Friday, December 08, 2006

White Flag

It was a combination of unanticipated events. It took The Serendipitous Chef down like a bag of cement.

What pushed it over the top was the already mentioned high school sports. While running achieved unanticipated success, and demanded commensurate time from me, soccer was just revving up. One recent Friday evening, I received an e-mail requiring me to be at the school a 6 am the next morning, a Saturday, for an all day soccer tournament. Just when I thought I could sleep in for once.

Prior to that was the usual holiday stuff. In addition to Thanksgiving, and the looming Christmas and New Years, it seems everyone in my family was born in November and December. Which is too bad really, because much as everyone denies it, you get screwed your whole life on presents, parties and recognition when your birthday is too close to Christmas. Life can be soo harsh!

But the thing that probably did the most damage was the power outages.

Over the last few weeks, the power in the entire neighborhood has gone out quite a few times. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for 15 minutes. Sometimes it went out, came back on for half an hour, then went out again. Plus, at other times, the Internet cable went out.

It is not weather related, unless the wires melted from the dry heat. It’s most likely tree roots attacking the underground cables. Which the power company is in the process of repairing.

I know a power outage seems fairly mild. I did in fact loose the text I was intending to post more than once as the power died suddenly, crashing my computer. A little frustrating.

And, of course, all the clocks have to be reset. Over and over. Certainly one of the more idiotic activities of modern life. Everything has a clock in it now. Coffee makers, ovens, microwaves, VCRs, you name it. And of course, if you don’t reset them all, someone will eventually look at just exactly that one that you were too lazy to set, and blame you for the consequences. Despite the 10 correctly set clocks within a few feet of that one.

Worst is when the power goes off, comes back on for 15 or 20 minutes – just long enough for you to conclude your tirade and set all the clocks – before going out again.

The insidious part of this is that while the power is out, you can not really do much of anything. Even the gas stove has an electric ignition. I’m sure we could fire it up with a match as well, but I was not that desperate yet. But cooking is out, homework – forget it. Being winter, it’s dark inside the house from mid-afternoon on, so life is put on hold.

Gong outside is like being in a sci-fi film. No lights, no streetlights, few cars (people don’t seem to want to drive during a blackout for some reason). Everything dark.

And no noise. All the TVs, radios, stereos, fans, air conditioners, heaters, pool motors, whatever, are suddenly quiet. All the noise you never really notice anymore suddenly seems like a roar now that it is gone. It gets a little weird after a while.

Of course, we get no actual benefits of the blackouts, as nearby LA showers the heavens with light despite our darkness, blocking out most of the stars.

And when it’s over, you have all the things you couldn’t do still waiting to be done. The insidious part of it all. Suddenly the day is oven, and things just have to be left undone.

Between the sports, the holidays and birthdays, and the power outages, the Chef threw up the white flag for a week or so.

We did eat however, but in the stress, the quality and presentation of the food suffered.

But back to business.

Today, we made a wonderful chestnut soup, flavored with cayenne and cinnamon roasted pecans. Easy, if not directly quick. And wonderful fall flavors. Chestnuts make a fantastic base for a soup.

I coupled this with some roasted salmon and baked polenta with a thyme tomato coulis.

The salmon was simply broiled with some olive oil. This is the current preferred everyday cooking method, being low fat. I like the low-temp cooking (i.e. roasting the salmon at 165ºF for 20 minutes), which results in a super buttery texture, but everyone else is only willing to try that on rare occasions.

The tomato coulis was just two cans of tomatoes, drained, and cooked together with some garlic and thyme. We chose thyme to complement the thyme in the polenta, but of course any herb would be fine.

Somehow, roasted polenta evokes a sense of winter for me. Maybe because of its origin in the cold and snowy mountains of northern Italy. Kind of fun to make, too, as you can cut the polenta into any necessary shape to complement the meal. The polenta starts out just like any other, as a sort of mush, which is then cooled, cut and baked. It brings a wonderful balance to the salmon and tomatoes.

Print Recipe

Chestnut Soup with Cayenne and Cinnamon Roasted Pecans
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4-6 as appetizer

2 pounds fresh chestnuts
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
10 sage leaves, chopped
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup pecan halves
cayenne pepper
olive oil
Additional sage leaves for garnish, if desired

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.

Cut an X in the flat side of each chestnut. Place on a roasting pan, cut side up, and roast in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and wrap in a towel for 10 minutes. Peel off outer shell and inner membrane. Reserve.

Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF.

In a heavy soup pot, sauté onion, celery and carrot in olive oil over medium heat until softened, 6-7 minutes. Add chestnuts (reserve a few whole ones if you want to use them as garnish). Add chicken broth, sage, and a little salt and pepper. Bring broth just to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

While soup is simmering, toss pecan halves with olive oil. Sprinkle with a pinch of cayenne pepper (or to taste), and a teaspoon or so of cinnamon. Toss well. Place on a baking sheet in a single layer, and put in 350ºF oven for 10 minutes or so, until they have browned, but are not burned. Remove from oven to a plate or board to stop cooking, and reserve.

When soup has cooked, puree soup in a food processor. Add additional water to thin to desired constancy. Reheat over low heat in pot.

Serve soup steaming hot with a sprinkle of the roasted pecan halves, and a sage leaf or two for garnish. Enjoy!

Print Recipe

Roasted Polenta Squares
Based on a recipe from
Adapted by surfindaave
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

4 cups chicken broth
4 cups milk
2 cups polenta
Dash of salt
Fresh thyme, if desired
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
salt, pepper
Additional grated parmesan, optional

In a heavy pot, bring broth and milk just to a boil. Be careful not to let mixture boil over. Turn off heat, and slowly whisk in the polenta. Return to medium heat, and cook so that it just bubbles a little, whisking, for 10 minutes, until it thickens somewhat. Change to a wooden spoon, continuing to stir constantly, for a total of about 25 minutes. The polenta should be thick and very smooth. Stir in the parmesan cheese and thyme.

Cover two baking pans with parchment paper. Pour half of the polenta mixture onto each baking pan, and tilt the pan a little to make a uniform thin layer of polenta across the entire bottom of the pan. Place the pans in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour – the longer the better. The polenta should be firm to the touch, and able to be cut.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Remove the polenta from the refrigerator. Cut into shapes, such as triangles, with a sharp knife. Carefully peel shapes off parchment paper into a new sheet of parchment paper, leaving a space between each piece (you will need to do each chilled sheet in two batches). (Optional – you can sprinkle the pieces with additional parmesan cheese at this point, if desired). Bake the pieces for 15 minutes. When baked, broil the pieces a few inches from the broiler until puffed and browned, 3-4 minutes. Remove from broiler and keep warm. Bake and broil remaining pieces as described. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Blogger Dick Margulis said...

That chestnut soup had better be as good as it sounds, Daaaaaave. I'm making it for ten for Christmas dinner, without a trial run. So I'm counting on you here. I'll let you know how it goes over.

The Christmas menu, decided today:

Your chestnut soup

Fresh fruit salad (Costa Rican pineapple, Granny Smith apples, clementines, bananas, over baby Romaine, with a cilantro-lime-chile sweet vinaigrette)

Rib roast (on sale this week, five bucks a pound off!) with Yorkshire pudding

Green beans amandine

McManis Cabernet Sauvignon

Somebody else is responsible for dessert; I have no idea what they'll bring.

Traditional, but not exactly ;-)

6:04 PM  
Blogger Dick Margulis said...

Christmas dinner follow-up.

Everyone LOVED the chestnut soup. Thanks a million , Daaaaave!

Merry Christmas.

4:15 PM  
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