closer to “home” clam chowder

I like food. All kinds of food prepared in all kinds of ways. In fact I’d like to think there aren’t that many food-realted absolutes in my world; sure I like my coffee strong, my chocolate dark and my curry spicy. I hate fast-food, I’m not a big fan of pb&j’s and I can’t stand pancakes. I am however willing to consider an exception to all those rules, if it’s the right exception. Where things become hard and fast is when we start talking about dishes connected to my Connecticut childhood.

My family was the car trip type; gas on up, pile on in and move on out. Whether it was driving for hours on our way to a fun-filled vacation or just going out for a drive because it was a beautiful Sunday without pressing plans— my parents were always up for it. We met a wide range of people on our travels and the opportunity to experience an endless array of different foods was always part of the adventure. It was fun, it was eye-opening and I’m pretty sure it was the basis for my love of food. I saw a considerable amount of the country from the backseat of our station wagon, but it was the time we spent traveling through the New England countryside that was always my favorite. This is no doubt the reason I have such a longing to move back and such an unflinching opinion on how some of the foods I associate with New England should be enjoyed. For example; In my book Lobster Rolls are carefree summer food meant to be eaten out of little paper trays, preferably at picnic tables with squawking sea gulls nearby. They should never be considered fancy restaurant food that costs a small fortune. French Fries taste the best cut thin and doused with salt and malted vinegar, not ketchup. (And take it from me, they taste even better if you happen to purchase them from a booth at a local country fair.) And Clam Chowder should never be anything but creamy and white. Sorry Rhode Island, but your permission to call the seafood soup you’re famous for clam chowder should be revoked. And don’t even get me stated on Manhattan.

Until recently I had never made New England Clam Chowder, but I figured there was no time like this snowy winter to give it a shot. I knew my son had grown fond of it while spending time in Connecticut with my parents, my husband I were already fans and my daughter was a soup lover from way back— so why not? The thing that made me hesitant about clam chowder, or any cream based soup for that matter, is its lofty calorie count. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t normally do things like count calories, avoid carbs or drink spritzers just to shave 100 calories off my day. But if a lighter version of something can appear, taste and satisfy the same way the full fat version does, then I’m all for it. So I decided that if I was going to make New England Clam Chowder I would try to make a “lighter” version. I did some recipe research and spoke with my dyed-in-the-wool New England mother (who frankly was aghast when I suggested possibly adding celery, garlic or a bay leaf to the recipe) and finally worked out a creamy, delicious but not overly guilt inducing recipe. A recipe that makes New Jersey seem a little closer to “home”.

New England Clam Chowder
This chowder is delicious with a thinner more traditional broth, not pasty, gloppy and heavy like clam chowder can sadly sometimes be.

clam chowder2

1 cup white wine
2 8 oz bottles clam juice
2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and diced large
3 slices bacon, minced
1 medium onion (about 2 cups), diced small
4 6.5 oz cans chopped clams*, drained, juices reserved
1/2 cup 2% milk
1 cup low-fat half and half
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1-2 tbsp. ground arrowroot powder
oyster crackers, for serving

  1. Drain the canned clams, reserving the juice and set aside. Add to a large pan the white wine, bottled clam juice, reserved clam juice and diced potatoes and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside.
  2. Heat a large stock pot over medium heat, add the bacon and cook until it gets crispy and brown and render its fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the onions to the pot and sauté until they’re translucent, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat and gradually whisk in the milk and half and half.
  3. Bring just to a simmer, then stir in the clams, bacon and potato mixture and bring back to a simmer, stirring frequently. Allow to cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the black pepper and arrowroot powder (1-2 tablespoons depending on how thick you want the chowder) and serve with plenty of oyster crackers.

