Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mark Bittman's Pasta with Summer Vegetables and Lavender

My partner and I like to dine vegetarian once a week. It's partly a response to rising food costs and a desire to eat less meat and reduce our impact on the environment. Having grown up in an omnivorous Seventh Day Adventist family, eating vegetarian once a week or being served a vegetarian meal on occasional weeknights was nothing new to me in concept. But because we're both so into working out, the idea of reducing our protein consumption at dinner (and post-workout for Brian) was something we were hesitant about but also willing to try.

I say we partly eat vegetarian once a week because of course even more important for me, it became an opportunity to explore cookbooks, websites, and recipes using fresh ingredients and seasonings that would have to be full-flavored if we were willing to forgo animal flesh. What's the fun of culinary explorations if new cookbooks (or cook's tools) can't be researched and eventually purchased? Incidentally my new thing is to check out cookbooks from the library before buying. In the past I'd hear or read about a new cookbook, add it to my Amazon wish list, check it out at Barnes & Noble, and if I liked it well enough after repeated perusals, I'd buy it. I do like nice pictures in my cookbooks--of the food not the author--and try to limit my library to cookbooks that I know I will use for more than just one recipe. Ina Garten, Mario Batali, and Nigella Lawson are outstanding in this regard. Amanda Hesser is the outstanding exception.

Now I go through almost the same research process except that I will borrow the object of my attention from the library, read it at home, mark off recipes, and actually cook from it a few of times before making my buy decision. For this reason, I thought I wanted to buy Dorie Greenspan's Baking: from My Home to Yours after hearing her on NPR making pie or cake or something with Michele Norris. After checking out her book and making her lemon poppy seed muffins to acclaim, I never found another recipe that I wanted to try. I have Nancy Baggett's All-American Dessert Book that pretty much covers the same territory as Dorie though Dorie is an admitted Francophile. So even though I loved hearing her on the radio (also on The Splendid Table talking about mortars and pestles) and enjoying her lemon yogurt cake, which is my all purpose cake to make in a pinch, I've concluded that Dorie won't be joining my library, as her two outstanding lemon recipes are of course available online.

Conversely, this is exactly how Veganomicon entered my collection. I'd read about the authors in my favorite Washington Post food blog, which recommended this vegan cookbook so I got it from the library along with ones I found by Deborah Madison and Peter Berley. The intro chapters in Veganomicon on equipment and pantry items were so well written that I was immediately intrigued. The chapter on appetizers was so full of great ingredients and fresh approaches that I was sold and bought it last week. I admit I have yet to make the first thing from this cookbook (breaking my own rule of the test run), but I have complete confidence that the recipes and cooking techniques will be winners.

All of this brings me to Mark Bittman's wonderful recipe of Pasta with Vegetables and Lavender that I found this past weekend. I tagged it in Delicious (could there be a better named site for tagging recipes found on the web?) and made it last night and was astounded that lavender could so well perfume and flavor a pasta dish. I love this recipe because of its unusual use of lavender (Note, I just reheated this for lunch and folks sitting near me all came over to find out what smelled so delicious!) and its use of vegetables that I always have on hand in the summer: zucchini, red pepper, and carrots. In the past I've used lavender to make an infused simple syrup, ice cream, and a vinaigrette that is beautiful on potato salad or for marinating chicken, but never with pasta. Bittman is right in warning us to go easy with this key ingredient though he annoyingly doesn't recommend specific amounts. I overdid it with the lavender on some chicken that I served to guests that was way too strong (oh well!), so I know that a light touch is necessary here, about 1 teaspoon (not heaping) of dried flowers. A lavender garnish at the end is all you need if you think the flavor is not quite enough.

As this is a pasta with vegetable dish, you can up the proportion of veggies and decrease the amount of pasta, and end up eating more of the wonderful veggies and less of the refined white flour for a lot fewer calories, which is exactly what Bittman advised in another column, even though that is not the Italian way. In fact, a red bell pepper, a zucchini, a yellow squash, the carrots, plus the lavender would give you almost all the colors of the rainbow, and it occurs to me that this combination would make a wonderful vegetable side dish without the pasta. I used yellow zucchini, green bell pepper and a carrot to great success, and am contemplating what other mild vegetables could be subsituted. Green beans maybe? Also he recommends grating the squash and pepper as well as the carrot. But I used the slicing disk on my food processor for the squash and pepper and then grated the carrot because I didn't want the squash and the pepper to make everything too watery or mushy.

Farfalle with Vegetables and Lavender
Adapted from Mark Bittman

½ pound of pasta, such as farfalle, orechiette, or gemelli
2 or 3 cloves garlic, sliced thin or crushed
2 medium zucchini or summer squash (about 1 pound), trimmed
2 medium carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 bell pepper (use whatever color you prefer), cored
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (enough to completely coat the bottom of your sauté pan)
1 teaspoon fresh or dried lavender flowers, plus additional for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (i.e. just barely tender, which is usually one minute less than the recommended cooking time.)
  2. Meanwhile, slice the vegetables thin, using a food processor, mandolin, or knife. Pour the olive oil into a large unheated skillet and add the garlic. Turn the heat to medium and gently cook the garlic until it starts to turn golden, stirring occasionally. (Cooking the garlic this way will both infuse the oil with the garlic flavor and minimize the possibility of it burning and becoming bitter.) When the garlic turns golden, add the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and add the lavender, crushing the flowers in your fingertips to release their fragrance. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies barely soften, just 5 minutes or so.
  3. Hopefully the pasta will be nearly done just as the vegetables are nearly done. (If you start cooking the garlic right after you add the pasta to the boiling water, the timing should be right.) Drain the pasta, reserving some cooking water. Add pasta to vegetables and continue to cook, adding water as necessary to keep mixture moist.
  4. Taste, and add more lavender to taste; it should be distinctive but not too strong. When pasta and vegetables are tender but not mushy, adjust seasoning for salt and pepper, garnish with a couple of lavender flowers if you have them, and serve. A nice crisp sauvignon blanc would be really nice with this dish.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pat Muldoon's (Mom's) Chicken Noodle Soup

This post is about the healing powers of food. While my usual posts are about other people's recipes that can be linked to on the web, this post is about my "mother-in-law's" recipe for chicken soup (in quotes because even though my partner and I have been together 16 years on May 18 this year, we've never had a ceremony; referring to his family as in-laws just simplifies things really). Much has been written, both anecdotally and scholarly, about the curative powers of chicken soup. This past weekend I witnessed the phenomenon first hand as a soup that I prepared for my partner not only nourished his ailing body, but lifted his spirits as well.

First a little background: My partner was riding his bike to a meeting last Tuesday and was hit broadside by a car, an SUV actually. The accident knocked his right hip bone out of the socket and broke the socket bone that is one half of the ball and socket that comprises the hip joint. Once his hip bone was put back in place, he had to lie in bed on his back for three days until he could be operated on to fix his broken hip. The recuperation back to walking without crutches will take up to eight weeks. I'm confident he will be running by Labor Day as he was in excellent shape before the accident and is eager to get back to his level of activity as soon as possible. I'm fond of quoting to him one of my favorite lines from Spider-man 2, Aunt May to Peter Parker: "You're not Superman, you know." Of course, Brian just won't accept that he isn't actually Superman, which is why he usually pushes himself so hard physically and why I know his sheer determination will lead to a much faster than normal recuperation.

