Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cinnamon Pull-Apart Loaf: Little slices of sweet, sweet heaven

I've been doing a lot of waiting lately. Waiting for a Court of Appeals decision that will lift the stays in all of my cases. Waiting for the espresso machine to heat up so I can get my little cuppa joe. Waiting for the BabeMobile to arrive at the dealership so we can install the car seat. Waiting for paint to dry so I can put on another coat. Waiting for the fourth hen to mature and start laying eggs. Patience has never been one of my virtues, which is why I think I tend to get a lot done -- while waiting for one thing to happen, I work on something else.

Today, I waited for dough to rise, twice, so I could get some cinnamon pull-apart loaf in my belly. It was not a tidy project, probably because I haven't done a lot of cooking or baking lately and my tidy work habits seem to have slipped. That, and the fact that I'm less than a month away from my due date makes me slower and less maneuverable around the kitchen (did I mention that there's still a bun in my oven?). So I did a lot of cleaning and tidying while waiting, which helped me kill some time.

Even without having activities to stay busy while waiting, this loaf is well worth the wait. What's not to love? The scent of cinnamon and sugar is tantalizing and you get to savor it as soon as you start building the loaf, not just when it's in the oven. You can pull apart as much or as little as you want. If you're watching your weight, one little sliver comes apart as neatly as a stack of four (in my case, I'm watching my weight go up, so a stack of four was totally appropriate). As Mr. Rose pointed out, it's like a planar cinnamon bun, and who doesn't love a good cinnamon bun? This is just like a cinnamon bun, but the ratio of cinnamon to bun is higher and, in my opinion, better.

Here are your instructions to your own little slices of heaven. Enjoy!

Cinnamon Pull-Apart Cinnamon Loaf
(adapted from Better Homes & Gardens, April 2012)

3/4 c + 2 tbsp milk
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 c butter, melted
1/2 c + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp granulated salt
3 c unbleached flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 c powdered sugar
Orange zest or chopped nuts (optional)

Heat 3/4 c milk until just warm, but not hot to touch. Pour into a large mixing bowl and add yeast. Stir till yeast is dissolved and let sit for 5-10 minus. With a mixer, beat 1/4 c melted butter, 2 tbsp sugar, egg, and salt into the milk and yeast mixture until combined. Add half of the flour, then beat on medium speed to incorporate flour, scraping sides as needed, for 3 minutes. Stir in remaining flour. The dough will not be smooth, but shape it into a ball and transfer to a medium oiled bowl. Cover and set aside in a warm spot to rise and double, about 45-60 minutes.

Butter a 9"x5"x3" loaf pan; set aside. Mix 1/2 c granulated sugar with 2 tsp cinnamon; set aside. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 20"x12" rectangle. It will be much easier to cut into pieces if the dough is more rectangular in shape, so trim two edges so they are squared off and reincorporate the trimmed dough into the other two edges with a bit of water if necessary. Brush the dough with remaining 1/4 c melted butter and sprinkle surface with sugar and cinnamon mixture. Cut the dough into five (5) 4"strips (12" long). Stack the strips, then cut them into six (6) 2"pieces (4") long. Starting from one end of the loaf pan, loosely stack the 4" strips in the prepped pan, with cut edges up. Stagger them so that every other strip abuts opposite sides of the pan. You will have just enough strips to fill the pan. Let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes.

Make the glaze while you wait. In a small bowl, stir together powdered sugar, vanilla, and remaining 2 tbsp milk to achieve drizzling consistency. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake loaf till golden brown, about 30 minutes. Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Then remove loaf from pan and transfer to serving plate. Drizzle with glaze. Top with orange zest or chopped nuts if you had the time or patience to prep them. Let cool for a few minutes more, then have at it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The New Menu at Rio Grande, Denver

I got together last week with a bunch of fellow bloggers in the Front Range to taste test the new menu at the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant in Denver.

I know what you're thinking: The Rio? The place with the giant neon sign that says "Limit 3" margaritas? They serve food there? The answer is a resounding YES.

In classic Speakeasy Kitchen, I got through eating half of it before I even thought to look for my camera. And then when I did, I realized I didn't have it with me -- purse re-organization took place just two days before and the camera never made it back into place. But I did manage to snap a few pics with my trusty iPhone.

