Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cauliflower Au Gratin an Ode to West Town Tavern, Chicago Illinois

Susan Goss is an amazing chef. She and her husband have opened and run two of the best restaurants in Chicago I know. And I have never met her, but I have eaten at her restaurants. Several years a ago when I was acting at the Fireside Theatre in Fort Atikinson, Wisconsin, my friend Eric came to visit me and we took a trip on my days off from the show down to Chicago where my brother was working at the time. My brother ate out all the time because he was living out of hotels. So needless to day he was a great source of knowledge when it came to the dining scene in Chicago.

One of his favorite restaurants was a place called Zinfandel which  had the distinction of only serving "American" food and sourced everything from the ingredients to the liquors and wine from the 50 states. No outside sourcing. Susan Goss was the chef. It was a clever gimmick I suppose but the results were really sweet. The menu featured really well done American dishes with classical preparations and elegant touches. Very thoughtful she would include a monthly "State" special menu which would feature the foods and products from a particular state. The month I went there it was Hawaiian month, and that was fun!

Unfortunately, the place closed after a kitchen fire and a few years later she and her husband opened West Town Tavern. It was a place based on basic midwestern table fare, elevated, but not so fussy that one would not recognize it. I ate there too and it was really good. What I loved about Susan's food is that it had all the elements of each iconic dish but were well thought out and executed with clever or intelligent precision. Comfort food gone good!

One of the sides I had there was a cauliflower gratin that really was something else. It was well seasoned and rich. It was also well balanced not becoming overwhelmingly thick and rich but with a picante finish. Now I love gratin and I immediately filed this away. Growing up I remember my Grandmother who lived with us would make baked cauliflower in mustard cream. I actually like this dish and she usually made it when we would have pork chops. It went well with them.

Cauliflower is an awesome vegetable and it can be inspired. I love it pureed and I love it fried. But mostly I love it in a stupidly rich picate sauce with cheese! So I have tried to meld my love of Susan's recipe with my memory of my Grandmother's. I think it came out well. Give it a try. Let me know. Enjoy Ya'll!

Irene and Susan's Cauliflower Gratin in Cauliflower Mustard Cream ( as re-imagined by Forrest)

2 Heads Cauliflower ( I sometimes use frozen 2-3 bags or about 3lbs )
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 cup minced peeled onion
2 cups heavy cream
2 heaping tablespoon Grey Poupon Mustard ( I add a little more sometimes I like Mustard )
1 and 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon freshly chopped rosemary leaves 
1 and 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 cup parmesan cheese grated
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs


Cut the cauliflower into small florets
Chop up the stems finely and reserve
(if using frozen cauliflower chop 2 and 1/2 cups of florets up for above)
Blanch florets in boiling salted water 6 to 8 mins
Quickly cool in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, reserve
Saute the shallots till soft in olive oil, then add chopped stems and cream and cook together
Bring to a boil and simmer until stems are very soft.
Puree in a blender and season the cream with the Mustard, horseradish, nutmeg, salt, pepper and rosemary and 1/4 cup parm cheese
Mix together with the florets and pour into a buttered baking dish
Mix bread crumbs and remaining parm cheese and sprinkle on the top evenly
Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 mins until top is golden and gratin is bubbling. 
Let stand at least 10 mins before serving


Saturday, November 24, 2012

New American Cooking, Smokey Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish and Sour Cream

OK. So Thanksgiving is over. But the holidays are just beginning and if you are like me you are getting ready to find a way to perk up those dinners you might be having for friends and or your family which celebrate the season.

There are all the usual suspects to be found on my Thanksgiving dinner table. The turkey, dressing (aka Stuffing), you know all the regulars, but I have an aversion to one of the mainstays of the holiday table. The sweet potato! Well, that is till this year. You may well ask why do I not enjoy the potato of sweet with it's brilliant orange color and deep sweet flavor. Eh...who knows but I guess it has to do with liking regular potatoes so much I can't imagine sweet potatoes taking their place. But as I said this year was different.

