Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Root Veggie & Rice Soup

It's been cold and snowy in southeast Michigan, the perfect weather for soups and stews! One of my very favorite soup cookbooks is Twelve Months of Monastery Soups and last week, we had a simple, delicious soup from the December section. I barely tweaked it. It's officially called "A Hermit's Soup" but since we ate it together, I am calling it "Root Veggie & Rice Soup" in our household.

Here's how to make it:

1 potato
1 turnip
Half a small cabbage
2 carrots
1 onion
3 tbsp. olive oil
1/3 c. rice
2 quarts water or stock (I added a couple Knorr chicken bouillon cubes)
Salt, pepper, & a pinch of thyme

Cut all of the veggies into tiny pieces. I sliced the cabbage very thinly and cut everything else into fine dice. Sauté the veggies for a few minutes in the oil. Add the rice & water. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for an hour. Add seasonings just before serving and stir well.

I served this with crusty farm bread and a fruit salad of Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples, oranges, and chopped-up dates, tossed with a dressing of equal parts lemon juice and olive oil.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Chicken with Haricots Verts & Spaghetti Squash

Yesterday, I had a wonderful view while I was prepping dinner to go in the crockpot! Our kitchen window looks out on our neighbors' back yard, which has a pretty decent slope to it. A wee, bitty thing began sledding down that hill and it was just a delight and a huge blessing to get to witness that kind of joy.

What I put in the crockpot brought joy to us, a cozy winter dinner. I served it with a lovely crusty bread & a green salad.

Chicken with Haricots Verts & Spaghetti Squash
2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts (you can sub bone-in chicken breasts or thighs, if you like them, but you might lean toward the longer cooking time)
1 tbsp. oil
1 small spaghetti squash, peeled, seeded, & cut into 3" chunks (I suspect other winter squashes would be great in this, too, so use what you like)
2 c. haricots verts (regular green beans are also fine)
1 chopped tomato
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. oregano
A good grinding of pepper
1/4 tsp. thyme
14 oz. chicken broth
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/4 c. shaved parmesan

Brown the chicken in the oil. Put vegetables & seasonings in a crockpot. Add liquids. Place chicken on top. Cover & cook on low 6-8 hours. Break up squash when serving. Top with parmesan. Serves 4.

Our dessert was a cute seasonal treat. I'd made a bunch so that we could give some to one of Jeannene's employees who'd gone above & beyond, but there were plenty for us to have a couple, as well. They are super-simple & really easy to adapt. I used square mini pretzels, candy cane Hershey Hugs (minty white chocolate with red stripes), and red & green M&Ms. I've heard of using regular Kisses, caramel Kisses, even Rolos. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees (my oven only goes as low as 170 and that was fine). Line a baking sheet with parchment and lay pretzels out on it. Top each with a Hug or Kiss. Place in oven 5 minutes to soften the chocolate. Smush an M&M in the top of each and allow to harden. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Lentils with Fennel & Carrots

When I was a kid growing up with vegetarian hippies for parents, we ate a lot of lentils and rice. I love lentils and consider them excellent and delicious comfort food. Jeannene, on the other hand, is invariably resistant to lentils when I mention making them. This time, I could scarcely believe my ears when she said they were good! They were very good, indeed. I served them with fantastic locally produced kielbasa, creamy polenta, and a kale salad. This is my adaptation of a 2007 recipe from the late, lamented Gourmet magazine.

Lentils with Sausage, Fennel, & Carrots

1 c. French green lentils (you may sub another variety)
4 & 1/2 c. cold water
1 & 1/2 tsp. salt
1 fennel bulb (about 3/4 lb), finely chopped, fronds minced
3 & 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 lb. kielbasa (you can also use sweet Italian sausage, which is what the original recipe calls for)
3 tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar (red wine vinegar may be subbed)
Olive oil for drizzling

Bring lentils & water to a boil with 1/2 tsp. salt. Simmer, uncovered, 12-25 minutes, until tender. Heat oil. Add onion, carrot, fennel bulb & seeds, 1 tsp. salt. Cover & cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook sausages through. Drain lentils, reserving water (mine ended up not needing to be drained, with just enough cooking water left). Stir into vegetables with just enough water to moisten. Heat through. Add parsley, pepper, vinegar, 1 tbsp. minced fennel fronds. Adjust vinegar & salt to taste. Slice sausages diagonally and serve over lentils, sprinkled with additional minced fennel fronds. Drizzle with oil. Serves 4.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Asian Chicken & Noodles

On a cold night in December, there's nothing like comfort food and chicken & noodles has long been a favorite of many people. This version we enjoyed the other night throws an Asian twist on the old classic. I served it with steamed pork & vegetable dumplings from the freezer section and a green salad with dried cranberries and almond slivers, dressed with an apple cider vinaigrette. I made a dipping sauce of sorts for the dumplings by adding sliced scallions to tamari. 

