Monday, April 30, 2012

Cream of Asparagus and Potato Soup

The downside of pickled asparagus was all the leftover asparagus - I used the 12 ounce jars, which are taller than pint jars, but still had a bunch of half spears left over. 

And I don't know about you, but I think the better part of the asparagus is the top. I wasn't excited about the idea of cooking up a bunch of woody ends of the asparagus stem. 

So I made soup! This recipe comes from an unlikely source: the side of a reusable Hannaford shopping bag. On one side it has a cartoon-y robin surrounded by Spring! Baseball! Asparagus! Rain! and this recipe on the other side. 

Side note: a few months out of the year, using this shopping bag make me grumpy. Grumble grumble, spring in New England, yeah right, grumble grumble. 

And while there is a specific recipe, you can follow Bittman's ratio for cream of veggie soups (as per Vrylena): 3 parts cooking liquid to two parts vegetables to one part dairy.

Cream of Potato and Asparagus Soup
Adapted from a Hannaford shopping bag. Yup.

1 pound asparagus, washed and trimmed of woody stem ends
2 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 stalks of celery, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic
6-8 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup of cream
salt and pepper

In a large stock pot, bring veggies to a boil in the stock. Cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender or carefully in small batches in the blender. Add cream, season with salt and pepper, and reaheat to serve. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Wingman: Quaker Steak & Lube

Another report on the wings down in the Norfolk, Virginia area from my dad, the Wingman. This one from a place with "lube" in the name. Uh-huh.

Quaker Steak & Lube
12832 Jefferson Avenue
Newport News, VA 23608
757-874-LUBE (5823)

"Quaker Steak & Lube is a casual dining restaurant chain based in Sharon, Pennsylvania. The original restaurant was built in 1974 by George "Jig" Warren and Gary "Mo" Meszaros in an abandoned gas station in downtown Sharon, and decorated with license plates and old automobiles. Originally a "cook-your-own-steak" establishment, Quaker Steak's signature dish is now its chicken wings and the variety of sauces used to season them. The restaurant is known for its chicken wing hot sauce flavors, which are depicted on the Scoville scale. The hottest flavor is the "Triple Atomic Sauce", which is made from the ghost pepper. The Atomic flavor is sold individually in a dropper bottle sealed in an oversized childproof prescription container. Customers must sign a liability waiver before ordering the Triple Atomic or Atomic, freeing Quaker Steak from any liability." [Source]

15 different types of wings 
Tried the Garlic and Mild wings with blue cheese dressing 
10 - $8.90 

Good wings - Mild is almost like Russian dressing – Atomic wings are supposed to be off the chart, but I’ll never know. Portions are ok, some pigeon wings mixed in.  Beers are outta sight, $4.00 Bud Lite drafts – how’s that work, $1.50 at the Thirsty Camel, $4.00 in Newport News? – must be the atmosphere. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pickled Asparagus

Aside from that out of season hot pepper jam, I don't usually do much wintertime canning. Sure, there's seasonal marmalades to make, and you can always make a savory garlic or onion jam. But typically, I view preserving as a way to capture those summer flavors - mostly strawberries and tomatoes. 

Since there's garlic to be had year round, well, I just don't need to go putting up a bunch of specialty products to save it (and really, how often would you use an onion jam anyway?)

But now, as early as the end of April (early for Maine!), as the asparagus and rhubarb poke up out of the muddy, spring green, grass-covered ground, I'm starting to think about canning local produce again. 

Last night, I taught a workshop on how to can pickled spring veggies, and chose asparagus for the class. I made an extra jar for myself, and am excited to see how asparagus serves as a pickle. The brine is similar to a dilly bean brine, my favsies, so as long as that asparagus retained a little crunch, they're going to be delicious.

Picked Asparagus

7 lbs. asparagus
7 garlic cloves, peeled
3 cups water
3 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
7 small hot peppers or 7 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/3 cup canning salt
2 tsp. dill seed 

Wash and rinse canning jars; keep hot until ready to use. Wash screw bands and lids; simmer lids in a small saucepot of water. 

Wash asparagus well, but gently, under running water. Cut stems from the bottom to leave spears with tips that fit into the canning jar with a little less than ½-inch headspace. Peel and wash garlic cloves. Place a garlic clove at the bottom of each jar, and tightly pack asparagus into jars with the blunt ends down. 

In an large saucepot, combine water, vinegar, hot peppers or crushed red pepper, salt and dill seed. Bring to a boil. Pour boiling hot pickling brine over spears, leaving ½-inch headspace. 

Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened, clean paper towel; apply two-piece metal canning lids until fingertip tight. 

Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Let cool, undisturbed, for 24 hours and check for seals. Allow pickled asparagus to sit in processed jars for 3 to 5 days before consumption for best flavor development. 

Yield: 7 12oz. jars 

Update on the flavored vinegars: I strained them after a week and a half and they came out in a beautiful spectrum. 

From left to right, raspberry vinegar; thyme, parsley vinegar; lemon dill peppercorn vinegar; and tarragon vinegar. 

Do you can in the wintertime? What's the first product you look forward to canning in your area? Am I silly to scoff at onion jam? 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cuppow Travel Mug Lid

I daytripped it down to Kennebunkport yesterday, and in the Daytrip Society store, found the Cuppow! Had to have it. This plastic lid simply fits under the screwband of a wide-mouth pint jar and turns your canning jar into a travel mug. 

This simple little piece (bpa-free plastic to boot), is going to improve my iced coffee routine greatly.  Between dripping coffee on myself while driving and fumbling with leaky, coffee covered two part lids, I'm excited to put this new lid to use. 

I always have some leftover brew that I save in mason jars in my fridge - and this reusable lid will encourage me further to make iced coffee at home, reducing waste and saving my dollars. 

I can also see it being useful for holding the fruit infused vodka I made last summer - where I added frozen berries to a quart jar and covered them in vodka. 

When it came time for cocktails, I added Fruit A Peel, a lightly-sweetened sparkling lemonade from Polar Beverage. Although I don't think I need any encouragement to be drinking vodka out of a sippy cup! 

Have you seen the Cuppow anywhere? You can order it online, but I was stoked to see it sold locally in that cute shop. Would you buy one? They're $7.99 (plus shipping) through the website, but $10 in the store. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Soup-o-rama: Thanh Thanh 2 Pho

For this month's o-rama theme of soup, I went with to Thanh Thanh 2 on Forest Avenue and ordered some pho. Ordering soup in a restaurant can frequently be an uninspired affair, so I figured the much lauded pho at Thanh Thanh 2 would be a worthwhile assignment. 

Turns out the spring rolls were rather uninspired, served with a thick peanut dipping sauce that was so viscous it sucked the lettuce out of the roll on contact. 

But the pho was hearty and warming - and definitely something that I could not easily recreate at home. So this dish met my criteria for ordering soup in a restaurant.  

I ordered a small pho ($6.50) with rare steak and meatballs, which was enough for lunch and leftovers. The pho broth was a meaty, yet light, sweet and salty mix, with poured over thinly sliced rare beef steak that cooks in the hot broth. 

The pho noodles are a small vermicelli type and sink under the meat and sliced onions. The soup is garnished with cilantro and scallions, and comes with an additional plate of garnish of basil, large bean sprouts, and sliced jalapenos. 

I love the side plate of add ons; having a small plate of veggies to add made me happy in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of way. 

Too frequently, soup at a restaurant is over salted to make up for a lack of complex flavors, and it's rare that you find a soup that makes you stop and wonder how they got so much flavor into one spoonful. But this pho, with its layered base of stock, variety of ingredients, and hearty flavor is a soup that is beyond my culinary grasp and kept me guessing between slurps. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

El Rayo Cantina

Ed. Note: El Rayo Cantina has closed. 

Tuesday saw the brief return of original Roomie A. - my long lost girlfriend Amy who moved to the Big Apple last year. I understand that some people need to go away before they can come back; I am one of those people. But that doesn't mean I have to like it on others. 

The only perk of her exodus are culinary - eating through New York in a weekend or eating out in Portland when she comes to visit. So Tuesday night, we were excited to try the new expansion of El Rayo Taqueria, the Cantina

I've enjoyed El Rayo for $1 Oyster Mondays and beers on the patio, but have never really found my groove with the food inside. For tacos, I gravitate towards Taco Escobarr and Taco Trio (love El Rayo's Mexican corn though). 

However, the buzz I've heard about a few things at the Cantina, especially the Slow Burn cocktail and the Jalapeno Cheese Puffs (!!!) bumped the new restaurant up to the top of my list of places to try.

The new space is located on the far side of El Rayo's parking lot. When we walked in, the lengthening spring days gave us a nice sunlit view of the bar. Even though we sat in a booth I was visually drawn towards the bar area. 

And the bar would be a great place to spend your time, between the 30 tequilas to choose from, the cocktail list, and a late night bar menu (note: food after 9pm in Portland!). 

