Monday, November 27, 2006

Mixed grill

It was at least 75 degrees out yesterday and sunny, and I saw our neighbors grilling. In a fraction of an instant, poles reversed from probably not cooking to definitely cooking. Despite that we had just brought a ton of food home with us from our trip to New Jersey, despite that we were considering going to the delicious Los Hermanos for dinner, despite that I was still on the fence about even going to the grocery store that day, I had no choice: must grill out for dinner.

I cut two whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts into halves to make 4 breasts. I made a marinade of juice of 1 lemon, 1/4 cup olive oil, a ton of fresh black pepper (maybe 2 tablespoons? I didn't measure, just ground it for ages), 1 teaspoon salt, and 3 minced garlic cloves. I added the chicken and shook everything together in a secure tuppertype container. Actually, I shook it so hard that it sort of emulsified and I felt kind of faint. I left it to marinate at room temperature for about 30 minutes then put it in the fridge for another 30 minutes before grilling, shaking it up fairly often. Meanwhile, I sliced 2 large, red bell peppers into strips of at least 1" thick, and 1 red onion into thick rounds, separating the layers into rings. Cut 2 sweet potatoes in half widthwise, then sliced the halves into pieces about 1/4" - 1/3" thick. Steamed the sweet potato pieces until they were a bit more than halfway cooked through, then removed to the same plate as the rest of the vegetables. I had a tiny bit of red onion left so I shredded it very fine and sprinkled some on top of the sweet potatoes while they steamed. Splashed the veggies with 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, a tiny bit of salt, at least 1 tablespoon fresh black pepper, a little worcestershire, and tossed so that they were covered. Somehow I managed to keep the different vegetables from mixing together, while yet mixing the marinade; don't know how I managed that. They marinated for about 30 minutes at room temperature, then I took chicken, veggies and a beer to the back porch and found that my coals were finally ready on the grill. I use an all-natural hardwood type of charcoal from Whole Foods that burns really hot (sorry Charles--it's not Kingsford. Send me some for free, then I'll use it. Maybe). I put the chicken breasts around the perimeter of the grill, turning them often to mind that they didn't burn up. The red peppers were grilled first in the center, flipped often and removed once they became soft and had some nice charring on the skin. Next laid out the onion rings, flipped often and removed once they were soft and had light marks. Then I added 2 teaspoons brown sugar to the remaining vegetable marinade and stirred the sweet potatoes up in that, and then let them grill, flipping once and making sure they got fully cooked and got some nice grill marks. Removed all the vegetables on same platter (but not mixed up) to the oven to keep warm and finished the chicken on the grill until it read 168-170 degrees on my previously lauded instant digital meat thermometer. Removed chicken to same big platter as vegetables.

Jeremy and Melanie came upstairs to hear tales of New Jersey and we ate fudgey cookies with espresso after dinner. They also brought the last of the wine from the pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, and I'd totally recommend it except I've already forgotten what it was.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Roasted turkey

Here is an appropriate entry for the day before Thanksgiving! A lot of people are freaked out about roasting turkeys--the intimidating size, the uncertainty surrounding cooking times, the potential for a salmonella free-for-all. But really it is no more difficult than roasting a chicken. A very large chicken, to be sure, but still. You don't need much to do it right, but there are some things that will make it go smoothly. Last weekend we roasted a 18.88 pound turkey for a "pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving" feast at Jeremy and Melanie's. Here is a short list of very practical items that I use when roasting turkeys. Except for the meat thermometer, it won't kill you not to have them , but you'll get better results if you do:

1. Reliable meat thermometer. Just spend a little cash on a nice one because you should be using it often anyway. Instant digital meat thermometers are best. When you check temperature, poke it in the thickest (not by the bone) part of the thigh.

2. Kitchen twine. Truss up the legs and you'll have a better looking, better cooking bird.

3. Roasting rack and pan. I shouldn't have to tell you this, but turkeys put off a lot of liquid as they cook. Do it a favor and give it a place to sit up out of the pan. The rack is great anyway--use it everytime you roast tiny turkeys, aka chickens.

4. A fresh, free-range turkey. I buy Belle & Evans fresh turkeys from DeKalb Farmer's Market. You are doing everybody a favor when you buy a better bird.

(OK, so the next two aren't really kitchen implements, but they are still good advice)

5. I do not recommend washing the turkey; washing spreads the surface bacteria all over your kitchen, what with the water splashing and you heaving the turkey about. While you are prepping the turkey, a good rule of thumb is to make sure your working space is clear of any objects you can't put through the dishwasher to clean.

