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Sesame Seared Salmon from the memory ashes

February 22nd, 2009 | 6 Comments »

We all have events in our lives that aren’t the most pleasant to look back on, but when traced with the correct pencil of perspective we can firmly point out maybe a benefit or two gained from the experience. This Sesame Seared Salmon is one of the good things that came from a not-too-pleasant occasion during my culinary school days.

I was a member of our school’s culinary competition team. The local culinary schools engage in a friendly student competition each year at a big food show that goes on in February. We started our practices in October, meeting once a week to work on knife skills and a four-course menu that needed to be done in a 90 minutes window on the day of the competition. The whole thing was fraught with elements of disaster from the start, mostly due to one team member who was so bloated with self-importance that he refused to allow anyone to tell him what to do or work with anyone else on the team to make it a smooth venture. No amount of nagging or threats could get the team captain to kick him off and replace him with someone easier to work with. We plodded on, although I knew the whole thing was going to be only slightly less catastrophic than a thunderous tsunami.

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My part of the team was to do the appetizer and I did a three part salmon plate; one was a Salmon Tartare in a Savory Cornet shell, the other was a Vegetable Bisque with Seared Salmon and the third was bite-sized nuggets of this gorgeous Sesame Seared Salmon. Outside of absolutely loving the Sesame salmon, making a friend for life in my teammate Emily and getting to spend a lot of time with some amazing chef mentors who taught me a great deal, the entire incident was one that I often look at with utmost regret. We placed dead last and quite frankly, it was a little embarrassing to go up against schools who spent an entire year prior to the competition in a class that did nothing but mold them for the end result. We looked like a group of rusty, beat up old clunkers at a Porsche convention.

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This salmon, however, was all my creation and I couldn’t have been more pleased with it. I really need to make it more often.

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The seasoning is a simple blend of Old Bay, lemon and lime zest, a little squeeze of either juice, salt and pepper and a mix of black and white sesame seeds. Press the fish into the mix,  heat a skillet to smoking and drop the fillets in a small puddle of good olive oil. Turn the heat down slightly, cook until the side is burnished and fragrant and flip it over to finish.

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This meal, indulged in on a kid-free night was so full of flavors that Mike and I could do little else but gaze at each other in awe; firm moist salmon with the delightful citrus-y crunch of the sesame crust and my absolute favorite parmesan-garlic sauteed spinach that ended up perfectly cooked even when I was afraid I over-did it.

I made my own Old Bay style blend instead of buying an overpriced tin of it. I’m really a spice hound and have a huge shelf in my kitchen that is full of different spices. I prefer to make my own blends- I made garam masala when I needed it and was able to make a suitable Chines 4-Spice blend  that managed quite well without the star anise. Easy access to bulk spices helps too. The recipe for Old Bay that I found on-line required 13 ingredients- I had 12 on hand.

(jump for recipes)

Come in to my kitchen…

Food isn't the only thing that makes me happy

February 20th, 2009 | 1 Comment »

I love to move to music

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I lurrrrrve coffee……

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I find  ‘I can has cheezburger?’ hysterically funny

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There’s love

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These guys

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And of course, these guys

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And then there’s friends……

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……..who you can just groove with in your own special way, and it’s perfectly OK.

Have a wonderful day!!

My sweet valentine

February 14th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

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I’m no fan of Valentine’s Day. I don’t know many people who are. It stands, in it’s cheesiness and hype often regarded as the very pinnacle of love, but in reality I can’t think of anything that is as antithesis to romance as February 14th.

I’m jaded, admittedly; jaded by men who pulled out all the stops on the 14th- dinner, chocolate, googly eyes, maybe a card with hearts on it or flowers of some kind, hand-holding or other forms of surety to their affections, deodorant-  and then the moment the gong strikes twelve midnight, went right back to the insensitive clod of a guy they were on the 13th. And somehow, they think this is acceptable. What’s worse is that this type of behavior is what fuels this holiday in all it’s Hallmark glory. There are guys out there who feel it’s perfectly fine to show their ‘romantic’ side once a year by doing something nice for you on a specific day, and sitting back in their chivalrous glory for the other 364. This is precisely what’s wrong with Valentine’s Day.

