Monday, July 30, 2007

Avocado, mozzarella and tomato salad

This is sort of a cheat post because this isn't really cooking. It's what I make usually for an appetizer or a snack for people. But last night I pretty much just ate it for dinner, so I guess it qualifies as something I should write down here for yall. It's a good summertime thing anyway.

Cut up one avocado with my totally awesome avocado slicer tool that I know I've described before. It's just so neat! You slice open and pit the avocado then use this tool to scrape out the delicious insides into neat slices. Totally worth the $9.99 or whatever it cost over at Cook's Warehouse. Tossed the avocado slices with the juice of one lime and a bunch of salt and pepper. Lay the slices attractively on a plate. Cut one large ball of mozzarella into small even slices. Toss the slices with a generous 2 tablespoons of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Lay the slices of mozzarella on the opposite side of the plate from the avocado slices so the lime juice doesn't mix into the cheese. Slice up one, perfect summer tomato. If you don't have an actual, delicious garden tomato either skip it or get some of those little grape tomatoes. Lay the slices of tomato between the avocado and the mozzarella and drizzle just a little olive oil over it. If you have good bread around, like a nice, crusty baguette or something, now is the time to slice it up to eat with the avocado, mozzarella and tomatoes and also to mop up the delicious olive oil left over. And don't forget to open up some wine. You might as well just take the rest of the night off anyway.

See? It's cheating because it is easy but it also comes highly recommended. I probably eat this every other day of the week when avocados are good. Don't even get me started on how often I drink the wine.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mashed potatoes and dinosaur kale

Everybody knows how to make mashed potatoes, right? There's probably a thousand different ways to do it and if you are somebody who makes them you probably already have a preferred methodology. But I got excited about making them recently and I don't know if you've noticed, but there is quite a derth of potato recipes on this blog. That's because I don't really like potatoes. They bore me. But right now I am extremely interested in mashed potatoes and I plan to make them again very soon. If you haven't made them lately, give it a shot! It's so easy it'll have you wondering why you don't do it every single day. Or if the reason you don't do it every single day is because the little bastards are not particularly nutritious, take note that I cooked some very healthy dark, leafy greens alongside and that sort of mitigates the butter-salt-starch whammy of mashed potato perdition. Also, potatoes are a great source of Vitamin C! It's true, look it up! How else do you think the Irish avoided scurvy all those years?

Peeled up 4 large-sized Yukon Gold potatoes. This type of potato is often only available on the smallish size so you may need more than 4. It was probably just shy of 2 pounds total. After peeling, cut into even-size chunks and put them in a pot to boil under they were tender. This really only took about 15-20 minutes. Drained them and left them in the pot to mash up with about 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces. You could definetely add more butter, but since we put a load on top after mashing was complete, that was a good place to stop. We didn't have any whole milk in the fridge so we used skim and then also some half-and-half. It was probably about 1/2 cup of liquid altogether. Just keep on mashing the potatoes up with the butter and liquid dairy product of your choice, then add a ton of salt and pepper. Taste it to make sure there is enough salt because it's just incredible how much salt you have to put in before you can even notice it. Mash, mash, mash until it is of a consistency that you enjoy. Then add more butter on top and eat them. Seriously--that's all you have to do. Boil peeled chunks of potatoes until soft, drain them and then mash them up with butter and milk, salt and pepper. And then you will have mashed potatoes. The next day you can fry leftover mashed potatoes in a pan until heated through and add minced pickled jalapenos with the shredded cheese of your choice. Or with pieces of bacon and sauteed mushrooms. It's like ghetto potato galettes. Perhaps I should call them ghetto-lettes?

The nutritional redemption of your meal can come in the form of dark, leafy greens. I bought a bunch of dinosaur kale at the market, mostly because it has the word "dinosaur" in the name. The same day I also bought a fruit called "dinosaur pluots" so I guess I'm pretty easy to market to. Cut off the stems of the kale and took out the central rib, which is a little bit too tough to cook well. Sliced up the kale into ribbons and washed it well (it can be kind of sandy). In a large high-sided pan, heated 3 tablespoons of olive oil and added 4 thinly sliced cloves of garlic (it was my beloved Ohio hardneck garlic, actually) and about 1 tablespoon of red pepper flakes. When the garlic was soft and getting a little bit golden, added in the kale and stirred well until it was reduced in size. Then turned down the heat and covered to cook, occasionally stirring. Added about 1/3 cup of chicken stock after about 15 minutes of cooking and uncovered the pan to reduce the liquid somewhat towards the end of cooking. It probably took about 20-25 minutes for the greens to cook. They were spicy, garlicky and full-flavored, which makes them a perfect partner for mellow mashed potatoes.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Chicken with garlic sauce, braising greens & roasted mangolds

