On Elevating a Dish

ingredients for this recipe

I think it is safe to assume that everyone has at least one guilty pleasure food that comes from a can or box. When I grew up, many families used to fully subsist on toaster strudels and kraft mac and cheese in favor of time and Convenience. For me, it was Spaghettio’s and hamburger helper. Once of my clients has mentioned that his Mom had a “special occasion” chili casserole that that used Velveeta as a base and Fritos as a topping. When you think about it, these processed foods are pretty awful, and now I can’t believe that I ate so much instant Ramen as a growing child in need of nutrients. Unfortunately, even with this retrospective knowledge, I still can’t help but crave some of my childhood favorites every now and then.

This past weekend proves case and point. After a long day catering a very fun and intimate dinner party, Rian and I craved some easy comfort. Seeking the only open grocery store at midnight, we loaded up on Annie’s mac and cheese, Chicken flavored Ramen, and Cinnamon toast crunch. While the cereal definitely lived up to its expectations, we were saddened to find that the mac and cheese tasted like cardboard and the ramen tasted like flavored salt. Now that we know better as experienced food snobs, we could recognize how inferior these powdered, dehydrated and condensed versions of food really are in comparison to the real deal.

This was a moment when I realized how being a chef has changed my life and habits. Without even talking about it, Rian and I set about doing whatever we could to improve upon the flavor of each dish and cajole them into giving us the flavor experience we remembered from childhood. The mac and cheese received grated gruyere, chili flakes and garlic while the ramen transformed into a mediocre resemblance of pho with cilantro, mint, basil, scallions and lime juice.

cheese before baking

If only there were a way that we could still enjoy our childhood favorite foods but in a less guilty manner. I finally realized that we can take our favorite aspects of each meal we used to love and then transform them into a more wholesome version. One might sacrifice some extra time but benefit from better ingredients, flavor, texture and nutrition. For example, why not transform the above mentioned chili casserole by using fresh grated fontina and cheddar cheeses, a combination of home cooked beans, and a homemade charred corn crumble topping.

Green Beans with cream and spices

On the topic of casseroles, I find myself to be somewhat of an expert. Hailing from Minnesota, we masters of the slow cooker and “hot dish” meals. My absolute favorite was the classic green bean casserole, which included Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup and a can of crispy fried onions. In light of the coming holidays and my recent revelations, I have decided to experiment with my theory on elevating a classic by creating a What We Eat version of my favorite casserole using only fresh ingredients.

Green Bean and mushroom casserole

 

GREEN BEAN AND MUSHROOM CASSEROLE

Ingredients
2 lbs green beans, trimmed
8 ounces mixed mushrooms of choice
6 shallots (canola oil to pan-fry)
5 cloves garlic
1 onion
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

pepper to taste

Method:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Thinly shave the onion and and garlic. Caramelize the onion in a well oiled skillet. When the onion has achieved some color, add the mushrooms and cook until they have reduced and become slightly caramelized. Add the garlic and stir until aromatic. Add the flour, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and nutmeg and stir until aromatic.

Slowly pour the chicken stock and heavy cream into the skillet while stirring to combine. Toss the green beans into the skillet and stir all ingredients until just mixed. Top with an even layer of grated parmesan and bake uncovered for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour a one-inch layer of canola oil into another skillet and heat on high heat. Shave the shallots very thinly. Working in small batches, fry the shallots until crisp and lightly browned. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate to dry. Season with salt.

When the Casserole is bubbling and cooked through, remove from oven to let sit for ten minutes. Top with Crispy shallots to serve.

 

Serves 6

Pumpkin Pie Spice and Everything Nice!

There are a lot of things I love about the fall. Football, colorful crunchy leaves, thick socks and most of all – the abundance of pumpkin EVERYTHING. As I was going through Yotam Ottolenghi’s new cook book, “Sweet”, I stumbled upon a delish spice cake recipe that uses pumpkin pie spice! So in the spirit of Halloween, I had to test it.

Growing up, my mom would make the most delicious spice cakes every year (she’s an amazing baker and constantly gets asked to make her famous rum cakes, spice cakes and chocolate rolls). So, as I try to channel my mom and Ottolenghi, here is what I came up with! Of course I had to give it a flare, so I added toasted hazelnuts, fresh sage and dates to the batter. And let me tell you, the kitchen smelled AMAZING.

