Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pork Chops in White Wine-Caper Sauce & Brussels Sprouts Gratin

I sort of had a religious experience with whole nutmeg.

At my recent gnocchi-making class at the Chopping Block (don't you worry, a gnocchi blog will be coming soon), we grated whole nutmeg into a rich cream sauce (truly the most delicious cream sauce I've ever had, and with 2 cups of cream and a stick of butter, there's no guessing why). The difference between freshly grated nutmeg and the pre-ground jarred kind cannot be overstated. Soon after, I bought whole nutmeg on my own - it's worth noting that it's no more expensive than ground nutmeg, and while ground spices from the supermarket last only about 6 months (and this is counting the time they sit on the store shelves), whole spices last between 1-3 years.

Gripped by a transcendent desire to be one of those people who toast and grind their own spices (because I have so much free time on my hands, you know), I headed straight to the Spice House.

I know I've mentioned The Spice House on this blog before. For those of you who aren't familiar, The Spice House is a specialty spice shop in Old Town. You can literally smell the delectable spices wafting down Wells Street from a block out.

The veritable food blogging saint Mark Bittman further goaded me toward the toasting-and-grinding light when he mentioned in his book, How To Cook Everything Vegetarian (a truly lovely book, and absolutely comprehensive), that spice "purists" use a mortar and pestle to crush their spices. To me, that sounded like a challenge.

I booked it to the Spice House immediately (as much to escape the interminable sounds of Modern Warfare 2's digital XBox explosions as to actually buy the spices). I didn't really have a plan going in, other than to buy as many whole spices as I thought I'd feasibly use. I picked up a wide range of spices, many commonly used in Indian cooking, as well as a few designer salts and a harissa spread, all for under $30. I'm really excited to make a true curry spice blend, but, much too excited to wait until I had a meal plan laid out, I decided to incorporate a few of my new spices into the dinner I had already planned to cook - pork chops.

I also made Brussels Sprouts Gratin and served the whole thing with roasted parsnips. I served the pork to Ross and Taylor and had a giant plate of veggies for myself (although I did taste the pork and sauce, because after all that old-school crushing of spices, there was no way I wasn't going to try it). Here's how it came together:



whole mustard seeds
whole fennel seeds
whole black peppercorns
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
2 pork chops, fresh
~3/4 c. white wine
fresh chopped parsley


~2 lbs. fresh (raw) Brussels sprouts
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
~1.5 cups milk (I used 2%)
freshly grated nutmeg
grated parmegiano reggiano
~1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 T. butter
salt and pepper


5-6 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into roughly equal chunks
olive oil
salt and pepper


Preaheat the oven to 375. Par-boil the Brussels srpouts whole until tender but still bright green. Drain. Cut off tough bottom part and cut in half. Place in a baking dish.


In a dry pan, toast the mustard seed, fennel seed, and peppercorns for about 2 minutes. With a mortar and pestle (or in a spice/coffee grinder), crush the spices.


In a smallish baking dish, toss the parsnips with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Bake for about 45 minutes, until soft and browning.


Melt 2 T. butter in a pan and stir in the breadcrumbs, seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir them around in the butter until they are coated. Set aside.


In a shallow pan, melt the butter for the Brussels sprouts gratin and whisk in the flour to make a roux. Cook for a couple minutes. Whisk in the milk and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Turn up heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the bechamel is thickened. Grate in the parmesan cheese. Pour over the sprouts. Top with the bread crumbs. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, until edges are bubbly and breadcrumbs are browned.


Heat the butter and oil for the pork in a skillet. Dredge the pork chops in a little flour, removing excess. Place in the pan, topping with salt and the crushed spices, pressing them into the meat. Cook on one side until beginning to brown. When browned on one side, flip over and fry on the other side until browned. Add the wine, capers, and parsley. Cover and cook over medium heat until pork is cooked to your liking. Serve with the Gratin and the parsnips, drizzling the sauce over the pork.

Here's what Taylor had to say about the meal:

"Sure, the pork was perfectly cooked with a nice earthy spice blend that complimented it perfectly. And yeah the parsnips were evenly browned and delicious. But the real triumph of this dish was making Brussels sprouts not only edible but quite delicious. I guess that's the magic of cheese. Another triumph for the Fearless cook, for sure."

Nice! A success! Ross seemed to enjoy it too, judging by his empty plate. I was pretty happy with the way the sauce came out - the freshly ground spices were super flavorful, and the fact that they were more coarsely ground than they'd be from a jar added a pleasant textural element.

