Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Bloody French!

Being of Irish ancestry, I was taught that the Brits were the enemy. They turned the land of my fore fathers into a serfdom, starved the inhabitants and drove those well enough to travel, into exile. English invaders outlawed our hallowed Catholic faith and education, over took our churches and cathedrals, making them their own!
In traveling the continent, the UK and the Irish republic, I have found, however, that two generations and one hundred years have done much to soften the sting of British imperialism.
They are in fact, quite nice people. Most Brits are very friendly, eager to offer assistance to travelers (english speaking) and are most satisfied in their current state. These are folks you'd like to have as neighbors; dad drinks a little too much, mom tends to share privileged information on anyone and the kids are wise beyond their years.
Brits remind me of Oregonians who read; pale, educated, ruddy and pleasant.
They will sit there and hold their tongues on a topic till an invitation is extended either by gesture or comment.

"These tomatoes look nice," one could remark in a market, "Yes, they do..." a Brit would reply candidly.
"How d'ya think they grow them so nice her in England?" I would ask.
"They DON'T!" the shopper would snap, "they're either from Italy or North Africa...we caunt grow them here...the Bloody French pinch the good ones, too, on the way to England. These are the seconds!"
(O-kayyyy, a little animosity here...)

Lisa and I had spent 3 months in the UK and Europe during our honeymoon in 1990. The last leg of our journey was up from Portugal, through Bordeaux and into Paris for the train ride to London. After I smoked enough Cuban cigars to choke a mule, we boarded a train that would take us under the English Channel and into familiar language for the first time in 60 days. We checked into a B&B late that night in Folkstone on the Channel. It was up the hill and a stone's throw from the depot. Our hostess couldn't have been more welcoming; she was big-lady huggable: glasses, heavy-set, house coat, plump, rosy cheeks. A TV blared in the adjacent room behind a louvred glass door; father layed in his recliner, shoes off, dark socks on, looking at the paper but not really reading in his Vinny t-shirt and half-specs draped with a chain.

We awoke the next morning to the comforting aroma of bacon cooking, potatoes frying and tomatoes grilling. Lisa and I laughed in a bed that was so thick with blankets and comforters, we thought we would suffocate.
"I feel like we're home," Lisa said to the lady as we shuffled into the kitchen and sat at the table to enjoy our choice of tea or instant coffee. The lady smiled and commented that she wells with a great satisfaction when Americans stay and feel at home with a good English breakfast.
"Oh, but, we had SO much great food in Italy, France and Portugal. Gosh, the risotto, cheeses, grilled sardines...there was SO much wonderful cuisine on the continent," we continued, "but, to have eggs, bacon, potatoes, coffee...WOW! This is even BETTER than home after all the European fare."
"Oh now, you're being too kind," our hostess feigned,"we're just simple country folk, you know..."

"That may be," Lisa countered, "but, we cherish the beauty of simplicity done right!"
"Speaking of 'simplicity'...remember that onion soup with truffles in the Dordogne valley of France? That was exquisite..."

Our endearing, maternal hostess rose, clearing our empty plates with a huff,
"Bloody French..." she muttered and dropped them into a soapy sink.

Here's a recipe that is sure to inspire admiration and not scorn...

French Onion Soup (serves 8-10)

8 Onions, yellow, med, sliced (not rings!)
2 ribs Celery, diced
1/4 C. Cooking oil, (olive, canola, duck fat, whatever!)
1/4 C. Garlic, chopped
1T. Thyme, fresh, chopped
2 Bay Leaf, whole
1 gal. Chicken, Beef or Duck stock (from bones puh-leez!)
8-10 bread slices, artisan stuff
8-10 slices of some kinda Swiss cheese; Gruyere, Emmantaler, etc.

Saute' onions and celery with the oil in an 8 qt. pot. As the onions cook and reduce in volume, reduce your heat so things don't get black on the bottom. We want to allow the onions to get a little bit of color, some browning, but not black (that is the bitter, unappetizing flavor). This requires constant monitoring and attention. Stir the onions, check the bottom of the pot. DON'T go out and prune three rows of vines and think all will be well. It won't! Cooking the onions is a chemical process: we convert starches of the onion to simple sugars by way of heat. These simple sugars caramelize and give us the wonderful color for onion soup.
Now add the garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Scrape the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon to cajole the remnant bits of 'onion sugar' from the bottom.
Reduce to a simmer for 2 hours.
When ready to serve, adjust salt to taste. Ladle soup into bowls and serve with a crusty, cheesy, toasted slice of bread on top.

