Sunday, November 25, 2012

Potato Soup with Smoked Trout

I've decided November is my favorite month. Or at least in the top three. With Thanksgiving and Veterans Day and the frigid winds that herald in nature's silent season, November is introspective, reflective, and filled with gratitude. It's a time where instead of mowing the lawn and pulling weeds, you brew a pot of tea and think about how the purpose of life is really as simple as life itself, living it fully and well every hour every day rather than any notion of an endgame or final goal. Having decided that, you release the silly thought that you ought to be shopping for bargains or painting the garage floor, and instead cozy up with that Dickens book you've always meant to read, deciding as you turn the first page that you will read for the beauty of the language rather than plot alone, and the tea is tepid when you look up, glance outside, and notice the shadows of the trees are longer against the snowy landscape, the first pinks of a North Dakota sunset tinging the sky.

Yes, I do love November. 

Potato soup is a perfect November meal with its simple, quiet dignity, yet one remembers it is through the simplest things - the seemingly routine moments - that grace most clearly shines through. The potato, the most humble of root vegetables, is simmered and pureed with pheasant stock and cream. Dark pumpernickel bread gets cubed, oiled, barely salted, then toasted in the oven to make croutons. Morsels of smoked trout from a bounty of fish in northern Manitoba last spring tops it all, with a dash of dill. A chilled dark beer accompanies the meal, a lovely balance of flavors and temperatures and textures all dancing on your palate, and you feel nothing but thankfulness for the beauty of the moment, for the nourishment of the meal, for the warmth of your kitchen, and most of all for the loved ones at your side. 

Potato Soup with Smoked Trout
Adapted from The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, by two Montreal chefs/regular Joe kinda guys. (Beth's bucket list item #29: Visit Montreal and order poutine.) Clearly, you can substitute chicken broth for the pheasant stock. If you can't find smoked trout, smoked salmon would be wonderful here too, or even some good bits of ham could sub in. 

2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" pieces (about 6 medium potatoes)
About 3 cups pheasant stock (more if you like a thinner soup)
2 cups whipping cream
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 Tbls. butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 lb. smoked trout fillets, skin removed, flesh flaked
Pumpernickel croutons and dill, for garnish

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the potatoes over moderate heat until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain well in a strainer, then just keep the potatoes in the strainer with a lid over them. 

Wipe out the pot. Add the stock, cream and garlic, and bring to a simmer. Cook over moderately low heat until the garlic is very tender, about 8 minutes. Add the potatoes, then puree either using an immersion blender or pureeing in batches in a blender. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls and top with trout, croutons and dill. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Walleye Tacos

Quietly awaiting their dousing of salsa and cilantro...

Here's a random list of foods I did not like as a child, but now quite enjoy:

Brussels sprouts
most meats (especially pork chops!)
scalloped corn
unsweetened sparkling water
beer (yeah, I tried my step-dad's Old Mil when I was nine. Kept me clean 'til 19.)

But I always liked fish. Even in my vegetarian days, I wouldn't eat it, but I would think fondly of a big plate of crispy fried walleye, Shore Lunch style. When I was pregnant, I craved fish fillet sandwiches from fast food joints. And on the rare occasions that I find myself in a decent Mexican restaurant, I will happily order the fish tacos every single time.

In Bismarck, we don't have a lot of Mexican restaurant options. There's a hole-in-the-wall called Taco Palenque, down in the industrial section of south Bismarck. I really want to love it, because it's authentic, the people behind the counter actually speak Spanish, and it seems like everything is homemade.  But to me, the meat is weird - grisly, tough to chew. I don't know if they make fish tacos there, but I'm going to trust my instincts on this one and make these at home instead.

Although I love these, I don't make them often because it's not a one-pot meal, and you need to take a little extra time to pull together all the components to make it great. The magic of tacos to me are the layers of flavors and textures and temperatures you can get in one bite. Warm toasty corn tortilla + cold crunchy cabbage + hot seasoned fish + tangy pickled onions + spicy salsa + creamy dressing + squeeze of lime juice = one memorable bite, and a reminder that taking the time to bring layers of flavor to a meal is so worth it.