I can't wait to do more toasting and mortar-and-pestling, especially with an Indian spice blend! Check back soon for more spicy action.

Thanks for reading! More soon...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Battle Chili, Part 1 - Three-Bean Turkey Chili

It won't come as a surprise to most of you that I'm really competitive.

So you'll understand my excitement at the announcement of my company's annual Chili Cook-off. The proceeds go to a great cause - the Greater Chicago Food Depository - and everyone at Digitas gets to enjoy homemade chili cooked by their colleagues. Apparently, I'm up against some stiff competition. Luckily, the Cook-off isn't for another month, so I have a lot of time to test recipes.

My plan is to cook one chili recipe per week up until the competition, and enter the best recipe I come up with. I am, of course, entering mine into the "non-traditional" category, because I just can't go up against people who have been cooking regular beef-and-red-bean chili for years. My strength lies in creativity - I hope.

This first recipe came out pretty well. The turkey flavor, despite my aggressive seasoning, really comes through to complement the mix of beans. Overall, I'd say this recipe is solid, but not yet a winner. Fortunately, the thrill of head-to-head battle has my head positively overflowing with chili ideas, each one more creative than the last.

I am going to need honest, willing chili judges over the next few weeks, so if you consider yourself a connoisseur, please let me know and I'll reserve you a spot at the judges' table (AKA my coffee table). I'm going to be faced with more chili leftovers than you can shake a wooden spoon at in the month of February - thank goodness it keeps getting better the longer it sits.



2 T. olive oil
1.5 lbs. ground turkey
1 medium white onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
3-4 T. chili powder, more if needed
a couple dashes cayenne pepper
a couple dashes paprika
salt and black pepper to taste
1 large can diced plum tomatoes
1 regular sized can diced tomatoes and green chiles
1 small can tomato paste
~1/2 c. water
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed
sour cream and grated cheddar for serving
salad and bread for serving (optional)


Heat olive oil over medium high heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. Cook turkey, seasoning with a bit of all the spices, until browned. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and green pepper. Add more seasonings and cook until the vegetables are softening and most of the moisture has steamed away.


Add the tomatoes (with all juices), tomato paste, water, and still more seasonings - especially chili powder. Stir to combine. Add in beans and stir again. Cover and cook for about 30 minutes over medium-low heat.


Taste the chili and add more seasonings if you need to. Cover and cook until you're ready to serve it - longer is better. Serve and enjoy!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Summer in January's little luxuries. 40-degree days in January in Chicago (thank you, El Nino!). Coming home after a hellish work week and cooking a relaxed meal at home with a glass of wine. And shrimp pasta so tangy and bright that it almost doesn't feel like winter at all.

Eating this pasta is like escaping to a tropical beach from a blizzard (or ice storm, or icy rain, or ice...hail?!). No matter the weather, or whether it's a weekday or a lazy weekend night at home, this dish is so easy and foolproof that it's always a perfect time to make it.

I picked up the Italian sweet peppers (they come in bell pepper colors but are the same size and shape, roughly, as jalapenos) at Trader Joe's, and every time I use them I wonder why I don't use them more often. They're sweeter and crisper than bell peppers, but not spicy, so they're perfect for any palate - even spice-sensitive ones. They really jazz up the flavor of a sauce. And speaking of sauce, this simple scampi-inspired one is low on ingredients but high on flavor. If you're not a huge fan of lemon, I might start with half a lemon, but the overall effect is tangy, crisp, and delightfully sunny.



2 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
1 very large or 2-3 small shallots, chopped
1/2 lb. grape tomatoes
10-12 small sweet Italian peppers
3 cloves garlic, minced
juice of one lemon
~1/2 c. white wine
fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes
1 lb. raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
2-3 more T. butter
whole grain spaghetti (1/2-2/3 of a package)


Heat 2 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter in a large skillet with semi-high sides. Cook shallots, tomatoes, and peppers, seasoning with salt and pepper, until beginning to soften. Add in garlic and cook for another minute.


Add lemon juice, wine, parsley, red pepper flakes, and a little more salt and pepper to pan. Stir and cover. Cook over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti until al dente.


Add shrimp and the other 2-3 T. of butter to pan. Cover and cook until shrimp are pink, stirring when neccessary and seasoning as needed. Serve over noodles. Enjoy!

