Monday, November 22, 2010

So not Kosher: Goat Cheese-stuffed Meatballs

Ok, so when I started thinking about this entry, I wanted to open by quoting Shakespeare. In case my previous post didn't suggest this enough, just take for granted that I'm permanently hard-wired into the Bard's collected works. I kept trying to find something that was said by Shylock, from the Merchant of Venice. He's Jewish, he's Italian. There ended my justification.

I couldn't find anything.

But then! It occurred to me that I was being too classical. Instead, I should be looking to open with a pop-culture reference. And I found the perfect one, too: this dish is very much like Inception. Bear with me: you know about the dream within a dream within a dream? This is goat cheese. Within meatballs. Within the pasta. Within my belly. Now I just need to work in some trains, explosions, and an all-star cast.

I may be trying too hard, but in all seriousness, this is an impressive dish that surprises you with sudden twist of flavour while you're eating it. It would well deserve an epic soundtrack. The idea is pretty simple, and accordingly relatively straightforward to implement: you mash all your meatball ingredients in a bowl first. Then you roll out small spheres of slightly chilled goat cheese, and work the meatball around it. While cooking, the cheese seeps through the meat, keeping it tender. The taste of the cheese spreads delicately in such a way that there's only a whiff of it along the outside of the meat. Of course, when you bite into one, you'll be digging right into the center, where the fresh cheesy goodness is waiting. It's an unexpected, delicious contrast.

This recipe is from another of my graduation cookbooks: "Urban Italian Cooking" by Andrew Carmellini and Gwen Hyman. Much of the food in it is just like this: the chefs take a traditional Italian dish and give it an innovative twist. Moreover, they do so without gimickery. The process is deft, never relying on a cheap "gotcha!" sensation. Instead, one wonders why food hasn't always been made like this. If you're looking to escape cheesy "American-Italian" and don't feel like reverting back to the Traditional ways, give Urban Italian a go. It's well worth it.

Lamb Meatballs Stuffed with Goat Cheese
For the meatballs:
  • 3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed
  • 1 tsp ground fennel seed
  • 1 Tbs rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh goat cheese
  • 1/2 lb merguez sausage, about 8 links (or 2 links hot Italian sausage, if you prefer) with casings cut away
  • 1 lb ground lamb /* if you don't want to be overly decadent, beef works well, too */
  • 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp salt
For the sauce:
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 28oz can Italian tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible) plus their juice
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano, preferably on the branch
To finish the dish:
  • 1/4 cup Crumbs Yo! /* this is his special bread crumbs recipe -- toasted with salt, pepper, and spices of your choice. Nice, but not necessary */
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese

To make the meatballs:
  1. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for 3min. Add the garlic and cook for 1min, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add the coriander, fennel, and rosemary. Cook together 1min, so that the aromas of the spices and herbs are released. Remove to a bowl and place in the fridge to cool (about 5min), so that you're not combining hot onions with cold meat.
  3. Meanwhile, roll the goat cheese between your palms to form 1/2-inch balls (the size of a pebble). Place them on a plate and reserve.
  4. When the onion-herb mixture has cooled, combine it in a large bowl with the sausage, lamb, breadcrumbs, eggs, and salt. Mix well with your hands.
  5. Form the meatballs: for each meatball, scoop up about 2 Tbs of lamb mixture and roll and press it into an oval, about the size of a distended Ping-Pong ball. Use your thumb to create a goat-cheese-ball-size dent in the middle, and drop a goat-cheese ball inside. Pinch the lamb mixture up around the goat cheese to close the hole, and roll the meatball between your hands till it's round and smooth. Repeat until you've used up all the goat cheese and the lamb mixture.

To make the sauce:
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until it starts to soften, about 1min.
  2. Crush the tomatoes in a bowl with the heel of your hand. Add them to the pot, then add the tomato juice, red pepper flakes, salt, sugar, and oregano. Mix to combine. Cook over medium-high heat for 10min, until the flavours combine and the sauce is reduced.
  3. Add the meatballs, being careful not to break them. Reduce the heat to low, so the sauce is at a very low simmer, and cover. It's very important that the liquid never come to a boil. You want as slow a simmer as possible, so the flavors really come together, the cheese melts, and the meat becomes rich and tender. Cook for 5min, turn the meatballs with a spoon, and simmer another 5min, until the meat is cooked and the sauce takes on the flavour of the meatballs. (Some goat cheese may find it's way out during the cooking process -- it depends on how tightly you've made your meatballs -- but don't worry about this: the meatballs will still taste good.)

To finish the dish:
Ladle the meatballs and sauce into 6 bowls. Sprinkle with the Crumbs Yo! and the grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Drunken Shakespeare

Yes, you read that correctly. Drunken Shakespeare. In a university setting, what better way could you possibly spend a Saturday night than with a large group of inhibitionless friends hacking our way through the Bard's works? Answer: you can't. It was glorious.