* When I set out to make this recipe I fully intended to use fresh clams however, the selection at the three stores I went to was pathetic! So instead I bought the best “gourmet” canned clams I could find and omitted any additional salt from the recipe. I still plan to try this recipe with fresh clams, but until then…

turnip vindication

If you’ve visited a farm market recently you’ve no doubt noticed that the sweet tender fruits of summer have been replaced with an array of sturdy greens and root vegetables. Glorious carrots and parsnips still damp with soil, beets in every golden and crimson shade imaginable, giant heads of cabbage, lush bunches of collards and chard, squash and gourds of every shape, size and color and of course one of my all time favorite root vegetables… turnips. Turnips are one of those vegetables people claim to either love or hate. They’ve gotten a considerable amount of bad press over the years but I’m here to say that if you think you hate turnips, it’s because you haven’t tried the right recipe. Luckily I happen to have a recipe that’s guaranteed to convert you.

I won’t deny that turnips have a strong flavor, in fact the larger and older the turnip the stronger the flavor, but if you look for small young ones and balance out their inherent bitterness with some sweet onion and smokey bacon—you won’t believe you ever dared to slander the lovely turnip! In an effort to do right by this most maligned of vegetables, to make amends for the years of unfounded shunning and to give a boost to the turnip farmers of America… I offer you a challenge. I would love for each and every one of my readers to add this mashed turnip recipe to their Thanksgiving menu. (Unless of course you already have a killer recipe of your own and then— hi-fives all around!) Here’s how I see it… if we were all to serve one really amazing turnip recipe at this years holiday dinner we could be well on our way to having a nation full of turnip eating converts by days end. Imagine, “More candied sweet potatoes? No thanks. But pass the turnips please!” The very thought makes my head spin.

So give this challenge of mine a bit of consideration and by all means let me know the results if you do undertake it. Think about it, not only will everyone consider you an amazing cook for making “turnips” delicious, you’ll also be making up for years of turnip snubbing. And seriously, don’t you owe turnips a little public relations payback anyway?!?

Mashed Turnips with Bacon
I prefer yellow turnips over white and I like to buy a few small ones rather than one large one. Not only do the smaller ones tend to be sweeter, but they’re easier to handle as well.

turnips2

1 3/4 lbs. fresh small turnips
1/2 cup finely diced raw bacon
1 small sweet onion, finely diced
1/8 tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp. butter
1-2 tbsp. 2% milk

  1. Peel and dice the turnips and add to a large pot of cold well salted water. Bring the turnips to a boil, uncover and allow to cook until the they’re extremely tender, about 30-40 minutes.
  2. While the turnips are cooking sauté the bacon it a large pan until it’s crisp and has rendered some of it’s fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the diced onion to the pan and sauté until the onion is soft. (If your bacon is particularly lean and hasn’t rendered much fat add a bit of olive oil to the pan.) When softened add to the reserved bacon and set aside.
  3. When the turnips are cooked through, drain and return them to the pot. Add to the hot turnips the black pepper, butter and milk and with a potato masher, mash the turnips to a smooth consistency. (I don’t like my turnips perfectly smooth so I purposely leave them a bit chunky.)
  4. Stir in the reserved bacon and onion, adjust seasonings and serve.

an irishman for a day

I consider myself relatively fearless in the kitchen. I’m willing to try just about any technique, recipe or style of cooking at least once and I’m confident enough in my abilities that I can improvise if/when things go awry. However all that goes out the window when we’re talking about bread baking. No matter how many times I attempt to bake a nice crusty loaf of bread the results turn out disappointing. I don’t know if it’s my own impatience with the whole proofing, kneading, rising process or if I’m choosing overly complicated recipes, but every time without failure… failure.

Since next weekend is St. Patrick’s Day and EVERYONE is officially Irish for a solid 12 hours, I like most of America will be cooking up what we imagine to be true Irish fare… soda bread and something that takes several hours of slow cooking to go along with it. Usually that means corned beef but this year I’ve decided to branch out a bit, to make something that wasn’t so reliant on the quality of the pre-brined corned beef I purchased. Rather I was looking for a recipe that required real honest cooking and that I had more control over (I like control). Anyway I decided that this St. Patty’s my family would be feasting on homemade soda bread and Chicken Stout Stew. Since soda bread by nature is really much more like a quick bread than a yeast bread, I considered it to be far less intimidating and chicken stew with a nice hardy stout in the gravy— how could I miss?

