April 09, 2011

Mushroom, Irish Cheddar and Asiago Risotto with Pancetta

I don't know about you, but bacon makes everything taste better to me. Bacon in the form of pancetta makes life worth living after a rough week, and mixing it into mushroom and cheese risotto makes all your worries lose their point. Here is a risotto recipe I originally made religiously with Gouda (and without the pancetta) but have adapted to what I happened to have on hand. I hope the drool runs down your chin as faithfully as mine did when I smelled the aroma of crispy pork belly mixed with mushrooms and cheese. You can substitute any kind of mushroom available, as long as you have 16 oz. (less if you don't love fungi as much as I - I pity the fool!), and bacon would be an acceptable substitute for the pancetta.


Mushroom, Irish Cheddar and Asiago Risotto with Pancetta

3 Tbsp. olive oil
16 oz. mixed mushrooms (crimini, button, wild, etc.), thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, diced (roasted garlic is even better!)
2 shallots, diced
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup vermouth or other white cooking wine
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup half and half
1 tsp. sage
4 tablespoons butter
6 slices pancetta or bacon
1/2 cup grated Irish cheddar (or other aged white cheddar)
1/2 cup grated Asiago
sea salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Transfer skillet contents to a bowl and set aside.

Add pancetta to skillet and cook on medium heat, turning over every 5 minutes until crisp. Drain, crumble and set aside.

Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil, garlic and shallots to skillet. Cook 1 minute, until shallots are translucent. Add Arborio rice, stirring to coat. When rice turns golden (about 2 minutes), add vermouth, stirring constantly until fully absorbed. Add broth to rice, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is al dente, about 20 minutes. Slowly stir in half and half until incorporated.

Remove from heat, stir in mushrooms (and their juice), sage, butter, crumbled pancetta and cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste, then serve.

March 09, 2011

Homemade Vegetable Broth

For those of you who throw away the onion and garlic skins, broccoli and cauliflower stems and only keep the mushroom caps for cooking, shame on you! All you need is a one-gallon freezer bag to enjoy something some people pay $2 a quart for in the grocery store.

When you peel a carrot or potato, set the peels aside, along with mushroom stems; broccoli and cauliflower stems; onion, shallot and garlic peels; celery hearts; corn cobs; and any other parts of your vegetables that you would normally discard. Make sure you rinse so no dirt gets into the mix, then allow your remnants to dry on a paper towel. Toss them into your gallon freezer bag, stick it in the freezer, and when the bag is full... make delicious and nutritious vegetable broth!

You can use the broth as the base for soups and stews, steam your rice in it, and if it has enough flavor, just sip it when you're in the mood for something warm and delicious.

When you're ready to begin, make sure you have an extra fresh carrot or two, a few ribs of fresh celery, some cubed potato, and if you want to use the broth for something like French Onion Soup or want it to be dark and flavorful, toss in some fresh mushrooms.

In a large stock pot, dump the contents of your freezer bag into the bottom, then add any fresh ingredients. Add water to cover everything, then get the mixture bubbling. Just before it reaches a boil, reduce the heat to allow it to simmer - never boil a sauce or a soup!

Toss in some fresh peppercorns, sea salt crystals, mustard seed, coriander seed, hot pepper flakes, and whatever other herbs and spices you like. I grow fresh rosemary year-round, so I like to toss several sprigs (rinsed first!) into the pot.

If you happen to roast your own garlic, be sure to toss in some of that, along with the leftover skins.

Simmer your broth for 1-2 hours, until everything is soft. Use cheesecloth to strain everything, then squeeze the vegetables to get the rest of the liquid out of them. Discard or compost the solid stuff, then use your broth for whatever you like - just be sure to use or freeze it within 3 days.


February 20, 2011

I'm baaaaack!

After a short hiatus, I'm back.

You may be wondering where I went for so long. The short answer is: nowhere.

The long answer is: I went to a specialist to see if he could help me figure out why I had 4 sinus infections in a row between October and January. After a sinus CT scan and an allergy test (I am allergic to glycerin and didn't know it, so I got all false positives on the poke test, so they took a blood test),  I've discovered that I have a deviated septum with a spur, preventing almost all air flow on the right side of my head (hence the ear infections and my ability to always know when a sinus infection is about to start because the right side of my nose becomes an impenetrable fortress), and I'm allergic to several seasonal allergens plus milk and wheat.


I hate my life.

A few years ago, after several ER visits, specialist visits, vomit sessions, etc., I learned I was allergic to wheat, so I removed it from my diet for a while. Then I started adding it back in, one whole wheat grain at a time, until I didn't feel any symptoms. Back then, the only gluten-free options were mediocre, and my best bet was total avoidance.

Things have come a long way. I found gluten-free rice flour pasta (on sale for 99 cents a box!!!) at Harris Teeter, and Annie's has been making a rice flour mac n' cheese for a few years, but I'm allergic to the milk/processed powdered cheese, so I can't have it any more. Before I knew I was allergic to the milk, it was my go-to for that childhood favorite. Rice flour pasta is a big step up from whole-wheat pasta, mainly because of the texture. Whole-wheat pasta can get pretty grainy and unappetizing, but rice flour pasta tastes virtually the same.

