Something like this

For whatever reason, it has become abundantly clear to me, this week, that summer is LONG gone, fall is about to wear out its welcome, and winter is fast-approaching.

Maybe in your part of the world you’re sitting out in the still-warmish sun, wearing your flippies, and still enjoying the leaves falling, changing colors. Maybe you’re wearing your jacket (the one you can barely call a jacket because it’s so damn thin), but the gloves are still packed away, and maybe you’re trying to squeeze in another grill-fest or make another batch of iced tea. Maybe your scarf is just an accessory, rather than a neccessity.

If that’s you, please shush yourself. I’m quick to report that I’d be extremely jealous, and if you were in front of me bragging about your gorgeous weather, I’d contemplate punching you in the groin, and if you were on Facebook I’d highly consider de-friending you. I’m that jealous, people. It’s weeks like this that I wonder why I don’t live back in the south, or in California, or New Mexico, or freakin’ Jamaica.

Have I told you I can be a bit dramatic? It’s not really that cold…and to be perfectly honest, what troubles me most about this weather is the fact that I’ll soon have to start wearing socks every day, and every night I go to sleep. I hate socks. I like to expose my wonky toes to the world, donning sandals and flats, and even flippies although those were put away a month ago, thank you.

Yesterday, I reached into the depths of a closet and out came one of my gramma’s handmade quilts. And even though I hated the fact that I was cold enough to need it, once I wrapped myself up in it, I sorta had a change of heart. I was warm, and I was home, and in a matter of moments I’d be gobbling up a bowl full of this soup.

This soup, I tell you. When you have flavors of curry and coconut and lime at your tongue, you realize the weather outside doesn’t matter much.  You realize that one of the many inherited blankets you have in your possession is oh so comforting, and even though the sandals are no more, the gloves much needed, and the snow not far away, it doesn’ t quite matter as long as you come home – to something like this.

Coconut Red Curry ‘Hot Pot’ w/ Braised Chicken & Mushrooms
adapted from Cooking Light, October 2010; serves 4 as main, 6 as first course

time commitment: less than 1 hour; 30 minutes active time

a traditional hot pot is an ultra hot bowl of broth where the meat is generally thinly sliced and cooked tableside in the pot. the meat here, as well as the ‘shrooms, is braised prior to serving, but the Thai flavors are still present, still tasty.

printable version

ingredients
2  14 oz cans  fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
2 stalks chopped peeled fresh lemongrass
5  (1/4-inch) slices fresh ginger
2 Thai chiles
1 1/2  T  red curry paste
1  (4-ounce) package presliced exotic mushroom blend (such as shiitake, cremini, and oyster)
8  oz  skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1  (13.5-ounce) can light coconut milk
1  T  Thai fish sauce
2  t  brown sugar
1/3  c  thinly diagonally cut green onions
3  T  fresh lime juice
6  T  coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, divided
5  oz  uncooked wide rice noodles

instructions
Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; stir in lemongrass, ginger, and chiles. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve over a bowl; discard solids. Return broth to pan; add curry paste, stirring with a whisk. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; cook 2 minutes or until tender. Stir in chicken; cook 3 minutes or until chicken is done. Add coconut milk, stirring well to combine. Stir in fish sauce and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat; stir in onions, juice, and 1/4 cup cilantro.

Cook noodles according to package directions; drain (if your noodles are like mine and the package writing is in another language, this won’t help… rice noodles are generally soaked in water for 30 minutes, then cooked in boiling water for 3-4 minutes; cook noodles right before serving, and not in advance). Add noodles to coconut milk mixture. Ladle 1 cup soup into each of 4-6 bowls; sprinkle evenly with remaining 2 tablespoons cilantro.

Footloose & Fancy-free

I’m typically a rather organized, methodical person. Which is not to say that I’m therefore, uptight, because that’s pretty far from the truth. But I do enjoy control, order, and the usual systematic process of time. At least, from time to time I do.

