Yesterday, I made a plum pudding.

There I said it.  Of course now I’ll never hear the end of it.  Some friends were picking on me recently because I drank a Pumpkin Spice Latte.  And then, serendipitously, one of the keynote speakers at a conference we were all attending suggested that everyone drink coffee instead of Pumpkin Spice Lattes as a way of saving more money so that we can give more to the needy.  You can imagine the hilarity that ensued.  I guess if you’re a man who lives in Houston and has a family, you have to assert your masculinity by staying out of the kitchen and drinking Cigarette Butt Beer or some other form of Not-Pumpkin Spice Latte.  But oh well.

Still, I really did make a plum pudding.  I’ve wanted to make one for years, and finally got around to it.  I’ve always enjoyed well-made fruitcakes, and mincemeat, and plum pudding comes across as a combination of the two.  I’m also intrigued by foods that have to age for a while and take time to mature – cheese, prosciutto, kimchee, cured salmon, sourdough bread starters.  This plum pudding needs to be aged for a month or two, and so by Christmas, it’ll be ready.

For the uninitiated, plum pudding 1) usually doesn’t have any plums in it, and 2) isn’t a pudding in the American sense.  It’s more like a very dense, very moist cake, full of dried fruits, booze (brandy and sherry), sugar, spices, eggs, butter, and just enough bread crumbs and flour to hold it all together.  Everything is mixed together, poured into a seriously greased bowl, covered with a tight fitting lid or a couple of layers of foil, the whole assembly lowered into a giant stock pot half filled with boiling water, and steamed for several hours.  It is aged for a while, and when it’s time to serve it, you steam it again for a few hours, flambe it by pouring flaming brandy over it, slice it into wedges, and serve it with a hard sauce – in this case an orange-mace hard sauce containing lots of butter, orange zest, sugar, brandy and mace.

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It's not much to look at yet.

I’ll post a follow up after we’ve had it for our Christmas dinner, where the main course will be raw bear muscle, which I will have butchered myself, using my teeth, from a bear that died because I told it to.

P.S.  After my wife read this post, she expressed concern that my remarks about the remarks of the speaker at the conference could be taken as a flippant attitude toward the needy, so rather than accidentally encourage an uncaring attitude toward the poor, I want to take the time here, on a blog that celebrates food, to point out that it’s a blessing for us to be in a position to be able to choose not just when and how often we will eat, but what we will eat and how it will be prepared.  Most of the people on this planet don’t get to do that.  The conference I attended partners with two organizations which I encourage you to check out:  World Vision, and Compassion International.  Also, in light of this being a Christmas dessert, I would like to point you to two websites which have encouraged me and my family to change how we celebrate Christmas.

Advent Conspiracy

Buy Nothing Christmas.org

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This is one of few posts which will feature recipes that are not my own.  Recipe sources will be given in context below.

Autumn won’t officially arrive until the 22nd, but as I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak in me, and since my mind is already turning to Autumnal things in early September, and since I and my daughter both have the day off (and my wife being a stay at home mom), today seemed a good day to say farewell to summer and welcome the fall season.  As usual, the weather is stubbornly refusing to participate in our festival – the heat index today is forecast to be 102 – and it will continue to do so until sometime in October, when things will begin to cool off in earnest.  We certainly do not have fall color around here, and so in our house, the onset of Autumn is marked by the arrival of seasonal decorations, music, scents, and foods.

Breakfast

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We started the day off with the best cinnamon rolls that have ever been made in this house, a recipe that we discovered last week on Cook’s Country TV.  From start to finish, these rolls will require 4 hours of your time, but they are well worth every minute.  The dough is soft and melting, the cinnamon filling cooking to a slightly chewy crispiness on the bottom, all accented by the slight tang of cream cheese frosting.

The recipe gives instructions for making the rolls ahead of time, and they will be better if they spend a night in the fridge before you bake them, giving the yeast more time to flavor the dough.  I did, however, find that one hour, the time suggested in the recipe, wasn’t nearly enough time for them to rise sufficiently after taking them out of the fridge.  They had barely come to room temperature after one hour and were only showing the first signs of rising.  I put them in the oven on its proofing setting, and that sped things up considerably.

