Friday, December 18, 2009

Cleanup Frenzy is Productive

Got to tidy up
Too much cabinet clutter
Making me crazy.

Must clean out the fridge.
Gravy is taking up space -
Or can it be soup?

I am a happy woman if the house is neat and tidy to all appearances. "Find it a home!"I tell my third-grade daughter when she brings in another precious object. My desk is orderly. In the kitchen and bathroom, residence is conditional: if we use it daily, it can stay on the counter. If not, underneath it goes. Messes, stacks, and stashes are stored within the confines of spaces behind doors; i.e., cabinets, closets, and the basement.

Out of sight, out of mind. Otherwise, the clutter drives me insane.

I don't think about what I can't see, including cans and jars of food that are hidden in the back recesses of cabinets and the pantry -- until I unpack groceries and I have to make them fit. Sometimes I stuff them in. But other times, I have the patience to get rid of the old and make way for the new.

So in a recent fit of impatient (read: furious) weeding out after a grocery run, when I didn't have the time to do it, I was in a mood to throw out everything that didn't appeal to me at the moment. I hesitated over a jar of gravy. How in the world did it get there? More than likely, I acquired it with my recent marriage and subsequent household merger. As I considered its source, benevolence overtook me. An "aha" moment told me how to use its convenience properties to advantage.

The gravy turned out to be perfectly delicious in this casserole. When I added sautéed mushrooms and vermouth, it had all the richness of a veloute sauce (homemade broth thickened with a blond roux). I may hoard a few more jars on purpose now.

Quick Cassoulet

6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into thirds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
About 1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 cups sliced fresh baby bella mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 (12-ounce) jar chicken gravy
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 (15-ounce) can navy beans, drained
1 or 2 tablespoons dry vermouth
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Sprinkle chicken thighs with salt and pepper; dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat; add 2 tablespoons oil to skillet and heat until hot but not smoking. Add chicken; cook until browned and cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Place in a 1 1/2-quart baking dish, and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium and heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in skillet. Add mushrooms, garlic, and rosemary; sauté until mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in gravy, broth, beans, and vermouth; pour over chicken. Combine Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs; sprinkle evenly on top.

Bake until topping is golden brown and casserole is bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Back to our Roots

Vegetables mashed
It's smart to eat when you're stressed
Comfort food is best.

I believe we are supposed to eat vegetables in season. Just because we can get fresh asparagus in December doesn't mean we ought to be eating it. Our past generations ate off the land, thriving on the nutrition in what was easily accessible from the ground. People did not have a vast array of out-of-season foods at their fingertips. The taste and nutrients of freshly harvested vegetables have always been unsurpassed by those shipped over land and sea, perhaps even preserved in some manner.

When I'm out grocery shopping, I breeze by displays of corn and sugar snap peas that could not grow right now in my area; I glare at hothouse tomatoes like uninvited house guests, no matter how perfect they look on the outside. I did all those this past summer, when I couldn't get enough of blossoming summer squash, vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, speckled beans, and others that basked in the sun on stalks and vines. (Don't get me wrong: I am a proponent of the colorful plate and eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. I just don't want to get ours from another country.)

Appropriately, my current food obsession is creamy mashed roots. When the weather outside is frightful and cold, it is coincidentally the time when underground root vegetables are ready to dig up out of their hibernation. And because this season is a little harried and dinner is the last thing on my mind as I rush around from work, holiday activities, shopping -- and just generally trying to keep life on track, I am grateful for this desire for simple, close-to-home-grown comfort food.

So I'll simmer or roast, then mash potatoes with celeriac or parsnips or sweet potatoes with rutabagas. We'll eat roots in soups and stews until the first stalks of asparagus push up through the dirt. By then, my mood will have changed and I'll be ready for green and other vibrant colors of spring vegetables and fruits. Until that happens, for the most part, the muted shades of winter roots, supplemented with winter greens and frozen and canned vegetables, will sustain us well.

Mashed Celeriac and Potatoes
3 cups diced peeled celeriac (1/2-inch dice)
12 ounce russet potato, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (about 2 1/2 cups)
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Cook celeriac in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add potato and boil until both are very tender, about 15 minutes more. Drain. Return to saucepan over medium heat; cook and stir until vegetables are very dry. Mash until mostly smooth. Stir in milk, cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Roughy-ing It

To show my deep love,
I make a wholesome dinner.
"Yuck, Mom. What is that?"

I love fish, but like many people, I find it intimidating to cook sometimes. This is compounded by the fact that my two kids rarely are enthusiastic about the results.

But my recent desire to branch out beyond my old stand-by salmon recipes, combined with that leftover bunch of celery in my fridge, helped me screw up my courage and try something new. And this time, I purposefully didn't make enough for the kids. Good thing, too, because this experiment turned out quite well, and my husband and I didn't want to share! The kids had fish sticks from a box - and everyone was happy.

Poached Orange Roughy
This simple dish requires a skillet that can move into a hot oven, but that just makes you look like a fancier cook!
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups baby carrots, sliced lengthwise
1 1/2 cups celery, coarsely chopped (about 1 1/2 inch lengths)
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 lb. fresh orange roughy filet or other firm white fish

Melt butter and oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet.

Add carrots and celery, and saute until vegetables soften slightly and begin to caramelize. Add wine and stir briefly to de-glaze.

Lay fish over vegetable and wine mixture. Allow it to steam on the stovetop for 1-2 minutes, then transfer skillet into the oven. Bake until fish flakes easily with a fork, 10-20 minutes. (Time depends on type of fish and thickness of filet, so check every 10 minutes or so.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The joy of new discoveries

Why is "stinky" cheese
Considered a gourmet food
When it smells like socks?

Last weekend, I discovered something new. Something I would never have tried based on the sound of it, but something that was truly yummy.

It was lemon stilton cheese.

"Stinky" cheese with candied lemon rind? Are you kidding me? But it was light and slightly tangy and infinitely refreshing. And, it inspired this simple and also refreshing salad, which turned out to be a nice rebound after Thanksgiving's carb-fest!

Green Salad with Pears and Lemon Stilton
1 small head romaine lettuce, chopped
1 ripe Bosc or other pear, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons crumbled lemon stilton cheese

Creamy Orange Vinegarette Dressing
1/4 cup light mayonaise
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice

Arrange lettuce on 4 plates, top with pear slices and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of cheese. Whisk dressing ingredients together, drizzle over salad and serve!