The savory character of the stock marries with the natural sweetness of caramelized onion sugars. Fresh herbs make it garden simple.

The 'Bloody French' have got it goin' on with this classic preparation.

Just add lotsa wine...

Take care, and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends...
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things."

God bless, Chef BQ.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bones and Brew

It's chilly here in Portland this time of year. The warm rain gives way to windy, bitterly cold days that turn the mud into concrete-like adobe. The airstream dips down from the Arctic and blows our moderate, rainy Northwest into central California.

This is the kind of weather relatives down south reserve for the wilds of Lake Tahoe and the Donner Party. For those not familiar with California history, the Donner party were a group of pioneers who got stuck by early snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains and, well, ran out of regular food. They ended up using 'seasonal and local product.'

Could you imagine that, having to make a meal of a travel partner? Gosh, you'd have to cut away the fanny pack and Bermuda shorts; and who'd want to pull those sandels off?! Jeez, I mean how would you decide what cuts to use first? Do you go for the tender backstraps or if given some time, braise a tougher piece with lotsa flavor?

I think I'd probably opt for the veggie entree'; some tree bark and fiddlehead ferns with a splash of pure, mountain water...

Back in Oregon, the dry, frosty air of January and February lends the palate to rich, substantial flavors. Hearty reductions, marbled meats and earthy root vegetables beckon us to ladles and deep bowls. This is real, down-home, comfort food weather.

I came home one day and as I set foot in the back porch mudroom, the soothing vapors from a pot of chicken stock warmed my senses. As I unravelled a scarf, dropped a cap on a hook and hung up two layers of fleece, the gentle, savory aromas drew me closer to the source. There on the stove top sat a tall pot with a raft of chicken bones softly simmering along with onion, carrot and celery ends. Sprigs of winter thyme sprouted from within this delicious elixir. I hovered over the pot and drew deep breaths; it was like eating the air.

"So, what's for dinner?" I asked Lisa as we kissed, "This smells GREAT!"

"Well, it's kind of a Smorgy-Bob's," she stated. If it's an assortment of things from meals past, then it's a smorgasbord in our house.

"So, more to the point, WHEN'S dinner?!" I pleaded.

"Call the guys and we'll get started. Brendan, can you set the table?" the chef ordered.

"Whoa, somethin' smells good," exclaimed our tablesetter as he came up from the boy-cave downstairs.

As Pat and Liam pounded up the stairs, they too seemed pleased at Mom's choice.

"Dude, this must be Ninja Soup...'cuz it's kickin'," Liam joked with Patchy, giving him a Roger Moore judo chop and side kick.

Lisa had placed an array of bowls on the kitchen counter with everything from wild and basmati rice to broccoli and carrots. Some flat noodles occupied one bowl and sliced chicken was in another. Nine bottles of hot sauce lined the counter waiting for adolescent boys to challange one another. We ladled up piping hot broth over each unique bowl and gathered at the table.

"Mom, this is amazing, it's like better than what it's supposed to be," mused Patrick.

"Good chicken stock is the key. It's basically just bones and water," followed Lisa, "Good things have to simmer, though. You have to allow simple things the time to become great."

Here's a shot of medicine for your winter blahs...

Chicken Soup with Goodies

1 Chicken, deboned, meat reserved
4 qts water, cold
1 celery heart
2 carrots, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 onion, quarterd
few thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf

Place all (except chicken meat) in a 6qt pot and place on medium heat. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer. Save all your skin and add to the bones for the stock.
Now, cut your chicken meat up into fork sized pieces and saute' with canola or olive oil. Be sure to get a little color on the meat; tastes better and doesn't look anemic.
Now comes the fun part: begin scavenging around your fridge for 'submersables;' things that will dwell nicely in the bottom of a bowl of broth. Look for veggies like onions, celery, carrots, cabbage, radishes or broccolli and cauliflower. Proteins to include: sausages, chicken, beef strips, salmon, shrimp. Herbal possibilities are: fresh basil, cilantro, mint, thyme or lemon grass.
The idea is to use what you have on hand; we ALL have stuff in our fridges that will wither away because they are the last of the bunch.
So, gather your goodies from 'Fridge Forraging', dice them, slice them and place them on a large tray or in separate bowls. Let the family create their own bowls and then ladle the steaming hot goodness over their creations. Finish with a squeeze of lime, pinch of kosher salt or a dash of Sriracha hot sauce!

