Friday, July 3, 2015

The Five Day Ginger Project

I was going to call this another installment of Kitchen 101 and be boring. But on Day Two as I heated up the pot for the second time it struck me- The Five Day Ginger Project. Perfect!

So for The Five Day Ginger Project we are going to make another common spice shelf staple you should have on hand- crystallized ginger. I can't live without this stuff. Seriously. I live in the country. Our little grocery store never has fresh ginger and I use it often enough to make this five day project worth every minute. Sure, crystallized means it's been basically candied by poaching in a sugar syrup for four days, but that's purely a means of preservation. I still use this ginger in savory dishes as well as some pretty fantastic baked goods.

It all starts with fresh ginger. You've seen this in the produce aisle- knobby brown lumps of the root of the ginger plant. It's sweet and hot at the same time. Not a pepper heat but a garlic-like heat with a spicy sweet flavor. It's a must have for Asian dishes and well, gingerbread would be just bread without the ginger wouldn't it? You can grow ginger at home but I happen to have two felines who think they are vegetarians and every plant is an all you can eat salad bar. My attempts at growing ginger turned into piles of chewed up and spit out leafy goo. I have to buy it from the store.

Now don't be put off by the five day thing. It's really not that bad. Making your own crystallized ginger at home is NOT a quick process. It's a labor of love, but like just about anything that's homemade, you get a much fresher product without additives and preservatives. It's worth the work to me. This recipe makes enough ginger to mostly fill a quart canning jar. And it's not really work - it takes very little effort to bring the pot to a boil, simmer, and then cover and let sit until tomorrow. Easy peasy!

Crystallized Ginger

1 1/2 pounds fresh ginger
3 cups sugar, divided, plus more
1 lemon
1 cup white corn syrup OR 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water

Peel the ginger and cut into 1/4 inch thick circular slices. 

In a large heavy stockpot place the ginger and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until just tender, about 15 minutes or so. Add 1 cup of the sugar, raise heat and stir until it returns to a boil. Remove from heat. Leave at room temperature overnight. 

Taste test the syrup after this first cook (let it cool slightly). Already the ginger flavor is very pronounced. 

The next day uncover, slowly return to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes. Slice the lemon, removing the seeds. Add the lemon slices and corn syrup. I used the additional cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water instead of corn syrup. Simmer for another 15 minutes. Again remove from heat, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Taste testing the ginger on day two was mind blowing. Wow what flavor! The syrup, while sweet from the sugar and corn syrup, had a definite punch of ginger heat, but unlike hot peppers ginger's heat doesn't burn your mouth or hang around. This recipe is worth making even if just for the syrup!

On the third day slowly bring to boil again, stirring often and watching to it doesn't scorch. Add 1 cup of the sugar and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the last cup of sugar and return to boil slowly. Be very cautious of the heat- with the sugar the syrup can burn. Once mixture has returned to boil, remove from heat, cover and leave overnight.

On the fourth day bring to boil over medium low heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the ginger is translucent and the syrup has become thickened and drips heavily from the spoon. Let the mixture cook very slowly over low heat for about 30 to 45 minutes more. 

Remove from heat and carefully remove the ginger with a slotted spoon and spread out on a rack to dry overnight. Reserve the syrup (discard the lemon slices) for other uses. The next day, the fifth and final day, coat the ginger slices with additional sugar. Store in tightly sealed glass jars.

