Monday, March 26, 2012

Spinach: It Isn't Just for Popeye

Today is National Spinach Day so I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite spinach recipes. Spinach isn't just good for you, it is delicious. I happen to love it both raw and cooked. The key with cooking spinach is to always add just a hint of freshly grated nutmeg. It adds a bit of that je ne sais quoi. I am a bit of a spinach snob though. I don't really like frozen spinach and I definitely will not buy that mushy stuff they call spinach in a can. I like fresh baby spinach leaves that I can either get at the store or even better straight from the farm.

Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

Yields: 6 Servings

3 eggs
2 lbs baby spinach leaves
1 tsp sugar
6 Tbls Apple Cider Vinegar
Pinch Salt & pepper
2 Sliced Shallots
2 Cloves Garlic minced
8 slices thick cut applewood smoked bacon 

Place eggs in saucepan and cover with water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 mins. Rinse under cold water and let cool. Peel and cut egg into slices with an egg slicer. Chop bacon into smaller pieces and cook in a sauté pan until crisp. Remove bacon from pan and drain on paper towels. Do not discard the bacon fat. Combine vinegar with sugar, salt & pepper. Saute shallots in bacon fat until light golden. Add garlic and cook for one minute until the garlic begins to exude its aroma. Add vinegar/sugar mix and bring to a boil. Cook for one minute and remove from heat. Pour hot dressing over spinach leaves and toss quickly so the leaves do not wilt. Serve with egg slices and a sprinkle of the cooked bacon bits.


Creamed Spinach

Yields: 4 Servings 

2 lbs spinach, thick stems removed
3 shallots, sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbl unsalted butter
2 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
Pinch Nutmeg
1 Tbl AP Flour
¼ cup Heavy Cream
¼ Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese

Heat butter and oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add shallot and sauté until softened. Add garlic and sauté one minute or until fragrant. Add spinach and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook uncovered until the spinach has wilted and all the liquid has evaporated. Add flour and sauté for a couple of minutes to cook the rawness out of the flour. Add cream and bring to a simmer. Add parmesan and heat through to melt. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Messing Around

I am often asked by guests staying or dining with us if specific recipes are in my cookbook and often my answer is "kind of." Not a good answer I suppose but an honest one. I view recipes as guidelines that can be deviated from and played with. So I usually get a basic recipe that works, write it down and then mess around with it. I guess you could say I get easily bored or you could say that I like to be creative in the kitchen. Either way, the result is that I never make a recipe the same exact way twice.

Part of this involves availability of ingredients and what is fresh. Because I like to support local organic farms I often base my specific recipe on any given day on what I can get from those farms. While a recipe may call for spinach, if the farm has kale or arugula, I'll use it and find a way to make it work. Keeps things fresh and keeps me on my toes.

The other part of it is that I like to keep things new for repeat guests. We do get a lot of repeat guests and I want to keep them coming back for different and exciting things. If it is the same every time, they will get bored, so this is my opportunity to keep them guessing and keep them coming back for more.

With that in mind, this last weekend I happened to have a group of regulars coming for a special dinner party for their co-workers. I had served sausage stuffed mushrooms many times for them and others and I love my recipe but I felt like tweaking a bit. So I shook things up a bit and came up with a new version. I wouldn't necessarily say improved, just slightly different. I'll continue making both versions as they are both quite popular. Here are both recipes. Try them both, play with them and remember, keep it fresh. One of the safest places to try something new is in the kitchen. The worst that could happen is that you may not like something, but don't let that stop your creativity. Your taste buds will appreciate you.

