Monday, August 20, 2007

Fish tacos

This was actually Melanie's idea...she said it might be fun to try to make fish tacos at home and it was indeed an intriguing thought. Molly and Dyanna were in the neighborhood anyway so they came over with all the requisite groceries, 2 6-packs of beer and their pico de gallo production skills. We fit a lot of people into my teensy kitchen and made a pretty good feast.

We used tilapia to make our fish tacos. If there is another mild, medium-to firm fleshed white fish that you prefer, you may of course use that instead. But tilapia is cheap and sustainable, so we just went with that. I cut up 4 fillets into small pieces of about 3" long and no more than 1 1/2" wide. Dredged them in 1/2 cup of cornmeal mixed with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon paprika. After they were covered in cornmeal, put about 1/2 cup of oil in my dutch oven and heated it up over medium-high heat. You can use whatever oil you like for frying. Grapeseed oil is really good for you and cooks clean, while peanut oil has a high smoke point, so that's good. I think I just used canola because that's what I had in the pantry. Dropped the cornmeal-covered fish pieces into the hot oil and let them cook about 2 minutes on each side, turning them over when they became browned. Removed to a paper towel-lined dish in the oven. I had to cook the fish in about 3 or 4 batches because I think if you overcrowd the pot, they take longer to fry and don't get as crispy. When all the fish was done, just kept it in the oven until everything else was ready to go. Try to keep the fish in as much of a single layer as was possible while they wait--this will keep them crispier. To assemble our fish tacos, we had corn tortillas heated up in the oven along with 1/2 a head of red cabbage, finely shredded. There were also 2 avocados, sliced and covered in lime juice and salt & pepper, as well as jalapeno tartar sauce--to make this, we mixed 1/3 cup of mayonaise with a little lime juice plus 1 tiny minced pickle and 5 minced, pickled jalapeno slices. I'm not sure how they did it, but Dyanna and Molly also made a really good pico de gallo salsa--they diced up fresh tomatoes and mixed them with lime juice, cilantro, onion and corn. Maybe some other stuff too. It was delicious. So, when it was time to eat you just took a tortilla, put some pieces of fried tilapia inside along with tartar sauce, pico de gallo and avocado then topped it all with shredded red cabbage. Delicious.

On the side we had yellow rice (made with tumeric and chicken stock) and black beans--sauteed 1/2 minced onion in olive oil with cumin, chile powder, salt, pepper, a little cayenne, then added 1 16-ounce can of drained and rinsed black beans along with 2 minced and de-seeded jalapenos. After the onion was soft, added a handful of diced tomatoes and 1 tablespoon fresh minced cilantro. Cooked for about 3 more minutes, added lime juice & removed from heat. We also had cornbread--it was the same recipe that I wrote about a few posts ago and it was again delicious.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gnocchini and red sauce

Melanie and Jeremy watched the dog for us while we were visiting in San Francisco last week so we made thank you dinner last night for them. I didn't make Melanie's favorite thing ever, which is gnocchi di zucca, but I did make a pretty decent faux bolognese sauce to go over these cute little gnocchini that I found at Sawicki's deli in Decatur. Gnocchini are just tiny-sized gnocchi. These were potato and a pretty good brand that I will certainly buy again. It's kind of difficult to make your own potato gnocchi--they get very gummy due to all the starch. I haven't tried doing it at home yet because the squash ones are so much easier and really delicious (I think I posted on them last fall). The sauce I made was my usual red sauce but I decided to add ground turkey to make it a little more substantial. Not really a bolognese at all but it was pretty tasty.

