Finding Balance – also Asparagus Risotto with Lemon

At lunch today, Shana and I were talking about our respective cooking slumps and how hard it is for us both to find balance between work, home life, and other interests – and it occurred to me that maybe part of this slump is just my life shifting into a new balance, or back into balance period.  For the last year and a half, I’ve been totally engaged in cooking, food, gardening, etc, and part of that has been because I’ve had little else to strongly draw my focus.  These days I’m busy to the point of exhaustion between teaching and work, and I’m managing to exercise almost every day – so something’s got to give.

Shane picked me up at 5 – an hour later than I’m normally at work – and while he worked out, I made asparagus risotto from Urban Italian.  Instead of shredding, I stirred for 30 minutes.  And then ate risotto that tasted like sunshine and springtime.  And then did my best to stay awake.  I consider it a successful evening, even if I don’t manage to do anything else.

Asparagus Risotto with Lemon
Adapted from Urban Italian

5 cups chicken broth or vegetable stock
1 pound asparagus
1 generous handful fresh basil
1 generous handful parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, divided (1 + 2)
1/2 large Vidalia onion (about 1 cup), diced small
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup vermouth
salt and coarsely ground black pepper
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

Warm the broth in a saucepan over medium heat. In another saucepan, bring several cups of generously salted water to boil. While the liquids are heating up, snap off the woody ends of the asparagus and discard. Cut off the bottom inch, and add to the broth. Cut off the asparagus tips about 3″ from the top and set aside. Reserve the middle portion of the stem.

When the broth nears a simmer, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for about a minute, then add the rice and stir so that all the grains are coated in the oil and butter. Add the vermouth, mixing well and stirring frequently until the boozey smell has evaporated. Add the broth one cup at a time, setting aside the asparagus ends, stirring the rice frequently, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Repeat this step until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and is tender but not mushy, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of ice water while keeping an eye on the pot of salted water. When it boils, add the asparagus tips and blanch for 1 minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the ice water to stop cooking. Add the reserved asparagus stems and blanch for 3 minutes, then drain. Add the stalks, asparagus ends, basil, and parsley to your blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture forms a puree.

When the rice is finished cooking, stir in the asparagus puree, asparagus tips, remaining butter, lemon juice, and Parmigiano if using. The recipe as presented should make 3 entree-sized portions or 4-5 if served with a salad and a protein. We ate it right up with a fresh baguette.

Springtime Tofu

I’ve been in a cooking slump since starting my new job a couple of weeks ago.  We’ve been busy, or we’ve been out of town, or Shane has had something going on and I’ve foraged for big salads or Plum Market takeout.  This dish was the rare exception to the slump.

A Very Green Dinner

I’ve been really into marinated broiled tofu this winter, but I think this dish marks a turned corner for me.  The tofu is baked instead of broiled, and battered instead of marinated, both of which give it an entirely different texture: chewy and nutty, sweet and savory, ripe for pairing with steamed veg and a salad.  The pistachio crust gives it a vegetal nuttiness – but roasted almonds are just as good, as we discovered over breakfast the other morning.  That’s right: I may not be able to muster a real meal for dinner most days, but I did get out of bed and get this tofu in the toaster oven before my shower the other morning.  So maybe the slump’s all in my head.

Recipe:
Pistachio-Crusted Tofu from FatFree Vegan Kitchen – I omitted the soy sauce marinade, and would recommend reducing the breadcrumbs by half in order to get more nuts, less filler

0611 Asparagus to Zucchini

Today was the first day all week that I really felt human.  On a related note, it was also the first day all week that I prepared a real dinner.  Of course, I had help:

Friday Night Grilling

Have I mentioned that we got a meat grinder as a wedding present?  Perhaps I have.  Have I mentioned that it’s GREAT?  Seriously, it’s so easy to use, and so convenient to be able to pull a piece of meat out of the fridge, grind it up, and have quick pork burger patties for four, instead of oversized pork chops to awkwardly share.

Grill Up

In addition to the pork burgers, Shane grilled up a bunch of zucchini (!!!) and probably the last asparagus of the season.  It’s been a good run, asparagus, but I’ve moved on to the end of the alphabet.  What looked like a giant pile of vegetables disappeared quickly, leaving us happy and full.

I’m liking this Friday night grilling thing.  We should do it more often.

0517 Monday Night Cookout

Despite the beautiful weather all weekend, today was grim and rainy – perfect for a cookout, right?  Maybe not, but Garin’s leaving town either way, so we all persevered to send him off to Madison and the Underground Food Collective in style.  Matt and Shannon threw a great party under the merciful protection of a giant tent, and the rain didn’t stop intrepid souls from toasting marshmallows around a surprisingly vigorous firepit.  We brought my current favorite instant side dish – steamed or grilled asparagus with a mustard vinaigrette – along with assorted odd sausages, buns, and other remnants from our party over the weekend.  It was an evening of friends, of elaborate snacking, and of an amazing pig cake made by Olivia and Heather.    I’d show you a photo, but instead I’ll just have to tell you that it might have involved caramel, praline crunch, and maple.  And me licking my fingers a lot.