In addition to that Slow Burn (pepper-infused tequila, lime juice, vermouth, olive brine, and triple sec, served up and rimmed with spicy "mystery powder") I mentioned, we tried the El Cuidad - tequila, St. Germaine, agave nectar, and lemon juice, served up with a twist. 

I love a tart cocktail, and this one did not disappoint, with the tequila shining through too. The Slow Burn was good but primarily tasted spicy to me. Good for sharing and/or sipping slowly. 

We sat in this corner booth right by the entrance, between the kitchen and the rest of the restaurant. Our service was friendly and prompt - we were, after all, right by the wait station - and we opted to share a lot of the small plates from the menu. 

So, obviously cheese puffs. Not too spicy, despite containing flecks of jalapeno (which is good, since Amy was starting to sweat from the Slow Burn). 

And chicharrones, which are not pork rinds (which I asked in horror as I watched one go towards my Jewish friend's mouth), but rather like a spicy, molded corn puff. I had a few, but then decided they were taking up room in my stomach that I'd rather go to a cheese puff. 

Our server suggested we order the corn and jalapeno fritters as they "go well" with the cheese puffs (yes, we were upsold, but c'mon people, fritters). And they tasted a lot like the cheese puffs, but instead of being hollow in the middle, were full of corn and soft batter dough. Delicious. 

The hibiscus pickled deviled eggs disappeared equally as fast, but the texture of a pickled egg white might be off putting to those expecting something softer. The eggs were tart, which cut the creaminess of the yolk filling. 

Home stretch here - we shared the beef tlayuda, a grande tostada or a tortilla shell with black beans, cheese, shredded cabbage, salsa, crema, and cilantro. And while the shell was a little floppy (but thereby indicating that it was homemade), the cheese and crema helped our burning tongues from all the spicy appetizers, while the rich meat and beans filled us up. 

Seafood relleno was a surprise to us; we were expecting a seafood stuffed chili. But once we thought about it (ohhh, relleno means stuffed!), the hake wrapped around crab and shrimp filling made more sense. 

And while I'm always wary of hot, creamy seafood, this entree was great. The fish was cooked just right, the filling was creamy and slightly spicy, while the cool lime and garlic sauces added some tang. The Spanish rice, usually an afterthought, was just as good, and was filled with vegetables that added a nice textural contrast. 

And while no one was allowed to share this burger with A2, she was happy that it came as rare as can be ordered. I actually didn't get any feedback from her on anything other than the chips, but I can tell from looking at this burger with tomato jam and cotija crisp that it's amazing. It was gone in an instant.  

I was really looking forward to dessert, having foregone the leftover Easter coconut cake that afternoon in anticipation of some great restaurant desserts. But between the tres leches, the churros, and the Oaxacan chocolate torte, nothing really filled my craving.

The tres leches cake was too dense and sweet; the cake and the frosting were both dry. The chocolate torte had an unexciting crust and a chocolate filling that barely glimmered of any special spicy chocolate, while the churros weren't rather flaccid. Boo! Too bad, I was really looking forward to some good Mexican desserts. We were, however, delighted by the melted sugar on top of the cake that looks like a monster (rar!).

In writing this review, I want to go get one of those Cantina burgers all to myself. I'll definitely be back for tequila and cheese puffs at the bar, maybe after a round of cornhole and $1 oysters on El Rayo's deck. I hope you stop in and try the Cantina - good late-night dining options in Portland need to be supported.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Recipe Round-up

It has been said time and time again, that I am not a baker. I like substitutions. I like creativity, freedom, and distractibility. I might not like commitment. 

I am a big fan of boxed cake mix. 

Regardless, my cakes are always so ugly (see exhibit A) - on the inside anyways. I really excel at applying icing and decorations. 

White cake mix (with pudding in it, natch) + cream cheese frosting + handfuls of shredded coconut tossed liberally at the sides = Easter cake eyesore. Tasty. 

This next dish was also baked, but had a few things helping its success - it was not a baked good per se, and had the help of the original Roomie A. I am definitely not above screwing up something as simple as a potato gratin dish. 

We layered mandolined potatoes with cheese sauce (cheddar and jack) and chives, and covered the whole thing with more shredded cheese and panko crumbs. Anything that comes out with a brown, crunchy, cheesy crust on it is just alright by me (like Jesus).

We used this recipe after being scared off of one that contained Cream of Chicken soup. Ew!