Honest to Pete, the kids just LOVE it!
Give it a shot and lemme know of your successes.

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends...
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things."
Chef BQ.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Fanta, Cabbage and Peanuts

My wife, Lisa, had returned to our home just a few minutes after me. She was somewhat out of breath, the baby was crying and the kids were hungry. It was nearly 6:00 after all.

"Hey, where've you been? I thought the kids were out early today," I asked.

"Oh, yeah, they were, but, we stopped by the African family's house and we made some dinner for them," she exlpained.

Our parish has sponsored a family from Burundi at the last minute and they dropped out of the sky like an empty Coke bottle. None of us speak Swahili or K'rundi and equitorial Africa hasn't been on the TimeShare listings. Something about civil war and ethnic cleansing that can put a damper on cultural exchanges. Consequently, we weren't quite sure how our new toys worked.

Lisa figured them out, though, real quick.

"I looked up their country on the Internet and found that the base diet consists of, well...just about anything they can get. Mostly, it revolves around rice and sweet potatoes; protein if available," she followed, "Did you know that Burundi is THE poorest country IN THE WORLD?!"

Good God in heaven, she is really off the reservation on this venture, I thought. How can she go head-long into helping to relocate and acclimate folks that might as well be from Mars?!

"We went shopping today and they LOVE Fanta orange soda, unsalted peanuts and the mother wanted cabbage and fish," Lisa continued. "I showed her how to use the oven and stovetop."

I can just picture my dear bride, stirring a pot with one hand, bouncing a baby on a hip with the other. Laughing and gesturing the whole time...

"I'll get dinner going, don't sweat it. Here, let me pour you a glass of Gris," I said.

As Lisa placed our 6 month old daughter in the high chair, she told me of the elaborate menu prepared for our sub-Saharan guests.

"All I did was make a pot of Basmati rice, boiled some sweet potatoes and poured Fanta orange soda by the 2 liter bottle. You'd think it was dinner at the Benson Hotel, the way they dug in and celebrated!" Lisa took a long sip of her Pinot Gris then, requested an ice cube. "They just LOVED it!"

But for the Grace of God, so too go we, I thought.

"Here are three ice cubes, 'cause you deserve 'em," I boasted as they plopped into her stemware and clinked as we toasted. "Wow, cooking has brought us another new relationship but, I suspect we don't know what that is just yet," I concluded.

"Who knows?" Lisa followed, "One of those 8 children might find a cure for cancer, run for President or do the same thing for someone else someday."
I love it when she's right.

Thanks, Loverlu, for showing us what power, kindness and love can be found through Fanta, cabbage and peanuts.

Now, let's try another dish with peanuts, cabbage and mandarin oranges:

Pad Thai at Home (serves 6)

1 pkg Rice stick noodles, looks like fettucine, only different
1 Onion, medium, diced
2 lb chicken meat, cut to fork sized
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled, halved and cut on a bias
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup peanut butter, either creamy or crunchy
2T soy sauce
1T fish sauce (found in the asian food section)
1/2 cabbabe, sliced as thin as possible, a 'chiffonade'
2 cups peanuts, ground
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
6 each mandarins or clementines, peeled and sectioned

Put a 4 quart pot of water on the boil.
Saute' the diced onions and chicken. Add the garlic and cook for
another two minutes. Add the stock, coconut milk, peanut
butter, soy and fish sauce. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
Simmer covered for thirty minutes and stir occasionally.
Drop your noodles into boiling water for ten minutes or till desired
doneness. When done, strain and toss with half the sauce. Arrange noodles
on plates with a bed of the crunchy cabbage underneath. Ladle remaining sauce onto
noodles and garnish plate with peanuts, oranges, and cilantro.

Wine suggetion:
--dry Gewurtztraminer
--Pinot Gris

Thanks for reading and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends...
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"

Take care and God bless, Chef BQ.