Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Sous-Chef Shrimp

Odd Toddler rarely gets to eat dinner with us any longer, which takes some of the entertainment value out of dinnertime but which makes it much easier to clean up afterwards. The odd one crashes at 7:00 every evening, after an early evening snack of fruit, yogurt, and (ugh) jelly beans. The problem is that The Carnivore and I never seem to make it to the dinner table any earlier than 8:30. This wasn't the case for the past few years, but we seem to be reverting to our old ways now that life is returning to normal (read: we no longer have a helpless little baby in charge of the schedule).

Life with toddlers is much more fun than life with newborns, though I would give my right arm to actually HAVE another newborn in our lives, and every day seems like an adventure now. It may take an hour to pick up three items at the grocery store, since we have to stop and get a free balloon, pick out a gumball, discuss the different tomatoes, talk about spices, say hello to the lobsters in the tank, etc; but I much more enjoy simple, annoying chores like grocery shopping now that I get it to see everything through the eyes of a two-year-old. He really gets off on going to Walmart (my idea of Hell), and filling up the car with gas can provide endless entertainment. But lately, the little guy has taken more of an interest in cooking, and he'll knock me down to be the one who gets to pulse the sauce in the food processor, or scoop the coffee into the French Press, or even to carry the vegetables from the refrigerator to the chopping block.

I'm loving it. All of it.

Sometimes, when I'm stirring something on the stove and dicking around with the final seasonings, I will sit Odd Toddler on the counter and hold out the wooden spoon to get his opinion. Taste tests are his favorite part about cooking, and he watches me carefully to make sure he does his part correctly. He'll lean over the spoon, sniffing it carefully and trying to make appropriate noises. Then he'll take the smallest taste, smack his lips together, swallow, and exuberantly proclaim, "That's YUMMY for me, mom!"

So of course its mildly disappointing that Odd Toddler rarely gets to sit down with The Carnivore and I at dinnertime and discuss the meal with us. Because of course we discuss every aspect of every meal, deciding whether or not a new recipe is a keeper, whether there is enough salt or if another herb or spice might be lacking, which ingredients might be tweaked, and so on. And every night The Carnivore makes my efforts worthwhile when he thanks me for a delicious dinner (even if we analyzed the final result to within an inch of its life and deemed it not entirely delicious after all). Its nice to be appreciated.

I've been on a new-recipe-every-night kind of kick lately, and have found the time to pore over some new cookbooks and get some quality time with my cooking magazines. Variety can be difficult within our self-imposed dietary restrictions, so I'm always looking for new riffs on pasta dishes, and I enjoy adding seafood to our meals once or twice a week as a way to appease The Carnivore's desire for flesh on his plate without his having to succumb to his disgusting red meat cravings. For the past couple of weeks, I have eyed a Creamy Cajun Shrimp Linguine recipe from the September issue of Cooking Light magazine, but there were a few elements of the recipe that gave me pause and it took me a while to get up the nerve to give it a shot. I finally went for it on Monday evening, and The Carnivore and I were very pleasantly surprised (Big Mama claims its her new favorite). The flavors were simple yet tasty, the texture was great and the overall look and taste of the dish was restaurant-quality, but the dish was amazingly quick and easy to prepare. Most surprising though is how rich and creamy the sauce tastes, while being quite healthy and relatively low-fat. Maybe its time to quit dissing Cooking Light all the time. The only tweaks I made were switching vegetable broth for the chicken broth, using whole-wheat noodles instead of icky white ones, upping the butter a little, and doubling the Cajun seasoning measurement.

CREAMY CAJUN SHRIMP LINGUINE (serves 3, adapted from Cooking Light)
  • 1 cup water
  • 14 oz vegetable broth
  • 6 oz whole-wheat linguine noodles
  • 1 lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 8-oz sliced mushrooms
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 2 tsps all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsps Cajun seasoning (I used Emeril's Bayou Blast)
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 2/3 cup half-and-half
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  1. Combine 1 cup water and broth in a Dutch oven; bring to a boil.
  2. Break pasta in half; add to pan. Bring mixture to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 8 minutes.
  3. Add shrimp to pan. Cover and simmer for 3 minutes or until shrimp are done; drain.
  4. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and pepper to pan; saute 4 minutes or until moisture evaporates.
  5. Add flour, seasoning, and salt to pan; saute 30 seconds.
  6. Stir in half-and-half; cook 1 minute or until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
  7. Toss together the sauce, the pasta and shrimp, and the parsley.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Getting Cozy (Not Complacent)

Pumpkin was kind enough to stroke my ego last week with a short list of recipe requests, and I was tickled that someone else had noticed that Soup Season has begun. My only complaint about summer is that it precludes all manner of my chowder recipes. And I luuuuurrve chowders. In these parts of the world, we only get about four months of cold weather, and two of those months would be laughable to anyone who lives 100 miles or so north of us. I'm more of a South Florida kind of person as a general rule, but very few things can make me feel as cozy and comforted as a big pot of soup simmering on the stove.