Now the sweet potato is probably one of the earliest indigenous foods that the Pilgrims took over from the Indians when they landed in the New World. Sweet potatoes were a mainstay in the Indian diet all over South, Central and North America but it would have been one of the crops that the settlers saw and tasted along with corn that they saw themselves also planting. So needless to say in the early part of the culinary history of our country the sweet potato was pretty common. Sweet potatoes are not Yams and should not be confused with them. Yams were brought to this country by Christopher Columbus to his credit, and are from Africa. It was not until the rise of the white potato that Americans crossed over into eating the sweet potato as an afterthought. Mostly popular in the American South sweet potatoes graced the tables of my family my whole life. And I never really liked them. "Healthy", "Good for You", were all phrases attached to this vegetable's name. ( tell a kid that and it's never a good thing) And for me the worse part was... they were sweet. And while I like a little dessert now and then, I have already discussed how I would rather eat a bag of doritos over a gallon of ice cream, so I definitely did not enjoy the sweet flavor aspect at all.

As an adult I have come to appreciate the sweet potato for it's place in the culinary pantheon, but I still would rather eat creamy salty buttery white mashed potatoes any day! Also while I do enjoy a traditional preparation of the sweet potato as a casserole, it is cloyingly sweet and seems to almost be a dessert. However, this Thanksgiving it was requested that I make sweet mashed potatoes. So I did. However, I decided to try them the way I have prepared white mashed potatoes before, that is with savory ingredients. And I have to say... I not only liked them, I loved them! I used sour cream as the dairy element and I used Horseradish as the flavor choice. I also used a touch of my favorite secret ingredient liquid smoke as a background flavor and a touch of honey to compliment the sweet in the sweet potatoes. They came out really well and were a huge hit during the meal. In fact two people took them home with them. So here's the recipe. maybe you can mix it up a bit this season and find a little savory in your sweet.

Smokey Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish and Sour Cream

3 pounds of sweet potatoes washed peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup dairy sour cream
1/2 jar prepared horseradish (more or less depending on the potency and your taste)
1 1/2 Tablespoons honey
1 1/2 Tablespoons salt
1 Tablespoon black pepper
4 drops to start with of liquid smoke add more after you taste the potatoes, it should be a background flavor so keep that in mind or it will end up tasting like charcoal!

Boil the sweet potatoes in highly salted water till they pierce easily with a fork about 25 mins.
Drain well and rinse again with warm water to drain off some of the excess starch
Mash roughly
Add sour cream
Mash into the potatoes
Stir in the Horseradish and the honey and season well to taste, you might want to add more salt and pepper. Add in the liquid smoke and taste, add more to your liking if necessary! Enjoy!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why I am thankful on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. It is a holiday that brings into one's minds eye soft and cozy images of times spent with special people at special places and in special circumstances with special foods. As children it can be a magical time, as a part of a holiday haze that serves as a precursor to Fall's ending and ushers in the Christmas season with all it's joy and pomp. It's a time when the construction paper laden bulletin boards in the classrooms would switch from Halloween's black hats and orange cats to multi colored fall leave cut outs laced with with pumpkins and turkeys and maybe a pilgrim's hat. It was a long weekend off from school and playing football in the backyard with the neighbors kids. It was a family and friend gathering time, and that time was precious. It was truly special. This is what I remember about Thanksgiving growing up.

As with so many parts of our national traditions the entertaining industry and media have created whole campaigns around the Thanksgiving Holiday The magazine industry has for years spewed out at us in images and articles ideas which would have us picture Thanksgiving as a Norman Rockwell painting come to life with all the sights and smells of a picture perfect world. Not that we all live in that Rockwellian Paradise, a parade of 1950's picture perfect families and houses decked to perfection with all the trappings of the season. Indeed some of us, maybe a very few, are blessed few live in a world like that. But most of us don't. We live in real families with real people who are not perfect and who, by the grace of God, somehow find their way through to loving and supporting one another and keeping it together. Therefore Thanksgiving can play various roles in our family's journey whether it be our birth family or chosen one. It can be a healing time and a time for reflecting on ourselves and our families, friends and our world and our place in it and in other peoples lives.

