Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

On the evening that we first got our new handheld blender (my birthday) we didn’t have any fresh butternut squash in the house - but, really by chance, I had some frozen squash with which we whipped up some squash soup. That soup came out great, but I wanted to try the real thing - including roasting the squash first to bring out its earthy sweetness. M and I went pumpkin and mum hunting this past weekend, and we happened upon a little nursery that was selling all those items, plus some lovely butternut squash. We quickly scooped them up and brought them home with the hope of turning them into a fall soup.

As you know by now, we really make things to taste, so I can only give you approximate measurements, but as long as you don’t go overboard on anything, you could tailor this recipe to your liking!

I started out by peeling 1 large butternut squash, taking the seeds out of the belly and cutting it all up into 3/4-inch cubes. Onto a baking sheet with a bit of olive oil and into a 420 degree oven for 15 minutes, then give them a toss and throw in for another 10 minutes.

While the squash is roasting, fine dice 1 onion, and put that into your soup pot on medium heat with 1.5 tbs butter. While the onions are sweating, fine dice either 2-3 normal size carrots or about 12-15 baby carrots. Throw those in when you finish cutting. Now on to 2 ribs of celery really fine dice as these take awhile to cook, and throw them in the pot too! These veggies may take 15-20 minutes to really sweat down without burning. When they are all adequately tender, throw in your fork tender squash, 1/2-cup of cranberry apple cider (the tartness of the cider balances the sweetness of the squash and carrots – you could also just use apple juice or throw in a diced apple when you are cooking down the veggies) and pour in enough chicken stock to just cover the veggies (you can always add more stock later to thin it out)...

Let that come to a boil, and then turn down to a simmer for at least 15 minutes along with 1/4-tsp ground ginger, 1/4-tsp nutmeg, 1-tsp ground sage, 1 more tbs butter and some salt and pepper to taste.

After that has had time to get all happy, it’s time to turn to your trusty hand blender. Word of warning, once blending has begun, do not lift the blender above the surface of the soup unless you want an orange splattered kitchen! Turn it off first! And here we go...

The soup turned out a bit too thick after the initial puree, so we just added more stock and tasted to adjust the seasonings as it did need some more S & P. This soup is so filling, and it made enough for 8 bowlfuls! Roasting the butternut squash really is divine, but take my word for it, frozen would work too and no one would know!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Spicy Black Bean Soup

The latest addition to our kitchen is a mighty powerful Cuisinart handheld blender. I think it may change my life! It could make me crazy – I can imagine myself trying to puree everything from steak to eggplant parm... but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I have yet to exhaust all the normal recipes that are floating in my head, in cookbooks, and on the internet.

I knew I had always had black beans in my pantry for a reason – healthy, full of protein and a long shelf-life! Plus this soup kicked butt.

This is a what-do-I-have-in-my-crisper-drawer kind of soup, and you really can’t go wrong. I had half a red onion, half a green bell pepper, 10 baby carrots and 2 ribs of celery, all of which I diced pretty small so they would cook quickly. Into my soup pot went 1 tbs butter, and then the onion, followed by all the other veggies and 3 cloves minced garlic. I would add the onions, chop the next veggie, put that in and repeat. After about 15 minutes of sautéing, I added 2 16 oz cans of rinsed black beans and just enough stock to come up to the top of the beans... less is better because you can always add more after pureeing.

After letting that come up to a boil, I turned down the heat and let the soup simmer for 15 minutes with 1 tbs cumin, 1/8 tsp ground chipotle, 1/2 tsp Mexican oregano and S&P to taste. Then the fun began!! This blender is like a mighty boat motor - it demolished the soup in five seconds flat! I chose to blend the entire pot, but if you like yours chunky, you can always remove maybe a cup of veggies, puree the rest and then add the intact veggies back to the pot.

Finished the soup off with a dollop of sour cream, but you could also do crushed tortillas, cilantro, or cheese!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Beer Can Chicken

We wish we could share the sweet, smokey smell...

This beer can chicken is, in my opinion, the best chicken we've ever made. It is our crispy, buttery, smokey, succulent, sizzling chicken masterpiece and it literally stands on it's own. The perfect chicken.

We had tried Beer Can Chicken once before but we rushed it and hadn't done enough research. It came out kinda dry and none-too-flavorful. It was ok, certainly not great.

This time, we did it right and followed all the necessary steps, starting with brining the chicken (1 roaster chicken - ours was 6.5 lbs.) in a brine of ~2 quarts water, 1/2 cup kosher salt, a few big tbls of sugar, a bunch of ground black pepper and crushed bay leaves, a long pour of soy sauce, and many shakes of Texas Pete's hot sauce. Certainly that could have brined overnight, but we only had the day to do it - so it got a few precious hours in the bath.

An hour before we were ready to put the chicken on it's perch, we prepped some hickory chips to add that wonderful smokey flavor to the gas grill... a few big handfulls (maybe 2-3 cups) of the wood chips got a soak in a bowl-full of 1/2 beer and 1/2 water.

