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A whole new appreciation for food texture.

So it’s been six days since I got gum surgery, and from this side of having 99% of my meals either blended or liquid-based, I can honestly say that texture is a very important element of plate construction.  Meals just aren’t satisfying, mentally or physically, without some bite.  Maybe it’s a carnal instinct that we need to chew our food and attack it like animals, or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of masticating things to a pulp.

I don’t know, but I miss it.

I have been, however, reminded how good sweet potatoes are.  They are awesome.  So it butternut squash soup.  Especially with some Tamarack Farm bacon and shallots.

Jell-O pudding packs are also pretty tasty.

I don’t really have much else to say, but this explains my absence from the blogosphere.  I spoke with Seoul Brother, and hopefully we’ll be getting an update from his end of the world in the near future.  Since his last post on Smokey Saloon, he has confirmed a couple of things.  He had predicted a proliferation of burger joints in Korea, but that has not actually happened.  However, what has happened is that he can buy American and Australian ground beef, which is a vast improvement in the burger-making department.  Cheese continues to elude him.

But there is plenty of fermented skate to go around.

Also, I was watching No Impact Man, and he paid the folks up at Ronnybrook Farms a visit.  Man, I was jealous!  It looks like a good time up there.

Lastly, a fellow food blogger out there has sourced some material from b4b while compiling his list of great burgers from around the globe.  Check it out and let him know what you really think: Matador Night’s List of 50 Burger Joints around the world.

Butternut squash Faux-sotto. Almost as good as the real thing.

As promised, the second half of the butternut squash saga.  The first half, of course, included the squash mash.  For the second installment, I wanted to do a healthy take on risotto.  I’ve been eating like a heifer lately, so it was time to trim it down.

I decided that it might be interesting to try to use butternut squash as a substitute for the rice.  The challenge: getting the squash to stay al dente while being cooked.

Since I was using a lot of squash, which is pretty sweet when cooked, I needed some additional flavoring that would complement the dish well.  I decided to go with some great tamarack farms bacon (I mean, why not), onion, garlic, and rubbed sage.  For a twist– instead of parmesan and butter, I decided to use blue cheese for the richness, which I felt would add some tang to the dish.  Then some fresh green onions and chopped apples to brighten it up a bit.

Since I don’t have a ricer, I had to cut all of the squash by hand.  As you all know, I am a master with a knife, so this was a piece of cake.

Actually, it was a PITA.  I wanted a good mixture of small pieces that would be the “rice,” while some larger chunks would add some of the texture and really make the butternut squash stand out.  When it was done, it looked like a bunch of cheddar cheese, but smelled like a pumpkin carving contest.

With the squash ready, it was time to start building the base flavors in the pan.  First step: BACON.  First of all, this Tamarack Hollow Farm bacon is just tremendous.  It crisps up perfectly, but retains a nice chewiness that melts in your mouth.  These guys are another example of a small step doing something great– the couple that owns the farm up in Vermont basically bought a couple of pigs so that they could eat ethically-raised meat, despite their long distance away from such a food source.  Great story, and from the looks of things and the positive press that they are getting, it’s working out for them.

I made only a few some small lardons and rendered some of the fat.  Being a healthy recipe, I didn’t want to use too much fat in the dish, especially since it was going to be finished off with some blue cheese.

After this had rendered a bit, it was time to add some onion (some of those green bits are scallions that got mixed up on the cutting board), and then finish that off with a quick dusting of rubbed sage.  I only had the dried stuff, but in this case I think it worked out.

After cooking this stuff until just tender, it was time to add the butternut squash.  Everything was smelling great and it was time to pump up the party.

After adding all of the squash, I realized that this was not going to cook quite as I had hoped.  The small pieces would cook through, but the bigger chunks would not cook all the way through.  I realized I was going to have to take a risk and add a liquid, much like a traditional risotto would.  My fear was that this would make everything turn to mush, so I was very light-handed with the liquid I added.  Knowing that the dish had enough flavor as it was, I was ok with adding water, but I would have preferred to maybe use some veggie stock.  I added it slowly and cooked it off just like real risotto.  As my boy on Chef Academy says, I put in the crushed garlic in at the end of the cooking process.  Lastly, when everything was cooked through to my liking, I added the blue cheese and the green onion, finished it up with a few of the chopped apple chunks.  DONE.

Delicious.  And pretty healthy (I think).  Tender bits of butternut squash mixed in with more al dente bits, all coated in a light layer of creamy blue cheese (saga blue).  A little brightness and some of that allium-flavored goodness.  A few cracks of black pepper and some sea salt to finish, what a masterpiece.  Definitely will be making this again.

A man, a plan. Squash, beets.

I have made time to make dinner for myself two nights in a row now.  While I usually do eat at home during the week, I rarely make it a big production.  For the past two nights, however, I have found myself wanting more than mere sustenance.  I have wanted to eat something a) fresh b) relatively healthy and c) tasty.

I was off from work on Wednesday, so I made the trek down to the Westside Market on the UWS.  I was going to go to Fairway, but didn’t feel like it, to be honest.  It was already 5.30pm an I knew the lines would be out of control already.

Totally unsure of what I was going to make, I picked up a few random items and decided I would challenge myself: parsnips, a butternut squash, Saga blue cheese, a couple of tomatoes (I know, I know, not seasonal, but they looked pretty decent), baby arugula, bartlett pears, gala apples, vegetable stock, this great pre-made roasted artichoke couscous they have there, and some other stuff unrelated to this blog post (cereal and soy milk if you must know.  burgerboy like soy milk).