I have always been a Shakespeare buff -- my father was proudly taking me to the theatre as soon as I was old enough to stay up that late. High school English classes were dull, because I was more familiar with the plays than the others students (and sometimes the teacher, too). I wrote my extended essay on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, the dubious 'friends' of Hamlet. And without provocation, I will happily pick up one of the big tragedies to read through some monologue or other.

And now, my madness is being bolstered by the encouraging warbles of everyone else.

Eminently Shakespearian characters do not like your Pyramus & Thisbe

The booze may not be necessary, but it has been known work wonders. Everyone is more likely to jump in and claim a character for their own, and hilarity always ensues. The centuries-old text comes alive, and sometimes the characters even get a bizarre makeover. Imagine, if you will, Macbeth as played by Marlon Brando. Or Midsummer Night's peanut gallery composed of Statler and Waldorf (OOOHOHOHOHO!).

Since the weather is turning Turk-- uh, cold, on this occasion, I thought some late-Autumn drinks would be appropriate. Something warm and fuzzy. Ultimately, I settled on Mulled Wine and Hot Buttered Rum. Both feel like grown-up versions of tea or hot chocolate, and the alcohol blends well with the other tastes well enough that you almost don't notice it. This calls for caution, of course: Othello is much less eloquent when he's passed out on the floor. But if you serve it warm-to-hot, folks are less likely to drink too fast.

"Is this a dagger I see before me?"

Unfortunately, I have yet to find an exact recipe for mulled wine that works 100% of time. If anyone has one, please let me know! I'm tired of having to wing it, not knowing if it will taste good or not. In essence, I tossed these ingredients in approximated amounts together. Heat -- but don't boil -- them in a pot before ladling them out into mugs.
  • 3 bottles Beaujolais // I'd try a Merlot next time
  • zest of 3 lemons
  • zest of 3 oranges
  • juice of 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 sticks cinnamon
  • cloves
  • nutmeg
  • allspice
  • pinch cardamom // don't overdo it. Really
I didn't even have to worry about the Hot Buttered Rum, as one of the night's actresses was adept at throwing it together at moment's notice. I learned later that she got the recipe from the Food Network website, which surprised me; I'm usually suspicious of the kind of recipes one might find there. But thumbs-up on this one -- warm, fuzzy, and delicious. I want to drink this every night of the upcoming Chicago winter. So Cheers to you, Witch #1 / Horatio / whomever-the-hell-else-you-were!

Hot Buttered Rum
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • Pinch salt
  • Bottle dark rum
  • Boiling water
In a bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. Refrigerate until almost firm. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the butter mixture into 12 small mugs. Pour about 3 ounces of rum into each mug (filling about halfway). Top with boiling water (to fill the remaining half), stir well, and serve immediately.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I wish I had a camera to show you how beautiful my dinner is. Because who eats liver any more, anyway? Even at my somewhat elitist neighborhood grocery store, the chummy check out clerks who know me by name expressed their skepticism and dismay when I presented myself with a pound of beef liver, an onion, parsley, egg noodles (which I only later realized are "no cholesterol," a rather self-defeating perk given that they're being served with a POUND of liver), and 4oz of chocolate (for brownies!, I protest). Last week, in Paris of all places, where you'd think they'd refrain from turning up their noses to classic, simple preparations, Do and my best friend from high school bonded over their mutual disgust that I ordered seared veal liver with mushrooms at a restaurant. Of course, the only person who was actual French at the table is notoriously finicky (but lovable! very, very lovable!), so I probably shouldn't judge the whole country on that basis.

Liver is heritage. It's a cut that our great grandparents had absolutely no problem with, in the days before all American butchery was reduced to a mere dozen cuts of any given animal, unceremoniously bundled in styrofoam and plastic and discounted for 2.99 per pound. It is unctuous, like a rare steak or top grade salmon sashimi. It smells like earth mixed with blood -- life, really, in all its depth and raw-ness.

Here's how Julie Powell, of Julie and Julia fame, describes it in the first chapter of her new book, Cleaving (in which she becomes a artisanal butcher's apprentice, an ideal perch from which to wax poetical about under-appreciated cuts of carcass):

"I now slice off eight pretty burgundy flaps of liver. The cut organ releases a metallic tang into the air, and yet more blood onto the table. Changing knives now, I delicately excise the tight pale ducts that weave through the slices. Perfectly cooked liver should be crisp on the outside with a custardy-smooth center. Nothing tough or chewy should get in the way of that sensual quintessence. Six of these slices are for the gleaming glass and steel case at the front of the shop; the last two I set aside, to wrap up and take home after work for a Valentine's Day dinner tomorrow. Once, I thought the holiday merited boxes of chocolate and glittery cards, but in these last couple of eye-opening years, amid the butchery and wrenches of the heart, I've realized life has gotten too complicated for such sweet and meaningless nothings; I've even learned I'm okay with that." Julie Powell, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsesssion, p.3.

