Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson

photo 5 (2)Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson, a dish that is proof positive that absolutely everything sounds better in French. Here in the South, all that fancy talk translates to this: cheesy taters with sausage and onions. Either way, it’s delicious.

This dish comes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, and was featured on an episode of her PBS show “The French Chef” way back before color had even been invented. It’s basically a casserole made from lightly boiled potatoes, Polish sausage, onions, Swiss cheese — and because this is a Julia recipe, a healthy dose of cream. The result is a savory, flavorful concoction of creamy textures, excellently melded flavors, and is one of the few potato dishes out there that works magnificently as a main course. There’s a little bit of prep work that goes into making the dish, but none of it is hard — and with results this good, it’s worth it. Here’s what you’ll need:

Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson (adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child)

  • photo 2 (5)Two pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced. I used Yukon Gold potatoes because I really love their flavor, plus they stand up to cooking nicely.
  • 1-2 onions, sliced — depends on how oniony you like your food.
  • One Polish sausage, sliced into pieces. Nothing fancy, I used Hillshire Farms.
  • 1 cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups light or heavy cream. You can use regular milk, but come on, you’re doing a Julia Child recipe. Indulge yourself.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Butter

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add your sliced potatoes. You don’t want to completely cook them, just give them a boil of 10-12 minutes until they start becoming tender. While my water was coming up to the boil, I browned my sausage pieces in a skillet. Julia doesn’t do this in her version of the recipe, but I think browned sausage has a better flavor than plain, plus we’re going to use the fat that renders for our onions.

After the sausage is browned, set it aside for later. You should be left with a skillet that has some fat from the sausage in it, so go ahead and swirl a tablespoon of butter into that fat over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add your onions, cooking them until they are opaque and soft, but don’t brown them. Once your onions and potatoes are done, you’re ready to build your masterpiece.

On the bottom of a buttered baking dish, put a layer of half of your potatoes, then a layer of half your onions. Add just a touch of salt and pepper. Add the all the sausage to form a third layer, then top with the remaining potatoes and onions. Beat together the eggs and the cream, and pour the mixture over everything, then give the dish a good shake so that all that goodness settles to the bottom. Top everything with the grated Swiss cheese, then bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes. The egg and cream mixture will form a delicious custard-like layer (sort of like a quiche) and the Swiss cheese will turn a lovely shade of brown. Try not to go back for seconds on this one — I’ll bet you can’t do it! Happy cooking — and as Julia would say, bon appétit!

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Kava, the root of relaxation

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Long ago, on one of the islands of Vanuatu, legend speaks of a brother and sister who lived a peaceful life. The girl was very beautiful, and many men traveled from the surrounding islands to seek her hand in marriage — but she rejected them all. One of these suitors grew angry at the girl’s rejection and flew into a rage. The brother rose up to protect his sister, and the two men fought. The suitor let loose an arrow in his anger, which missed the brother and struck the sister, killing her instantly.

The brother was devastated at the death of his sister, and visited her grave daily. On one such visit, he noticed a strange plant growing on the grave which he had never seen before. As time went by, the plant grew larger and larger until an entire year had passed. The brother, still distraught over the death of his sister, went on his normal daily visit, and on this particular day, he noticed a rat chewing at the roots of the plant. As he watched, the rat suddenly died. In his grief, the brother took this as a sign, and he decided to end his life by eating the roots which had killed the rat. To his surprise, the roots did not kill him, but instead took away all his bad feelings, and he shared this knowledge with the people of the surrounding villages. The plant was a kava bush, the roots of which would become the basis of a drink sacred to many of the peoples of Oceania.

The kava plant’s scientific name, piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper,” and it’s an apt description. The root of the kava plant contains compounds known as “kavalactones” which produce a calming, sedative effect when consumed, while the flavor of the root (which is in the pepper family) is slightly peppery and very earthy. I’ve been drinking kava off and on for years now, and I’ve found it to be a very relaxing beverage that soothes the muscles, calms the nerves, and makes for an excellent sleep aid. The flavor can be somewhat off-putting at first, but I’ve grown very fond of it.

