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book review, recipe

The Thornbirds + Shepherd’s Pie

My parents watched The Thornbirds miniseries in 1983. My name is Megan, the same as the main character – it also happened to be the 10th most popular name in 1985, just before I was born. Not a coincidence. Thankfully, they watched the show and didn’t read the book, in which her name is spelled Meghann. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this book, my namesake, for years. I finally did.

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For anyone who has seen the miniseries, The Thornbirds book (written by Colleen McCullough six years prior in 1977) is pretty similar. It tells the story of the Cleary family as they move to Drogheda, a sheep station in Australia, and live there through the years. Meghann, usually called Meggie, is the only daughter in a family of 8 brothers.

Already a regular Drogheda visitor when the family first arrives, the local priest Ralph befriends them but takes a special interest in Meggie. Her mother pays her little notice, preferring her sons, so he makes it a point to see that she doesn’t lack for attention and is given the opportunity for a good education and taught to ride a horse. As Meggie grows older, their familiarity breeds stronger feelings.

In a cruel turn of events, Ralph must make a choice that is really no choice at all for the devout priest. The family’s future is forever changed, but Drogheda remains a part of all of their lives no matter what. To honor their massive homestead, I decided to make shepherd’s pie. I found a recipe from Alton Brown and went to work.  

First, I chopped my onion and carrots, taking care to make them roughly equal in size. Then, I peeled and cut up my potatoes, putting them into a saucepan of water as I did so. I put them on stove, covered to bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and began on the meat filling. I cooked the onions and carrots for about 4 minutes, added the garlic, and then added the lamb. I seasoned with salt and pepper. Once that was cooked through, I added all of the remaining ingredients – tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, thyme and chicken broth.

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While the sauce thickened, I mashed the potatoes with the half and half, butter, salt and pepper. I separated an egg and stirred in the yolk.  Then, I added the peas and corn (both frozen) to the filling. It went into a glass baking dish and I did my best to smooth the mashed potatoes over the top.

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It baked for about a half hour and smelled delicious the entire time. It was torture waiting for it to cool before we could enjoy it.

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Shepherd’s Pie

  • Servings: 8
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From: Alton Brown, Food Network

Ingredients

    For the potatoes:
  • 1½ pounds russet potatoes
  • ¼ cup half-and-half
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 egg yolk
  • For the meat filling:

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced small
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ pounds ground lamb
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons freshly chopped rosemary leaves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme leaves
  • ½ cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • ½ cup fresh or frozen English peas

Directions

  1. Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Set over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, decrease the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until tender and easily crushed with tongs, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Place the half-and-half and butter into a microwave-safe container and heat in the microwave until warmed through, about 35 seconds. Drain the potatoes in a colander and then return to the saucepan. Mash the potatoes and then add the half and half, butter, salt and pepper and continue to mash until smooth. Stir in the yolk until well combined.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  3. While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the filling. Place the canola oil into a 12-inch saute pan and set over medium high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and carrots and saute just until they begin to take on color, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and stir to combine. Add the lamb, salt and pepper and cook until browned and cooked through, approximately 3 minutes. Sprinkle the meat with the flour and toss to coat, continuing to cook for another minute. Add the tomato paste, chicken broth, Worcestershire, rosemary, thyme, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer slowly 10 to 12 minutes or until the sauce is thickened slightly.
  4. Add the corn and peas to the lamb mixture and spread evenly into an 11 by 7-inch glass baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes, starting around the edges to create a seal to prevent the mixture from bubbling up and smooth with a rubber spatula. Place on a parchment lined half sheet pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes or just until the potatoes begin to brown. Remove to a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.

book review, recipe

The House of the Spirits + Beef Empanadas

Almost all books can open your eyes to new experiences – whether it be new cultures, new points of view, or just something you didn’t know before. The same book can have different meaning from person to person, and it can have a different meaning from reading to reading. I don’t love everything I read, but I do appreciate the opportunity I have to come away with a new knowledge of the world, be it big or small.

The House of the Spirits, a selection for one of my book clubs, was one such book. By Isabel Allende, and originally written in Spanish, it is the story of strong Chilean women, spanning three generations. I don’t have a strong opinion about it either way, but in the end, I’m glad I read it.

