Porridge sweats

DSC01911

I’ve pretty much hit my limit with this winter. I now eat hot starchy things at almost every meal. Polenta, rice, pasta, cous cous, cracked wheat: whatever grain I can get my hands on gets cooked in liquid with a little cheese, herbs and/or butter and mixed with meat, vegetables, broth and–usually–additional cheese.

I know this isn’t a good solution, but I like the little bout of what I call “porridge sweats” that follows when I eat this type of insides-warming food. The sweats usually last long enough that I can make it a few blocks down the street without shouting “THIS IS BULLSHIT!!” into the bitter wind. (Yes, I’ve been yelling at the weather.)

Call me dramatic, but this is what Chicago winter does to a person. Each year, it discovers new ways of inducing despair. It might be through snow almost every day in December that turns the sidewalk into a distant memory; 15 straight days with no sunlight (trust me, that’s a lot); or like this year, a blizzard followed by a whole month of zero-ish temps so the snow turns into dirty styrofoam and everything else becomes permanently coated in either salt or black ice. Chicago winter, you are a sly minx indeed.

In search of new sources for porridge sweats last week, I ventured into savory oatmeal territory. I first had a variation on it with pork belly a few months ago at Owen & Engine and have been dreaming about it ever since. Steel-cut oats cooked risotto-style with a bit of wine for tang (or wine vinegar if you don’t have any wine open) and warm stock added little by little till they’re creamy with a slight bite in the center. My version, laced with sweet cherry tomato jewels and topped with Parm and a very runny egg, made for the perfect solo lunch. But you could also up the ratios, add some smoky bacon lardons and serve it for brunch to some poor, cold bastards in need of a good porridge sweat.

DSC01906

Steel-cut oat risotto with poached egg
serves one

Ingredients

    Olive oil, as needed
    1 small onion, minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    12 cherry tomatoes, halved
    3/4 cup steel-cut oats
    3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    3-4 cups chicken broth, warmed over medium-low on the stovetop
    1 egg
    1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
    1 tablespoon butter
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    3 tablespoons minced parsley

Method: In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil, the onion, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic, and stir for a minute until fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and the oats, stirring to coat each grain in the oil. Add the red wine vinegar and stir until it’s all but dissolved.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add about 1/2 cup of the warm broth, and stir frequently until most of the liquid is gone.

DSC01896

Repeat this in similar amounts each time, until the oats are cooked to al dente and have achieved a creamy texture. This should take about 20 minutes.

DSC01902

Meanwhile, crack the egg into a small bowl or ramekin. Heat a saucepan over medium heat until lightly simmering (not boiling). Add a large pinch of salt and the distilled vinegar. Use a spoon to quickly stir the water in all one direction until it’s smoothly spinning. (This will keep the white from spreading out too much). Ease the egg into the center of the whirlpool, and let it simmer untouched for 2-3 minutes for a runny yolk (4 for a firmer yolk).

DSC01900

DSC01903

Use a spoon to carefully remove the egg, and set it on paper towels to dry.

When the oats are cooked, turn off the heat and add the butter, along with most of the Parmesan and parsley, saving a bit for garnish. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

Spoon the oats into a bowl, top with the rest of the Parm and parsley and the egg. Season the egg with salt and a few grinds of pepper, and eat!

DSC01916

Marge’s first guest!

My older (and only) sister Madeline is my best friend and about half a foot shorter than I am. We love to eat, drink and complain together, and people often mistake our voices on the phone. She is also responsible for many of my and Sean’s nicknames due to a series of Gchat typos. I now answer to Merf, and Sean is affectionately known as Dean.

Here are two pictures of us eating with nice makeup on the day I got married. (Credit: Eric Futran and Andrew Boudreau)

DSC_8472P1050218

Over the past couple years, Mad has become quite a fierce cook. So when she texted me that she was successful in making a simple mung bean (or bean thread) noodle salad, I replied, “Where do you even buy those?! You have to do a guest blog about it!”

