Stories from middle America

August 28, 2014

Back to School


huevos rancheros | COOP

For many, August marks the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. Bathing suits are packed away, vacation photos are posted to social media, barbecue grills are scrubbed and covered, and stores stock their shelves with “Back to School” merchandise.

Parents, students, and teachers alike prepare for another year of essays, extracurricular activities, and school dances. Mornings are early and days are packed full, which means dinner can often take a back seat to homework and football practice.

For the last four years, I have worked toward earning my undergraduate degree in Secondary Education. It has been a long, tough road, but the final destination is in sight; I’ll graduate in December and (hopefully) join the staff of a Metro-area school as an English teacher. In order for that to happen, I’ll need to complete my semester of student teaching, which I began earlier this month in an 8th-grade classroom.

As most of you know, I absolutely love to cook. I love to try new recipes and experiment with interesting ingredients. Over the summer I had plenty of time to research, shop, and leisurely prepare dinner; this semester couldn’t be more different. I wake at 5:30 in the morning, spend the day in the classroom with students, attend meetings, grade papers, and complete my own homework. This is a level of busy I’ve not experienced in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of people have similar schedules and manage to get dinner on the table…I simply haven’t found my rhythm yet.

Or perhaps I’m just exhausted. As a frame of reference, it’s been twenty years since I was an 8th grade student. Back to school is tough.

I refuse to allow frozen pizzas or Chinese takeout to replace home-cooked meals, yet, I don’t want to spend a ton of time in the kitchen when I get home in the evenings. I’ve found that the trick is to have a rotation of dishes that can be altered or tweaked depending on preference or availability of ingredients.

For instance, I try to plan weekly menus based on a style of food, not necessarily the specific dish; Tuesday might be Taco Night, whereas Wednesday might be Pasta Night, and Thursday could be Sandwich Night. If I have a baseline idea of what I’m cooking, I can swap ingredients from week to week in order to keep things interesting and varied.

Take this week; I knew I wanted to prepare breakfast for dinner, but I didn’t want to fall back on scrambled eggs and toast. I wanted something with flavor, something that was simple, yet substantial enough to be categorized as dinner. Huevos Rancheros was the answer.

Huevos rancheros, translated to “rancher’s eggs,” is a popular and traditional Mexican breakfast dish consisting of fried eggs, chiles, tomatoes, beans, and lightly fried corn tortillas.

I know, right? Sounds delicious. And so easy.

There are several pantry staples you could always find if you popped over to mine and took a peek in my cupboards. Dried and canned beans of all varieties are one of them. They are so versatile and can easily take the place of animal protein in most dishes if you’re choosing to go meatless. Another are corn tortillas. They are inexpensive and keep well in the refrigerator. Canned green chiles, eggs, fresh or canned tomatoes, and feta cheese are always in stock. So you can understand why Huevos Rancheros was an obvious choice for a quick and delicious weeknight meal.

For this specific evening, I kept it relatively traditional. Though, if you wanted, you could change the flavor profile completely. Take an Indian approach and replace the beans with lentils, the corn tortilla with naan, and the Mexican oregano for cumin and curry. Or how about an Italian version with spicy tomato sauce, white beans, garlic, and sage on flatbread?

If you find yourself under a mountain of homework, papers to grade, and laundry to fold, take it easy on yourself and create an easy-to-substitute weekly dinner guideline. Make your first entry Huevos Rancheros. You can thank me later.

huevos rancheros | COOP

Huevos Rancheros
serves 2 (easily doubled)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
2 teaspoons Mexican oregano (if you don’t have it, that’s fine, regular oregano is fine)
3 – 4 cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
8 ounces canned roasted green chiles
1 teaspoon red pepper flake (optional)
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 can (15-oz) pinto beans (black beans or kidney beans would be great as well), lightly drained
canola oil for frying
4 corn tortillas
4 eggs
1 medium ripe tomato, chopped
crumbled feta cheese
fresh cilantro (garnish – optional)
freshly squeezed lime juice (optional)
hot sauce (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and oregano and sauté until onions are soft and translucent. Don’t rush this step and keep heat just so that it doesn’t brown the onions. After 8 or so minutes, add green chiles, stock, kosher salt, black pepper, and red pepper flake, if using. Allow mixture to come to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for at least 15 minutes, or until reduced by half.

