Kentucky Hot Brown Swirls

The funnest thing about doing a food blog is putting all the new spins on the old dishes. Wait, did I just write “funnest?” Well, a word like that fits the situation, given that I am feeling playful about twisting up a classic. If I’m taking all kinds of liberties with the flavors so beloved for Kentucky Derby, I may as well do it with my words, too.

My celebration of the Kentucky Derby—which is Saturday, by the way, in case time has gotten away from you—is purely vicarious. I’ve never been to the Derby and honestly don’t know how I feel about the way they pressure the horses to perform for profit, but I know that I like the pomp and circumstance, the food traditions, the fancy hats and especially the bourbon! The Kentucky Hot Brown is the most classic dish associated with the Kentucky Derby, and I have twisted it up in several ways already, including a Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, a Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza and a super simple Kentucky Hot Brown Dip. When Derby time rolled around this year, I wanted to make a fun, crowd-ready food that’s easy to pick up and enjoy in just a few bites because, honestly, who wants to sit down in the middle of a party with a knife and fork and eat a messy, traditional Kentucky Hot Brown open-faced sandwich, with all its oozing Mornay sauce? Yeah, these are much easier!

It’s no coincidence that these Kentucky Hot Brown swirls are delicious with bourbon.

If you’re entertaining friends for the afternoon leading up to the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” may I suggest these adorable little puff pastry swirls? They have all the flavors of the beloved Kentucky Hot Brown, including roast turkey, bacon, tomatoes and gruyere, plus a touch of sauteed shallot and (in a nod to the catering kitchen where I worked so long ago) “A Pinch of Thyme.”

I expected a few obstacles along the way to these tasty rollups, mostly because puff pastry can be fussy to work with. It bakes up best if it goes into the oven cold, so the first thing I planned was to work quickly. Get all your filling ingredients ready first, and refrigerate the ones that are cooked, such as the bacon and shallots. Cook the bacon long enough to render as much fat as possible, so the lingering fat doesn’t make the pastry soggy, but not so much that hard edges will tear the pastry. Shred the cheese and keep that in the fridge until assembly time, too. Fresh roast turkey is probably better than deli turkey (mainly for keeping the sodium in check), and I confess that I used leftover turkey that we had stashed in the freezer after Thanksgiving. As for the tomato, I knew that my sweet and savory tomato jam would not spread neatly onto the puff pastry without tearing it, and I didn’t want to heat it (see the first point about baking puff pastry cold), so here’s how I overcame that challenge—I added a few tablespoons of tomato jam to the bowl with chopped turkey and stirred it together. Problem solved!

You can put these two-bite treats together in the morning or afternoon, even the night before, all the way up to slicing them into swirls, and then refrigerate them until about a half hour before your guests arrive. A quick egg wash and some extra sprinkles of gruyere just before they hit the oven, and, well—riders up!


This recipe makes 12 swirls, just about right as appetizers for 6 people.

Ingredients

3 slices smoked bacon, cut into pieces no larger than a postage stamp

1 smallish shallot, peeled, halved and cut into half-moons

1 cup chopped, cooked leftover roast turkey breast

3 Tbsp. tomato jam (store-bought or homemade, if you have it!)

1 heaping cup shredded gruyere cheese (or Swiss), divided

A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped

1 sheet store-bought puff pastry, thawed according to package instructions

1 egg, whisked with a teaspoon of water, for egg wash just before baking


Instructions

Ready to make them?



Kickass Whiskey-Braised Collards

After a mere 30 years living in the South, I finally learned how to make collard greens, one of the staple foods of the region. It happened quite serendipitously, as I described in my original recipe for “Just Collards.” Since that fateful day, and the quick walk-through given to me by a kind stranger, I have made collards many times, using the same basic recipe. My husband and I enjoy them with everything from fried chicken that I pick up at the deli counter, pulled pork that he makes on the smoker, and even occasionally just on the side with some homemade mac and cheese.

Collard greens, in case you don’t already know, are one of nature’s “superfoods,” and they can be eaten raw, but most often you’ll find them braised in liquid. Collards are so packed with nutrients (including vitamin C, calcium, immune-supportive B vitamins and magnesium), that even the resulting cooking juices are considered to be sustaining. They are a very hardy crop, easy to grow in nearly every climate, and they are widely revered here in the South.

Until now, I have followed the same basic recipe—cook up some chopped bacon with onions, add chopped collards to the grease, splash in vinegar and broth and let them simmer until tender. Easy enough, and always delicious. I can’t quite explain what happened last week that inspired me to put a hot and spicy, bold and boozy twist on them—maybe a burst of Black History Month energy—but, mercy, was it ever good!

The salty bacon, smoky pepper heat and the bite of whiskey have transformed my usual collards into something extra flavorful!

I amped up these collards with fresh garlic and a few extra shakes of a specialty pepper mix we love, which includes smoky chipotle, fruity ancho and fiery habanero. The combination of hot pepper flavors sent these collards over the top into kick-ass territory. The real kicker, though, was the shot of whiskey I splashed into them. And not just any whiskey, but the only brand I happened to have on hand when my imagination started running—Uncle Nearest 1856. If you have not yet heard of this whiskey, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read about it. Uncle Nearest is a Black-owned brand, built on the legacy of Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. If you’re thinking, “how can that be?” well, this is why we have Black History Month, so we can fill in the gaps of what we thought we knew.

Braising in the whiskey turned out to be a great decision.

