Sunday, October 31, 2010

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Browned Butter and Sage

If I weren't so concerned with SEO (search engine optimization), I would have called this post, "Life Under Renovation," or "Before and After." That is the current overriding theme of my existence, and I'm finally getting a glimpse of the energizing, celebratory phase of reaching the "After" point.

In the spirit of "Before and After," I bring you these 2 before and after recipes. The other night, we roasted butternut squash, the same way it was served long ago at my mother's table: Roasted in the oven with brown sugar, butter, and spices. It was tender and sweet and simple and good. But there was a bit leftover, so I renovated it, giving it a metaphorical sand, stain, and varnish job.

This past year has been one of the most transformative of our lives. So many dreams have come true, and all at once. We found a home town and solid ground beneath our feet. We took the wheels off our gypsy wagon and parked it, moving straight into the 30-year-old Ranchito: our money pit dream home. I love it, but sometimes it makes me want to go sit in my car, where nothing is broken or needs fixing, and just breathe.

We went from being long-time renters ("Uh, hey there's squirrels in the wall. Call the landlord.") to do-it-yourselfers ("Uh, hey there's woodpeckers drilling holes in the potting shed. What are we gonna do?"). We're building new friendships and rebuilding old ones, and enjoying all that comes with staying put. We found our first dog-- something we've wanted for such a long time-- whose furry little face has increased the smiles in this household by at least 50%.

We're also cleaning up old messes, winnowing through our stuff, and feeling the need to set good habits for every aspect of our new long-term life: health, community, career, family, marriage.

It's so wonderful, and tiring, and exciting, and stressful all at the same time. A giant paradigm life shift. There is no more running away to some tropical surf locale at the end of the AK heli season. Now we're year-round people. There is a lot of responsibility that comes along with that. If there's something we don't like, we have to face it head on, and change it. It's a lot of work. Instead of going hiking or fishing on our days off, we go to our second job: renovating our new house. As Noah put it, "R & R has taken on a new meaning in my life. Free time isn't about rest and relaxation anymore, it's about repairs and renovations."

Sometimes I have to remind myself-- like when we're digging a 6-foot deep hole around the chimney (for repairs)-- that these are good problems to have. We asked for this. For the last decade or so, and especially the last 5 years, we bounced around the West coast in a Space Pod, which was a tremendous and fun adventure, but had it's own set of challenges. There was no Mother Ship to go home to. A few years ago I began to wish very hard for a place to hang my hat, and now there it hangs! Right next to the work gloves, shovel, pooper scooper, and rake.

I think these life changes are always sprinkled with a hefty dose of yin and yang, be it finding a home, picking up and moving, starting a family, changing careers, or accomplishing goals. The duality of realizing one's dreams is equal parts joy and hard work, but it seems that the duality itself is what makes these things rewarding.

We've recently renovated my home office. Here's the before:

Scuffed up poo-beige walls, with a wallpaper border of (what else?) puppies in baseball hats!!

Here's the after:

After testing (and scrapping) half a dozen different yellow paint samples, from highlighter yellow to grey poupon, I decided to do a faux technique called color washing. I liked the earthy, vintage feel it created, and it didn't require sunglasses to be in the room once it was painted.

Noah invested in a mitre saw and router (since we're becoming construction workers) and we sanded some knotty pine to update the cheesy 1970's trim. We replaced the beat-up old accordion closet doors with new ones.

He and his brother Caleb did most of the wood work. Thanks Caleb! I took advantage of some fall sales to get some new office furniture, and lighting on the cheap. Someday soon, I'm going to put a little leather club chair and ottoman in this corner, so I have a cozy place to sit and read.

We thought this project would take a week. It took almost 2 months. That's pretty much par for the course. Things I guessed would take a couple months, will take a year. Renovations I thought would begin next year, are already shifting to 3 to 5 year goals. But completing my office has put such a spring in my step. To walk in there and know that we did it ourselves, and to feel like, "Yeah, this is my very own creative space,"... is huge.

Something in me that was all tense and unorganized, just unravelled and relaxed. All the scattered frustration of living out of storage units, and moving every 6 months is over. All my important things are here, and by putting the work into obtaining this dream, I can see now that big things are going to happen in my little yellow room. This is the place where I will make my contribution to the world. I have given myself the tools to succeed. WOW. That's cool. [happy dance : ) : ) : ) ]

Along with our house, I'm renovating my career. Food-G readers, this site is about to become something so much bigger and better than this little blog. It will be the same in all the right ways, but much improved. I'm taking the puppies-in-baseball-hats wallpaper down from Food-G, and putting up a new coat of paint. The ball has been rolling all summer, with business plans, and diagrams, and logo designs, and all kinds of ideas about how I'm going to turn this into something so wonderful, and useful, and inspiring...and it's all for YOU. If you have any thoughts, fears, desires, or requests regarding what you want to see on here, please drop me a comment. I appreciate your feedback!

