Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Now. {Paying Attention, Slowing Down}

I read something in passing the other day that struck me. Something that made me step outside myself and pay more attention to what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. It was a blog post about something totally different, but it mentioned something about not wistfully focusing on the past because it distracts you from the present.

I love reminiscing. I love looking backward. I also love looking forward. Making big plans. Day dreaming about where I'll travel to, what hikes I'll take this summer, what recipes I'll make, what vegetables I'll grow. I think there's a great place for reminiscing and dreaming in my life, but I have been distracted lately. I'm really feeling the need to focus on the NOW and these moments currently. It's part of what I choose daily.

I hate to admit that I haven't been doing a very good job of this lately. My natural tendency is to always be thinking of the next thing. I like to move fast, but slowing down to pedal speed is part of the whole goal of my life.

I feel ready for a change. Maybe it's the change of seasons. Maybe it's the fresh air blowing through the open windows that have been shut up all winter. It's been too long since I tried something new and pushed myself to pursue.

I'm feeling like I need to refocus on NOW and how this NOW is preparing me for the future I want. Being really conscious of the decisions I'm making now.

Do you ever find yourself losing sight of the now? How do you recenter yourself?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Early Spring Supper

We have to plan a menu that includes an appetizer and main dish for the practical final of my culinary class. We were given no criteria - just whatever I would want to serve if I had a restaurant - so the options were endless. One of my favorite hobbies is putting together menus for dinner parties so that's how I approached this task. I made a list of about seven themed menus and narrowed it down to the final two. In the end, I picked this Pacific Northwest-themed menu inspired by the meal I ate at Sweet Basil's in Cannon Beach, Oregon last summer

I did a test run for friends this weekend. I timed myself and asked for feedback on the taste and presentation. It was a hit all around. 

This is the first time that I've tried this salmon cake recipe. Chris Kimball is always a trusted source, and he didn't disappoint. I like the bigger chunks of salmon in the cakes and the minimal filler ingredients. You can really taste and appreciate the flavor of the salmon. I plated this dish similar to Sweet Basil's. When I was in Seattle, the crab cakes I ordered almost always came with sauce drizzled over the cakes. I don't like this at all because 1) I usually like way less sauce than the average person and 2) it tends to make the cakes soggy. I like to control how much sauce is in my bite so I like putting it on the side. I served the extra sauces in bowls for people to add more if they wanted it.

Although the exam will not include a dessert component, I felt like it just wouldn't be complete without one so I made the dark chocolate tart that we had at Thanksgiving. I've made this tart a handful of times, and it always knocks my socks off. It is simple to pull together, but it is so rich and decadent. 

Early Spring Supper Chez MeghAndrew

Creamy Beet Dip served with Endive and Fennel

Pacific Salmon Cakes served with Spicy and Lemon Herb Mayos and Mixed Greens with Lemon-Dill Vinaigrette

Dark Chocolate Tart with Gingersnap Crust

Pacific Salmon Cakes 
From Cook's Illustrated, the 2011 version of the recipe, found here

3 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 Lemon; half for juice and half for lemon wedges
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 small shallot, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon
3/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
1-1/4 pound skinless Pacific salmon fillet
(If purchasing a skin-on fillet, buy 1-1/3 pounds which will yield what you need after being skinned)
1/2 cup vegetable oil

In a large mixing bowl, add 3 tablespoons panko, parsley, mayonnaise, juice of half the lemon, scallion, shallot, Dijon mustard, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and pinch of cayenne. Stir everything until combined.

Cut salmon fillet into 1″ pieces, and divide into 3 even batches. Pulse each batch in a food processor for just 2-3 pulses. The salmon should be relatively uniformly chopped into 1/4-inch pieces. It is fine if some pieces are bigger than 1/4-inch. It is important to avoid over-processing into a paste. Add each batch to the mixing bowl containing panko/mayo, and repeat with remaining batches. Carefully mix the salmon and panko/mayo mixture until evenly combined.

Carefully form mixture into eight cakes (about 1/3 cup each) and place on a baking sheet. The cakes should be approximately 3" by 1" thick patties.

Put 3/4 cup panko in a pie plate. Gently dip each salmon cake into the panko so that it is lightly coated and return to the baking sheet.