Uncle Nearest 1856 was the basis for the Long Time Coming red cocktail I created in honor of Juneteenth last year, and at 100 proof, it’s pretty sturdy. The charred oak barrel notes of the spirit imparted additional smokiness to these collards, which cooked up in about half the time as my regular, go-to recipe. That might have been the whiskey, or it could just be that I served them up earlier than usual, because they smelled so darn good.


Ingredients

3 slices uncured bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1/2 large yellow or sweet onion, chopped

3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped or minced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Several shakes Dark and Smoky red pepper blend (or any crushed red pepper you like)

1 large bunch fresh collard leaves, washed and trimmed of heavy stems

1 shot glass whiskey (about 3 tablespoons)

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth


Instructions


In a large skillet or pot, cook the bacon and onion over medium heat until the bacon has crispy edges and the onion is softened. Add the garlic, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and cook another minute or two.

Clear a space in the center of the pan and add about a teaspoon of olive oil. Shake the red pepper flakes into the oil to activate the flavors, and then toss the bacon-onion mixture to spread it around. Add the collards, a handful at a time until wilted, and toss to cook. When the collards have softened and collapsed into the pan, add the whiskey and vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until collards are tender. This will take anywhere from 25-50 minutes, depending on your simmer level and preference. Adjust salt and pepper to taste before serving.



Les’s Atomic Buffalo Turds

The name alone demanded that I make this appetizer when I ran across the recipe sometime while preparing for my 2015 Super Bowl party. The fact that it was a heat-fueled bite made it even better. Not only did it pair well with my favorite chili, but it also helped get the guests to leave on time.

For some reason, I didn’t make these spicy bites for the 2020 Super Bowl bash at our house (the last time we actually had people over). And last year, when it was just me and Terrie for the Pandemic Bowl, no turds.

With this year’s Super Bowl coming up, Terrie asked me to make these and share the recipe, so here goes. I wish I could credit a specific source for these, but I cannot remember where I found the recipe. It’s just an awfully good one, and very conducive to substitutions of spices and topping sauce. So many different things can work. The key is the mix of sweet to offset the intense heat. The original recipe suggested cooking these on an outdoor smoker, but this adaptation is adjusted for baking in a home oven.

Behold, atomic buffalo turds!

My 2016 batch, enough for a houseful of hungry Super Bowl guests.

Ingredients (makes 12 pieces)

6 medium size jalapeno peppers, halved and trimmed*

12 li’l smoky sausages*

3/4 brick of cream cheese

1¼ tsp. smoked paprika*

3/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (or less, if you’re scared)

6 slices of bacon, cut in half crosswise*

12 toothpicks

2 Tbsp. sweet rub seasoning*

Sweet finishing sauce*


Notes

  • Scoop out the innards of the jalapenos, removing most of the membrane and the seeds. However, if you really want heat, feel free to leave some of that membrane intact.
  • There are different brands of li’l smokies. Ideally, we’d love to find some without nitrites, but if they are made, we can’t find them. You can, however, probably substitute other kinds of normal size sausage and simply cut them down to the bite-size smoky portion.
  • There are many different types of paprika. For this batch, we used a bourbon smoked paprika we’d found online at Bourbon Barrel Foods.
  • I usually wrap the bacon raw around the jalapenos, but there is something to be said for lightly starting to cook the bacon in a skillet to render some of the fat and help it be more crispy later. But don’t cook it too long, or it will either burn or crack and fall off in the oven. Thin slices of bacon work better than thick.
  • The sweet rub seasoning can be anything you find that suits the bill; it is used to offset the heat. You can also make some your own, as we did in this case, using 3 parts of brown sugar to one part of Flatiron Pepper Co.’s dark and smoky BBQ rub. Flatiron is a very good specialty pepper company and we have enjoyed many of their products, which tend to bring the heat!
  • The finishing sauce is usually a sweet/tart, often fruit-flavored BBQ-oriented sauce. It goes on after the turds have cooked and provide a beautiful cooling note. Or, if you’re like us, you can look for a fruit-flavored-but-still-has-a-kick sauce. One year, I used a cherry-ancho BBQ sauce. For this batch, we had a raspberry-habanero sauce I’d bought from a friend who sells Pampered Chef products.

Instructions

Preheat oven to 300° F.

The first thing to do is prep the jalapenos, which involves cutting off the stems, splitting them lengthwise and then taking out the seeds and membrane. The more of either you leave inside, the more the heat your turds will pack. Wash your hands thoroughly (unless you have kitchen gloves to work with, which I don’t) when you’re done. And don’t even think of getting that itch near your eye, even after you’ve washed your hands. Trust me. Been there, done that.

Prepare the cream cheese mix by adding the paprika and cayenne. The cream cheese will turn orange. Don’t be alarmed. It helps, by the way, to let the cream cheese get room temp for easier mixing. Scoop the cream cheese to fill the half jalapenos and be relatively generous. Then place one smoky right on top of the cream cheese, lining up your jalapenos on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Take one of the half slices of bacon and wrap around the jalapeno, covering the smoky and cream cheese mix and securing with a toothpick on top through the bacon. Push down through the smoky and keep going until you feel resistance from the bottom of the jalapeno. Do not pierce the jalapeno if you can avoid it, as that will cause the cream cheese mix to seep out.

Sprinkle a generous portion of whatever your sweet rub mix of choice is on each smoky and place the cookie sheet in the oven. Allow about 90 minutes. The long, slow baking time simulates the process of smoking them.