Traditionally, fresh or dried kava root would be chewed or pounded into a pulp, then mixed with water and strained to produce the kava beverage. In these modern times, we have two things which make this process easier: prepared, powdered kava root and the blender (although there is something quite compelling in the hypnotic motions of traditional preparation). My basic preparation is as follows:

  • 2 cups water (for best results, use warm — not boiling! — water, around 140 degrees. Cool tap water is fine, though.)
  • 1 cup almond milk (cow, soy, or other milk is fine — we’re looking for a source of fat, as the kavalactones are more readily absorbed by fat and aren’t soluble in water.)
  • 1/3 cup kava (can be adjusted for a weaker or stronger brew)

Blend the ingredients for about five minutes. At this time, I usually pop my kava into the fridge for at least 1/2 hour, but you can strain immediately if you want. To strain, I use a special nylon kava bag that a supplier sent to me after I left a nice review of their product on Amazon, but basic kava bags can be had for a few dollars. Lacking a strainer bag, feel free to use an old t-shirt or a clean nylon stocking to strain. Keep in mind that most mesh strainers are too big and coffee filters don’t work. When I strain, I let the liquid drain into a large bowl, then I squeeze out the remaining liquid from the kava pulp. Save this pulp, as you can usually get a couple of brewing sessions from it (although potency does decrease).

As for flavor, you can enjoy the kava brew as-is, or you can add things to make it more palatable. Many people add chocolate syrup, but I don’t care for the flavor of chocolate with kava. I am, however, fond of adding some Tazo chai latte concentrate to the mix for a pleasant evening brew, but more and more I’ve just taken my kava straight. Two good local sellers of excellent kava are Maison Terre Natural Products out of North Little Rock (mail order) and Dandelion Herb Shop in the Little Rock River Market. It can also be found in bulk on Amazon.

There are dozens of kava cultivars, each the product of over 3,000 years worth of artificial selection by the South Pacific islanders. This means that if you try one type of kava and don’t like it, don’t give up — try another one. Kava, for me, is preferable to alcohol, as the effects aren’t nearly as pronounced and it doesn’t leave me with a hangover. Still, some caution should be taken if you throw yourself a kava-drinking session: don’t operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery after consuming kava, don’t mix kava with alcohol or prescription drugs, and don’t overdo it — the traditional serving of kava is 4-6 ounces, so the recipe I provided makes for multiple servings. There are also any number of instant kava mixes, pills, and extracts available on the internet, but I can’t speak to them — I prefer to just use the root. So get cheerful, get relaxed, and bula!

Carrot top pesto

carrot pestoOne of my favorite things to eat is fresh pesto. There’s just something quite wonderful about the sharp, sweet taste of basil matched with the buttery flavor of nuts, deep saltiness of Parmesan cheese, and all held together with just the right twang of good olive oil. It’s good on pasta, makes a fine dressing for sandwiches — and doesn’t do all that bad as a spread for crackers. It’s versatile, and it’s delicious.

Recently, I picked up some lovely carrots from the Bernice Garden Farmers Market grown by the CANAS Victory Garden, and I noticed that they had some really lovely, long, feathery tops to them. Like many cooks, my first inclination with carrot tops is to toss them, but these looked so lush and green that I felt like I should find a use for them. I decided to use them in a pesto, and the result was a fantastic fresh version that was every bit as good as any I’ve ever made.

Carrot Top Pesto

  • 2 cups carrot tops
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup basil
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 1/2 cups Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

In a food processor, pulse the carrot tops, garlic, basil, and pecans until they are chopped fine and beginning to form a paste. Add the grated Parmesan, salt and pepper (to taste) and olive oil and pulse again until everything is combined. Use your best judgement as to how coarse or fine you want everything chopped — and these ingredient amounts are all approximate, and can be adjusted for taste or amount of carrot tops you have to work with. Toss the pesto with warm pasta, or spread it on a turkey, bacon, and avocado sandwich (which is my personal favorite way to eat it). Happy cooking!

Citrus-soy glazed ham

20140413_175545In many places, the traditional food of Easter is lamb, served rare. And while we love good spring lamb, things work a little differently here in the South — our traditional Eastern meal is pork, ham in particular.