Asian Chicken & Noodles
3 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
A bit of minced ginger
A pinch of salt
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 Knorr chicken cubes
A healthy shake of tamari
1 package bean thread noodles (although, I suspect rice sticks might hold up better than the dainty bean threads next time)
2 scallions, sliced

Bring chicken to boil in a saucepan of water, along with ginger and salt. Cook until very tender, removing any froth that rises to the surface of the water. Remove chicken from pan and allow to cool. Add onion, tamari, & bouillon to water in pan and bring to a boil. If you like mushrooms, some shiitakes might be a nice addition. Add the noodles and cook about 5 minutes over medium heat. Shred chicken and add to noodles, heating through. Serve with scallions. Serves 6-8. Leftovers make a good brunch sautéed with some beaten eggs and additional scallions.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Olga's, Oakland Mall, Troy, MI

This is more of an un-review today, as we ended up not eating at Olga's. We were at the mall for a little Christmas shopping and decided to have a bite to eat beforehand. We'd been interested in trying an Olga's. We were seated promptly in the nearly-empty dining room and our drink orders taken fairly promptly, as well. I was surprised to find no hot tea on the menu, but it wasn't such a big deal and they did have coffee for Jeannene. She asked for room to be left for her creamer & was given half a cup, with not nearly enough little cartons to make a whole cup. It would have made the coffee cold, anyway, and that was the last thing we wanted on a day on which we woke up to 12 degrees outdoors.

Unfortunately, cold would be a theme at Olga's. We ordered their snackers and the waitress was kind enough to help our indecision by offering a small side of the Swiss almond cheese, their standard side with the pita chips, along with an order of the spinach feta dip. We accepted gratefully. The Swiss almond cheese was fine, if you're a fan of the cheese spreads that come in a Hickory Farms assortment, and the pita bread was warm and nicely seasoned. 

However, the spinach feta dip was cold in the middle and lukewarm on the sides. Since our waitress didn't check back with us, even though there were only a few other occupied tables, we couldn't ask her to warm it. Jeannene was also out of coffee in very short order, with not a refill in sight.

It wasn't until our sandwiches and soup came that we were able to alert the waitress to the chill on the dip. She offered to warm it. We didn't really need an appetizer anymore, since our meal had arrived, but we agreed. However, our sandwiches, the Olga's version of gyros, were also cold. Cold sauce, I expect. Maybe even room temperature bread would be acceptable. But cold meat? Not terribly appetizing. And our peasant soup was also cold. With oily slicks on top and an oily orange-red ring around the cup. We waited briefly to see if the waitress would return, but my hopes were low for an adequate temperature on anything, even if we sent it back. And waited. 

When we decided to leave without eating, something I have never before done once my food has arrived, we received no apology from the young woman we asked, in the complete absence of our waitress in the dining room, to get the manager. We waited, then, for the manager to come. And we waited. We were told, "He's just in the back putting away food." I thought, "Can the food not wait five minutes while he speaks with us?" Apparently not. Finally, another woman, perhaps an assistant manager, came to speak with us. She acknowledged that the food should not have been cold and did not expect us to pay or try to persuade us to let them make it right. Not a good first impression of this chain that seemed to hold a bit of promise.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Laundry and Crust, Fenton, Michigan

Thanksgiving Monday, I was able to reward myself for all the unpacking work in the new house with lunch out with a seminary buddy. Kristen lives about 2 hours from our new town, but has occasion to be in Fenton fairly regularly, so suggested we meet at The Laundry. This fun little bistro is, confusingly, also referred to as The French Laundry, but is not affiliated with the Thomas Keller restaurant. It is, however, fabulous! Entering from the chilly street, I found it a little chilly inside, as well, somewhat like a greenhouse without the solar gain. However, I was warm enough and I found the quirky decor, starring vintage kitchen sets, nearly as charming as the young, hip, but friendly waitstaff. The fellow who waited on us was enthusiastic in a pleasant, genuine way, and was well-versed in the menu items.