So here it is, in Mad’s–also Maddy, Mat or Mac’s–own words. This also happens to be the 101st blog entry of Marge’s Next Meal! A very fitting way to commemorate 101 posts. (As you can see, I forgot to mention when I hit the 100 mark last week.)

IMG_4272IMG_4328

Simple bean thread salad
by Maddy Shea

Growing up in our family, I think it is fair to say that with all the wonderful food provided to us everyday, I was never the one with the obvious talent for cooking. There are a whole host of meals I am loath to eat outside of my family’s versions because I already know that they will never measure up. My mom’s cooking still consists of my personal standard and ideal of what constitutes a homemade meal. So hearty meals like spaghetti and meatballs, German roladen, and stuffed chicken are absolutely never going to taste as good if they come from some outside source. My sister, now an accomplished chef and food expert, has created some of the most delicious foods I have ever tasted–Marge, I recall requesting that pork and ramen soup… where is it?? Even my dad has this one-of-a-kind knack for barbeque chicken so that I tend to stay on the safe side when at a picnic or barbeque restaurant and just go with a burger.

Needless to say, when it came to establishing my own cooking habits, I already had some pretty high standards. In fact, I still won’t eat many of the things I cook myself. One area in which I have begun to feel more confident, however, is lunch. I have always been better off throwing together what our mom has affectionately called “picky dinners,” or meals made up of a variety of small things–sandwiches cut into fours, bowls of nuts, slices of cheese, a fruit salad–rather than cooking full-blown meals complete with all kinds of appropriately coordinated side dishes.

One dish in this vein of “things tossed together” of which I am particularly proud is the bean thread salad. It is roughly based on the bean thread salad you can order at most Thai restaurants and of course largely based on what I find to be enjoyable to eat.

IMG_4303

This salad also offers a very malleable palette; you can include whatever ingredients you find to be most enjoyable. I happen to think sugar snap peas, shrimp, and water chestnuts would be great additions if you’re looking for greater variety. In fact, it’s so easy to make and lends so easily to personal taste that it is now a meal that rivals its restaurant-prepared cousin.

But what I love most about this meal is that it would not have been possible without my family’s shared love of savory, simple foods and some important takeaways from my all-time favorite cooks: mom’s homemade salad dressing is proof that all you really need is lemon juice and oil; my sister’s ability to make ordinary food special just by slicing it thinly; and my dad’s love of a little spicy kick to make things interesting.

IMG_4335

Bean thread salad with fried tofu

    1 package firm tofu
    Soy sauce, as needed
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    1 package mung bean noodles
    3-4 green onions
    1 large jalapeno pepper, stemmed
    2 medium carrots, ends trimmed and peeled
    1/2 cup cilantro leaves, plus a few reserved for garnish
    Juice of 1 lemon
    1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
    Salt and pepper, to taste

Method: First, put pressure on the tofu to squeeze out all the excess water. This can be done by placing a flat surface on top of it and weighting that down with a dense object like a cookbook or a can.

Once the water is removed, cut the tofu into 1/4-inch cubes and sprinkle with soy sauce until each cube has been evenly coated. This will give the tofu a much richer flavor.

IMG_4276

Pour the oil in a large skillet over medium-high and add the tofu. Turn the cubes until they are browned and a bit crispy. This will take about 7 minutes. Place the browned tofu on a paper towel-lined plate, and set aside to cool.

IMG_4284

Cook the mung bean noodles according to the package directions. After boiling them, I usually rinse them in cold water to speed up the cooling process.

IMG_4295IMG_4313

On a large cutting board, thinly slice the green onion and jalapeno pepper. It is important to slice the pepper into very thin slivers to evenly distribute the heat. Next, shave the carrot in long strips with a vegetable peeler. Mince the cilantro.