In a small bowl, combine cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water into a slurry. After chile mixture has reduced, add cornstarch slurry and allow it to simmer until slightly thickened. You don’t want it so thick that it won’t pour; keep an eye on the burner temperature and make sure mixture is at a gentle simmer. Once thickened, keep warm at low temperature until ready to serve.

Over medium-low heat, warm beans in small saucepan with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. Mash slightly and add a splash of chicken or vegetable stock if beans appear too dry. Decrease heat and keep warm.

In a nonstick skillet, add enough canola oil to cover the bottom, heat over medium-high until shimmering. One by one, dip corn tortillas into oil, lightly frying on each side, just until a little color appears. Place on paper towels to soak up any residual oil. Repeat with remaining tortillas.

Pour the majority of the oil out of the skillet, then place over medium heat. Crack the 4 eggs into the skillet, season lightly with kosher salt and black pepper, and fry to desired doneness. I prefer over easy, which takes around 5 minutes. You may need to cover skillet slightly with lid in order to move the process along.

Divide tortillas among two plates. Divide beans among the tortillas, top with green chile sauce, eggs, and tomatoes. Sprinkle with feta cheese, cilantro, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and hot sauce, if desired.

 

IMG_3535

Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be
homesick for a place you’ve never been to,
perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.
– Judith Thurman

I have always loved to travel. For me, leaving home to explore new places, meet new people, and taste unfamiliar foods is one of the most exciting things in life. Even if it means driving a few hours to a neighboring city or state, travel can expand our worldview and allow us to step outside of ourselves and see things from a new perspective. Traveling with friends can be a great bonding experience and can provide common memories that last a lifetime. Traveling alone, on the other hand, has the potential for loneliness if you’re unprepared. I had the chance to do both on a recent trip to the United Kingdom.

This summer I had the opportunity to travel with some close friends of mine to England and Scotland. I didn’t have summer classes scheduled and had never been to Scotland, so the decision was an easy one to make. Additionally, I have some friends whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time and wanted to pay them a visit.

Our trip started out in London, one of my favorite cities. Shortly after we arrived, they departed to visit family in the Isle of Man, but I stayed behind for a few more days in the city. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, so I was lucky to spend quite a bit of time exploring Regent’s Park, wandering around the many eclectic neighborhoods, poking through antiquities at the British Library, and browsing lazily through Borough Market, one of the largest and oldest food markets in London – and home to one of the best dishes I ate while on my trip: the Scotch egg.

I could go on and on about the trip, about my moments of excitement, fear, sadness, joy, and loneliness, about the wonderful times I had in Newcastle, Edinburgh, and the Scottish Highlands, about the whisky tasting at the Balvenie Distillery…but alas, I need to get to the point. I knew the moment stepped up to the stall owned by Scotchtails and ordered my first Scotch egg, I would be re-creating the crunchy and porky dish as soon as I came home.

In one word, a Scotch egg can only be described as delicious. The story is that the crispy, sausage-wrapped boiled egg was invented in 1738 by the London department store, Fortnum & Mason. Whomever is responsible, I thank them from the depths of my cholesterol-laden heart. Scotch eggs are delightfully portable and can be served as a hand-held appetizer or even alongside a salad for a light lunch. They are also completely customizable; if you like your meat wrapping to be a bit spicier, add some chili flake or Sriracha to your pork. Want to give it a go with a different meat? Try a combination of beef and pork, or perhaps some wild game like elk or even venison. My only advice would be to combine at least a little fatty meat to your other meats – a Scotch egg benefits from the extra flavor and luscious texture offered by ground pork sausage.

I kept my Scotch egg sausage meat pretty traditional, with the addition of some fresh chives, ground sage, a hint of yellow mustard, garlic, kosher salt, and black pepper. I added some Old Bay blackening seasoning to the flour, which added a nice kick to the final product. As for the eggs, again, it is a matter of taste; I prefer my yolks to be a bit squishy, so I boiled them for 6 1/2 minutes and dropped them immediately into an ice bath; they turned out perfectly. Feel free to use Japanese-style (Panko) breadcrumbs if you want, but they will offer a slightly different texture than fine-ground breadcrumbs.

