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Recipes and food musings for the global home cook.

Sesame oil, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, garlic, and orange all work together to imbue duck legs with Asian flavor without absolutely taking over. (Blue Kitchen)

The Lemonade Cookbook and Chinese-style braised duck legs

By Blue Kitchen / 12.12.13

We occasionally get offers to review cookbooks. Often, we say yes. But sometimes, the cookbooks can be a little too, well, niche for our tastes. Did you know there are multiple jello shot cookbooks?

So when we were asked to review "The Lemonade Cookbook," you can imagine our first response. Turns out, though, that lemonade isn’t the key ingredient in the book’s recipes. It’s the name of a popular chain of modern cafeterias in Southern California with an emphasis on simple preparations, bold flavors and imaginative dishes with an inventive global taste. This sounded like a cookbook we needed to see.

After years of working in fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles, Alan Jackson, chef/owner of Lemonade, saw the need for quick, affordable food that didn’t come at the expense of taste or imagination. He opened the first Lemonade location in 2007, offering a daily rotating spread of fresh, chef-driven, healthy fare. Twelve more locations have opened since.

RECOMMENDED: 28 cookbooks from 2013

Published this fall by St. Martin’s Press, "The Lemonade Cookbook: Southern California Comfort Food from L.A.’s Favorite Modern Cafeteria" beautifully translates Jackson’s cooking approach for the home kitchen. A full 39 of the 120 recipes are devoted to “marketplace vegetables” – on their own, with legumes and grains and with proteins such as ahi tuna and chicken. Land and sea, braises, sandwiches (including seven pot roast sandwiches), soups and stuff, sweets and, yes, lemonades (10 of them) make up the rest of the list. Lively writing by Jackson and coauthor JoAnn Cianciulli as well as gorgeous photography by Victoria Pearson bring it all deliciously to life.

I’m always happy to cook duck. This recipe makes the most of its meaty, rich flavor. Jackson accurately calls it “Chinese-style” – it uses a number of Chinese ingredients and Chinese cooking techniques without attempting to replicate a specific dish. The sesame oil, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, garlic, and orange all work together to imbue the duck with Asian flavor without absolutely taking over. That’s another thing that made this recipe especially “Chinese-style” to me. The effect is subtle, as with Chinese braised, steamed or tea-smoked dishes. And while I love big, tangy, spicy Chinese dishes, it’s quiet ones like this that often wow me.

One more thing about the subtleness. All you serve of this dish are the duck legs; the beautiful aromatics in the photo above get discarded. For a spot of color, serve some orange slices alongside. And if you’re cooking for someone else, maybe have them admire the pan before you serve.

Chinese-style braised duck
Serves 2

2 whole duck legs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 large, seedless navel orange, cut into large chunks (skin and all)

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1-inch piece fresh ginger, halved lengthwise and smashed

1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 4-inch sections, bulb smashed

5 to 6 sprigs cilantro

1/2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

1-1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Additional orange slices (optional)

1. Season duck legs generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high flame. Brown duck legs skin side down for about 10 minutes. Turn and brown other side for about 2 minutes. Transfer to plate. If there’s a lot of duck fat in your pan, pour most of it off (mine had virtually none – leave it to me to find a dieting duck).

2. Add orange, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, and peppercorns to pan. Pour in sesame oil and broth and stir to combine, scraping up any browned bits. Return duck legs and any accumulated juices to pan. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pan and braise duck legs until tender, about 1 hour.

3. Plate duck, along with additional orange slices, if desired, and serve. Discard braising liquid and solids.

RECOMMENDED: 28 cookbooks from 2013

Don't be intimated by rolling, this dough is easy to work with, and the results will delight. (In Praise of Leftovers)

Classic shortbread cookies

By In Praise of Leftovers / 12.11.13

Shortbread always makes me think of my sister. Every Christmas, she makes a gargantuan batch of dough and proceeds to turn each cookie into a frosted work of art. 

I trust myself less with the decorations (yikes!) and more with the recipe. I was craving a traditional cut-out shortbread recipe that wasn't fussy, and it actually took me a while to find one. I ended up coming back to my tattered "Silver Palate" cookbook. The first one. I remember so clearly my mom cooking out of that in the 1980s, way before people even knew what pesto was. Or sun-dried tomatoes. Or roasting garlic, which seemed so crazy at the time. Forty cloves of garlic? Wild!

