Cooking A Valentine’s Day Feast: Warm Marinated Olives, Peas with Lemon, Tarragon & Shallots & Penne A la Vodka

Since my wife has been so awesome, both lately and generally, I thought I’d try and do something special for her for Valentine’s Day. Since both of our birthdays come hot on the heels of Christmas, we usually take it pretty easy for V-Day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t knock out a special dinner, you know? I didn’t take as many pictures this time around, but I can explain what I did pretty well (I hope). I started with the main course which was Penne a la Vodka at my wife’s request. I wound up using Smitten Kitchen’s recipe which turned out to be a wonderful choice. With that in mind, I dove into my cookbook shelf and eventually found a pair of recipes from the William & Sonoma Bride & Groom Cookbook which we received as a wedding present and I’ve only ever used once. There I found the recipes for Warm Marinated Olives (page 58) and Peas with Lemon, Tarragon & Shallots (page 156).

In an effort to get things moving along, I actually started on this dinner at 4:00PM because I didn’t want to rush anything. As with most recipes, I did a lot of the prep ahead of time and wound up working on several things at once. The first thing I did was get the olives ready because they were the simplest and didn’t need to be heated up until the very end. I got a cup of mixed olives from my grocery store’s olive bar, rinsed them off and patted them dry before putting them into a bowl. I then mixed in orange and lemon zest, some olive oil, a chopped clove of garlic and some thyme leaves. After mixing all that together, I put them in a pan on the stove and just let them sit until I needed to add heat about 10 minutes before my wife got home.

I think got to work on the pasta sauce and the peas. I’ll write about them separately, just to keep things a little less confusing. Both recipes called for two shallots, so I chopped all four up first. Half went in for the sauce and the other half got held back for the peas. For the sauce, I added the garlic and olive oil to the shallots and cooked those for five minutes before adding the vodka  (I had Smirnoff, so that’s what I used) and reducing that for a few minutes. Then the chicken stock and a can of crushed tomatoes got added and I simmered for a while. The recipe says to just simmer while the water for the pasta cooks, so that’s what I did.

Meanwhile, I also got to work on the peas, which were pretty simple. You basically cook the shallots in butter for about five minutes and then add peas (I had to go with frozen), tarragon, lemon zest, lemon juice and salt. Cook that for a few minutes and you’re done. The most difficult part of this meal was the timing, really. The prep for everything probably took longer than the actual cooking and I’m happy to say that everything turned out really well. I’ve had a lot of penne a la vodka in my days and aside from a place we used to frequent in college, this was the best I’ve ever had.

I tried something a little different while preparing this meal by trying to make it flow well by having one ingredient carry over into the next dish. The olives had citrus as did the peas, the peas used shallots, as did the sauce. I know shallots are a pretty common dish in restaurant cooking (or so I’ve read in Anthony Bourdain books), but it was still something I thought of while putting things together. What did you guys make for Valentine’s Day?

Wife Lessons: Nachos

I’ve loved nachos for a while now, but my wife is the real ninja when it comes to making them. I used to just throw shredded cheese on top of nacho chips, put them in the microwave and be done with it. But, she’s taught me how to really knock nachos out of the park. These particular nachos included beef cooked in taco seasoning and salsa, chopped up tomato, scallions, cheddar cheese I shredded and sour cream. I’ve also added chopped up banana peppers which are delightful, but I was looking for a simple nacho that day.

So, if you’re unfamiliar with the process, here’s what I do. I take the same approach for cooking the beef that I would for making tacos: cook it up in a cast iron pan until brown, drain,  then add salsa and taco seasoning. I went with Pace Salsa Verde salsa and Ortega 40% Less Sodium seasoning. I let that cook until the liquid comes off a bit and then let it cool.

Next, I laid the chips out on a pan, it’s important not to have your chips overlap too too much because then you wind up with a lot of cheese-less chips and who wants that? I also shredded the cheese and got to layering. I put the meat down first, then the cheese and chopped up some scallions. Those went into the oven on broil for a few minutes. I don’t really time it, but I keep an eye on the cheese to make sure it doesn’t get too brown. Once they looked done, I popped them out, added some sour cream and we were good to go.

What I like about nachos is that they’re so versatile. You can really put anything on them. We stick with Mexican themed ingredients, but there’s no reason you couldn’t make Italian, Chinese or any other kind of nachos. We need to start a nacho revolution!

Ever Wondered How Much A Smidge Is?

Have you ever seen a really old cookbook or maybe a recipe written down by a grandparent? They can be difficult to decipher with old-style measurements you’ve never heard of or even measured amounts not in teaspoons or ounces, but “handful,” “smidgen” or “dash.” Well, thanks to this set of measuring spoons, I now know exactly what constitutes a smidgen, pinch, dash and tad. These spoons came in a pack that included traditional measuring spoons and cups that my wife wound up with after her family’s Yankee Swap last year. So, let me know if you need to borrow a smidgen of salt, I’ll hook you up.

Bonus Birthday Food Pics: Fish & Meat!

