ashmont, Dorchester - we decided we wanted comfort food in the form of soup...

But, what kind of soup? Good old standby chicken and dumpling stew (which we surprisingly haven't blogged on yet, but I assure you we will), a meatball sort of soup or possibly something new. We went with the something new as long as that something new included sausage! Looking around the web, we saw a few recipes that caught our eye... we took aspects from many recipes and came up with our own for sausage and bean soup.

We put our soup pot on and started getting 12 cups of chicken broth boiling with 1 chopped onion and 4 cloves of garlic. In the meantime, we chunked up 1.5 lbs of turkey kielbasa and threw in the sausage along with almost a whole 32oz can of diced tomatoes, 2 cups thawed chopped spinach, 2 bay leaves, ground fennel, salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes.

After returning to a slow boil, add in a 19oz can of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and a 16oz can of white kidney beans. Slow boil this pot of loving good yumminess for at least 30 minutes more, but, hey, the longer you have time to cook this, the better it will be! Sprinkle with a little parmesean cheese right before serving.

Came out DELICOUSLY - a real nice, spicy kick from the sausage and pepper (perfect for chilly weather!), wonderful, flavorful broth, and lovely green spinach and beans and kielbasa chunks in every bite! Excellent leftovers, too...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Braised Pork Picnic (half) Shoulder

We had always seen those huge, 14lb. Pork Picnic Shoulders at various supermarkets and marvelled over their sheer size. However, operating as a two-person team (most of the time) has always steered us towards the pork butts and smaller cuts. Sure, we probably could have asked the butcher to cut one for us, but... we didn't.

Then we discoverd the half picnic shoulder - a wonderful invention of bone-in pork shoulder, but only half the size! And at only ~$1/pound, we were dancing (as a certain Brit would say). We deposited a 6lb half shoulder in our shopping cart - along with some carrots, onion, celery, and garlic - and headed home. After paying for it all, of course.

But what to DO with our picnic shoulder? Roast it? Would come out dry, for sure. Grill it? A good option (sear, then move to one side and keep the other side on low), but again we were afraid of the meat drying out. What is the obvious choice for a cheap cut of meat that ideally could cook slowly for a couple hours and not get dried out? To braise, naturallement!

To braise means to sear and then simmer for a long period of time, either on the stove top or in the oven. The searing was accomplished after removing some of the fat and a large hunk of skin that made up one side of the shoulder, giving the shoulder a light canola oil rub and then a cover of kosher salt and cracked pepper. Additionally, we made several slits in the meat and inserted sliced garlic into the slits... this paid off big time! Introduce shoulder to hot canola oil in a hot enameled cast iron dutch oven and sear for a minute or two per side. Then, out she comes, a wipe down of the pan with paper towels (using tongs) and in with some fresh canola oil and then onions (1 medium), chopped up celery (this is for flavor, not necessarily consumption), and a couple leftover slivers of garlic.

When those ingredients have sweated out, we are ready for our braising liquid. After looking up recipes when we arrived home (shouldn't we do this BEFORE going to the store?) we realized that a popular braising liquid for this pork was unfiltered apple cider. We had none, so we had to improvise. Another recipe had the pork marinate overnight in Coca-Cola. We didn't have the "overnight" part, but we did have the Coca-Cola. Also, when we had made braised shortribs in the past, we included some vinegar in the braising liquid which imparted some nice, tangy flavor. And, we always deglaze the pan with a little red wine. We had some pork bouillion cubes in the cabinet that could fill our the volume with some hot water, too. Finally, Mike likes beer.

So we assembled our braising liquid - a splash of red wine, half a beer (Corona, a summer leftover!), a few glasses worth of Coca-Cola, generous pours of red wine vinegar, and the double pork bouillion cube broken up with about 2 cups of hot water added... smelled interesting and the beer dominated, but we knew that beer smell would mellow over the next hours and everything would meld together.

Settle the pork back in the pan and transferred to our pre-heated 325-degree oven. After an hour, we turned the meat over and had an amazing aroma throughout our house and the meat was already beginning to pull off the bone! After another hour we went to turn the meat back over and checked the temperature at this time... luckily. Temp came back at 180-degrees and the pork was ready to come out! Onto a platter and covered with aluminum it went, but not before a couple of strips were peeled off and eaten - so tender!!!

We then decided to put the leftover braising liquid to good use by boiling some veggies in it while at the same time reducing it. We put the pot back on the stove top and brought it to a boil. Chunk-cut carrots and celery went in for about 10 minutes before we threw in cubed sweet potatoes. Another 15 minutes and everything was done... plus the liquid had reduced by a 1/3 or so.

We cut up the pork based on what looked right - huge chunks - and served it up with the veggies and a little spoon of reduced liquid over the top and a little dijon on the side.

It came out perfectly - very tender and a natural pork flavor. Maybe next time we'll add the dijon right to the braising liquid, but the cooking time/temp couldn't have been better!


Monday, September 04, 2006

August & the End of Summer

As you can probably tell, we are once again ramping up our food blog posts now that summer is coming to an end. Although we've been cooking plenty all summer long, the hot, late days are not exactly conducive to writing about cooking. We are on our fourth tank of propane for the Weber on the deck for this summer, and we no plans to stop firing up that grill this fall. We'll have lots more pics and posts come football season (go Pats!) and autumn - probably our favorite time of year. A preview of grilled drumsticks from a recent cook-out we had with friends at our house:

After a rainy start to the summer, August was beautiful in New England and we took advantage by spending time outdoors, playing tennis, cooking out, and CAMPING. We went for two long weekends of camping in August, once just the two of us and another time with three other couples - friends of Michael's from high school. Both times we went to New Hampshire - it is easy for us to get up there and they have a wonderful state parks system.