I'm going to let the ginger dry overnight another night and
give it a second roll in sugar. Then storing in a jar
Now that we have this luscious ginger, what can we do with it? 
  • Chop it up and add to baked goods like gingerbread, cookies, fruitcake. 
  • Finely dice the ginger and combine with melted butter and a splash of soy sauce for a wonderful baste for baked chicken. 
  • Spice up your apple pie.
  • Dip pieces of melted chocolate and serve for a refreshing after dinner treat
  • Give cranberry sauce a kick
  • Dice and add to stir fries
  • Add crushed ginger to barbeque sauce
  • Nibble on ginger to settle an upset stomach
  • Use the reserved syrup to flavor drinks and sauces, easing sore throats etc
Ginger will find it's way into all kinds of foods at your house. It's a great "spice" to have on hand. Dehydrated sliced ginger is also a great way to have ginger on hand- just peel, slice thinly, and run through the dehydrator until dry and crisp. Store in an air tight container. Just break off what you need, rehydrate, and go!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Forget Fried Morels- Foraging Goes Upscale

Nothing gets under my skin quite like the mistreatment of wild mushrooms. You know the drill. You dress in long pants, long sleeves, hat, hose yourself with bug spray, grab a mesh bag and wander around the woods for a few hours. You nudge leaves, poke around the ground with a stick, scream at spiders and snakes, scuffle around the mud and muck and if you're lucky, you come home with a couple dozen morel mushrooms. Like so many other uninspired people you soak them, rinse them, dry them, dip them in eggs and crushed crackers and fry them. Dip in the requisite ketchup or ranch dressing. Ho hum. Not only is that so old and boring, but in my opinion, you just ruined them. Morels, and any other wild mushroom or foraged food, is so much more than a quick pan fry. They are, after all, considered by many to be the The King of Mushrooms, right?

Here in Iowa people seem to be stuck on the morel. Don't get me wrong, the morel is a real delight if you're lucky enough to find them, and they're here for such a short season. Getting friends out in the woods after morel season has ended is just about impossible, but that's when some of the real treasures of the woods are popping up and making their appearance- chanterelles, black trumpets, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods- all incredibly delicious, and growing right in our own backyards. In order to gain inspiration and learn more, and see these mushrooms in recipes, I have joined online groups with members who appreciate the morel, and so much more.

Like I often do, I began chatting with and got to know several really amazing cooks in some of the online wild mushroom and foraged food groups. One group in particular held a special appeal for me. The first thing I noticed was the level of creativity in these dishes folks were crafting and the sheer skill they were demonstrating. Asian noodle bowls brimming with wild mushrooms. Italian-inspired pasta dishes and even a version of pesto made from chanterelles and other wild mushrooms. I learned about all kinds of edible mushrooms I never knew existed! And truffles- in Oregon people harvest truffles! I had no idea....... Anyway, one of these amazing cooks is Mary Smiley, the founder of the group Cooking With Wild Mushrooms, and when I asked the group if anyone would be willing to share some recipes and photos, Mary was happy to. You can thank me later.

Like I  mentioned, Mary Smiley is the founder of this very cool Facebook group. This group is unlike any other wild foods group I have ever seen. These folks have an incredible talent for cooking and group's sole focus is cooking- not posting pictures of "what mushroom is this" and other nonsense, it's all about the cooking. No, they don't just bread and fry mushrooms, holy heck they create dishes worthy of any Michelin Star restaurant. I am absolutely serious. The pictures could grace any cookbook, ingredients varied, everything from appetizers to soups to desserts. I recently asked Mary if she would be willing to share some of her beautiful photos, maybe a recipe or two, and a little story about her foraging and her cooking background.

I joined this group right at the height of chanterelle season. It was pure torture. If you have never tasted a chanterelle, you have been missing out. They are very striking in appearance and have a firm meaty texture. They don't have a stem and cap like regular grocery store mushrooms- they have an almost flower-like shape, like tulips. The color is incredible- a bright beautiful yellow orange shade.  Luckily they are easy to find in dehydrated form, but what I wouldn't give for a nice quantity of fresh chanties. 

Baked eggs with garlic chive chevre, sauteed shallots and
chanterelles and ramp pesto
Mary shared so many pictures of incredible dishes, it was hard to decide which ones to share. She has literally every meal covered- baked eggs with mushrooms, all kinds of lighter options for lunch, hearty pasta for dinner, even candied mushrooms in a caramel sauce for dessert. Yep, you heard me right. Candied. Chanterelles. Caramel sauce. You're welcome.

