Sunday, October 30, 2005

Garlicky White Bean & Shrimp Soup

The seasons are changing, finally, and the onset of autumn brings with it opportunities to audition new recipes of the body-warming variety, including hearty soups and stews. Though the current temperature is around 72F (this is as good as it gets this time of year in Houston), for the past week nighttime and early-morning temperatures have dipped as low as 40F, and this trend is expected to continue for at least another week. Summers here are quite long and somewhat brutal, so I jumped at the chance to take advantage of this wonderfully crisp, cool weather by making a savory soup to lessen the chill a bit.

My choice was a wonderful bean-based soup that I adapted from a recipe of another of my favourite chefs. Unfortunately, I overcooked the beans a bit (overcooking things seems to be a recurring theme lately) so I really had to wing it, far beyond my original intent. Luckily, all turned out well.

Garlicky White Bean & Shrimp Soup
I thought of serving this soup with croutons or crusty bread. I had neither on hand, so I topped it with cilantro and crispy fried onions. Wonderful! But in the back of my mind I couldn't help thinking that Lidia would probably fall out in the floor and kick if she knew that I used cilantro with her authentic Italian soup. Oh well, oh well. I like cilantro and it made this already-delicious soup taste even better. She'll get over it.

Okay, let's get it goin'. Here’s what I did.

Garlicky White Bean and Shrimp Soup
Source: Adapted from Lidia’s Family Table (Lidia Bastianich), p. 58.

1 pound (about 2 1/2 cups) dry small white beans soaked overnight
3 quarts cold water, plus more if needed
1 1/2 pounds fresh large shrimp, shelled, deveined, tails in tact
5 hot Italian sausages (sweet or mild if you can’t take the heat)
3 large zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 cans Italian style diced tomatoes
6 fresh bay leaves or 3 dry
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably cold pressed, plus 2 tablespoons
2 teaspoons salt or more if desired
8 large garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground if possible
1 bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped (optional)

Large soup/stock pot, 3-quart or larger
Large nonstick skillet, 12-inch if possible

Drain the soaked beans and put them in the pot with the water, bay leaves, 1/4 cup olive oil and salt. Saute 1/2 of the onions in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat for about 3 min. and add to the pot. Cover pot, bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. When pot is at a full boil, reduce to low heat for a steady gentle boil and cook for an hour more or until beans are slightly tender, but DO NOT overcook. They will continue to simmer for a bit longer after the other ingredients are added to them, and you don’t want them to turn out mushy like mine did.

While beans are cooking, remove the casing from the sausage and cook in skillet over medium heat, breaking into crumbles as they cook. Cook until they are done, approximately 20 min., but do not overcook. When just done, add them to the beans.

In the same skillet (don’t clean it out) add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and saute the garlic over medium heat until lightly golden, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Add the other half of the onions and cook for about 3 min. more. Now add the garlic and onions to the beans, along with the tomatoes, zucchini and shrimp. Correct seasoning if needed and simmer over low heat for about 30 min. That’s it.

Note: I really don’t know exactly how long I cooked the beans on their own, as I lost track of time surfing the Web. I do know that it was for at least two hours before I added the other ingredients, and that’s way too long. To compensate, I immediately removed the beans from the heat to cool and cooked the remaining ingredients separately beforing adding them to the beans. Total cooking time for this soup (from dry beans to finish) should be about 1 hour 30 min., but not longer than a 2 hours.

Keep in mind that this is the first time I’ve actually written out such a detailed recipe, so use it only as a guide. Sadly, while tracing my steps and typing this recipe, I realised how much I HATE doing this. I like to just cook and be done with it, but I do understand that this is a necessary evil. Hopefully, I’ll get better in time.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Italian Sausage, Spinach & Red Pepper Quiche

Italian Sausage, Spinach & Red Pepper Quiche
This was my first, ever. I'm surprising a co-worker who loves to eat by taking her a quiche tomorrow. I decided to make two so I could have a taste to make sure that my maiden voyage to Quiche Land was successful. Well, they didn't turn out perfectly, but I think I did a pretty good job, especially considering I made the crust from scratch. Seems my oven is a bit hotter than the numbers on the dial indicate, but I'll figure it out pretty soon.

Italian Sausage, Spinach & Red Pepper Quiche
I found a couple of recipes on Epicurious, and as usual, I kinda-sorta did my own thing. I actually combined two recipes and winged it the rest of the way. I'm not good at writing things down when I'm cooking, but I'm going to work on my recipe writing skills. Recipe to follow.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Italian Toast, Brie de Meaux & Gewürztraminer

What a combination! I could live off of wine and cheese. Okay, maybe not the rest of my life, but perhaps for a time. Please forgive the missing piece from the Brie wedge, but as usual, I allowed myself to become so famished that before I could set up for the photo, I had eaten the tip off.

My plan for this afternoon was to try my hand at a couple of desserts: an Orange Cardamom Crème Brûlée and a Chocolate, Hazelnut & Orange Crostata (tart). Both recipes call for Grand Marnier. I have none. Needless to say, it didn't happen. I thought I could just pick up a bottle while shopping this afternoon, but I quickly learned that it's not possible to purchase anything other than wine and beer in Texas on Sundays. Being that I'm primarily a wine drinker, I had no idea. I'll try again next weekend.

The good news is that I was able to try a couple of new wines, including this delightful Gewürztraminer, served with the Brie, and a Napa Valley Merlot.