When the bacon looks done, remove the turds and brush or drip your finishing sauce on top of the turds. Then, enjoy the burn!

Good to the last scorching bite.


Salted Maple-Bacon Ice Cream

It wouldn’t be summer without ice cream, and it wouldn’t be Comfort du Jour without some unexpected flavor twists. One of the biggest reasons I love my ice cream machine is that I can choose my own flavors rather than relying on the same old varieties you find everywhere else. Using my easy formula for custard ice cream base, I’ve whipped two of my all-time favorite flavors into one frosty treat.

I’ve swapped out sugar in favor of maple syrup, and paired it with the delicious, smoky flavor of real bacon! These two flavors are like an old married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and picking up each other’s slack. When the maple syrup starts to feel too sweet, here comes the salty, savory bacon to keep it in check. And because we get a little crazy at our house about the sweet-salty combination of maple and bacon, I’ve garnished the ice cream with additional bacon, glazed with maple syrup. I’ll share that, too.

It’s National Ice Cream Day, smack in the middle of National Ice Cream Month, and I am on it!

I know you want some.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup maple sugar* (see notes)

3 egg yolks

1/2 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

4 thin slices uncured maple bacon, cooked until crispy, then broken into bits*

1 Tbsp. bourbon (optional but recommended for improved texture)


*Notes

Double maple means double tasty!

My maple sugar is sourced from the same place I order my syrup, Big Tree Maple in Lakewood, N.Y., which is just up the road from where I grew up. Maple sugar is not as easy to find in local stores as maple syrup, but you will be happy to know that Big Tree offers shipping on its products. You could also substitute with caster sugar (sometimes called “superfine” sugar) or simply increase the maple syrup to a total of 3/4 cup.

All 4 pieces of bacon are intended for mixing into the ice cream. Cook a few extra slices of bacon if you want to make the maple-glazed candied bacon garnish. And, trust me, you want to! 😉


Instructions


  1. In a stand mixer or bowl with hand mixer, whip egg yolks until they get frothy and increase in volume. Gradually add maple sugar, whipping constantly and stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  2. Heat milk and cream until hot and steaming but not boiling. Reduce the heat to very low (or turn it off) at this point, so that the milk mixture doesn’t curdle. Measure out about 1 cup of the hot milk mixture. Stream it slowly into the egg yolk mixture while running the mixer. Use a lower speed on the mixer to avoid whipping too much air into the cream mixture.
  3. Transfer the tempered yolk mixture back to the saucepan with the remaining milk-cream mixture and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until custard is smooth and coats the back of the spoon. Remove from heat. Stir in kosher salt until dissolved.
  4. Whisk in maple syrup, stirring thoroughly to combine. Lay plastic film directly onto the surface of the custard to prevent condensation. Cover the bowl with additional film or lid and refrigerate several hours to overnight.

Time to freeze the ice cream!

  1. Before freezing, remove plastic film and stir mixture to reincorporate any ingredients that may have settled to the bottom. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. In the last few minutes of churning, add bacon crumbles to the ice cream.
  3. Mix in a tablespoon of bourbon in the final minute. The alcohol will just barely flavor the ice cream, but the real benefit will be improved texture for scooping directly from the freezer.


Bonus recipe – Candied Maple Bacon

2 to 3 thin strips uncured maple bacon

2 Tbsp. maple syrup

Cook bacon in the 350°F oven on a parchment-lined baking sheet. When bacon is crisp, transfer to a paper towel and replace parchment paper. Lightly brush maple syrup onto each side of the bacon slices, and return it to the oven for a few minutes. Repeat two or three more times, until syrup is hardened and bacon looks like candy. Cool completely and wrap loosely in foil or parchment. Garnish ice cream portions with a piece of the bacon.



You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

Terrie


Fourth of July Baked Beans

The Fourth of July conjures very specific childhood memories for me, and baked beans has a major role in that nostalgia. Every year, members of my family on my maternal grandfather’s side gathered at the home of my great grandmother for a reunion-of-sorts picnic and, especially, for fireworks. Grandma Stoney, whose nickname was derived from her married last name, Stonehouse, lived across the street from the community baseball field, and we were lucky to have a front row seat for the excitement of what seemed to me at the time to be an enormous fireworks display. The tiny burg where Grandma Stoney lived put on quite a shindig for Independence Day, including a parade, complete with a marching band and people throwing candy to the kids from firetrucks. Back at Grandma’s house, we amused ourselves by playing croquet in the front yard and taking turns cranking the handle on an old timey ice cream maker. No doubt, my great grandmother felt great joy having everyone there.

What I remember most, besides playing with distant cousins I rarely saw, was the food. Inside the house, every available horizontal surface—and I mean tables, countertops, the stove, card tables and anything else that could be rigged up to hold dishes—was covered with potluck offerings, as everyone in attendance always brought a dish or two to share. It was unbelievable. For me, the best of all was the dining room table, which was always covered from corner to corner with every variety of baked beans you could imagine. Some of the dishes were very saucy, some looked as though they had been dumped directly from a can of Van Camp’s, and others were baked with that delightfully sticky sweet sauce pooled in the corners of the pan. And there were always several dishes of beans topped with slices of bacon. Oh man, how I loved that table!

Bacon is still one of my very favorite ingredients for baked beans, and I’ve paired it here with a favorite flavor of my Upstate New York home—maple. That combination of smoky-salty-sweet cannot be beat, and for me, it’s as much a part of Fourth of July celebration as parades and fireworks.