I found a nice Smithfield ham on sale the other day at the store, and figured that since I hadn’t made ham in nearly two years, I’d give it a go. I like a glaze on my ham that is only slightly sweet — no huge slices of pineapple to overwhelm the flavor of the meat here. To that end, I usually use citrus juice as a base for my glaze, along with some savory additions to bring balance. This glaze is incredibly easy and will impart a delightful taste to your Easter ham.

Citrus-soy glaze

  • 1/2 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice. Using fresh is important.
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Whisk the ingredients together in a bowl. During the last hour (or so) of baking, baste the ham with 1/2 of the marinade. In 15 minutes, use the rest, basting with the pan juices as well. Cook until glaze sets and the outside of the ham browns. Enjoy!

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New Orleans barbecue shrimp

01f05bede906d419b1ff03ad0b5fc53270a23e2929I came home the other night with a couple of pounds of fresh shrimp from Mr. Chen’s, thinking I’d clean them, grill them, and serve them simply with some rice. I was tired, and not in the mood to cook.

Then I discovered Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans BBQ Shrimp recipe.

The recipe isn’t hard, but there are a lot of steps to it. Trust me, though, going through the steps is completely worth it, because the resulting dish is a flavor explosion of delicious shellfish swimming in a decadent cream sauce that will blow your mind. This one’s a definite keeper.

Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans BBQ Shrimp (with annotations)

  • 0107cbf08695a44947d8acd8adef12ce2d36f3d6f5_000012-3 pounds shrimp. Clean their little poopers out.
  • 2 tablespoons of Creole seasoning
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped onions
  • 2 tablespoons minces garlic
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 lemons, peeled and quartered
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup Worcestershire
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onions

Peel the shrimp, leaving only their tails attached (ours had the heads still on, so we peeled the tails and left the heads on. For sucking, naturally). Reserve the shells and set aside. Sprinkle the shrimp with 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning (we used Zatarain’s) and fresh cracked black pepper. Use your hands to coat the shrimp with the seasonings. Refrigerate the shrimp while you make the sauce base.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large pot over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the reserved shrimp shells, the remaining Creole seasoning, the bay leaves, lemons, water, Worcestershire, wine, salt, and black pepper. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Strain into a small saucepan. There should be about 1 1/2 cups. Place over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook until thick, syrupy, and dark brown, for about 15 minutes. Makes about 4 to 5 tablespoons of barbecue sauce base. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the seasoned shrimp and saute them, occasionally shaking the skillet, for 2 minutes. Add the cream and all of the barbecue base. Stir and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the shrimp to a warm platter with tongs and whisk the butter into the sauce. Remove from the heat. Mound the shrimp in the center of a platter. Spoon the sauce over the shrimp and around the plate.

We served our shrimp with rice, although Emeril recommends serving it with biscuits. I think it would be pretty fantastic over egg noodles as well. This is a fantastic recipe from one of America’s great chefs, and it’s a little taste of Southern Louisiana you can do right at home. Happy cooking!

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Beer-braised pork shoulder

010d1a6ff0aae3d8680ae5f1ba5be9f3d8c33c4efcAfter a long, gloomy week that saw the people of Arkansas wondering if we’d ever see the sun again, we finally got a clear day — and even better, it was a Saturday. It had been some time since I trekked up to the Hillcrest Farmers Market, mostly because cold, cloudy weather brings me down to the point where I just want to stay inside under a blanket, preferably with a cat curled up next to me.

But this past Saturday was a perfect day for getting out and about. Sure, it was still a pretty cold morning, but with the sun out, I felt rather invigorated, and so I made my way up to the market at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church to see what I could see. As luck would have it, Freckle Face Farm was set up and ready to go with some bone-in pork shoulder cuts that I just couldn’t pass up. I’ve sung the praises of Freckle Face’s pork before, and since it had been awhile since I cooked up some really high quality local meat, I grabbed a two pound package to make for Sunday dinner. Now, a lot of folks use shoulder for pulled pork, and that’s certainly a wonderful thing to do; however, I lack a smoker, and pulled pork that hasn’t been smoked would have just been a crime against this particular cut of pork — so I decided to braise it in some beer, pot roast style.