Making Scotch eggs is a process, but do not fret! Take your time, have fun, pour yourself a pint, and imagine yourself strolling through Borough Market in one of the best cities in the world: London.

scotch egg

Scotch Eggs
makes 4 eggs

6 eggs, divided
3/4 pound ground pork sausage meat
2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced
2 teaspoons ground sage
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
~ 3/4 cup flour (for dredging)
2-3 teaspoons Old Bay blackening seasoning
~ 1 cup finely-ground breadcrumbs
splash of milk
pot or countertop deep-fryer and peanut oil for frying
deep-fry thermometer
three wide, shallow dishes (pasta bowls, pie pans, etc)
8 squares parchment paper

Put a saucepan of water on to boil. Once it has reached a rolling boil, gently place 4 eggs in the water and set a timer for 6 1/2 minutes. Fill a medium bowl with ice water. After 6 1/2 minutes, place the eggs in the ice bath for several minutes. Once cool, peel the eggs; be gentle, as they will be a bit squishy. Set aside on a paper towel.

In a large bowl, combine your meat, herbs, garlic, mustard, salt and pepper.

Prepare breading station: in one wide, shallow dish, combine the flour and blackening seasoning. In the second, whisk together the remaining 2 eggs with a splash of milk. In the third, pour in the breadcrumbs.

Set pot with peanut oil over medium heat and allow it to reach 350 degrees; maintain that temperature, as breading will burn quickly if oil is allowed to reach a higher temperature. I fried my Scotch eggs one-at-a-time (I used a smaller pot), but the choice is yours. You may need to turn egg with spoon in order for all sides to fry evenly.

Divide meat into four equal portions and roll into balls. Lay out four squares of parchment paper and lightly flour them. Place one ball on each square and lightly flour the ball, top with remaining parchment squares. Gently press ball down into a flat circle, large enough to cover the egg.

Roll boiled egg in flour, set on flattened meat, and gently encase it. Place meat-wrapped egg in seasoned flour and roll to coat. Then roll in egg mixture, and finally in breadcrumbs. Roll again in egg and once more in breadcrumbs (for a super-crispy crust). Set aside and repeat with remaining eggs.

Once oil is at the correct temperature, gently lower your eggs in and fry until they are a deep golden brown, approximately 4 1/2 – 6 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat. Once they are done, remove and place on paper towels to soak up any extra oil.

pea soup | coop

Why is it that change is scary? Why do some of us naturally bristle at unfamiliarity, shy away from the strange and foreign, tread lightly into the unexplored? Why don’t we run headlong into the darkness, arms outstretched, ready for the unexpected, the challenge of it all?

I think the reason behind our collective trepidation is the loss of our routine. Whether we care to admit it, we are creatures of habit and we find safety and comfort in our daily patterns. We nestle in comfortably when we know what to expect. But, inevitably, somewhere along the line, the security of our routine begins to feel restrictive, oppressive, even.

The great thing about humans and our routines is that we are adaptable. As much as we plan, schedule, organize, something unexpected falls into our path and we must adjust or we will surely fall.

That unexpected something fell into my lap around this time last month. I had announced via Facebook that I was seeking a summer job. I had completed my semester of classes and wanted to earn some money over the summer before my stint as a student teacher in the upcoming fall semester.

I’ve had all sorts of jobs over my lifetime; from record store manager to bank teller, from cocktail waitress to veterinary technician, I’ve worked in many different environments, each of which required adaptability on my part.

What I didn’t expect was to be contacted by the chef of one of my favorite restaurants here in Omaha, Lot 2 Restaurant and Wine Bar. In reply to my request via social media, Chef Joel Mahr wrote, “We’d love to have you at Lot 2!” I was thrilled! I thought to myself, “Of course I’d love to wait tables at Lot 2!” But that wasn’t what he had in mind. He wanted me as their pastry chef. My immediate internal reaction was complete panic.

I have not attended culinary school. I have no professional training with desserts, pastries, or any baked goods. All I have is a working knowledge and lots of practice in my home kitchen. I love making desserts; I enjoy trying new things when it comes to baking, but when I make mistakes, the only people who see them are myself and my husband. The thought of baking in a professional kitchen for a chef I respect and admire was terrifying. Luckily, Chef Joel is about the sweetest guy anyone could know.

For the last month I have been learning the ways of a professional kitchen. I’ve made mistakes, second-guessed myself, and arrived home completely exhausted. I’ve had good days and bad, but I’ve adjusted to my new routine. I was petrified at first, but with the support of Chef Joel, my co-workers, and my husband, the uncharted territory of the restaurant industry is no longer unfamiliar to me. It is my new routine and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Something that has helped me to restore balance and feel more at home with my schedule has been to cook familiar recipes for dinner at home. We still have black bean tacos at least once a week, a dish that is familiar, predictable, and perfectly comforting.