Well it turns out that I couldn’t… The stew was so tasty and my soda bread so successful that we briefly considered changing out last name to O’Greco.

Éirinn go Brách and sláinte!

Irish Soda Bread
This is one of my all time favorite breads. It’s perfect alongside some stew or toasted and slathered with jam for breakfast. It’s easy to throw together, doesn’t require much advance prep and it comes out delicious every time.

soda bread2

3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup raisins
4 tbsp. butter, frozen
1 1/3 cups + 1 tbsp. light buttermilk
1 large egg

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and raisins. Using a box grater grate the frozen butter into the flour mixture. Sir with a fork and set aside.
  3. In a small bowl whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Pour the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Knead the dough a couple of times before forming it into a ball. Place the loaf on the prepared cookie sheet and use cooking sheers (or a sharp knife) to cut a deep ‘x’ across the top of the loaf.
  4. Bake the bread for 45-55 minutes, until it’s golden brown and a tooth pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the bread from the oven and allow to cool on a rack before slicing.

*adapted from king arthur flour

Chicken Stout Stew
This recipe calls for chicken thighs, which happen to be perfect for slow cooking. I won’t deny that they take a bit more time to trim and clean, but if you were to use chicken breast instead it would undoubtedly be dry and disappointing. I promise that the extra effort will totally be worth it.

stout stew2

6 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, divided
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 1/2 lbs. boneless/skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cubed
6 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
7 slices quality turkey bacon, diced
4 cups chopped onion
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 14 oz can Guinness beer (or other stout)
1 lb. whole baby carrots
12 small potatoes, quartered
6 springs fresh thyme
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
2 cups frozen baby peas

1 lb. button mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. salt
3 sprigs fresh thyme

  1. Combine 6 tablespoons flour with salt and pepper in a ziploc bag. Trim and cube the chicken and add to the bag. Seal the bag and shake to dredge the chicken thighs in the flour mixture.
  2. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the chicken and cook until lightly browned on all sides, transfer to the slow cooker. Continue with the remaining chicken, adding additional oil to the pan as needed, and reserve the seasoned flour that remains.
  3. Add the diced bacon, onion and garlic to the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle the seasoned flour that remains from dredging the chicken over the bacon mixture and cook, stirring frequently, for 8 minutes more. (The fat and flour will create a light-colored roux.) Add the stout and stir, being sure to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
  4. Pour the bacon mixture over the chicken and add the carrots, potatoes and thyme. Pour the broth and Worcestershire sauce over the top and give everything a good stir.
  5. Cover and cook on medium 4 1/2 hours, until the chicken is falling-apart tender.
  6. When the stew is nearly done add the frozen peas and allow to continue cooking until the peas are heated through. Meanwhile sautee the mushrooms with the salt and thyme until they are nicely browned and all the moisture in the bottom of the pan has cooked off. Add the mushrooms to the stew, season with additional salt and pepper if needed and serve with a little soda bead.

*adapted from eating well

Candied bacon…I’m all shook up!

Over dinner one night many years ago, a friend made an out of the blue declaration that “bacon was the perfect food!” Naturally we all laughed and have continued to joke about the perfect food ever since. But the more I think about it the more I think this friend of ours may have been onto something. What would Quiche Lorraine be without bacon? And how sad would that BLT sandwich be without good ol’ bacon? Not to mention my roasted brussels sprouts or mashed turnips. Yes, in-fact I’m beginning to think that bacon may be just a bit more important (and versatile) than it’s been given credit for.

I recently started planning my Easter dinner menu (yes, I do realize it’s still four weeks away!) So perhaps it was just a coincidence or maybe it was predestined, but while flipping through cook books the other day I stumble upon a recipe for Candied Bacon Brownies. “Candied bacon brownies…” I thought to myself “…that’s a crazy good idea! But way too decadent, too rich and too over the top to actually bother to make.” And so I moved on. Then a few days later the Today section of the paper had a recipe for an escarole salad topped with candied bacon.

Seriously, what are the chances of candied bacon popping up in my life twice in a matter of days? I took it as a sign.