These past few weeks, cooking at home has truly been a luxury - I've barely set foot in my apartment the entire month of January! It's nice to remember what makes me love it so much. I hope you're all off to a fantastic start to the new year, and finding - no, making - time to do what you love.

More soon!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Zin-fully Delicious Short Ribs

With a wallet brimming with just-unwrapped Christmas cash, most city gals would run to their nearest Zara, buy an absurd faux-fur vest, and strut out onto the streets to find some good sushi and a cocktail!

Not this girl. But mostly because I had already bought said vest in one of those one-for-you-two-for-me Christmas shopping slip-ups. So, feeling, as I often do, generous toward myself, I bought what I've been lusting after for about two years now: a Dutch oven. Coming in at a very reasonable (as these things go) $50, you'd think I would've had one by now (I'm not one to deny myself much, as is plain to see).

My better half was due to arrive back from his Mexican surfing vacay with his mom, and I wanted to treat them to something delicious to make their transition back to sub-Arctic temperatures slightly more bearable. For some time now, I've been feeling compelled - yes, compelled is the accurate word here - to braise. And braise I did! I braised like no one has braised before! Er, like...well, many people have most likely braised before.

My compulsion to braise and my recent semi-obsession with making short ribs collided in a meaty explosion of slow-cooked goodness, all dripping in glorious Zinfandel. Biting into the spoon-tender ribs was like coming in from a blizzard and sinking under your covers still fully clothed to read Twilight - pure guilty pleasure. And don't think that just because this recipe looks a tad advanced or because it "requires" a $50 piece of cooking equipment (it doesn't), that you can't tackle it at home. With a few hours to kill (and maybe a great glass of wine and some tween vampire lit), you'll be singing your braise's praises without a hitch. Promise.


4 beef short ribs, bone in
1/2 bottle Zinfandel
1/2 carton beef broth
2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, halved and sliced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
3 ribs celery, chopped
2-3 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
about 16 small (golf-ball to egg-sized) thin-skinned potatoes (like baby Yukon gold)
mix of chopped fresh herbs (like rosemary, parsley, oregano, etc.)
2 T. butter plus 1 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
dash of cayenne pepper
5-6 small heads Belgian endive, trimmed, separated into leaves
handful toasted walnuts
1 ripe pear
blue cheese crumbles

[for salad dressing:]
juice of 1 lemon
dollop of dijon mustard
olive oil
dollop of honey
salt and pepper



Bring the ribs to room temperature. Salt and pepper them generously on all sides. Preaheat oven to 350. On the stovetop, in a Dutch oven or large skillet, heat the olive oil. Brown the ribs on all sides, working in batches if necessary. Set aside, and drain all but about a T. of the remaining fat in the pan. To that, add about a T. of olive oil over medium-high heat.


Add the leeks, carrots, and celery to the pan, adding a little salt and pepper. Cook, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, until beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Return the ribs to the pan. Pour in the wine and broth so that the liquid comes about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the ribs, but does not totally submerge them. (At this point, if you are not cooking in an oven-safe pan, transfer all of this to an oven-safe dish with a lid). Put the lid on the pan and braise in the oven for about 2.5-3 hours, until the meat literally falls off the bones.


About 45 minutes before the braising is done, boil a large pot of salted water. Par-boil the potatoes until they are easily pierced with a fork, but not falling apart. Drain. Return the same pot to the stove and heat some olive oil and butter (about 3 T. total) over medium heat. Add the potatoes, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and fresh herbs to the pan. Cook them until they begin to get brown and crisp on the skins, stirring occasionally, and smashing a few down so they crack open and suck up the oil.


Whisk together all salad dressing ingredients, then slowly whisk in olive oil to emulsify. Place the thinly-sliced pear into the bowl of salad dressing (to prevent oxidation) until ready to serve. Place some endive on each salad plate. Top with some dressing-coated pears, walnuts, and blue cheese crumbles. Drizzle a little more dressing over it all if if seems a little dry.


Serve: place 4-5 potatoes on each plate, along with one short rib per person, topping it off with a little jus from the cooking pan. Serve with the salad. Enjoy!

Ross said that I could "easily charge $25 to $30 for this in a restaurant." [*blush*] And Ross' mom (no shrinking violet in the kitchen herself) said they were the best short ribs she'd ever (ever!) had. I'd say my tryst with braising turned out better than expected - and I have a feeling me and my Dutch oven (we are, it may go without saying, are staunchly Team Edward) are going to be mighty cozy all winter.
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