Lunch:  Goodbye Summer

DSC_0026Absolutely the only thing I like about summer in Houston, with the exception of the 4th of July, is the food, and if there’s a cooking method that belongs to summer, it’s grilling.  Today’s lunch was to be the last truly summery meal of the year, and few things say “summer” more than the mahogany, smoky, toffee exterior of barbecued chicken.

DSC_0016This was yet another recipe from Cook’s Country, one which we watched them prepare last Saturday on PBS, and it’s more a technique than a recipe.  Bullseye original is the recommended sauce for this preparation, and while the recipe gives instructions for doctoring it up to give it more of a homemade flair, being short on time and molasses, I opted to use it as is.  The results were great, and I found myself thinking that perhaps we could make this a couple more times this year.  Today we had it with baked beans, but a tangy, cold, crunchy cole slaw would have accompanied it better.

Appetizers

DSC_0030To tide us over between lunch and dinner, I broke out some olives, a loaf of bread, a bourguignon cheese, some green peppercorns, and some walnuts.  With it, we had a Torrontes Riserva from Finca El Origen.

Dinner: Hello Autumn

DSC_0052Autumn is a time to slow down and take your time, to relax and rest, and many of the foods we begin to eat now and through the winter reflect this.  Tonight we had smothered pork chops, a recipe that has become an Autumn staple at our house.  This is a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, one in which thin pork chops spend the better part of an hour braising in a deep, rich, onion gravy, thickened and flavored by a dark, toasty roux, until they have gone fork tender.  After eating it, you want to do nothing more than relax on the couch with a glass of dry red wine, if not just go straight to bed.

DSC_0048To contrast the rich savory flavors of the chops with their gravy, we had Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Maple, another Cook’s Illustrated recipe.  We needed something to drink with this that would stand up to the dark flavors of long cooked, silky meat, and so we had Finca El Origen’s Malbec.  An inexpensive bottle of wine, but up to the task, if you’re not feeling too particular.

Dessert

By now, we didn’t have much room left, but since today is a day to feast and enjoy, and tomorrow will be back to the normal routine, why not also have dessert?  A rustic apple tart, from Nigel Slater’s Appetite, my favorite cookbook ever.  The point of this dessert isn’t to look pretty.  The point is warm, melting, sweet-tart apples, their sugars gone to a sticky caramel, and tender, buttery crust.

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I played George Winston’s Autumn as we ate, and soaked in the flavors and sounds that I haven’t experienced since last year.  We relaxed, we slowed down, and felt Autumn falling down around us.  Now I’m ready for bed.

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This is an interesting salad dressing, in that if you use enough tomato, you don’t need any oil, because the addition of avocado gives it a velvety texture without the need of oil as an emulsifier.   Grilling the tomato adds some great dark undertones to balance the bright acidity of the tomato juice.

INGREDIENTS

A couple of handfuls of grape or cherry tomatoes or one medium large tomato

Half of an avocado, cut into small chunks

The juice of one lemon

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

DSC_0065Grill the tomatoes over high heat, turning occasionally, until you’ve got some nice charred splotches and the tomatoes are softening.  The advantage of using small tomatoes is that you have more surface area next to the grill, and therefore more of that grilled flavor in the dressing.

Once the tomatoes are done, throw them into the blender, along with the lemon juice, garlic, and avocado.  Add a liberal amount of salt and freshly ground pepper, close the lid, and hit puree.  If the tomatoes have provided enough juice, the consistency should be similar to ranch dressing.  If there’s not enough liquid, add some olive oil, a little at a time, until you’ve got the right consistency.  DSC_0067

The last time I made this, we had some roasted Hatch chilis from the grocery store, since they are currently in season, so I threw one in, and it provided more toasty overtones along with a deep, green heat.  I also had cilantro on hand, and that went into the mix.  This time, I found that I needed some more liquid, and so I added some of the pickling juice from a bottle of green peppercorns, and its briny, peppery flavor went well with the grilled smokiness of the tomatoes.

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This particular way of seasoning pork chops has become a staple around here this summer, because it’s easy and tasty.  It smells like a sunny hillside overlooking the Mediterranean sea….