Don't let the rolling intimidate you. This dough is really easy to work with, and the results are perfection. I added some fresh rosemary here. You can leave it out or add countless other (finely chopped) additions – lemon zest, pecans, hazelnuts, or almonds, Chinese 5 spice powder, lavender, candied ginger. Shortbread tastes even better if it ages for a few days, won't go stale for at least a week, and is so wonderful with a cup of tea in the afternoon. 

Rosemary shortbread

 3/4 lb. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup powdered sugar

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1. Cream butter and powdered sugar together until light and fluffy.

2. Sift flour and salt together and add to creamed mixture. Add vanilla and blend thoroughly.

3. Gather dough into into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 3 or 4 hours.

4. Roll out chilled dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds or shapes with your favorite biscuit or cookie cutter. Sprinkle tops with granulated sugar. Place cookies on un-greased cookie sheets and refrigerate for 30-45 more minutes before baking.

5. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Bake for 20 minutes, or until just starting to color lightly. Cookies should not brown at all. Cool on a rack. 

Related post on In Praise of Leftovers: Russian Teacakes

These filling waffles beg to be topped with maple syrup, and maybe even a dollop of whipped cream. (Whipped, the Blog)

Spiced pumpkin waffles

By Whipped, The Blog / 12.10.13

The big day has come and gone. Millions of pieces of pumpkin pie have been consumed. The spotlight has moved away from pumpkin and is heading toward gingerbread and egg nog. I, however, am not quite ready to say goodbye.

These waffles were a new addition to my repertoire this year. We made a heap of them and froze half the batch, warming them in the toaster oven over the past few weeks. I’ve decided to make one last batch and hit the snooze button on the end of pumpkin season. The added benefit of this recipe is the aroma that fills your house while the waffles cook.

Because I was concerned about the waffles being dense, I altered this recipe from Weelicious slightly by separating the eggs and whipping the whites before folding them in at the end. In addition, I altered the spices a touch. The final result is fragrant, filling waffles that marry exceptionally well with maple syrup. A dollop of whipped cream wouldn’t be a bad match either.

Spiced pumpkin waffles
Makes 12 4-inch waffles

2-1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/3 cup light brown sugar

2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

4 large eggs

2 cups buttermilk

1 cup pumpkin purée

6 tablespoons melted butter

1. Preheat a large waffle iron. Sift the first eight ingredients into a bowl and set aside. Separate the eggs and whip the whites in a stand mixture until white and soft peaks form. In another bowl, stir egg yolks together with buttermilk, pumpkin, and melted butter. Combine the pumpkin mixture with the dry ingredients until just mixed together. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the egg whites until just incorporated.

2. Cook waffles on medium heat setting of the waffle iron until done. (When I am planning to freeze some, I cook them until just set to allow for further cooking when I reheat them).

3. Serve warm with maple syrup or your choice of topping. To freeze additional waffles, let them cool completely. Then, freeze them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes before putting them in a zip-top bag together. When ready, reheat them in a toaster oven.

Related post on Whipped, the Blog: The Best Pumpkin Bread Recipe. Really.

Creamy coconut milk provides a base for this butternut and pumpkin soup seasoned with apple, sage, and curry. (Kitchen Report)

Squash coconut curry soup

By Kitchen Report / 12.09.13

I wanted to host some friends to watch “Sound of Music Live!” on NBC with Carrie Underwood when it aired last week, so I sent out an enticing e-mail promising hearty soup, bread, and freshly baked cookies. Somehow I managed to convince three friends to show up.

About five minutes into the production, the soup was stealing the show. “This is melt-in-your-mouth good,” said Christy. “Can you give me the recipe?”

Rebecca, who had arrived announcing she had already had dinner, had two bowlfuls.

I was thrown off a bit, because I had made up the recipe. I felt my pride rise from the lake to the trees. Actually, once you know the basics in making soup (stock, thickner, seasoning) you can pretty much mix and match flavors to your heart's content. I had riffed on this pumpkin curry soup with some miscellaneous leftovers I had on hand: a 3/4 can of pumpkin purée, 1/4 roasted butternut squash, a withered apple, and a bit of rice.

You can adapt the amount of squash to your liking – for instance, you can use a whole can of pumpkin, no biggie. You can also add more or less broth, depending on your preferences for thickness. The flavors will improve overnight, if you can manage to save any leftovers. (I barely managed to save enough for the photo.)