6. Don't stuff the turkey. The stuffing doesn't necessarily get to the same heat as the rest of the bird and the juices that get into the bread or whatever can still carry all kinds of raw poultry pathogens. If you really want to put something in there, feel free to add aromatic herbs or carrots or celery or something. But then don't go eating it afterwards.

Take your turkey out of the fridge one hour before oven time. A room-temperature bird will cook more swiftly and evenly. Rub all over both sides with salt and pepper, like a weird baby. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Truss together the turkey's legs with your kitchen twine. Place the turkey on the roasting rack and put on lowest level of oven. Let it go for about 2 hours, rotate the pan and baste the bird. After another hour, baste again (actually, baste whenever you feel like it), take your turkey's temperature with your meat thermometer. I turned the temperature down to 350 after about 3 hours.(Side note: This is the part where it all starts depending on how big the turkey is; mine was on the large side, so it took a bit more than 4 hours total. Yours may be done sooner, so be vigilant)If you feel the turkey is getting too browned but still needs more time, tent it with some aluminum foil. When the thickest part of the thigh is around 167-170 degrees, remove the turkey from the oven to rest. The bird will continue to cook and the thigh will eventually rise to around 180--check it and see for yourself. Allow the turkey to rest at least 30 minutes before serving.

Let us now address the matter of gravy. You now have a pan full of turkey drippings--pour them off into a liquid measuring cup to separate (unless you actually have a fat separator, but if you have one you probably also already know how to roast a turkey, so what gives?). Look in the pan for any good browned bits and reserve those as well. Melt 1/2 cup butter, slowly add 3/4 cup flour until it forms a smooth paste. I have been known to add more butter if it seems too pastey, but that is somewhat unorthodox. Cook the roux until brown, then slowly add 6 cups of chicken stock, whisking constantly and compulsively examining the viscosity of your mixture as you go. Use your turkey baster to suck out the non-fat part of your turkey drippings and add that to your gravy, along with any nice browned bits from the pan. Bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat, stirring to check the thickness. It should be pretty much like a gravy and ridiculously delicious. Take the leftover turkey fat/juice that remains in the liquid measure and pour it all over your turkey to give it a last minute hot-oil treatment for shine and bounceability.

Carving a turkey is a little annoying, but it's worth doing right. Make sure everybody gets a chance to admire the turkey before you take it apart--I recommend casually leaving it on the buffet; among, yet somehow above all the rest of the delectables, sort of like a feudal lord and his peasants. First remove the leg and thigh so you have a nice, open space to work in. Do this by firmly grabbing the drumstick and pulling it away from the body while cutting through skin between body and leg. Press the leg down and cut through the joint that joins leg and backbone. Remove to plate, bask in admiration, then make a deep cut in the white meat, parallel to the wing. Cut thin slices downwards from the front of the turkey to the back, starting at the top and meeting at the parallel cut. Lay slices out. Continue to other side of bird, and don't forget to slice dark meat from underside.

We had a great time at pre-Thanksgiving. It felt very festive. Melanie made a chocolate pound cake that was so good that it's probably considered an illegal substance outside of Georgia. The next night we had a pre-Thanksgiving leftovers feast. I cut up the leftover turkey and put it a pan with sliced mushrooms and butter, then simmered it all in leftover gravy. I mixed leftover mashed potatoes with grated sharp cheddar and jalapenos before reheating, which was definetely worthwhile.

Something fun to to is to name your turkeys like hurricanes. Last year was Albert. This year was Beth-Ann. Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chicken soup & pastina

Making soup is easy if you happen to have a chicken carcass lying around. I, of course, usually do.

I covered the remnants of the roasted chicken carcass with water in a dutch oven, and turned to high heat. This one actually had quite a bit of meat left over on it, so it held promise. Of course, the more left over on your chicken, the better the soup will be. Roughly chopped and added to stock: 1 celery, 1 carrot, 4 cloves garlic. Added 2 bay leaves and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Covered to bring it rapidly to boil, uncovered and let it cook at a low boil. After about 1 hour, fished out as much of the chicken as was possible and began to strip off any useable meat, avoiding skin and fatty bits. Chopped into somewhat even pieces and set aside. Returned stripped bones to pot, added a little water because it had reduced down a bit too much and allowed stock to cook for 25 more minutes. Strained into separate container and set aside. In same pot, melted 1 tablespoon chicken fat and 1 tablespoon butter until hot and added 1/2 onion, 1 celery, 1 large carrot, all diced to approximately the same size. Sautéed until soft, added 1 diced sweet potato, and 1 pinch red pepper flakes. Added back chicken stock and 1 bouillon cube and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Added 1/2 cup each of barley and lima beans. Simmered for 5 more minutes, then added 2 tablespoons tomato paste and stirred well. Added reserved chicken meat, about 1/3 cup frozen green peas, let cook for a minute or so then added a handful of minced parsley.