Of course this isn’t the norm, and really, there’s nothing wrong with a guy who shows his lady some love on the 14th as long as they know that this doesn’t give them a ‘Bye’ the rest of the year. And there are plenty of really great guys who do this. I commend them. I even know some of them.

Mine isn’t one of them.

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But I’ll tell you something- I couldn’t care one bit. This man- my husband- while being quite possibly the least romantic man I’ve known, is far and away the best, most consistent and loving husband a girl could possibly ask for. I’ll take that over a box of chocolates any day.

So we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Interestingly enough, there is so much historical confusion over who exactly this martyred saint was that no source I read seemed to come to any conclusion. It was generally agreed that the modern version of the holiday is tenuously related to the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, or Wolf Festival. This was a brazen and ribald celebration of the she-wolf, or Lupa, that apparently sustained Romulus and Remus of ancient mythology. Men of rank would run naked through the streets, striking at women with goat skins drenched in sacrificial blood. This was a desirable aspect of the celebration as it was believed that any woman struck by the skin would have increased fertility in the coming year.  That sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Line up ladies!!

My husband does so much for me all year round, and it’s exactly why he happily gets to ignore all things Valentine related:  He takes care of my car- getting the oil changed, replacing the burned out headlight (and then washing the winter muck off it) buying the right wiper blades and sometimes surprising me with a full gas tank. He makes sure my computer runs beautifully. He has a pot of coffee ready around the time I roll out of bed in the morning, and if there isn’t a fresh one waiting, as I am coming down the stairs he is putting one together, with a smile on his face. He recognizes when life is straining the very blood out of me and encourages me to slow down. He sees pain in my face and asks me how I am, and he genuinely wants to know. He understands my need for tactile love without words, drawing me into his lap or placing his arms around me just at the right moment. He pulls me back into reality when I’ve gone too far into my own head. He sees solutions to problems when all I can see is a huge mess.  He is amazing when I am sick. He works very, very hard for us and soothes me through my struggles to gain employment. He makes me laugh every day- hard. He gets me on a level that I sincerely have never known in my life and is fully committed to the happiness of our union. And after a few days of me wistfully wishing for chocolate to stem a sweet craving, he comes home from picking up Griffin and quietly drops a bar of good dark chocolate into my lap. With a smile.

I could seriously go on with more accolades, honor and praise for this man, this thoroughly unromantic man who balks at the very mention of flowers and Valentine’s Day, but you get the picture and I don’t want to sound too mushy. Even though I am. He’s all about the day-to-day living; he’s the guy who shows me through his actions every single day, no matter how mundane or insignificant they may seem, that he loves me, he chose me above all others to be the one to receive his love, and that he can’t be happier with his decision. We’ll celebrate seven years of matrimony this year, and I still have days where I gaze at the rings on my hand in awe, still trying to wrap my oft-dreamy brain around the fact that I am married, and how beautiful this union has turned out to be.

My sweet husband reads my blog whenever a new post goes up so I know he sat down today and saw my words. Mike, I love you so much and am so happy being your wife. You bless me each day with your love, grace and kindness and I would marry you all over again, in a heartbeat,  if given the choice.

Love should be celebrated year-round, daily and with a happy heart. Enjoy today if it’s your thing, but show your loved one tomorrow, next week and all year long how much you love and care for them. That’s my plan.

hearts

The best $20 I ever spent

February 13th, 2009 | 7 Comments »

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As a prelude to tomorrow’s ‘holiday’- and a precursor to my gushing post about my wonderful spouse that you can read then, I thought I would relate our ‘How We Met’ story because, well for one thing it’s pretty neat and secondly, in our current snug economy, where everything is so much more about what you can do for the least amount of cash, I’d love to tell you how a simple $20 that I spent in 2001 is still giving me awesome returns nearly seven years later.