By the time Liesl and Rolf were rolling down the remarkable fake hillside, the soup pot was empty. We watched the entire three-hour production, which had its highlights and amazing voices, mopped up our soup bowls with bread, and drank tea with our ginger molasses cookies. But mostly we missed Julie Andrews.

Thank goodness our bellies were full.

Squash coconut curry soup

2 tablespoons butter 

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon dried sage

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon curry

2-1/2 cups vegetable broth

1 15-ounce canned pumpkin

1/4 butternut squash, roasted or cooked

1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 13.-5-ounce can coconut milk

1 cup cooked brown rice

Squeeze of lime juice

Sour cream, to garnish

1. Cook the brown rice according to instructions.

2. If you need to cook your squash, a shortcut is to slice it in half, scoop out the seeds, wrap the top half in plastic, and microwave for 8 minutes in a microwavable dish. Wait a few minutes before peeling back the plastic wrap because the squash will be very hot. Otherwise, you can roast face down in a pan with 1-inch of water for about 20 minutes in a 400 degree F. oven.

3. Melt the butter in a large soup pan. Add onion and sage and cook until tender, 3-5 minutes, stirring often. 

4. Stir in flour and curry and gradually add broth, stirring constantly, until mixture has thickened over medium-high heat.

5. Stir in pumpkin, butternut squash, apple, honey, salt, nutmeg, pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

6. Use an immersion blender to work out any lumps, or ladle into a blender in parts, then return to the pot.

7. Stir in coconut milk and cooked rice, and heat through. Be sure to stir constantly or the rice will stick to the bottom.

8. Add a squeeze of fresh lime. Garnish with sour cream and chives. Serve.

Inspired by rainbow cookies, gel food coloring works best for this festive cake. (The Gourmand Mom)

Rainbow cookie cake

By The Gourmand Mom / 12.06.13

Is anybody else planning on getting their 2-year-old a Harry and David fruit basket for Christmas this year? I’m guessing I might be the only one, and yet, I’m 99.99 percent certain that it will be his favorite gift, by far. The kid is ridiculously in love with fruit.

In fact, on Halloween, we stopped by my sister’s house to trick-or-treat. She handed each of the boys a piece of candy from the bowl of treats by her door, before remembering that she had an ultra-ripe Harry and David pear for my littlest guy. She ran into her kitchen to grab the foil-wrapped gem, then handed it to my little James, who literally threw the piece of candy over his shoulder like a piece of worthless garbage, in exchange for the tender pear. I expect him to be as excited over his Harry and David fruit basket as the other boys will be over their massive Lego castle and Minecraft video game.

When it comes to Christmas, I am like Walt Disney, carefully masterminding magical moments. While James revels in the magic of an assortment of unusually large, perfectly ripened fruit, I expect the other two boys to be doing giggling backflips over the two-foot-long gummy worm I plan to order or the giant Rice Krispie treat I found at Target.

In the spirit of magical, oversized treats, I think you’ll enjoy this oversized rainbow cookie cake. It’s like those delicious, almondy rainbow cookies, only it’s the size of an entire cake. It’s like one, giant rainbow cookie, and I wouldn’t blame you if you ate the whole darn thing. I started with a recipe for rainbow cookies, then lightened it up just a bit with an additional egg, a bit more flour, and a teaspoon of baking powder. It’s got the dense lusciousness you expect to find in a rainbow cookie, just a bit more cakelike. This rich, chocolate-drenched cake is a must-have on any holiday table.

Rainbow cookie cake

5 eggs, separated

1 8-ounce can almond paste

1-1/4 cups sugar

2-1/2 sticks butter, softened to room temperature

1 teaspoon almond extract

2-1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Green food coloring

Red food coloring

Yellow food coloring

Seedless raspberry jam

Apricot jam

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

1/4 cup heavy cream

Chocolate sprinkles

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray three 9- by 5-inch loaf pans with baking spray.

2. Place the 5 egg whites in a clean bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

3. Use a fork to break up the almond paste into smaller pieces. In a large bowl, combine the almond paste and sugar with an electric mixer until there are no large lumps. Add the butter and beat until well combined. Add the egg yolks and almond extract and beat until blended.

4. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Gradually beat the flour mixer into the wet ingredients. The dough will be quite thick.

5. Stir 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the dough. This will slightly lighten the mixture. Then, fold in the remaining egg whites until well blended.