His surgery was on Friday, three days after his accident. I'd been spending so much time at the hospital that over the course of five days ending Saturday, I'd had seven of ten meals in the hospital cafeteria. Tired of the cafeteria food and missing being in my own kitchen, on Saturday morning I was determined to do two things, head out to my local farmers market that was starting that day for the year, and to make some homemade chicken soup a la Pat Muldoon, Brian's mother whom we lost in 2001. Going to the farmers market with my father-in-law and seeing the farmers that I've missed all winter, was medicine for my spirit. Everything looked so fresh and everyone was so happy to be back in business. The first strawberries of the season cried out to just be eaten raw. Asparagus will be grilled and also made into a risotto. Rhubarb was combined with tomato to make a favorite chutney. Rest assured strawberry ice cream and strawberry rhubarb shortcakes are coming soon.

The chicken soup is really more method than recipe, but observing my mother-in-law prepare this soup one winter day over Christmas week, I was shocked at its simplicity. My mother never made chicken soup from scratch. She used to make a mean chicken and dumplings, but plain old chicken noodle soup was usually Campbell's. Pat decided that chicken soup was just what we needed on a cold winter day. I watched her like a hawk and was so surprised at her secret ingredient, nutmeg. Brian has always loved his mom's soup and since she's no longer with us and Mother's Day was this past Sunday, I wanted to bring her strength and spirit into the room where Brian was recuperating. It worked like a charm because he always loves when I make this soup and even if I vary his mother's recipe, he's pleased to know that I made the effort to learn to make one of his favorites from childhood. So the soup was working on many levels that Saturday.

But on Monday, the day after Mother's Day Brian was uncomfortably waiting around for some radiological tests and had a bit of an emotional breakdown. Thinking about his mother, and the soup, and the love I was trying to share, he was overcome. He started crying thinking about all that he'd been through and how lucky he was to have survived. But the trigger was thinking about the soup, this dish so familiar from his childhood that is just ridiculously simple to make:

Brian's Mom's Chicken Soup for the Soul

In a six quart stock pot, place
2-3 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves (about 2 1/2 pounds)
and cover with cold water by an inch.
Place on medium heat and bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 40 minutes, skimming off any foam that accumulates. If you'd like to make a more flavorful stock, you can add roughly chopped vegetables such as
1 small onion (optional)
1 medium carrot (optional)
1 stalk celery (optional)

but I think you can just add these veggies to the soup itself rather than at this stage where they are only used for the stock and then discarded.
When the chicken breasts are cooked remove from the stock pot to a bowl and cover with stock. Let sit at room temperature until cool enough to handle. Allowing the chicken to cool in the liquid will keep the breast moist.
Meanwhile, add to the stock pot
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 large stalk celery, diced

and bring to a simmer for about 10 minutes.
Bring 2 quarts of salted water to boil and cook
8 ounces of noodles/pasta (such as egg noodles, orrechiete, orzo, tubettini, etc.)
to al dente.
Once cool, remove the skin from the chicken and the meat from the bones and cut into a medium dice. Add the chicken and the reserved liquid back to the soup pot. Add
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
to the soup and taste to addjust the seasonings accordingly.
2 to 4 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, thyme, or cilantro)
to the soup, reserving a small amount for garnish. Brian LOVES dill so that's what I used.
Drain the pasta and add to the soup. Serve immediately with additional herb garnish if desired.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Miso Glazed Tilapia: A Valentine Supper

After a week of somewhat heavy meals that included Giada's honey ricotta cheesecake for dessert one night, I was ready for something light for Valentine's Day. Fortunately I knew we had tilapia waiting to be defrosted and was planning to poach it in carrot juice and serve on a bed of greens a la Jerry Traunfeld from the Herbal Kitchen. Arriving home a bit later than usual, I walked into the kitchen and was surprised to find my partner cooking away. He was making some chicken gyoza potstickers and edamame that he'd found in the freezer and was looking on the internet for a way to prepare the tilapia Asian style.

In these situations, I must supress my inner kitchen tyrant (but I'd planned on making something else!) and just let things flow. Most times I really love cooking with my partner. He doesn't mind chopping and cleaning up as we go. But sometimes, I just want him to do what I tell him to do or to get out of my way! After 15 years, I can heartily attest that the forceful approach does not work with him. So, the ancillary benefit to me when we cook is to learn to let go. Cooking can be about so much control: of ingredients, temperature, seasoning, timing, etc. I may think that I know what needs to be done next, but I have to consider my words and tone very carefully when trying to influence him in the kitchen, lest he completely leave the cooking to me and he ends up feeling alienated in our own kitchen! I have to remember that cooking is something I really enjoy and have definite ideas about, but I want to include him in this activity that I love so much so that he can feel the love and success of putting food on the table and getting the love for his efforts. So props to him for starting dinner without checking with me first!

His choice for an Asian style dinner was particularly romantic, because we lived togther in Japan in a postage stamp of an apartment for nearly three years at the beginning of our relationship. Japanese food and style are a sentimental favorite for us. So I whipped out my Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh (the title of which literally translates to "Japanese meals or Japanese food") and discovered a simple miso glazed fish recipe that was perfect for the tilapia at hand. I was immediately reminded of the first time I had miso glazed cod at Nobu in South Beach (which apparently is no longer on the menu according to the website), and again was kicking myself for not coming back to this preparation more regularly, especially given my tribulations with cooking cod. Most recipes for this dish call for marinating it for up to 3 days, but Andoh-san thankully includes an "impatient" marinade perfect for the weeknight cook. Leafing through her 2006 IACP award winning cookbook, I was pleased to find recipes for eggplant, a vegetable I fell in love with while living in Japan. I'd bought many last summer at my local farmers market and made some delicious preparations, but never went farther east than Thailand in any of my recipe wanderings. Now I can't wait for next summer to try some of these Japanese recipes.

So here is my take on this delicious fish preparation. Andoh-san goes into much greater detail on some of these steps, so I would refer to her excellent cookbook if you have the interest to learn more. But for a simple weeknight preparation, my instructions below with modifications will suffice.

Saikyo Yaki, Miso-Marinated Broiled Fish
Adapted from Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh

4 to 6 fish fillets, 1 1/2 pounds to 2 pounds [any fish that you like, such as salmon, is suitable. Cod is typical but I used tilapia]

Impatient Marinade:
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sweet, light miso, preferably Saikyo miso [I confess I used mild Korean miso]
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon sake [I had to substitute brandy]
1 tablespoon freeze dried yuzu peel, pulverized, or grated fresh citrus zest [I used lemon and orange zest]

Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. [Personally I never rinse meat products since Diana Kennedy said on the Today Show that it's not necessary. Plus you never see anyone on the Food Network follow this practice.] Place the fish on paper towels and sprinkle both sides with salt. Let stand for 5 minutes, or until it "sweats." Blot away the excess moisture.

Now here is where I diverge from Andoh-san greatly. She recommends wrapping the fish in a single layer in a double layer of cheesecloth and then coating that cloth with the marinade for at least 20 minutes or up to 1 hour in the fridge. The cloth is then removed (thus removing the marinade) and the fish is ready to go under the broiler. The marinade can actually be reused and the cloth rinsed and dried for the next time. Not having any cheesecloth, I just cheated and slathered the marinade on the fish and popped it into a 400 degree oven for 12 minutes. If you want the crust toasted you can always just pop the fish under the broiler for a minute or so. The marinade is salty, but oh so delicious with the citrus notes from the zest!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Chicken Chilaquiles: How to turn leftover chicken and tortilla chips into a Mexican casserole

For me half the fun of cooking is the clever re-invention of a dish into something totally different using leftovers. For this reason alone, though I'd been cooking half the box of pasta long before Mark Bittman said to, I've started cooking the whole pound knowing that with what's left over I can use other leftovers like chicken or vegetables to make soup or a frittata or a simple side or whatever. That's why it's particularly great to make something in the beginning of the week knowing you'll have enough left over to create another meal from something you've "prepped" in your own kitchen earlier in the week. This was the original premise of Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller on the Food Network, though she's deviated from the original format these days.