In 2001 I was a single mother to a 7 year old. My life was work, home, errands, home, sleep, work, home, fun playtime!!!, maybe some sleep, more play!!!…..you get the picture. It was all about my little boy, and that really was fine but somewhere in me I wanted something, even a simple martini on a breezy restaurant patio, that was only for me. After seven years of creating only two tracks through life, one from feet that were so tiny and fresh, I felt like there needed to be more. Griffin had one night a week where he left my side and spent time with his Grandma, and I enjoyed the quiet hours without him, but part of me, the place in my heart that wanted a stronger and loving hand always willing to hold mine, was empty.

At that time, Internet dating was kinda shrouded in dork-dom. You turned to the Internet to find a date only because you were desperate. I wasn’t desperate, just bored. I had no places in my life where I could cross paths with decent guys, and the online dating sites gave me at least a chance to check out someone, often in anonymity, before setting anything up. My spot of choice was Match.com. You placed your profile, uploaded a photo and could search other profiles without paying a dime, but if you wanted to contact anyone on the site, you paid a fee. I had several dates with others from Match but it just didn’t set off any fireworks. It just alleviated the boredom. Match.com had a feature then called Venus Matches. The site generated a percentage for you of compatibility based on your profile and what you listed in it when compared to others. Every time I logged into my Venus matches, at the top of the list, with a surprising 97% compatibility, was a photo of an very nice looking guy.

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Obviously you’ve guessed by now that it was Mike- you’re smart that way. I kept looking at that photo until one day I threw caution to the wind and said ‘What the heck…’ , inserted my credit card number in the appropriate spot and when I was finally in the site’s good graces, I sent him a message. We messaged back and forth a few times and I liked what he had to say in his emails. There were no spelling errors, no run-on sentences and he was concise and eloquent- true signs of intelligence and thoughfulness behind the bright photogenic smile. Eventually he sent me his phone number, and I was slightly surprised to see it had the same prefix as mine so when I called him, I asked him where he lived.

The address he gave me was a block away from where I was living. I could see the roof of his house from my patio.

This all occurred on that amazing device known as the world wide web. Here was Mr. 97% Compatibility and he was in my backyard. I likely passed him at the grocer, maybe at the gas station or even on the street.  That was the first light tap on the outer level of my consciousness that something way bigger was beginning to circle around me and if I wanted to see where it was going, I needed to get on board.

We met face to face on Mothers Day 2001 and his smile was as brilliant in person as it was in his online photo. Our first date was the next day, May 11th and it was barely two months later that I looked at him and said to myself  ‘I’m going to marry this guy’ . It was a frighteningly wonderful thought. Our wedding took place on August 17th, 2002- a relatively cool but brightly sunny day. It took me months  -no,  years- to stop looking at my left hand 100 times a day, in awe and in love with what had happened to me, and dazzled by the sparkle there that told the whole world of my joy and commitment. Every young girl dreams about marriage and has some idea of how it should be; despite many years of my life where I aligned myself with the wrong guys due to a deep sense of emptiness, I never let go of those ideals and am thrilled beyond measure that most of them have come true in my marriage to Mike, a lifetime for a simple $20.

Since then, when I tell this story I can’t believe how many people quickly light up and tell me of someone they know, or someone that their friend or sister or co-worker or their dog’s veterinarian know who found their spouse on the Internet, on Match especially. Internet dating now is far more acceptable and less dork-minded because, when handled correctly and with a finely tuned eye, it really works, and there are millions of couples out there to throw their testimony in with mine.

So tomorrow, for my actual Valentines Day post, there’ll be more, some slightly mushy but all of it worthy of celebration.