6. Divide the dough into three equal portions. Use a few drops of food coloring to color one portion red, another portion green, and the remaining portion yellow. *Gel food coloring has the best effect.

7. Use a spatula to spread each portion of dough into the three prepared baking pans.

8. Bake on the middle rack of your oven for 20-25 minutes, until the cakes are set and the edges just begin to turn golden.

9. Allow the cakes to cool for a few minutes in the pans, then carefully invert the cakes onto cooling racks. Cool completely.

10. Use a long serrated knife to level the cakes, removing as little cake as necessary.

11. Spread a layer of raspberry jam over the red layer. Place the yellow layer over the jam, then spread the apricot jam on top. Top with the green layer.

12. Chop the semisweet chocolate. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan or in the microwave, just until boiling. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, then stir until smooth. Use a spatula to spread the chocolate ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Garnish liberally with chocolate sprinkles.

13. Refrigerate to set, but remove the cake from the fridge before serving, so it comes up to room temperature.

Related post on The Gourmand Mom: Spiced mango upside down cake

5 spice is commonly used in Asian dishes. Make your own at home, and save it for future uses. (Beyond the Peel)

Vietnamese braised chicken with 5 spice

By Beyond the Peel / 12.04.13

Isn’t one of the best things about traveling exploring the food that is so uniquely of that culture? The different flavors, vegetables used in different ways, spices I’ve never heard of, food I’ve never seen. It's amazing. But I’ve always been a little bit of a gourmand, aka piggy. What can I say. I love food.

It seems a little strange to be thinking about Vietnamese dishes as I sit and look out the window. It’s currently snowing and -12 degrees C. (Joshua is American, so that’s 11 degrees F. for all of you south of the border). And even though it is cold, it is stunningly beautiful. The tiniest snowflakes are falling with almost no wind by the thousands every millisecond.

In Vietnam, the high today is 31 degrees C., or 89 degrees F. In a country that rarely experiences cold except in the far reaches of the north-western parts, the majority of Vietnamese food is a little spicy and almost always hot, braised, in soup form or stewed. I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a country that rarely saw temperatures under 22 degrees C. or 71 degrees F., I think I’d choose to live off salads, not eating beef pho  (beef and noodle soup) for breakfast. But that’s just me. As it turns out, Vietnamese food is perfectly suited for a northern Canadian girl that is currently freezing.

One of the wonderful things (or at least I think so) about Vietnamese cuisine is that they use every part of the animal. Nothing is wasted. As a result, recipes that use less desirable (what we would consider undesirable) cuts of meat are common. Ox tail, the brown meat on chicken, pork shoulder, tongue, feet, and everything in between. Cheap cuts of meat are rarely considered a culinary delight in North America. But in Vietnam, everything is good to go. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start posting duck tongue stew, or boiled chicken feet, but it is refreshing to make delicious, flavorful, and inexpensive meals. 

Chinese 5 spice or as it is seen commonly in Vietnamese cookbooks as 5 spice, can be bought or simply made. 5 spice is also used in other Asian and Arabic cooking so if you’re adventurous you’ll find plenty of uses for it. The ingredients are simple and if you have a well stocked spice cupboard you may already have the ingredients you need without having to spend any money.

5 spice is essentially made up of star anis, clove, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and szechuan pepper, but some recipes will include ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, licorice, black pepper, and/or orange peel. I wanted to give you a fairly standard recipe, but feel free to explore a bit with the list of optional spices. Play around and you’ll have a recipe that is all your own. Like your families special blend! (See recipe below.)

You may want to double or even triple this chicken recipe based on your needs. This is enough for 2-4 people depending on how many chicken thighs you each eat. This is the equivalent of 4 meals for me, but a family might to want double the recipe, or if you have a dude in your life that eats 3 thighs in one sitting… you may not want to double the vegetables as I tend to go pretty heavy in that department.

This recipe can be made with beef or pork and any tough cuts of meat you may have gotten a deal on. Simply increase the cooking time to yield tender meat. Beef will take about 2-1/2 hours. You could also make this with cubed pumpkin or squash as a delightful vegetarian or even vegan dish.