Add 1/2 cup vegetable oil to a 12″ skillet, and pre-heat over medium-high burner for 4 minutes until the oil begins to shimmer. Fry cakes without moving them for 2 minutes, and flip when golden brown. Flip and fry second side for another 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove to paper-towel lined plate and allow to drain for 1 minute.

Serve with Spicy and Lemon Herb Mayos and mixed green salad. I also made some roasted asparagus, not pictured. Recipes for the mayos are below.

For the salad, I made a lemon vinaigrette. I never measure my vinaigrettes, and I never make more than enough for the salad of the night. I simply pour my ingredients into the bottom of the salad bowl, mix vigorously, taste and adjust seasoning and then add the greens and toss. Easy peasy! For this vinaigrette, I used olive oil, fresh lemon juice, dijon mustard, honey, minced fresh dill, mined shallot, and a pinch of salt and pepper. I think the delicateness of the mixed greens go really well with the salmon.

Spicy Mayo
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-1/2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes.

Lemon Herb Mayo
From Cook's Illustrated, found here

1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade 
2-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice from 1 lemon 
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 large scallion, white and green parts minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Around Here Lately...

It hasn't been a great week. The biggest highlights are that someone hit our car in our driveway and sped off and one of my best friends in New Mexico moved back to California. We've also had some weird stuff happen. It's been stressful and sad and just plain odd this week, and I'm counting down until Friday night...

I decided to take a look at my photo stream to cheer me up, and I found some good stuff. (Judging from all of the exclamation points I used below, I think it worked.)

In the meantime, here's what we've been up to lately...

Buying Katy Perry tickets to see her in concert in September!! I am going with my best friend and my sister, and it is going to be so fun. I haven't taken a girls weekend trip in about six years since Ellie and I went to San Francisco. When I moved away from Minnesota, we always said that we'd take a trip together each year, and we've been terrible at actually making it happen. I am SO looking forward to this fun weekend of dancing and pure joy! Ellie, who gets the gold star of the year for agreeing to go to the concert with me BEFORE even hearing any Katy Perry songs, is already working on finding us fun and colorful outfits!

Learning how to make italian sausage in class. Making the sausage is easy, but putting it in the casings took a little practice. I have a meat grinding attachment for my mixer at home, and I'm looking forward to making more sausage. I always love adding more homemade food to my repertoire.

Being swept away by a ballet performance of Peter and the Wolf, a beloved childhood story for both of us. When I moved here, Andrew still had his cassette tape from when he was little and gave it to me to listen to in my car. (Yes, my car still plays cassette tapes!) It is Peter and the Wolf on one side and Carnival of the Animals on the other side, and is my favorite tape (well, maybe tied with Dirty Dancing).

Trying new restaurants during Restaurant Week. Does your town have a Restaurant Week? In Santa Fe, it is every year toward the beginning of March. There are a lot of restaurants that participate with prix fixe meals that range from $25 per couple to $40 per person. I tried three new places, and it was fun to eat at some places that I wouldn't normally be able to afford.

Skiing one (last?) amazing powder day for the season. It snowed all day on a Saturday, and the resort was empty. Maybe the roads were too bad for people? It was an epic day and so fun and a good way to end the season. By Sunday, the sun was out, the snow was icy and the mountain was filled with spring breakers. It was a jewel of a Saturday for us. We may be able to get a few more days in, but I'm happy with our end of the season storm.

Drinking local Taos Lightning Bourbon. The price tag on this is pretty high, but after picking up a bottle and sipping it in front of the fire, it was was so worth it.

Eating BLT pizza with bacon, fresh tomatoes, a sprinkling of blue cheese and topped with fresh romaine when it is taken out of the oven. It is our new favorite pizza, and lately, we've been having it every week or so.

Making the pink lady cake from Smitten Kitchen to say goodbye to Marla. We had a Zabar's Dinner, drank red wine and ate lots of cake. Unfortunately this cake looks better than it tastes. It was a little dense and the strawberry flavor wasn't strong enough. It sure looked pretty though.