I don’t need fireworks on the Fourth of July. All I really want is these maple bacon baked beans! YUM.

This time, I made my baked beans from scratch, having soaked the beans overnight and then cooking them until tender before adding the flavorful sauce. But you could absolutely take a time-saving shortcut and use cans of beans. Just be sure you drain and rinse them thoroughly before you begin.


Ingredients

1 lb. dried beans, soaked and prepared for cooking* (see notes)

1 heaping cup thick-cut bacon, cut into cubes

1 sweet onion, sliced or chopped

Sauce:

6 oz. can no-salt tomato paste

1/2 cup real maple syrup

1/4 cup maple-infused balsamic vinegar*

About 20 grinds fresh black pepper

1/2 tsp. chipotle powder (optional)

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder

3/4 cup cold water (added after flavor adjustment)


*Notes

My recipe was made with dried cranberry beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, then drained twice and cooked low and slow until tender. If you prefer, or if you are pressed for time, feel free to use 3 standard cans of cooked beans. Drain the beans and rinse under cold running water, to remove all the “goo” from the cans. Great Northern, navy or white kidney beans (cannellini) would be great.

The maple-infused balsamic is a specialty ingredient, purchased at one of the stores that sells flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. I love this product because it enhances the maple flavor without making it more sweet. If you do not find this maple balsamic, substitute an equal amount of regular dark balsamic vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.


Instructions

  1. Cook beans as directed or rinse canned beans.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add bacon cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon cubes are just crisp. Transfer cubes to a paper towel-lined plate and drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
  3. In the same skillet, saute the chopped onion in the bacon fat until onions are tender and slightly golden.
  4. In a large bowl or measuring glass, combine sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste, then add water.
  5. Layer the cooked beans, bacon and onions in a glass 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Pour the sauce into the beans and give the baking dish a few gentle shakes to distribute the sauce throughout. The beans should be swimming in sauce, as much of it will absorb into the beans during baking.
  6. Bake at 350° F for about an hour, until sauce is reduced to a perfectly rich and sticky mess.
Happy Fourth of July!


Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza

“Riders up!” will be the exclamation this Saturday evening, when the jockeys rev up their adrenaline to compete in the Kentucky Derby, which has long been called “the greatest two minutes in sports.” I cannot claim to know much about the horses or the race, but I do enjoy the culinary traditions that accompany this annual event. The signature drink, of course, is the mint julep, which I have globalized this year by swapping in a mint relative to create a Thai Basil Julep. The signature dish of the Derby is an open-faced beauty of a sandwich known as the Kentucky Hot Brown, created in the 1920s by chefs in the Brown Hotel in Louisville, which is also home to the Derby. The Hot Brown is an all-American spin on a Welsh rarebit, served warm with slices of turkey breast and fresh tomato, draped in Mornay sauce and topped with criss-crossed slices of bacon—all of that lusciousness is piled high on a thick slice of buttery, toasted brioche points. It’s a tradition so beloved in Kentucky, the Brown Hotel’s website has a special page dedicated to the Hot Brown.

That’s the tradition, anyway. But in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not prone to follow tradition to the letter. I am all about twisting up the classics, and I’m doing it again, moving all the Kentucky Hot Brown ingredients off the thick brioche and onto a thin crust pizza. All the proper flavors are in attendance, but in a slightly different order and a more casual presentation. You’re welcome.

I have taken one major shortcut, using low-sodium, deli turkey breast slices. The turkey, in my opinion, is not the star of a Kentucky hot brown, so I don’t need to roast my own. The smoky bacon is par-cooked, but still soft, because I know that it will take on more crispiness under the intense heat of my oven. The tomatoes are simple—just thin slices of fresh Roma, a low-moisture variety that won’t make my pizza soggy, and it will provide some freshness to cut through the richness. That leaves only one component—the Mornay—and that is where I put most of my energy for this pizza interpretation of a Kentucky hot brown. Mornay is the special sauce that elevates all the other flavors, transforming a turkey and bacon sandwich into something rich and special. And it’s easy to make, beginning with a simple bechamel.

If the idea of bechamel seems intimidating, I suppose you can blame it on the French name. Thankfully, when my Gram taught me to make it so many years ago, she just called it “white sauce,” and she made it so often that it never occurred to me to be nervous about it. Take away the fancy name and bechamel is nothing more than small amounts of butter and flour, cooked until bubbly and whisked up with milk, then accented with freshly grated nutmeg. There’s nothing fancy about it, and it is terrifically versatile. A quick stir-in of gruyere cheese and a little white pepper makes it a Mornay and transforms this turkey and bacon pizza into a Kentucky hot brown pie.

Do yourself a favor and prep all the ingredients ahead of time. Once this pizza party begins, things move quickly. Kind of like the Kentucky Derby.

Ingredients

1 1/2 Tbsp. salted butter

2 Tbsp. finely diced onion

2 tsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

About 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1 oz. white American cheese*

2 oz. cubed smoked Gruyere cheese*

2 Tbsp. shredded white cheddar*

A pinch of ground white pepper

4 slices thin-cut smoked bacon, stretched and cut into two-inch pieces

3 slices low-sodium turkey breast*

1 large Roma tomato, washed and thinly sliced

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 ball of My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough* (or your own favorite), rested at room temperature

*Notes

American cheese is usually some form of cheddar, processed with a special enzyme and salts that make it ultra-melty. This is a go-to ingredient for any creamy cheese sauce I make. If you are skittish about using “processed” cheese, you can use regular block cheese, but the sauce will not be as creamy and is likely to separate and become oily during baking of the pizza.