I can seldom resist ordering French onion soup, if I think it may be done properly. I seldom find it to my liking though, with pallid or bitter broth, too many or too few onions, cheese so thick it chokes me, a crouton not substantial enough to hold up, dissolving into so much unpleasant flotsam. At The Laundry, what I discovered when I ordered it was perfection. Just the right amount of everything, with a lush, rich broth and a sturdy, delicious crouton.

Had I been a stronger, more virtuous woman, I would not have ordered next what I ordered next. I would have contented myself with a salad or ordered one of the vast panoply of delightful-looking sandwiches. However, another of my irresistables was on the menu. I felt a little silly ordering macaroni and cheese after the cheesy, rich soup, so I queried the waiter to discover whether it was truly worth ordering. He assured me it was gooey rather than saucy, then went on to warn me that because it was made with Vermont cheddar, it wouldn't be bright orange. Sold, just like that! It was everything he promised and I ate it with great good cheer and a promise to myself of extra dark, leafy greens at dinner.

I am quite certain that dessert would have been equally wonderful, but I just couldn't. Having lost 40 pounds in the last several months, I am making a concerted effort to be judicious about sugary or otherwise unhealthy foods. Nothing too stringent, just making sure it's really worth it before it goes in my mouth. And if it turns out not to be worth it, it doesn't get finished. However, I did pick up a couple of fragrant molasses cookies to take home.

Upon discovering that the same folks own a bakery a few blocks over, I found myself compelled to stop at Crust before heading to the highway. Oh, what a pleasure for the senses! The air was filled with splendid fragrances and the cases filled with lovely, lovely pastries. Their stollen is just gorgeous and I have plans to return shortly before Christmas, despite our tradition of Christmas morning gorilla bread. For that day, though, what I was hoping is that I would discover pain au chocolat to rival my aunt Miyoko's. She studied at the French Culinary Institute and now sells her stunning pastries at the Ann Arbor farmer's market on Saturday mornings, if you'd like to line up with the other addicts. I have been pretty much ruined for croissants since she brought her concoctions to a family gathering---ham & brie, chocolate, Japanese-French fusion in a sweet red bean croissant. To my delight, Crust offers up a most pleasing rendition of my favorite pastry. I behaved myself and picked up a couple for home instead of devouring it on the spot. Instead, Jeannene and I ate them in bed later that night and giggled over how amazingly delicious they were. I also took her a cherry scone, which she had for breakfast and reported swooningly back to me that it was tremendous.

Oh, and did I mention that they serve what is possibly the best chocolat chaud in the world? Thick, dark, and redolent with spices. Mercy!

If you'd like to go:
www.lunchandbeyond.com will get you to The Laundry.
www.crustandbeyond.com will get you to Crust.
You want to go to both. Trust me.

Kruse & Muer at The Village

Being new to the area and being Chowhounds, one of the first things Jeannene and I did was look for promising restaurants. We've found scads of family restaurants and coney islands, but not a whole lot yet in terms of independent restaurants specializing in fine dining featuring seasonal menus. Kruse and Muer, which seems to be a local chain with menu variations from location to location, looked fairly promising. 

We stopped by the one at The Village in Rochester Hills a couple weeks ago, but the wait was more than we were prepared to do that night. Last night, after spending a pleasant evening poking around Busch's grocery, Trader Joe's (have to put in a plug for their candy cane green tea here), and Whole Foods (St. Nicholas left candy canes that look remarkably similar to their organic ones in our shoes last night and they are wonderful!), we tried Kruse and Muer again. This time, at 8:30 p.m., we were seated immediately and saw why the wait had been so long before.

The restaurant appears to be split between take-out and dine-in, with a quite petite seating area. Despite the small size, it's a comfortable dining room. Our waiter was very personable (aside from the grimace upon hearing we were from Ohio---oh, those team rivalries! It made me wish I was wearing my scarlet & gray) and made some great recommendations. 

We started with a split cup of really great New England style clam chowder, thick, creamy, generous with tender clams. It was touted as being from James Beard's recipe and a bowl could make a very nice meal with a salad on the side. They also brought us fresh, seasoned baguette, hot from the oven. It was good, but not as good as the crack bread from Lucky's Steakhouse in Imlay City. I don't know if poppy seed sprinkled bread is a Michigan thing, but I am definitely digging it. Thankfully, I was able to stop at a small amount of the Kruse & Muer version.

