Sunday, September 18, 2011

Challah Pan Stuffing with Sausage, Corn, Poblano and Sage

This was shockingly delicious. I need to stop myself from fixing a third plate.

I called this a pan stuffing rather than a bread pudding since, for most of us, bread pudding connotes dessert, which has nothing to do with sausage or poblano peppers (well, a poblano ice cream might be pretty fantastic on a sweet cornbread, but I digress). However, the methods used in this recipe are much closer to a bread pudding than a stuffing—the main difference being that a bread pudding has way more eggs and milk, resulting in a rich, custardy dish.

This recipe is a bit time consuming, but I feel it is worth it (let me repeat, shockingly delicious). The two most tempting steps to skip might be infusing the milk and making the fried sage garnish. I hope you don’t, as these are two of the coolest steps, and the most applicable to other recipes (I learned both from Jerry Traunfeld’s superb The Herbfarm Cookbook. If you enjoy cooking with fresh herbs, this is a must read). Fried herbs are a great garnish to many dishes (the crunchy fried sage is awesome on top of a velvety squash or pumpkin soup), and you could even serve them as a fun snack before a dinner party. And I love infusing milk with fresh herbs. It’s a technique that works especially well in desserts. It’s not very sexy having little green dots speckling a lucious dessert, so why not infuse the milk (or cream—in fact the infusion works better the more fat is in the liquid) with speckless flavor? Imagine a berry cobbler with mint whipped cream, or strawberry cupcakes with basil buttercream. Yum.

Possible substitutions and additions:

Regular milk for the goat milk – I love the “goatiness” (goat milk tastes very much like goat cheese) of this dish, but if you can’t find, can't afford, or are grossed out by the goat milk, feel free to replace it.

Smoked paprika (also called Spanish paprika or pimenton) for the powdered chipotle – This would tone down the spicyness. However, I don’t recommend using sweet or Hungarian paprika, which is much less smoky than the Spanish variant.

Other bread for the challah – If you can’t find challah, use any light white bread with lots more crumb than crust (the crumb is the inside of the bread). Brioche would be delicious, although the final dish would be preposterously rich.

Goat cheese – crumbling some goat cheese on top of the stuffing right before it goes in the oven would be an excellent decision flavor wise, and a not-so-much excellent decision calorie wise, I leave it in your capable hands.


2 medium poblano peppers, with relatively smooth surfaces (not too many divots or creases)
Canola oil for rubbing
1 1 lb loaf challah
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for rubbing and more for frying the sage
1 quart whole goat milk
1 small bunch sage, with 2 large, pretty leaves removed for each diner
2 sausage links (I used spicy turkey sausage)
4 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium sweet onion, in medium dice
2 medium tomatos (alternatively, I used 7 small camapri tomatoes), in medium dice
2 cups fresh corn, cut off the cob
8 large eggs
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp ground chipotle pepper, plus more for dusting

1.) Preheat the broiler. If you have a toaster oven, preheat its broiler (so you can toast the bread, step 5-6, at the same time as you broil the peppers).

2.) Drizzle canola oil over the peppers, then rub the oil all over their surfaces.

3.) Place the peppers under the broiler. Cook, turning regularly, until they are blackened and blistered all over, about 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cover with a kitchen towel until cool enough to handle.

4.) Peel the skin off the peppers and remove the stems and seeds. Dice the flesh into medium dice and set aside.

5.) Preheat the oven to 350°.

6.) Cut off the bottom crust of the challah, then cut the remaining bread into 1 inch cubes. Place on a baking sheet, drizzle with the olive oil, and toss to coat. Bake for 30 minutes, or until nicely toasted and golden brown. Keep the oven at 350°.


7.) Meanwhile, bring the milk to a boil (make sure it doesn’t overboil!) Take it off the heat once it starts to bubble.

8.) Place the bunch of sage in the hot milk, press it down with the back of a spoon if it pokes above the surface, and cover. Let sit away from the heat for 30 minutes, then strain, pressing down on the sage to extract as much liquid as possible, discard the solids.