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It was not the easiest book for me to get into, and if I hadn’t been on vacation with a limited selection of reading material, I might have put it down and called it a day. As captivating as these three women were, the common thread throughout all of their narratives was Esteban, a really rather unlikeable character, who outlived all of them.

With elements of magical realism, like many Latin American stories, we follow Clara the Clairvoyant, her daughter Blanca and her granddaughter Alba as they live in Esteban’s orbit. For all of the beautiful writing and the expansive time covered, it feels as though the story slags on, with so little happening in any given chapter. Until the end, when Alba – the joy of Esteban’s life and who feels like the most important character – takes revolutionary steps that not only change her family forever but her country too.

It is in this part of the book, while stuck in the house during a curfew, that the maids decide to make empanadas as a way of entertaining themselves. I have always loved empanadas and thought making them on a very snowy day in Detroit would be a great way to entertain myself too!

I found a recipe from The New York Times for beef empanadas and went to work. In an attempt to save time, I used refrigerated dough, as suggested by a different recipe. Looking back, I wish I’d made the dough included in the original recipe (I’ll include it below). If you do decide to use refrigerated dough, you will probably need 2 packages, or 4 total pie crusts.

Since my dough was already made, I started with the filling. I used ground beef and ground chorizo, because I already had them on hand – I think they work just as well. I chopped the onion and set the beef to cooking on the stovetop.

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While the beef browned, I peeled and diced my potatoes. Once the beef was nearly cooked through, I added the onion and the chorizo to the pan, allowing them to cook for about 10 minutes. Then I added the potatoes, garlic and spices, seasoning with salt and pepper.

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After a few more minutes, I added the tomato paste, paprika, cayenne pepper (about an ⅛ teaspoon) and a cup of water. It began simmering and I let it all cook together for another 10 minutes.

While that cooked, I also chopped my scallions and made two hard-boiled eggs. Once the filling was finished, I put it in a bowl to cool and added the sliced scallions.

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I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and started making the dough rounds. Unrolling the dough was surprisingly difficult, but it did add this bright spot to my cooking.

I got about 15 total rounds out of my two sheets of dough, only enough to use half the filling. (The rest of the meat and potato mixture made a great addition to breakfast burritos as well as a quick dinner of tacos.) On each round, I added about 1 tablespoon of the meat filling, a sprinkle of chopped hard-boiled eggs, and a sprinkle of finely chopped green olives. Using more filling made them difficult to close.

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I brushed them with some melted butter and put them in the oven on a parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes. They didn’t come out quite as golden as they might have if I’d made my own dough, but they still tasted delicious.

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Beef Empanadas

  • Servings: makes 30-36
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From: The New York Times Cooking Section

Ingredients

    Dough Ingredients

  • 4 oz lard or butter, plus more for brushing tops
  • 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 750 grams all-purpose flour, about 6 cups, more as needed
  • Filling Ingredients

  • 1 pound beef chuck, in 1/8-inch dice (or very coarsely ground)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Lard or olive oil, or a combination, for sautéing
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 2 ounces diced chorizo (or ground)
  • ½ pound potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
  • 2 teaspoons chopped thyme
  • 2 teaspoons chopped marjoram or 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon pimentón dulce or paprika
  • Large pinch cayenne
  • Beef or chicken broth, as necessary, or use water
  • ½ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
  • ¼ cup chopped pitted green olives
  • 2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Directions

  1. Make the dough: Put 2 cups boiling water, 4 ounces lard and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in large mixing bowl. Stir to melt lard and dissolve salt. Cool to room temperature.
  2. Gradually stir in flour with a wooden spoon until dough comes together. Knead for a minute or two on a floured board, until firm and smooth. Add more flour if sticky. Wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  3. Make the filling: Season chopped beef generously with salt and pepper and set aside for 10 minutes. Melt 3 tablespoons lard in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and fry until nicely browned, stirring throughout to keep pieces separate, about 5 minutes.
  4. Turn heat down to medium and add onion and chorizo. Keep turning mixture with a spatula, as if cooking hash, until onion is softened and browned, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes, garlic, thyme and marjoram and stir well to incorporate. (Add a little more fat to pan if mixture seems dry.) Season again with salt and pepper and let mixture fry for 2 more minutes. Stir in tomato paste, pimentón and cayenne, then a cup of broth or water. Turn heat to simmer, stirring well to incorporate any caramelized bits.
  5. Cook for about 10 more minutes, until both meat and potatoes are tender and the sauce just coats them — juicy but not saucy is what you want. Taste and adjust seasoning for full flavor (intensity will diminish upon cooling). Stir in scallions and cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
  6. Divide chilled dough into 1-ounce pieces and form into 2-inch diameter balls. Roll each piece into a 4 1/2-inch circle. Lay circles on a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour.
  7. Moisten outer edge of each round with water. Put about 2 tablespoons filling in the center of each round, adding a little chopped green olive and some hard-cooked egg to each. Wrap dough around filling to form empanada, pressing edges together. Fold edge back and finish by pinching little pleats or crimping with a fork.
  8. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place empanadas on parchment-lined or oiled baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. Brush tops lightly with lard or butter and bake on top shelf of oven until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm.