Poetry. What a way to start a book! She then inserts a recipe for Valentine's Day Liver for Two, where she coats the beef liver with flour, and sears it on the rare side in butter, oil, salt, and pepper. That prose inspired my dinner tonight, but instead I used a recipe from Elizabeth Ehrlich's autobiography about acquiring a sense of self by learning to cook with her Holocaust-survivor mother in law. She devotes a whole chapter to learning how to cook liver, of which the sentences below are extracts:

"'Then we can start with the leybern.' Leybern - livers. Lukshn mit leybern: chicken livers with noodles. I am here to learn this, and next Friday, something else. For my husband, and for our children.
I remember my first taste of this dish. Just home from the hospital with Miriam's first grandchild, I found her in my kitchen, warming her pot on my stove and insisting I come to the table. The richness, the oil, the iron, the cholesterol, the onion, the salt overtook my body like an intravenous drug. Miriam beamed. "It's good," she stated. There had never been a dish like this one.
Many women of Miriam's generation and background have moved toward broiled fish or chicken. But Miriam stays with her chopping bowl, soup pot, and frying pan, with the old labor-intensive recipes, the rich and salty ways.
Can I use less oil, I wonder?"
Elizabeth Ehrich, Miriam's Kitchen, p.41-47

Miriam's recipe, which is the one that I made for dinner, is below. My comments are in italics.

Lukshn Mit Leybern. Serves 4.
1 lb chicken livers (I used top quality beef livers, because my butcher didn't have chicken)
1 large onion, diced (I'm tempted to use two next time)
Black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 Tbs flour
3/4 Tbs sugar (I eliminated this, as unlike Polish Jews I don't fancy sugar in my mains)
1/4 tsp salt
Egg noodles, medium width (I used 1/2lb, could go with less).
Hot Water
Parsley, chopped, for color.
Clean livers. Slice into generous bite-size pieces. Broil gently until done, then drain on toweling to remove all blood (remember, this is a Kosher recipe).
Place onion in medium saucepan and sprinkle [generously] with black pepper. Cook on low heat until onion pieces sweat. [Or until you're so hungry you can't stand it any more.]
Add the oil to cover bottom of pan and onion. Mix. Saute until just golden. Stor in livers. Cook for a few minutes over low heat. Add the flour and sugar and mix together. Cover with hot water and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes over low flame. Add salt to taste. Simmer for a few more minutes. Serve hot on cooked noodles, sprinkle with parsely.

The broth tastes like that from a 6 hour long beef stew - the kind where you make your own beef broth from scratch with bones in order to enrich the broth with marrow. The richness of it all makes it kind of taste like Stroganoff... even though there's clearly no cream in it. I'm half tempted to add just a half teaspoon of mustard to emphasize the similarity. This isn't necessarily Liver at its most shocking - that would be seared, minimalist. But it's simple, honest. Rooted in another era.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to settle down with my bowl full of days gone by and my glass of wine, and enjoy.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This meal brought to you by Forward Momentum

I guess I was remiss when last when writing about the Great Tapas Dinner. I didn't even mention the amount of prep work that went into it. Don't worry, I won't wax poetical about the last minute stress of hosting a dinner party. I'm sure we've all been there before. The fact that this gathering involved me planning to single-handedly put together 21 different dishes, well... that just illustrates how I have way too much fun for my own good.

To quote a militaristic literary idol of mine, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Just so in this case. I plotted out the menu way in advance (which just means I didn't say: "Oh, this looks interesting; let's make this tonight!"). Having no real idea where to start, I simply paged through the The Book of Tapas, noting which recipes looked tasty or interesting (or just bizarre and intriguing). Unfortunately, this gave me a list with roughly 50 items on it. After several cuts, and one dessert addition from Rick Bayless' website, I had the expected 21.

You would think that would be sufficient planning. But no! Then I had to figure out if it was even possible to make those dishes: many called for seasonal ingredients that aren't always easy to find in a Midwestern Autumn. Which brings me to the first great obstacle: grocery shopping. (Here I must apologize, because I said I wouldn't wax poetical. The shopping deserves an exception.) My memory is hazy (stress-induced delirium?), but I believe I had to make four distinct trips to the store. The first was to determine if all the ingredients could be had, and if not, what I could use instead. That was a success.