Mountain Biking on the La Tierra Trails. Andrew has been biking since he was a kid and is very talented. I just started a few years ago. Improving my mountain biking has been a long-time goal of mine, and the City has recently completed a network of trails with varying levels of difficulty. It's been dry enough to ride already, and it feels really good to get my heart racing.

And, seeing this awesome groove machine at the collision shop. I wish I had booked this for our wedding!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Grilled Flat Iron Steaks with Creamy Red Chile Sauce

I normally do not like sauces or marinades or rubs or anything on my steak. I prefer to taste and savor the flavor of the meat, but I made this sauce the other night in class, and it is so good that I have been carefully doling it out to serve with leftovers. It's got a good kick, but that is tempered by the cream. I love how you can taste the corn tortilla that is in there and it has just a hint of sweetness.

It's amazing on the flat iron steaks, and I think it pairs pretty well with the sweet potatoes I served on the side too.

For the flank steaks, I prepared a simple marinade with lime juice, olive oil, chile powder, cumin powder, cilantro, green onion and salt and pepper. I marinated the steaks for about an hour while I made everything else.

On the side, I made quinoa with lime juice and zest, green onion, red pepper, cilantro, olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Simple but fresh and delicious. We also made a sweet potato mash, which isn't shown above, but I served at home with leftovers. The sweet potatoes and the sauce go really great together.

One of the perks of class is bringing home a ton of leftovers. We can usually eat our lunches all week without buying any food because I have so much from class. When I came home Wednesday night, Andrew had forgotten to eat dinner. I don't know how that's possible, but he was delighted to have a nice little steak dinner.

Creamy Red Chile Sauce
Adapted from On Cooking by Labensky, Hause and Martel

8 ounces whole butter
1 large onion, roughly chopped
6 garlic cloves, whole, peeled
6-8 New Mexican dried red chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 white corn tortilla, shredded
20 ounces chicken stock
3 ounces heavy cream
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp brown sugar

Soak dried chiles in very hot water for 10 minutes until reconstituted. Cut into large strips.

Heat sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and sauté onions and garlic until browned (about 10 minutes). Add chiles and tortilla pieces and sauté until golden brown. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover loosely and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Puree the sauce in a blender or food processor until smooth and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Add the cream, salt and brown sugar. Stir until combined.

Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Yields about 2 cups of sauce.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Après Ski Dinner: Raclette

Raclette maker in action!

I'm happy to report that my heartache this weekend was eased a little with a foot of fresh powder overnight and a day of skiing on Sunday. This was the most snow we've gotten in one storm since Thanksgiving so it was a real treat. It was one of those skiing days when the visibility is so low that it is totally disorienting. Luckily we know the mountain well. The little glades that I've been practicing in were extra fun with the fresh snow. It's always quieter in the trees, especially on powder days.

By about three o'clock, as my legs were getting pretty tired and I had reached the point where I was wondering whether or not I really needed to be turning so much, the clouds started to lift. Although the top of the mountain was still overcast, windy and chilly, at mid-mountain, we could see the sun smiling on town. It was good motivation to keep getting on the lift and heading back to the top. I know I'm biased and I don't have much to compare it to, but I really think we have one of the prettiest ski basins around. The view is so huge and lovely.

I've been holding off posting about Raclette for a while because, well, we haven't had any winter weather or justifiable reasons, such as a day of rigorous winter sports, to indulge in copious amounts of French cheese. (Not that this has stopped us. We've still eaten plenty of melted cheese this winter, but it seemed silly to write about an après-ski dinner when it's 65 degrees in town.) Even so, February was a good month.

I'm also motivated by the fact that I want to get this off my plate and lighten things up a little in March. February was short, but we packed in a lot good meals; most of which involved French cheese and crème fraîche.

Of course, February is when we celebrated Tartifête, a highlight of every year, by eating tartiflette and drinking French wine.

That's not the half of it though. Andrew's parents sent us home with a Raclette maker the last time we visited. These are the times when I know I was destined to marry into this family. Who happens to have an extra Raclette maker sitting around in the garage? My in-laws, that's who. And thanks to them, we have been enjoying cheesy meals all winter.

