Friday, January 29, 2010


Blood oranges have been on my mind lately. Maybe it's because of Julie Francis. While I’d tasted blood oranges once or twice before, my first serious introduction to them was at a restaurant coincidentally named Nectar. It’s run by one of my favorite local chefs, Julie Francis, who turns out simple food, lovingly and expertly prepared, with a decided, though not exclusive, emphasis on seasonality and local ingredients. In a twist on wine dinners, which she says are “too stuffy,” the restaurant offers monthly Dinner Clubs, where each of the five courses incorporates the evening's highlighted ingredient. Everyone in the restaurant is served the same meal at the same time, Julie comes out of the kitchen to describe each course before it’s served, and the supplier of the featured ingredient (farmer, herder, cheese purveyor, etc.) also talks to the assembled group. I’ve been to Julie’s Goat Cheese Dinner Club, her Beet Dinner Club, and her Blood Orange Dinner Club. I always come away with renewed appreciation of her nuanced use of the night’s ingredient throughout five savory and sweet courses, more knowledge about the ingredient, a pleasantly full belly, and a smile on my face. It’s a remarkably convivial atmosphere where you’re much more likely to speak with diners at adjacent tables than during a routine evening out. Oh, yes – you also always leave with an edible party favor – in this case, a small to-go container of Julie’s candied blood orange rind. My dining companion and sister-cook Becky and I later pooled ours in an impromptu Easter dessert involving strawberries, peppered cashews, and blue cheese. Recalling what I’d learned at the Blood Orange Dinner Club that these delectable rosy fruits come into season during winter, when Shamu posted this week’s Dim Sum Sunday would be about “Sunny Citrus,” I called Fresh Market to find they indeed had blood oranges in stock. To get the creative, er, juices flowing, I googled a bunch of recipes, and soon came up with too many to settle on just one. Lacking the restraint and culinary training of someone of Julie Francis’ caliber, I rushed to the store (actually two) after work Friday, snapped up a boatload of produce – ten blood oranges, two Meyer lemons, a bunch each of orange beets, hefty leeks, and thin asparagus – plus a few Kalamata olives, a pint of cream, and a vanilla bean. After I finally managed to fit it all in the refrigerator, it was time to come up with a game plan and do some math. Since my cat doesn’t do citrus, how much should I cut down the various recipe inspirations I’d assembled? When factoring in called-for amounts of juice vs. segments vs. rind, how many blood oranges would I actually need? Oh, well, leftovers would make a nice addition to next weekend’s mid-winter beach party, and if I ended up with a goodly supply of candied blood orange, that would be just fine.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Shamu’s post that she was bringing back Dim Sum Sunday couldn’t have hit me at a better moment. The winter’s first significant snow storm in my neck of the woods was predicted, and suddenly the weekend seemed brighter as I thought about what I would stay inside and cook. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I was ripe for a new project. Now that I have a digital camera (thanks, Mom & Dad!), I could actually start a blog and play along with DSS. Setting up something rudimentary on blogspot was easy enough (inserting photos and formatting it, not so much). And my food photography skills can, uh, well, only get better with practice. A NUISANCE, A SHOVELER, OR A PARALYZER? In the parlance of a local weathercaster, would the upcoming storm be a “nuisance” (1-2”), a “shoveler” (3-5”), or a “paralyzer” (6+”)? While many may scoff at a mere 1 to 6 inches, these categories are pretty accurate in terms of how snowfall accumulations affect my city. Nonetheless, Cincinnatians tend to raid the grocery stores at even the slightest prediction of snow. So I quickly came up with a mental shopping list and tried to beat the crowds the night before the storm was to hit. SMOKED TURKEY WINGS: NOT JUST FOR THANKSGIVING ANYMORE I’m usually happy to forgo the grocery store lines and enjoy a winter challenge of cooking from the pantry and freezer (as long as I’m stocked up on essentials like beer, cigarettes, cat food, and toilet paper). Beans are one of those go-to ingredients I always have on hand and can usually whip into something warmly satisfying without a trip to the store. But this weekend - this DSS weekend - I wanted to make sure I did them up right. Which to my mind means some form of pork, and a home-made stock. Alas, there were no ham hocks to be found