book review, recipe

The Nix + Norwegian Fish Stew

With my ambitious yearly goal to read between 48 and 52 books (depending on the year), I don’t usually take the time to read books that are longer than 500 pages. Too many times I have found myself slogging through a book I didn’t particularly enjoy just to get through it and move on to the next. I thought The Nix would be one of those books, but I’m glad I was wrong.

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Nathan Hill’s lengthy debut novel – coming in at 628 pages – was suggested as the latest selection for one of my book clubs. We even gave ourselves extra time to read it, meeting again after 2 months instead of the usual 1-ish, which really just gave me more time to stall. Luckily, a well-placed work trip to California gave me ample time to catch up and fully dive in to a book I really enjoyed.

The Nix is all over the place – but in a good way. Hill takes you from 2011 to 1988 to 1968 and back again. You’ll see the world from the eyes of both minor and major characters, and while the reasons aren’t always clear, it definitely comes together at the end.

In 2011, Faye finds herself in a bit of a predicament – one that lands her all over the news and opens up a long-lost connection to her son Samuel, who she abandoned decades earlier. For reasons even he is still trying to figure out, Samuel begins to explore his mother’s past to uncover the truth. On her own journey, Faye sets out to face the haunting folktales of her youth.

What Samuel finds is not only surprising, but life-changing, too. Later, on a trip to her family’s native Norway, Faye also learns about her father’s past, which she confronts over a hot bowl of fish stew and some crusty bread.

I found a recipe on Saveur’s website for Fiskesuppe, or a Norwegian Cod Vegetable Chowder, similar to the one Faye eats during her illuminating trip. It made the perfect meal for a cold fall evening, hearty and delicious. But, full disclosure, my apartment smelled like fish stew for days!

There are a lot of vegetables in this stew, so I suggest you start by prepping them all. I sorted them into two bowls so that they would be easy to add to the pot at the right time.

Heat the butter over medium-high heat until melted. The recipe calls for 6 tablespoons, but I would recommend 4 (or half of a stick). When cooking down the vegetables, the amount of butter was just a bit more than you needed, and trust me, it will make for more appetizing-looking leftovers. Add your first bowl of vegetables (garlic, celery, onions, peppers and leeks) and season with salt and pepper.

After those cook for about 8-10 minutes, or until soft, add your second bowl of vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celery root and potatoes) along with the milk, cream and fish stock – I was only able to find seafood stock at the grocery store – and Worcestershire sauce. Stir and bring to a boil.

Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and cook for about 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. While the stew was cooking here, I prepped my cod, cutting it into bite-size pieces (mine were probably closer to an inch, rather than the recommended 2-inches). I also used this time to chop my fresh herbs.

After 25 minutes, add the cod and cook for an additional 6-8 minutes or until it’s cooked through. Remove from the heat and stir in lemon juice (I used a half lemon, but check the flavor and add more to taste), dill and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.

As in The Nix, I served it with some crusty bread.