The Rio has been making margs and food for 26 years -- a long time in a business where longevity doesn't usually come with the territory. The owners attribute it to their lifelong friendships, their enthusiastic staff, and the healthfulness and simplicity of the food. Their menu is inspired by their Latin American travels and they carefully source their ingredients, taking pains to get even simple things right. Everything from their black bean recipe from Yucatan to the queso verduras from Belize to the fresh salads was served with pride!

Take, for instance, their shrimp diabla. It was one of my favorite things on the menu. They get shrimp from Mazatlan and the flour tortillas are handmade in-house. The perfectly-cooked shrimp had a brilliant texture and the chili arbol set my mouth en fuego!

Pat and the gang pulled out all stops for us and in addition to having a great meal with great company, we also had a few tasty beverages. While Rio still makes their famous, rock solid margaritas, I was also delighted to learn that they also make a delicious virgin mango margarita for minors, pregnant women, and teetotalers alike.

The Rio Grande... it's not just for the mind-erasing margaritas anymore!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Butternut Squash Lasagna: A Speakeasy Kitchen Original?

I suppose if you googled "butternut squash lasagna," you might come up with a couple hundred recipes for something like this. But I wouldn't know -- I didn't do any research to come up with this one. Nor have I ever eaten butternut squash lasagna nor seen it on any menu or blog I've ever read. It just showed up over the course of the day, as I puttered around from one activity to another.

A few do's and don'ts before I share the recipe:

1. DO roast the squash in advance. Roasting squash doesn't take a lot of time, but when you're going to make something like a lasagna, where there's also a sauce to compose, pasta to roll, and a giant pan of lasagna to bake, it helps to have a few steps, like roasting squash, squared away a day or two in advance.

2. DO use no-bake pasta from a box if that's what you're comfortable with. I'm no Sandra Lee so I'm not going to tell you to slop a can of squash on top of a box of pasta. But let's face it. Most of us grew up eating lasagna made from no-bake pasta from a box if we were lucky enough to have moms that made lasagna. And it didn't give us less appreciation for lasagna made from fresh pasta. So I say if you don't have the wherewithall to roll out fresh dough, then just go with what you know.

3. DO make sure you have more than enough ingredients before you start. The task of layering of a lasagna is such that you want to make sure there's as much of the good stuff for the top layers at the end as there was for the bottom layers in the beginning.

4. DO NOT substitute string cheese for mozzarella in the event that you didn't follow tip #3 and you ran out of mozzarella. They are not the same thing. Now that I've made the mistake, and knowing what I know about mozzarella because I make it from scratch at home, I can explain how they're different. Mozzarella, once the curds are separated from the whey, is stretched out a bit, but not too much so that it remains tender. String cheese is really dried out mozzarella and has been processed more, to pull out the proteins till it is no longer tender. They won't react the same way when cooked, string cheese being significantly drier and tougher to begin with. And when you put it on top of the lasagna, it will brown before it melts so it looks like this:

The flavor on this bad boy wasn't bad, but the texture of that "mozzarella" on top could hardly be described as creamy... it was more crispy and chewy than anything else.

That's about all the wisdom I have to impart on this experiment. Without further ado, the recipe:

Butternut Squash Lasagna
2 large butternut squash
2 tsp unsalted butter
4 tsp sugar
1 lb ground pork sausage, preferably sweet italian
1/2 large vidalia onion, diced
1/2 lb sliced button mushrooms
1/3 c minced fresh sage
2 c fresh ricotta
2-3 c fresh shredded mozzarella
enough sheets of lasagna pasta to lay down three layers in a 9"x13" pan (freshly rolled and boiled, or boxed no-bake)
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Split squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Set squash cut side up on a baking sheet. Cut butter up into small pieces and distribute evenly across the four halves. Sprinkle 1 tsp sugar over each squash half. Salt and pepper lightly to taste. Roast squash in oven for about 20-30 minutes, till lightly browned and flesh easily pulls apart with a fork. Remove from oven and let sit until squash is cool enough to handle. With a fork, loosen squash flesh from skin/rind, shred flesh with fork (or mash with potato masher) and set flesh aside in a bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat oil in large heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Saute onions till tender. Add mushrooms and saute till lightly browned. Add pork sausage, stirring occasionally to break up pieces of sausage, but not so much as to not let the sausage brown lightly, about 10-15 minutes. Add sage, stir, and let simmer for 2-3 minutes. Stir in squash flesh. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread about 1 c of the squash and pork mixture into the bottom of a 9" x 13" pan. Layer noodles. Spread another cup of the squash and pork mixture over the noodles. Spread about 1/2 - 2/3 c of ricotta over the squash and pork mixture. Sprinkle 1/2 - 2/3 c of mozzarella over that. Layer noodles, repeat, ending with mozzarella (but not string cheese!). Pop in the oven and bake till the top cheese layer becomes golden and gooey (which won't happen if you use string cheese!), about 30 minutes.