The Boar’s Head brand of smoked Gruyere that I used here is also a processed cheese, but a regular Gruyere will work fine in combination with the white American cheese. In the original Brown Hotel recipe, a good Parmesan would be in order. I selected this cheese for the smoke flavor, to play up the smoky bacon.

I recommend using a low-sodium version of turkey breast, or fresh, home-roasted if you wish. Typical deli turkey is very salty, and it may be too much, given that the bacon and cheese sauce already have a fair amount of sodium.

For this pie, I did something a little different with my N.Y. pizza dough. I subbed in a small portion of corn flour, as a subtle nod to the bourbon in our accompanying Derby drinks. It was terrific! Never stop experimenting, friends. If you choose to use my pizza dough recipe, please note that it should be made a couple of days ahead, so plan accordingly.

I bake my N.Y.-style pizzas on a pizza steel at 550° F. If you use a stone, follow manufacturer’s instructions. If you use a pan, do yourself a big favor and buy a stone or a steel. 😉
We use a steel made by Dough-Joe, and it has been an absolute game changer for our pizzas at home.

Instructions

  1. Prepare the bechamel by melting butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the diced onion. When butter begins to brown, add flour and whisk until smooth. Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, until flour begins to brown and is very bubbly.
  2. Add milk and whisk until blended and thickened. Continue to cook a few minutes to soften the flavor. Stir in the freshly grated nutmeg and the skinniest pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Add the cubes of American cheese and whisk until melted. Repeat with smoked Gruyere and then with cheddar. Stir in the white pepper. Remove from heat and cover the pan so that the sauce does not form a skin. If you work ahead and refrigerate this, warm it to smooth, spreadable consistency before making the pizza.
  4. In a cast-iron skillet, cook the bacon pieces over medium-low heat, long enough to render the fat and brown the meat, but not long enough to crisp it. Transfer bacon pieces to a paper towel to drain excess fat.
  5. Cut the deli turkey slices into thin strips, then chop cross-wise into bits.
  6. Spread the tomato slices onto a paper towel and season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Rinse the thyme sprigs, then pat dry and strip the leaves from the tough stems.
  7. Shape the pizza dough into a 14-inch round and place it on a floured, cornmeal-dusted peel for easy transfer to the oven.
  8. Spoon small dollops of the cooled Mornay sauce onto the dough, and gently even it across the dough with the back of your spoon.
  9. Arrange the turkey all over the sauce, then the bacon and tomato slices.
  10. Add more small dollops of Mornay, between and around the other ingredients. It’s OK to overlap the other toppings, but try not to “bury” them, and keep the dollops away from the edges of the pie.
  11. Sprinkle all over with the fresh thyme leaves, and slide the pizza onto the hot steel. Bake for about 7 minutes, until crust is golden and crispy and Mornay is browned and bubbly.

Hungry for more Kentucky Derby watch party foods?


Bean & Bacon Soup

Nothing makes me crave soup more than a snow day, or as is usually the case in North Carolina, an “ice day.” Like much of the U.S., we have been under threat of severe winter weather this week, and it finally arrived overnight in the shape of freezing rain. Bleh. Rather than stare out the window at the ice accumulating on the trees behind our home (beautiful, but dangerous), I’ve decided that I will make soup, and I am thankful once again to be cooking with gas. Power outages be damned, we will have a comforting bowl of something to eat. I wish I had a pot large enough to feed all of Texas this week.

Soup is a very forgiving meal, allowing you to use whatever you already have in the fridge and pantry, and this one is very true to that. A few cans of beans, some stock from a carton, basic vegetables and thick-sliced bacon comes together to create hearty, soul-warming goodness.


Ingredients

A few slices of thick-cut bacon, cubed (measuring about 1½ cups)

1 medium onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

Several carrots, chopped (about 1 cup)

Salt and pepper

3 cans (15 oz.) white beans (cannellini, great northern or navy)

1 carton low-sodium vegetable broth

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

1 or 2 bay leaves


Instructions


  1. Heat a medium-size soup pot over medium heat. Toss the bacon cubes in the pot until all edges are crispy and fat is mostly rendered. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined bowl and drain off excess grease, keeping about two tablespoons of it in the pot. You’ll return the bacon to the soup after it is simmered and pureed.
  2. Add the mirepoix (onion-celery-carrot) to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until onions are translucent and carrots are just tender.
  3. Drain and rinse the canned beans and add them to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Add vegetable broth, tomato paste and bay leaves. Stir to combine and bring soup to a low boil, then reduce heat, cover pot and simmer an hour or two.
  5. Remove bay leaves and puree some of the soup, using an immersion blender, regular blender or food processor. If the power is out and you’re cooking in the dark, use a potato masher. Blend as much or as little as you like; for me, this is usually about 2/3 smooth with chunks of bean and vegetable throughout.
  6. Return crisped bacon to the pot and continue to simmer about an hour, until bacon is softened and its smoky flavor has infused the soup.


Want to make this comforting soup?



Cobb with Artichoke-Crab Cake

A good many years ago, a work colleague from my radio days shared with me about his unusual mental habit of assigning colors to the months of the year—not surprisingly, several of the months were given colors that matched a holiday within the month, such as green for March (St. Patrick’s Day). My buddy gave July deep red, for its blazing summer heat. Orange was obviously the color of October, reflecting Halloween pumpkins and fall foliage. But January? You guessed it. Gray.