I originally posted this recipe in 2009.  I think we're due for a revisit. I made a few adjustments, though. 1) I didn't fry the fish, going for a cleaner taste this time, 2) I added quick pickled onions, inspired from this recipe.  If you make these tacos, PLEASE try them with these onions on top.  Just thinly slice half a red onion, cover in red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar, and let them sit for 30 mins (will keep in the fridge for a long time).  They add a burst of flavor.

Walleye Tacos
The marinade is your chance to experiment. Like it a little spicy? Add jalapeno. In a hurry? Skip the list of seasonings and just use a couple teaspoons of taco seasoning. Just keep the lime juice as a base. Sauce is adapted from Dieters can skip the batter and just grill the fish, but personally I think it's best pan-fried with a crunchy coating. Because c'mon, everything is better fried. 

1 lb. walleye fillets
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

1 lime, juiced
1 Tbls. olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1 cup flour
1 cup beer

1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayo
1 lime, juiced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
1 teaspoon minced capers
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Taco fixings (Corn tortillas, salsa, shredded cabbage, chopped cilantro, chopped tomato, extra lime wedges)

In a small bowl, mix juice of one lime, cumin, chili powder, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Place fish in a shallow dish and pour lime juice mixture over it; let sit for at least 15 minutes (or refrigerate in marinade for a couple hours).

Meanwhile, mix up sauce ingredients and set aside.

Mix flour and beer in shallow dish with 1 teaspoon salt. Heat veg oil in a cast iron pan until the oil surface shimmers. Dip the marinated fish in the beer batter, then carefully place fish in hot oil. Fry until golden, a couple minutes on each side. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Assemble tacos and serve with sauce. Excelente!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Chocolate Peanut Butter Acorns

These are the magic seeds that Reese's peanut butter Christmas trees are made of.  Cute little chocolate peanut butter acorns, ready to decorate your Thanksgiving buffet.  And I can never make these again because, although I've never experienced crack cocaine, these little candies apparently have the exact same effect as that drug on my husband.

I made about 30 of these on Sunday (recipe yields 3 dozen, but I made them a little big).  As of today (Wednesday), there are two left.  I did have a few myself - ok, maybe more than a few - but he attacked these sweet morsels, his handsome face aglow in the light of the open refrigerator, tiny smears of chocolate in the corners of his mouth, accompanied by a comment like "OMG THESE ARE SO AMAZING!!!" or something subtle like that.

Clearly, I'm not a crafty food decor person.  Sometimes I romanticize switching careers and becoming a baker, but then I remember what a terrible cake decorator I am.  But yet even a clumsy person like me managed to make these cute little candies, so yours will be Martha Stewart perfect, I'm sure of it.  There is no cooking involved, other than melting the chocolate, and you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry right now.  The dough is basically edible Play-Doh that you roll into an oblong, acorn-like shape, refrigerate to harden them a bit, then dip one end in melted chocolate and stick a bit of pretzel in it.  Presto!  A treat for the little peanut butter cup loving squirrel in all of us.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Acorns
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living magazine, November 2012.  Have extra melted chocolate?  Dip some of those extra pretzels in it and refrigerate along with the acorns.  Salty sweet goodness.

3/4 c. creamy peanut butter
1/2 c. butter, softened
2 c. powdered sugar
6 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
About 36 branch-shaped pieces from mini pretzels

Stir together peanut butter and butter in a bowl. Add sugar and work into a smooth dough with your hands. Refrigerate 30 mins.

Using the palms of your hands, roll dough into 1 and 1/2" oblong "acorns" (you should have about 36 - it's ok if you have more or fewer), flatten 1 end of each a bit with your fingertip, and place on a waxed paper-lined rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate 30 mins.

Melt chocolate in a bowl in the microwave, stirring every 30 secs. Working with one acorn at a time, dip flat end into chocolate, then return to baking sheet. Insert a pretzel piece into the chocolate-dipped end. Refrigerate until chocolate is set, about 2 hours.  Store covered in refrigerator.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Roasted Duck with Cranberry Cabernet Sauce

Winter is a tough time for this food blogger for two reasons:

1) We're tucking into more meaty meals, which for me are more difficult to photograph than, say, a colorful corn and tomato salad, and

2) We are in the depths of winter darkness in the Northern Plains right now, meaning no natural light at the dinner hour.