This left me plenty of room for a truly gorgeous piece of red snapper. My grandparents always, always ordered red snapper on our Florida vacations when I was a kid and it remains one of my favorites. I was torn between that and the lemon-crumb-crusted scrod. Since the scrod is on the permanent menu, I opted for the snapper, grilled and served with a delicate, but decidedly lemony caper buerre blanc. It tasted fresh and was cooked perfectly.

 My fish came with rice pilaf, but they were kind enough to allow me to sub, for a small upcharge, the macaroni and cheese. I'd seen the word "Tillamook" and that was too enticing to pass up. Sadly, it fell into the saucy rather than the gooey category of mac & cheese. Had I ordered penne Alfredo, I'd've been delighted. However, the cheese was scarcely discernible and the sauce was mostly pooled at the bottom of the dish, anyway. The vegetables, on the other hand, were delicious. Rather than the tired, and often overcooked, medley of carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli, there were some more interesting veggies like winter squashes and parsnips added. They were, again, cooked just right, until tender but not complete mush.

Jeannene had the twin filets marsala, topped with beautiful portabello mushrooms and nestled in a pool of rich sauce. Her food, too, was just at the desired degree of doneness. I found her mashed potatoes good, but a tad loose & just a bit bland, not as good as my own. They had that odd shiny surface you sometimes see, too. I'm not sure what produces that. Could be a mark of high quality mashed potatoes, but it always gives me the heebies just a smidge.

For dessert, Jeannene was disappointed that the bread pudding contained the dread raisins. She loves bread pudding, but never with raisins. So, we split a martini-glass-ful of chocolate mousse. I am invariably disappointed by chocolate mousse anywhere but The Winds Cafe. They have forever ruined me for it with their sumptuous and dark version that utilizes Scharffen Berger chocolate and Kahlúa. This was something else entirely, but good. Purely sweet, gorgeously creamy, almost plump, in fact. In the middle was a pouf of whipped cream, the real deal and unsweetened. For not-the-Winds' mousse, it was pretty good mousse. I think a nice espresso would probably have cut the purity of the sweetness well. It was kind of like reading good chick lit when you've been on a Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler jag. You need something a little dark to appreciate fully the sweetness and light.

Steak on a Stick

Yesterday, I marinated some London broil & soaked bamboo skewers, fully intending to make dinner. However, we ended up going on a grocery store date to Busch's, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods. It made sense to go out to dinner, too, and eat in tonight. We'd stopped in Kruse & Muer a couple weeks ago, but were deterred by a long wait. This time, there were plenty of tables, so there we ate. Tonight, I went forward with our skewered meat, adding spiced green beans & a room temp cauliflower salad that sounded a little odd but was a big hit with Jeannene. If you don't like cumin, you'll want to choose other sides, because these are full of it! While the meat marinade is Asian in flavor and the rest leans more Indian, they went well together.

Steak on a Stick
3/4 lb. London broil, sliced into 1/4" strips
1/4 c. soy sauce
1/8 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. sake
1 tbsp. molasses
1 tsp. mustard seed (or dry mustard powder)
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. garlic powder

Mix everything but the meat in a medium bowl or a ziploc bag. Add meat, tossing to make sure it is completely coated, and marinate at least 4 hours. Soak 4 bamboo skewers while marinating the meat. Skewer meat ribbon-style, 3-4 slices per stick. Broil or grill 3-4 minutes per side. Serves 2.

Cumin-Spiced Green Beans
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 tsp. chili powder
2 cups green beans, trimmed
Pinch salt

Melt butter in a skillet. Add the cumin and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add the garlic and cook another minute, stirring. Add chili powder, salt, and green beans and cook a minute or two before covering. Once covered, reduce heat to low and cook 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serves 2.

Cumin-Jack Cauliflower Salad
1 small head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp. cumin seeds
A big drizzle of olive oil
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
4 oz. Monterey Jack, in bite-size cubes
3 tbsp. sour cream 
A good grinding of pepper

Steam cauliflower 10 minutes. Rinse with cold water. Sauté onions, garlic, & cumin in olive oil until softened. Mix everything together. Serves 4.