Like everything, my blog renovation is taking 5 times longer than I thought it would, but I'm going to quote Noah, my Bodhisattva, again, who says that, "If something is taking longer than you think it should, it probably means you're doing it right."

I hate that saying, but he's right.

Without being able to tell you too much about my new blog, I give you these "Before and After," recipes. Great cheers were heard around the table when I recently brought this Butternut Mac and Cheese to a hunter's potluck. One of my most long-time friends shared with us the tenderloins from his freshly killed antelope and deer. Lucky us! They were amazing, marinated in ginger, sesame, and lemon, and grilled rare. Both of the recipes below are well-suited accompaniments for wild game. 'Tis hunting season after all.

BEFORE: Roasted Butternut Squash with Butter and Brown Sugar

Slice a medium butternut squash in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds.  Pierce the flesh several times with a fork. Place cut side up on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with:

2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon clove
a few small pats of butter

Roast in a 350 degree oven until very tender when pierced with a knife, at least 1 hour. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the squash to make the Mac and Cheese.

AFTER: Winter Squash Mac and Cheese with Browned Butter and Sage (serves 6 to 8)

This isn't diet food, but it's what you bring to the potluck when you want to be the most popular person there. It also makes a satisfying meatless supper, and pairs nicely with Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale. The interplay of sweet and savory flavors is what makes this dish so unique and satisfying. 

1 1/2 cups roasted winter squash (butternut is best), mashed
2 pinches cinnamon
1 pinch clove
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
(OMIT the above 4 ingredients if you've already roasted the squash using the "Before" recipe)

4 tablespoons salted butter
10-12 sage leaves, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided

2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
2/3 cup Panko bread crumbs

12 oz. dried pasta shells, elbows, or penne

Grease a 3-quart baking dish, and preheat oven to 350 degrees.  If you prepared the "Before" recipe, simply mash 1 1/2 cups of the leftover squash. Otherwise, combine 1 1/2 cups roasted squash with brown sugar and spices.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook pasta to al dente, according to package instructions.

In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Let it sizzle and foam until it begins to turn golden brown. Add half of the chopped sage, stir and immediately add onions. Saute 5 minutes or until onions are soft.

Add flour to onions and stir to combine. Add squash and stir to combine. Slowly pour in milk a little at a time, stirring to prevent lumps. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg, and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until sauce has thickened. Add 2 1/2 cups of the cheese and stir until melted and incorporated into sauce. Remove from heat.

When pasta has reached al dente, drain and add to cheese sauce, stirring to combine. It will look like a lot of sauce, but don't worry; Much of the moisture will be absorbed or evaporate during baking. Pour into prepared baking dish.

In a small bowl combine melted butter, Panko crumbs, remaining sage, and remaining cheese. Stir to combine and sprinkle evenly atop mac and cheese.

Place in preheated oven and bake uncovered, 45 to 50 minutes or until bubbly and golden. If topping doesn't look brown enough at this point, broil 1 to 3 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cedar Plank Sockeye Salmon with Citrus Glaze

Today I'm going to put on my instructor's hat and talk technique. Restaurants charge top dollar for cedar-planked salmon, but this technique is very easy to do at home. It's a great tool to have in your eat-more-fish tool chest, and when you bust this out for guests you'll look like a culianary bad ass. Sweet!

Lots of proteins lend themselves well to cedar-planking: scallops, shrimp, chicken, pork, prime rib, trout; but salmon is by far the most popular passenger for this wooden magic carpet. Cedar cooking planks can be used in both oven and grill. After living in Alaska for four years, and cooking about a hundred cedar planked salmon dinners, Hubs and I can confidently say we both prefer the grill method, hands down. When wood meets open flame, the natural smoke flavor that infuses the fish gives it a subtle umami base note that's kind of the whole point.

I'm a big cheerleader for wild Alaska seafood, and I'm going to raise my megaphone here to give three cheers for wild Alaska sockeye salmon. The reason I cook almost exclusively with Alaskan salmon (yes, even here in Montana) is not only because the pristine waters of Alaska produce some of the purest, healthiest, and best tasting salmon, but because Alaskan salmon is sustainable salmon.