I'm a real person who happens to blog.  I don't cook just so I can blog about it.  I don't style my food.  I don't really set up my shots.  I don't own Photoshop.  Maybe I should consider some of these things (fame and fortune would surely come as a result, right?  ...right?), but this is just real life for me and my family, our cozy little home in the middle of North Dakota, a weedy garden in the back, and a deep freeze in the basement filled with curious meats that we call dinner.  I'm tickled to think that anyone would be generous enough to spend a few precious moments stopping by this little blog and checking into my kitchen and our humble life.  It's been five years, almost 500 posts, and the journey has been a true joy.  So thank you.  Really.  I love that you've even read this far...

But that's a long-winded way of saying November is not prime photo-time for this blogger.  Plus, we have plenty of warm yellow lights in our new home that do nothing to enhance the beauty of this pot of roasted duck.  Nothing at all.

Despite my winter lighting situation, I hope you trust me when I say that this meal was, in a word, spectacular.  Two mallard ducks, stuffed with chopped oranges and apples, roasted in a Dutch oven, served with a cranberry Cabernet sauce. The fruit stuffed in the ducks, especially the orange, delicately infused the meat and the layers of flavor in the sauce brought the whole dish together.  The meat stays moist because, well, ducks happen to have that gorgeous layer of fatty skin protecting the meat, but just in case, we're roasting them in a covered Dutch oven to keep some of that moisture.  Served with some Minnesota wild rice, that's what I call a lovely meal.

The ducks have migrated out of North Dakota by now - at least the smart ones have.  I have specifically asked my hunter husband to go duck hunting more often next year.  With a wide smile, he sounds happy to oblige.  Not only is the meat tasty - red and slightly beefy, but not heavy like goose meat - but I can't wait to render me some duck fat.  Homemade duck fat French fries, anyone?

Roasted Duck with Cranberry Cabernet Sauce
Adapted from Wild Feasts, a cookbook from Ducks Unlimited (of course)

2 medium ducks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 orange, cut into small pieces (yes, keep the peel on)
1 apple, chopped
1/4 c. dried cranberries
1/2 c. water
1 small red onion, minced
2 Tbls. butter
1/2 c. Cabernet or other dry red wine
1 c. broth (chicken, pheasant, or turkey broth, take your pick)
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
Big pinch of dried thyme

Rinse ducks and pat them dry.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, and fill cavities with orange and apple.  Roast in a covered Dutch oven at 350 degrees until medium well, testing with a meat thermometer in the thigh or breast until the meat registers at 165 degrees.  This will take 1-2 hours, depending on the size of the ducks.

Meanwhile, bring cranberries and water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and let soften 10 mins. Drain cranberries, reserving liquid in one bowl, and removing softened cranberries to another bowl.  Set aside.

In the saucepan, melt butter and saute the onion over medium heat until softened and just starting to caramelize. Add Cabernet, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 mins or until reduced by half. Add broth and cranberry liquid, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until reduced by half.  Add vinegar, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste; bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer until reduced by half.  Remove from heat and set aside until duck is done.

When ready to serve the duck, add cranberries to sauce, warm the sauce, and serve with the duck.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

TNT's Diner - West Fargo

TNT's Diner. We made it!  In an earlier post, I explained my disappointment when, the first time I tried to visit, it was closed randomly on a Saturday.  But this time, we struck gold.  TNT's is a treasure - hard to find, tucked behind Sandy's donuts in an industrial-looking building, but it's definitely worth the trip.  It was 5:00 pm when we grabbed a booth at TNT's and opened the menu to order dinner.

5 pm isn't the coolest hour for dinner, but dinner hour is all relative.  My dad unapologetically eats dinner at 5 pm.  7 pm is a good dinner hour for me.  A Spaniard wouldn't think of dining any earlier than 9 pm.  But there we were, some over-excited Gen Xers in town for a concert that started at 7 pm and we weren't going to miss a second of it, skipping the typical pre-concert downtown Fargo beer run and instead hanging with the silver-haired early dinner crowd for a patty melt and sour cream raisin pie. 

TNT's did not disappoint. They serve breakfast all day, and I was tempted by the malted waffles, but I picked a cheeseburger, topped with a fried egg, with some waffle fries and a side of homemade veggie soup.  My friend Jenny got an amazing roast beef melt sandwich with big 'ol chunks of meat, like it came straight from the crock pot. Sam tried the fish and chips, while my hubby got the Texas melt with thin-sliced meat. 