Remove from oven, let set for at least 15 minutes, then serve and enjoy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pan-roasted pork chops with balsamic fig sauce and garlic chopped kale with a kick

On a Sunday evening, after running errands, tending to the chickens, tending to what's left of the garden, and chopping up the half of the 30+yr maple that fell in the wet snowstorm we had earlier this week, I thought Mr. Rose deserved a nice home cooked meal. The only problem was that I was along side him doing everything but the heavy lifting, and I was pretty drained too. So the nice home cooked meal had to be quick and simple. It was. From start to finish, I had the table set and was ringing the dinner bell in 30 minutes.

The trick to making a quick dinner quickly is knowing when you have a few minutes between cooking one thing to work on another thing. For this simple dinner, I prepped the kale while the pork was roasting and cooked it while the balsamic fig sauce was roasting.

Reducing sauce
Stir-frying kale

Now that you know this, take a look at the recipes below and let me know whether these logistics work as well for you.

Pan-roasted pork chops with balsamic fig sauce (serves 4)
4 x 6 oz. center cut boneless pork chops, cut about 1 inch thick
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 c chicken stock (or turkey stock, which is what I had after Canadian Thanksgiving)
1 tsp minced thyme
4 tbsp fig spread (the kind you might find in the cheese section at the store)
coarse salt and ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Pat the pork chops dry and generously sprinkle both sides with the salt and pepper. Preheat a cast iron skillet (or other heavy-bottomed skillet that can go in the oven) over medium-high heat. You want the pan so hot that a drop of water will sizzle and evaporate quickly, but not so that it skitters across the pan before it disappears -- if it does that, the pan is too hot.

Add oil and tilt skillet to coat. Throw the pork chops in with a bit of space between them. Let them sear for about 2 minutes so that they are well-browned and easily lift up off the skillet with tongs. Once browned on that side, flip the chops over and sear the other side for another minute. Then transfer to the oven and roast for 5-8 minutes, when the meat is just firm (or if you need scientific precision, till a meat thermometer registers 145 degrees F in the center of the chop). Set the skillet on the stove top, remove the chops to a plate and tent with foil to keep them warm. Heat the skillet on medium and deglaze the pan with the stock and balsamic vinegar. Reduce to 1/2 cup of liquid, about 5 minutes. Add thyme and fig spread, stirring slowly. Reduce again to 1/4 cup of liquid. Plate and serve with pork chops.

Garlic Chopped Kale with a Kick
16 stalks of kale
4 tbsp olive oil
6 anchovy fillets
2 large cloves of garlic
1/2 to 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c water
salt to taste

Wash kale and remove ribs. Chop coarsely. Mince garlic and anchovies. In a large saute pan (I used a wok), heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and anchovies, stirring constantly so nothing burns. Add the chopped kale and stir fry the mixture. Add salt to taste (I used just a pinch of kosher salt and that was right). As the kale starts to wilt, toss in the red pepper flakes. Add 1/4 cup of water and stop stirring for 30 seconds or so, until all of the water has steamed off. Stir again, then add another 1/4 cup of water and let sit again for 30 seconds. Stir, add more salt or red pepper flakes to taste. Plate next to your tasty pork chops and serve!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving for most Americans is more than a month away. People are just now starting to make arrangements to travel home. They're looking forward to the family gathering or dreading this year's family drama. They're making peace with the fact that they won't be eating their mom's special turkey stuffing because they're spending it with the in-laws this year.

For me, it's different. I celebrate Thanksgiving a month and a half early because it's when the Canadian do it. This year marks my 9th year of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in America.