Vietnamese braised chicken with 5 spice (or vegan Vietnamese braised squash)

4 chicken thighs (or vegans: 3 cups cubed winter squash, directions found below)

1/4 cup of flour of choice (whole grain or gluten-free flour can be used here)

1 teaspoon salt

Oil for frying

1 onion, diced

1/2 tablespoon of 5 spice (see recipe below)

1 long red chili, seeded and thinly sliced (or substitute 1 teaspoon red chili sauce)

4 tomatoes, chopped

4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch chucks

1 tablespoon soy sauce (or for a soy-free option substitute coconut aminos)

1 tablespoon of sweetener of choice (I used honey)

1-3/4 cups of water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Mix the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and place it in a shallow bowl. Coat the chicken thighs with the flour mixture and shake off excess.

3. Heat a small amount of oil in a hot ovenproof heavy bottomed pan or pot (that has a lid) and brown the chicken on both sides. This should take about 2 minutes per side. Remove the chicken and set aside.

4. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion and cook until onions become translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the 5 spice and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, being careful not to burn the spices. Add the remaining salt, tomatoes, carrots, soy sauce (or coconut aminos), sweetener, water, and stir to combine. Bring it to a boil and nestle the chicken pieces among the vegetables. Depending on the size of pan you may need to add a little more water.

5. Cover the pot with a lid and place it in the oven for 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Serve it with steamed greens and rice

Vegan option: Skip the chicken and use cubed pumpkin or winter squash. Peel, seed and cube 3 cups of your favorite winter squash (like butternut) or pumpkin. Toss the squash with the flour and salt mixture. Skip the browning process. Add the squash to the pan at the same time as the tomatoes and carrots. Add the water, bring to a simmer, cover the pan with a lid and place it in the oven. Cook for 40 minutes or until squash is tender.

Notes: If you would like the broth to be thicker and more like a sauce, add 2 tablespoons of the remaining flour salt mixture left over from coating the chicken or squash and fry it up at the same time as the onions. Continue with the rest of the recipes as directed.

Homemade Chinese 5 spice

1 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper

1 teaspoon ground star anise

1 1/4 teaspoon ground fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Transfer the spice mixture to a airtight container.

Be sure to under-bake these cookies and let them cool completely before eating for the perfect texture. (The Pastry Chef's Baking)

Nutella-filled chocolate chocolate chip cookies

By The Pastry Chef's Baking / 12.04.13

I made these cookies to help with my friend's fundraiser for typhoon Haiyan relief efforts in the Philippines. Anything that involves stuffing Nutella inside a cookie is worth trying. Although I have to admit I didn't follow the directions precisely. 

Instead of piping Nutella dollops and freezing them, I chilled the jar of Nutella first then used my mini cheesecake pan with removable bottoms to layer cookie dough on the bottom, drop a scoop of chilled Nutella in the center and cover it with another layer of dough. Then I pushed up the bottom to pop the cookie "blob" out and sealed any cracks so the Nutella couldn't escape during baking. This method works pretty well if you have the pan, although it does make fairly chubby cookies. (Note: that's not a criticism I always like chubby in a cookie.)

These are fairly rich and you'll only achieve that fudgy texture if you underbake them. If you fully bake them, the cookies will be dry. I highly recommend letting these cool to room temperature before you try them. If you eat them when they're too warm, they'll be too mushy. Normally that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing but it's better when the cookie has cooled and has the texture of a fudgy cookie to go with the softer, almost liquid texture of the Nutella. You can also taste both the chocolate and the Nutella better when the cookie is cool. 

Nutella-filled chocolate chocolate chip cookies

From Cookies and Cups

2-2/3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

4 cups chocolate chips, divided

1 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup Nutella 

*Optional: flaked sea salt for garnish

1. In bowl of stand mixer cream butter and both sugars for 1-2 minutes until light and fluffy. Add in eggs and vanilla and continue mixing until evenly incorporated.

2. Melt 2 cups of the chocolate chips in microwave or double boiler. Mix in melted chocolate into the butter mixture and evenly combine.

3. With mixer on low, add in the dry ingredients and blend until dough forms. Stir in remaining chocolate chips.

4. Chill dough for at least 2 hours.

5. Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

6. Fill a zip-top or piping bag with Nutella and pipe teaspoon sized amounts onto parchment paper, similar to a Hershey Kiss. You will need 48 dollops of Nutella. Place baking sheet in freezer for at least an hour.

7. When dough and Nutella are chilled preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

8. Form cookie dough around each Nutella piece using about 1-1/2 tablespoons of dough. Place on baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 7-8 minutes.