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Yields: 12 Servings

24 Stuffing Mushrooms (Stems removed and peeled)
¼ cup vermouth or sherry
1 pound Italian Sausage (Casings Removed)
1 Tbl Italian Seasoning
1 8 oz package cream cheese (Room Temperature)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese plus 2-3 tbls for sprinkling over top of mushrooms
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Pinch salt & Pepper
2 tsps garlic powder
1 egg

Begin by browning the sausage with some Italian seasoning in a medium saucepan over medium high heat for approx. 10 minutes or until no pink remains. If the sausage is very fatty, drain before assembling. If the sausage is only a little fatty, keep the juices as they will keep the mushrooms moist. Cool filling completely before assembling mushrooms. Place mushroom caps in a greased casserole and sprinkle with vermouth or sherry. Combine sausage with cream cheese, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, garlic powder and egg. Make sure the filling is well combined. It is easiest to use your hands for this process. Fill each mushroom cap with approx. 1 Tbl filling until all the filling has been utilized. Sprinkle each cap with more grated parmesan. Place mushrooms in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake approx. 25 mins or until the tops begin to turn golden. Serve hot.

Revised Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Yields: 12 Servings

1 lb bulk sausage
1 onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 small sweet peppers, minced
2 tsps truffle oil
1 Tbl Herbes de Provence
1/4 cup dry sherry
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch Freshly Ground Pepper
1 tsp anchovy paste
8 oz mascarpone
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 Tbl chopped italian parsley
2 Tbl chopped cilantro
1 egg
24 stuffer mushrooms, stems removed and peeled

Place mushrooms on baking sheet. Place sausage in saute pan and begin browning over medium high heat. Add onion and continue sauteeing until tender, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic and heat for one minute or until fragrant. Add peppers, truffle oil, herbes de provence, anchovy paste, nutmeg, pepper and wine. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the sausage is cooked through. Add parsley and cilantro and stir to combine. Remove from heat. Allow to cool completely. Add mascarpone and parmesan cheeses as well as egg and combine well. Fill each mushroom cap generously. Bake at 375 degrees for approx. 15-20 mins or until the filling is golden brown on top. Serve garnished with a little balsamic reduction.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick was considered to be the person who brought Christianity to Ireland. Much mythology surrounds the life of Saint Patrick, including his description of the Holy Trinity using the three leaves of the Irish clover or shamrock. He is purported to have died on March 17, 461, which is the day chosen to commemmorate his life. The holiday has been celebrated by the Irish as a feasting day for over 1000 years, but ironically the first St. Patrick's Day parade was held by Irish Americans in New York in the late 1700's. Since then, Irish and non-Irish alike have adopted the holiday and the traditional corned beef and cabbage and green beer have become a favorite in households across the US.

I myself am not Irish, although many think that with my red hair I am, but I have come to appreciate the food traditions of the holiday and enjoy the festivities. As such, every year at the Chestnut Street Inn we put together a special menu honoring the occasion. This year, we are deviating from the traditional corned beef and cabbage with an Irish Stew. We also always include a good beer and cheese soup and dessert often includes Irish Cream liqueur. Here are a couple of my favorite recipes.

Beer and Cheese Soup

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

3 Slices Applewood Smoked Bacon, cut into chunks
1 onion, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 lg Russett or Kennebec potatoes, peeled and diced
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
1 Tsp Smoked Hot Hungarian Paprika
2 Bay Leaves
2 Tbls Herbes de Provence
1 Bottle Beer (Stout or Ale)
4 Cups Kitchen Basics or Pacifica Chicken Broth
½-3/4 Cup Daisy Sour Cream
1 Cup Aged Irish or English Cheddar Cheese, grated

Cook bacon in a medium stock pot over medium heat. Remove to paper towels to allow to drain. Add onion to bacon fat and sauté until translucent, approx. 5 mins. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant approx. one minute. Add carrots, celery and potato and sauté for an additional couple of minutes. Add spices and heat for one minute. Add beer. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, until all the liquid has evaporated. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on low for 45 mins. Remove bay leaves and puree with an immersion blender. Add sour cream and cheese and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with reserved bacon pieces and a dollop of homemade crème fraiche.

Irish Stew

Yields: Approx. 8-10 Servings

2 1/2 lbs Beef Stew Meat
2 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 lg onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb baby carrots
1 lb frozen pearl onions, thawed
2 lbs baby red potatoes or dutch potatoes, washed
4 cups beef broth
Pinch Kosher Salt and Freshly ground pepper
2 bay leaves
2 Tbl Herbes de Provence
3-4 Tbl all purpose flour

Place olive oil in a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add beef and cook for approx. 5 mins to brown. Add onion and sauté for 5 mins until translucent. Add garlic and sauté for one minute until fragrant. Add carrots, onions and potatoes and season with salt, pepper, bay leaves and Herbes de Provence. Add flour and stir for approx. one minute to cook through. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for approx. 2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if needed. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with Daisy Sour Cream.