My mom, though she dutifully hosted Thanksgiving for our family every year, must have hated the pressure to getting a giant bird and cooking a giant meal. I think it stressed her out to entertain a house full of people. The rest of us tip-toed around her, wondering whether her surly mood, which would magically disappear when guests arrived, would return once everyone left. One year, while I was in law school, my sisters used their college mid-term exams as an excuse not to go home for Thanksgiving. Inspired by their brilliant plan to avoid Mom's wrath, I followed suit and decided to stay in Washington, D.C. as well. Since Dad was out of town, Mom decided to ditch the rest of the relatives and come to D.C. And I decided to show her what it meant to throw a dinner party without becoming a basket case. That was the inaugural Canadian Thanksgiving Dinner at my house.

It was the first dinner party I'd had with more than 6 people in attendance. I'm not sure why I thought I could calmly host 21 for a seated dinner at my tiny 650 s.f. two-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment with my Tiger Mother breathing down my neck, but I was confident that I could. And I did.

I can't say I've never internally lost my cool while preparing for a big dinner party in the last 9 years. There have been a few disasters, one that irretrievably ruined my reputation (which included both an unfortunate slime of pureed onions and a hand spasm that caused an explosion of cinnamon to go flying into a curry just seconds before I served it to the features editor of the local rag at Speakeasy Kitchen). But I've never had a crisis that I couldn't work through and I've certainly never thought, "This isn't fun anymore." So what's my secret? No secret. I love feeding people. How could you ever not have fun doing what you love? But if you're not in love with feeding people like I am, I suppose there are still a few things you can do that will help you get through your next holiday dinner a little more stress-free.

Tip #1: Accept help.
If you're throwing a really big dinner party, go ahead and let people help out. People will always offer. You already know who's reliable and tidy, who's a good cook, who's the best pastry chef, who's a conscientious dish-washer, who brings the good wine, and who brings the crappy Yellow Tail. If you're hoping to throw the best possible dinner party, accept offers to help and maybe even enlist the competent help you know. If you're a perfectionist and trust no one to help out, you will suffer alone (or you'll make everyone around you suffer with you <ahem, Mom>).

Tip #2: Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.
This goes out to the perfectionist again. Hosting a big holiday meal is no small feat. Everyone knows that. No one is expecting perfection. And good is pretty damn good enough. So chill out a little bit, try to enjoy the warmth and lovely smells of the kitchen, and look forward to breaking bread with loved ones. Dinner is going to be just fine.

Tip #3: Self-medicate... moderately.
Hey, I get it. We can't all just chill out at the drop of a hat, especially when there's so much to get done in so little time. You know that wine you were going to deglaze that pan with? Take a sip. Take two. Just don't overdo it. There is, after all, a lot of work to be done in the kitchen. Tipple too much and you might not get it all done, much less competently. The turkey needs to be basted regularly and it won't get basted if you're wasted.

Tip #4: Deep-fry your turkey.
Since we're on the topic of basting, let's explore the issue a little bit. Seven of my last nine Thanksgivings were spent diligently basting the bird every fifteen minutes for several hours on Thanksgiving. It's a necessary evil if you want to roast an evenly browned bird that would be tender and moist. That, along with brining, injecting, salt-rubbing, flipping the bird halfway through the roasting, flipping the bird three times during the roasting, etc. I've tried every method under the sun and have never had a dry breast so long as I was diligent about basting. Yes, the bird is heavy. Yes, it barely fit in the oven when making turkey for 30. Yes, I burnt my hands, arms, and elbows on the roasting pan or the sides of the oven when reaching in to make sure every square inch of the bird got basted. But it must be done when roasting a bird. So I basted religiously. Until I discovered the deep-fried turkey. It's all the deliciousness (and then some) of the most perfectly basted bird without any of the hassle. All I use is an overnight dry rub under the turkey's skin consisting of freshly minced sage, orange zest, kosher salt, and ground pepper. Oh, and Mr. Rose's strong and steady arm to lower the bird into a vat of hot peanut oil. (See Tip #1). This is the recipe to the most delicious turkey you will ever eat.

Tip #5: Remember that this is supposed to be fun.
Turn on some good music. I don't mean that morbid emo shit. I'm talking fun, upbeat, makes-you-want-to-tap-your-toes-and-dance-with-the-dogs-music. If it's Don't Stop Believing by Journey because you're still not sick of that song, so be it. If it's some hippie bullshit like Grateful Dead and that stuff works for you, so be it. But make sure it's something that'll make you shake your booty. Dancing in the kitchen will lift your spirits and, if one were to believe what one saw in Like Water for Chocolate, your diners will taste your joy. For me this year, it was Don't Stop Believing (because I'm only a little bit sick of it) and the ensuing Genius mix, comprised inexplicably of Led Zepplin, The Beatles, Black Crowes, and Jimi Hendrix. The turkey this year will taste strongly of joy, with a little bit of cheese and a whole lot of rock and roll.

