Monday, February 28, 2011

Minestrone Soup

Mama's Minestrone Papa's Italian Restaurant (Prescott, AZ)

Earlier this month we followed blue skies and sunshine down the Oregon coast, continued into Southern California and headed east into central Arizona. Sunny weather encouraged photo shoots and outdoor activities, but the snow on the ground in Prescott reminded me that February is still a winter month. Brrrr, break out the parkas and mittens and order comfort food for dinner. 

Our hostess at the terrific Prescott Pines Inn recommended nearby Papa's Italian Restaurant, and I could hug her for that suggestion. We arrived early on a typically busy weekday night and without a reservation, but were welcomed like valued customers and scheduled for a table later in the evening. No problemo, since our inn was nearby and we could enjoy a glass of wine sitting front of our cozy fireplace. Note to self: phone for reservations at popular restaurants.

"Mama" greeted us like old friends and quickly brought complimentary bowls of today's minestrone soup to the table. Mmmmmm, what a lovely way to warm up on a freezing night. The soup was so good, we each ordered another bowl instead of a salad with our dinner entrees. RL enjoyed his baked ziti, smothered in a rich, meaty ragu. I swooned over my chicken piccata with linguine, gleeful that the serving was large enough for both of us to enjoy at lunch the next day. Truly, everything pleased, but top honors went to the soup.

I have spent years searching for the ultimate minestrone recipe, rich with layers of flavor but not too heavy. My latest version is tasty, but doesn't compare with Mama's. I'll share my current recipe, but remember - it's still a work-in-progress. 

Yield: 2-3 quarts

½ lb Spicy or Mild Italian sausage (your choice!)
2 cups canned white cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup water
3 TB. extra virgin olive oil
1/8 lb. Salt pork, diced small
1 medium onion, minced
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsely, minced
4 large garlic cloves, pressed
1  14 ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
6 cups beef broth (more if necessary)
1 large carrot, diced
2 large celery stalks, diced
3 cup coarsely chopped greens (kale, swiss chard or dinosaur kale)
½ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped just before you add to soup so it doesn't turn dark
2 small to medium zucchini, cut lengthwise then crosswise into bite-sized chunks
2 generous cups cooked cavatappi (or other small pasta)
freshly grated parmesan and asiago cheeses mixed and added as garnish

  1. Cook Italian sausages in a grill pan or under the broiler. Let cool then slice into coins. Set aside. 
  2. In a food processor add 1 c. beans and 1 c. water and puree. Set aside. 
  3. In a 4-5 qt. pot add salt pork and brown slowly over medium heat. Add olive oil, onion, carrots and celery; cook until just soft about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add pureed beans, tomatoes with their juice, broth, parsley and remaining whole beans. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. 
  4. Add greens and when they’re soft and wilted add the fresh basil and zucchini. Cook for 5 minutes and then add the cooked and sliced sausage and the cooked pasta; heat through for a few minutes and garnish each bowl with the cheese mixture in whatever amount you desire! If soup is too thick add more stock. 
  5. This recipe makes enough to freeze. Don't add the pasta to any portion you are going to freeze; wait until you thaw and reheat the soup.
Care to share your your favorite minestrone soup recipe?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arizona BBQ

We found a winner, a real BBQ award winner, and we found it by chance in Cottonwood, Arizona. Hog Wild BBQ has been voted the Reader's Choice for BBQ Restaurants in the Verde Valley for five years straight. It also ranked as one of the state's six best BBQ places by the Arizona Republic newspaper. That's the same paper that listed the Mile High Grill's burgers as among the best in the state. We agree with the paper's assessment that both places are first rate! 

With so many tempting menu choices, the real challenge at Hog Wild was what to order for lunch. Pork ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, chicken, sausages, pork chops and burgers all sounded tempting. While we studied the lengthy menu I was distracted by the tempting, smokey barbecue aroma filling the restaurant. That really triggered my appetite alarm and added some urgency to our ordering. I needed wanted BBQ something, right now! We quickly agreed on the sampler plate and shared generous portions of brisket, ribs and pulled pork. 

Can you tell from the photo that we sampled the sample plate before I remembered to grab the camera? Oh yum, this was a terrific combination. The sauce was perfect, sweet and tangy with a welcome bite; not too assertive but with a definite flavor kick. Each meat choice was so smokey flavored, so meltingly tender you knew it had been slow-cooked for hours. 

The sampler came with Texas toasts, a basket of crisp french fries and our choice of two sides. Red potato salad and a bowl of cowboy beans filled out the order. The potato salad was good, if unremarkable. The beans benefitted from the addition of an extra dose of barbecue sauce to give them a needed flavor boost. (Confession: I was tempted to eat a bowl of the sauce with a spoon and ignore the beans.)

The sampler held enough food for three people, so we focused on the meat and just nibbled on the sides. The french fries sat almost untouched, and that's unusual for us. We were too full to eat dinner that evening, still smiling and satisfied after our winning barbecue lunch.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Daring Cooks: Cold Soba Salad and Tempura

The February 2011 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including,, and 

As a new member this was my first participation and I was a bit nervous as I read through Lisa's challenge. Relief set in as I realized she had provided several recipes, links to videos and numerous organizational tips. It would be fun to visit a local Asian market and shop for some unusual ingredients like shiso (perilla leaves) and lotus root. Clearly success would be all about organization and preparation. Since I would be on a SW road trip during February. I couldn't procrastinate with this challenge.