Wingin' it on Roasted Vegetable Pasta

February 11th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Admittedly, I like to break convention. I’m not one to conform to stereo-typing, I don’t mold myself to any expectation and I refuse to adhere myself to a certain role. At home, I’m just as easily found outside shoveling, chopping ice on our north-facing driveway, spreading mulch or digging a hole for a new garden plant as I am in the kitchen whipping up something delicious. I don’t think in terms of ‘mans work’ or ‘womens work’, and while we do have some things in our house that may fall into those categories, I don’t think that any job should be defined by your gender. I would have never succeeded as a single parent for 7 years with that belief.

In my life too, I’m the one who would most likely encourage you to step outside the box. Years ago, in an outing with women I was working with, we spied a parking spot outside our destination on the opposite side of the street from where we were. Here’s me in the backseat telling the driver to make a U-turn, while the other women in the car want to play it safe and go around the block. When I’m in the minority, I tend to be slightly insistent about what I feel, and apparently I was loud enough that the driver whipped around the steering wheel in a speedy U-turn and scored the parking spot. Later she confessed that she’d never done anything like that. I asked her if she liked it, and after a moment’s repose, she replied with a grin “I think I did!” Stepping outside a comfort zone, or taking one of life’s U-turns is hard for some people. I’m generally not one of them.

This trait, good or bad as it can be, is part of me in the kitchen as well, and here it really tends to take off soaring because I’m the majority cook in the family and no one is standing about trying to tell me what to do with a recipe or certain dish. I rarely follow a written recipe, and when I do I’m most always disappointed. I know what I like, and after a lifetime of cooking, making mistakes and blending every ingredient under the sun, I have a storehouse of knowledge in my brain as to what works and what might not. My brain can see how any recipe from any source can become something else altogether, and knows just how to make it delicious.

Take this roasted vegetable pasta dish; I don’t recall the origin of the dish as the only note I have on it says  “eggplant, tomato and pasta” – yeah, that’s concise- but I recalled enough to know that you roasted the veggies, pureed them with pasta water and some olive oil and mixed it with cooked rigatoni. I also recalled that the finished dish, while not a beauty queen, was delicious. Sometimes, ‘delicious’ is all I can remember, and really, do you need to know anything else? Well, a method might help.

For my roasted veggies, I used an eggplant and a pint of grape tomatoes, halved. I also cut an onion into eighths, large diced a red pepper and rough chopped six cloves of garlic as additions. Mix it all up in a bowl with a few good glugs of olive oil, some seasoning of choice, and toss.

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Don’t give in and add more oil; the notoriously thirsty eggplant will drink up some of it and the rest of the vegetables will get their fair share. Too much oil on eggplant in the oven and it just becomes soggy. Spread the veggies out on cookie sheets, with plenty of room, and roast at 400 until the tomatoes are nice and wrinkly, the eggplant is browned and everything smells amazing. This took me about 25-35 minutes.

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Cook the pasta while the veggies roast. You want the pasta water for the puree; I always place a pyrex measuring cup in the colander to help remind me to catch that good starch. Drain the pasta, reserving up to two cups of the water. Keep the pasta warm.

Place the veggies in the food processor with some salt and pepper. You can save some of the roasted pieces to top the pasta, if you wish.

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Add in about a cup of the pasta water and another healthy glug of olive oil. Whir the veggies to a consistency of choice- I like it a bit chunky- and scrape down the sides. Now take a look at the mix- it should be fairly thick. Add in a little more pasta water to make it to a spreading consistency. If it’s too thick, it won’t coat the pasta well enough.

You can also add in some kalamata olives, and be sure to have some fresh grated parmesan ready.

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And if you’re like me and enjoy something crunchy, toasted and seasoned on top of your pasta, make some bread crumbs. I took a shortcut this time and put the remains of these bagel chips through the food processor.

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Oh my, this was a really good addition!

