Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nooner: Adventures in Cholesterol: Jeff's Beer Cheddar Soup and Grace’s Bacon Braise

The Origin of the Nooner

My colleague Jeff and I have desks next to each other and we talk about food all day long. Jeff's dad is a caterer in Texas and a pretty amazing one at that judging from what his son--and I assume his disciple--has cooked for me in the past (A recent fave is Jeff's dad's Chicken Tortilla Soup featuring homemade chicken stock and meat pulled right from the bones and spiced up with jalepenos, Tony Chachere's seasoning, plenty of garlic, and a ton o' cheese.) So when Jeff said he would be trying a new recipe for Beer Cheddar Soup late in the afternoon this Tuesday for dinner, I immediately revealed that I would be experimenting with a new recipe of my own and that if he brought me some of his, I'd bring him some of mine. Hence, the birth of "The Nooner"—a weekly lunchtime swap of delicious dinner leftovers the morning after.

Here's Jeff on what he made and what he thought of mine (A Swiss Apple, Pear, Potato, and Bacon Braise):

When Grace and I first proposed the food swap nooner, I didn’t get excited about it until after I finished making my soup last night.

At work, Grace and I share a passion for cooking and food in general and we bounce off ideas about what to cook and where to eat all day. The first couple of times we talked about food together, we found an instant kinship in technique, experimentation and styles. So after finishing my Cheddar Beer soup, I called her to make sure she knew it was amazing.

“Hey Jeff”
“Grace, I kicked ass…on the soup.”
“Oh yeah? How was it?"
"The Irish cheddar was perfect, and the crostini I made…amazing.”
Mmm…I can’t wait to try some tomorrow.”
“Oh, I’m bringing you some. Talk to you later.”

The Cheddar Beer soup was a late afternoon idea at work, spurred further on by the original recipe I saw posted on Epicurious. Grace walked with me to Grand Central Market after work and I picked up some Irish Cheddar from the Murray’s Cheese counter and cibatta rosemary bread from Zora’s. I always like pulling something different for the meals I make and plus I felt inspired by the Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie at Home’ episode I watched a couple of nights ago. The bread was going to be my secret weapon.

After watching Jamie Oliver prepare an amazing parmesan-sage-infused crostini, I was instantly salivating and itchy to make it myself. The crostini would be my dirty bomb and I laid a piece of it in the bowl with the end sticking out, ladling the soup on top of it. I also added the crumbled bacon and the pan-fried sage and I was done.

This soup has so much going for it. My spoon made its journey from bowl to mouth and brought about an earthy sweetness from the root vegetables that were slightly crunchy, along with the creamy cheese (a freaking pound of it) that had a great, hoppy bite (I used Magic Hat #9 instead of the maltier Bass ale). The soup tasted a bit like a rarebit fondue, (as Grace pointed out to me later) but the veggies definitely proclaimed it a soup.

Recipes to me are like guardrails on the highway, they help keep a basic form and if you need to follow them closely, they’ll keep you from crashing. I decided to cook my veggies for about ten minutes as opposed to the five minutes the recipe describes. Alone, the colors of the carrots, leeks and celery that were sautéeing in the bottom of my stock pot were gorgeous; I should have taken a picture. All in all, it took me about 40 minutes to make this including prep time. One bowl of this hearty stuff was all I needed along with a Magic Hat #9 for myself. Taste-bud perfection on a rainy day.

Grace’s little Tupperware surprise was quite heavy when she handed it over to me and I eagerly peeked inside. A caramel coating of goodness along with bacon drifted towards my nose. Yes.

I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally braised something, but I was impressed with the results, plus she got the recipe from The Bacon Cookbook What’s not to like about that?

On the first bite I was reminded of my dad’s German potatoes minus the tang of the vinegar in his potato concoction. A second bite yielded yet another layer. The sweetness of the apples and pears appeared out of nowhere supporting the salty hominess of the double-smoked bacon. This is an excellent side dish and can handily stand by itself with a light salad. I wouldn’t recommend eating more than two or three spoonfuls of this at a time though; Grace was quite generous in her portioning, and like a horse with a feedbag, I didn’t hold back. I wanted to say something like ‘rainbow of flavors’ here, but I remembered that’s a Skittles commercial. This dish is more impressive than a catchy phrase because the ingredients do an amazing job of complimenting each other, rather than canceling out.