9.) Meanwhile, heat a pan over medium high heat, then remove the sausage from its casing and crumble into the pan. Stir, breaking up the sausage, until it starts to render it’s fat.

10.) Add the garlic and onions, cook until they start to soften and are glistening.

11.) Add the tomatos, corn, and poblanos, stirring well after each addition.

12.) Cook until the vegetables are soft and have lost their raw taste, 8-10 minutes. Combine with the toasted bread.

13.) Whisk together the infused milk, salt, pepper, chipotle, and eggs until well combined.

14.) Rub a 13” x 9” x 2” casserole dish with a little bit of olive oil, add the bread/ vegetable mixture, then slowly pour the egg/milk mixture on top. Dust the surface with ground chipotle. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the custard has firmed up (but not dried out).

15.) About 5 minutes before taking the stuffing out of the oven, heat some olive oil (about ¼  cup, or enough to generously coat the bottom of the pan) over high heat. When it is hot, add the reserved sage leaves, 6-8 at a time, and fry for 2-3 seconds, then transfer with a fork to a paper towel and sprinkle generously with kosher salt.

16.) Cut the stuffing into squares, serve garnished with the fried sage.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Adventure, Excitement, Food

As you may know, I love food, and I love to try new things. If I see a vegetable I’ve never heard of, I’m probably going to buy it, and I’m not a great cook because I keep experimenting with new recipes, never perfecting what I know (don’t worry, every recipe on this site has been made at least twice, (which might explain the delays between postings)). So in the spirit of adventure, here are a few food products I’ve recently discovered.

Found in the Syracuse area:

I had a really fantastic day today, full of culinary adventures with good friends. At Syracuse’s Italian Festival, I had a nice plate of calamari.

They weren’t frying to order, but instead of giving me a plate of sad, soggy, used-to-be-good food, they embraced the softness of the crust by adding soft, cooked, spicy red peppers and a delicious balsamic sauce, then lettuce for a crunchy textural contrast and to soak up the dressing.

And, if you haven’t been to the CNY regional market yet, you really have to go. It’s wonderful, and it runs all year. The produce is beautiful:

Including some sure signs that fall is here:

And there are some great, local, prepared products as well:

Meadowood farms in Cazenovia, NY makes an absolutely stellar sheep’s milk feta cheese—creamy without being too soft, crumbly without being too hard, and tasting amazingly fantastic. It’s won some awards from the American Cheese Society, and it absolutely deserves them.

Cheeky Monkey is a small business with a cult following in Syracuse. They make a spicy tomato garlic dipping oil (there’s a less tasty, less spicy version as well), which is essentially a chunky, oily dressing (emulsified with a bit of vinegar). It’s delicious, and adds a lot of flavor to sautéed vegetables (it was great with fennel, celery, onion, and scrambled eggs) or a quick sandwich (delicious with turkey, tomato and cheddar—bacon would have been welcome at that shindig, as well).

The Brooklyn Salsa Company’s products are a bit more widely available, and their Curry salsa is absurdly delicious. Granted, I’m a sucker for a well-balanced spicy curry and for coconut milk, but it is really good. Use it as you would any salsa (as a dip for chips, as a topping for some unusual pork and/or potato tacos) or mix it in with a dish—it was wonderful with some sautéed corn, tomatoes, onions, and ground lamb.

Found in Ohio, at most Krogers supermarkets, and scattered around the country:

On the trail, I met two good friends from Cincinnati (miss you Pixel! Miss you Chatter!) who turned me on to two amazing Cincinnati specialties:

Skyline Chili is pretty synonymous with Cincinnati, and it’s scrumptious. It’s available canned, and has a much different texture than the chili you’re probably used to. It’s more loose and liquid, like a normal chili that hasn’t been cooked long enough. However, the texture works great in a number of Cincinnati specialties—it’s closer in texture to a tomato sauce, so it works great on (hilariously named) pasta dishes, and it oozes together with lots of other fatty ingredients in one of the all-time great tailgating recipes. When I tasted it, I knew it reminded me of something, but couldn’t quite place it. Then, when I found a “copycat” recipe online, I realized that it reminded me of Rick Bayless’s life changingly good recipe for stuffed chilis, specifically the tomato broth spiced with cinnamon. The combination of tomato, cinnamon, and ground meat is central to both dishes, which both have wonderful complexity and depth of flavor.