He’s right about that. The whole month of January looks and feels gray and lifeless, with the Christmas decorations down, no leaves on the trees, no flowers to enjoy. Gray is bland and boring, the color of a steak cooked in the microwave.

As many millions of other Americans, I let go an enormous exhale this week as our battered country took its first steps forward toward what we hope is a new chapter of compassion, cooperation and unity. The installment of a new president has me feeling hopeful for the first time in years, as if gigantic gray clouds have parted to allow sunshine and color back into our lives. I’m not naïve about politics, and I have seen enough in my years to know that smooth-sailing government is a goal rather than a given, but attitudes and intentions must be positive for progress to happen, and we are overdue. I’m ecstatic and proud about the historic swearing-in of our nation’s first-ever woman vice president (I’ll be raising a toast to her in a day or two here), optimistic about making up lost ground in our relationship with the rest of the world (and the planet), and relieved at the promise of giving science a louder voice than ego in our battle against this wretched virus.

Things are looking up, and I’ve needed something to be excited about after so much gloom.

And so, here begins a fun and color-filled parade of recipes to brighten up your plate. Nutritionists will tell you about the benefits of “eating the rainbow,” for all its varying vitamins, antioxidants and whatnot, and it’s undeniable that bright colors in general make people feel happier. I’m determined to bring that color!

Color my world! 🙂

To kick things off, I’m chasing away the gray with a mostly classic Cobb salad, authentic in the sense that it has all the key Cobb ingredients—avocado, bacon, hard-boiled egg, bleu cheese and tomatoes. In step with my recent celebration of seafood, I’ve swapped out the usual chicken breast in favor of a homemade artichoke-crab cake. I love the flavor of artichokes, with their slight lemony tang, and the pairing with crab has been a favorite for years. To pull the flavors together, I’ve punched up the vinaigrette with fresh lemon juice and a few shakes of lemon-pepper seasoning.

The end result is fresh, bright and cheerful. The flavors all work great together, and the colors are breathing some much-needed sunshine into gray and gloomy January. Enjoy!


Serves: 2 dinner salads with extra crab cakes for another meal
Leftover idea: crab cakes benedict, with poached egg and english muffin, topped with sauce of your choice


Crab Cakes

1 1/2 cups lump crab meat, drained and picked over for shell pieces

1/2 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained well and chopped fine

4 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1 large egg

2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/4 cup cracker or panko crumbs (I used seasoned crackers)

1/4 tsp. lemon pepper seasoning (or more if using bland crackers)

Small handful fresh parsley

Lemon wedges for serving

Mix it up!

  1. Combine all ingredients except crab and mix with a fork until mixture is completely blended.
  2. Add crab meat and fold gently about 6 times, just enough to fully incorporate the mixture.
  3. Cover mixture and chill about 2 hours.
  4. Shape crab mixture into 6 equal-sized cakes*, then cover and chill again 2 hours until ready to cook.
  5. Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake crab cakes about 25 minutes, until set but not dry.

*I misjudged my portions and ended up with a smaller seventh crab cake. Better than trying to re-shape them!


Citrus vinaigrette

2 Tbsp. Trader Joe’s orange muscat champagne vinegar* (or substitute any light or citrus-y vinegar + a pinch of sugar)

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

3 or 4 shakes lemon pepper seasoning (I used McCormick, which already contains salt)

1 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil + 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

  1. Whisk together vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and lemon pepper seasoning in a small bowl or measuring glass.
  2. Slowly drizzle canola oil into the mixture, whisking constantly to create an emulsion. Repeat with the olive oil. Cover and allow mixture to rest to “wake up” the seasonings. I typically make my dressings several hours or even days ahead, then bring to room temperature for serving.

Cobb salad

1 full romaine heart, washed, dried and chopped

1/2 cup finely shredded red cabbage (for color :))

1 small shallot, chopped (or substitute red onion)

8 baby tomatoes, halved

1/2 medium avocado, cubed

1/4 cup bleu cheese crumbles

3 slices uncured, smoked bacon, chopped and cooked crisp

1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and chopped



Want to make this colorful salad?


If you’re a fan of the crab-artichoke combination, check out my easy recipe for Creamy Crab and Artichoke Dip!


Scallops with Spinach on Bacon Risotto

Seafood has snagged the spotlight here on Comfort du Jour, and today’s post continues that trend, with a scallop and risotto dish that is both elegant and simple (yes, really).

If you have ever watched “Chopped” on the Food Network, there’s a good chance you have seen the elite panel of judges gasp collectively in sheer horror when a contestant announces an attempt to make risotto. Honestly, I gasp as well—not because risotto is complicated or difficult (it isn’t)—but because risotto is a tricky proposition in the very limited time the chef contestants usually have to complete their culinary challenge. Those chef-judges know from decades of experience that risotto in 20 minutes will not likely be successful.

The soft, creamy texture of risotto is achieved by the breakdown of the starch inside the rice grains. There’s a lot of science to explain why, but the upshot is that you need to cook it gradually, stirring all the while, so that the starches release and become a thick, slurry-like coating. Eventually, the grains are softened and the rice seems to be floating in a creamy sauce that doesn’t depend on cream at all, though most cooks add a little at the end. This kind of perfection doesn’t happen in a hurry.

