Friday, January 30, 2015

Border Springs Farm: Lamb Shoulder Ragu

Border Springs Farm is a family-owned sheep farm in Patrick Springs, Virginia, just 10 miles from North Carolina. They raise certified naturally grown grass-fed lamb. And while they’re not exactly local, we are lucky that they have a retail space in Philly’s Reading Terminal Market.
I have wanted to try their lamb—oh, the things I do for you-- and purchased a boneless shoulder, a great (and overlooked) cut for slow braising. The shoulder weighed over three pounds, which means it’s something to make for a small group of friends or for the two of us, it was several meals based around the ragu.  I realize that meat from a small farm is often a little more expensive and Border Springs may not be available to you (they have an on-line market) but there may be a small farm in your area. You will taste a difference in lamb that is allowed to roam and graze like they are allowed to do at Border Springs. Every time we’ve had the lamb ragu for dinner my red haired food co-pilot has smiled contentedly and murmured, “I do love this lamb.” 
Now that the cold is upon us, it’s perfect weather for low and slow, the type of cooking required for lamb shoulder. If you can’t find lamb shoulder at your market you can always ask the butcher behind the counter to get one for you.
We’ve served the ragu over pasta, but you could also serve it over polenta or grits. We even used it for tacos, seasoning the ragu to taste with some chile powders (ancho and New Mexico chile powders) and ground cumin.
If the lamb shoulder is in a mesh bag, you’ll want to remove it before cooking. Don’t trim away any of the fat. Any excess fat can be easily removed from the top of the ragu when it has cooled.
Like any braise, this is best served the next day.

Lamb Shoulder Ragu
One boneless lamb shoulder (about 3 pounds)
2 c. sliced carrots (about 4)
1 cup diced onion (1 medium onion)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup red wine
One  28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
Salt and ground black pepper
Olive oil, for cooking
Several sprigs of fresh flat leaf parsley, fresh thyme, and fresh rosemary, tied in a bundle.

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Place a 6-quart Dutch oven onto the stove over high heat. Pat the lamb shoulder dry with some paper towels. Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, swirl in 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil into the pan. Place the lamb into the pan and brown on all sides; this will take about 10 to 12 minutes. Adjust heat to prevent burning.
2. Remove the lamb shoulder from the pan and set aside. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool slightly. Drain off all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of fat from the pan.
3. Return the pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and carrots to the pan, season with some salt and pepper, and sauté for about 5 minutes to soften the onions. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Push the vegetables to the outside of the pan. Add the tomato paste to the center of the pan; stir and allow the tomato paste to toast for a minute or two then stir the tomato paste into the vegetables.
4. Add the red wine to the pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan to release any of the accumulated “brown bits.” Cook to reduce the wine by half. After the wine has reduced, add the tomatoes and rinse the can with 1 cup of water and pour it into the pan. Season the cooking liquid with some additional salt and pepper. Add the herb bundle. Return the lamb shoulder to the pan, nestling it into the liquid. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Place the pot into the oven and cook for 2 ½ to 3 hours, when the lamb is  tender and easily pulls apart. Remove from oven and let cool. When the lamb is cool enough to handle, pull the lamb meat into pieces, discarding any fat.
Transfer the lamb and sauce to a bowl; remove and discard the herb bundle. Cover and refrigerate the lamb ragu until needed. Before reheating the lamb, remove any fat that may have accumulated on the surface of the ragu.

                                          Lamb Ragu with House-Made Hand Cut Fettucine


Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Pan, One Meal Redux--Asian-inspired Salmon

I cook by either having a set idea in mind or I’ll let what I see in the store decide the menu. This is an example of the latter.
We are lucky to have an Asian “superstore” in our area where you can get just about any Korean, Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese ingredient you might want. You can also find Mexican (labeled as “Spanish”) and Middle Eastern ingredients, too. Go figure.
I went in looking for very small bok choy, known as bok choy tips and ended up with dinner from what I gathered. I like to use this very small variety of bok choy (and the other similar small Asian “choys” ) ever since I found them in Chinatown years ago. They cook quickly and depending on their size can either be kept whole or sliced in half lengthwise.
The store has a large selection of fresh fish but since salmon is easy to find, I chose salmon.
Baby or even regular bok choy can be substituted for the bok choy “tips.” You would just have to cut it into pieces. I found a container of beech mushrooms but shiitake or oyster would work.
I also made some black rice, which technically used a second pan. 
“You said it was only one pan…” 
Are you finished? All right, I’ll continue. 
You could use any rice, or none at all.
So you can see that this, like many recipes, has a lot of wiggle room for substitutions. Plus it takes little time to prepare.