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Norwegian Cod and Root Vegetable Chowder (Fiskesuppe)

  • Servings: 6-8
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From: Saveur.com

Ingredients

  • 6 TBS unsalted butter [I recommend 4 TBS]
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped [I minced mine]
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 small leek, sliced ¼” thick
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced ¼” thick
  • 1 large parsnip, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small celeriac, peeled and chopped
  • 4 medium new potatoes, peeled and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 3 cups fish stock
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1½ TBS Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 lb. boneless, skinless cod fillet, cut into 2″ pieces [or bite-size]
  • ⅓ cup dill, chopped, plus more for garnish
  • ¼ cup parsley leaves, chopped
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Juice of ½ – 1 lemon
  • Crusty bread, for serving

Directions

Heat butter in a 6-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic, celery, onions, peppers, and leeks, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until soft, 8-10 minutes. Add carrots, parsnips, celeriac, potatoes, stock, milk, cream, and Worcestershire; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Add cod, and continue to cook, stirring gently, until fish is cooked through, 6-8 minutes. Stir in dill, parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Serve with bread.

book review, recipe

The Nightingale + Summer Vegetable Galette

Even though Kristin Hannah’s historical novel The Nightingale was one of last year’s bestsellers, I just now got around to reading it. I actually checked it out of the library a few times before but always put it down in favor of a shorter (and generally happier) selection. Thankfully, one of my book clubs – the sporadically-meeting one at work – chose it for our next meeting, so I finally had no choice but to pick it up, and I’m glad I did.

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Set primarily in France during WWII, The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Though they take different paths, both sisters do what they must to make a difference in others’ lives, even while struggling to survive their own.

As with any novel set during a war, you shouldn’t head into this expecting an “enjoyable” read because it isn’t. In fact, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse for the sisters, they inevitably did. The Nazis’ brutality came alive on the page.

Hannah certainly didn’t spare her characters any heartache or physical pain, but she wrote with such poignancy that tender moments became that much more tender and triumphs that much more victorious. Her writing painted a vivid picture of life in German-occupied France. Her descriptions of food, in particular, helped to contrast times of bounty against times of hardship.  

“Two years ago this pantry had been full to overflowing with hams smoked in ash and jars full of duck fat set beside coils of sausage. Bottles of aged champagne vinegar, tins of sardines, jars of jam. Now, they were nearly to the end of the chicory coffee. The last of the sugar was a sparkly white residue in the glass container, and the flour was more precious than gold. Thank God the garden had produced a good crop of vegetables in spite of the war refugees’ rampage.”

Throughout much of the novel, food was scarce but Le Jardin, Vianne’s residence, continued to provide. In a nod to her garden, I opted to make a French galette, or sort of rustic tart, filled with local summer vegetables. I found a recipe from Foodie Crush and made it my own.

I caramelized the onions for about an hour, but if you have the time, I’d recommend going longer. Mine weren’t quite as caramelized as I like them, but I was hungry and impatient. While they cooked down on the stove, I prepped the Michigan-grown tomatoes and zucchini, which were gorgeous.

I assembled the galettes with some pre-made trimmed pie crusts (time saver!) by brushing the edges with egg white and then coating the center with Dijon mustard. I topped each pastry with the caramelized onions, some neat rows of zucchini coins (sprinkled with thyme) and thinnish slices of tomato. A generous coating of crumbled goat cheese and some salt and pepper finished them off.

One more brush of egg white along the folded edges to add some color while baking and into the oven they went. After 25 minutes, they came out like this:

Summer Vegetable Galette with Goat Cheese

  • Servings: 4
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Adapted from: Foodie Crush

Ingredients

  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and sliced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 refrigerated pie crusts (1 box)
  • 1 egg white, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 large tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 medium zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 3/4 cup crumbled goat cheese
  • Dried thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat a large saute pan over medium heat and melt the butter and olive oil together. Add the sliced onions, season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and slowly cook the onions for about 1 hour (longer if desired), stirring occasionally until the onions are soft and caramelized. Set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  3. Cut one of the refrigerated pie crusts into a square (removing the rounded edges, discarding or saving for later use), roughly 7” x 9”. Place the pie crust onto a large baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Lightly brush the pie crust with the beaten egg white, inward about 1” from the edges.
  4. Spread 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard on the interior of each pie crust. Scatter the caramelized onions onto the mustard. Layer the zucchini slices over the onions (approximately 3-4 rows). Sprinkle dried thyme onto the zucchini. Top with the tomato slices.
  5. Sprinkle the entire tart with goat cheese, as desired. I used about 3/4 cup of Provençal Herb goat cheese, which included basil among other seasonings. (You can use whatever goat cheese you prefer.) Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Fold the long edges of the pie crust over and then the short edges on each galette. Brush the edges of the crust with egg white.
  7. Bake the galettes for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the vegetables are softened. Slice and serve warm or at room temperature.

Original recipe from Foodie Crush can be found here.