The meals were great - classic diner goodness - but the shining star at TNT's is dessert. I mean, look at that sour cream raisin pie!  Seriously, people.  I ordered apple crisp with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, but my favorite dessert at the table (yes, we all shared) was the bread pudding.  I love bread pudding - it's totally under-appreciated in my humble opinion - and with homemade caramel all over this one, it did not disappoint. 

We probably ate too much, but we needed the fuel for the big show.  We were in Fargo for a Trampled by Turtles concert - don't know them?  Do yourself a favor and look them up on YouTube.  It's rock-bluegrass-wonderment with lots of facial hair and flannel (they're from Duluth, after all) and the kids love it.  Picture a crowd of 20-somethings screaming for more fiddle and banjo.  I wonder what those lovely silver-haired folks at TNT's would've thought about that. 

The concert crowd, taken by the band and shared on Facebook.  I'm in there, somewhere...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ham and Cheese Soufflé

My first soufflé. I wanted to make this, just to know I could. I've never discussed soufflés with my friends, but pop culture tells me tales of woe related to the dish, the cause of many tears splashing down on kitchen tile from fallen soufflés and more finicky than a toddler a couple hours past bedtime.  Just the fact that it has an accent mark in the name is enough to make some turn the cookbook page and make a quiche instead.

But I'm here to tell you that there's nothing to be afraid of.  I didn't do the Julia Child aluminum foil wrap thing that I've seen on other blogs.  I just made sure that I did my mise en place and prepped ingredients beforehand (grating the cheese, separating the eggs) and brought the ingredients to room temperature.  Much like making scones, the real trick is minimal mixing - be gentle, and do not be thorough, as you want to keep those air bubbles in the whipped egg whites. Just a few folds should do it. Pop the whole thing in a preheated oven, and voilá!  Soufflé.

Soufflé is like a really light, airy, a little bit eggy spoon bread. Next time I'll use a more impressive baking dish so it puffs up over the edges like an edible version of The Swedish Chef's hat, but considering it was my first time out of the gate, I was quite satisfied with my soufflé's modest lift. It's only as good as the cheese put into it, so if you have an extra chunk of a great aged Cheddar, this is the place to use it.

While the soufflé was baking for our Sunday lunch, Ben and I had a pillow fight (he won), then took a break on the couch to watch the tiny little snowflakes fly outside the window, falling on the big evergreen trees in our new backyard. Our little winter wonderland.

Ham and Cheese Soufflé
If I could have any cookbook author by my side to make my first soufflé, I'd pick Mark Bittman over Julia Child. Julia can make a mean soufflé, but Bittman heralds simplicity over authenticity, which I appreciate. He strips recipes down to exactly what you need, and then will often give ideas on how to build it back up and make it your own. I love Julia, but Mark's my wingman on this one. Adapted from How to Cook Everything.

4 Tbls. (1/2 stick) butter, plus 1 teaspoon to grease the dish
1/4 cup flour
1 and 1/2 cup milk, warmed
6 eggs, separated and at room temperature (make sure there is no yolk in the whites, or the whites won't whip properly)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup grated or crumbled Cheddar, Jack, Roquefort, Emmenthal and/or other cheese
3/4 cup cooked minced ham (optional; if you just want a cheese soufflé, leave it out)
Pinch of cream of tartar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 2-quart soufflé dish or other deep baking dish with 1 tsp. butter.

In a medium saucepan, melt remaining butter over medium heat. When it foams, add flour and turn heat down to medium-low. Cook, stirring, until mixture darkens a bit, about 3 mins. Whisk in milk slowly to avoid lumps, then cook until mixture is thick, 1-2 more mins.

Turn off heat, stir in yolks, salt (you won't need much salt if you are using ham), pepper, mustard, cheeses and ham. Beat eggs whites separately w/ a pinch of cream of tartar just until they hold soft peaks. Stir a couple spoonfuls of beaten egg whites into batter, then very gently - and not overly thoroughly - fold in remaining whites. Be as gentle as possible.

Turn batter into dish and bake until soufflé has risen and browned on top, about 30-40 mins. Use a thin skewer to check the interior; if it is still quite wet, bake another 5 mins. If it is just a bit moist, the soufflé is done. Serve immediately.