I got home with no idea as to what I was going to do with these random ingredients.  Since I have been doing a lot of traveling and galavanting about town, I have had little time to keep my refrigerator very stocked.  I took a quick inventory of the fridge: random condiments of various ages, corn tortillas, couple of Ronnybrook yogurts and an eggnog, an old ziploc bag with dark miso, baking soda, a bottle of club soda, ground flaxseed (yes, I am an 80 year-old man. And I am allergic to salmon, so I need to get my omega-3’s, ok?), and some really old coffee grounds.  The freezer was not much better.  Although that black chicken is looking ready to be used and abused.

Slightly discouraged and ready to call up Land Thai, which I have saved in my phonebook, I gave one quick glance in the far drawer.  This drawer takes a lot of effort to open, because it requires the refrigerator door to be fully opened, which requires moderate agility and effort based on the configuration of my apartment.

Here is a diagram.

The drawer is on the left side of the fridge.  See, that requires some work.

Anyway, I opened this drawer and discovered… BEETS!  I had bought them a few weeks back from the Rexcroft Farm at the D’ag farmer’s market, and they provided me with the inspiration that I needed.  I was going to make a roasted beet, pear, and blue cheese salad with arugula and toasted butternut squash seeds, and a butternut squash mash over the roasted artichoke couscous.  BAM.  How’s that for some quick thinking?

I threw the beets into the oven at about 375 degrees and let them work their magic while I prepped the rest of my dishes.  I cubed up the butternut squash and toasted the seeds with some cumin, cayenne pepper, and salt, and set those aside to top my salad (after snacking on about half of them).  Then it was time to make a bartlett pear wish it had never been picked from the tree.

Look at those skills.  That’s my handy steel in the background. I really showed that pear who is boss.  I think it looks like a big grub or something like you’d see on Andrew Zimmern’s show.

There’s another view.  I thought it was cool.

I pulled the beets out of the oven and let them cool down a bit as I prepared the butternut squash.  For that, I took the cubed butternut squash (pretty good-sized chunks, maybe an 1-1.5″), threw about a cup and half or so into a non-stick pan with some oil, browned them, then added a little water into the pan and covered it to steam the squash through.  When they were fork-tender, I dusted them lightly with some cumin and a little rubbed sage, added a touch of brown sugar to glaze them, and threw in some freshly chopped green onions.  Done.

With that completed, I put my knife skills to the test yet again, this time with the beets.  They didn’t look as cool so i didn’t take a picture.    But I did take a picture of the finished product.

Look at that sweet action.  Look at that layering, look at the attention to spacing and composition.  Look at those nuggets of creamy blue cheese and crunchy bits of butternut squash seeds poking through the spicy baby arugula.  So many simple flavors, coming through in a symphony of salty and sweet, creamy and crunchy.  Dressing, you ask?  Something this good needs only a light-handed pour of some organic olive oil and a few splashes of balsamic vinegar.  It kinda reminds me of a culinary school 101-type dish.  Since I didn’t go to culinary school, I am ok with that.  Well, technically, I did go to a culinary school, but I didn’t learn to cook there.

I also had my couscous on the side, but it looked a little more bland by comparison.  But it tasted damn good.  And just so you guys don’t think I am out of control with portion size, the plate below is not a full-sized dinner plate, I promise.

Tune in next time for but’nut squash, part 2: Faux-sotto, or, “I wish I had a ricer.”

When pigs fly, they soar.

Settling down from a weekend filled with football and business school applications and babies, in whatever order you please.  Fantasy football is such a mixed bag this season, and my squads have been suffering from a general lack of attention on their coach’s part.  But alas, I digress.

I did some solid eating this weekend, from two of my favorite sources: burgergal and the flying pigs farm.

Flying pigs farm piggies.

On Friday night, after a long week slaving away at the office, BG treated me to a turkey meatloaf.  I treated both of us to a bottle of wine.  The meatloaf was great– sauteed mushrooms, fresh breadcrumbs made from the guys at not just rugelach, sauteed leeks, and some fontina cheese.  The cheese really added in a great earthiness that probably would have been missing since it was turkey meatloaf and not beef.  I’m not sure where she got the recipe, but just throw “turkey meatloaf fontina” into the google or the bing and see what happens.  I made a little root vegetable puree, since they are all showing up at the farmer’s markets these days.  All in all, a great weekend.

On Saturday, we headed out to the BK to visit the newest member of the b4b family– li’l G.  Once he gets teeth and starts eating solid food and is able to speak, he’ll be a regular contributor to the blog.  His favorite burger is at shake shack, but mostly because he likes their onesies.

Anyway, we took some Jane’s So Sweet Italian sausages out there, which we had purchased from the Flying Pigs Farm at the Union Square market last weekend, and they were awesome.  First of all, I have never seen so much fat render out of a pork sausage.  Those guys are doing something right with these pigs (actually, I think it’s that others are doing something wrong), and the quality of the meat is a testament to that.  Their breakfast sausage is also great.  We did that up with onions grilled in the pork fat (how could you go wrong?) and a salad with fresh figs, tomatoes, and blue cheese.  BG rocked the dressing, and we had some leftover meatloaf, which was just as good on the second day.  All in all, a great saturday afternoon.

Yesterday I hung out in my batcave for most of the day, but did manage to get out to the UWS farmer’s market, which I had never really been to before.  It had a pretty solid showing, so I was happy, since I needed some supplies.  I bought some of the usual things, fingerlings, tomatoes, not just rugelach bread, and then I got suckered into some bacon from the Tamarack Hollow Farm.  It was pretty pricey, but I guess quality bacon is always pricey.  I haven’t tried it out yet, but I’ll be sure to report how it compares to my peeps at the Flying Pigs.