Friday, September 23, 2011

A Few Recipes to Ease into Fall

Happy Autumnal Equinox!

For any of you who are unaware, the equinox occurred today (9/23) at 9:04 am Universal Time/Greenwich Mean Time, which was 4:04 am Central Time.  I did not wake up to celebrate it.

I am a great big celebrator of equinoxes and solstices - partly to be contrary (ie: demanding that it's still summer after Labor Day in Wisconsin when it's probably 60 degrees outside), and because I was born on the vernal (spring) equinox.  I like to celebrate my birthday on whatever day the equinox is... but for the record that doesn't work well when you're turning 21 and the equinox is two days before your actual birthday.  The bouncers don't care if a calendar based on the sun is more accurate than the one we use - they only care what it says on your drivers license.  And they're not messing around, either.  Just a word of warning from experience.

Anyway, it is TECHNICALLY fall, but I will admit that, weather wise, it has been fall in WI for at least a couple weeks now, if not more.  I got a little respite when I went to Vegas, but it seems like it's been cold for a while now.

I'm actually not complaining.  I do love the fall.  I know it means that winter is coming, and I am not such a huge fan of WI winters, but I love the fall.   I like that the air is crisp and smells good.  I like the way my dog chases the leaves blowing in the wind during our walks.  I like Halloween and getting costumed up and eating candy.  I like carving pumpkins and eating pumpkin seeds.  I like sweater dresses.  Who am I kidding, I LOVE sweater dresses and thick patterned tights and boots.  I like fall. 

And, I like the food.  Summer is good for food, but it's not good for cooking.  In the fall, I get to make sauces and braises and mashed potatoes!  Fall is the time to eat squash, and pies, and to bake things.  In the fall I get to bust out the crock pot, and turn on the oven, and fill the house with smells of food cooking.  This fall, I get to can food for the first time.  I feel like a squirrel stocking my house full of nuts.  (Except not actually, because I don't really like nuts.)

When I was in school, I remember the students staring longingly out the window at the end of the year, as spring changed to summer, wanting to get outside into the summer day and play.  Okay, I wanted that too, but mostly because I never liked school.  But the time the weather called to me - and still calls to me as I sit at my desk at work - is in the fall.  I want to go hiking.  I want to go camping and build a giant fire and look forward to snuggling into a thick sleeping bag.  I want to just drive around in the country and look at the fall foliage.  I want to go apple picking, and horse back riding (horse back riding at an apple orchard?!  OMG, that would be the best fall day ever!)  I don't have time to do any of those things, and gas is too expensive to drive around mindlessly anyway, but still.

I've been cooking for fall already, since it feels like fall outside.  And I've gotten a little behind on my recipe posting, so here are a few to catch you up.  It's too early to turn on the heat.  Save energy; put on a chunky sweater and heat up the house making some of these:

I guess I didn't get a picture of the finished product here, but really you can eat Gnocchi with whatever you want.  A tomato sauce, or a butter sauce, or a pesto sauce.  It's all good.  I have tried to make gnocchi before, and it's never quite right.  This recipe worked out really well.  The gnocchi were light and fluffy, like they are supposed to be, and held together well while cooking.  Also, this recipe is crazy inexpensive to make!

I modified this recipe from an article called "How to Make Gnocchi like an Italian Grandmother."  Does it get any better than that?  I don't know if my Italian Grandmother makes gnocchi... I don't remember ever eating it...

Gnocchi is not an easy thing to make.  The recipe is deceptively simple, but things can go wrong.  This recipe worked for me, but that might have been a coincidence.  Be prepared for your first try to not be perfect - they should be light and fluffy, not chewy and tough.  Also, they should hold their shape while being cooked.  This is definitely a recipe that takes practice.

(*Every recipe I have ever seen for gnocchi has you cook the potatoes whole and then peel them while they are hot.  This seems like the dumbest idea I have ever heard in my entire life, and I have no idea why anyone would do this.  I did not do this, and it worked out fine.  Again, maybe I was lucky?  But until someone tells me why it is done this way, and why I can't peel the potatoes and cut them small in order to have them cook faster, I am going to continue to do it my way.*)

  • 2 lbs starchy (russet) potatoes (L)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten (L)
  • 1 cup flour (L)
  • salt

Peel potatoes and slice into about 1/2 inch slices (Or don't.  See *note* below).  Fill a large pot with cold water.  Salt the water well, and add the potatoes.  Bring water to a boil and cook until tender throughout.

Drain the potatoes, reserving the cooking water.  Turn the potatoes out onto a large cutting board and mash.  The goal here is to keep the potatoes as light and fluffy as possible, while removing all the chunks.  Another (better) option would be to use a food mill, but I don't have one!

Let the potatoes cool spread across the cutting board for about 10 to 15 minutes.  You want to make sure that the potatoes are not hot enough to cook the egg.  When you are ready, shape the potatoes into a soft mound, drizzle the eggs and sprinkle 3/4 a cup of the flour over the top of the potatoes.  Fold the flour and egg into the potatoes, mixing as thoroughly as possible while still retaining the fluffy nature of the potatoes.  I used a stiff spatula, but I bet a pastry scraper would have worked better (another thing I don't have!)  Scrape under the potatoes and fold them over until the mixture is a light crumble.  From hear, kneed the dough gently, adding more flour if necessary until it is no longer tacky.  The goal is a dough which is moist, not sticky, and is still light and not dense.