I went to Columbus, Ohio for a conference last week and got to spend a lot of time wandering around the city, which really impressed me. It looked like it would be great for bicyling around and there was a really nice bookshop and many cool little neighborhoods. But perhaps my favorite part of this neat little town was the North Market which was near the Short North neighborhood. It was really cool--the permanent part of the market kind of looked like a smaller version of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (as described in the "what I ate in Philly" post). You could find all kinds of wonderful, locally produced, organic/free range produce, meat and dairy. There was also a great farmer's market going on right outside that day and it featured some beautiful vegetables, so as we walked around I couldn't help picking some up even though I knew I would have to fly home holding them on the plane, thereby fully completing my transformation into my mother. I talked to some of the farmers and they took such obvious pride in their work and their fine looking produce--it was really a pleasure to discuss food with them. I stopped to buy some braising greens from one stall simply because they looked so beautiful and like such an unusual mix--he told me what everything was, but I don't really remember now. I think there were dandelion greens, maybe some varieties of endive & escarole, perhaps some little chards, definetely some burgundy amaranth...can't remember what they all were, but they were delicate and beautiful so I bought them. Then my eye was caught by these cute little yellow roots called mangolds that I was told were related to beets--they were available in a detroit dark-ruby hue or golden yellow, so I took the yellow ones. These farmers let us taste the arugula microgreens they were growing, the flavor was an intense, superconcentrated spicy-nuttiness. They told me to go check out the garlic from another vendor, so I did and bought some fragrant hardneck garlic from him. That was about all I thought I could handle for not actually being in a town with my own kitchen. For immediate sustenance, we found coffee and a delicious pretzel roll stuffed with pancetta and some type of soft cheese...true to form for this market, the bread was freshly made right there, the pancetta and cheese were locally produced...I think I might be in love.

Last night I braised my braising greens--I realize not everybody had access to the Columbus Farmers Market this weekend, but you can use any type of dark green--kale, chard, beet, turnip or mustard greens...if you can find small, young delicate ones, that's great, but you may only be able to find the older, thick stem ones. Just trim the stems and cut out the central stem "vein" as well, if it looks too thick. Then roll up your greens and cut the rolls into slices--this makes a chiffonade that will help your green cook more quickly. But if you are lucky enogh to find delicate baby greens, by all means, use those! You do not need to trim or slice them at all if they are young and tender. Heated 3 minced cloves of my precious hardneck garlic in olive oil, then tossed in my beautiful mixture of greens. Tossed with the garlic and olive oil over medium high heat until they shrank down (if you are not a regular green cook, you will be shocked at how much they shrink down). The greens began to put off liquid which started to evaporate out in the heat--at that point I added 1 cup of chicken stock, salt, pepper, turned the heat down and covered them to cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they didn't burn. While that was going on, I took my golden mangolds and trimmed off all but the top inch of their greens and put them whole in a small pan in a 350 degree oven to roast. I eventually added some water to the pan to keep them from getting too toasty. This is usually how I cook beets so I just did the same thing for the mangolds. When they were soft (it took awhile--maybe 30-40 minutes) I peeled off the skins and sliced them up. Meanwhile, I had put up two cups of bhutanese red rice to steam in my beloved rice cooker. The only reason I used this rather exotic rice was because I was pretty much all out of my usual brown rice, but I wanted something with a similarly nutty flavor, and I remembered that someone once gave me a packet of this fancy rice that was hanging out in my cupboard. It's really good, actually, if you see it for sale someplace, pick it up and try it. It cooks much faster than brown rice and has a pretty red color. While the rice, greens and mangold were all cooking away happily to themselves, I sliced 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts in half to make them more thin, then pounded them lightly to equal width. Sauteed them in olive oil, salt and pepper until lightly brown and cooked through, then set aside. In the same pan, I added 1 tablespoon of butter to the remaining olive oil and chicken juices, then after it was sizzly, added 4 cloves of my Ohio hardneck garlic, sliced very thinly. After it was golden and soft, I sprinkled in flour, probably no more than about 2 tablespoons. After that was absorbed and had thickened my butter mixture somewhat, I added 3/4 cup of chicken stock, stirring it until it became a velvety texture, then removed it from heat and added 2 teaspoons champagne vinegar, stirred in well. Put chicken on the red rice, drizzled a little sauce over the top and put the greens and roasted mangold slices next to it. It was a regional Ohio feast.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Shrimp couscous with fava beans