9. While cookies are baking place extra Nutella pieces back in freezer, as it will thaw out quickly.

10. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool.

Related post on The Pastry Chef's Baking: Black Bottom Peanut Butter Cups

Unlike other beef stew recipes, which might call for parsnips and other root vegetables to be added to the stock, in this iteration they're roasted, and added as a topping. (Blue Kitchen)

Cardamom beef stew with roasted root vegetables

By Blue Kitchen / 12.03.13

This post is a tribute to Charlie Trotter, the groundbreaking restaurateur and chef – and Chicago hometown hero – who died recently. In the world of food, proclamations that someone “changed the way we eat” or “changed the way we cook” get bandied about a lot. In Trotter’s case, both are true and then some. His eponymous restaurant, opened in 1987 in a Lincoln Park townhouse, was an immediate success. And his innovative approach to cooking created a seismic shift in Chicago’s restaurant scene. As William Grimes put it in The New York Times, “In the blink of an eye, the city’s lagging restaurant culture … took a giant step into the future.”

Trotter was a self-taught chef. He became interested in cooking through a college roommate, who was an avid cook. After graduating from college, he traveled around the United States and Europe, dining at the finest restaurants, seeking to figure out how the “best” gained that title. His first cooking job was for another famous Chicago chef, Gordon Sinclair. He opened Charlie Trotter’s when he was 28.

The restaurant is credited with popularizing the tasting menu. Trotter’s cooking was locally and seasonally driven, long before the word locavore existed. He claimed to never repeat a dish, devising the evening’s menu based on what he found at the market in the morning. Along the way, Trotter received many accolades, including 10 James Beard Foundation awards and five stars – the highest ranking – from the Mobil Travel Guide. And Charlie Trotter’s was one of just three restaurants in Chicago to be awarded two stars by the Michelin Guide when it debuted here in 2010.

My own connection to Charlie Trotter was primarily through his cookbooks – and through catching an occasional episode of his PBS show, "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter," when we stayed in hotels (we have no cable at home). This was the kind of food show that is in short supply in the age of TV cooking as spectator sport, mostly ridiculous competitions and made-for-TV histrionics. Anytime I saw Trotter cook on his show, I learned something valuable about food and technique.

His cookbooks teach something valuable, too. In his introduction to "Home Cooking with Charlie Trotter," the source for this recipe, he says the goal of the book is “elevating everyday cuisine to a higher level of sophistication.” Trotter compared his own cooking style to jazz improvisation, mixing time-honored techniques with unexpected ingredients, layering tastes and textures to create exciting new dishes. In another cookbook, "Workin’ More Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter," there is a recipe for lamb shanks with caramelized fennel and apricots. The shanks are braised and the fennel is roasted. Both dishes use both dried and fresh apricots, creating a harmonious combination with subtle differences.

This Cardamom Beef Stew with Roasted Root Vegetables combines similarly flavored (but not quite the same) celery and celery root. And rather than just adding the potatoes, parsnips, and celery root to the braising liquid – as you would with most stews – he roasts them. They’re served atop the stew, providing another layer of texture, color and flavor, appealing to multiple senses – as food should.

Usually, when working with cookbook recipes, I tend to tweak things to bring something of myself to the dish, sometimes mashing together multiple recipes plus my own ideas. With this one, the only changes I made were practical ones. Trotter’s version called for meat stock made with several pounds of beef, lamb, venison or veal bones that you roast and then use to build your stock. I didn’t have ready access to bones, so I improvised. I used unsalted beef stock, a genius new product that lets you control the salt levels of the finished dish, and added bay leaf and tomato paste, both ingredients in Trotter’s meat stock. And I reduced the wine that his stock called for, boiling it down to half its volume. I learned this trick from a Daniel Boulud cookbook – it creates the illusion that a sauce or stock or whatever has cooked for hours.

Our roasting pan is less than wonderful, so I used our beautiful oval Staub cocotte instead of the called for roasting pan covered with foil. Because the cocotte held everything snugly, I needed less stock than the recipe called for. Otherwise, everything was by the book. And it was delicious.