In short, Alaska fisheries use careful monitoring to determine how many fish they can take out of the water without decimating their populations. It's simple biological math, but many fisheries have gotten it wrong, obliterating their own inventory by using the "fish till they're gone" philosophy.

Here's some Bristol Bay Sockeye I caught at the supermarket.

Alaska, on the other hand, has gotten this equation right, ever since it became a state (just over 50 years ago), and wrote the sustainable yield principle into their constitution. Yep, sustainable seafood is law in Alaska and that's why consumers can feel confident that any Alaskan seafood they buy has adhered to these standards-- standards that literally have the rest of the planet's fisheries looking to them as a shining example. Their fisheries management philosophy is meant to provide fish to consumers, and support fishing communities for the LONG HAUL. What a concept! Lucky for us in middle America, we can find wild Alaska salmon more and more easily in the seafood department, the canned and pouched seafood section, and the freezer section of the grocery store. Even for a spoiled-rotten former Alaskan salmon snob like myself, I've been thoroughly impressed with the quality of the fresh, frozen, and canned Alaska seafood available at my local grocer. And if I'm ever in need of recipe inspiration, this is where I go: .

FYI Disclosure: Alaska Seafood did not pay me to write this or direct you to their site. It's something I just plain believe in with all my heart, and is one of the few food choices, in the quagmire of modern food choices, that feels cut-and-dry GOOD.

Know what else is more and more available in the seafood department? Pre-cut cedar cooking planks. You can also find them at places like Home Depot, Williams-Sonoma, and Costco. Don't use treated cedar left over from your home renovation project. Those chemicals are bad news. Look for untreated planks, about 1/4" thick.

Ok, so you've got your salmon, and you've procured your cedar plank. Now what?

This flavor-infusing magic of flame means you must take measures to prevent the wood from catching fire. First, soak the plank in water for a minimum of 30 minutes before grilling. Longer is better. Secondly, cook the fish over a lower temperature than you may be used to, and allow ample cooking time. We've found that a medium  to medium low flame on our propane Weber Q makes for a meltingly tender salmon filet, with a subtle smoked cedar aroma, and no pesky plank fires. Some grillers suggest keeping a spray bottle filled with water near the grill to squirt out flare-ups, but with proper soaking and low heat, fire is rarely an issue. Allow 2 to 3 times longer than you normally would to grill fish, as both the lower temp. and the heat-shield effect of the board will slow down cooking. 

Let's review.

  • Use untreated cedar cooking planks
  • Soak planks at least 30 minutes before grilling
  • Cook over a medium or medium low flame. High flame + cedar plank = FIRE!
  • Allow ample cooking time
  • Keep a spray bottle filled with water nearby to extinguish flare-ups

Cedar Plank Sockeye Salmon with Citrus Glaze (serves 4)

Adapted from Wolfgang Puck's recipe for "Orange-Glazed Grilled Fish Fillets"

1 1/2 pounds wild Alaska sockeye filet
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons orange marmalade
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
pinch white pepper

You will need 1 untreated cedar plank, big enough to hold 4 portions of fish without them touching.

In sink or large roasting pan, soak cedar plank in water at least 30 minutes.

In a small saucepan combine orange juice, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, tamari (or soy), maple syrup, brown sugar, marmalade, ginger, garlic, and white pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and continue cooking at a low boil until mixture has thickened to a syrupy consistency and reduced to approx. 1/2 to 2/3 cup. Remove from heat and set aside.

If necessary, remove pin bones from salmon. Cut fillet into 4 equal portions. You do not need to remove the skin; the fish will lift easily from the skin once it's cooked. Brush salmon portions with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Pre-heat grill (or light the coals) to a medium flame. Remove cedar plank from water and place fish portions onto board, skin side down. Add remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil to citrus glaze and stir to combine. Brush each piece of fish generously with the glaze and place on grill. Close lid and cook fish for 10 to 15 minutes, checking periodically. The salmon is done or very-near done when you see the first little spots of white liquid oozing from the flesh of the fish. Like this:

See the little beads of white protein on the left side of the fillet? That's perfect.
Too much of that white stuff means your fish is probably overcooked. Bummer.

You can always do like Noah and check it with your fork.

To serve, place entire plank on large serving platter, or remove fish from plank and place on serving tray. Serve with grilled vegetables and a buttery Chardonnay.
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