Pan Seared Salmon with Bok Choy and Mushrooms
For two servings

Two 4 to 6 ounce salmon fillets
4 ounces bok choy tips, sliced in half lengthwise (or other bok choy, chopped)
2 ounces beech mushrooms (or about 6 to 8 shiitake or oyster mushrooms, sliced)
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
chili garlic sauce or other hot sauce, to taste (I used about 1 Tablespoon)
¼ to ½ cup vegetable or chicken broth
canola oil, for cooking
salt and ground black pepper
1. Heat oven to its lowest setting. Mix the soy sauce, honey, chili garlic sauce, and ginger together in a small bowl and set aside. Season the salmon with salt and ground black pepper.
2. Place a large non-stick pan onto the stove over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, swirl in a tablespoon of oil. Place the salmon in the pan skin side up and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Cooking times will vary due to the thickness of the fish. A 1” thick fillet will require about 10 minutes total cooking time for well done, so adjust the cooking time to your preferred degree of doneness. After the salmon is nicely browned, turn the fish. Lower the heat and cover, cooking until the fish is almost done. Remove the salmon from the pan; place the fish onto a paper towel lined oven-proof plate. Cover the plate with aluminum foil and place it into the oven to keep warm.
3. Let the pan cool slightly then wipe the pan with a paper towel. Place the pan back onto the stove over high heat. When the pan is hot, swirl 1 to 2 tablespoons oil into the pan. Add the mushroom and cook until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the bok choy to the pan and toss together. Moisten the bok choy with some of the broth. Cook for another 2 minutes to wilt the bok choy leaves and soften the stems. Push the vegetables to the side of the pan, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then mix the garlic into the vegetables.
4. Pour the soy sauce mixture into the pan and stir it into the vegetables. Cook until the sauce reduces and slightly thickens; remove from heat.
5. Place rice (if using) onto the center of two plates. Place some of the vegetables over the rice. Place the salmon onto the rice and top the salmon with the remaining vegetables. Pour the sauce over the salmon and serve.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mon petit chou-fleur: Orecchiette with Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Bacon

It matters little how inspiration strikes, only that it does.
I had been looking at The Guardian on line and saw a recipe by Nigel Slater for pasta with Brussels sprouts. He used orzo pasta and paired the sprouts with sausage, a variation on pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe.
Slater’s recipe called for boiling the sprouts. Now, I don’t know about you, but I grew up on Brussels sprouts prepared that way and frankly, not only were they uninspiring (sorry, Mom) but they were pretty loathsome little creatures.
But then as a nation we discovered roasting. And the Brussels sprout was never the same. Even my kids will attack these at the dinner table.
Roasted Brussels sprouts are a great “side” dish, finished at the last minute in a quick saute in some olive oil, perhaps adding some garlic, or pecans, or sun-dried cranberries—the options and variations are limitless—but I never thought of them with pasta. Here I paired the sprouts with bacon (vegetarians could opt out and use some type of nut (walnut, pecan, or pine nut, for example). I used orecchiette pasta, but feel free to use whatever pasta you have in your pantry. Since I like to pick out and use the smallest Brussels sprouts (if you see someone digging through the sprouts in the market, it might be me) I thought the “little ears” of pasta would catch the sprouts and bacon when everything was tossed together at the end.
This is easy. You only have a wait for the sprouts to roast during which you can cook the bacon and start the pasta. If you use a regular sauté pan to cook the bacon (one that isn’t “non-stick”) there will be some flavorful little bits left in the bottom of the pan that will add to the flavor of the dish.
Remember that there is a fine line between roasted and burned. You want the former, not the latter, so watch. The small amount of sugar mixed with the sprouts sweetens their flavor but also speeds caramelization.

Orecchiette with Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Bacon
For two servings

3 ounces orecchiette pasta
½ pound Brussels sprouts
3 slices bacon (thick sliced, if possible)
1 Tablespoon chopped shallot (or onion)
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
red pepper flakes, optional
¼ cup vegetable broth or pasta water
one  lemon
salt and ground black pepper
½ teaspoon sugar
olive oil
2 to 3 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove some of the outer layers from the Brussels sprouts and trim the

bottoms. Depending on the size, you’ll want to halve or quarter them lengthwise. Rinse the sprouts under cold water. Place the sprouts into a small bowl. Drizzle the sprouts with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with some salt, about ½ teaspoon, ground black pepper, the sugar and the juice of ½ a lemon. Mix to coat the sprouts. Line a baking pan with a piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper. Spread the sprouts out into a single layer on the baking sheet and place them into the oven to roast for 12 minutes. After 12 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and using a spoon, turn the sprouts so they brown evenly. Return the pan to the oven and roast for an additional 6 minutes, or until they are tender,
depending upon their size. If the sprouts appear to be cooking too quickly, you can lower the oven temperature. Remove the sprouts from the oven when tender; the point of a knife should easily piece the sprouts. Cover the sprouts with a piece of aluminum foil and set aside until needed.
2. While the sprouts are cooking, cut the bacon crosswise into 1” pieces. Place a large sauté pan onto the stove over medium heat. When hot, swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive oil and add the bacon to the pan. Cook the bacon until it is crisp; remove the bacon from the pan and let it drain one some paper towels. Drain the oil/bacon fat from the pan, reserving it to use later.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the package directions until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, return the sauté pan to the stove over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a tablespoon or so of the reserved bacon fat. Add the shallots (or onion) and sauté for one to two minutes so they begin to soften. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the roasted Brussels sprouts to the pan and stir together. Pour about ¼ cup vegetable stock or the pasta water into the pan. Scrape any little bits that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan when the bacon cooked. Let the liquid reduce slightly. If the pasta isn’t ready, set the pan aside.
When the pasta is ready, drain the pasta. Place the pan back onto the stove over high heat; add the bacon and the pasta to the pan and stir together; season to taste with some salt and ground black pepper. Finish the pasta with the juice of the remaining lemon half and Parmesan cheese; mix together. Divide the pasta between two bowls and serve. Brussels sprouts never had it so good.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Handing Down: Sweet Potato-Corn Soup