Oh, and because I’ve been asked a couple of times, here’s the rough formula for my vinaigrette.  All of these amounts are approximate, and are negotiable based on what tastes good to you.

1 part whole grain mustard
2 parts white wine vinegar OR apple cider vinegar OR regular old vinegar (in order of preference)
a couple of pinches of kosher salt (tonight I used lavender salt)
fresh ground pepper

Shake or whisk it all up and taste it.  If it’s too tart or astringent, add a little sugar.  If you want more bite, add a very wee bit of crushed red pepper.  If you have fresh herbs, a fine chiffonade of basil or thyme or both can be quite nice.

If you’re dressing steamed or grilled veggies, use 1 tablespoon mustard to 2 tablespoons vinegar to start.  You really won’t need THAT much dressing.  Double it for a large salad.  This dressing will keep well in the fridge for at least a few days, and is just as good on cold things as on warm.

0508 This Pizza is a Miracle

A miracle in a couple of senses.  First, it’s a miracle that I got dinner on the table at all.  I spent today digging channels for baseboards:
Spirit of Hope Hoop House Build

and holding 16′ boards in place while they were marked, drilled, and hung:
Spirit of Hope Hoop House Build

plus lots of other mucking about, digging, holding, and securing while participating in the Spirit of Hope hoophouse build in Detroit. What you don’t get from these pictures, though, is an accurate portrayal of the weather. It was cold. It was windy. It rained a lot. It also hailed. And then occasionally the sun would peek out and give us all hope. It was a physically challenging day, but the net result will be an extended growing season for the community garden allied with the kind folks at Spirit of Hope.

After delivering my carpoolers home, I went straight for the tub with a glass of bourbon, both very necessary to soothe and warm my sore muscles. So you can see how getting dinner on the table, much less a home-cooked dinner, much less one that had to be rolled out, was kind of a miracle.

The second miracle? How fantastic these pizzas tasted!

0508 This Pizza is a Miracle
Asparagus, prosciutto, and goat cheese

0508 This Pizza is a Miracle
Roasted red pepper, shallot, asparagus, and goat cheese

I had picked up a frozen ball of pizza dough at Plum earlier in the week, so tonight I split it in half, rolled it out, and pre-baked it at 450 for about 10 minutes.  I was surprised by how much the dough puffed up – we tend to like a thinner crust, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it any thinner than this.  Add the toppings, toss the pizza back in the oven for a few minutes, and dinner was on the table.

Shane fancied his up with balsamic crema and olive oil, while I didn’t even wait to sit down to start eating.  So good!  I’ve decided that we need to keep pizza dough in the freezer at all times if it means that a dinner like this can be made in a pinch.

0503 Blasé Pasta

Remember that pasta we had at Logan a few months ago?  Asparagus and penne in a light cream sauce?  I think that’s what I had in mind tonight, except that I wanted to use up a couple of chicken breasts as well.  I sliced the chicken breasts and the asparagus into penne-sized pieces, then browned the chicken with a bit of garlic and butter.  I tossed the asparagus in with the penne at the very last minute, then combined the drained pasta and asparagus with the chicken and grated a whole bunch of parmesan over the top.

It was fine.  Not remarkable.  Not even particularly delicious.  Just, fine.  Shane’s going to take the leftovers tomorrow to throw in a salad along with a mustard-y vinaigrette, which sounds better to me.

0430 First Cookout of the Season

Cat on a leash, originally uploaded by sukisuki.

Over the winter, we bought a grill off a guy on Craigslist – Shane really needed was the propane tank, but for $25, we got a nice gas grill with all the rocks and racks, plus the nearly full tank that alone would’ve cost nearly $25. I mention this because it was unexpectedly gorgeous today, and at the last minute, we invited a couple of friends over to grill out and break in the firepit (which didn’t end up happening).

While Shane and Aaron wrestled the grill into shape, Suz let Basil drag her around on his leash (hence the photo courtesy of Suz). The little dude LOVES being outside, so this was pretty much the best thing ever for him. He ate grass, rolled around in the dust, and generally claimed the yard as his own. Too bad he isn’t better behaved on said leash or we’d let him out more often.

This being the first cookout of the year, it’s fair to say that our technique needs a bit of work. It took two dudes with at least five combined college degrees to light the grill, and once lit, parts of our pork chops were a little overcooked, while parts of the veggie dogs were cool when served. I put water on to boil for asparagus, then went outside and got distracted – the asparagus ended up a little overcooked as well, but I did my best to disguise it with a vinaigrette. Everything was great – but not the pinnacle of grilling cuisine – pretty much what you’d expect at the beginning of the season.