Most recently, though, I made another familiar and equally comforting dish: green soup. It is one of the easiest, tastiest, and healthiest soups anyone could make. And if you’re so inclined, this soup could be served chilled for a light summer dinner. Green soup is flexible, adaptable, if you will. Perfectly suited for a hectic schedule.

This time around I used chard, watercress, and peas as my main components and threw in basil, dill, Chinese garlic chives, and parsley to add more depth of flavor. A squeeze of lemon, kosher salt, and freshly cracked black pepper contribute to a nice finish to the soup. The base starts with onion, garlic, and ginger, slowly sautéed in butter and oil. Again, this soup is totally flexible; you could substitute the chard or peas for spinach or kale, or throw in a chile pepper for a kick. Vegetable stock or chicken stock could be used interchangeably and the butter could be omitted for a vegan/vegetarian version.

The last step in the process is to purée the soup. I have a Vitamix blender which works wonders in the soup category, but if you only have a food processor or immersion blender, those will work just fine; you’ll end up with a slightly chunkier soup, but the flavor will still be wonderful! We also chose to pair our soup with poached shrimp and homemade pickled radishes, but it  would be lovely on its own with a hunk of bread smeared with Irish butter, or even an open-faced toasted sandwich with avocado, radish, and a little sea salt and cracked black pepper!

So, for the times in your life when the unexpected pops up, remember to take a deep breath and welcome the change. New is good, the unfamiliar is exciting, even in the darkness you can find your way. And a reliable, tried-and-true recipe always helps to restore the balance.

 

Green Soup

1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small knob of ginger, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart chicken stock
1 bunch chard, washed and roughly chopped
1 bunch watercress leaves (picked from stems – the stems result in a “stringy” soup)
4 cups peas (frozen is fine)
3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (more for garnish)
3 tablespoons Chinese garlic chives (or regular chives), chopped
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
the juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

In a large soup pot over medium heat, melt butter and add olive oil. Add onion, garlic, ginger, and a pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened. Do not brown them, and especially don’t burn the garlic. If you think things are happening too quickly, turn the heat down a bit. Add stock and stir. Add chopped chard, watercress leaves, peas, and herbs. Turn up heat and bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes until chard is tender. At this point, if you have a Vitamix blender, purée the soup (in batches, if necessary). If you don’t have a Vitamix, simply use an immersion blender or purée in batches in a food processor (this will take a bit longer). Return soup to pot over medium-low heat. Stir in lemon juice and white wine vinegar, and season further with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste. Garnish with fresh basil.

 

garden

Growing my own food has always been a part of my life.

As a child, my father kept an impressive vegetable garden in our back yard, complete with rows of green beans, patches of cucumbers, tomato plants, pepper plants, onions, radishes, potatoes, and on the rare occasion, a few stalks of sweet corn. There was an asparagus patch in the way back, which happily shared space with a veritable forest of dill. At one point we had rhubarb growing in the corner of the garden and a tiny patch of strawberries. You name it and my dad probably grew it at one time or another.

Nowadays, the garden is much smaller, as my brother and I no longer live at home; though I haven’t helped my dad in the garden in quite some time, the memory of doing so is still as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Digging in the dirt, planting seeds and starter plants, watering, and picking weeds were all a part of my childhood. The rewards came in the shape of softball-sized tomatoes, crunchy bell peppers, and the best kosher dill pickles this side of the Missouri River.

I wanted to continue the tradition of backyard gardening at my own home; unfortunately, the space simply wasn’t available for a garden the size of my dad’s. Thankfully, my husband is quite handy and built for me a series of raised garden boxes which line the fence on the northern side of our yard.

garden

We’ve been enjoying the boxes for several years now, and each year we try a few new things as well as our “garden staples.” You see, growing up in the Midwest means being faced with a relatively short growing season, so careful consideration is of the utmost importance when planning a summer garden.

We always plant three to four different tomatoes, a couple of pepper plants (one hot, one not), some sort of leafy green like kale or Swiss chard, and lots of herbs. I love cooking with fresh herbs and luckily, they are ready to use quite soon after planting. I should explain that we usually purchase seedlings or young plants from the farmers market; starting everything from seed is a great way to go if you have the time and space for that sort of thing.