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It’s very simple:  Get some pork chops out and sprinkle them liberally with ground coriander, freshly ground black pepper, some chopped fresh thyme, and some garlic salt (this is one of the few times that I’ll actually use this ingredient).  If you’re feeling not-so-lazy, then crush some garlic cloves instead, and rub them with the fresh garlic, and season with salt.  Last, rub them with some good, fruity olive oil.

If you have the time, let them sit in the fridge for a couple of hours, but they’re great even if you don’t.

While the chops are resting, chop up some fresh, ripe tomatoes, (you want about a cup and a half total) and then a big handful of fresh basil. Mix these two together with salt and pepper to taste, a good slosh of olive oil, and a dash of either lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.  Taste it to see if you like it, and add more of anything you think it needs more of.  I didn’t have capers on hand when I made this, but if I did, I would have added a  handful.

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Slap the chops and a bundle of asparagus on the grill over some intense heat, just until you’ve got good grill marks on them and the meat near the bone of the chops is cooked through.  Transfer the asparagus to a plate and spoon the tomato relish over it while it’s still hot.  Try squeezing some fresh lemon juice over the chops as well.

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Wow.  It’s been a while since I posted anything, so for anyone who’s been checking here, I apologize for the lapse.  Things got busy for me around Easter, and now that summer is here, they’re settling down some.

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Here’s something I made back in the spring, when asparagus was good, and it was cheap.  It was a cool day, and I was going for something warming and yet spring-ish.  In addition to having some asparagus that needed to be used, we had some leftover sausage, and a small amount of heavy cream, and as I looked at it all, it came together in my head to form a pasta dish with a nice, smokey cream sauce.

You’ll need (per person):

  • a small handful of asparagus
  • a link of smoked sausage
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • a couple of handfuls of pasta
  • about 1/3 cup of heavy cream

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Put a big pot of salted water on the stove and set the heat to high.  While you’re waiting for the water to boil, break off the woody ends of the asparagus, and then cut them into 2 inch lengths.  Slice the tomatoes in half, and slice the sausages.

Put a big pan over medium high heat and pour in a slosh of oil.  Throw the sausage in and keep stirring it once in a while, so that it starts to brown nicely.  As the sausage is starting to brown, add the tomatoes.  You don’t want to stir constantly – you want the tomatoes and sausages to sit and caramelize a bit.  After the tomatoes have been in for a few minutes, add the asparagus.

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At some point, your water will have started boiling.  Add the pasta and cook it according to the directions on the package.

A couple of minutes before you expect the pasta to be done, pour the cream into the pan with the sausage, tomatoes, and pasta, and use a wooden spoon to scrape at any of the caramelized juices on the bottom of the pan.  Let the sauce boil just a little, until it begins to thicken.  Taste it and see if you need any salt.  The sausage should add a warm, smokey flavor to the cream.  You’ll almost definitely need to grind in some pepper, and if you want to brighten up the sauce just a bit, squeeze in a little lemon juice. Now you can remove this pan from the heat.

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Set aside a cup or so of the pasta boiling water, and then drain the pasta.  Add it to the pan with the sausage and asparagus, and if the sauce seems just a little too thick, pour in some of the pasta boiling water and stir.  If you want, top each dish with some thinly sliced fresh basil.

dsc_0050It’s a cold and rainy spring day today, and my wife and daughter are both a little under the weather, so I wanted something that would be both comforting and spring-ish.  Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables, and I try to take advantage of spring, when asparagus is in season, and therefore inexpensive.  We already had some in the fridge, so it was just a matter of finding something warm and soothing to go with it, and this is what I came up with.

I was already hungry, so while I was at the grocery store, I picked up something for us to eat while I made lunch.  Over in the cheese section, a lady behind the counter told me that they had something different in at the moment: Caciotta al Tartufo. I picked some up, along with some peppered water crackers.  It’s a mild, slightly briny medium-soft cheese with a little bit of black truffle, and it did a great job of satiating our appetite until lunch was ready.