When we were young, dumb and living in Milwaukee, Brian and I used to make this thing for dinner was couscous with lima beans, lemon, and maybe shrimp if we had gone shopping at Sendik's recently. It wasn't very good--I know we used packaged couscous and I probably bought precooked shrimp because deveining scared me--and it was just a total mess to look at. But for some reason we were really into it and made it often. Probably because it was full of melted butter and salt. When I asked Brian what he wanted for dinner on his birthday he said something about wanting shrimp couscous, which I thought was cute because it had been a really long time since I had thought of making it. So I thought about all the components and how to improve on an idea while maintaining the nostalgia.

I started with the lima beans--I actually like lima beans quite a bit although I realize they are a polarizing ingredient. I found some good looking fava beans at the market and decided they would consititute an improvement on the original so I bought about 3/4 pound of favas in the shell. Do you know how to prep fava beans? It's a pain in the ass. You get these big, green seed pod looking things and you shuck them and inside are large, pale green beans, like peas in a pod, which they basically are. Then you take each bean and skin it to reveal the bright green, delicious fava bean inside. It is time-consuming and probably explains why I don't make them very often. But they are really delicate and wonderful in flavor so it is worth it for a special occasion. After the labor of love involved in preparing fava beans, it's great to follow up with the equally annoying task of shelling and deveining shrimp--I did this with just over 1 pound of shrimp and between that and the fava beans it was a prep-work intensive meal indeed. So that was two improvements--fresh fava beans for frozen limas and fresh shrimp for precooked. Next I looked at the couscous--instead of the small grained box of yore, I toasted 2 cups of large, pearl couscous in butter until they became brown and nutty, then poured 1 ¾ cup of fresh chicken stock over the top, brought to a boil, covered and simmered until the liquid was all absorbed. After it was done cooking, kept the lid on but removed it from heat to prevent burning uintil everything else was ready to go. Minced up a ton of garlic--about 7 or 8 healthy-sized cloves. Put a shocking amount of butter (I think something like 4 tablespoons, maybe 5) to melt in a pan and added the garlic when it was sizzly, reserving about 1 clove worth. When the garlic was lightly golden and still tender, removed from the pan and set aside along with most of the butter it cooked in. Put a teensy bit more butter into the pan and added 2 zucchini that were chopped into small cubes. I made them pretty and also improved the final texture by peeling them in stripes--you know, instead of peeling them totally, just peel a strip down so you have a green-white-green-white pattern on the squash. It looks pretty and also keeps enough peel on for texture but gets rid of some of it to prevent an overwhelming peeliness when you take a bite. Then to make small zucchini chunks you cut the squash in half, then each half gets sliced into thirds. Cut the thirds crosswise into little chunks, and voila! Put the zucchini in the hot pan with the added butter and the reserved minced garlic. Sauteed over medium-high heat until the zucchini got a little golden in places, then added the fava beans, salt, pepper and about 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Cooked down until the stock was totally reduced off and the fava beans were tender, about 5 minutes. Removed from pan and set aside covered until everything else was done. Wiped out the same pan, returned to stove and added the garlic and shocking amount of butter from before. When it was heated up added the peeled, deveined shrimp. Tossed them over medium-high heat just barely until they began to get a bit opaque, about 2 minuntes. Added a teensy bit of chicken stock--probably only a few tablespoons--then when the shrimp were pinkish and pretty much done through (about 3 more minutes), added 2 tablespoons each of finely minced fresh parsley and dill. Stirred the herbs in thoroughly, then took off heat and added zest from 2 lemons and the juice. Mixed everything up together well, then put a mound of couscous on the plate, topped with the shrimp and then the fava bean-zucchini around the bottom. We had a good wine (read: not two-buck chuck)--some Argentinian wine called High Altitude which was a malbec/cabernet sauvignon.