Graeter’s Ice Cream is too good, it’s just too damn good. They still use the old small batch French Pot method of ice cream making, which makes for ridiculously creamy ice cream, and their ingredients are top notch, including a choclatier-quality milk chocolate which they pour into many of their ice creams as they are being spun, resulting in some huge shards of lovely, rich chocolate as well as little flecks in every bite. I would do some unspeakable things for a pint of Black Raspberry chip, right now.

Found in Syracuse and beyond:

Topher Lawton pointed me towards Lawry’s Seasoned salt. The primary flavors are onion and celery, which classically go with kinda everything. It was great in a burger, great on a toasted mozzarella and carrot sandwich, and turned microwave popcorn into greasy handfuls of heroin.

Biscoff Spread (a.k.a. Speculoos spread in Europe) looks like and has the texture of creamy peanut butter but tastes pretty much exactly like Graham crackers. Why are you still reading this. Get in the car, it’s at Wegmans. Great on toasted cinnamon raisin bread.

Dogfish Head makes some very, very good beers, some OK beers, and some pretty terrible beers. Punkin’ Ale is one of their best, and it’s only available in the fall. I saw it at the store and it was in my cart before I even had time to get excited. But, since then, I have gotten deliriously silly with excitement. Drink one and taste the leaves changing.

A note on the name of this blog

From late March until early August of this past year, I hiked 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It was the single greatest experience of my life. It’s difficult to describe what the hike was like, or why it was so transformative, (although I try—almost every story I’ve told since arriving in Syracuse starts with “On the Trail…”) but I can write a little bit about the food.

As hikers, food was always on our minds. Whether planning out what was for dinner (usually something like a 3500 calorie conglomerate of instant ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, Knorr Pasta Sides, pre-cooked bacon or summer sausage, and mountain water, all served in a single pot and eaten with a titanium spork), when our next snack break was, or what sort of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad fast food we were going to eat when we stopped in town to resupply—food which I craved like I’ve never craved anything before, like I was a pregnant woman, but which repulses me now that I’m not burning 9000 calories a day and sweating out my weight in salt. Many of the meals which I remember most fondly would probably make my stomach turn now (two bags of Parmesean Spinach pasta side with precooked bacon and pouched salmon, a dozen hot dog buns with cold chili and Dorito crumbs (given to me by a wonderfully kind Trail Angel—someone who parks at a road crossing and serves passing hikers free food), or a truly absurd amount of Taco Bell, with Wendy’s as an amuse bouche and Long John Silver’s as a digestif).

Or I thought about meals I had eaten—a favorite time-passing game was mentally listing countries, then states, then cities that I’ve visited, in alphabetical order, and trying to pick a particularly memorable food moment from each one. Then I’d re-index the memories by food or ingredient, also, of course, in alphabetical order (I don’t know why it took me 25 years to figure out that library school might be a pretty good fit). I thought about the different consistencies butter can have, or what types of berries would taste best with what type of herbs. I planned endless recipes, thinking about what I would cook when I got off-trail. So that brings me to the name of this blog.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines off-trail as follows (usage, pronunciation, and etymology removed, emphasis my own):

off-trail, adv. and adj.

A. adv.
Off a trail or path; away from an established route.

B. adj.
That is or takes place away from a trail; spec. (of a sport, activity, etc.) conducted away from an established or conventional route. Also (and in earliest use) fig.: different to that which is accepted or usual; unorthodox.