Blue Diamond almond milk is my savior. Coming from a family of "milk addicts" (minus my sister), it was a little depressing to learn I couldn't have cow's milk. Blue Diamond Original almond milk is delicious and smooth. I have only tried it for drinking (I can't bring myself to cook anything with milk as an ingredient because I'm scared of what the results might be with dairy-free substitutes...). I tried Silk brand almond milk, but it was too grainy and had a little more residue than I'm comfortable with.

I have a new project I'm working on as a side job, and it happens to be coming up with 20 gluten-free recipes from freezer to table, so I'm glad that I will benefit from this project.

I apologize for my absence and promise I won't go so long between posts.



November 22, 2010

She-Crab Surprise!

We're having a dinner party in a few weeks, and John challenged me to make She-Crab Soup, which I have never made before, as an appetizer for the party. I have never de-crabbed a crab before either, so I figured I'd go all out and make the soup from scratch.

Whole, frozen blue crabs were on sale for $1.99 a pound, so I bought 12. These little ladies were saran-wrapped into meat trays in the freezer section, packed the same day I bought them, so I just took them home, wrapped them in several layers of plastic bags to keep the seafood smell and stabby spikes contained, and stuck them in the meat drawer to prepare the next day.

The next day, I got home from work after stopping at the store to pick up some fresh fennel for the stock, and I put the wrapped-up crabs in the sink. While I was unloading my groceries, I started hearing faint popping and snapping noises, so I decided to investigate.

The noises were coming from the sink.

I was home alone and had never dealt with whole crustacea larger than gulf shrimp before, so I was getting a little freaked out but decided to open up the crab package and see what was making the noise. I figured it was just air or water escaping from the crabs' shells, since I had jostled them a little. I unwrapped the packages and stared at the unmoving crabs for a few seconds. As I turned away, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a leg move.

The crabs were coming back to life! I thought being frozen would have done them in, but apparently, it just stunned them. So I had some half-thawed crabs in my sink and I was nowhere near ready to start cooking them. I decided to get all the ice out of the freezer, fill the sink up with ice water and salt, and hope that the crabs would re-freeze so I could put them in the boiling water without them ever realizing they were getting cooked. That didn't work too well and only made them come back to life faster.

After cooking and de-crabbing the crabs, I had a nice stockpot full of crab shells, onion, garlic, fennel, ginger root, herbs and seasonings, a ramekin full of crab roe, and about a pound of crab meat for the soup.

Since it took four hours to do all this, I ended up making the soup the next night. It was a big success with John and is his new favorite soup (something finally beat out loaded baked potato soup!), but we both agreed I should just buy the crab meat for the party. It was worth the experience, but I definitely won't do it again!

October 27, 2010

Zink replaces M5 at Southpark

One of the first restaurants I fell in love with in Charlotte was Zink. I loved the silent black & white films projected onto the red velvety curtains, the giant mirrors that made the place feel bigger yet somehow more intimate, the sweeping staircase in dark mahogany, and the 50s-era tiled floor of the bar. I loved the chef's Valentine's Day menu, featuring flavors from around the world adapted into comfort food, and I loved that we could have a 3-course dinner for two and a bottle of wine for under $100.

I also loved the recently replaced M5. Harper's Restaurant Group has added some talent to Charlotte's restaurant scene, and I really hope M5 will make a comeback as soon as the economy straightens out. Since I hope a lot of things make a comeback along with the economy and I've been hoping for a while, I don't imagine we'll be fortunate enough to get the duck and shallot flatbread, the PEI mussels in chorizo and garlic sauce, or the blue cheese croquettes that inspired these little bits of heaven any time soon.

Zink's new Southpark location has brought quite a few changes to their dining experience, and the atmosphere and decor has become unfortunately IKEA-esque, but the service is still good and the concept is strong. I do plan to give Zink's reincarnation a second chance, though, since they took my comment card seriously enough to send me a gift card in the mail with some menu suggestions.

I strongly recommend their fish entrees, cheese platters with local honey, and anything featured as a special, since they tend to give specials their undivided attention. Give them a try and see what you think.

October 10, 2010

My potted garden

Herbs are ridiculously easy to grow, and I've had great luck with rosemary and basil for the past 3 years. This year, my basil started showing signs of decline earlier than previous years, but I still had several good harvests for pesto, spaghetti sauce, pico de gallo and other miscellaneous recipes. Rosemary makes the porch smell so wonderful I bought two more recently and they're thriving. Once it gets too cold for all these beauties, I'm not too sure where their winter home will be, but I've got a sunny window in the office in mind...

Basil up top. Clockwise from bottom left: mixed lettuce, rosemary 1, rosemary 2, avocado tree, elephant ear, ponytail palm.

From left: kalanchoe, spearmint, Greek oregano, rosemary 3, hyacinth, mixed lettuce.

October 08, 2010

Mushroom and Gouda Risotto

The ultimate fall side dish. Enjoy!


6 cups chicken broth
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 pound Portobello mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 pound white button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 pound mixed wild mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, diced
2 shallots, diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup vermouth
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup grated Gouda


- On med-high, heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in large saucepan. Add mushrooms and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Scrape contents of pan into bowl and set aside.
-  Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil, garlic and shallots to saucepan. Cook 1 minute. Add rice, stirring to coat with oil, about 2 minutes. When rice turns golden in color, add vermouth, stirring constantly until fully absorbed. Add broth to rice, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring each time until absorbed. Add broth until rice is al dente, 15-20 minutes.
- Remove from heat, stir in mushrooms and their juice, butter and Gouda. Add salt and pepper to taste.