Jeremy and Melanie came up for angel food cake later, which I did not make, but I did decorate it with whipped cream and raspberries and blueberries so at least it looked pretty. Happy birthday, Brian!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fourth of July

I usually spend the Fourth of July in Wisconsin. That means I might cook a little but probably my mom is doing most of it. This year I didn't go for a visit--not that anyone would have been there if I had since all my family decided to go to China or Rhode Island or something--so I stayed here in the dirty dirty and cooked for my own damn self. We made a ton of food. I'll try to describe it as well as I can & hopefully won't forget anything.

I made guacamole, which was probably the best decision I made all day long. I used the hilarious, gigantic lava rock mortar and pestle that Marilyn & Steve gave me when they moved. Seriously, you should see this thing--it's just really big and silly looking. I believe it is traditionally known as a "molcajete" but in my household it is affectionately known as "where the hell did you get that thing?" (Brian). Minced up about 1/4-1/3 cup of yellow onion. Cut HELL out of my finger doing it too! Marilyn sharpened my knives for me right before she moved and you know how it is when your knives are super sharp but you're still thinking they're dull and then, whoops, you lose a fingertip. I held it under the faucet and made Brian ask Jeremy what I should do. He came upstairs with a beer in hand and a couple bandaids and did his doctor thing. It still hurts though. Anyway, put the onion in the lava rock bowl with about 1/3 cup chopped up grape tomatoes, juice & zest of 1 lime, juice of 1/2 lemon, salt & pepper to taste, and about 2 small hot peppers, minced up. I'd tell you what kind, but I don't know for sure because I got them from my boss who is growing them in his yard. They are small and light green and not too hot. Have you noticed, by the way, that these are all ingredients that would really hurt if you got them into a cut finger? Yeah, anyway. Used the only kitchen gadget in the world worth mentioning (digital meat thermometers are NOT gadgets; they are lifesaving devices), which is an avocado scooper. You slice an avocado in half, take the pit out, then use this thing to slice through the skin and give you nice pieces of avocado with no waste. Anyway, I added 3 sliced up avocados to the ingredients in the lava rock mortar, then pounded everything up with the lava rock pestle and voila! Guacamole. We ate it with blue chips, which I think go particularly well. I wouldn't recommend using the lava rock though--it makes you look silly and you can get better results with a bowl and mixing spoon.

I made these ribs which I made a couple years ago for the 4th at Angelica & Marc's old Kentucky home. The recipe has improved considerably since then. Mixed up 1/4 cup orange juice, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cumin, 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes, 4 minced garlic cloves. Poured it over about 3.5-4 pounds of ribs that I had thoughtfully separated from the rack already (said Melanie "I like how they are in pieces!"). Marinated these in the fridge until it was time to cook, which was at least 3 hours. I guess you could leave them to marinate as long as you'd like. Poured the whole mess, marinade and all, into a glass dish and stuck it in the oven at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes. This is because I only have a little baby size grill. If I had a real grill I would maybe find a way to make ribs in a slow smoker kind of way. Sorry. These are cheater ribs and are meant to make sure we don't all die of trichinosis. Look it up. I made a sauce by boiling down the marinade with worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, mustard and something else. More brown sugar, I think. I don't remember the sauce part very well, but you can just go ahead and use whatever kind of sauce you like, homemade or jarred. Anyway, put the cooked up ribs on a hot grill to get them sort of smokey and brushed them with the sauce, which, as I said, can really be whatever sauce you like since I don't remember much about making it. Take the ribs off when they are sticky and shiny and charred in a good way and toss them in a little more sauce if you want to get messy.