Cut the dough into 8 pieces, and on a well floured surface, roll each piece into a rope about the thickness of your thumb (or my thumb... do you have fat thumbs?  If you have fat thumbs, do you have to eat fat gnocchi?)  Cut into 3/4 inch long pieces.

I will admit, I have not tried to do the fancy gnocchi shaping at this point.  At this point, for traditional gnocchi, you should roll your fork across each individual piece, pressing it against your thumb, and creating a slight "C" shape with ridges on the outside edge.  This will catch more sauce than a smooth gnocchi.  That is true, but it is SO much work and I just cannot convince myself that it is worth it.

Reheat the potato water (or heat new salted water if you lost the potato water, or you caught your cat drinking out if it like I did), and bring to a gentle boil.  Cook gnocchi in batches, about 20 at a time, maintaining a gentle boil - a hard boil will toss them around too much and cause them to fall apart.  Once they are cooked, they will float to the top - fish them out with a slotted spoon about 10 to 15 seconds after they surface.  Drain (I like to set them into a colander on top of a pot of water that is over very low heat, just to keep them warm while the others are cooking), and serve with whatever sauce you like.

(*Note: Every recipe I have ever seen for gnocchi has you cook the potatoes whole and then peel them while they are hot.  This seems like the dumbest idea I have ever heard in my entire life, and I have no idea why anyone would do this.  I did not do this, and it worked out fine.  Again, maybe I was lucky?  But until someone tells me why it is done this way, and why I can't peel the potatoes and cut them small in order to have them cook faster, I am going to continue to do it my way.*)

Risotto Carbonara
(Like pasta Carbonara, only risotto-y-er.)

  • 4-5 cups chicken stock (L)
  • 4 slices thick cut bacon (L), chopped into about 1/2 inch pieces (I used pepper bacon!)
  • 1/2 yellow onion, minced (L)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced (L)
  • 1 cup risotto rice (Arborio or another short grain, high starch rice)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large eggs (L)
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (L)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper.

Bring stock to a simmer in a large pot.  

In a large, rounded bottom frying pan over medium high heat, cook bacon until crispy.  Transfer bacon to a paper towel to drain.  Pour off all except for 1 tablespoon bacon fat (I totally save my bacon fat in a jar in my fridge.  It basically lasts forever, and it's great for cooking pancakes or eggs or potatoes.  One time I was out of olive oil, and I used bacon fat to cook my popcorn.  It was quite possibly the best thing I have ever eaten in the history of ever.)  Turn heat down to medium and add onions to pan.  Saute until onions soften, about 6 minutes.  Add garlic and cook about 3 minutes more.  Add rice to pan and cook, stirring constantly, about 8 minutes or until rice is almost completely opaque with a small white dot in the center.  Add wine and cook until all the liquid has cooked off.

Reduce heat to low.  Add simmering stock to pan one or two ladle-fulls at a time, just covering the rice with liquid, and cooking until almost all of the liquid is absorbed, adding more liquid before the rice is completely dry and stirring often.  This should continue for about 30 minutes, until the rice is tender and most of the stock is gone.  Reserve 1/2 cup stock.

In a separate bowl, combine eggs and cheese, and whisk well.  Slowly pour in 1/2 cup reserved stock, tempering the egg.  Slowly pour egg/cheese/broth mixture into rice and stir vigorously. Taste and add in salt and pepper as necessary.  Add back in bacon, and stir to combine.

Pork Chops with Onions and Pears
  • 2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour (L)
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 tablespoon butter, divided (L)
  • 4 thick pork chops, about 1 ¼-inch-thick(L)
  • 1 cup onions, thinly sliced, from about 1 large onion (L)
  • 1 1/2 cup Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, trimmed, and diced, from about 4 small pears (L)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced (L)
  • 1 cup chicken broth (L)
  • splash white wine
  • splash heavy cream (L)
  • Additional salt and pepper to taste

Combine salt, pepper, flour, garlic, and onion powder in a large bowl or glass baking dish.  Dredge pork chops in flour, coating well but shaking off any excess.  In a large skillet over medium high heat, melt 1 tbsp butter.  Add pork chops in batches, browning on both sides, and removing to a platter.

Melt second tbsp butter in pan, reduce heat to medium low, and add onions.  Cooking slowly, caramelize onions by cooking until they are golden brown and soft, stirring regularly.  The process should take about 30 minutes.  About 15 minutes in, while onions are still caramelizing, add 3/4 of the pears and season with salt and pepper.

When onions are nicely caramelized, raise the temperature to medium and add garlic.  Cook an additional 3-4 minutes, until garlic is fragrant, stirring often and being careful not to let the onions burn.  Add chicken broth, white wine, and remaining pairs, and scrape any browned bits from the sides and bottom of the pan.  Bring to a low simmer, and add pork chops along with any juices on the platter.

Simmer over low heat, uncovered, until sauce is thickened and pork chops are cooked through, turning pork chops half way through - about 5-8 minutes on a side.  Remove pork chops and cover loosely with aluminum foil.  Turn heat up to high, and cook until sauce thickens, stirring often.  Remove from heat, add a splash of cream, taste and add salt and pepper if necissary.

Serve pork chops over rice or potatoes, topped with sauce.

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