And if you're a certain friend of mine who has asked that I bake the cupcakes for her wedding? Ignore all that stuff at the beginning - I'm an awesome baker.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Flavored Vinegars

I'm making samples of flavored vinegars, infused with fruit, spices, and herbs, for Maine Garden Day, and thought you'd like to see the process! It's pretty straight forward, and the flavor combinations and uses for the finished vinegar are close to endless. 

I won't start with asking if you're sick of the 'same ole boring vinegar,' since really, what does that even mean- but I know I am enticed by the rows of flavored vinegars down at Leroux Kitchens. The price can be a little steep or at least seem like a non-essential item, great for gifts but not one you're buying for yourself. Infusing vinger is so easy that it's a quick, creative kitchen project with great rewards. 

Here's a lemon, dill, peppercorn vinegar, with 4 sprigs of fresh dill, the peel of one lemon, and a teaspoon of whole, black peppercorns. This vinegar will go well on poached seafood or salad dressings (they're all good for salad dressings!). I'm also thinking in a potato salad, coleslaw, beets salad, or three bean salad. 

Generally speaking, use 3 to 4 (4 inch) sprigs of fresh herbs per pint of vinegar. If you are growing your own herbs, pick them in the morning and before they have had a chance to flower, as flowered herbs can be bitter. Wash and dry your herbs well and dip them in a bleach solution of 1 teaspoon bleach to 6 cups of water. Dry thoroughly and place into sterilized glass jars.

Fresh raspberries (left) will make a vinegar that of course will make a great raspberry vinaigrette, but also in slaws and fruit salads, and splashed on fish and chicken. Fresh tarragon (right) is great whether you think you like a liquorish flavor or not. Again, salad dressings, seafood, chicken, or over blanched, sliced vegetables. This flavor lends itself to hollandaise and bearnaise sauces too. 

Use one cup of fresh fruit per pint of vinegar, and slightly bruise the fruit before adding to a sterilized jar. I rolled them roughly in the paper towel I was using to dry them off. I also roughed up the herbs before adding them to the jars; I just folded the paper towel over them and smashed them. 

I used white vinegar, since it is the cheapest and has the most neutral flavor. You can use cider or wine vinegar, but it will add its own flavor.

Bring the vinegar to an almost boil and ladle over your herbs, fruit, spices, etc. Cap the jars (any non-reactive lid can be used), and store at room temperature in a cool, dark place for two to three weeks. 

Taste the vinegar and see if it needs a little more time to infuse. If not, strain the vinegar through a cheese cloth lined strainer. If it's too strong, dilute the flavored vinegar with some plain vinegar. 

Your vinegar will last the longest in the refrigerator, up to 8 months. On the shelf, it will last about 3 before it starts to discolor or spoil. While you often see flavored vinegars displayed in a sunny window, this is a bad spot to store your vinegars, as the heat will break down the flavors. 

Safety note: This process applied to flavored vinegar only. If you are looking to infuse oil, please read up on the subject, due to the danger of botulism. Infused oil must be stored in the refrigerator (just stick to vinegar, it's easier and safer!). 

Flavored Vinegar

3 to 4 sprigs of fresh herbs
1 teaspoon whole, dried spices
1 cup fresh fruit
2 cups white vinegar

Sterilize jars by boiling for 10 minutes. Wash and scald lids in boiling water. Bring vinegar to a near boil (190*F). 

Wash herbs, dip in a bleach dip, and dry. Fill jars with desired herbs, spices, and fruits. Ladle hot vinegar into jars and apply lids. 

Store in a cool, dark place for 3 weeks. Taste vinegar and strain. Store in the refrigerator for up to 8 months. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Macarons at Mornings In Paris

While ogling the macarons at Pei men Miyake recently, I thought about how I'd never even tried one of the much lauded desserts and that I didn't even know where to find them in Portland. I tried some of Erika's of vin et grub (a delicious lemon curd filled variety) at the Baked! Pop-up sale and was delighted by their crunchy, yet chewy meringue shells and creamy filling. 

So when I stopped into Mornings in Paris on Exchange Street in Portland's Old Port during a ladies-who-lunch shopping trip with friends, I was delighted to find a rainbow variety of macaroons. I went with salted caramel (duh) and pistachio. The pistachio fillings was a little gooey- and why so neon??- but the salted caramel was pretty stellar, as most things salted caramel are.

I couldn't tell what I thought of Mornings in Paris' ambiance- it's a strange little cafe, that on this particular day, was exhibiting some stray (clean) toilet paper outside the restroom, leading to jokes about the dirty streets of Paris.

But regardless, I'm happy to have found a place to continue to explore these bite-sized meringue delights.