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To make the chicken and asparagus, you’ll need:

  • Chicken pieces (I used legs, since they are inexpensive and my daughter loves them.  Whatever you go with, I suggest you use bone-in, which will be less apt to dry out, and will be slightly more flavorful)
  • Garlic cloves – 3 or 4 per person, peeled and slightly smashed
  • Asparagus
  • Dry white wine
  • Butter (preferably the real stuff)
  • Olive Oil
  • Good bread (for mopping up the sauce)

dsc_0042Get out a thick frying pan – nonstick would be best – with a lid, big enough to hold all of your chicken pieces, and put it over medium heat.  When it’s good and hot, pour in a good amount of olive oil and then add the chicken.  Salt and pepper it well, and wait for it to brown nicely on the bottom.  Once that’s happened, turn it over, add more salt and pepper, and the garlic.

My sous chef.

My sous chef.

Wait until it’s browned on the other side, then pour in some white wine.  This isn’t precision work here, but I used about 3/4ths of a cup for five pieces of chicken, maybe slightly more.  Put the lid on, and lower the heat to medium low.

Oh and by the way, if your daughter wants to help, let her.

Get the asparagus out, snap off the woody ends, and cut it into 2 or 3 inch lengths.

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Heat a pan over medium high heat and add some olive oil.  When the pan is hot, but before the oil starts smoking, throw the asparagus in, and sprinkle over some salt and pepper.  Let the asparagus cook for a few minutes, stirring it frequently.  You’re looking for bright green, not army green.  Slightly crunchy, not soft or mushy.

Here’s where the timing counts:  The amount of time that the chicken needs depends on what size pieces you use.  Thick chicken breasts will need more than thighs and legs.  Legs will take the least amount of time.  I cooked five, and they needed about 15 minutes from the time that I added the wine.  If you don’t trust your instincts, cut into a piece and make sure it’s done.  If the asparagus is ready, but the chicken isn’t, take the asparagus off of the heat while the chicken is finishing.

When the chicken is cooked, you should still have a decent amount of liquid left.  If it’s not a little bit thick, crank up the heat and boil it until it thickens some.  Put the asparagus back over medium heat, spoon in some of the sauce from the chicken, and add a few pats of butter.  Stir everything so that the butter mixes with the sauce and everything coats the asparagus.  The sauce is one of the great things about this recipe, so don’t skimp on the servings, and break out some good bread to go with it.

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This is one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth, and is one of my top three favorite sandwiches – the other two are fried oyster po-boys, and a good (not fast-food) burger.  It’s a Veitnamese sandwich called Banh Mi, and I was woefully ignorant of the existence of Banh Mi until about 6 or 7 years ago, when a Chinese friend of mine introduced me to them by saying “let’s go to the Vietnamese deli,” which was a phrase that, to me, was only slightly less strange than someone saying “let’s go the Southern Baptist brewery.”  My friend had never led me astray in culinary matters, and so, my curiousity piqued, I took him up on his offer.

We wound up at a place called Ba Le Vietnamese Bakery and Deli, a hole in the wall bearing a logo depicting the Eiffel Tower surrounded by Vietnamese writing.  We walked in, and my friend placed the order for two pork sandwiches.  After a few minutes, we were presented with two warm, paper-wrapped packages.  As I tucked in to my sandwich, it seemed to get better with every bite, and I knew I had found a new addiction.

Looking up banh mi on the web turns up several variations, but for my money, the best banh mi has to be one with cool, crunchy cucumber, shreds of slightly sweet and sour pickled carrot, bright tasting cilantro, firey fresh jalapeno slices, savory-sweet asian style barbeque pork, a good dose of sriracha and garlicky mayonnaise, all inside a warm, crusty loaf.  I could eat one every day and not get tired of it.

After moving to Houston, I was pleased to learn that there’s a restaurant very close to our new home (Mekong Sandwich – a much more sensible name) that makes banh mi that are just as good, and just as cheap, as those we had in Austin.  Mekong is also a hole in the wall, and the one banh mi that I ate at a slightly more posh restaurant was not nearly as good.  So, if you’ve never had banh mi, and you like asian food, you are morally obliged to seek out a place that makes them.  You won’t be sorry.