during my shopping trip. But I figured ham shanks would be a perfectly fine substitute. As the base of my stock, I decided to go with smoked turkey wings. Never knew smoked turkey wings were commercially available until I came upon them in connection with “make-ahead gravy” for Thanksgiving, and now I’m a convert. STOCK A LA RUHLMAN My first step was to get the stock going. There are many things to love about making stock yourself in addition to how much better anything tastes that you use it in: 1) It’s ridiculously easy. 2) It makes your house smell good. 3) You can convince yourself you’re cooking when you’re not even paying attention. So I threw some coarse-chunked onions, celery, and carrots into a pot with the smoked turkey wings, tossed in bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, and added water to cover. The difference this time was that, thanks to being the proud new owner of a La Creuset dutch oven (thanks, Cindie!), I finally had a suitable container in which to test Ruhlman’s recommendation to simmer stock in the oven. Dang, it worked like a charm! No matter how low the flame on my stovetop, I always used to struggle with too much liquid evaporating. This time I brought it up to temp on the stovetop, then put it in a low oven. Amazingly, at between 150 and 200 degrees, it simmered so gently I took Ruhlman at his word that you pretty much can’t cook it too long and left it in the oven overnight. (Ahem, I had, as usual, gotten a late start . . .) The next morning, I put the pot in my walk-in cooler (aka my screened porch), where it cooled in no time. After straining it in the biggest colander I own (alas, no Chinois here), I put it back on the porch to chill. When I peeled away the thin layer of fat that rose to the top, I was delighted to see the concentrated gelatinous goodness beneath. Darker than I expected (the top did get a little brown while I slept), but I knew it held the promise of good things. QUICK-SOAK BEANS Thanks to the intro to the beans chapter in the 1997 Joy of Cooking, I quit worrying about soaking beans overnight and have never looked back. I pour boiling water over them to more than cover, usually start in on some other prep work, then drain and discard the soaking water when I’m ready to move forward and start ‘em cooking. (Except I have to remind myself that lentils don’t need soaking.) This time I was using Great Northerns, so a quick soak was in order. After they doubled in size (about an hour), I buried the ham shanks in them, covered with water and brought to a boil with another bay leaf and celery seed, then put them in the oven at 300. The objective, after all, was to keep the house warm and smelling of porky goodness all day. SOUP'S ON After the beans had done their low and slow thing for a couple of hours (and, ok, I confess I put them in the fridge, to resume this project another day), it was time to transform them into soup. I suspected I had too many beans for my available stock, but wasn't quite sure of the ratio. So as I sauteed onion, garlic, celery, and carrots, I heated my stock in the lovely La Creuset with a can of stewed tomatoes, gradually adding the beans and guessing how much my sauteed mirapoix would affect the balance. (That's how it goes sometimes here in the "intuitive" Eggplant Kitchen.) It looked like the stock would accommodate more beans that I had first estimated, so I added the veggies, some fresh herbs, a healthy dose of salt (since I hadn't salted the stock or beans), and waited a while. The proof was in the tasting, and Eggy surprised herself. A ton of deep, rich flavor. Less smoky than I anticipated from the smoked turkey wing stock. But somehow (despite my typical disregard of measurements), I managed to go up to but not over the edge on salt. And, happily, the color of the soup ended up lighter than the deep brown/burgundy stock first suggested, allowing the chunks of carrot, celery, tomato, and reserved pork shanks to show themselves off amid the white beans. As often happens in the Eggplant Kitchen, this single culinary project produced copious leftovers. (My cat went crazy over the smell of the stock, but he does not help me eat all that I cook.) One test of a good pot of food is whether you find it sufficiently tasty and satisfying to keep eating it several days later. This one passed that test. The snow storm turned out to be a "shoveler" (better yet, I'd call it a "sweeper" - so dry and light I could keep most of it off the sidewalks and car with just a broom and vigilance). We've thawed out in the interim, but as I'm about to eat the last bowl of bean soup, I looked out the window to see more snow on the roof of my "walk-in cooler." Time to plan a new cooking project . . .