Find an hour to spare this weekend and you can be successful with risotto. I’ve jazzed up this version with smoky bacon and mushrooms, and I also added a touch of cream. Then I draped it with a layer of sautéed spinach and topped it with perfectly seared sea scallops (also easy). It looks and tastes like it came out of a restaurant kitchen, but I’m going to show you how to whip it up in the cozy comfort of your own home.

Time for dinner!

Gather up your tools—you’ll need two skillets and a medium saucepan, plus a ladle and a wooden spoon. See? Not complicated at all. 🙂

Serves: 2
Time to make: 90 minutes
Leftover potential: Oh, yes! (at the end of the post, I’ll show you how we enjoyed the leftover risotto)


Ingredients

3 slices smoky bacon

3 to 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (most of a standard carton)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (optional, see notes)

1 cup Arborio rice* (see notes)

1/2 smallish sweet onion, minced fine

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and chopped

1/4 cup half and half or cream* (optional)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 portions sea scallops, patted dry

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend, for serving


*Notes

A typical risotto recipe uses a few ounces of wine to flavor the broth, but that isn’t critical. Make up the difference with additional broth, if you wish. If using wine, go with something dry, such as Pinot Grigio. I frequently substitute dry vermouth, as I have a bottle in the fridge all the time. This particular day, I poured in the remnants of a champagne split. Whatever works.

Arborio rice is specifically used for risotto because of its starch makeup. You will likely find it specially packaged in the rice section of your supermarket. In a pinch, choose any white rice labeled “short-grain,” and follow the same instructions. It may not result in the same level of creaminess, but it will be close. It is unusual for me to choose anything other than brown rice, but I will share honestly that I haven’t yet found success with brown rice risotto, although some internet resources suggest that soaking it overnight may help. I’ll save that challenge for another day. 😉

The addition of cream at the end is not absolutely essential, but I love the softness it lends to the finish of the dish. If you are trying to eat lighter, you might try substituting an equal amount of low-fat evaporated milk. It has similar consistency with lower fat and calories.

Before you begin…

Risotto is best served immediately after reaching perfect consistency. This recipe also requires cooking of mushrooms, spinach and scallops. You may want to employ a helper for these additional tasks, unless you are confident you can manage to cook them simultaneously while tending the risotto. You might also choose to cook the mushrooms and spinach in advance, and re-warm them at plating time. Either way, it’s best to have every ingredient, tool and utensil ready to go before you begin.


Instructions

As usual, the images tell the story, but I’ve offered written instructions below, plus a PDF version you can download for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. In a skillet large enough for cooking the risotto, begin by cooking the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel to cool, reserving the bacon fat (or drain the fat and substitute butter or olive oil for the next step). When cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable broth over medium-low heat, and keep it simmering. I usually begin with the full amount of broth, but if you prefer to heat it in batches and use only what you need, that’s OK. Begin with 3 cups, plus wine (if using). Season it with salt and pepper.
  3. In a second skillet, brown up the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. Transfer them to a bowl, and then sauté up the spinach leaves and transfer them to a separate bowl. If you’re uncomfortable multi-tasking, you can do this work ahead, or ask a helper to work alongside as you cook the risotto.
  4. To the same skillet used to cook the bacon, add the dry Arborio rice to the fat (or butter or olive oil) in the skillet. Over medium heat, stir the rice around with a wooden utensil until it’s completely coated in the oil. Continue to cook until rice has a lightly toasted aroma, which should be only a couple of minutes.
  5. Add chopped onions to the rice and continue to cook and stir another minute, just long enough for the onions to appear translucent.
  6. Use a ladle or small cup to scoop about 1/2 cup warm broth into the skillet. Stir it around in the rice, scraping any browned bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth and repeat. Continue this effort until the broth is nearly gone. After about 30 minutes, give the rice a taste. It should feel creamy but slightly firm, similar to pasta that is cooked just beyond al dente. For me, risotto usually takes about 40 minutes total. You may end up using the full 4 cups of broth—I usually do.
  7. In the second skillet, melt the unsalted butter over medium heat. Arrange the sea scallops, allowing a bit of space between them for easy turning. Do not move them around, but allow them to cook several minutes until browned. Turn scallops (only once) to cook the other side. Season them with salt and pepper.
  8. To the finished risotto, add the bacon crumbles and cooked mushrooms. Add half and half (if using) and stir to blend.
  9. Plate a mound of risotto onto serving plates immediately; top each portion with sautéed spinach and parm-romano blend, then scallops.

You’ll probably have extra risotto after plating, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (see below).

Time for dinner!

Want to make this easy-at-home recipe?


Here’s what I cooked up with the leftover risotto

As risotto cools, the starches gelatinize and the mixture becomes somewhat clumpy—similar to the way cold oatmeal sets up, and it isn’t necessarily delicious. Rather than trying to “loosen” it up again (which doesn’t work, by the way), I took a chance on the waffle iron. And wouldn’t you know? It was fan-freaking-tastic.

We had about 1 1/2 cups of cold leftover risotto from our scallop dish. I added 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 1/4 cup parm-romano blend, and stirred until the mixture was uniform. It had a thick, clumpy consistency that was similar to cold cookie dough.

I preheated our waffle iron to 400° F, and scooped the risotto mixture into it and pressed the lid closed. A few minutes later, voila! We had crispy exterior and smooth, soft and creamy interior. It reminded me of arancini, but in waffle form.

I made a quick onion-herb gravy with chunks of leftover roast chicken, and another fab 2.0 dinner was served!