As if the spring evening couldn’t get more picturesquely Midwestern, after dinner we walked to Dairy Queen in the gathering dark and ate our cones on sidewalk benches. A totally happy evening if I do say so myself.

0428 Michael Symon’s Macaroni and Cheese

We were given a copy of Michael Symon’s Live to Cook, the first cookbook by the Cleveland restaurateur and Iron Chef America personality of the same name.  We keep talking about going to Symon’s two restaurants in Cleveland, but the closest we’ve gotten is tonight’s macaroni and cheese.

0428 Michael Symon's Macaroni and Cheese

Yeah, yeah, I know this isn’t the most mouthwatering of photos, but do you see those bubbles?  That’s goat cheese and heavy cream, and a lot of both, and it’s bubbling up through freshly ground pepper.  And it’s delicious.

I’m not generally big on fancied up macaroni and cheese, to be totally honest.  I don’t like bread crumbs on top, and I don’t really care if it’s baked.  I don’t need four kinds of cheese, or a whole lot of accouterments to make me happy – just melted gooey goodness, with maybe some ham or peas added at the last minute.  Y’know, like this:

Best. Meal. Ever.

But I digress.

Dinner was deceptively simple.  Not quite as simple as the shells and cheese above, but much more simple than you’d expect from a fancy chef’s cookbook.  The sauce is goat cheese, rosemary, and heavy cream warmed together and reduced, with shredded chicken and your noodles stirred in towards the end.

That’s it.  No funny business.  No superfluous salt and pepper or seasoning, which struck me as a bit odd.  No pepper at all?  Really?  No pepper.  OK, so I added pepper.  And if I made this again, I would add more pepper.  I would also cut back on the sauce, and add in some vegetables, like the asparagus we served with the macaroni and cheese.

So maybe I do like my macaroni and cheese fancied up after all.

Recipe:
Macaroni and Cheese with Roasted Chicken, Goat Cheese, and Rosemary from Michael Symon’s Live to Cook

0424 A Perfect Spring Brunch

Shane left in the wee hours to drive to Indiana for Dark Lord Day, which, along with the drizzly spring weather, made it a perfect morning for brunch and baking – or, as I like to think of it, Fancy Lady Baking Brunch.

After last month’s relatively successful batch of Twinkies, we settled on pop-tarts for our next baking adventure, nudged on by the good fortune of a recipe in this month’s Bon Appetit.  As it worked out, I had very little to do with the preparation of the actual pop-tarts, as I was busy with the main brunch event: bacon-wrapped asparagus and soft-boiled eggs.

Susie and I washed and snapped the asparagus, fresh from the farmers’ market, and wrapped each little spear in lovely bacon from Sparrow Market.

Jamie’s recipe recommends baking for 10 minutes, but I’ve found that it takes a LOT longer to get crispy bacon. In this case, 25 minutes, with a break in the middle to switch the pans around. While the asparagus soldiers were in the oven, I boiled a dozen 5 minute eggs – long enough for the whites to be set but the yolks still lovely and molten.

In the meantime, Olivia, Shana, Shannon, and Maria were busy rolling out pastry and filling it with a panoply of jams.

For me, asparagus, bacon, soft-boiled eggs, and toast are all simple pleasures. Put them all together, and you’ve got something magic. Add some local greens, a homemade dressing, and a spoonful of thinly sliced potatoes baked with a fair amount of herbs and cheese, and you’ve got a fantastic spring brunch, made all the more amazing by what came out of the oven an hour later:

I’ll take one of everything, please.

Recipes:
Crispy Asparagus Soldiers with Soft-Boiled Eggs from Jamie at Home (oops, temperatures in Celsius)
Strawberry “Pop-Tarts” from Bon Appetit

Thanks to Maria for her photos!

Oh, and how great is it that we totally made these before Smitten Kitchen posted her version?

0415 Creamy Asparagus Soup

I seem to only plan to make soup on days when the weather is patently inappropriate for it – like today, when the temperatures neared 80.  This recipe – and the asparagus from the market – looked too good to wait for cooler weather, so soup for dinner it was.  I started dinner after picking Mike up from the airport, and by the time the leeks, asparagus, celery, and onions for this recipe had slowly cooked in a bit of olive oil, we were all STARVING.  This soup was less filling than I expected – though it probably would’ve made a more substantial meal with the poached egg and toast that Jamie recommends.  Instead I served it with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, accompanied by a salad and slices of Zingerman’s all-local West Wind bread.

I look forward to many, many more asparagus meals as the spring carries on, though I don’t know if this soup will be one of them.  While we enjoyed it, I don’t know that it was the best use of this flavorful and surprisingly sweet veg.  The soup was a little thin, and mostly tasted green – not a bad thing, but I think I’d prefer to let the asparagus shine on its own, topped only with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, or shaved parmesan.

Recipe:
Creamy Asparagus Soup from Jamie at Home