We also had brats, mostly because of Wisconsin nostalgia. One of our neighbors (not Jeremy or Melanie) was like "oh, look, brats!" and Brian said "where are YOU from?" like all surprised that someone who is from Atlanta would know what a brat is. It was funny. Also, sadly, I was not able to quantify the basic difference between a brat and a sausage when asked. Having thought about it since, my response now is that all brats are sausages but not all sausages are brats. Anyway, we actually found some real Johnsonville brats over at the Publix grocery (which is an experience akin to finding Leinenkugels on draft at Manuel's Tavern up the street) and it was all on Wisconsin after that. Here is how you need to cook your brats: 1.) Miraculously find a Miller High Life tall boy in your fridge 2.) Pour half the tall boy over your brats in a pot, cover with more water if necessary 3.) Drink the other half of the tall boy while your brats boil up for about 15 minutes or so 4.) Slap the brats on the grill until they are deliciously browned all over 5.) Eat and discuss the finer points of Wisconsin (fish boils, socialism, Rollie Fingers, mini golf...).

We enjoyed not one but two different types of beans. Melanie made these really excellent baked beans but I don't know how she did it. With a slow cooker, I think. I know they had molasses and onions and mustard in them but I'm not sure of the logistics. I made green beans--very simple. Just quickly boiled them, made Brian drain them and then tossed them right before serving with a dressing made of 3 tablespoons olive oil and juice of about 1 lemon, plus the zest and salt and pepper. There was also corn on the cob and that had the lime-chile butter on it that I described a few posts ago when we went on the bicycle picnic. Same thing.

For dessert we made cherry chocolate chip ice cream. Melanie made about 1/2 cup of a fresh cherry puree and I chopped up about 3/4 pound of cherries into little pieces. I also chopped up a 70% cocoa content dark chocolate bar into little teensy pieces. Mixed 1/2 cup of granulated sugar with 2 cups heavy cream, 3/4 cup whole milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Poured into my ice cream maker along with the cherry puree and about 1 tablespoon grenadine. After it had been mixing for 20 minutes, added the cherry pieces and chocolate chunks. When it comes out of the ice cream maker it is pretty soft so I stuck it into the freezer to harden up a little bit. It was really, really delicious.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lemongrass & ginger roasted chicken

We have been having some weird weather was actually sort of cool outside yesterday and today it is misty and maybe even cooler. I can't remember it being like this in July here before. So it seemed OK to roast a chicken--normally I can't be bothered to heat up my kitchen like that during a Georgia summer. I had inherited some lemongrass from Marilyn--she and Steve moved to Michigan this weekend and I got a wide variety of stuff from their apartment as they cleaned it out such as guitar picks, postcards of New York City, a pregnancy test, a lava rock mortar & pestle...and lemongrass. I haven't really cooked with lemongrass before but I had this chicken in my fridge so I thought I would try to infuse it as it roasted.

Tied up the legs with a piece of kitchen twine (we've discussed the importance of trussing a chicken/turkey before, right?). Stuffed the cavity of the chicken with 3 stalks of chopped lemongrass, a 2" piece of sliced, fresh ginger, 5 cloves of messily chopped up garlic. Stuck it breast-side up on a v-rack set in a roasting pan, put it in a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes, flipped it over for about 20 minutes, and then flipped it back to breast-side up and basted it frequently after that. Tried not to lose any of the ginger/garlic/lemongrass stuffing as I flipped it about. After about 25 more minutes, used the baster to draw a lot of the juices/grease out of the bottom of the pan and checked the temperature at the the thickest point of the thigh with the digital meat thermometer (if you are not familiar with my love for digital meat thermometers at this point in our relationship then we really don't know each other very well). When the thermometer registered 165, I hauled it out of the oven and let it rest for a minute on a cutting board. Meanwhile, put 10 peeled, whole garlic cloves in the bottom of the roasting pan with 2 sliced yellow summer squash and tossed them around (remember, remove as much of the chicken juice as possible so you don't get overly greasy vegetables). Turned up the temperature to 425-450 and roasted the vegetables very quickly--probably took only about 15 minutes--tossing them frequently so they didn't burn. Carved up the chicken and made a sauce by pouring some chicken juices into a pan with a teaspoon of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Reduced it down and poured over the sliced up chicken. Surrounded the sliced chicken and sauce with the roasted summer squash & garlic. The chicken ended up getting a really distinct gingery and lemongrass flavor in the meat and it was also a lot more moist. Success!

Jeremy and Melanie came up for dinner which we were actually able to eat on the porch because it wasn't hot as balls for once. We also had brown rice and broccoli in a soy-ginger-sesame sauce, but something was wonky with my beloved rice cooker because the rice wasn't done when it was supposed to be. So we kind of ate in stages, which was annoying, but whatever.