IMG_4298

In a large bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Then layer into the bowl a handful of noodles with a small pile of peeled carrots, some of the chopped green onions and jalapenos, a mini handful of tofu, and a pinch of cilantro. Repeat until all ingredients have been incorporated into the bowl. Layering the ingredients will aid in the mixing process. Toss the ingredients thoroughly with tongs, ensuring the noodles are coated with the lemon dressing and ingredients are evenly spread throughout.

IMG_4324

To serve, heap onto plates or into deep bowls, and garnish with a few whole cilantro leaves. Serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4 (or 2 hungry sisters, plus leftovers).

IMG_4338

Braised spring vegetables

You may have noticed a common theme among my recent recipe posts–vegetables. I promise, I’m not turning the blog into Marge’s Next Vegetarian Meal. It’s too many syllables, for one. And, as my piggy business cards indicate, I love meat far too much. Still I’ll admit, when the first skinny little carrots and asparagus start popping up, I can’t help myself. Spring vegetables are just so petite and vibrantly colored.

So this dish is dedicated to those first sweet, skinny carrots of the season–the ones you don’t even have to peel, just scrub lightly. Here I quickly braised them with fennel, crushed garlic and leeks, then finished the dish with lemon juice and a few fennel fronds. This wonderfully bright side dish is delicious served warm or at room temperature.

Braised spring carrots with fennel and leeks

    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
    1 pound leeks (white and light green parts only), root ends removed, halved lengthwise, cleaned and sliced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 large cloves garlic, crushed
    1 pound fennel, outer layers removed, cored and sliced
    1 pound carrots, halved or quartered lengthwise if thick, then cut in 2-inch lengths
    1/2 cup water
    Juice of 1 lemon
    2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds or fresh tarragon, for garnish

Method: In a large skillet or Dutch oven with a fitted lid, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the leeks, salt and pepper, and sauté for 3-4 minutes, until softened.

Add the garlic, fennel, carrots, water and another sprinkling of salt and pepper. Put the lid on, turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until the carrots and fennel become just slightly tender. (Start testing the carrots and fennel after 7 or 8 minutes. The time may differ slightly, depending on how thick you cut your vegetables and how tender you prefer them.) Once done, they should look something like this…

Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice. Check for seasoning and adjust as needed. Plate the vegetables and top with a good drizzle of olive oil and the fennel fronds. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4-6 as a side dish.

Taking a chance on ramps

The first time I bought ramps was last spring. Before then, I had only known them as a side dish that would show up on restaurant menus in March and April.

I had just been offered a job as an editor at Modern Baking magazine, and I was reeling from the excitement (and the frustration of not being able to publicly celebrate, since I hadn’t yet told my boss). It was one of those chilly yet blindingly sunny early spring days, when it feels as though it must be 30 degrees colder in the shade. Sean was out of town, so I called my friend Katie, told her the good news and asked if she and her boyfriend Paul would like to come for dinner.

“Whatchya makin’, Marge?” she prodded.

“Something with fresh shelled peas!” I cried. I had been thinking about peas all day.

An hour later, I clambered off the bus at Whole Foods and headed straight for the produce department, only to find that there wasn’t a fresh pea in sight. But wedged somewhere between the green onions and radishes was a massive stack of ramps. Not entirely sure what my plan was but feeling up for a challenge, I grabbed two big bunches and headed home. I did a quick online search and found a recipe for ramp pesto. Since I didn’t have any pine nuts or walnuts, I decided I’d change it up a bit. I briefly boiled the ramps and shocked them in ice water to soften them slightly. Then I cooked spaghetti in the same water I’d used for the ramps. I puréed the ramps with olive oil, butter, a little lemon juice, Parmesan cheese and some of the starchy pasta water.

We toasted my new gig and ate the bright, spring-inspired pasta dish in the waning evening light. I was happy I’d taken a chance on ramps that day. And after months of writing articles about marketing campaigns for supermarkets, I was ready to get back into food writing full time.

The next morning, I called my boss and told him I’d accepted a position at a magazine for bakery owners. He was quiet for a minute, and my heart started to race.