Candied chanterelles with dried apricot in caramel sauce
In another recipe she steeps candy cap mushrooms, known for their maple flavor, in cream before making the perfect Creme Brulee with a flawless crisp sugar crust. I can't speak for everyone but I absolutely adore Creme Brulee and Mary's version sounds absolutely heavenly. She is right on point with the current trend of slightly savory desserts.

Like I said- creativity is off the chart. Another foraged mushroom that Mary cooks with is the popular chicken of the woods. This is a huge mushroom that grows almost like a colony on trees. Chicken of the woods grow all over where I live and have been a favorite of mine ever since I was a little kid. I remember my dad lugging home great big bags full of them every year. Why are they called chicken of the woods? Simple- when cooked they take on the flavor and texture of chicken breast fillets. They are so versatile and you can imagine Mary is using them in some fun recipes.

Chicken of the woods pot pie? Sure, I'll take one!

Morels, hericium, black trumpets and more, get the gourmet treatment from Mary too. Let's get to know Mary and maybe she will share a recipe.

1. Mary where in the world did you learn to cook all these amazing mushroom dishes?   I just read cookbooks and then either follow or dream up my own recipes based on ideas I get from recipes I've read.

2. Do you have a favorite wild mushroom?  My favorite wild mushroom is the Boletus edulis, a.k.a. porcini.

3. Wild edibles tend to be vastly different from region to region. What state do you live in and what are the top three most popular wild mushrooms in your area?   I currently live in southwest Florida, but there are not a lot of edible wild mushrooms where I live. We do have chanterelles and shaggy manes, chicken of the woods, but nothing like the edibles you find in the Pacific Northwest, California or even the Midwest. 

I learned about mushrooms when I lived in California, in the San Francisco Bay area. I have also lived in Seattle, Montana and Oregon. The trees are different, and of course the terrain, geography and climates are vastly different. Every time I moved I had to learn everything all over again. There is nowhere like Florida tho- crazy mushrooms and none of the rules apply.

4. You founded the group Cooking With Wild Mushrooms- with over 4000 members did you ever think the group would get so big and have such an impressive group of cooks?  I have another group,, which is both an online forum with lots of discussion forums within, as well as my Facebook group with the same name. That group has over 7,000 members. I am purposely trying to keep my cooking group contained and smaller by really vetting each and every person who requests membership. If you don't have anything showing an interest in wild mushrooms, you don't get in. I have noticed in other groups when the number of members climbs over 5,000 the problems begin with controlling people and fighting, and other unpleasant things begin to happen. So in this case, less is more.

5. What other wild foods do you enjoy?  I pick berries, ramps,wild garlic, nuts, whatever I can find that I am familiar with. I am growing an edible landscape in my backyard and have bananas, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, limes, lemons, key limes, lychee, avocado, olives, passion fruit, coconut trees (no fruit yet), elderberries, peaches, figs, kaffir limes, ginger and cape gooseberries.

I am hoping to give people ideas so they will try new ways of preparing their wild mushrooms. Frankly, I'm getting tired of the same old pizzas and pot pies. I want people to think outside the box and experiment. My goal this week is to do a new chanterelle recipe every day for a week to show people the variety of what can be done, and that it doesn't have to be a challenge to do it, and to learn to have fun in the kitchen. I know I have!

Chanterelle ravioli in sweet corn saffron broth
6. Any advice for the novice mushroom forager? The best advise is to never ever eat a mushroom if you are not 100% certain of it's identity and always ask an expert for ID help. There are common look-alike mushrooms that can fool people. There are also deadly poisonous mushrooms, so never eat a mushroom you can't identify. 

I asked Mary if she had any favorite recipes- she really didn't have a favorite, per se, but she was kind enough to share the recipe for that amazing chanterelle ravioli in sweet corn broth so let's head into the kitchen and make this beautiful dish.