Beer-braised pork shoulder

  • 01d53a8ffaf6746d210cd0137e577186d73bbe27812-4 pounds of pork shoulder. The particular cut I used was right at 2 pounds, and still had the bone in. In this day and age, most of our meat comes to us completely boneless, but I prefer to cook my meat bone-in whenever possible. The bone provides some nice collagen to your pan juices, giving them a more velvety texture — not to mention the marrow adds flavor like you wouldn’t believe.
  • 3 tablespoons oil, shortening, or lard for searing
  • 1-2 bottles of beer. Use a malty, low-hop beer. Abita Amber is fantastic for this purpose, as is Diamond Bear’s Irish Red. In a pinch, using a cheap mass-produced lager like Pabst Blue Ribbon is just fine, too. Save the IPAs for drinking, though — they’ll make your braising liquid too bitter.
  • 4 cups chicken stock. Store bought is fine, homemade is better.
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 2-3 large carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper

Take your pork and pat it dry with a paper towel. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet until almost smoking, then sear the shoulder on both sides until you get a nice, dark crust (going heavy on the pepper makes this crust even better). Transfer the seared pork to a dutch oven and pour in one bottle of the beer and 3 cups of the chicken stock. Add the onions, garlic, carrots, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover with a lid and cook in a 350 degree oven for 2-3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Check the pot periodically to make sure there’s still enough liquid to keep the meat almost covered; add the reserved chicken stock and a splash of the extra beer if needed (go ahead and drink that other beer if not needed).

Once the meat is pretty tender, I like to remove it to a platter and strain all the vegetables and herbs from the braising liquid, reserving the liquid and tossing the veggies. Place the meat back into the dutch oven, then pour the braising liquid back in, and add potatoes and fresh carrots for a one-pot meal. You can eat those old vegetables, but most of their flavor has already been transferred to the liquid; adding fresh vegetables and cooking until they are tender will give you much brighter flavors.

I served my roast tonight with some honey-ginger glazed carrots and a fresh spinach and herb salad — I was lucky to come across some early spring carrots and spinach from Willow Springs Market Garden after I got the pork, and man were those fresh veggies good. The result was a meal that was almost entirely local, and quite entirely delicious. Happy cooking!

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Linguine with pink sauce

photo 1(8)It’s a cold night tonight, and even the cat is hungry for some comfort food. In her case, it was a bite of triple cream brie (she’s fond of dairy); in our case, it was a big bowl of pasta. I wasn’t in the mood for marinara or Alfredo, and instead opted to go for a kind of hybrid: tomato cream sauce. This is a rich, decadent sauce that clings well to noodles and imparts a tangy, buttery flavor to every bite. It’s also a lovely shade of orange-pink, something that makes it just as attractive to look at as it is delicious to eat. This is one of those dishes that tastes like it’s much harder to make than it is, perfect for impressing that someone special in your life. Unless that someone is my cat: she just wants brie.

Pink sauce

  • photo 2(10)One large can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes with juice. In a pinch, you can use crushed tomatoes or tomato puree, but don’t use canned tomato sauce.
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half along the equator
  • 1 stick unsalted butter (don’t cheap out; use something like Plugra; 1 stick’s worth is about half a package)
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Salt and red pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large sauce pan. Place your onion halves face down in the butter and let them hang out for a bit, just until they start getting really fragrant. Add the minced garlic and cook for two minutes. Add your crushed tomatoes to the pot, and gently stir so that the onion halves are surrounded; add a pinch of salt and the wine. Allow this mixture to simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you like a chunky sauce, remove the onion halves and discard — your tomatoes are done.

For this version, we wanted a smooth sauce, so we removed the onions and let our sauce cool for a few minutes, then ran it through the blender. This does something else nice in addition to breaking up the chunks: it emulsifies the butter into the sauce, something your taste buds will thank you for. Once the sauce is smooth (or if you kept it chunky, pick up here) stir in the heavy cream and bring the pot back to a boil, then simmer for 5-10 minutes until thickened, stirring regularly. Stir in a dash of red pepper and some more salt (if needed) and serve. This ain’t diet food by any means, but my goodness is it good. Enjoy!

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