Tip #6: Give in to your inner voice.
Seriously, if you've gotten down to this tip and you're still skeptical that hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stress-free, entertaining is probably not your thing. If you're already signed up to host this year, consider ordering a ready-made turkey from Whole Paycheck or getting Chinese take-out. Hopefully no one will be terribly disappointed at the substitution of Peking duck for turkey. But you'll have done your duty for the year so you'll be off the hook for Christmas. And for goodness sake, don't volunteer to host Thanksgiving next year.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cooking my way to San Francisco: 30-minute budget-friendly meal

Foodbuzz is hosting a blogger festival in San Francisco (my happy place) and as much as I wanted to go, I just couldn't afford to take the trip. Times are tough! Luckily for me, Foodbuzz offered me a $250 stipend to offset the costs of the trip. I just have to do my part -- write a post about a budget-friendly meal that I whip up out of ingredients I have in my pantry or fridge.

This is the new pantry. Yep, it's as big as the fridge.
People often ask me whether I cook every night. Other than when we're eating out, the answer is yes. I mostly hate leftovers (lasagna and soup are a few other exceptions), so it's a rare meal that doesn't get cooked fresh each night. I'd rather put in an extra 30 minutes to make a quick and simple meal than re-heat a plate of <insert whatever I had last night>. In a 30 minute pinch, here's what happens Chez Rose. We have a gorgeous, wholesome soup.

The garden is key to eating fresh vegetables even on sad days when the refrigerator crisper drawer is empty. If there's anything in the garden, I start there with my soup. It's the beginning of fall, so there's stuff in there, including some kale and this weird looking carrot.

For your edification, the carrot's skin is red, but the flesh is yellow and orange. Funky!

In the fridge, I look for meats, a soup base, and other fresh veggies. There are almost always some mushrooms and some miso paste for soup. On this occasion, there was no meat but I did discover a couple of chicken backs in the freezer so I roasted them, then threw them in a soup pot with some carrots and celery to make a chicken stock. That was a fortuitous find, but in a 30 minute pinch, I'm not to proud to use a good quality chicken soup base either.

In the pantry, I've got grains, noodles, and dried and canned beans. If I were using a miso paste, I might opt for a rice noodle. But with a freshly made chicken stock, I opted for pearl barley.

To balance out the soup with a bit of protein, I had some canned garbanzo and cannellini beans. Mr. Rose got to choose and he went with cannellini beans.

On an average winter day or during a cold stretch in the fall, I'd have some bread dough sitting in the fridge and I'd bake a crusty boule. Last night, there was none. I guess I was pushing my luck with the chicken back treasure.

For the people who need precise recipes, here's how I made this soup (approximately).

30-Minute Soup (serves 3-4)
8 cups of chicken stock
4 handfuls of barley
7 kale leaves, ribs removed (and fed to dogs) and torn into small pieces
1 large misshapen carrot, diced
5 button mushrooms, sliced
1 15 oz can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
salt and pepper to taste

Bring chicken stock to a boil, then add barley. Bring to boil, then lower heat to medium so you have a light boil. Let boil for 5 minutes before adding carrot. Let boil for another 5 minutes before adding kale. Let that cook for another 10 minutes before adding mushrooms and beans. Once the soup comes back to a boil, the beans should be heated through and the soup is ready to serve.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Get your Tour de Harvest tickets!

Have you been wanting to try out a Speakeasy Kitchen dinner but haven't managed to score an invitation? Well now you can BUY YOUR WAY IN
UrbiCulture Community Farms is throwing a progressive dinner party in 8 of its Sunnyside Gardens and I'm cooking at one of them. It's been a hot and rainy summer in Denver, which is more than just a boon to the mosquito population -- it's a boon to local gardens, too! I don't know which garden and I don't know yet what I'll be cooking, but UCCF has a vast variety of fresh produce in the ground so it's sure to be an exciting offering. So get your tickets to the Tour de Harvest and enjoy a lovely fall afternoon with the urban farmers of Denver while eating foods prepared by some great local chefs (and yours truly)!