I realize that often, I contradict myself. I like calendars, but I’ve never worn a watch (except when the swatch watches were in style, and I probably wore those way past their prime). I like planning vacations, but I prefer to have a “destination” and go from there, with a limited agenda (this is making the upcoming vacation tricky, I’m finding). I have a list of restaurants to go to, but I hate having to make reservations and would prefer to just show up when I want to eat there (Rick Bayless doesn’t allow that, sadly. I still haven’t planned far enough in advance to go to Frontera.). And when it comes to food, I generally use recipes, but I never measure and I won’t pretend for a second that the recipes are followed very strictly.

So when our first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box came in last week, I was cautiously excited. I like to think of myself as an adventurous cook, but I also like to come home from work with an idea in mind of what I’m cooking for that night, and the rest of the week as well. We had a general idea of what was gonna be in the box, but just like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re gonna get.

At the same time, I was looking forward to ‘wingin’ it’ which, despite my culinary training, I seldom do. Though I certainly don’t adhere to the ‘anyone can follow a recipe’ mantra (believe me, it’s not true), I own so many cookbooks and read so many food magazines that I find myself feeling the need to use those recipes, at least as a guide.

Unpacking the CSA box reminded me of a story my pops told me the other day, one of many. He boasted proudly about his parents and the first few years of his life in the country, growing up on a farm and in absence of a phone, let alone electricity. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted of what was available to them that day; bluntly – there was no grocery-shopping, no microwaving, and no Thomas Keller, Rick Bayless, or even Food Network to be inspired by. At first you think about how unfortunate they were to have never tasted a juicy Florida orange, a smooth and buttery California avocado, and for Pete’s sake, a bowl of those sweet Michigan cherries. But then, then, you realize how simple, how coveted, and how organic it all was.

I’ll tell you one thing: it makes that CSA box seem like one step in the right direction. Which, ironically, is backwards.

And while I won’t pretend to be hardcore when it comes to eating locally, I certainly appreciate those who do and with every season that passes and every dish I order, I am more conscious of it. My dad’s story the other day reminded me of how fortunate we are, but how forgetful we are as well.

The box and the meal that followed hit home in more ways than one. To top it all off, I reminded myself that not only can I cook, but I’m also not a bad chef either. So with that, here’s to CSA season, ‘the old days’, and cooking the way Rod Stewart might suggest: footloose and fancy-free.

In the Chicago area and wanna research CSAs? Start here. Summer CSAs are likely full or past joining times, but some have Fall sign-ups.

Linguini with Sausage, Kale, and ‘Shrooms
Inspired by the CSA box; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
8 oz whole wheat linguini*
8 oz spicy pork sausage, sliced into 1/2″ medallions
2 ‘strands’ garlic scape (or 2 garlic cloves), thinly sliced
1 T anchovy paste
8 oz shitake mushrooms, stemmed & sliced
1/2 bunch green kale, chopped
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/2 c semi-dry white wine (I used a Michigan Kerner, similar to Riesling)
1 T champagne vinegar
3 T butter
salt and pepper
2 T parmigiano-reggiano cheese

instructions
cook pasta in a large pot according to package directions and drain.

meanwhile, heat large saucepan to med-hi and cook sausage for about 5-7 minutes, flipping to cook evenly. set aside on paper towel-lined plate. in same saucepan, which will have a little oil from sausages, saute scapes with anchovy paste for 1-2 minutes. add mushrooms and most of the lemon juice and cook for about 5 minutes. add kale and cook until kale begins to wilt, about 2 more minutes. add sausage and cooked pasta to pan and toss until heated through and then move contents to large serving dish. add salt and pepper to taste.

add white wine, butter, and champagne vinegar to saucepan. let boil to remove cooked bits and incorporate into sauce. whisk until a smooth mixture forms; pour over dish. season with salt and pepper and any remaining lemon juice. top with cheese.

*can easily use gluten-free, if needed