Cooking, like many other things, is a continuum, the handing down of recipes and techniques so that others can learn and carry on the practice.
This recipe came to me from Oldest Daughter’s Southern Beau. He got it from one of the patients at the O.T. office where he works. They in turn made it together several times and shared some of the leftover soup with us during a visit. It was so good that I thought we should make it over the Christmas holiday when the house would be full and all would be hungry.
Youngest daughter and I put it together for dinner one night. I just asked for a list of the ingredients and went from there. While I did my best to measure everything, that isn’t important. It’s soup after all and it will be good even if your measurements aren’t exact. For example, I used two sweet potatoes:
 “White or orange?" 
It doesn’t matter.
“What size sweet potatoes?
Whatever you find is fine but there is an approximate measurement given.
In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff: Cook! You’ll learn from the experience and it will make you a more confident cook.
And by the way, before I had a chance to write this Youngest Daughter returned home with her beau and made a batch of this for the two of them. The handing down.
This recipe makes enough soup for about eight, depending on how hungry they are. The recipe can be halved for a smaller amount, but leftovers are always welcome and those can be frozen. The red bell pepper isn't essential. Oldest Daughter and her Southern Beau have made it using yellow and green bell peppers. Whatever you can find.

Sweet Potato-Corn Soup
1½ cups chopped onion
1 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1 ¼ cups)
¼ cup diced jalapeno (alter this to your heat-level preference)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” pieces (about 5 cups)
5 cups white corn kernels (which is two 12-ounce bags)
6 cups vegetable stock* (or water)
salt and ground black pepper
chopped cilantro, for garnish
lime wedges, if desired
olive oil, for cooking

1. Place a 4-quart Dutch oven (or other large pot) onto the stove over medium-high heat. When hot, swirl in two tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions and bell peppers; stir and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes to let the vegetables soften. Adjust the heat if necessary. Add the jalapenos, stir and cook for another minute. Push the vegetables to the edges of the pot and add the cumin, allowing it to toast and become fragrant. After 30 seconds, stir the cumin into the vegetables and season with some salt and ground black pepper.
2. Add the sweet potatoes and corn to the pot and cover with the stock. Season the soup with some salt and ground black pepper. Raise the heat so the soup comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the sweet potatoes are cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat and let cool slightly. Puree the soup with an immersion blender (or a regular blender or food processor. Warning—if you puree hot soup in a blender, remove the little top knob from the lid and cover the hole in the lid with a clean towel before starting the blender). Puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pot. Taste for seasoning. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro and a lime wedge, if desired.

*Canned vegetable broth will work of course, but making vegetable stock is easy but will have to be made in advance of making the soup. Invade the crisper of your refrigerator. Chop a few carrots and some celery stalks and an onion and toss them into a pot. Cover the vegetables with water, add a pinch of salt, and place onto the stove. Bring to a boil then reduce the stock to a simmer. Cook the stock for 20 to 30 minutes, skimming the top if needed. Let stand to cool then pass the stock through a colander, saving the liquid, of course, and discard the vegetables. Voila! Vegetable stock! Taste and adjust for salt.

O.K., I admit it. I called this the Handing Down in order to shamelessly plug my friend, the superbly talented guitarist Ed Gerhard. "The Handing Down" is a piece of his which originally appeared on his first recording, Night Birds as the third movement from his four-part “Suite.” When Windham Hill records came calling for a contribution to their Guitar Sampler album, Ed rearranged it, giving it the title “The Handing Down,” which he again recorded for his second album, Luna. Got all that? The audio quality on  this YouTube version isn’t the best but it provides an introduction to Ed’s art. And you can check out Ed at his own website and get your hands on some Gerhard.

And yes, a big thank you all for your patience. Once again, the holiday season meant long hours toiling for others in the restaurant where I work, hence the prolonged silence. But it didn't keep me from cooking for the ones I love. Now, get into that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans! Begin the handing down.