Once the veggies are processed, scoop some of the puree onto your rigatoni or other large shape of pasta. This is such a hearty dish that a tiny shape would get lost in amongst the lovely vegetable mix. You may not need all the puree so add as you go to make it the consistency you like. Stir, taste, season with salt and pepper and taste some more.

Then, take your serving, add in the parmesan and crumbs and pick up a fork.

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Mmmmm….. who needs convention anyway??

The puree was really thick and delicious- not so visible in these photos but trust me…each bite was a huge flavor burst in the mouth. There was plenty left over even after I coated the pasta with quite a bit. The next day I could hardly wait to take the remains of the vegetable mixture, spread it on toasted peasant bread and top it with fresh mozzarella. This made for a quick and delicious light lunch. I also think it would make a wonderful appetizer for a party.

Ok, if you need a set of instructions, follow the jump…..

Come in to my kitchen…

Sun in February

February 9th, 2009 | Comments Off

February is here and the bitter chill we experienced in January will, hopefully, be all behind us. The light is longer in the afternoon; twilight comes around 6:00pm as opposed to 4:30, and with the last day of our arctic first month we had a brilliant thaw- temps in the 40′s, and a balmy breeze that reminded our frozen extremities that yes, Spring does follow winter, and really, it shouldn’t be too long now. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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My newly adopted African violets seem to really enjoy our sunroom. I was gifted with an entire collection of them after they failed to thrive, and I am really looking forward to seeing what lovely blossoms they will bestow on me. This one poked it’s head out within days of landing amongst the sun and warmth of our house, looking around as if to brightly proclaim “It’s nice here!”

Still, we need some foods to warm us, to take away the icy feeling that comes from old squeaky snow underfoot (more than three weeks since a measurable snowfall), the harsh almost breakable nights where the stars resemble ice shards in the sky and the wind creeps through even the snuggest of weather-proofing. It may be slightly warmer than our bone-numbing arctic blast of a few weeks ago, but that last push through February and into March, where the calendar brings at least the promise of meteorological Spring even if the atmosphere doesn’t get on board, can seem longer and more pressing than the first few weeks in December where everything seems so dark and heavy. It’s like the last few miles of a strenuous trip to a beloved destination; the haul is long, but the end result is oh so sweet.

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The month started out with some beautifully sunny days, although today isn’t one of them. The sunshine makes the house feel very cozy during the day, especially in the second floor bedroom. It’s hard not to curl up against the pillows in the warmth, a good book in my hands and a cup of steaming tea on the bedside table, maybe a purring feline against my leg. Just walking into the room propels me into a different mood, like the warmth and sun work in a swift instant to relax me. It’s best for me to just stay downstairs, focused, a worthwhile endeavor at hand, like stirring together a pot of Red Lentil Dhal.

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I’ve done this dish before and was thrilled with the results. Why I don’t put it together more often is beyond understanding; red lentils, of all the lentil types available, cook the quickest with such little effort besides a swishing through water. This recipes calls for a deeply aromatic melange of toasted spices and seeds, creating a smoky taste that permeates each bite. From start to finish, it barely ticked 30 minutes off the clock- enough time for me to switch a load of laundry, gaze outside at the sunshine, scratch a soft warm cat ear. Even if it cooks a little too long you’re not worse for wear. And the flavor is so delicious. Scooped warm over some rice with a few crunchy pistachios as a garnish and my lunch was sunshine-y perfect.

Even though the temperature fluctuates between barely climbing to double digits and then turning around and surpassing the freezing mark, the sunshine made everything seem so much nicer, regardless of the number on the thermostat outside. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the rest of our winter is friendlier, and my eye on more delicious and warming  meals like this one.

That’s a pretty tomato isn’t it?? They are surprisingly flavorful for a winter tomato and my brain is working out all kinds of ways to use them. I think it’s trying to trick me into thinking it’s summer time. A girl can wish, can’t she?