Cardamom beef stew with roasted root vegetables
Serves 4

2 cups dry red wine [editor's note: may substitute cooking wine]

20 cardamom pods, crushed (or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom)

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 cup sliced celery

1 cup sliced carrots

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1 pound stew meat, cubed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon tomato paste

3-1/2 cups beef stock or broth, unsalted or reduced sodium (plus more, if needed)

1 bulb garlic, halved

1 bay leaf

2 cups large diced potatoes

1 cup large diced celery root

1 cup large diced parsnips

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra

1. Prepare the stew. Bring wine to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and cook until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Set aside. (If the wine reduces too much, just top up with more wine.) Place the crushed cardamom pods in a piece of cheese cloth and tie with kitchen string to create a sachet.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium flame. Add celery, carrots, and onion to pot and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid overly browning. Meanwhile, season stew meat with salt and pepper. Add to pot.

3. Quickly whisk tomato paste into reduced wine. Add 3-1/2 cups stock and wine/tomato paste mixture to pot and stir to combine. Add cardamom sachet (or ground cardamom), garlic bulb halves, and bay leaf. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and braise in the oven for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, until beef is completely tender. Check about halfway through, stirring and adding more stock if too much has cooked away.

4. Prepare the root vegetables. About 45 minutes before the stew is ready, toss the potatoes, celery root and parsnips with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Spread them on a lightly oiled, rimmed baking sheet and roast until golden brown, about 45 minutes, tossing once halfway through.

5. Assemble the dish. Discard cardamom sachet and bay leaf. Gently squeeze garlic bulb halves to release individual cloves into stew and discard skins. At this point, the cloves are mellow and meltingly soft; they will add wonderful flavor bursts to the stew. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Spoon stew into four shallow soup plates. Top with roasted root vegetables and serve.

Serve this carrot tomato soup with a swirl of cream on top. (In Praise of Leftovers)

Tomato carrot soup

By In Praise of Leftovers / 12.02.13

If you're around me for more than 2 minutes, you'll probably hear me talk about Monday Night Dinner. When we moved up to Bellingham, Wash., 2 years ago, I could foresee a problem. Though we strategically bought a house 4 minutes from my parents, I wondered how often we'd see one another. Coordinating, though I'm good at it, is the bane of my existence. Propose a set of dates and times, fiddle around with who can do what, set a date, remind everyone when the dates gets close, reschedule because someone gets sick, and do the whole thing all over again. Agh!

So I proposed dinner once a week. Weekends? Forget it. Everyone's too busy. Thursday is the new Friday, so Thursdays are out. Everything else seems to be scheduled on a Tuesday or Wednesday so Mondays were the obvious choice. And to say "Every Second and Fourth" or other such nonsense seemed too much to keep track of. And it's not a potluck. No retirees around here. Everyone's coming straight from work.

So were were doing that with my parents for a few months when my father-in-law (who lives 2 minutes away) caught wind of it and started coming. Then my sister-in-law and her family said, "What about us?" Then my father-in-law's partner and her girls said, "What about us?" So we are now 12. I reserve the right to cancel whenever I'm getting home too late or otherwise overwhelmed, so we average about 3 Mondays/month.

As you might imagine, the key here is to keep it simple. Stupidly simple. A dozen people on a weeknight with an 8:30 bedtime for the kids means the following:

  • Buffet style. Always.
  • I know it should mean paper plates, but it doesn't. I've asked everyone else to do dishes. Cook's privilege, right?
  • Nothing too spicy. 
  • Customizable – endless "build-your-own" menu items like rice bowls, burritos, spring rolls. We have rice and beans a lot.
  • Shopping and prep on the weekend. Not too much prep, though, which would break the Stupidly Simple rule.
  • Huge batches. Huge. Usually with a seasonal salad (recently it was kale, slivered raw fennel, dried figs, and apple) and some kind of starch in case the kids don't like the main dish. Rice saves the day always.
  • No appetizers and no dessert unless someone else decides to show up with them.

And yes, soup. So much soup! This is why it was invented. Beef barley, minestrone, Thai chicken, tortilla. And tomato carrot. I always have canned tomatoes around and about 6 bags of half-finished carrots floating around in my produce drawers. It doesn't matter how dried out they get – they'll still make great soup! Serve this with grilled cheese sandwiches and some bitter greens and everyone will be happy.

And what do I get out of Monday Night Dinners? Besides a teensy bit of exhaustion? A lot. Loretta and her cousin Hazel disappear into the basement and play all night. Wyatt plays indoor hoops with Yancey's dad and hangs around the adults making (very funny) jokes. I don't have to leave my house. I can see almost all my family in one place once a week, which is a miracle. I get lots of thanks and appreciation, and I know the walls of this house soak up the noise, laughter, and cooking steam. Life is way too short not to see the people you love.