In this vein, I confess that half the reason I volunteer to cook Thanksgiving dinner is that I know I'll get at least two meals out of that leftover turkey (chili, pot pies, shepherd's pie, turkey divan, etc.) before I even make the turkey soup from the bare bones of the carcass! And besides even though you think you'll never want to eat again after stuffing yourself at Thanksgiving, you and yours will need something to eat on Friday too! So get comfortable with making leftovers. Not every delicious meal has to be made from scratch, but the satisfaction of making a delicious meal from leftovers is a timesaver that every cook should embrace.

Which brings me to the purpose of this post: chilaquiles. The Italian dish panzanella, though it has been dressed up by all manners of chefs into something approaching high cuisine, was originally conceived as a way to use up stale bread. As the Italians don't want to waste their day old bread, Mexicans don't want to waste their day old tortillas. When the cook finds herself with leftover tortillas from the day before, it's time for chilaquiles. Unless you've recently made enchiladas, you probably won't have enough corn tortillas left over to make this dish, and when making a dish from leftovers, it should not be necessary to go the store for any additional ingredients. But I wouldn't use fresh tortillas to start with anyway because it requires an added step of frying the tortillas to make them crisp, which drags out the whole process and seems inherently messy and unappetizing. The really quick way to make this leftover dish is with your favorite brand of plain old tortilla chips, all the better if they're a bit old and stale and not suitable for dipping into guacamole. I searched my usual sources and discovered that chilaquiles can be made with eggs as a breakfast dish, which reminds me of another dish I learned to make--called migas--also from Mexico. It's another great way to use stale tortilla chips or the broken bits at the bottom of the bag by simply adding them to scrambled eggs. You won't need any salt and you won't believe how delicious this dish will taste. Thanks to Rosa Mexicano for that recipe and teaching me about the genius of la cocina Mexicana.

So consider making this dish when you have leftover chicken (or turkey or chili or pork roast, etc.), a nearly full bag of tortilla chips, some salsa, some sour cream, and some cheese (five ingredients). Done. Finito. Bastante! My recipe is closest to Rick Bayless's from Mexico One Plate at a Time, but uses the bag chips in lieu of the fresh tortillas. He uses salsa verde from tomatillos rather than using the typical tomato salsa. I happened to have some salsa verde frozen from the last time I made Rick's grilled chicken with salsa verde, which is a foundation sauce of Mexican cuisine and a great alternative to salsa roja. Here, Joy of Cooking style is this twenty minute meal.

Chilaquiles Verdes
Four Servings

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. In the bottom of a 3 quart casserole dish (9x13 is too big) spread
2 cups (3 ounces) of tortilla chips
Crush the chips somewhat so that the bottom of the dish is covered. Spread on top
1 cup (8 ounces) of leftover chicken, cubed
1 1/2 cups tomatillo salsa (or 1 1/2 cups tomato salsa)
over the chicken and dollop with
4 tablespoons of sour cream
Repeat layering one more time with all of the above ingredients. Top with
1/2 cup shredded cheese (cheddar, monterey jack, etc.)
Cover with aluminum foil and bake in center of oven for 15 minutes. Remove foil and broil for the last 5 minutes of cooking. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving. If desired, garnish with
chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, chopped jalapeno, or additional sour cream

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The French Take on Beer, Brats, and Sauerkraut: Julia Child's Choucroutre Royale

Isn't it funny how to our ears the French language just sounds so elegant? If you were to tell a friend that you were serving Choucroute Royale for Super Bowl Sunday, no doubt eyebrows would be raised in disbelief! "What kind of haute cuisine is that to serve the beer and pretzels crowd?" "I thought we'd be having chili like last year!" But wouldn't your friend be just as surprised to learn that choucroute (shoo-kroot) is simply French for sauerkraut? The "Royale" part I've no idea, but it could just be Julia's way of making sauerkraut sound even more classy by jazzing it up with more than just plain old sausages. This is all so reminiscent of that conversation in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction between the John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson characters about how the French call the banally named "Quarter Pounder with cheese" "Royale with cheese?" Instant cache! (Mon Dieu! Can I pepper any more French words into this intro?)

I was very happily led to this preparation by searching on the Food Network website for recipes that use juniper berries. I'd bought juniper berries from Penzeys Spices to make Molly Stevens' Sauerbraten, and even though I'd gotten a small container, I still wanted to use them up. I'm still working on that effort two years later, but the folks at Penzeys say that whole spices in the seed form last up to two years unlike the six months to a year for herbs and ground spices, so I've still got this winter for a few more recipes. That same search, incidentally, led me to Emeril's Chicken Simmered in Beer, discussed in an earlier posting.

Based on the success of Emeril's chicken and Julia's sauerkraut I can definitely say that there is an affinity for beer with juniper! I love using beer in cooking chili and other one pot meals, and the choucroute is a dish that cries out to be prepared in the slow cooker. In fact, I started this dish in the afternoon prior to going out bowling with my sister's family thinking we could all come back and enjoy this crowd pleaser together. Unfortunately the big dinner party didn't work out, but Brian and I certainly had a great hearty dinner that was made even better by eating it with Firehook Bakery's hearty dark multigrain bread with Dijon mustard. Needless to say this the kind of preparation that is even better the next day. I also used two other Food Network recipes--one by Emeril and another by Food Network Kitchens that describes a slow cooker preparation. Both had some good ideas including using gin instead of or in addition to the juniper berries, so here is my take, with Julia's recipe as the foundation.

Choucroute Royale (Braised Sauerkraut)

Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and Simone Beck

One 28 ounce can of a good German brand of sauerkraut

1/2 pound chunk of bacon or 8 slices good turkey bacon (Louis Rich NOT recommended)
1 tablespoon olive oil

3 to 4 pounds of various kinds of browned meat such as:
Roast pork
Pork chops
Smoked pork loin
Chicken thighs
Smoked turkey

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 large onion sliced thick

The following tied in cheesecloth:
4 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
6 sprigs of thyme
6 peppercorns
10 juniper berries lightly crushed (or add 1/4 cup gin to casserole)

1 ½ pounds baby red potatoes
2 cooking apples, cored and cut into eighths.

1 bottle of beer
Enough chicken stock (up to 2 cups) to raise the liquid level to just below the top of the vegetables

Prepare the sauerkraut and bacon. Drain the sauerkraut and soak in cold water for 15 to 20 minutes as you prepare the vegetables and meats to add to your dish. If using chunk bacon, slice into half inch cubes. If using bacon strips, slice into half inch pieces. In a wide sauté pan, cook bacon in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until crisp to render the fat. Remove bacon to a plate lined with a paper towel and reserve.

Brown the meat. Brown any sausage or kielbasa that you are cooking for five minutes on each side until well caramelized but not necessarily cooked through as the meat will finish cooking in the slow cooker. Season any pieces of meat--such as pork chops or chicken thighs--that you want to cook with salt and pepper and brown for about five minutes on each side. Again, you’re not cooking it through just browning it well. At this point you could sweat the onions and sauté the carrot chunks, but I don’t think it’s necessary because, again, they’ll just cook in the slow cooker with everything else and softening them first will only add marginally to the final dish.