In a separate pot I boiled half a package of pastina until done. Divided into bowls and poured the hot soup over the top.

Jeremy came upstairs looking for floor cleaner and ended up staying for soup. This pleased us, especially as he was willing to go out into the rain to procure another bottle of wine when needed.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Simple roasted chicken & brussels sprouts

There is something appropriate about chicken on Sunday evenings. Only a couple key differences from the one I made a few weeks ago, but it reflects an interestingly increased amount of laziness.

Cranked oven up to 450 degrees and allowed to preheat somewhat. Salted and peppered both sides of a 6 pound chicken and placed it breast-side down in a roasting rack set over a pan. Roasted for 15 minutes, flipped it over and roasted for another 15 minutes at same high heat. Flipped again, basted, got spattered with hot chicken grease, cursed, and reduced heat to 350 degrees. Flipped again after 20 minutes, basting every so often, then again flipped the bird, let roast for 30 minutes. Flipped just once more to breast-side up and turned oven up to 425 for 5 minutes to give final browning to top. Removed and set on cutting board to reabsorb juices.

Trimmed somewhat less than a pound of brussels sprouts, cut "x" into stems to facilitate cooking. Steamed until mostly cooked through, about 8-10 minutes, then set aside. Poured all liquid chicken grease & juice out of bottom of roasting pan and reserved. Added the pre-steamed sprouts to pan and tossed with delicious browned bits and residual chicken fat. Salted & peppered sprouts lightly and returned pan to oven at 500 degrees, tossing frequently for about 5 minutes. Brussels sprouts emerged a bit caramelized and very well flavored.

Toasted 3 cloves of minced garlic in 1 tablespoon butter with some of reserved chicken fat. Added 1 cup large pearl couscous. Browned everything together, added 2 cups chicken stock, brought to boil, covered and reduced to simmer. After all liquid absorbed, removed from heat, added 2 tablespoons minced parsley, stirred and covered again until everything else was ready to eat.

Brian has never been particularly fond of brussels sprouts, but enjoyed these, pointing out that it is all about preparation. For my part, I have just found out that they are called "brussels sprouts" rather than "brussel sprouts." They must be from Brussels. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sweet potato fries

Oddly enough I cook far more complicated dinners on "school nights" than I do on weekend evenings. Maybe it's a bad habit I developed in graduate school for procrastination? This month of November I do not happen to work on any Fridays (it's a happy side effect of working for the government) so I have become rather relaxed on Thursday nights. To accompany an otherwise lazy dinner:

I sliced 2 sweet potatoes in half crosswise, then lengthwise. Cut each quartered sweet potato into matchstick fries. Tossed in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon tumeric, 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons vindaloo. Roasted at 400 degrees, tossing frequently, until crispy and browned like proper fries, salted, and removed from oven. Delicious with lime wedges alongside.

Enjoy this with Red Stripe beer and Hedwig & The Angry Inch. That's what I did, anyway.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Coq au vin

On Sunday we had a great time. Charles and Christine were visiting from California so Ryan and Betsy came over. It felt a lot like most of last year's weekends, when we all had dinner together so often. The difference was that half the night wasn't spent with Ryan, Christine and I laboring over some biostatistics or epidemiology homework while our spouses chilled out and drank wine. The other difference was that Charles and Christine weren't going to be around during the next week to do the exact same thing all over again. We made chicken stew and tried not to dwell on it.