Too often holidays like Thanksgiving bring up sad or depressing memories or thoughts for people. That is a sad thing indeed when it should be a holiday when we focus on being thankful for what we have instead of focusing on what we don't have or feel deprived of. A story from my past reminds me of how grateful I should be and how I should count my blessings on Thanksgiving instead of wishing for something more.

When I was touring with the national tour of "Oliver!" the musical, I spent a Thanksgiving in California. It was a warm and wet day and we had two shows back to back. Now I tried to arrange for my cast mates and myself to have a nice "holiday" meal but when push came to shove we really did not have enough time to go out to a formal dinner, nor did everyone want to spend the money to do so.

Disheartened I decided to go with the flow. But when it was announced that we were going to Jack in the Box for dinner I about flipped out. I mean really it;s Thanksgiving!! Nonetheless I went with the flow, saddened further by missing my family and friends elsewhere and saddened by the circumstances. However, when we got to the Jack in the Box ( which is a fast food restaurant for those of you who don't know)  that is when I was really shocked. The restaurant was completely crowded and full. Full of families having dinner, parents and their kids. Full of people eating alone in silence, eating at the friggin Jack in the Box on Thanksgiving!!!

Suddenly I was ashamed of feeling badly about not having my special dinner on this special holiday. Indeed, all the years I was a child or even an adult I never once had anything like this as a holiday meal, let alone a time where my parents would choose to take me to something like that whether by choice or circumstance. Indeed I had only known a practically Norman Rockwell existence compared to this. And suddenly I was filled with gratitude. Graditude for my past, for my family, and for my friends from the show who I was with, who I loved and loved being with wherever we were. I was so grateful.

So this Thanksgiving when I am gathering around whatever table it may be with friends and loved ones I want to remember how blessed I am to have what I have, and try to resolve when the holiday is long past and all there is left is turkey sandwiches from the icebox and mountains of dishes, that blessings are all around and I should be grateful for all of them large and small and not be disheartened or discontent but be the change in the world around me for good giving back a little of what I have been given.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And thanks for reading my blog all year. I would love to know who is out there reading and looking, so make comments on posts you like and give me feedback on what I can so to improve. Peace!


Friday, November 9, 2012

Mohonk inspired Roast Chicken with Dijon and Parsley Seasoning and the Reason a Roasted Chicken means comfort!

Fall is in the air here in New York. Actually one could say it's flying through the air what with Hurricane Sandy and then the storm that even as I write this is beating at my windows with the first snow fall of the year. I suppose that if we had not just endured the blackouts and the flooding this would just be a big messy storm. But I think everyone is a little bit on edge about the weather.

Fall still remains my favorite time of year. Recently I had the chance to go hiking up at Mohonk with A. It was fall and the leaves had turned half way to colors, the air was cool and crisp. It was stunning!  Mohonk for those of you who don't know is an old Quaker resort and camp which was founded by a Quaker family at the turn of the last century. It is a majestic old hotel set on top of a small mountain which has a crater lake at it's center. It's actually quite the resort these days with a top of the notch spa and a 4 star resort rating. Aside from the hotel itself and the gardens around the property it has winding hiking trails all over the property and into the land reserve next door And there are gazebos everywhere. Yes gazebos! Made of the timbers and branches of the forests that surround them. It really is so  beautiful! It is a peaceful place and affords you the opportunity to meditate and get away from the world a little. A cause the original Quaker owners championed!