Taking the sauerkraut by small handfuls, squeeze out as much water as possible, picking it apart to separate the strands and place in a six quart slow cooker. Mix in the onions, carrots, and baby potatoes and bury the herbs and spices into the veggies. Pour in the beer and enough stock to come just below the level of the sauerkraut. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Layer in the browned meats, sausages, smoked meats, and bacon, and apples. Cover and cook on low for at least four hours. Serve as you get hungry and can no longer resist the siren call of this dish. It's delicious with pumpernickel or some other dark multigrain bread spread with country Dijon mustard.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Healthy Breakfast: Gregg Avedon's Apple-Walnut Protein Pancakes

Let me say up front that I hesitated to blog about this recipe because most people are turned off by food that sounds too healthy. Hearing about such recipes makes some people somehow feel inadequate or contrary and causes them to tune out when they should tune in. If that's your reaction, fine. I'm not here trying to force anyone to cut calories or eat more healthully. But these pancakes are healthy, delicious and as easy to make as any other pancake recipe I've seen. And really, my mission as the Ganbaru Cook is simply to blog about what I'm preparing and how I've made others' recipes my own; that's my only agenda I swear!

My partner and I are health conscious about what we eat, though he is certainly more disciplined than I. For years we have worked out together at Results the Gym; taken active vacations cross-country skiing, hiking, and biking; and striven to eat mindfully and healthfully. Yes, I love to cook, but his desire to not eat butter, cream, lard (a minor point of contention on that one, but that is a future post), mayonnaise, etc. moderates what dishes I'll try and how I'll modify certain recipes to make them palatable to him and better for us both. However, I always eat for flavor first and healthfulness second. Everything in moderation, nothing in excess (hopefully)! Brian, however, is the converse: Eating healthfully first and foremost is his philosophy, and it's a bonus when it tastes really good. He is rarely tempted by sumptuous, rich foods--not even my homemade organic ice cream--and almost always makes healthful food choices; he's in fantastic shape so props to him!

Over the years we have both enjoyed reading Men's Health Magazine and I was pleased to receive from the publishers of Men's Health a cookbook by Gregg Avedon, who's been on the cover of the magazine--usually shirtless--twenty times! Gregg writes a cooking and nutrition column for the magazine and has compiled more than 150 recipes into a book, Men's Health Muscle Chow: More Than 150 Meals to Feed Your Muscles and Fuel Your Workouts. It's what you'd expect in a cookbook for guys: simple recipes designed for maximum workout benefits, strategies for simple prep and clean up, and an eating plan to cycle how you eat so that you can lose fat, gain muscle and look your best. Gregg is quite the nutrition and supplement expert. His list of foods to eat for maximum workout benefits is comprehensive and I'm pleased to say that we already eat 90% of what he listed.

Perusing the cookbook flagging recipes as usual and remembering that I've got a container of lowfat ricotta from the farmers market that I need to use, I latched onto the Apple-Walnut Ricotta Protein Pancakes. (Also on the menu this week is a chicken dish by Jamie Oliver that has a ricotta herb mixture stuffed under the skin.) Let me admit upfront that I've had inconsistent results with various pancake recipes. I like them light and fluffy, but have had them at various times dense, undercooked, or flat. I have no doubt these shortcomings are in my method, not the recipes themselves in most cases. When we lived in Japan, a friend used to make pancakes for himself and his wife every day for breakfast! Needless to say his pancakes were perfection. He even used orange juice as the liquid instead of milk, and when he last visited he made us the pancakes and wrote down the recipe. But mine have never achieved his level of greatness. When entertaining for breakfast, he would make a stack of 8 inch pancakes, buttering each layer and then serve them like a gateau of crepes, that is, sliced like a cake into wedges. What a happy memory!

So I latched onto the Apple Walnut Protein Ricotta Pancakes (hereafter ricotta pancakes) knowing I had all the ingredients on hand. Of course I first had to consult other sources for ricotta pancakes and found one by Giada De Laurentiis and another by Tyler Florence. Giada's is basically her riff on dressing up pancakes using a pancake mix as the base. Tyler's starts off with roasting the apples for 45 minutes and whisking egg whites to stiff peaks, which is too involved considering I was making breakfast and wanted to eat ASAP. The odd thing about Gregg's ricotta pancake recipe in the book is that it has apple in the title, but no apple in the ingredients. I couldn't find online any published errata for the book, but I found a similar recipe on the Men's Health website, linked to above. That version uses apple-flavored whey protein powder where the book specifies vanilla protein powder. And here I was expecting to add chopped or grated apple! Because I was determined to have apple in my pancakes, I decided to dice and saute a fuji apple for a few minutes in vegetable oil (yes I was tempted to use butter, but managed to forbear!). The diced apple could have been added to the batter, but I just added a couple of tablespoonfuls to each pancake as soon as I poured the batter. Any leftover apple I just added to my maple syrup.

Because the online version is different enough from the one in the book, I basically used Gregg's recipe as an inspiration for my own adaptation below. Gregg's recipe calls for whole wheat pastry flour, another uncommon household ingredient, unless you do a lot of baking with an eye toward healthful baked goods--like the Food Network's Ellie Krieger who makes some delicious triple chocolate chip cookies with whole wheat pastry flour. I had on hand Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain Pancake and Waffle Mix (which contains whole wheat pastry flour actually) that I used, but any pancake mix would do just as well. Keep in mind that pancake mix has leavening (baking powder and/or baking soda) in it already, so adding more leavening will almost guarantee light, fluffy pancakes.

Unless you're into weight training, you probably won't have whey protein powder on hand either though it is sold at Whole Paycheck. One scoop of the GNC brand of vanilla whey powder we favor is about 1/3 cup, so you could just use that much additional pancake mix in its place. A few tablespoons of wheat germ plus additional pancake mix to equal 1/3 cup might also do the trick, but I haven't tried that myself.

Normally I would not specify brands or lowfat or nonfat, which you can of course subsitute for nonfat or full fat. But this time I wanted to show the nutritional breakdown for 1 pancake, so I had to be specific about the ingredients I used, which I plugged into to determine the nutrient breakdown.

Apple and Walnut Protein Ricotta Pancakes
Adapted from Men's Health Muscle Chow by Gregg Avedon
Makes 6 super healthy 5 inch pancakes

vegetable oil, a tablespoon or two as needed
1 medium apple such as golden delicious, granny smith, or fuji, peeled, cored and diced

Dry ingredients:
1/4 cup Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain pancake & waffle mix
1 scoop GNC vanilla whey protein powder
1/2 cup plain instant oatmeal
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Wet ingredients:
1/3 cup part skim ricotta cheese
3 large egg whites (I saved the yolks to make blood orange ice cream)
1/3 to 1/2 cup of lowfat buttermilk

Butter, optional
Maple syrup, optional
  1. Pre-cook the apples. In a small frying pan, heat about of teaspoon of vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the diced apple, stir to coat with the oil and saute for about five minutes to soften and lightly brown the apple. It's important that you use an apple for cooking as some varieties for eating turn to mush when cooked. Not a disaster but I'm going for having a chunk of apple in every bite of pancake.
  2. Make the pancake batter. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and use a whisk to combine. Combine the wet ingredients in another bowl (use 1/3 cup of buttermilk to start) and whisk to combine. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix just until combined. The batter can be slightly lumpy. If the batter is too thick add more buttermilk as necessary (I needed half a cup), but the batter should not be too thin either or the pancakes will spread too much when the batter is added to your skillet and you could end up with one huge pancake instead of two or three smaller ones.
  3. Prepare to make your pancakes. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees to keep the cooked pancakes warm as you prepare the rest. Heat your largest nonstick skillet over medium heat and add about a half teaspoon of oil. Use a paper towel to spread the oil around the pan and remove any excess. Repeat between each batch of pancakes to spread the oil and remove any pancake crumbs. Reduce heat to medium-low.
  4. Make your pancakes. Use a 1/3 cup measure to spoon the batter into your skillet. Place a couple of tablespoons of apple chunks onto the uncooked side of your pancakes. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes on the first side until golden brown on the bottom and carefully flip to cook for 2 to 3 minutes more on the second side. Place the cooked pancakes on an oven proof plate and keep in the oven while you cook the rest of your cakes.
  5. Serve them up! Garnish the pancake stacks with any leftover apple and serve.