Now, as I set my chair to recline and loosen a belt-notch, I will bask in the delight of taste and try not to get into too much of a food coma. Hopefully, this is the start of a good nooner relationship.

Here's me on what I made and what I thought of his:
I love good side dishes and the Swiss Apple, Pear, Potato, and Bacon Braise that I saw posted on Leite's Culinaria seemed like a winner as soon as I saw it. Anything that claims to serve 4 and includes nearly a whole package of bacon couldn't possibly go wrong. It also looked like it could become a great last-minute dinner party stand by as it called for relatively few and and easy-to-come-by ingredients that I often have on hand and seemed to have flavors that would pair well with a variety of meat dishes.

I did make a few modifications to the recipe: I couldn't find speck (a mellow, beech-wood-smoked bacon common in Germany) , so I substituted regular ol' Boar's Head bacon from the grocery store, which I had on hand previously from making a delicious Salmon Chowder last week. The recipe had double-smoked slab bacon as a preferable substitute, but a cook's gotta work with what she's got. Perhaps somewhat shocked by how much fat came from the bacon,

I also reduced the amount of fat called for in the original recipe from 2 tablespoons of butter to one tablespoon, and reduced the bacon fat from 2 tablespoons to one tablespoon as well. But then I saw the error of my ways and decided that the dish could use some added richness after all, so I upped the amount of cream from 2 tablespoons to 4 tablespoons. And then, just because I thought it could use more depth, I added some herbs. I also let the fruit caramelize longer than the recipe suggested, because I love the deep flavor and rich brown color that good caramelization lends to a braise.

The resulting dish was delicious: The fruit lent sweetness and acidity to the mellow starchiness of the potatoes and the bacon gave a subtle, meaty smokiness to every bite. I could imagine chowing it down alongside a juicy brown pork chop.
And even better, I packed the leftovers into a tupperware the next day and traded it for a whole new meal:
Jeff's beer and cheddar soup had an assertive bite from the Irish cheddar, which was balanced out by the sweetness of the leeks and carrots. I also loved that I could taste the beer's hoppiness and enjoyed the crunchiness of the vegetables. (Good call on Jeff's part for not succumbing to the lure of his new immersion blender!) I enjoyed the first few spoonfuls of soup so much that I almost forgot to taste the giant ciabatta crouton—another winner, with a pronounced rosemary-sage flavor and a sharp and nutty toasted topping of parmesan. Cheesy melted heaven in a Tupperware.
Swiss Apple, Pear, Potato, and Bacon Braise
Adapted from The Bacon Cookbook, by James Villas

10 ounces of speck or bacon cut into small chunks—preferably double-smoked slab bacon, but regular supermarket bacon works in a pinch.
1 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 firm Bosc or Seckel pear, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

In a large, heavy saucepan, fry the bacon over moderate heat till almost crisp and pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat. (I cut up my onions during this time)

Add the butter to the fat, add the onion, and stir till softened, about 5 minutes. (I cut up my apples and pears during this time)

Add the apple and pear, sprinkle the sugar over the top and stir, allow to caramelize for 5 minutes. (I cut up my potatoes during this time)

Add the potatoes plus enough water to barely cover, bring to a low boil, reduce the heat to moderate, and simmer till most of the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes.

Add the salt and pepper and cream, and herbs, stir well, and let simmer about 5 minutes longer. Serve hot.

Say Cheese: Valencay

I have come to love my evening commute for one main reason--I get to walk through Grand Central Market every night. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Grand Central Market is a European style food hall oddly situated in one of the city's most trafficked commuter hub, Grand Central Terminal. Despite the fact that it is crowded during rush hour, it's a great place to pick up quality fish, meat, produce, bakery goods, and my ultimate weakness: cheese. Grand Central Market is home to Murray's Cheese, which has their main store in the West Village but operates an outpost in this unlikely placed, mini gourmet paradise.