(recipes and notes follow)

Come in to my kitchen…

The soul of a cuisine

February 3rd, 2009 | 5 Comments »

I’m a recent covert to ‘No Reservations’, Anthony Bourdain’s travelogue of the different cuisines indigenous to countries all around the world. His travels dig deep into the heart of the foods that come straight from the ancestry of a culture; for Tony, the more authentic it is, the better he likes it and the more he implores you to understand, to accept and explore for yourself. Admittedly, some of his meals don’t exactly make me want to run for the kitchen in joy- like the brains, bull penis, chicken rear ends, seal eyeball and live octopus I’ve watched him partake in-  but there are times where I am so mesmerized by what’s on the plate in front of him that I simply can’t stop thinking about it. Like his two-episode sojourn through India.

I am a huge fan of Indian food, and I think that if Tony were sitting across from me in a bar with a lot of empty beer bottles between us and he was asking me his infamous question of  “If you had one last meal before you were to die, what would you eat?” I would glaze over in a cumin and cardamom swoon and list off all my favorite Indian dishes, one after another. From pappadums to paratha, from smoky Bharta to Bise Bele Bath, fragrant Daals and fiery curries, I could go out in a haze of garlic, ginger and smoke, lost in the aromatic stupor brought on by the subtle yet aromatic flavors of this fabulous food. Watching Tony’s two episodes and all those familiar dishes left me craving something, anything Indian.

Mike and I took full advantage of a recent kid-free Saturday, and after a thorough sweat bath cross country ski outing in 35 degree weather- and a shower, of course-  we dropped ourselves into the familiar surroundings of one of our favorite Indian restaurants for their lunch buffet. It helped. A lot. But it wasn’t enough. I had to have more.

I have no less than four Indian/curry cookbooks in my cabinet. Four. In prior times, I’ve cautiously turned the pages of Julie Sahni’s tome to Indian food- Classic Indian Cooking- only to close it and set it, with resignation, back in its spot. This book was a tough sell for me as I am extremely visual when it comes to food and it reads like a droning novel with no pictures. I like my pictures. But as I prepared my chosen recipe from this book, I began to realize why so few Indian cookbooks have any stunning photographs. Indian food, for all it’s red chili and striking turmeric glory, is not the prettiest cuisine to behold. My most treasured Baingan Bharta- a smooth blend of smoky, charcoal grilled eggplant with tomato and peas looks like a pile of mush on a plate, but explodes with flavor in the mouth. How do you photograph that? You can’t. It’s a cuisine that begs to be experienced, hands, eyes and nose with all tastebuds on high alert. It is not for the pages of a book.

This chicken dish I took on, simply called Chicken in Onion Tomato Gravy, started off as a massive amount of onion

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that you brown to a burnished hue and to which you add the small green cardamom pods and sultry cinnamon sticks essential to the heart of Indian food

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along with chopped tomato, an awful lot of minced ginger and garlic, the aforementioned turmeric, a dash of blazing red pepper and of course…..chicken, and cook it in that delightful mash until the meat falls apart at the touch. Then, as the cookbook tells you, you leave it for preferably two hours.

(insert the sound of tires screeching to a halt here)

Are you kidding me?

This smelled too good, and looked so amazing, that it was all I could do to leave it for a half hour while I fired up the rice cooker and steamed off  the basmati. Two hours?? Maybe if I ate this way all the time I would have bestowed upon me the patience to await such a feast. But I don’t.

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Now tell me….with all that goodness on a plate, would you wait? Naturally this is one of those dishes that develops its flavors more as it sits; I know that. The leftovers will likely rock my mouth. As it is, I can hardly even wait for that. The taste was marvelous- slightly sweet, deep and oniony, rich but not heavy. Several hours later, Mike turned to me and said “My dinner is still so nice and warm in my stomach!”

(cue the stars in my eyes, birds chirping, the lilting flute)

(jump for recipe and notes)

Come in to my kitchen…