Mary's Chanterelle Ravioli in Sweet Corn Saffron Broth

For the ravioli:
1/2 pound (approximately) Chanterelles, cleaned
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup Mexican crema
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
salt and pepper
fresh pasta dough 

For the broth:
3 cups water
2 cloves garlic,cut in half
1/2 cup minced onion
3 ears of fresh sweet corn, cut from the cob
pinch of saffron

Slice the chanterelles. 

In a large skillet, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Saute over low heat, covered for about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, combine the broth ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour. Remove from heat and allow to cool before straining. Reheat the broth when ready to serve.

Place the cooled mushrooms in a food processor and pulse to chop. Remove to a bowl and gently mix in the crema, rosemary, and Parmigiano and mix well. Taste for seasoning.

Roll the pasta dough thinly and cut into squares. Fill with a small scoop of the filling, moisten with a little water and top with a second pasta sheet, pressing to seal. Mary used homemade pasta dough for her ravioli. Sometimes I use wonton skins to save time and it works like a charm, using an egg wash to seal them.

Cook the ravioli in boiling salted water until cooked through. Fresh pasta cooks quickly so don't stray too far from the pot. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in shallow bowls. Ladle the sweet corn broth over and garnish with fresh rosemary leaves.

This dish is simply gorgeous and is worthy of ANY fine dining restaurant. It makes a fantastic first course for just about any cuisine. Chanterelles are a very special treat and saffron just brings this broth to the next level. 

I enjoy browsing the group every day and marveling over all the new dishes people are sharing. Now if I can just find time to get out in the woods!

**All photos are property of Mary Smiley

Friday, June 19, 2015

Getting My Summer Tomato Fix

Summer is in full swing at The Little Lake House. The garden is growing well and loving the rain and warm temperatures. We are enjoying our second round of radishes, lots of lettuce and herbs, and patiently waiting for the real joys of summer gardening- peppers and tomatoes. Although the first tomatoes of the garden haven't ripened just yet, heirlooms are available at farmers markets all over. Of course I had to get some.

Since returning to work I thought I'd miss out on most of the farmers markets around. It's a long haul back home to my neck of the woods on farmers market day just to find all the good stuff has been sold. I had no idea that the farmers market would come to me- but that's exactly what has happened. The company I work for is very focused on creating a positive and healthy environment for employees and they have organized a farmers market on the campus every week. I just couldn't be more thrilled. Beautiful fresh produce is such a huge part of our diet, especially in the summer months, and fit perfectly into tonight's dinner.

I mentioned tomatoes. This year in the garden we have an interesting variety or heirloom tomatoes growing. Almost all of them are cherry type, or small tomatoes. Chocolate cherry tomatoes, Gold Nugget, Indigo Rose and Indigo Blue Berries are all new to us. Yellow pear berries and good old red cherry tomatoes complete our tomato crop. I chose these tomatoes because of their colors and flavors. What an interesting pico de gallo, salad and salsa they will make, not to mention great eating off the plant while enjoying breezy evenings on the deck. 

I'm a firm believer in salads as a main course. You don't need a heavy dinner every night, don't need meat or dairy products like cheese. A big bowl of fresh vegetables sprinkled with a light dressing and not overloaded with pasta or grain is exactly the kind of salad I'm looking for. I am all about vinaigrettes. It's hard to beat this dressing for maximum flavor and minimal fat. Get rid of that ranch and commercial dressing- make your own in seconds with ingredients you probably have in the cupboard.

Summertime Cous Cous Salad

1 1/2 cups cous cous (I used Trader Joe's whole wheat cous cous)
1 1/2 cups water
pinch of salt
1 medium bell pepper, chopped (I used half yellow and half orange)
6 scallions, sliced
2 cups mixed small tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/4 cup chopped mixed olives
handful Italian parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons vinegar (I used my own chive infused- use whatever kind you like)
6 tablespoons olive oil
juice of one half lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring the water to boil in a small saucepan. Add the cous cous, stir, cover and let sit off the heat for 5 minutes.