I immediately liked the idea of using candied bacon as a garnish, it would allow you to enjoy the salty/sweet aspects of the bacon but not be overwhelmed by it. Since I had already planned to serve my spinach salad with sliced strawberries and goat cheese on Easter, sprinkling a little candied bacon on top seemed like a no-brainer! Now to come up with a more decadent use… I imagined that a combination of chocolate and candied bacon might literally cause some folks to swoon. But I also thought that it would be so rich that any more than a single bite would be too much. So I decided that instead of brownies or even cookies I would make… fudge. Yup, Candied Bacon Fudge. Sounds like something Elvis would have eaten doesn’t it?

Okay, so let me tell you what I’ve discovered about candied bacon… It’s pretty damn delicious! It was a great addition to my spinach salad (actually I can’t believe I ever thought the salad was good without it!) and it turned already delicious fudge into something a bit more special.

Candied bacon doesn’t belong everywhere, but it definitely has its place in my cooking repertoire.

Candied Bacon
I know this sounds like a crazy idea but it really is delicious, and surprisingly versatile. It kicks a plain old BLT up a notch, is great along side a couple of eggs and tastes pretty fantastic eaten all by itself.

1/2 lb. thick cut bacon
1 cup dark brown sugar

  1. Preheat oven the 350°F. Line a jelly roll pan with foil and place a cooking rack in the pan, set aside.
  2. Put brown sugar in a container with sides (something long enough to allow you to lay a slice of bacon out flat). Add bacon, one slice at a time and dredge in the brown sugar. Put the sugar coated strips of bacon on the rack and repeat until all the slices are done.
  3. Sprinkle a little additional sugar over the top of the strips and put into the preheated oven.
  4. Bake for 15-25 minutes (depending on thickness of bacon), turning the pan half way through. When the sugar has melted and the bacon is looking browned and crispy, remove it from the oven.
  5. Immediately peel the bacon off of the rack and lay it flat on a sheet of waxed paper to cool a bit.
  6. Use the candied bacon as a garnish on salad, alongside your favorite breakfast meal or as the “are you insane?!?” addition to chocolate fudge.

*adapted from lords of bacon

Spinach Salad with Strawberries, Goat Cheese and Candied Bacon
This is a great springtime salad and the addition of candied bacon makes it perfect. Feel free to change the toasted nuts to whichever kind you like most.

8 oz. fresh spinach leaves
2 oz. goat cheese
several slices of candied bacon, crumbled
1 cup sliced strawberries
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

  1. In a large bowl create a bed of fresh spinach. Top with sliced strawberries and toasted almonds.
  2. Pinch off small bits of goat cheese and distribute over salad. Sprinkle crumbled candied bacon over everything and serve with your favorite vinaigrette.

Simple Dark Chocolate Fudge
This is my standard chocolate fudge recipe. If you have a favorite of your own or prefer milk chocolate, feel free to modify the recipe.

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups mini marshmallows
1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (60% cocoa)
1/2 tsp. vanilla

  1. Line a 8×8 brownie pan with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan combine sugar, evaporated milk and butter. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the marshmallows, chocolate and vanilla. Stir until the marshmallows and chocolate are melted and the mixture is smooth.
  4. Pour the fudge into the prepared pan and chill for several hours, until it’s firm.
  5. When the fudge is set lift the parchment out the pan, gently peel it off the block of fudge and cut into squares. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Candied Bacon-Dark Chocolate Fudge
I know this seems like a crazy idea but I have yet to have a single person try this say it wasn’t delicious. Rich, extreme and they couldn’t possibly eat more than one piece, but delicious.

1/2 lb. of candied bacon
1 batch of dark chocolate fudge (your favorite recipe or mine listed above)

  1. Place half of the prepared fudge in the bottom of an 8×8 brownie pan lined with parchment paper.
  2. Lay the strips of bacon on top of the layer of fudge, making sure to press the bacon down to eliminate air bubbles.
  3. Pour the remaining fudge on top of the bacon and chill for several hours, until firm.
  4. When the fudge is set lift the parchment out the pan, gently peel it off the block of fudge and cut into squares. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator.

*adapted from the kitchn