While I was hiking, off-trail was a place I never wanted to be, a place that terrified me. Injury or illness could send me there, and we were constantly hearing stories of the weak or the unlucky, people who we had last seen happily hiking past us over mountains, but who we might never see again. They were gone forever. Off-trail. Now, off-trail is a state of mind, a return to normalcy. But it is just that fact—that I’ve returned from the woods—which means that the world will never be truly normal again. The world will always be “different to that which is accepted or usual” because that’s what it was while I was hiking. For the rest of my life, I will be someone who used to be on the Trail. When I live my life off-trail, when I shower every day, or sleep indoors and in the same place for more than one night running, or cook a meal with fresh vegetables and five pans, I will always be reminded of how lucky I am, how abundantly rich my life is, but, at the same time, how little I actually need to be truly, euphorically happy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Spicy Pickles With Vietnamese Flavors

Recently, I've been experimenting with preserving food. I live alone, so I often can't eat vegetables fast enough, and I end up throwing them away. That drives me crazy. In this blog, among the recipes, reviews, and ruminations on cooking, I'll periodically explore various preservation techniques, keeping my fridge full and my trash can empty. I'm starting with pickling.

Pickling is a wonderful way to preserve a vegetable's flavor and crispness, while infusing it with any variety of fresh flavors. Today, I made pickles with vietnamese flavorings—chili, lime, mint, cilantro, and coriander (an interesting aside: cilantro and coriander are actually the same plant! In America, we call the leaves cilantro and the seeds coriander, but you may see "Cilantro seeds" in a Latin market, or "Coriander leaves" in an English cookbook).

I started with fresh ingredients from Syracuse's fantastic farmer's market (note: the ingredients listed below are slightly different than those pictured. The list is correct. I used too many vegetables, i.e. more than fit nicely in one 1 quart mason jar), along with some brining ingredients from the pantry.

For heat, I included both hungarian wax peppers, which are moderately spicy (less spicy than a jalapeno) and a habanero pepper, which is extremely hot. Feel free to tone down the heat by omitting the habanero, or replacing the wax peppers with anaheim chilies.

Spicy Pickles With Vietnames Flavors:
For the pickles:

3 medium pickling cucumbers
1 small bunch cilantro
15-20 leaves mint
1 habanero pepper
2 hungarian wax peppers

For the brine:

Juice of 4 limes
Enough rice wine vinegar to bring the total acid (lime juice + vinegar) to 1 1/2 cups.
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp kosher salt
2 1/2 tbsp white sugar

1.) Chop the cucumbers to your desired thickness (I like about 1/4 inch thick slices) and set aside (feel free to cut wedges, long slices, dice the cucumbers, or leave them whole, they're your pickles!).

2.) Thinly slice the wax peppers and mince the habenero. Combine and set aside. For milder heat, remove the white pith and seeds from the peppers. The pith is the hottest part, followed by the seeds, and then the flesh.

3.) Chop the cilantro and cut the mint into thin strips, which are called chiffonade (if you'd like some instruction on chopping herbs, Serious Eats has posted a wonderful slide show, which happens to highlight cilantro and mint). Combine and set aside.

4.) Combine all the brine ingredients in a small saucepan and place over high heat. As soon as the liquid just starts to boil:

remove it from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes.

5.) In a 1 quart mason jar, place a layer of cucumbers, followed by a layer of peppers, then a layer of herbs. Press down to make sure everything is tightly packed, then repeat the layering process until the jar is full and packed with vegetables.

6.) Slowly pour the cooled brine into the jar until it is full to just below the brim. All the vegetables should be covered. Cover and refrigerate.

Your pickles will be delicious after even a few hours, but they will keep in the fridge for months, getting more and more intensely flavored as time goes by.

These pickles liven up a sandwich (such as roast pork, turkey burger, or tuna fish), go into salads (such as a salad of corn, black beans, and tomatoes, or rice vermicelli noodles, shredded carrots, scallions and chicken thighs), or can be served along side a piece of breaded, pan fried snapper or a roasted chicken. Try to pair them with dishes or flavors you might find in Vietnamese or Mexican cuisine, and incorporate flavors from the pickles (mint, cilantro, lime, chili) into the dish. You can even use the pickle juice as an ingredient, maybe as the base for a salad dressing or to finish a sauce. Experiment and, as my great-grandmother Clara used to say "Enjoy, enjoy."