Simmered a couple handfuls of parsley and a few sprigs of thyme with 2 cups chicken stock and a bottle of decent merlot. I made Charles open it and he thought we were going to drink it so he had to be distracted by another bottle. Let reduce down at a light simmer for 30 minutes. Strained out herbs and set aside. Meanwhile, cut up about 5 pieces of thick-sliced bacon into 1/4" bits and browned it in the dutch oven. Removed and drained pieces of bacon on paper towels and set aside. Drained off most of the bacon fat and set aside. Seasoned with salt and pepper a little more than 2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Sautéed briefly in two batches in bacon fat (added about a tablespoon with each batch) just to brown each side. Removed to a dish and set aside. Melted a couple tablespoons of butter in same dutch oven and added a package (the ususal fresh-packaged size from the market, I think it is 8 ounces) of quartered cremini mushrooms, and a package of frozen, peeled pearl onions (thawed & drained). Stirred over good heat in the butter until browned. Added two cloves of minced garlic, stirred around a bit, then added 1 tablespoon tomato paste and 2 tablespoons flour sprinkled over top. Stirred and combined all well together. Added reduced wine from earlier and made sure to scrape browned bits off bottom of pot while stirring. Added chicken back to pot along with bacon, brought to boil, then covered and reduced to simmer for 25 minutes, stirring a couple times. Removed chicken, turned up heat and stirred frequently to thicken and reduce into a glossy sauce. Turned off heat, added a tablespoon of butter, and additional 1 tablespoon of whatever wine was in my glass. Replaced the chicken into sauce and added 2 tablespoons well-minced parsley.

Steamed a couple heads of broccoli with stems and also had a loaf of bread in the oven to crisp.

Later that night we made brownies, which reminded me of Charles and Christine's house because it always seemed like they had a package lying around waiting to be made by epidemiology students who didn't feel like working on their projects.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Gnocchi di zucca

I had planned to make these earlier this week but was waylaid by a mysterious illness that caused me to curl up in bed instead. Too bad, because this is one of the best things that can happen to a winter squash. My mother made it a couple years ago when I was lucky enough to be around to watch her do it and I have made it countless times since then. It is really easy but seems difficult when you are eating it because it is so ridiculously delicious. It really helps to watch someone else do it first because then you say to yourself "That's it? That's all there is to it?"

Halved, seeded and roasted one Golden Nugget squash at 350 degrees until soft and well-cooked. I scooped the squash out of the rind and put it through a food mill, into a large mixing bowl. Added 1 egg, salt and pepper, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg. Mixed well. Began adding handfuls of flour, incorporating it into the dough, adding more flour, incorporating it into the dough, etc. (At this point, I realized that Golden Nugget squash is not the best choice for this recipe--it is rather watery and causes the dough to accept quite a lot of flour but still remains on the sticky side. Kabocha or other more starchy winter squashes are a better choice.) Added flour ad nauseam. Eventually it formed a sticky dough. Melanie and I pinched off small pieces, rolled them on a floured cutting board (like making Play-doh snakes), and cut them into 1/2" pieces. Then we pressed the pieces with floured fork tines and set them aside on a sheet of waxed paper. For quite some time. Brought a large pot of salted water to boil. While waiting for the water to boil, heated 1/4 cup of butter, and fried in it 1 cup of chopped, fresh sage leaves. Added a little more butter. Put all the gnocchi into the boiling pot of water. There were quite a few so I stirred the pot a few times; when they had all surfaced, I drained them, put into a serving dish, and poured the fried sage leaves and melted butter over the top. Added a bit of salt and pepper and tossed everything together.

I made red cabbage and prosciutto again because I still had a lot of red cabbage and prosciutto in the fridge.

Jeremy joined us, following his rotation with family practice/GA 400. More Valdivieso merlot, then Bogle Petite Syrah ("the best wine you can buy within 50 ft of the apartment!"). Clearly, I am feeling better.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Unsung kitchen heroes: small ceramic prep bowls

I love all prep bowls and find them endlessly useful. I have a set of 6 stainless steel ones that hold about a cup each and have nifty little lids that you can pop on if you need to store something. Those are great and I use them beyond their intent as mere prep bowls to do everything from separating eggs to reserving bacon fat. But my real love is reserved for two tiny bowls that sit between my stove and sink, nested into each other. They are delicate little pieces of pottery that I inherited from Melanie one day when she brought them upstairs, declaring that she was going to reduce the amount of dusting she had to do. She likes pottery of all kinds and it was easy to see why she picked these out--they are very elegant, blue-glazed little pots that look too pretty to be as useful as they are. They seem deeper than they are because of the lustrous dark blue in their centers, but really one holds about 1/2 cup, the other probably less than 1/4. They get used almost everyday; one will get filled with parsley, the other with garlic, or maybe one with lemon juice and one with dill. Sometimes the garlic gets sliced then fried and sits in the bigger one where it crisps up into a topping for stir fry. They are only ever an arms length away from cutting board or stovetop activities and probably a reason I use them so much more often than the stainless steel set is because they are much prettier to look at. So, of course I leave them out on the counter; so, of course they are always used. Function follows form, which can be disastrous but in this case works out well.