The second and third trips, as the actual 'buy stuff' excursions, were not. You see, I don't have a vehicle -- which is usually fine, because I live within walking distance of two grocery stores. However there is a limit to how much a person can carry in one trip. This was made even more difficult because two of my roommates promise to help carry bags... and then both flaked out on me. I must have been quite a comical sight, carrying all that stuff back by myself. Ok, rant over. Those were trips 2 and 3. Trip 4 was the last minute shoot-where-is-the-x-oh-damn-quick-go-get-it-now trip.

And that was all before the day of the event. During the week preceding the dinner, I pretty much spent every night reviewing the recipes (to ensure I'd be able to construct them with a minimum of difficulty), sometimes almost falling asleep on the cookbook. It was actually pretty funny. By the end of the week, I was virtually dreaming of tapas. I was definitely reverting to Spanish whenever I started talking to anyone. Aaawkward.

And by the end of it, I didn't even get to serve everything! While actually in the kitchen, I had to spontaneously remove 4-5 courses from the meal. The cuts were bourne of a realisation that there was no way my guests were going to be able to eat so much. Hey! In my defense, tapas are supposed to be small!

Anyway, that's enough blabber and ranting from me. Let's get to the interesting stuff: the food! These two dishes fall under the 'curiosities' category. Definitely not something you would serve every day, but an intriguing combination regardless. On the whole, this is the type of food on whose taste you might reflect, but it won't cause any cravings. They fit in well in a large complicated meal, and might work better as a small Amuse-Bouche.

Orange, Fennel, and Onion Salad (Ensalada con Naranja, Hinojo y Cebolla)
  • 1lb 5oz fennel, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
  • 3 large oranges
  • 5 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 Tbs lemon juice
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • handful of black olives, pitted and sliced
  • mint leaves, to garnish (optional)
  • salt and pepper
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil. Add the fennel, being back to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, then drain. Peel the oranges, removing any traces of white pith, and thinly slice crosswise, reserving any juices. when the fennel is cool enough to handle, thickly slice it and set aside. To make the dressing, beat the olive oil, lemmon juice and reserved orange juice together in a large bowl with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.

Combine the fennel, oranges, onion and olives in the bowl, gently tossing together. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently just before serving. The salad can be garnished with mint leaves, if desired

Hard-boiled Eggs with Smoked Salmon (Huevos duros al Salmón)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 generous slice smoked salmon
  • salt
  • 3,1/2 Tbs bottled salmon row, drained, to garnish
To hard boil the eggs, pour enough water to cover them into a large pan, add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Add the eggs carefully and stir gently with a wooden spoon to that then they set the yolks will be in the center. Cook medium-size eggs for 12 minutes. (Add 1 minute for bigger eggs and subtrract 1 minute for smaller eggs.) Drain off the hot water, fill the pan with cold water and leave the eggs until required. When the eggs are cool enough to handle, shell and halve the eggs lengthwise. Cut a thin slice off the base of each egg white half so it stays upright.

Put the mayonnaise and smoked salmon in a blender and blend until well mixed. Season with salt, if necessary, as the salmon might be already salted. To improve the presentation of the eggs, use a pastry bag to pipe the salmon and mayonnaise mixture onto the halved eggs. Garnish with the salmon roe and serve. If no serving immediately, store in the refrigerator until required.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day

Midterm elections are today.

If one more person asks me if I've voted, starts talking about their party affiliation, or generally brings up politics at all, I'm going to shove carrots in my ears, stick out my tongue, and go PBBBBTTTTLLLL.

Originally, this post was going to be much longer than it is now. But I found myself going on an ideological rant against American politics in general. It actually felt good to refine my thoughts to the point of committing them to writing, but the results serve me better in the writing than it would you in the reading. So I'll spare you the extended edition in favour of the sound bites edition:
  • U.S. citizens get loud and stupid about politics.
  • The Tea Party movement discomforts me.
  • I have high hopes for the G.O.P. My main hope is that when they retake the House and Senate, they will focus on governing more than merely crushing the democrats.
  • President Obama may not be the great leader for whom everyone was hoping. But he has a good head on his shoulders, and that counts for a lot in my book.
  • I need more carrots.
And with that out of the way, I leave you with a discovered treasure that I am sure to make many many times in the near future. Though as of yet untested, this looks like a chocolate & peanut butter treat to appease the gods of angry voters: Buckeyes, from the Smitten Kitchen. With something like this, nothing can frustrate me. Not the fact that I have carrots in my ears, nor that I need to stick more of them in. Not even that I should really be studying for tomorrow's 5 hour midterm instead of blogging.

So, in closing, I leave one political thought that doesn't bother me about our democracy. This is from Aaron Sorkin, via the West Wing's Josh Lyman. He was talking about radical extremists at the time, but I find it the best solution to deal with short-sightedness and pride.
"You want to get these people? You really want to reach in and kill 'em where they live? Then keep accepting more than one idea. Makes them absolutely crazy."