I experimented with some different soup recipes last winter, but was often frustrated by how seemingly few options are available to those who eschew meat in their diets. To add to the issues, The Carnivore is rarely impressed by tomato-based vegetable stews. Our options were dwindling.

I have one great Italian Vegetable Soup recipe that can be enjoyed year-round (yes, even in summer - though possibly not in South Florida), along with a great onion soup. For the winter, I save my small handful of chilis, New England style chowders, and bean soups. But my problem is that I crave variety. And ease of work. Two often very conflicting criteria. Plus, the more Vegetarian-ish a soup is, the more The Carnivore sighs heavily and asks me if I can go by the store to pick him up some meat.

A week or so ago, while Odd Toddler and I were snuggling under an afghan in our pajamas, watching Lord of the Rings for the seven hundredth time, my annual soup cravings started again. Sadly, there were no memorable recipes from last winter, so I kicked the soup idea around in my head for a few days before running into a time crunch while making the menu and grocery list for last week. I grabbed a couple of past issues of Cooking Light on my way out the door and reached for the recipes I'd marked to try, hoping something would strike my fancy on the fly. Lucky me, there was a Leek and Potato Chowder in the Reader Recipes section that sounded worthwhile, and called for an intriguing list of ingredients.

I was excited to make the soup on Friday night, and asked The Carnivore to stop by the store and pick up some French bread on his way home. Alas, I made it almost to the end of the recipe before realizing the arugula in the crisper drawer had died a sad and science-project-like death. I stood in despair by the stove for a few minutes before admitting defeat and starting over on a completely new dinner. The unfinished soup was set aside and refrigerated overnight to be completed on Saturday.

Saturday came, along with yet another trip to the store (the only store in this whole dang town who actually carries arugula, and I was finally ready to finish the soup. The Carnivore built a fire, the soup simmered on the stove, the bread was crisping in the oven, and my little family was happy and healthy. All the good things about winter were coming together at the same time. Of course, I still had my doubts about the soup, even as I was cooking it. The cook's notes at the top of the recipe mentioned that the author had developed the recipe for a vegetarian hiking retreat (not something I wanted to mention to The Republican Carnivore ahead of time).

I've mentioned it before, but its worth repeating. Recipes that are deliberately vegetarian can lean towards the pointless. This particular vegetarian looks at all Vegetarian Recipes as possibly suspect.

After a few taste tests, and a few additional tweaks to the original recipe, I was cautiously hopeful that I had a winner. When everything was ready, I ladled the soup out and served it with warm, crusty French bread. I took the first couple of bites and was more than a little surprised at how delicious it was. The creamy base of the soup came from pureed potatoes rather than milk or cream, and while it sounds great in theory, I had been worried that the lowfat trick would affect the texture and the depth of flavor. I found though that a complexity of taste could be faked with the addition of some cooking sherry (I love adding this stuff to bisques and chowders), and a little (okay a lot) of added salt and pepper helped punch up the flavor of the potatoes .

And most surprisingly, The Carnivore loved it (and even mentioned that he thought the texture was wonderful - imagine his surprise when he found out the texture came not from cream, but from the potatoes themselves). Even Odd Toddler enjoyed the soup, although his pleasure came mostly from dunking his bread in the soup and then slurping up the soggy crumbs. We're thrilled to have a new and different, and extremely healthy, chowder to add to our winter soup repertoire.

POTATO LEEK SOUP (serves four, created by Lisa Gilbert, heavily adapted by Sarah)
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 to 3 leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced and rinsed
  • 2 1/2 lbs cubed Yukon gold potatoes (keep the peel on for added texture and fiber)
  • 5 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 cups thinly sliced (or chopped) arugula
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1/8 cup sherry (cheap cooking sherry is fine)
  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add leeks and saute 5 minutes or until tender.
  2. Add potato and vegetable broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 25 minutes or until potato is tender.
  3. Place 3 cups of potato mixture into a blender (remove center piece of blender lid to allow steam to escape) and blend until smooth.
  4. Return pureed potatoes to pan; bring to a simmer.
  5. Stir in arugula, salt, both kinds of pepper, and sherry; simmer for another minute or two until arugula wilts.
  6. Serve with warm bread.
  7. Snuggle in front of the fire with your family and be thankful that you aren't going cold or hungry.

Please remember that Tuesday, November 7 is Election Day. Our right to vote is just one of the many things that make this country so great. It doesn't take much time or effort to educate yourself about the issues and the candidates , and it is hardly an inconvenience to go to the polling place and cast your vote. It is abysmally sad that only about 45% of registered voters are expected to hit the polls for the midterm elections. The polls are open for twelve hours. Make the time to get your voice heard.