“I’m never eating a cupcake again,” he said.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

This ramp pesto recipe is much more of a straightforward pesto than my improvised pasta sauce above. I rough chopped the ramps and ground them in a food processor with toasted pine nuts. I then streamed in olive oil and lemon juice, then seasoned with salty Parmesan, a little salt and lots of black pepper. Some people swear by quickly boiling (or blanching) the ramps first to sustain their vibrant green color and cut a bit of their sharpness, but I think this sauce tastes best when the ramps are left raw. Their mild, slightly grassy onion flavor lends itself well to a pesto-type preparation, and allows you to omit the garlic.

You can certainly switch out the ramps for basil, arugula or roasted bell peppers, but I like to use ramps while they’re in season. Much like dream jobs, ramps are available only briefly before someone else scoops them up.

Ramp pesto

    2 bunches ramps, cleaned, stems trimmed and outer or bruised leaves removed
    1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
    Juice of 1/2 lemon
    1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
    1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
    Salt and pepper, to taste

Method: Roughly chop the ramps. Add them to a food processor along with the pine nuts, and blend on low until they form a coarse purée. You might have to scrape down the sides a few times with a spatula to get everything chopped up.

Add the lemon juice, and with the food processor running on low, slowly stream in the olive oil and blend until it forms a paste.

Remove the blade, and fold in the Parmesan cheese to taste. Add salt, if needed, and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

This recipe makes enough for pesto pasta for 4. You can also fold it into scrambled eggs, drizzle it on grilled meat, fish or vegetables, stir a little into vegetable soup just before serving, or smear it on a sandwich.

To store the pesto, place in an airtight container and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. It should keep for about 1 week.

Marge’s next great sandwich

I am an editor of a magazine for bakery owners. Because of this, I spend a lot of time tasting and talking about all the things we deprive ourselves of, such as Danish, cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, pies, pastries and bread. But bakeries don’t exist to remind us of what we can’t eat; they are there to provide those small doses of happiness that punctuate our everyday lives. Since I wasn’t born with an especially sweet tooth, I derive a lot of this kind of joy from great bread.

The enemy?

If you read my blog somewhat regularly, you may have noticed that I dabble a bit in scratch bread-baking. This is because I am on a mission to master the art of bread, despite my puny home cook’s oven. The main reason for this is bread is the foundation of a great sandwich. A salty reuben on marble rye, an airy, crisp fried walleye fillet on white bread slathered with tangy tartar sauce, an oozing fried egg sandwich, a steak torta on a shattering bolillo roll–the best sandwiches are truly an art form.

So I have decided to launch a little project called Marge’s next great sandwich. Every few entries, I will share a recipe that showcases my favorite fillings between bread. Please leave me a comment if there’s a sandwich you’d like to see recreated! You may even see a few more bread recipes along the way.

To me, a perfect sandwich should be:

    1. a nice balance of bread, protein, condiment and vegetable/fruit
    2. served on the right bread, which not only makes the sandwich handheld, but also adds some heft and gives the juicy stuff a place to go (no, a lettuce wrap doesn’t count as “bread”)
    3. messy, though not impossible to get through without the filling seeping out
    4. lots of different textures (think crisp radish, creamy cheese, chewy bread, tender meat)
    5. glued together with some kind of spread, which also adds a bit of fat and/or moisture (i.e., mustard, mayo, tapenade, bean spread)

For my first great sandwich entry, I am sharing one of my go-to breakfast sandwiches: bacon and fried eggs on toasted Tuscan pane. I elevated this version with smashed avocado spread and arugula lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon zest. I often have a slightly fancier egg sandwich like this for dinner, reassuring myself that I don’t have to make a salad because there is already one on the sandwich. The bread, made by Chicago-based Labriola Baking Co., is slightly chewy and not too flavorful–perfect for a rich, salty, oozing filling.