I first had Raclette at a host family's house in Blois, France when I was 17. I was spending the summer in the Loire Valley through a program with the local Lions Club, and I was supposed to be learning all about French culture. Even though it was the middle of summer and we were far from the Alps, my host family apparently decided that eating Raclette was a necessary cultural lesson. My French was not great at the time, and I didn't really understand much about the meal that they were serving other than it was eaten in the Alps and involved a lot of French cheese. That was enough to keep me wanting more.

Raclette is another one of those amazing dishes gifted to us by the people of the Alps. I don't know what you think of when you think of the Alps, but for me, I think of melted cheese and snowy peaks. Yes, please! The Alps have given me some of my favorite meals.

Raclette is both a cheese and a dish. Raclette cheese is a cow's milk cheese, which is typically melted and scraped (French verb racler) onto diners' plates and eaten with potatoes, charcuterie, cornichons and pickled onions. Traditionally, a big wheel of cheese would be heated in front of a fire and then the melted parts scraped onto the plates. I've never eaten it this way, but I will the next time I'm in the Alps. I've always had Raclette using a modern Raclette maker, which is an electric machine that plugs in and heats up a broiler. The cheese and other accoutrements are placed in little individual sized trays, placed under the broiler to melt and then scraped onto diners' plates. I realize as I'm writing this that it seems kind of odd, but I promise that it is actually fun in addition to delicious.

The Raclette maker and small individual trays.
The trays are slid under the broiler to melt the cheese.

It's a super fun meal to have with a group of people. Everyone can personalize their meal to meet their preferences and tastes, and eating Raclette is relaxing and a fun way to socialize. It is easy to put together for the host because all that you have to do is set out all of the ingredients and people "cook" and serve themselves.

I've bought Raclette cheese at both my local coop and the Whole Foods. I don't typically like to own appliances I only use a few times a year so if I hadn't received this as a gift, I probably wouldn't have one of my own, but I know that you can rent the machines in nice cheese shops, like Surdyk's if you're in Minneapolis.

The first time we used the Raclette maker, I stuck to a traditional spread, which usually includes the Raclette cheese, potatoes and charcuterie. However, I quickly realized that the traditional spread is a little boring, at least when you're at home at your dining room table and not in Switzerland melting your cheese by open fire. So, I decided to spice it up a little and added lots more ingredients.

Here's what I generally include in our spread:

  • Raclette Cheese, sliced
  • Fingerling potatoes, skin on, roasted, quartered
  • Roasted asparagus, cut into 1" segments
  • Ham, thickly sliced
  • Proscuitto or pancetta
  • Quail's eggs
  • Sliced apple
  • Caramelized onions
  • Sliced baguette
  • Dijon mustard
  • Crème fraîche
  • Cornichons (small French pickles)

All layered together, these ingredients can make some spectacular combos, as I'm sure you can imagine.

I like to serve Raclette with a nice, big green salad. The last time we had it, I piled my arugula salad on top of my creations, and it was great.

For more information on Raclette, see David Lebovitz's great article or the Wikipedia page.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Winter Interrupted

Evidence of the Viveash Fire from several years ago. Slow recovery.

Every now and then Andrew will say things to me like, "You know what they always say... face the danger," as we're doing a three point turn on a muddy dirt road overlooking a steep canyon wall.

"Hmmm," I say. "I don't think I've heard that one before."

He'll look surprised and squint his eyes at me and ask, "Well, how did you learn to turn around on narrow dirt roads?"

"Ummm, I grew up in Minneapolis," I'll exclaim. "We don't have any roads with the threat of backing off a canyon wall."

And then we'll both smile and laugh at how different we are, and he'll tell me stories about driving on the White Rim trail, and I'll tell him what my aunt always says: "Who needs to learn how to parallel park? That's why they have valet!"


We retreated to the Pecos half of the Santa Fe National Forest today to have a taste of moist, humid air, muddy roads and foggy canyons.

This winter has been warm, dry and sunny. It's been utterly depressing. Open windows, gusty wind and blooming juniper... in February. It's been terrible.

We got up this morning with the same routine as every weekend morning - checking the snow report and webcam at the ski resort. We actually had hope this morning since it was overcast with a few drops of water last night. We figured that there must have at least been some moisture on the mountain. One inch in the last 48 hours. This weather is killing me. I try not to think too much about it because it is so upsetting, and there's nothing we can do about it. 