Tomato carrot soup
This soup can be made vegan – use water instead of chicken stock and leave out the cream. Or non-dairy – use the chicken stock but leave out the cream. I think the cream gives it a lovely richness, but if you cook the veggies long enough and have a powerful blender, you'll get almost the same creaminess without it. 

Big glug of olive oil

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

3 or 4 large carrots (or the equivalent baby carrots), peeled and thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

2 28-ounce cans canned whole tomatoes with juice

Enough chicken stock or water to cover everything by about 2 inches

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 to 1 cup heavy cream (optional) 

1. Heat olive oil in a large heavy stockpot. Add onions until getting soft, 7 or 8 minutes, then add garlic, carrots, and bay leaf and sauté for about 5 minutes more.

2. Add tomatoes and chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until everything is soft, about 30 minutes.

3. Purée mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to the pot and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cream if desired and warm. Serve with a swirl of cream on top.

Related post on In Praise of Leftovers: Pantry Minestrone

Top your chowder with some toasted pieces of dressing for that extra special something. (The Runaway Spoon)

Creamy turkey and wild rice chowder with toasted dressing croutons

By The Runaway Spoon / 11.29.13

Thanksgiving leftovers for me are generally of the sandwich variety. I love leftover turkey sandwiches. With cranberry sauce and a slice of dressing. I make extra dressing, bind it with eggs and cram it into a loaf pan. Baked off, it makes perfect slices to fit a sandwich. I even make some sweet-savory jams and chutneys during the summer for use on the post-Thanksgiving concoctions.

My family gathers and plows through the leftovers in a laid-back feed, usually at someone else’s home (lucky me). After preparing the bulk of the Thanksgiving feast, I don’t usually have the energy to deal with another cooking project. Frankly, I don’t always have it in me to make stock from the turkey carcass. Mostly, it means more dirty dishes.

But last year, I put my mind to creating a hearty, warming meal using the leftover turkey with minimal work and lots of flavor. And this is my result. There are several ways to speed up this process. When you are chopping vegetables for the big meal, put some aside in a Ziploc in the fridge to use for this. Or buy a bag of frozen chopped mire-poix or soup starter when you do the big shop. I always overbuy on sage, the classic Thanksgiving herb, but use what you have on hand. I find quick-cooking wild rice easily, so look out for that and save yourself a step (though it is an easy one) of cooking the rice. I don’t always have eight cups of turkey stock leftover after I make gravy and dressing, so I make up the difference with boxed stock. Cream cheese adds a little body and tang to the final creamy product. The soup is lovely as is, but some toasted pieces of leftover dressing on top add a nice contrast.

Creamy turkey and wild rice chowder with toasted dressing croutons
Serves 6 

2 cups finely diced onion

1 cup finely diced carrot

1 cup finely diced celery

2 tablespoons olive oil

8 cups turkey or chicken stock, or a combination

2 finely minced garlic cloves

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

1 yellow potato, finely diced

1-1/2 cups quick-cooking wild rice, or 1-1/2 cups wild rice cooked according to package instructions

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

2 cups diced cooked turkey

1. Sauté the onion, carrot and celery in a 5-quart Dutch oven in the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle over 1 tablespoon of the sage and stir well. When the vegetables are soft, add 1/2 cup stock and cook until the liquid is evaporated. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. 

2. Pour in the remaining stock and bring to a boil. Add the remaining sage and the potato, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes until the potatoes are becoming tender. 

3. If using quick cooking wild rice, add it now, cover the pot and cook for a further 15–20 minutes until the rice is tender. 

4. Bring the soup to a low bubble (not boiling, but bubbling). Cut the cream cheese into small chunks and whisk a few at a time into the soup adding more as it melts. Don’t worry if it looks odd and separated at some point, just keep whisking away until the soup is smooth and creamy. Stir in the diced turkey (and cooked wild rice if that is what you are using) and cook, stirring, until heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Because of the potatoes and rice, you may need to be generous with the salt.

5. Serve immediately. Leftovers can be gently reheated until warm.

For the Croutons: Cut leftover dressing into cubes or rough pieces. Melt a tablespoon of butter over medium high heat and toast the cubes until brown and crispy.

Related post on The Runaway Spoon: Smoky Bacon and Onion Soup

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