I will say that these pancakes are sweet enough without any added sugar in the batter, but who the hell eats pancakes without syrup (or butter either)? Gregg Avedon apparently, but he doesn't eat these cakes with eggs and bacon on the side as a Sunday breakfast with the family. They're more like a quick post workout meal as he makes them before hitting the gym. So in the nutritional analysis below I did not include butter or syrup. How much you use or whether you use those at all is entirely up to you. Just know that 1 tablespoon of real maple syrup (the only kind worth eating) has 52 calories (13.4 grams of carbs) and one pat of butter has 36 calories (4.1 grams of fat). I probably used 3 tablespoons of syrup and one pat of butter on mine.

Per pancake (I ate three but two would have sufficed; we also had two scramble eggs, two slices of turkey bacon, and a half grapefruit):

Calories: 141; Fat: 6 grams (36% of calories); Saturated fat: 1 gram; Carbohydrates: 14 grams (36% of calories); Fiber: 2 grams; Protein: 10 grams (28% of calories); Sodium: 231 mg

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Using up some leftover bottles of beer: Emeril's Chicken Simmered in Beer

As the excess of red wine inspired Mario's Chicken Stemporata, the beer taking up room in my fridge is pushing me to find recipes that use beer. Definitely one of the benefits of having our annual holiday party is the alcohol that comes our way! As we don't drink wine or beer with dinner every night, the bottles do last a bit but I do try to use them, and I'm especially determined to free up the space that the beer is taking up in my fridge!

So I found in my four inch binder (!) of downloaded and printed recipes one that I'd forgotten, Emeril's Chicken Simmered in Beer. I'd originally downloaded it seeking to use up the juniper berries I'd bought for making sauerbraten, a braised beef comfort food that I look forward to making every winter. (Ironically the sauerbraten that I favor is by my braising maven, Molly Stevens from an appearance she made on Sara's Secrets after her award winning All About Braising was published, but that appearance wasn't actually what prompted me to explore the world of braising, it was a braised beef rib dish that rocked my world and showed me a world of braising that I had to explore, accompanied by my beloved Le Creuset "French oven")

Incidentally another delicious dish that uses crushed juniper berries is Choucroute Royale, braised sauerkraut with meat (bacon, pork chops, kielbasa, duck, bratwurst, you get the idea), potatoes, and apples that I found on the Food Network by none other than the doyenne of TV cooking in America, Ms. Julia Child (and the oft-forgotten Simone Beck). Emeril also has a good recipe for this dish that must be Alsatian considering its ingredients. I would surely serve this winter comfort food if I ever found myself hosting a super bowl party (which frankly is an unlikely prospect). Choucroute Royale is a perfect slow cooker recipe and is surely unexpected as most folks favor chili on that Sunday.

Pardon my digressions. Emeril's recipe for Chicken Simmered in Beer is what this post is supposed to be about. Not much to comment on really though it is a flavorful dish. I finished the sauce with organic lowfat sour cream and was quite pleased to spoon it over my preferred wild rice blend. One surprise was that the flavor of the spicy Cajun seasoning I used was basically absent amidst the other flavors, so next time I'd probably use my go to season all, fennel spice rub. I had all the ingredients except for the gin, which seemed redundant to use with the juniper berries anyway. I just increased the number of berries used to 10 rather than 6. I also just used two bone in chicken breast halves rather than a cut up chicken. Oh, and I finished the braise in the oven for 30 minutes at 325 degrees as I'd cooked the dish using my other beloved Le Creuset casserole dish.

Chicken Simmered in Beer

Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse, from New New Orleans Cooking, published by William and Morrow, 1993.

1 (4-pound) chicken, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 8 pieces [I used two HUGE chicken breast halves, 2 ½ pounds total]
Essence, recipe follows [I used Penzey’s spicy Cajun seasoning]
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter [didn’t use]
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh parsley
6 lightly crushed juniper berries
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
8 ounces small button mushrooms, or large mushrooms, quartered, wiped clean and stems trimmed
3/4 cup sliced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons gin [didn’t have so I used 10 juniper berries]
1 (12-ounce) bottle lager beer
1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

Hot white rice, accompaniment
Hot French bread, accompaniment

Lightly season the chicken on both sides with Essence [or seasoning of your choice].

In a large braising pan, heat the oil and melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the chicken to the pan and cook until browned, 4 to 5 minutes per side.

Make a bouquet garni: In the center of a 6-inch square piece of cheesecloth, place the bay leaf, thyme, parsley sprigs and juniper berries. Draw up the sides to form a pouch and secure with kitchen twine. Set aside.

Sprinkle the flour over the oil and drippings in the pan and cook for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms, shallots and garlic, and cook, stirring, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the gin and cook until almost evaporated. Add the beer and bouquet garni, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender, 45 to 50 minutes. [Alternatively complete the braise in a 325 degree oven. Check for doneness after 30 minutes and remove from the oven or continue cooking as warranted.]

Discard the bouquet garni and add the creme fraiche.

Stir to incorporate and simmer until warmed through (do not boil). Adjust the seasoning, to taste and sprinkle with the parsley.

Place the rice in the center of 4 large plates and top each with 2 pieces of chicken. Spoon the sauce over the top and serve immediately with French bread on the side.

Essence (Emeril's Creole Seasoning):

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Combine all ingredients thoroughly and store in an airtight jar or container.

Yield: about 2/3 cup

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Seafood Paella a la Jose Andres via Kim O'Donnell

I love reading the food blog A Mighty Appetite by Kim O'Donnell on the Washington Post's website. Kim has a relaxed writing style that makes me feel like I'm hearing a story as told by my cool cousin. She's not as familiar as a sibling, but we know each other well and she's always doing really cool stuff and has great stories to tell. On Tuesdays, she hosts a weekly What's Cooking? web chat on the Post's website in which people write in with food related questions. I really feel a part of an online community by commenting on her blog and posting questions in her chats. Especially when she actually answers a question of mine, I really feel a kinship. I've weighed in recently on how to make polenta as well as what kitchen essentials a bride should register for.

Her blog the other day was about paella, arguably Spain's most famous dish. I'd only made it once before after I'd bought my supremely versatile Le Creuset casserole from TJ Maxx and hadn't attempted it since. I remember making it on a Sunday and it stretched into a time consuming kitchen adventure, the kind where people are sitting around wondering, "Why isn't it ready yet? Does he know what he's doing?" Incidentally, you may be tempted to think you need a "paella pan" to make this dish, but this is just not so. Tyler Florence has said that he uses his roasting pan--the one that most of us only dust off for the Thanksgiving turkey--when he's making paella for a crowd (which is what I will use when preparing this dish for company, as I look forward to doing soon). And I was served paella in Miami in a cast iron skillet, so any of your favorite, wide saute pans is a good choice. (I will admit that I bought my LC pan envisioning paella but this pan is well worth its cost and has become one of my most versatile kitchen pieces. I use it regularly for braising, poaching, sauteing, roasting, etc., even though at this point it's only been used for paella twice.)