It's almost always raining in the Pecos so we headed out of Santa Fe to see a drainage that I hadn't been to before. We explored in the rain, feeling happy to be out of town. Wet dog girls in the back seat and muddy paw prints on the console. Hoping that some of this moisture will produce some snow and we can ski tomorrow. The story of winter 2014.

Meanwhile, these are the kinds of photos that keep rolling in on texts and Facebook from friends and family in Minnesota... 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Crème Fraîche: A Love Story


I fell in love with Andrew over crème fraîche.

When I moved to Albuquerque nine years ago from a small town in France, I was not a happy camper. I was coming to New Mexico for graduate school, but I was not pleased about leaving France and moving to Albuquerque.

My year in France was defined by my time in the kitchen. I was there to teach English, yes, but with the light teaching schedule asked of English language assistants and my isolation in a tiny town, I focused on food. It helped that my oldest friend Rosie, an amazing cook with a love for food as deep as mine, was stationed about an hour away. When I look back on that year, I remember a lot of time spent leaning over her tiny kitchen table chopping, dicing and mincing while she manned the stove. Kirs in our hands and smiles on our faces. Bright pink, rosy cheeks flushed by the heat from the stove that quickly filled the tiny kitchen. I spent a good part of that year cold to the bone thanks to my chilly, drafty apartment, and nights in Rosie’s cozy and warm kitchen were one of the few times my body actually relaxed its muscles. The kirs helped too I’m sure.

That year was the first time I had much interest in cooking for myself. I was amazed at the meals we could whip up. Rosie had been cooking for a while, and she has a great intuitive way about her cooking. She is always calm in the kitchen and has this natural way about her cooking. It’s such a pleasure to cook with her. It seems to me that for all great cooks and lovers of food, there are people in their lives who have opened the doors. People who introduced them to new flavors, ingredients, textures, techniques. People who are able to transfer their own love of good food and eating and pass on the joy. Rosie is one of those people for me.

Our setting helped certainly. Being surrounded by a whole country of folks who take food very seriously and who appreciate a delicious meal was good inspiration. I had more memorable meals during that single year of my life than I had had leading up to it. It was a wonderful year of cooking and eating.

When I showed up in New Mexico a couple of months later, I was overwhelmed. I was living alone in a new town where I knew no one. I found comfort in making the French dishes that Rosie and I had enjoyed the year before, many of which featured crème fraîche as an integral ingredient. Having never purchased crème fraîche in the U.S. before, it didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t be readily available at the grocery store. I was already feeling lonely and homesick, and after trying four different stores with no luck, I thought I might need to up and move back to Minnesota immediately. I remember calling my sister, crying and complaining about being all alone in a new city. A city that felt pretty foreign. I remember exclaiming, “they don’t even have crème fraîche here!” I was distraught to think I had to spend the next two years living without crème fraîche.

Shortly after the crème fraîche realization, I invited two of my new classmates over for dinner. I had resigned myself to substituting sour cream, and when Andrew asked what he could bring, I told him (I remember this conversation so clearly), “Well, I need crème fraîche, but they don’t have it here so I guess you can bring sour cream.” Le sigh…

When Andrew and our other friend showed up for dinner, I shoved the beer and sour cream he had brought into the fridge and focused on being a good hostess. We had a nice little apéritif, and then I began preparing dinner. When it came time to add the sour cream, I pulled the container out of the fridge and (you can see where this is going…) it was crème fraîche! Andrew had found it!!

I realized what I was holding, and I screamed with delight. The emotional stress of living someplace new and making new friends and wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into was cut in that moment. At least they have crème fraîche here, I thought. I wanted to throw my arms around Andrew’s neck while he twirled me around the kitchen. We were not dating yet so I restrained myself and thanked him properly. That’s the night I first fell in love with my husband.

A few weeks later, I was sitting at his desk and I picked up a book. Out fell a little slip of paper with the words:

friday 7
meghan’s house
creme fraiche?

I melted. I wish so badly I had put that slip into my pocket, but I placed it back in the book and smiled to myself. He told me later that he had never heard of crème fraîche before, but he could tell how much it meant to me. He set out on a mission to find me crème fraîche. I think that’s the day he knew he was falling in love with me too.
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