Combine the vegetables in a large salad bowl. In a jar combine the mustard, vinegar, oil and lemon juice. Shake well to combine. Set aside.

When the cous cous has absorbed all the water, fluff with a fork and toss with the vegetables. Drizzle half the dressing over; toss well. Drizzle with remaining dressing. Toss again. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

You don't need meat to get your fill with a salad like that! Fill up on colors with all those veg- and switch it up every time you make it and it's like a new dish each time. Use what's in season and fresh and you'll never go wrong. Later in the summer when I make this again I'll add a little bit of fresh hot hot hot pepper to add a kick and warm things up.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Meatless Monday meets Taco Tuesday

Every now and then we like to throw a vegetarian meal into our rotation. We get to be creative with food and it doesn't hurt to give up meat every once in a while. In fact, lots of vegetables and other foods  make great protein replacements and can be just as hearty as a piece of steak or chicken.

When it comes to bulking up a meal when we're not eating meat, we love mushrooms. The modern grocery store has so much variety these days that the produce section often has four or more different fresh mushrooms at any time. We have the usual suspects- button mushrooms and portobello mushrooms, but we also see cremini, porcini, shiitake, oyster and others. When you consider the variety of dried mushrooms too, wow, you can really have fun with textures and flavors.

I didn't want just boring old button mushrooms. A while back I was sent a package of mushrooms and peppers from Marx Foods to try, cook with and share what I thought, so the chanterelles and black trumpet mushrooms are going on the tacos. They were big and great quality, rehydrated easily and cooked perfectly. They added a nice woodsy flavor to the tacos.

Today we're talking tacos. Now your mind probably immediately went to the old boring Americanized taco- a blah tortilla with greasy spiced hamburger, shredded processed cheese, wilted lettuce and, often, leaky old sad tomatoes. Trust me people, it isn't like this in Mexico. At all. I'm not claiming my mushroom tacos are authentic either, but they are a nice change with lots of flavor, none of the grease, none of the gross fake cheese.

I had to use dehydrated mushrooms for my wild mushrooms.
These mushrooms are from Marx Foods. 

Lakehouse Mushroom Soft Tacos

1 1/2 lbs mixed fresh mushrooms
1 large sweet onion
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cumin
1 garlic clove, smashed/bruised
1 14.5 ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, divided
2-3 tablespoons adobo sauce
1 cup sour cream, divided
diced avocado, sliced radish, cilantro leaves, etc.
whole wheat soft tortillas

Divide the sour cream into two small bowls. Add 2 tablespoons cilantro to one bowl, and the adobo sauce to the other. Cover and chill.

Clean the mushrooms and slice. If using shiitakes, pull off and discard the stems; if using portobellos (the big ones), scrape the gills off with a spoon- an optional step but it helps the dish not be so brown. I used white button mushrooms, rehydrated chanterelles and black trumpet mushrooms.

Clean the onion and slice into thin wedges. Use the flat side of a knife to smash and bruise the garlic clove without chopping it up. We want the garlic flavor but we will be discarding it later.

Place the vegetables in a large zip top plastic bag.

Combine the oil, lime juice, salt, cumin and mix well. Pour over the vegetables in the bag. Close the bag and pop in the fridge for about an hour.

Preheat the broiler. Remove vegetables from bag and drain off marinade. Discard the garlic clove. Spread the vegetables on a baking sheet and broil for about 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking time, until mushrooms are nicely browned.

Drain the tomatoes and toss with mushrooms and onions. Pop back in the oven for a few seconds to heat the tomatoes. 

Serve the vegetables in soft whole wheat tortillas drizzled with the cilantro crema, adobo crema, crumbled queso fresco and whatever toppings you like.