Minced one yellow onion and sautéed over medium heat in 2-3 tablespoons olive oil. Added 1 pound ground turkey and sort of mixed it around with the minced onion. You can't really brown turkey. Added 4 cloves minced garlic and 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes and kept stirring it until the minced onion pieces were totally soft and translucent--probably took about 10 minutes. Added 2 32-ounce cans of peeled, whole plum tomatoes. I use Rega, which is an imported Italian brand that comes packed in tomato puree with basil leaves tucked in. You can use whatever kind you like--crushed tomatoes or whole. Added salt and got Brian to mash up the whole tomatoes in the pot for me as they cooked. Added 3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped basil and 2 tablespoon fresh minced parsley. Let everything simmer for about 10 minutes, then added about 1/2 cup of whatever red wine that was in my glass. Covered the pot and continued to simmer for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then uncovered and tasted to see if it needed more salt. It didn't, but yours might, so you should check. Brought a pot of water to boil and added my package of gnocchini. They are done cooking when they float to the surface--it only takes about 3 minutes, if that. Drained them and tossed with a half cup of the sauce, then served them with fresh grated parmesan and the rest of the sauce on the table for people to add themselves.

I also made the salad that I usually make--baby greens from the market with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta cheese. Toss it all up with a dressing that is made from juice of 1 lemon, 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, and lots of salt & pepper. An interesting difference to the salad this time was that I added pine nuts and used a really good Greek sheep's milk feta cheese. Another interesting thing about this salad is that Brian hates it but Melanie loves it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Orange quinoa and salmon with kohlrabi

Have you been wondering to yourself whether there is a grain out there that is more nutritious than brown rice? Have you? Well, there is! In fact, there are probably several. But if you would simply like to try something new, I suggest quinoa. I can't remember if I have posted about it before or not. It is really interesting--an ancient grain that was first cultivated by the Incas and is distantly related to spinach, not that you can tell by looking at it. It is highly nutritious because it contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans. It is delicious because it is nutty and flavorful and really easy to cook. I made it yesterday to go with some gorgeous salmon that I bought at the DeKalb market--oh my god, it was this perfect reddish color. I couldn't remember what type of salmon was OK to eat, whether it should be farmed or wild, so I pulled out my little wallet guide to ethical fish consumption and consulted it while standing in front of the fishmonger. Turns out that we should all be eating wild alaska salmon, which fortunately was sitting right there in the case, looking amazing. So I bought it and cooked all this:

Rinsed 1 1/2 cups of quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer through several changes of cold, running water. One of the interesting things about quinoa is that the grains are coated in a natural, bitter-tasting chemical called saponin. Most saponin is removed during the processing of the grain but you will still want to rinse it a bit to make sure there is not any left on it. Covered the rinsed quinoa in 2 cups of chicken stock and put up to cook on the rice cooker. Took one orange, washed it really well and zested it, stirring the zest into the quinoa. Juiced the orange and poured a teensy bit into the quinoa (maybe one teaspoon), but set aside most of the juice for cooking the salmon. When all the liquid was absorbed (about 20 minutes), stirred the cooked grains to make them fluffy, then set aside until everything else was done. If you have no rice cooker, you can make it on the stovetop: just stick the quinoa and liquid in a pot, bring it to a boil, then cover and turn down to simmer until all the liquid is absorbed.

Mixed the set-aside orange juice with 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put the lovely piece of salmon in a pan over medium heat and covered it with the orange-soy mixture. Turned the salmon over once after 2 minutes of cooking and spooned the sauce over the top of it as it cooked. Turned it back over again after 2 more minutes, spooned over some more of the sauce, then covered the top of the fish with sesame seeds. Let cook for another 3-4 minutes, then cut into it to see if it was getting close to done. You might have a thinner or thicker piece of fish so it may not take the same amount of time to cook. Took the fish off the heat and reduced the remaining sauce down over high heat for 1 minute to make a glaze to pour over the top of the salmon.