Friday, March 2, 2012

You May Not Care Where Your Food Comes From But I Do

It's no secret that I am passionate about food. Specifically, locally grown food. I make it a point to go out and purchase it and carefully prepare it for my guests to eat. I'm not shy about advertising it because it is something I believe in and I have found that in general guests appreciate my passion. So it came as quite a surprise last weekend when a guest who was dining with us seemed less than enthusiastic about the fact that I support local farms and serve their food. When I explained that my greens came from Indian Trails Farm in Kewanee, the butternut squash and sweet potatoes from Coneflower Farm in Tiskilwa and the eggs and meat from Meadow Haven Farm here in Sheffield, I expected the usual response, which generally is curiosity, enthusiasm and support. This gentleman said very loudly in front of an entire roomful of guests "I don't care. That does nothing for me." I could feel the others in the room sink into their chairs in a sense of deflation. And I wanted to go hide in the kitchen. Instead, I said something to the effect of "That's too bad because you are an organic being and you should care about what you are putting into your body." Perhaps a bit rude, but I felt the need to not only justify what I do but also to stand up for the farms that work so hard to grow nutritious and delicious organic foods for me to serve.

So as I say, while certain guests may not care what they put into their bodies, I do. When they dine at my restaurant I am responsible for what they eat and I take that responsibility extremely seriously. Yes, taste is the number one priority, but quality is a close second. I want to provide the freshest, most nutritious food possible whenever I can as the seasons allow. This involves several things in my eyes. First, the food should not travel thousands of miles to get to me. It should be fresh and that inherently means it cannot spend days on a semi making it's way into a grocery store where it will sit on a shelf for days before making its way onto the table. And let's be honest, I know this isn't always possible, particularly in the winter. But, some things are available year round and I can be discriminatory in terms of reading labels on foods at the grocery store and select those that have travelled the least to get to me. Secondly, I want to know how that food was grown and where it came from. I don't want to provide food that came from a foreign country where I cannot guarantee the growing practices were as regulated as they are in this country. I also want to know that when the chicken and eggs say they are free range, those chickens indeed spent time roaming the outdoors, soaking in the sunlight and didn't simply have the opportunity to go outside via one small door attached to their coop. Third, I cook from scratch as much as possible, avoiding processed foods that contain ingredients I cannot pronounce and don't recognize.

Supporting local farms isn't just a matter of quality and taste either. It is a matter of economics. I want to support Americans, but more specifically, I want to support those who are within my immediate community. Spending money locally directly benefits my local community. It keeps those dollars within our area. I can directly see the results of my relationship with those farmers in the form of say improvements they make on their farms, sending their kids to college or helping them pay for their health care. Locavorism isn't some idealistic hippie notion that only those in a commune appreciate, it is the wave of the future. Small businesses thrive when those in their communities step up and support them. They do not thrive on multi-national ad campaigns and big corporations. Our future depends upon these kinds of businesses making a go of it and being successful within their communities.

And finally, a statistic that I once heard that always sticks with me. Americans in general spend approximately 5% of their expendable incomes on food and about 25% on pharmaceuticals. These numbers are reversed in Europe where they spend approximately 25% on food and only 5% on pharmaceuticals. Europeans see the value in respecting the notion of "You Are What You Eat." This isn't just a catchy phrase. This is a motto to live by. What you put into your body has a direct correlation with what your body puts out. Eating natural, high quality food is like putting premium fuel into a car. It functions better, lasts longer and requires less care. I practice what I preach with my own body and I believe that by feeding my guests locally and naturally I am in some way nourishing their bodies, although I do give my car regular gas. Hospitality doesn't just mean being nice in my book, it means caring about my guests and feeding them the best possible quality food I can find. That's my philosophy and I'm sticking to it.