                                              This is Mohonk Mountain House

                                            This one of the many gazebos with a vista

So over the years Mohonk has slowly changed from a very conservative and family oriented vacation spot to a more upscale and chic destination. Not that all that much is different. But they do serve alcohol now in a lounge and dinner comes with a option for wine. But the dinning experience at Mohonk remains an interesting experience. For years it featured a large dinning hall and family style meals centered around the idea of breaking bread together and creating community. Now that had been somewhat updated but the seating is still very communal and the vibe is very friendly.

Now you might ask what does Mohonk and roast chicken have to do with one another. Well only that one of the so called heritage meals there is a roast chicken half, served with "marbled" potatoes and onions. And when the fireplace is roaring and the mood is festive you eat that chicken dinner and you recognize why people associate a roast chicken dinner as the homey meal number one in the world. It just feels like comfort and home.

At my house roasting a bird in the oven is a lovely thing! The house fills with wonderful aromas and the warmth of the oven gives the house a toasty goodness wrapped in flavors you can smell. I have decided to find the perfect recipe for roasting chicken this year. So as part of this project, I started to think about how to give a chicken the same attention we give a turkey. And I came up with the brining method of soaking the bird over night in a solution designed to plump up the bird's taste. But that's a commitment and what if you don't have the time? So I thought why not slather the bird with a marinade and let it sit in the fridge a few hours and then roast it. Not exactly brining, but the skin will take in the flavors from slathering it with a marinade and then baking it after it's stood awhile in the fridge to marinate seemed smart. I also wanted to try something other than the "slather it with butter" method so common with roast chicken. It was really good!

So that's what I did and it came out so well I may never make chicken another way again. It's delish. So without further adieu I give you the recipe for your fall table, enjoy Ya'll!

Forrest Ultimate Roast Chicken with Dijon and Parsley Sauce

A couple of notes.

1) I used a 7 pound bird for this you could use 2 smaller ones to feed 4 to 6 people
2) I used Herb de Provence as my herbs
3) I bought a really really strong dijon mustard for this recipe
4) you could brine your chicken overnight in a solution but I did not have the time, it would probably             add a lot to the bird's overall flavor

This recipe could not be easier

Step one:

In a small bowl stir together till it forms a green thick but viscus paste

4 heaping Tablespoons of Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon onion powder
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup dried parsley leaves
2 Tablespoons Black pepper
1 1/2 Tablespoons Herbs of your choice dried ( I tried Herbs de Provence for that French flair)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons rosemary flavored oil ( if you don't have this just increase the regular olive oil
salt to taste

Step two:  wash and clean your chicken then salt and pepper generously inside and out
Step three:  slather chicken well with the sauce
Step four:  place chicken wrapped in plastic in the fridge for 2 hours
Step five: bring out and let come to room temp  and salt and pepper it again
Step six: Heat oven to 375 bake chicken in middle of oven for 60 mins then reduce heat to 350 and  bake for another 30 mins check to see if the leg moves freely to see if it's done
Remove from oven let rest at least 15 mins then carve and serve

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bourbon Vanilla Buttermilk Milkshakes

So this is a recipe whose time has come for fall! Who doesn't love milkshakes. Well I was reading one
of my favorite blogs that I follow Noble Pig , and she had a recipe for these Bulgarian Buttermilk milkshakes with Vanilla ice cream and Bourbon.

Well I have been making Vanilla Bourbon Milkshakes for awhile. I made them many years ago for an On the Plate event and have made them for parties ever since. The reason I like them is simple, they are an easy no fuss dessert, and let's face it they are pretty awesomely tasty!

Well the idea of using buttermilk sounded awesome. I mean I love finding uses for buttermilk in foods. I just love it's rich bitter flavor and how it can enhance flavors. Buttermilk reminds me of my Big Mama, who had a glass of buttermilk everyday of her life I think! Now I did not have anything but regular old American buttermilk not finding the Bulgarian variety, and that's what I used in place of the regular whole milk I would normally use in my recipe. Well they came out great so give them a try. They are an easy and different taste for your holiday desserts. Enjoy Ya'll!