My actual birthday was back on February 6th, but things have been bonkers busy lately, so I’m only getting around to posting these pics now. I had some excellent food between a visit from my parents the weekend before my birthday and then an outing my wife, daughter and I went on on the actual day. My parents took us out to a place we’d never been to in Cornwall called The Trestle (2 Idlewild Avenue, Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY 12520). The place had a great vibe and some interesting specials. I’m actually having trouble remembering exactly what kind of fish I had, but it was covered in sesame seeds and this excellent sauce. It was sandwiched between some tasty spinach on top and fingerling potatoes underneath. The pic kind of yellowed out the whole thing, but it was a tasty fish. I don’t think I’ve ever had sesame crusted fish, but I liked how it tasted all together.  On my actual birthday, the wife, kid and I headed to the wonderful Billy Joe’s Ribworks in Newburgh. I got the ribs and meat combo with macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. The ribs were St. Louis variety I believe and the meat was pulled pork. The great thing about Billy Joe’s–and barbecue in general–is that it’s not only great food but also fun to eat!

I should also mention that my wife and mom both made some excellent desserts, though I don’t think I snapped a picture of them. My wife made Smitten Kitchen’s Monkey Bread recipe which I’ve had before while Mom made carrot cake bars that I liked when I was a kid. I’m not much of a dessert guy, but these are two that I really dig. Thanks to Mom and Em both for that!

Wok This Way: Stir-Fried Ginger Beef

Sorry about the huge delays here on the site, everyone. Last week was packed between my birthday and a few tight work deadlines and the beginning of this week was packed with Valentine’s Day stuff and even more deadlines. But, I’ve still been cooking and eating, plus I’ve got lots of archives to go through from the past month, so let’s jump in!

After getting my new wok seasoned, it was time to give that thing a real try out. In addition to the wok, my wife also got me Grace Young’s wok-centric cookbook Stir-Frying To The Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide To Mastery, With Authentic Recipes And Stories which her research told her was the best of the bunch. I was flipping through and her recipe for Stir-Fried Ginger Beef (page 71) because it didn’t require buying too many new ingredients and seemed fairly easy for a novice like me.

The recipe calls for flank steak, minced ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch, salt, pepper, peanut oil, oyster sauce, pickled ginger and scallions. We usually keep ginger in the freezer along with the other pantry items, but I did need to pick up oyster sauce and pickled ginger. For the rice wine, I checked at both the grocery and wine stores and neither had any, so I went with the also suggested dry sherry.

Okay, on to the actual recipe. Cutting up the meat into strips is the first step. That all went into a bowl with the non-pickled ginger, soy sauce, a teaspoon of sherry, cornstarch, salt, pepper and a teaspoon of peanut oil. In another bowl I combined the oyster sauce and a tablespoon of sherry. The rest of the prep included cutting up a quarter cup of pickled ginger and some scallions.

For the actual cooking, the book says to put the wok on the heat and you’re ready to go when a drop of water evaporates in a few seconds. So, once we got to that point, I swirled some oil in and then spread the meat in the wok. You’re supposed to let that cook for one minute and then stir-fry for 30 seconds before adding the oyster sauce mixture, the pickled ginger and the scallions and stir-frying again for another 30 seconds. I also picked up some egg noodle nests awhile back for an aborted recipe that worked out really well to serve the ginger beef on.

The flavors were fantastic. I love how the pickled ginger popped with the beef and the marinade. The thing that was difficult about cooking with the wok is how fast things go once you start cooking. As you can see above it’s a lot of steps that take a minute or less. I’d do one thing, stir, jump over to the book, read as fast as I could then jump back to the wok. It was a really fast paced, but also really simple and easy. I also like that so much of the cooking revolves around getting prepped ahead of time. Once you’re set, with everything, it’s game time. Honestly, boiling the water for the egg noodle nests took longer than all of making the main dish. I had a great first outing on the wok and can not wait to get into it even more.


Cooking Genoese Ministrone Soup

I was originally a little intimidated when it came to the recipe for Genoese Minestrone Soup found in The Ultimate Soup Bible (page 444) because of the laundry list of ingredients. But, upon closer inspection, I realized that most of them were just vegetables. I enjoy chopping, so I added celery, carrots, green beans, zucchini, potato, eggplant, cannellini beans, plum tomatoes, pasta, vegetable broth and pesto sauce to my grocery list. That’s pretty much all that goes into this recipe and I thought it wound up making a very tasty soup with tons of veggies.

First up, you cook the carrot, onion and celery in a pan in oil, then add in the beans, zucchini and potato (it also called for cabbage, but I skipped that for lack of anything to do with the rest of the head) and cook a bit more. Pop the eggplant, beans and tomatoes in, cook a few more minutes and then add the stock, salt and pepper and simmer for 40 minutes. At this point, you’re supposed to make your own, pesto, but I was feeling a bit lazy and am too cheap to buy a $10 jar of pine nuts, so I went with the jarred stuff.

After cooking for 40 minutes, you add the pasta, let simmer for five minutes and then add the pesto and simmer for another two or three minutes and you’ve got some soup on your hands. You can’t really tell from the pictures, but the soup turned out a lot thicker than I expected. The picture in the cookbook makes it look pretty clean and clear. Maybe I didn’t use the right amount of broth, but even though it didn’t look all too pretty, I thought it tasted great. All those vegetables mixed together really well with the broth and the noodles added some texture and beans some protein. All in all, this was yet another great recipe from one of my most consistently reliable cookbooks!