Kim's recipe, appropriated from mega-chef Jose Andres (his restaurants include DC hotspots Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico, Oyamel, and Zaitinya) is simple enough even for a weeknight if you're not overly carnivorous. Besides, I'd been wanting to try making paella anyway because I took a vegetarian cooking class over the summer in which the main dish for the evening was a vegetarian paella. Incorporating some of the elements from that paella, I took the liberty of sauteing a bell pepper and an onion before cooking the garlic. Because I had in my freezer shrimp, sea scallops, and chorizo, I knew that I could use those in place of/in addition to some of the ingredients in Kim's recipe. Paella recipes I've seen usually call for browning all manners of protein, including chicken, rabbit, sausage, and various shell fish which can take over an hour, so I knew that limiting myself to only seafood and sausage would take less than ten minutes.

The only odd thing about Sr. Andres's recipe is that it instructs you to cook the shrimp beforehand and then add it back to the liquid so that it ends up being cooked for more than twenty minutes! While the shrimp did not come out rubbery it was certainly well cooked, shall we say. I learned from watching Robin Miller making grilled shrimp with citrus dipping sauce on the Food Network the other day that well cooked shrimp is C shaped, while overcooked shrimp is O shaped. Mine was definitely O shaped but it wasn't completely rubbery. Next time I might just add it raw near the end of cooking the rice so that it remains tender or cook it initially and then just add it at the end to reheat through.

It is critical that you do not stir the rice after it has cooked for the four minutes as Kim exhorts in her instructions. Even though you're using arborio rice, you're not making risotto! Once the ingredients are well combined, the rice has to be immersed in the simmering liquid so that it can absorb the flavorful stock you've made and cook to al dente.

Another critical ingredient in this dish is of course the saffron. Now I'd been using some inexpensive Badia brand saffron that I bought at a Latino market around the corner from me. Never really appreciating what saffron added, I decided to purchase some of the medium grade Spanish Coupé Saffron from my preferred spice vendor, Penzeys. Once again I proved to myself that the quality of the ingredients matters! A half teaspoon of this wonder spice perfumed the dish and the kitchen and made our mouths water! NOW I get it with the saffron! I also recognized it as what I love about bouillabaisse, that delicious seafood stew from Provence. I'm now on the search for other dishes in addition to risotto that use this spice.

Seafood Paella

As taught to Kim O’Donnel by Washington chef and cookbook author Jose Andres and adapted by me. I’d tried to annotate Kim’s recipe with my method, but it got too confusing so please refer to Kim’s posted recipe for additional ideas on making this dish.

Makes 4 generous servings


3 cups water, clam juice or stock (chicken, seafood, or vegetable)
4 sprigs of thyme
2 links of chorizo, about 8 ounces cut into ¾ inch pieces
12 ounces shrimp, shelled and deveined, and chopped if desired (reserve the shells of the shrimp if shelling yourself)
1 pound sea scallops

2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1/4-1/2 tsp. saffron
1/2 cup white wine
salt to taste
1 1/2 cups short-grained rice, such as Bomba, Calasparra or Arborio


  1. Flavor your stock. Combine water or stock with thyme and shrimp shells (optional) in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and keep stock on the stove, at a simmer.
  2. Pre-cook the protein. Heat up the paella pan over medium high heat and add olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the chorizo, browning it well, about 2-3 minutes each side. The point here is to get some caramelization on the chorizo not to cook it through because you’ll be adding it back to the paella to finish cooking later. If there is room in your pan without crowding anything, add shrimp and sauté for about 2 minutes each side until opaque, pink, and C shaped. Remove the chorizo and shrimp to a plate as they are done and add some of the scallops and cook for 2 to 3 minutes each side. The scallops will give up a lot of liquid so make sure the pan is hot and not too crowded otherwise you’ll end up steaming rather than searing. Remove the scallops and set aside with the chorizo and shrimp.
  3. Cook the aromatics. Add more oil if necessary and cook the onion and pepper for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. At this point if the bottom of the pan is looking too dark, add a few tablespoons of the simmering stock and deglaze the pan, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. When the liquid has evaporated, add the garlic and sauté for about a minute until fragrant.
  4. Deglaze. Add the white wine and thoroughly deglaze the pan at this point, reducing the wine slightly. Add the canned tomato and let it cook for at least five minutes, until the color has transformed from red to a more golden, orange-brown shade and much of the liquid has evaporated forming, a gravy like sauce. Add the bay leaf and saffron. If you’re using good quality saffron you’ll know at this point because the dish will come alive with the distinctive mouth watering fragrance of saffron!
  5. Combine the components. Return the seafood and chorizo to the pan. [Note: you may add only the chorizo at this point and add the seafood at the end of cooking the rice.] Add stock. Bring up to a boil. Salt well. You want the mixture to be slightly salty. This is your last chance to add salt before the rice is added.
  6. Cook the rice. Add rice and set timer for 24 minutes [Kim specifies 14 minutes but that wasn’t long enough for my dish]. For the first four minutes, you may stir gently. After this point, reduce to a simmer and NO MORE STIRRING OR TOUCHING. Otherwise, you will have a gummy rice concoction. (This is also why you cannot add salt at this stage.)
  7. Finish the dish. Add seafood if you haven’t yet. Reduce heat rather than add more liquid if you find the paella absorbing liquid too rapidly and the rice isn’t cooked enough. The end result should be on the dry side, by the way.
  8. Prepare to enjoy! Turn off heat and let sit for at least five minutes. Serve to the delight of your dining companions.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ina Garten's Free Range Chicken with 20 Cloves of Garlic

We got a free range chicken at the Farmers Market a couple of weeks ago, mainly at urging of my super health conscious partner. The bird looked a bit scrawny at just three pounds, but I guess I need to purge myself of the image of the Perdue oven stuffer roaster. Anyway with my cabinet full of wine, I knew I could find some chicken recipe worthy of this bird and I settled on Ina Garten's Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. I love this episode of her show. It's a typical episode where Ina and her gay entourage are hanging out and then decide to make a meal to go with watching a French movie later in the week. Ina decides to make a main course that sounds like it could ward off all the vampires in Transylvania. But recall that in your vampire lore it's raw garlic that's used to ward off the undead. Cooked garlic, especially whole cloves, takes on a toasted richness that is worlds away from its raw component and is delicious. As I was only using one chicken, I cut the recipe in half basically and was quite pleased with the results of my chicken with 20 cloves of garlic. Two small heads yielded 20 cloves, but I'm certainly sure you can count out 20 cloves if you're only using one chicken!

Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic
by Ina Garten from Barefoot in Paris
, Copyright 2004

Yields 6 servings

3 whole heads garlic, about 40 cloves
2 (3 1/2-pound) chickens, cut into eighths
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons good olive oil
3 tablespoons
Cognac, divided [I used regular brandy]
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Separate the cloves of garlic [place the head of garlic upside down on your cutting board then whack therapeutically once or twice with a saucepan or skillet] and drop them into a pot of boiling water for 60 seconds. Drain the garlic and peel. Set aside.