Murray's must have at least a hundred cheeses at any given time, with a selection that varies from week to week. If I had my way, I'd take home two or three pieces every time I passed through, but alas...must...show...some...self...restraint. I try to limit myself to one chunk a week because I have absolutely no sense of moderation: If I were to buy three chunks i would eat all three chunks in one sitting. So one it is. Must save room for other delicious foods, after all.

This week's fromage was a lovely ash-covered French number called Valencay.

I was craving a goat cheese that had developed a bit of bite from being aged and this cheese hit the spot. Valencay has a paste that is moist but firm, and though it has a slight bite, the taste is soft and delicate and the flavor nutty. According to the little descriptor tag at Murray's, the cheese was invented to appease Napoleon after he had returned from his failed Egyptian expedition and stopped in the French town Valencay. Apparently, the original shape was perfectly pyramidal, but when he saw the cheese, he took a sword to it and chopped the top off in anger. Temper, Temper.

Despite Napoleon's unruly reaction, this cheese is a nice alternative to fresh goat cheeses, which can get boring after a while since many end up tasting only like dry ricotta with a tang. In contrast, Valencay's nutty and more developed flavor helps it stand up to good crusty bread (which is what I ate it with) and it would probably even pair well with something starchier, like cooked potatoes. Though I would have liked for the cheese to have even more complexity and wished it had some earthiness, as far as I'm concerned, Napoleon should have lost wars more often if it would have inspired cheeses like this.

Friday, January 11, 2008

So I'm jumping on the Food Blog Band Wagon

Like many readers and writers out there in the food blogosphere, food has always been a passion for me, but I have not yet been fortunate enough to make it a vocation. I have a corporate job (Financial Communications and Investor Relations...huh? yeah, exactly) during the day, but dream of becoming a food writer, working as a menu consultant, or even just going into food and restaurant public relations. Well, I figured, instead of just hazily fantasizing about it, why not get started?

As inspirations, I look to Andrea Strong of www.thestrongbuzz.com
who became a successful food writer partly through her weekly e-newsletter; David Leite of www.leitesculinaria.com who I think has the most consistently drool-worthy and reference-able blog of anyone out there; Clotilde Dusoulier of www.chocolateandzucchini.com whose delicious insights about cooking and eating as a hobby eventually led her to quit her day job and become a full-time food writer.

Additionally, I’d like to give a shout out to Zach of www.midtownlunch.com
who saves me everyday from the wasteland that is Midtown’s food scene and to my co-worker Jeff who nominated me to be profiled for Zach’s Tuesday “Midtown Lunch’er” feature. Putting together this post (http://midtownlunch.com/blog/2007/12/11/profile-midtown-luncher-grace-2/)
for Zach’s blog that one Tuesday gave me a rush that I’d like to feel more often.

I'm sure the structure of this blog will evolve over time, but for now, I will start modestly and simply aim to post the following at least once a week:

1. At least one review of something delicious I ate at a restaurant – In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this blog, I am a total glutton and would rather eat out than do just about anything else. I don’t even have cable because I see each cable bill as a lost meal. (And besides, I manage to get the Food Network from my building’s pre-installed system, so really don’t need too much else.)
2. At least one great recipe I tried – There is no greater sin in my book than a food lover, or worst yet a food critic, that can't cook. How can you judge and fully enjoy other people's food if you haven’t tried your own hand at it?
3. What I agree/disagree with in the Times Wednesday Dining Section - This will likely evolve into other tidbits culled from sources on food & dining information. My philosophy? Research, especially in a city like New York, is essential to an excellent dining experience since it allows for informed gluttony. The way I see it, a person only gets a limited number of meals in a lifetime, so should choose them wisely.

Additionally, at least once a month, I plan to post a review of a great food-focused book since the next best thing to eating food and cooking food (just a means to eating) is reading about food (mental eating).

Here goes. Wish me luck!