While surfing a couple of wine sites yesterday, I noticed that the only Blackstone Merlot listed was the 2002 Napa Valley. I also noticed that there is about a 65 percent price difference between it and the 2003 California version I usually drink. So, I decided to purchase a bottle of each and conduct an informal wine tasting here at home.

As a budding oenophile, I do realise that these wines are not supposed to taste the same, but quite honestly, I can discern no significant difference. Perhaps an experienced wine connoisseur with a more discriminating palate might detect a distinguishable difference, but my unrefined palate could not. I did, however, notice that there is at least a slight difference, though I am unable to articulate it properly at the moment. The best I can say is that the Napa seems a bit smoother and possesses a certain calmness, which I noticed immediately on the tip of my tongue. Other than that, they both taste great to me.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

For the Shrimp, Pasta & Wine Lover In Me

I've been thinking of pasta and shrimp in garlic sauce all week, so this evening I experimented a bit and made it happen. I didn't follow a particular recipe, per se. I pretty much winged it, relying on my memories of a couple of cooking programme demonstrations.

The sauce didn't turn out quite as well as I had hoped, but I'm proud to say that this dish was quite flavourful, indeed. I didn't overcook the shrimp and the pasta was al dente for a change, though for some reason it appears a bit limp in the photo. While I pondered what type of sauce I would use for the semi-fresh fettuccine I bought earlier today (haven't graduated to homemade pasta yet), something told me to use cream. Sad thing is, I had allowed myself to become so famished that by the time I finished cleaning the shrimp I was in such a hurry to get everything else done, I forgot.

Fettuccine and shrimp in garlic butter sauce
This was simple fettuccine with garlic, shrimp and butter sauce, which most seasoned cooks are probably well acquainted with. It was very quick and easy to prepare. I used the basic ingredients: EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), butter, crushed fresh garlic, finely sliced red shallots, a couple of bay leaves, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. I had intended to use fresh basil, but didn't remember until after I started cooking that I didn't have any, so I used coarsely chopped fresh tarragon instead. It was wonderful. I had also planned on grating some of the fresh Pecorino Romano I picked up this afternoon, but again, I was so hungry I completely forgot I even had it. But isn't it amazing that I somehow managed to remember to pour myself a glass of Riesling, which complemented the meal rather nicely. When I was a little girl, my mom used to say to me all the time, "Oh, you remember what you want to remember." She was right!

Overall, though, I think this little ditty went off pretty well, although I'm certain it would have been better had I not been in such a hurry. I didn't bother to write down all the quantities, etc., but I was able to find a similar recipe at one of my favourite spots. It's not exactly what I had in mind, but it's pretty close.

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Did I Mention I Like Wine ... A Lot?

A cool little Syrah by BlackstoneMost of my family and close friends already know that, in addition to enjoying great food, I am also very, very fond of wine. Of course I do realise that I am no wine expert by any stretch; however, I know what I like! While Merlot is my usual favourite, I am also partial to a nice Bordeaux and a good Riesling, particularly Johannisberg. And there are those times when only a nice white Merlot will do. What some may not know is that my "everyday" merlot of choice is Blackstone, which I discovered few years ago. I've been smitten ever since.

For the price, I think this is one smooth little merlot, and from what I'm told, probably one of the best in its class. Admittedly, my knowledge and experience with wine is quite circumscribed, but that's about to change. I have decided to branch out a bit. Now, I'm not looking to become a wine snob or force myself into bankruptcy court as a result of indulging my wine fancy, but I do intend to learn as much as I can about this wonderful juice I've grown to love, including occasional visits to local epicurean tasting events.

While shopping for veggies, fruit and cheese at the market this afternoon, I picked up a bottle of Syrah (photo above). I doubt that anything will ever come between me and my beloved Merlot, but I now know that I love Syrah, too. As best I can tell from its fragrance and taste, it appears to be a sister to merlot. I'll have to do a bit of research to determine if I'm correct, but again, I do know what I like!

Vouvray - a French wine by Barton & Guestier
On my way home from the office on Friday, I stopped to pick up a couple of wines. Since the store was out of my usual Riesling, I decided to expand my horizons and try this Vouvray (Barton & Guestier), which was recommended by a store employee as a nice alternative to Riesling. Upon first taste (unchilled – yeah, I know, shame on me), I was not impressed. But after chilling and allowing it to breathe a bit, it was a tad more palatable. Not nearly as satisfying as my Riesling, but for the price, I guess it wasn’t too bad. Still, I was a bit disappointed since it came so highly recommended. I couldn’t help thinking that the person who made this recommendation probably doesn’t know much more about wine than I do. Go figure!

Would I buy it again? Probably not. Cute label, though!

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dining With "The Ming" - Pan Fried Dumplings

Pan fried Chinese dumplings, a la Mixed Masala
This was my very first attempt at making Chinese pan-fried dumpling, aka pot stickers, and I am well pleased with the results. Yeah, I know the edges are overcooked (read: slightly burnt) a bit, but hey, gimme a break, I'm still learing. I was inspired by a recipe from one of my favourite chefs. By all accounts, these dumplings tasted equally as good as, if not better than, those we've had at a couple of our favourite Chinese restaurants. They were much better than the photo conveys and the dipping sauce was absolutely fabulous. And best of all, they went perfectly well with my beloved Merlot.

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