Additionally, we made a "rub" of sorts that would be multi-purpose... The rub consisted of pretty much equal parts: ground black pepper, kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and a mix of dried oregano/basil plus a little bit of cumin. To that, we added much MORE than an equal part of smoked spanish paprika.

After an hour we drained that beer/water, added the chips to two separate small aluminum trays and placed those trays under the grill grates - on top of the burner-protectors. Then we fired up the grill, started melting a stick of butter in a saucepan on low, and took out the chicken.

After draining the brine, we thoroughly rinsed the chicken with cold water. Then, after using paper towels to dry inside the cavity, we squeezed in the juice of 1/2 a lemon and tried to swirl the juice around as best as possible. Then we scooped in a couple spoons of that pre-made rub... and dried off the exterior with paper towels, prepping it for a massage.

On a big plate, we began brushing on some of the melted butter (be sure to save at least 1/3 of it!) all over the chicken - top, bottom, back, front. Then we sprinked and rubbed in that spice mix - spreading it all over the buttered chicken as best as possible. We ended up shaking on a little extra salt/pepper/paprika on some spots that needed extra attention. Then we got out a beer can...

A 16oz Miller High Life can, to be exact! After washing the outside of the can, about 2/3 of it went into a frosty glass for the chef, leaving 1/3 of the beer in the can. I used some scissors to cut away most of the top of the can, leaving a large opening. The last of the rub (a couple big spoons), the rest of the butter, and the juice of the other 1/2 lemon were then added to the beer in the can and swirled together. This left the can about 2/3 full of liquid - you wouldn't want to go any higher than that with the liquid.

Finally, put the can on the plate, and slide that chicken right down onto it. Et voila!

By now the grill is HOT and the wood is smoking, so we reduced the heat on the two outer burners and turned the middle burner OFF - and placed that chicken right down onto the grill, supported like a tripod by the beer can and the two legs. Monitor the temperature to try to bring it down and hold at 350. Eventually, after lots of playing with it, we had it steady at 350 but you'll have to watch it at first as everything adjusts. Yer looking at about 18-20 minuts/pound of chicken - but really the important thing is ~170 for the breast and ~180 for the drums.

We left that cover on and took maybe one little peek halfway through - we wanted that smoke to be stuck in there (as much as possible on a gas grill) and we knew we'd be rewarded... from about an hour in, the smell of the smoke and the chicken cooking right on the grill and the beer/butter/lemon was wafting through the air and tempting our appetites.

Ours was ready in just under 2 hours and we carefully removed it to a platter, still standing up, with two sets of tongs for it to rest for ~15 minutes. After that, with one set of tongs holding the chicken and the other gripping the bottom of the beer can, we slid that sucker off and onto a cutting board to be carved.

It was delicious... like we said, smokey and sweet, a little lemony, crispy skin. The extra paprika had burned in the places where it was a little too thick (as you can see by the before and after pics), but no big deal. TENDER breast meat, hints of lemon and sweet smoke - possibly the best we've had. Dark meat that had that dark-red smoked appearance and the texture of butter. Crispy skin and meat falling off the bones... Wonderful! Can't wait for leftovers tonight!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Butternut Squash and Spinach Gratin

Yay, fall is here! This is our favorite time of year, because it denotes the beginning of cool weather foods. From stews to braised meat to all things pumpkin – this is such a special season!

Epicurious had some top autumn recipes on their site, and I found this one for Butternut Squash and Spinach Gratin which looked wonderful and completely unlike anything I’ve ever made!

First, fine dice a small onion and a few cloves of garlic and sweat them out over lowish heat in 3 tbs butter for about 8 minutes... do not let them burn! While that is going, peel 2 butternut squash, chop the neck off from the belly. I scooped out the seeds from the "belly", but in the end, I only needed the "necks" of the squash. I cut the necks in half lengthwise and tried to use this slicer we had, but that really didn’t work, so M just sharpened the Santuko knife for me, and I sliced them crosswise no thicker than 1/8". Just be careful of your fingers!

Then I folded the onion/garlic/butter mixture into 30 ounces of thawed frozen spinach (which we had thoroughly dried via hand-squeezing with paper towels.) Also going into the mix was 1.5 tsps salt, 3/4 tsp black pepper, rounded 1/4 tsp nutmeg and 1 cup of heavy cream.

Now it’s time to contruct! I sprayed some Pam on my shallow ceramic 9 x 13 baking dish (epicurious says not to use glass, although I’m not sure why?). Then layer squash, spinach mixture a sprinkling of grated Parmesan (this is another deviation from the original recipe), then repeat, ending with squash and some more cheese. Wax or parchment paper on top and then throw it into the top third of your 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Then remove paper and put in for 12 more minutes.

When we took the dish out to remove the paper, the cheese on top was all stuck to the paper and I was out of Parm, so I threw some Jack cheese on top. Perhaps tenting foil instead would have prevented this outcome.

Overall, this dish was AMAZING…the only thing different next time would be a bit more salt and perhaps some crushed red pepper. The funny thing is how much the butternut squash looked like peaches the way I cut them! Each time I took a bite, I expected some sweet juicy fruit, but instead got a slightly sweet earthy flavor – food trickery!