I also made some kohlrabi, which is a particularly delicious vegetable. You can usually find it in the market with the greens attached to the top--it's a funny looking, roundish, pale green root. Like a turnip from outer space. Cut off the green tops and peel the roots. They are thick peels and fiborous, so be sure to get it all off. That is the annoying part of kohlrabi--all the peeling that you have to do. After that, it is simple: cut the peeled root into cubes or slices of about 1/2" thick, then steam or boil them until soft--about 15 minutes. I steamed the ones I made yesterday over the quinoa as it cooked--yet another wonderful aspect of my rice cooker. But, again, if you have not a rice cooker, simply put a little bit of water (no more than 1/2 cup) in the bottom of a pot and bring to a boil. Put the cut up kohlrabi in the pot and cover it. They will steam happily that way as well. When they are soft, drain and toss them in a bowl with butter, salt and pepper. You win.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Mashed yuca, cornbread and roasted brussel sprouts

Once when I was at Molly's house for dinner she made this mashed up yuca dish. It was really good--super starchy in the best possible way. I asked her what was in it and tried to recreate it myself at home. It was pretty successful in that it tasted a lot like what she made at her house. Jeremy and Melanie both really liked it and I don't think they had ever had yuca so it's not like it's an acquired taste or anything. If you've never heard of yuca before, do a Google image search. It's really ugly--a big, long brown root. It also goes by the names cassava or manioc. It's popular mostly in Central & South American cooking and we have about a billion different varieties of it available at our DeKalb Farmers Market here in Atlanta. I'm not sure how hard it is to find otherwise--my guess is that any supermarket that serves a Hispanic population will probably sell it. Anyway, it makes an incredible side dish, read on for details:

I peeled 2 large yucas--it was easier to do than I thought it would be. They look very tough but the brown, waxy peel actually comes right off, revealing a white tuber underneath. Cut up the peeled yucas into small 1 - 2" chunks, covered them with water in a pot and brought to a boil. Let them boil for about 15 minutes, until they were quite soft. Drained them and set aside. In a large, high sided pan melted 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat then added 1 onion very thinly sliced. I mean, really thin. I basically shaved it with my knife. Let the onion cook until very soft (but not browned) in the pan, then added the cooked yuca chunks and another tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper. Began mashing up the yuca in the pan with the onion over low heat. You might find a potato masher handy for this part. I used a fork and a wooden spoon. I also added a little bit of water (maybe 1/4 cup) at one point to make it easier to mash. Yuca is starchier than potato but it will eventually fall apart. You don't need to try to make it totally smooth--some little whole pieces in the mash are a desirable textural element. Taste it to make sure there's enough salt and add more butter if it needs to be creamier. I probably used at least 4-5 tablespons all together. When it is all done being mashed, turn off the heat and add juice of 1 lemon and 1 lime. Stir very well and serve.

It seemed like a good day to make cornbread as well. Here's the absolute best way to do it: Mix up 1 ½ cups of cornmeal with ½ cup of regular flour, 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar (this isn't meant to be sweet ass cornbread--I guess you could add more sugar if you wanted it sweeter). In a separate bowl, mix up 1 ¼ cups of plain yogurt with 1 egg. If you wanted to, you could use buttermilk instead. If you only have milk around the house, you could use that as well. If you add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to the milk and let it sit for 10 minutes you'll have a pretty good substitute for buttermilk. But, like I said, regular milk will do in a pinch, it just won't be as awesome. Mix your wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. If you use yogurt you might need to add a little milk if the mixture seems too dry to you. I added about 1/4 cup of milk while mixing when I made this. Meanwhile, take a cast iron skillet and put 3 tablespoons of butter in the bottom. Stick it in an oven at 375 degrees until it is quite melted and all heated up. Make sure you don't burn yourself because those suckers get hot as shit. When the butter is melted all over the bottom and the skillet is hot, pour in your cornbread batter and bake for about 30 minutes. It'll get all puffy and golden and should pop right out of the skillet with a buttery bottom crust. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, just use any old pan, glass or metal or whatever. You can follow the recipe like I described and it will work fine. Then go out and buy a cast iron skillet because no matter how good that cornbread was, it will be even better if you make it in a cast iron skillet.