The soba salad was unexpectedly tasty, with a few simple toppings and dipping sauce flavoring the cooled buckwheat noodles. It was a hit that we'll enjoy again and again. Simple to prepare, the noodles only required a quick cook, followed by a rinse under cold water and a soak to remove the starch. It took more time to browse the noodle selection at Uwajimaya than it did to prepare the noodles. Who knew there were so many choices in the noodle aisle? 

The tempura was more problematic. Batter consistency ranged from too thin to too thick, either refusing to coat an item or clumping and creating a fritter. It was difficult to regulate the oil temperature on an electric range as I cooked item after item. Some items seemed soggy and undercooked while others were browned and crispy. I fried a lot of tempura, but we only ate a fraction of the items - the shrimp and shiso (perilla leaves) were our stand-out favorites. Much more practice is in order, but I'm tempted to leave tempura preparation and it's lingering kitchen odor to the experts and order it at my favorite restaurant instead.  

Thanks, Lisa, for prompting me to step outside of my comfort zone and tackle this challenge. My dinner partner sends you huge thanks as well.

Soba Noodle Salad
Based on a Ming Tsai recipe 
4 ounces soba noodles
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons light miso paste
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/4 cup canola oil OR walnut oil
1/2 teaspoon Thai fish sauce OR 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons grated or finely chopped pickled ginger
1/2 cup chopped scallions
2 tablespoons shredded nori (dried kelp)
2 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse briefly under cold running water. Then soak in a bowl of ice water to remove the starch, and drain well again.
2. In a small bowl, combine the rice vinegar with the miso and sugar. Whisk in the sesame oil, canola oil, fish sauce and season with pepper. Stir in the pickled ginger. Add salt to taste, though the fish sauce or soy sauce may be salty enough.
3. Place small portions of sauce in individual bowls, add some noodles and top with scallions, nori shreds and sesame seeds as desired. Toss lightly and enjoy. 

Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura
For the tempura I used the recipe and directions Lisa provided in her challenge post. 

1 egg yolk from a large egg
1 cup iced water
1/2 cup AP flour, plus extra for dredging
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Canola oil
Ice water bath, to chill the tempura batter-filled bowl

Very cold seafood and vegetables, such as:
Shrimp, cleaned, peeled, butterflied
Zucchini, thinly sliced
Sweet potato, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
Lotus root, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
Shiso (perilla leaves)
Dipping sauce

1. Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flour, cornstarch and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined. The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies helps to create a crispy tempura.
2. Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.
3. Start with the vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, that won’t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter. Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.
4. Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off. Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor.
5. Serve immediately for the best flavor, but they can also be eaten cold.

Note: We used a variety of bottled dipping sauces, but favored a Thai Sweet Chili Sauce.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Burger Trail

Visualize a meal in North Central Arizona. Does that bring images of tortillas or Indian fry bread, beans, chili and peppers, salsa and guacamole... ? or perhaps enchiladas, tamales, burritos, tacos, rellenos... ? Not in the old mining town of Jerome. At Jerome's Mile High Grill it was all about the hamburgers. The menu is full of other tempting items, breakfast through dinner offerings and homemade desserts too, but the burgers are the real rock stars.

The thick hand-formed patty of Angus beef, juicy and bursting with flavor, required three napkins and did not disappoint. It was perfectly cooked to order and could easily have been lunch for both of us. But he we didn't share, he ate the whole thing. 

Photo: The Diana: 1/2 lb. hand-pressed Angus patty, topped with mild green chilies, onions and chipotle ranch dressing, served on a buttered, grilled bun.

Sigh, we didn't share that amazing burger. No, I chose another sandwich instead, a very tasty Reuben that was good but definitely not a knockout like the Diana burger. That will teach me to ignore my inner burger cravings! This could be the beginning of my own 2011 search for the ultimate burger. The 2009 hit was Greasewood Flat's green chili cheeseburger, even though New Mexico claims GCCB honors for itself. I definitely plan to improve my own green chili cheeseburger recipe... with bacon of course. Just imagine how much fun the taste testing will be, on the road and at home.

Note: MHG's french fries were tempting, crisp on the outside and fluffy and tender inside. But after devouring the burger and Reuben we were both too full to eat more than a few fries (and too full to eat dinner as well!).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Road Trip Dining

Meals on a road trip are one part of the whole adventure. For me a well-written restaurant menu can resemble a tourbook, its commentary guiding the route to a memorable meal. But some meals don't require any guidance. For example, our lunches in South Bend on Willapa Bay always involve oysters. Fresh oysters, harvested-that-very-morning oysters, barbecued or barely cooked pan-fried oysters. An accompanying cup of seafood chowder is comfort food at its best, but in South Bend it's really all about the oysters.  

We traveled south on Hwy. 101, enjoying blue skies and sunshine along the Oregon coast. Beachfront dining choices? No question about it, a dinner in Pacific City had to feature more seafood. We couldn't resist the calamari appetizer, enjoyed along with a dark, chewy Pelican Bay ale. Our dueling forks finished that plate in record time, as we watched the last rays of the sun disappear below the horizon.

This photo of my entree doesn't do justice to the taste of the mahi mahi fish tacos. The fish was perfectly cooked, the chipotle sauce just peppy enough to register its spicy heat, and the beans surprisingly flavorful. This plate was a winner on two counts - good seafood and TexMex seasonings.

And this was all on Day 1 of the February road trip!

There are no recipes in this post, but I will might add some links in March. Meanwhile I'll continue to enjoy road trip dining.

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