We tried it once and didn’t have the best of luck. These days we leave it up to the farmers we know and see every year at the market to provide for us the best vegetables and herbs. We know that the plants we buy from them are free from herbicides and pesticides, which is important to us.

This year we decided on thyme, rosemary, chives, chocolate mint, parsley, oregano, and sweet basil. In fact, we’re growing two basil plants; I love pesto and I absolutely love caprese salads. There is something so perfectly summery about the combination of basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese.

Most of the time, herbs are used for savory dishes, but I like to include fresh herbs in desserts, as well. Recently I baked a plum tart and decided that the addition of fresh thyme might pair well with the walnut crust and sweet, yet tart, plums. Sure enough, the lemony flavor of fresh thyme worked quite nicely. Fruit tarts are a great way to incorporate herbs such as basil, thyme, and mint.

mint

Speaking of mint, if you’re into making your own ice cream like I am, consider churning a batch of homemade mint chip with mint from your own back yard! Steeping mint leaves in warm milk and cream imparts a perfectly delightful flavor, and is only slightly green.

Oregano can be easily dried and saved for soups, stews, and your favorite marinara sauce. Chives are quick growers and are a lovely addition to any salad, vinaigrette, or omelet.  Rosemary is one of my favorites and can be tossed with garlic, potatoes, and brussels sprouts before roasting. It is also a nice addition when roasting a chicken; a few sprigs of rosemary and perhaps a halved lemon inside the cavity of a chicken will make for a lovely-smelling house and a delicious chicken.

As for the rest of our garden, we enjoy eating fresh tomatoes with a sprinkling of sea salt, a crack of black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. We love to sauté Swiss chard with a little bacon for a quick and easy side dish. The peppers will be either pickled or made into salsa. Most peppers freeze quite well, so saving them for chili in the winter months is a must.

My husband and I find tending a garden to be one of the most enjoyable activities of the summer months; it takes effort, patience, and a lot of TLC, but the rewards are abundant in both food and peace of mind. Whatever your garden situation is, from a big plot of land to a few pots on your balcony, just get out there and get your hands dirty. Grow something and enjoy the dishes you prepare with food from your own back yard.

plum tart

Plum Tart with Walnut Crust and Thyme

Prepare the filling:
2 pounds firm, ripe plums (or other stone fruit), pitted and chopped into chunks
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced

In a medium bowl, combine ⅓ cup sugar with the next four ingredients. Add chopped plums and gently toss to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight.

collage

For the tart shell:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup finely chopped walnuts
¾ dark brown sugar, packed
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoon apricot preserves

Lightly butter (or spray with cooking spray) the bottom and sides of a 9-½-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar, salt, and fresh thyme in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly and mealy. Add vanilla extract and egg yolk. Using long pulses, blend just until it forms a moist, crumbly mass.

Press the crumb mixture in an even layer into the bottom and sides of tart pan (sides should measure about ¼-inch thick). You may need to use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to press the dough out evenly. Flour the bottom of the measuring cup if the dough sticks to it.

Wrap pan in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Blind bake the shell:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F. Unwrap the tart shell and prick the bottom several times with a fork. Spray one side of a piece of parchment or foil with cooking spray. Line the shell with the sprayed side down and fill the lined shell with pie weights or dry beans.

Set the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the liner and pie weights. Should any dough stick to the liner, peel it off and patch it back into the shell. Reduce the heat to 350°F and continue baking until the sides and bottom of the shell are golden brown and dry, 10 to 15 minutes more. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes.

plum tart | COOP

Assembling and finishing tart:
Drain plums in a colander set over a medium bowl. Pour juice into small saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until very thick, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in apricot preserves until melted. Let cool for 10 minutes or so.

Pour juice/preserve mixture into tart shell and evenly spread over bottom and sides (use a pastry brush to get the sides, if necessary). Arrange plums skin side down in tart pan. Don’t go crazy trying to make concentric circles or anything, just cram them in there! Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon sugar over plums.

Bake the tart directly on the oven rack until plums are tender when poked with paring knife and caramelized along the edges. Don’t worry if a few blacken, it’s fine – total baking time should be between 40 and 50 minutes. Cool tart in its pan for at least 2 hours before unmolding and slicing with sharp knife.

 

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