Tonight we topped ours with cilantro leaves, shredded radish
greens, sliced scallions, sliced radish and queso fresco.
The mushrooms and tomato mixture is also good served over shredded lettuce as a mushroom taco salad with avocados and the cilantro cream. You can add salsa if you like- I like mixing salsa and the sour cream in equal parts and using that as a dressing for taco salad. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe are of good quality and safe. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Momma Said Eat Your Greens

Eat your greens? How many times did you hear that growing up, while sitting at the kitchen table, staring forlornly at a lukewarm pile of the dreaded spinach? I heard it a few times. I didn't mind spinach and salad, but if you put some other cooked leaf in front of me..... I was not likely to try it with gusto and clean my plate.

In this day of head to tail eating, and more concern about food waste, people are rethinking the parts of plants we eat and the parts we discard. In particular, the greens. Sure, we have been eating things like turnips greens and mustard greens for ages, but today as I pulled the first batch of radishes from the garden I wondered, what can I do with these greens?

Radish greens are a little unusual. They are a little "prickly" but not overly so. As long as you don't let the radishes grow into tennis ball size radishes, the leaves stay pretty tender. So I began my quest for information and recipes, and suggestions.

I found several recipes for cooked radish greens. Sauteed with garlic and olive oil, or tossed with Asian flavors like sesame oil and soy sauce. Sound pretty decent. One friend told me they like to chop the greens, saute them briefly and toss with crispy fried potatoes. Interesting. I might consider trying that. I also got suggestions to swap the radish greens for basil and make pesto. Huh.... might try that too.

Fresh and crunchy radish greens
I'm much more likely to try them raw, in salads. I really like unusual lettuces and leafy herbs in salads, and I'm pretty sure the peppery taste of the radish leaf would be very happy in my salad bowl. My first harvest of radishes yielded a quart sized bag of radishes and a gallon sized bag of greens, so I have a good amount to test, taste and experiment with.

So let's start with the cooked greens. A quick stir fry with some garlic, sesame seeds and a splash of soy sauce seems to be the way to go. I really love Asian flavors so that's the game plan.

We're going to start by giving the greens a rough chop. I don't want it too small, just not whole leaves. Set aside.

Heat a tablespoons or so of cooking oil in a large skillet. I am adding 2 cloves of fresh garlic that have been bruised/smashed to allow the flavor to diffuse into the oil. Stir fry the garlic for a couple minutes. 

Add the radish greens and cook, tossing to coat evenly with the garlic-infused oil. Stir fry until just wilted. Add sesame seed to taste, and a dash or so of soy sauce. Discard the garlic cloves and serve.

The verdict? Not bad. The greens are mild and remind me of spinach and similar green leafy vegetables. I'd make this again for sure. I imagine they would be really good added to Dragon Noodles.

Leaf lettuce fresh picked from the garden 
In a salad it's super easy- just chop or tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces and toss with mixed salad greens and vegetables. Don't drown a beautiful fresh salad like this in ranch dressing. Make a quick vinaigrette with a beautiful vinegar like an herb infused vinegar. You can make these at home easily- just pack a couple handfuls of fresh herbs in a jar and add a cap or more of vinegar. Cap, shake and store at room temp for a week, then strain and use. Shake with some Dijon mustard, good olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon, salt and pepper and lightly dress the salad. So delicious and the freshness and flavors of all those vegetables comes right through. 

Easiest vinaigrette ever- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 2 tb
vinegar and 6 tablespoons olive oil. Shake and pour over.
How was the salad? Awesome! The radish greens taste really good, nice and crispy and the stems are tender. The leaves, like I mentioned above, are a little "prickly" but when you eat then, you don't even notice. Tossed with the lettuce and veggies it makes a delicious salad green.