Because I also decided to roast a chicken, I made brussel(s?) sprouts in the bottom of the roasting pan as the chicken went along. Trimmed 1 ½ pounds of brussel sprouts--sliced the bigger ones in half and left the small ones whole, but cut an 'x' in the bottom of the stems to facilitate cooking. After the chicken had only about 15 minutes left to go I used my baster to draw out most of the juices & fat from the bottom of the roasting pan, then put the sprouts in there and tossed them around a little bit. I also added one of the heads of hardneck garlic that I had bought in Ohio--still have some of it left! I just peeled the cloves and cut them into chunks and tossed them in with the sprouts. The oven was set at about 400 degrees, I believe. I removed the chicken from the oven, stirred the sprouts & garlic around a little bit to get them evenly browned and then turned up the stove to 425 for about 5 minutes to finish the vegetables.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Low country boil

This is one of those things that works even better when it is not made in a tiny apartment kitchen. Ideally you should have a gigantic outdoor pot (perhaps the same one you deep-fry your thanksgiving turkey in?) and a bunch of people standing around drinking cold beers. If you can't do it that way, you should at least have a enormous stockpot bubbling, one big enough to contain a full set of 6 month old triplets. What you don't want is my situation--two medium sized pots on a medium size stovetop in a wee kitchen that heats up to death valley in an Atlanta summer. Oh well. Low country boil is just shrimp in the shell boiled up with potatoes, sausage and corn. It's really easy to make for a bunch of people and the only difficult part is timing the ingredients so it is all cooked at the same time. Last year I made it at my friends Betsy & Ryan's wedding--it was easier because it was all in a great big pot and then I had two guys drain it for me. When I made it the other day, I had no lackeys and the pots were subpar. So my advice is--use your biggest pot but if your biggest pot isn't big enough for the crowd you are cooking for then you must use two because otherwise it won't cook with enough room.

Fill your biggest pot with water and bring it to a boil with about 1/2 cup of Old Bay seasoning in it. That is sort of a "to taste" measurement; you may want more or less. When it is boiling, add 2 pounds of potatoes. I pick out the tiniest fingerling potatoes that I can find--that way I don't have to cut them in half and also I like the flavor of fingerlings. If you don't have tiny tiny potatoes to choose from, just buy red potaotes and cut them in half if they are small or into quarters if they are large. Boil the potatoes for 15 minutes, then add about 1 pound of sausage, cut up into 2" pieces. I use Georgia Boy sausage but you can use any kielbasa type that is handy. Boil for another 5 minutes then add about 1 pound of corn on the cob that you have shucked and trimmed into 3" pieces. Let boil for another 3 minutes then add 2 pounds of raw shrimp in shell (this is great for lazy cooks who do not want to peel or devein). Let everything boil for another 2 minutes then find somebody to drain it off for you or just suck it up and do it yourself. If you found crab legs at the market, you could add those along with the corn and that would be delicious. Put it all on a platter and let everybody share. Put out lemon and cocktail sauce and also some french bread. A dish for eaters to dump shrimp shells in is also handy.

On the side we had collard greens that I had made the other day and put in the fridge to get more flavorful. I like these with Louisiana hot sauce on top. I put about 1/2 pound of smoked, peppered fatback chunks in the bottom of my cast iron dutch oven of medium heat until they became soft, I added 1 thinly sliced onion on top and let it all cook until the onion was also softened. Meanwhile I took a large bunch of collard greens and trimmed the stalk and center rib out of each leaf. Stacked about 5 trimmed leaves on top of each other then rolled them up like a cigar and sliced them crossways to make ribbons (this is the chiffonade technique that I usually use with green--essential for preparing collards). Washed the strips of collards then added to the pot on top of the smoked meat and onions. You may need to let them wilt down in the pot somewhat before adding more greens on top. Covered and turned down to low heat and let cook until very tender--about 45 minutes, stirring every so often. They will taste even better a day or so later so you can make them in advance and then reheat.

Molly, Byron, Jeremy and Melanie all had dinner with us. Byron and I had found a key lime pie at the DeKalb Market and it was actually pretty good. We drank beer and it was a pretty fun night.