Fried egg sandwich with bacon and avocado

    2 slices good-quality bacon
    1/2 cup arugula
    1 teaspoon chopped chives
    1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 eggs (preferably cage free–see my Ireland entry)
    Tuscan pane, or other chewy, Italian-style bread, cut into 2 thick slices and lightly toasted
    1/2 ripe avocado

Method: Place the bacon in a cold skillet, and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the bacon until a good amount of fat has rendered and it’s golden brown on both sides, 8-10 minutes. Remove and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Once cooled, break the bacon into a few large pieces. Drain off all but about 1 tablespoon of bacon fat, and set the skillet aside.

Meanwhile, make the “salad.” In a small bowl, toss the arugula, chives and lemon zest with olive oil, salt and pepper. Reserve.

Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet with the bacon fat and heat it to medium. One at a time, crack the eggs into the pan. Season them with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Cook the eggs for 4-5 minutes, until the whites begin to set. Now, slightly tilt the pan and start basting the tops of the whites with the hot oil.

Do this for about 3 more minutes until the whites have set completely. During the last minute or so, carefully spoon oil over the yolks a few times so they set slightly.

To build the sandwich, scoop the ripe avocado onto one of the bread slices, and spread it around with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Top the other slice of bread with the bacon pieces. Slide the eggs on next and top them with the arugula salad. Place the lid on top, slice the sandwich in half and serve immediately. Serves 1.

Note: The very last thing I do before tucking into a fried egg sandwich is press down on the top with the palm of my hand so some of the yolk dribbles onto the plate. This creates the sauce, which I then drag the sandwich through before each bite.

Portuguese-style stewed pork

It’s winter in Chicago. Although we’re having a really mild one, I’m getting tired of bundling myself in the same calf-length, sleeping bag-esque Chicagoan’s winter coat every time I leave the house. I think it’s all this bundling and unbundling in preparation for braving the outdoors that makes me crave more meat than usual.

Katie and Marge trudge through the West Loop for cocktails, photo by Caroline Connelly

Those of you who have spent any time with me at all know that pork is one of my most favorite things. In any form–steak, chops, belly, jowls, ribs, shoulder or ham–it is fatty, luxurious and satisfying. Pork shoulder is particularly great to cook with because it’s inexpensive and likes long, slow cook times.

I found this recipe in the colorful little recipe box that came with my tagine, which I got for Christmas a few years back. The sleeper hit of this stew for me was the lemon. Cooking thinly sliced lemon creates this heavenly, softened acidity, and the essential oils in the peel perfume the savory pork with a hint of bright citrus.

I like serving this with my oven-baked fries, which I’ll toss with some of the toasted cumin seed, salt and pepper.

Portuguese stewed pork

    2 tablespoons cumin seed, toasted and ground
    2 teaspoons sweet paprika
    Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
    1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped and divided
    2 tablespoons lemon juice
    2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-in. cubes
    Olive oil, as needed
    1 medium onion, roughly chopped
    3 large cloves garlic, minced
    1 cup dry white wine
    1 cup chicken broth
    1/2 lemon, cut in paper-thin slices and quartered

Method: Combine the cumin, paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons pepper, half the cilantro and lemon juice in a bowl. Rub this paste into the pork and marinate for two hours at room temperature (you could also marinate it up to 8 hours in the refrigerator–just be sure to bring it to room temp before cooking).

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven over high heat, and add the pork chunks in a single layer. (You may have to do this in batches.) Sear on all sides until golden brown. Remove the pork, and cover it with foil to keep warm.

Add a bit more olive oil to the pan; add the onion and sauté for about 10 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute until fragrant. Deglaze the pan with the wine. Slide the pork back into the pot and add just enough stock to cover the meat about halfway. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot and simmer over low heat for 2 hours, until the pork is falling apart.

Add the lemon slices to the pot during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Check the seasoning, and adjust as needed. Sprinkle the pork with the remaining cilantro, and serve.