I couldn’t have planned it better than this! And now, I always have a fun way to use up leftover risotto. 😀

Oysters Rockefeller Pizza

One of my favorite things to do with food is twist up a classic, and this effort is a big-time winner! When my husband, Les, and I began talking about making our annual White Clam Pizza for New Year’s Eve (these conversations begin in October because we are obsessed that way), the gears of my foodie brain started spinning. What would happen, I wondered to myself, if we put all the incredible, decadent, special occasion flavors of Oysters Rockefeller—on a pizza?

Oysters Rockefeller has always been a favorite of mine, an appetizer dish that feels so classic and ritzy and special. So what about a crispy New York-style pizza crust with a creamy base, briny oysters, smoky cooked bacon, earthy spinach, pungent garlic and sharp salty cheeses—oh my goodness, yes—why wouldn’t this be a thing?

Kinda makes you want to bite right into it, huh?

Unlike the white clam pie, which is cooked sans sauce, I felt that this one needed something creamy as a base. Tomato sauce won’t do, because that isn’t a flavor I associate with oysters. It had to be creamy, but not too cheesy. One thing I have learned about fish in general is that most “melty” cheeses do not pair well, but hard, salty cheeses such as Parmesan are perfect. We remembered how tasty the roasted garlic béchamel was on the creamy garlic and mushroom pizza I developed last year—so that’s where I started for the base. Next came some homework to discern the exact right flavors that make Oysters Rockefeller so exquisite. The bacon must be crisp, but not too crunchy. The cheese should be decadent and nutty, but not stringy or heavy the way mozzarella would be. Gruyere is common in the classic appetizer, so that’s a go, and Romano has that nice salty punch. Spinach—obviously a must, and I embellished the flavor of that with a splash of dry vermouth. Finally, a generous scattering of buttery, crunchy garlic panko crumbs when the pie emerged from the oven.

This pizza is a winner. We can hardly wait until next New Year’s Eve!

All the fancy flavors of Oysters Rockefeller, on a fun and casual pizza. Served with Caesar salad and champagne, of course.

This is how traditions are born, friends. Enjoy!


Ingredients

1 ball N.Y. pizza dough (or your favorite store-bought dough, about 11 oz.)


The béchamel base

1 Tbsp. salted butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

3/4 cup whole milk

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

2 oz. gruyere cheese*


The cooked toppings

3 very thick slices uncured smoked bacon* (see notes)

1 small shallot, minced fine*

1 fat handful fresh baby spinach leaves

A pinch of ground cayenne pepper (optional)

2 Tbsp. dry white wine (or dry vermouth)


The cheese toppings

1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

1/4 cup grated or shaved Pecorino-Romano cheese

A few tablespoons of our favorite parm-romano blend cheese


The garlic crumb topper

2 Tbsp. salted butter

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1/3 cup panko bread crumbs

1 small handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped


The oysters

1 dozen large Blue Point (or similar) oysters, shucked*


*Notes

Gruyere is a nutty, semi-hard cheese that is similar to Swiss cheese. It is a typical ingredient in the topping for Oysters Rockefeller, and I used it twice for this pizza—in the béchamel and also grated on top of the pie. Substitute with Swiss or mild white cheddar if you cannot get it.

The bacon we used was possibly the best bacon I’ve ever tasted. I wish I could give you a brand, but this was a locally produced, heritage pork we found at Whole Foods. It was uncured (nitrite-free, which is a standard in this house) and smoked with peach wood—wow. So, so good. You may not be able to find this exact kind of bacon, but substitute a good quality, thick-cut bacon with smoky flavor and not too much sweetness. This bacon was also hand-cut by the butcher and therefore very thick slices. Once cubed, it measured a total of about 1 1/2 dry cups.

Please remember that shallots are not the same as scallions, but more similar to red or sweet onion.

We agonized for weeks about the oysters, wondering whether we could purchase them fresh in the shell from a local restaurant that specializes in them, but we kept bumping into the same issue—for food safety reasons, no purveyor would sell them shucked but still in the shell. We had two options—either shuck them ourselves at cooking time (this is not for novices, which we are) or buying them already shucked, by the pint. We opted for the latter and they were fantastic. The container had more oysters than we needed for our creation, but don’t you worry—the extras will pop up on a salad or something very soon.


Instructions

I have learned (the hard way), when it comes to special recipes that I’ve never made before, that it is best to work ahead so that stress is minimized at cooking time. For this reason, I have broken the instructions down into segments, beginning with the béchamel base and the cooked toppings. It’s nice to have them done, out of the way and the kitchen cleaned up before the real cooking begins. The pictures tell most of the story, but keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF version of the instructions for your recipe files. I hope you’ll make it!

Béchamel and cooked toppings

This is the same base I made for the creamy garlic and mushroom pizza I introduced back in the summer. A béchamel is one of the simplest and most adaptable things you can make in the kitchen—master this, and you’ll find yourself whipping up all kinds of creations. I only needed a small amount for this Oysters Rockefeller pizza, and I ended up not using all of it. When cooled, the béchamel is somewhat thick and difficult to spread, so check the photos to see how I managed to get it evenly onto the dough.

If you’d like, you can make the béchamel and cooked toppings a couple of days ahead. Be sure to bring all ingredients to room temperature when you’re ready to build the pizza.


This pizza has all the character of Oysters Rockefeller. Truly, a special occasion pie.

Ready to assemble this masterpiece?

There’s a downloadable PDF at the bottom of this post, but I always think the pictures are more interesting. 🙂


Want to make this recipe?