Home grown radishes are by far the best!
I paired the radish greens with an equal amount of leaf lettuce, also from the garden, radishes from the garden, grape tomatoes and chopped carrots, tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette. It was light and perfect. I can't wait for the next crop of radishes! 

Now I'm anxious to check out other leafy greens that I can grow and eat. Of course I have several different lettuce varieties and kale growing, but also beets- beet greens are often cooked and eaten. Time to explore the wide world of leafy deliciousness!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

His and Hers Burger Night

I really love date night. When you share life with a chef you don't usually get weekends to go out and enjoy a nice dinner like everyone else. Instead he is cooking their dinner and I'm on my own. Date night for us happens on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and rarely includes things like prime rib and crab stuffed shrimp specials. It usually means a big juicy burger, and honestly, that's what we really like.

On a recent Tuesday night after my work hours we ran his and hers errands, and met up after for dinner, our version of date night. I keep a running list on my laptop of places in the area where I want to eat and check out the menu. Tonight's dinner spot isn't on that list. Shame. I might have explored it sooner!

Tucked away on a busy intersection in Clive, Iowa, sits a sports themed restaurant. Now usually I am not too impressed by places like this- hordes of loud and obnoxious sports fans swilling brews and chomping on wings and generally annoying me. Rookies Sports Bar and Grill is nothing like that. Sure televisions line the room- and I mean line the room completely, and a couple different baseball games were playing, with the volume on, but it was just the perfect volume- loud enough to hear the play by play and not having to yell at my date. I totally enjoyed that, and it's LOCAL. Locally owned, not a big nationwide chain with flashy commercials and cheesy gimmicks. I much prefer supporting a local business over throwing my money at a bazillionaire chain.

Rookies has two large dining rooms and a great selection
of brews and cocktails
The menu was classic American grill- a large selection of appetizers, many fried, but hand breaded and homemade, a great selection of sandwiches, just enough entrees to suit most peoples' taste, and a lineup of really really good burgers. Chatting with the owner was great- he was very friendly and knew the menu- obviously not a guy who sits at a desk somewhere and run the business from afar. 

Of course, we chose burgers. The Chef chose The Wisconsin Burger, a half pound of hand pattied beef topped with Swiss, American and Mozzarella cheeses and served on grilled garlic Parmesan bread. 

The Wisconsin Burger- I had to take a pic on the fly as The
Chef wasn't wasting any time digging in.
I chose The Steakhouse Burger- the same giant half pound of beef with American cheese, bacon, onion straws, lettuce, mayo and steak sauce on a great big toasted bun. Brew pub fries came with the burgers- nice steak fries tossed with seasoning. 

The Steakhouse Burger comes gored with a steak knife.
It was massive!!
Now you guys know how picky I am about salad dressing. It's always got to be homemade vinaigrette for me, period, and I am not a ranch dressing person at all- unless I'm eating fries. Then I must have ranch, and their ranch was really good- if it wasn't homemade it was a good mix!!

Needless to say........ I ate too much. We really needed to have Double Date Night with another couple so we could sample more foods, but I'm quite sure we will be back many times. Rookies has a pretty nice drinks menu and beer selection, with cocktail specials but they really focus on the food. Definitely more restaurant than bar, and that's the kind of place I like to hang out.

Rookies is located at the corner of Hickman Road and NW 156th Street in Clive, It's tucked behind a convenience store but not really hidden. They also have a website with their full menu and a Facebook page.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Beginners' Cheesemaking- Middle Eastern Labneh

Cheesemaking doesn't have to be complicated. It CAN be, if that's what you're going for, and hopefully I'll get a chance to experience making mozzarella and cheddar before too long. You know you'll be reading about it. Anyway, back to easy cheesemaking. I've been on a quest for some time to make homemade cheese. Farmers cheese is easily made with whole milk, and even goat cheese, if you're lucky enough to find raw goat milk, is super easy. 