Bourbon Vanilla Buttermilk Shakes

6 large scoops of vanilla ice cream
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 shots of bourbon
Canister of Real Whipped Cream

Place all ingredients in a blender and whirl whirl whirl!! Pour into 4 glasses, top with whipped cream and enjoy!

Thanksgiving Stuffing Recipes, it's all in the memories!

James Beard the anointed Dean of American cookery said famously that American cooking is what Americans cook at home. That could not be more true of our most famous and fabulous food holiday, Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving so much. I mean what's not to love. A holiday which celebrates the bounty of our nation with the cooking up of a groaning board's worth of foods which are indigenous to these shores and historically bound to the founding of our nation by both our European and Native American forefathers. These foods were integral to the survival of the Pilgrims as they made their first year in the New World and as such they formed the background of the foods that they may have put together for that first feast to celebrate their survival.

The main stays of the modern Thanksgiving meals is founded around the mighty Turkey. It's a noble roasted bird that anchors a meal rich in starches, vegetables and salad side dishes along with sauces and relishes. It is good. Many of these dishes are associated so closely with this meal that even if they were originally from some other source they are iconically associated with the day of Thanks feast. The most iconic of these is probably stuffing.

Indeed, Stuffing is definitely one of dishes that is most high on everyone's list of Thanksgiving foods. There are as many types of stuffing as there are cooks. I mean it's so interesting to me how iconic the flavor profile of the stuffing that one grew up with can be for people. There are stuffings that are meaty, seafood laden, veggie full, and use various starches and bread types. But what they all have in common is they are intended in some way to accompany the bird. Cause let's face it, on Thanksgiving, the bird is the word!

As you might have noticed if you have been following my blog, I grew up in a southern household, albeit a transient one. Being a military family we carried our heritage with us. My folks were very interested in us understanding where we were from and grounding us in our family's history and southern background. As such there were foods which were always present like grits and collards and lots of chicken and rice.

For holidays we had Ham on Easter, Hoppin John on New Years Day, and for Thanksgiving we always had a cornbread and pecan stuffing the likes of which are hard to find. I say that being that it is my family's stuffing and tradition, but I have been making this stuffing for years here in New York and people can never get enough of it. It's so rich and delish that people actually remember it from year to year and ask to make sure it's present on our Thanksgiving Table.

So here is the recipe, it's actually very very simple and makes ample dressing to bake on the side as well as stuff your bird. So here's to the first of my Thanksgiving posts, and if you want to try a new stuffing recipe this year, give it a go and let me know what you think. Enjoy Ya'll!

Forrest's Famous Thanksgiving Pecan Cornbread Stuffing Recipe

1 1/2 bunches of celery finely chopped
2 very large white or yellow onions finely chopped
3 8 oz bags Pecan halves and pieces crushed but not powder
1 very large loaf Italian or Peasant Bread cut up into crouton sized pieces and left out to dry for a day
2 large pans or 4 boxes of Jiffy cornbread baked and crumbled
2 boxes salad croutons garlic slightly crushed
4 cups chicken stock
3 Tablespoons garlic powder
2 Tablespoons dried Thyme
1/2  spice jar Sage dried ( as in jar from the spice isle)
2 Tablespoons dried Oregano
1/2 package stuffing seasoning (Bells is what I use)
1 pound of butter melted
4 eggs beaten
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a large bowl of tin combine and mix the breads
Saute the onions an celery till soft, season then the add the crushed pecan pieces saute till the flavors bloom, add the seasonings till also they bloom.
Add stock and remaining ingredients then pour over the bread mixing gently till combined taste and season with salt and pepper. Add eggs and mix to combine. Mix should be fairly wet.
If too dry add more stock or water.
Place in a buttered large casserole dish or dishes and or stuff bird with the left overs from one dish. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 mins. Bird will bake in it's own time. Enjoy!