Dry the chicken with paper towels. Season liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter and oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. In batches, saute the chicken in the fat, skin side down first, until nicely browned, about 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Turn with tongs or a spatula; you don't want to pierce the skin with a fork. If the fat is burning, turn the heat down to medium. When a batch is done, transfer it to a plate and continue to saute all the chicken in batches. Remove the last chicken to the plate and add all of the garlic to the pot. Lower the heat and saute for 5 to 10 minutes, turning often, until evenly browned. Add 2 tablespoons of the Cognac and the wine, return to a boil, and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken to the pot with the juices and sprinkle with the thyme leaves. Cover and simmer over the lowest heat for about 30 minutes, until all the chicken is done.

Remove the chicken to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup of the sauce and the flour and then whisk it back into the sauce in the pot. Raise the heat, add the remaining tablespoon of Cognac and the cream, and boil for 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste; it should be very flavorful because chicken tends to be bland. Pour the sauce and the garlic over the chicken and serve hot.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My Italian Muse: Mario Batali's Stemperata di Pollo

More than any other food luminary on TV, my cooking style has been most influenced by watching Mario Batali. Of all the themes that run through his show, Molto Mario, the one that I most adhere to is the concept embodied in the word that--to the derision of some and the raison d'etre for others--became the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year for 2007: locavore. Though he is by now no means the first, Mario has been consistently emphasizing for years that the use of fresh local ingredients will make the food that comes from your kitchen stand out from the food that comes from everyone else's. He has said on his show that every Italian believes that what grows locally or is produced in their region/town/village is indisputably the best, because of the soil, the air, the water or the whatever particular to that place. Even the organic produce from Whole Paycheck (picked who knows when/where and shipped to your store waiting God knows how long for you to buy it) will wilt when cooked and compared to what you can prepare from local ingredients.

There really are two parts to this chauvinistic concept: 1) what's grown here tastes best and 2) of all the things grown locally, what's now in season is what you should be eating. This "here and now" concept is now somewhat strange for many Americans. The wisdom of the past of eating what's in season, canning or preserving it for the winter, and awaiting its arrival next year is something we've long since gotten away from. People eat strawberries year round and serve asparagus at Thanksgiving. But I can say that getting into the habit of buying local seasonal produce will certainly make you appreciate what you have right now because you know it will be gone in about two months, just about the time you'll be getting tired of it anyway. Every year I eagerly await the asparagus at my farmer's market every spring as I get tired of winter squashes. Then I go through my battery of asparagus recipes a couple of times and then I'm done with asparagus for the year, thank you very much. Adopting the here and now approach to choosing your foods will also sensitize you to the reality that foods cooked and eaten out of season just don't taste right. The memory of the fully flavored fresh springtime asparagus keeps me from wanting it any other time.

The closest I myself have come to this blessed chauvinism occurred when I lived in Sendai, Japan teaching English in the 1990s. The Tohoku region I lived in was famous for its rice, called Sasanishiki, which was priced accordingly expensively. The Japanese are as proud of their rice as Italians are of their semolina pasta. My students would proudly claim that their rice was considered among the best in Japan. To this American, rice was rice. It's such an inexpensive staple food in the U.S. that the idea of paying a premium or that one rice was better than another was ludicrous to me, reared as I was on the cheap supermarket long grain rice of my childhood. But living there for three years I learned to appreciate that yes, rice matters! And the year that the rice crop was meager and the Japanese had to (gasp!) import foreign rice from the U.S. and Thailand, the rumors were rampant about its inferior taste and quality. (I'll never forget the looks on my Japaneses guests' faces when I had the audacity to serve them Thai rice with dinner! What the hell was I thinking?)

My theory is that Americans, as a nation of immigrants, believe that what the world has to offer will (and should) come to our doorsteps. Look at our greatest city, New York. Everyone knows that anything and everything that's been done somewhere else first is available somewhere in New York City (and most other world class American cities as well). We're always on the lookout for what's new somewhere else and making it our own somehow. Indeed, with so many people from so many countries adding their own to our mix, we're able to pick and choose what we want to explore whenever we want to try it. But this "world is my oyster" mentality makes us forget that oysters are only in seaon in months with "r" in them. If you wait to have something only once a year, when you do have it, you will surely appreciate it.

But back to Mario. I got a boatload of red wine at Christmas, so I was perusing chicken recipes and came across Stemperata di Pollo in Mario's Molto Italiano. I've never seen the episode where he cooks the dish and had also considered a recipe he calls Pollo all'Americano or Pollo al Vin Cotto, both of which I've made and loved before, but I felt like trying something new and the Stemperata had tons of veggies. The stemporata of the recipe name is the past participle form of a verb that means "stamp" as in stamp down and refers to how the olives are split open for use in the recipe, presumably to remove the pits.

I confess I did not have the potatoes called for, but I did have parsnips. And as I read recently on the Washington Post that parsnips were the starch of choice in Europe prior to the arrival of the New World potatoes, I felt comfortable with the substitution. The recipes calls for carrots also, which I did not have so I added a rather large peeled and cut up sweet potato. With these additions, my meal needed no additional starch, and I think I served it all with broccoli rabe on the side. Mario is not such a purist that he wouldn't mind my substitutions and my ingredients did come from the farmers market! I also used canned tomatoes instead of fresh, so my sauce needed to cook down to thicken nicely. A dredge in flour prior to browning the chicken would help with this. Mario expects that the chicken will be done with just a fifteen minute simmer, but I had really thick breasts that needed about 25 minutes. Next time I'll probably finish the braise in the oven at 325 degrees for about a half hour.

Chicken Stemperata: Stemperata di Pollo

Recipe courtesy Mario Batali

1 (3 1/2 pound) chicken, cleaned and cut into 8 serving portions [I just used two bone-in chicken breast halves]
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes [I substituted 3 large parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks]
2 red, yellow, or orange peppers, cored, seeded and cut into medium strips
1 stick celery, cut into large pieces
2 small unpeeled eggplants, cut into large cubes [I didn’t have any eggplants, sorry, Mario!]
2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds [I substituted a large sweet potato cut into large chunks]
2 tablespoons salt packed capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup whole pitted Sicilian olives (the green variety)
4 fresh plum tomatoes, cut into large pieces [a 14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes will do fine; drain if you want but I just added the whole can]
5 whole chiles [obviously to taste, I used a hot chili paste that Mark Bittman showed how to make on his NY Times podcast]
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1/4 bunch each fresh chopped mint leaves and parsley leaves [no mint on hand so I used marjoram]
Pinch chile flakes [see whole chiles above]

Pat the cleaned chicken dry, and then season the pieces with salt and pepper. In a 12 to 14-inch saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil until hot but not smoking. Carefully add the chicken pieces and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove chicken from the pan and set aside.

In the pan with the chicken drippings add potatoes [parsnips], peppers, celery, eggplant, carrot [sweet potato], capers, olives, tomatoes and whole chiles. Toss together. Add the wine [and hot chili paste if using] and chicken, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes [up to 25 minutes really] until chicken is cooked through. Remove from the heat and stir in chopped mint, parsley and a pinch of chili flakes.