Years ago while living in England we were unable to find American-style cottage cheese so making family favorites like ravioli and lasagna was a challenge. I had a cookbook written for families- different fun things you can make with your kids- and cottage cheese was one of the recipes. We made it all the time. Boil milk, add acid, stir and drain. Easy peasy. Surprisingly delicious.

Now that I live in a rural area I can get all the cottage cheese I want, but some of the others are not as easy to find. Our little small town grocery store stocks the basics, but if I want to try something unique I need to head back to the city or make it myself. Luckily, soft cheeses are very very easy to make, and this particular cheese, labneh, is super easy. Labneh is a Middle Eastern soft cheese made from yogurt. Absolutely no cooking is involved. It's nothing more than yogurt that has been drained to remove the excess whey, and if you start with Greek yogurt, you're halfway there. A pinch of salt, some fresh herbs and you can customize the labneh to whatever flavors you like. I'll be using some fresh thyme, fresh chives and lemon zest, maybe a pinch of fresh rosemary. A drizzle of good olive oil over the cheese is a nice finishing touch.

Homemade Labneh

2 cups plain Greek yogurt
pinch of salt
fresh herbs of choice

Choose your fresh or dried herbs. Both work well, but you need more fresh than dried. I used a couple sprigs of thyme, a large basil leaf, a small bunch of chives and two small garlic cloves.

Mince the herbs and garlic very finely. I also added a small bit of freshly ground black pepper and a few rasps of the zester on a lemon.

Stir the pinch of salt and herbs into the yogurt. Mix well.

Line a sieve with damp cheesecloth. Pour the yogurt into the cheesecloth.

Gather the ends up and tie into a ball. Use a wooden spoon to hang the ball over a bowl, using string to suspend the cheesecloth. I tied the cheesecloth ball and then used two skewers through the cheesecloth to form an x and propped it over the bowl.

Allow the yogurt to drain overnight. Don't press on the cheesecloth.

Remove from cheesecloth and place in serving bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve with bread or crackers. Use the cheese within a day or two. For longer storage, scoop the cheese into small balls and place in a bowl. Cover with olive oil and refrigerate. Use within two weeks.

I love the way the cheesecloth leaves a waffle pattern on
the surface of the labneh when you unwrap it.
The labneh is ready to serve within 24 hours and is delicious spread onto crusty bread, crackers, fresh vegetables. It's also great to use in recipes calling for soft cheese such as goat or ricotta cheese. Rolled in balls and rolled in minced herbs, it's also a great addition to an antipasti plate. Spread it on bagels like cream cheese and use it to make dips. 

We decided to give the labneh a taste test on some grilled focaccia. Since it's been so rainy, muggy and nasty around here I made good use of my trusty grill pan- this folks, is a kitchen necessity. It really is. 

Slicing the bread at a slight diagonal just gave it a nicer appearance. Louie, the resident American bulldog, got to eat the bread butts and he was pretty happy about that.

Brush with the slightest bit of butter or olive oil and place the bread slices on the heated grill pan. I kept the grill over medium heat so I'd get nice grill marks and the slower heat would toast the bread through and leave it crispy.

I spread a generous amount of labneh on the toasted bread and we sampled. It was good! It's definitely got the yogurt tang and the herbs and garlic gave it a nice flavor. Tomorrow night this is going to make a nice snack or appetizer with some minced Peppadews or chopped olives, maybe even a relish.

I love the tangy flavor of the labneh and think it would be a fantastic "blank canvas" for all sorts of flavor combinations- sweet touches like berries, apples and cinnamon or dates and nuts. Drizzle with honey. Go the spicy route with Italian herbs and garlic, or maybe even hot peppers- the dairy base will help take the edge off the searing heat of some of the hotter peppers.

Labneh stays soft enough for easy piping too- you can use it to fill mushrooms caps and pop in the oven, or make jalapeno poppers. I definitely will be filling a plate full of Peppadews with this stuff. You're only limited by your imagination!