First we camped at Pawtuckaway State Park, just east of Manchester New Hampshire. Pawtuckaway was very nice, the sites were secluded and the terrain was varied, making the sites even more interesting and different from one another. Many of the sites are on an island called Horse Island and most of the sites on that island border right up to the lake. The only problems with Pawtuckaway is that they allow motorcraft on the lake! We could hear motorboats cruising around well into the very late night and during the day there are jetskis cruising around. Not exactly relaxing to be on a canoe with jetskis flying past... Also, the beach area was way overcrowded when we checked it out - people were packed in, it looked like a refugee camp! Luckily, the beach was far away from the camp areas and the campsites are for campers only - so it was much quieter. Here is a map of the camp sites:

Here is the view from Site 19... right on the water:

This area was beautiful and we went on a great hike and cooked some good food - pre-marinated steak tips, pasta salad, sandwiches, even bacon-and-eggs for breakfast. When camping, we bring a carton of egg beaters along for a variety of reasons - no broken eggs, no mixing eggs in a bowl, etc. We start the grill up - we have a little propane grill that we use for breakfast and other quick cooking and a charcoal setup that we use for dinner when we're winding down at the end of the day - and get a pan going on the grill with the bacon. On the other side of the grill, we start grilling up our wheat toast. When the bacon is done, we wipe out the pan and then start with a pat of butter. Melt that and in go the egg beaters and a little salt and pepper. Stirring, we add some american cheese at the end. Voila - bacon and cheesy scrambled eggs with toast - perfect camping breakfast.

Pawtuckaway was a preview of our next camping trip to Bear Brook State Park with our friends. We had a great setup at Bear Brook - a much more remote campsite right on two ponds - Beaver Pond and Spruce Pond. The sites are ok, they are somewhat packed together which is surprising given the 10,000 acres (and 40 miles of hiking trails) in this amazing park. The ponds are beautiful and we got some great canoing and fishing in!

We caught mostly perch and some big sunfish - Stacey caught two big perch (8"+) that we ended up bringing back to the campsite in our 5-gallon bucket and scraficing to the camping gods (quickly cutting off their heads). We then gutted and filleted them as best as possible and immediately sauteed up the results in butter, salt and pepper. They were very good! As they say, perch are the tastiest fish in the lake.

Additionally, we had some great steak tips (a camping staple!), bbq chicken, honey chicken, lots of burgers and hot dogs, a few pounds of bacon, lots of sandwiches and cereal and snacks and many, many beers! We ate very well for being "desolate" in the woods...

Michael getting the charcoal going:

Here is the whole group at our communal site, left to right in the back: Jimmy, Brian, Scott, Mike. The girls: Kylene, Sarah, Traci, and Stacey. And in the front, the very well behaved camping mascot/dog, Roxy.

We had a great time throughout August and while we are sad to see it go, we will hold on to our great memories. Autumn is in the air and we are excited to get back to cooking in our kitchen, trying new things on the grill, and taking lots of pics for posts...

Hope you had a great summer too and see you soon.

~Boston Chef

Italian Wedding Soup (or whatever-I-have-in-my-pantry soup)

It's been pretty wet, cold and rainy here in Boston for a little while and with Labor Day upon us, it certainly feels like the end of summer. Although I am sure we'll be getting a few more 80 degree days, probably when I'm stuck at work all day. Figures. Oh and be prepared, my father consulted nature and the almanac and he insists it will be a very cold winter. With that in mind we've had comfort food on the brain. And what's better than a good soup or stew?

Mixed some ground turkey with sage, thyme, salt, pepper, grated parmesan, a little bit of breadcrumbs and some worchestshire. Form into 1 inch balls and brown them up in some oil and then set aside. Meanwhile, in a big soup pot get some chicken stock boiling and add in some chopped onions and celery. If you had fresh carrots, this would be the time to throw them in too, but we didn't. After boiling for 10 minutes, add in the balls of meat, bringing back to a slow boil. Then add in some frozen spinach that has been thawed mostly, and we had some canned sliced carrots which we put in at this point too. Cook about 5 more minutes. Add in some salt, pepper, sage and thyme to taste.

Normally, I prefer small pasta for this dish like a ditalini, but I have yet to find a wheat or multi-grain version, so I broke up some rotini, about 1 cup and put it in. Cook until pasta has cooked through, probably about 15 more minutes. This dish gets a 9 out of 10. Super yummy, it's hard to stop eating it, and it's superb the next day too!

Chicken Curry

One medium we've never ventured into is Indian cooking. As we are trying to branch out and expand our cuilinary toolbox, S decided it was time to attempt a curry - even if it was one in which she just took ideas from lots of different recipes.

Cut chicken up into big chunks and season with salt, and lots of curry powder (oh and a little bit of allspice too!) Brown chicken in some olive oil, and then set aside. Saute some onions, garlic and one sweet potato diced up into half inch cubes. After about 8 minutes add in some chopped portobello mushrooms, add salt, red pepper flakes and some curry powder. After another 5 minutes, add in about 1 cup of chicken stock, add chicken back to pan and simmer until potatoes and chicken are cooked through. Finish by adding a couple splashes of cream, half n half, coconut milk or plain milk -- whatever you have. We used half n half.

I served it over a bed of baby spinach b/c I watch my carbs, but it would've been better over rice, I'm sure. (and M wishes I had too!)

For a first pass, this was pretty good (7 out of 10), but it needed more curry powder even though it smelled like it had plenty, the taste wasn't completely there...or maybe try the curry pastes they have at the market.