Transfer the cooked stew to a serving dish and allow to cool to room temperature before serving. [Hot out of the oven works just fine too.] Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Weeknight Dinner: Cod with Fennel and Tomato

I'll be right up front about it: I like Rachael Ray. Especially after seeing her chefography and learning more about how she made it to where she is, I give nothing but props to the woman. But it seems that the food world is divided about whether to love her or hate her for her success. Talk about schadenfreude! She's never claimed to be any more than she is: a talented home cook who found her success on television, not unlike Paula Deen and Ina Garten. (I have one friend for whom I've vowed to surprise him with one of her dinners because he finds her dishes and her show so wholly unappetizing.) Her Betty Rubble giggle can be annoying, her dishes take anyone but her longer than 30 minutes to prepare, and her "desserts" leave more than a bit to be desired. But I like perky and she's got it. Plus she obviously has an army of people working with her now to keep coming up with more and more recipes to fill her books, magazines, and TV shows. Her food style quotient has definitely increased to being well beyond the queen of burgers!

But I owe her real props for teaching me how to make delicious cod, a food with which I have a love-hate relationship: my partner loves it, and I hate it. Actually hate is too strong a word, but let's just say that when I'm doing the shopping, cod is not on the list, though I'm a huge fan of cooking and eating almost every other kind of fish and seafood. My partner, proud New Englander and Connecticut Yankee that he is, loves the stuff, even when I overcook it, which until recently was 90% of the time. I had resigned myself to admitting that "In cooking as in life, one should play to one's strengths," to paraphrase Nigella when she appeared on Oprah a couple of years back. The corollary to that is to then not play to one's weaknesses, so I was perfectly happy to be a cook who can't make a good piece of cod. Really tilapia, flounder, and halibut were perfectly interchangeable in the category of white fish as far as I was concerned, tilapia and halibut being my favorites.

Of course quality of ingredients is the first step to cooking success so we spent a bit of coin for cod at Whole Paycheck one evening, believing that it wasn't me but the fish from the Giant grocery store upending our fish dinners. So not wanting to make a dinner that was both mediocre and expensive, I sought new recipes and have found three by Ms. Ray that finally produced more than satisfactory--I even daresay delicious --results. Maybe it's because she grew up on Cape Cod in her early years, but the woman can cook her fish! The first recipe was oven roasted cod crusted with herbs, which produced the crisp exterior and moist fish that I'd been wanting for years. The second was last night's dinner, cod poached in the oven with fennel and tomato. And Rachael's third notable dish is a bit fancy but also delicous: cod with burst grape tomatoes, parsley-mint pesto broth and roast fingerling potato crisps. Each of these recipes was dee-lish, producing tender and flaky cod that wasn't rubbery in the least.

So here is my take on Ms. Ray's oven poached cod, which she calls by a slightly different name (I didn't have any dill). I'm pleased to present this recipe because after serving it to my partner in November, I decided what I really needed to do was to start blogging about some of the recipes I like to make, as I mentioned in my first ever Ganbaru blog. Incidentally, I'm very particular about time and temperature when cooking cod. I make sure that my oven is hot enough using my oven thermometer and I use a timer to follow the cooking time to the second to reduce the risk of over cooking.

Cod with Fennel, Dill and Tomato, by Rachael Ray

4 (8-ounce) portions cod fish
2 wedges lemon
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan
1 bulb fennel, quartered, core cut away, thinly sliced
1 small to medium yellow skinned onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken broth
1 (15- ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
Black pepper
A few large sprigs, in tact, plus 2 tablespoons chopped dill [I substituted chopped fresh marjoram with tasty results; thyme would probably be another good subsitute]

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Rinse fish and squeeze lemon juice over it. Season the fish with a little salt and reserve.

Heat a large oven proof pan over medium heat. Add extra-virgin olive oil, fennel and onion and season with salt. Saute fennel and onions 7 to 8 minutes then add white wine and reduce a minute, then add broth. Add tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Set fish into pan and spoon juices over the cod. Add a few sprigs dill [or another fresh herb of choice] to the broth and set the pan into the hot oven to cook. Cook 12 minutes, until fish is opaque. To serve, arrange cod on plate, top with vegetables and chopped fresh herbs for garnish.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year: Rachael Ray's Cauliflower Soup

So we're back from Lake Placid after a whirlwind of holiday gatherings, skiing, and a last ditch New Year's party that really rocked to ring in 2008! I can't believe that I know people who have a complete dance floor and DJ setup in their basement! After ten days on the road, needless to say there was really no food in the fridge except a few onions and an anemic looking head of cauliflower. In fact "dinner" on New Year's Eve after a nine hour drive home from Lake Placid and before heading out to a party (yes, that would be after the nine hour drive) was a Freschetta frozen spinach and mushroom pizza which really wasn't bad actually.

But today, New Year's Day I was back in my own kitchen--not exactly well rested as I'm an inveterate early riser regardless of when I go to bed at 3:00 a.m.-- with my own utensils feeling eager to whip something up and I remembered Rachael Ray's cauliflower soup. A quick perusal of the recipe and the only ingredients missing were celery and milk, both of which I consider optional in this instance actually. This is a soup I love to make with cauliflower from the farmers market usually. I swear when you smell the cauliflower being sauteed you'll think you discovered some new vegetable, such is the difference between the farmers market produce and what is sold at the grocery store. In fact making this soup the first time with a huge head of cauliflower from the framers market, I fell in love with cauliflower as though I was tasting it for the first time. The soup was immediately incorporated into my Thanksgiving menu as an appetizer folks could serve themselves while waiting for the main event.

Seeing as I also had some leftover white wine, I used it in place of the milk to deglaze the pan before adding the chicken stock (which I make every couple of months and have on hand as concentrated frozen cubes in the freezer). I wish I'd had a bigger head of cauliflower because after we served ourselves for lunch there were just about two cups of the soup left, which is half as much as I usually freeze whenever I make soup from scratch so that the next time the fridge is empty I can just defrost a homemade soup from the freezer. Anyway, here is Rachael's soup with my embellishments:

Cauliflower Soup, by Rachael Ray
  • Coarse salt and coarse black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter (or use EVOO)
  • 2 small heads cauliflower, or 1 large, cut into small bunches of florets (Don't worry about the florets, just core the cauliflower head and chop it up into a rough 3/4 inch dice)
    3 ribs celery and leafy tops from the heart of stalk, finely chopped (optional as far as I'm concerned)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves (I'm too lazy to strip leaves off thyme when making a dish like soup, so I just tied the sprigs together and tossed them into the soup. most of th leaves will fall of the sprigs and then you just remove the bundle before pureeing)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 quart vegetable stock (I used chicken stock)
  • ¾ cup white wine (my addition)
  • 1 cup half-and-half or whole milk (optional, IMHO)
  • Hot sauce, optional (I cut up a fresh jalapeno and sauteed it with the veggies)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves or chives, for garnish (any chopped fresh herbs such as chives, thyme, oregano can be used as a garnish in any dish really)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, for passing at the table, optional (I didn't add any cheese)
  • sour cream (my option as a garnish, a tablespoon of which I stirred into the hot soup to add creaminess)

In a large pot, heat up the olive oil and/or 2 tablespoons of the butter, over medium heat. Add the cauliflower and stir with a wooden spoon. Add celery, onion (jalapeno if using) and thyme and cook for 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Push the vegetables to 1 side of the pot. Melt 1 more tablespoon of butter in an empty area of the pot and add flour to the butter. Cook for 1 minute, stirring the flour in the butter. Deglaze the pan with the white wine scraping up the delicious brown caramelized bits on the bottom of the pot. Mix in chicken broth (and half-and-half if using). Bring up to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Puree soup using an immersion blender, food processor or blender and return to pot. Rachael likes to leave it a little chunky. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary.

Garnish soup as desired with chopped herbs, sour cream, or grated cheese. Enjoy!