Recipe

¾ cup butter, at room temperature

¾ packed cup dark brown sugar

¾ packed cup light brown sugar

finely grated zest of 1 large orange

3 large eggs

½ cup sour cream

1 tbsp vanilla extract

1 heaping tsp pumpkin pie spice (YUM)

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

¾ tsp salt

½ tsp baking soda

1 tsp apple cider vin

 

Rian’s Mix In’s (add anything you like! )

2 tbsp chopped fresh sage

¼ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts

½ cup sliced dates

1 tsp flour

 

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 375 Degrees. Grease a standard 9×5 loaf pan and line with parchment paper, then set aside.
  2. Place the butter, sugars and orange zest in a bowl and beat until lightened and smooth.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, sour cream and vanilla extract until smooth

4. In another separate bowl (lots of bowls!), sift the flour, pumpkin pie spice and salt together.

5. In alternate batches, slowly mix the egg mixture and flour mixture in with the butter and sugars. When almost combined, stir the baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl until it fizzes and add to the mixture.

6. In my version of the recipe, I added in toasted hazelnuts, dates and chopped sage to the batter! Stir the additional ingredients with a pinch of flour. This will ensure that they won’t sink to the bottom of the cake. Mix to combine.

7. Scrape the mixture into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 50-55 minutes.

8. Allow the cake to cool and serve with a glass of wine or a hot coffee (I prefer the wine). I smothered mine with homemade butternut squash and cream cheese icing, but the cake itself can stand alone. Enjoy! And have the happiest Halloween!!

xoxo,

Rian

 

 

Work-Life Balance In the Culinary Industry

 

 

Kristina’s Salsa Verde

Chickpea and farro salad with fennel radish and salsa verde

The more you cook, the more you develop your signature style. Anyone who eats our food knows that well toasted nuts, strategically placed cheese and tons of citrus are a few of the What We Eat team’s hallmarks. But if there is one thing that defines our cooking, it’s our ridiculously abundant use of fresh herbs.

There is no better way to impart explosive flavor than with fresh herbs. Mint, cilantro, parsley and scallions are constants on our grocery lists, but we also reserve a place in our hearts for tarragon, basil, sage and dill. Of course, there are many others, but having the above on hand at any given time is crucial to the success of any meal.

Smorgasbord with Salsa Verde

An added perk to our herb obsession is that we find ourselves with an surplus of odds and ends at the end of the week…a few stems sprouting sad broken parsley leaves, a handful of bruised cilantro or one lone sprig of rosemary. What to do with these little bits that are too often thrown away as casualty or waste? There is a simple answer, a lesson I learned years ago that has since been held close and always remembered. Let me paint a picture for you…

It was 2010. I was sitting outside at an Italian bistro, sipping chilled white wine, awaiting my meal, a perfect day. Then the roast chicken was placed in front of me. After savoring my first bite of the tender meat, I questioned aloud, “What is it that makes this simple meal so unbelievably amazing?” As they say, the secret is in the sauce.

Roast chicken with lemon zest and salsa verde green sauce

Drizzled across the crisp and charred chicken skin was a thin but vibrantly green dressing, the ingredients of which were so frustratingly mysterious and difficult to pinpoint that it warranted further investigation. My helpful waiter informed me it was salsa verde (aka green sauce), a mix of whatever herbs they had on hand. Herbs + olive oil + blender = magical sauce served as an accoutrement to any dish from red meats to poultry, fish or vegetables. This aha moment will forever stick with me. Salsa verde, the endlessly versatile little black dress of sauces, appears as a star in many of my meals. It’s my signature.

Therefore, it is finally time to share the recipe for my secret sauce. Keep in mind that certain ingredients may be omitted or altered, but that the recipe below is what I have found to be the tastiest. I’ve gotten Laura and Rian hooked on it as well, so next time one of them makes you something with an impossibly delicious green sauce, you’ll know who deserves credit.

With love, Kristina:)

Salsa Verde

  • 1/3 cup basil
  • 1/3 cup cilantro
  • 1/3 cup parsley
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon
  • 2 tablespoons chives
  • 1 tablespoon sage
  • 1 tablespoon dill
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • 1-3 anchovy fillets
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4th teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup olive oil

Roughly chop all herbs, garlic and anchovies and then place all ingredients other than the olive oil in a food processor. Pulse the contents of the food processor and then gradually stream in the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

The end result should be a vibrantly green sauce in which the original integrity of some of the herbs is still apparent. This means that it should look like more of a rough chop rather than a paste or puree. We like to keep it rustic. Drizzle over any meal of choice and serve. Enjoy!

Roast carrot and egg salad with salsa verde