Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kabocha squash and bok choy

We're coming up on the winter squash season. Kabocha ("Japanese pumpkin," according to some sources) is my favorite sweet, winter squash. I use it for gnocchi di zucca but also just simply roast it. It comes in many sizes but always looks about the same--kind of a ball shape that has been squished slightly top and bottom. It's a pretty, deep-green color, sometimes with yellow or orangey stripes. I have found it ranging from baseball sized to football sized, so you can see there's quite a bit of variation there. It's my favorite because it is incredibly sweet and not at all watery. The flesh is a deep orange color, which is usually a good indication that the vegetable in question is good for you--kabocha is high in vitamins A & C, as well as a great source of potassium, omega 3, beta carotene...the list goes on. It has an affinity for butter, rosemary, sage, curry, spicy things and would be great in a soup. And if that all wasn't enough, it is incredibly easy to make--I found a big one at the market the other day and just roasted it:

I used my cleaver to cut up my large kabocha, but you can probably just use a large, sharp knife if you don't have one. Hacked it in half, then each half into 3 pieces to make 6 more or less even, half-moon slices of squash (we had not just Jeremy and Melanie over, but also Josh and Paul so it was a full house for dinner). Scrape out the seeds from the center of each squash slice and discard (although, I guess you can roast them like pumpkin seeds and they are delicious, so maybe you should try doing that and tell me how it goes). Put the pieces cut side down in a large baking dish. Added about 1/2 cup of water to the bottom of the dish--this is to prevent burning as the sugars caramelize while the squash roasts. I was already roasting a chicken in the oven at the time so I just chucked the squash in to go along with it--it took a little less than 1 hour at 350 degrees, and this was quite a large squash. After 40 minutes into the cooking, I flipped over the pieces so the cut sides were faced up and basted them with the chicken fat & juices that were collected in the bottom of my chicken roasting pan. If you aren't roasting a chicken, just dab some butter or something on top. At this point I also added a teensy sprinkle of sugar and ground lots of salt and pepper liberally over the top. They're done when they're totally soft and delicious looking. After hauling them out of the oven and feel free to add more butter if you like.

In addition to the chicken and squash we had the large grain couscous that I usually make alongside chicken--I know I've talked about it here before so I won't get into it. But it is really delicious. I also sauteed baby bok choy for some healthy green vegetables to complement the squash. Took about 6 tiny heads of baby bok choy and sliced off the ends so they fell apart into separate leaves. Washed them really really well and set aside. In a frying pan, heated 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes. When it was hot, added all the bok choy and moved it around until the hot oil and seasonings have gotten on all the leaves. This takes a second, but don't worry. It looks at first as if the bok choy will overflow your pan but actually it will cook down to fit very quickly as long as you keep it moving over the heat. Sometimes I use tongs to move things around at first. It is done when it is bright green in color and wilted down but still a bit crisp in the white stems. Doesn't take more than 4-5 minutes. If you can't find baby bok choy just get a head of the big stuff and cut it up into little pieces. After it is all done, sprinkle with black and white sesame seeds and serve right away while hot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fried spinach

Years ago I went on a post-vegetarianism meat eating binge. I think everybody goes a little cray-cray after finding themselves out of self-imposed dietary restrictions. And I was vegan before that for years, so you can imagine the fallout! Bacon! Bacon cooked in brown sugar! Actually, I didn't cook a whole lot of meat, but I did tend to order it whenever possible. Once I was out at the Metro in Milwaukee (not sure now if that is the right name? or was that the place that had free hors d'oeuvres on Thursdays? and we would go order a couple drinks and stuff ourselves at the buffet like whores for shrimp cocktail? anyway) with Jocelyn and her moms and I ordered a big ol' burger that had as a topping fried spinach. Fried spinach! It was super crispy and along with that amazing texture it had a delicious silky flavor. So fast-forward to now and I have wicked cut back on the meat eating but I still remember the weirdly awesome fried spinach. So I warned Melanie ahead of time that it was an experiment but I went ahead and tried making it for part of our dinner last night:

I used a great big bunch of spinach for this--not the bagged-up, wee little baby leaves. Those are generally preferred for salads and most light cookery as they are more delicate and tender. But for frying, I got a bunch that had much larger leaves and was more robust looking. Trimmed the stems off and washed them very well--spinach is incredibly sandy so don't screw around. Get out your salad spinner. If you don't have a salad spinner, fill your sink with cold water and dump your trimmed up leaves in there and swish them around real well, then dry them off. You don't want Melanie to be eating sand. She'll be nice about it but secretly upset. When your spinach is clean, stack up about 8-10 leaves flat on top of each other, roll them up like a cigar and then slice down crosswise to make thin strips. We have used this technique before with greens--it is a chiffonade and is very useful. When you have finished getting all your spinach into a chiffonade, set it aside and heat up about 1/2 cup of olive oil in a large pot. Get it super hot and sizzly, then dump in your spinach. Grab some tongs and move your spinach around in the hot oil. It will shrivel up and get wilty pretty quick, but you're not done yet! Keep it moving in the hot ass oil until it turns dark dark green and is crispy in texture. It takes a little while, maybe almost 10 minutes. I suspect in the restaurant they probably just popped it into the deep fryer--much easier. You can tell when it gets crispy though, so remove it from the hot oil, spread it out on paper towels to drain and crisp further as it cools. Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh black pepper. You won't be sorry--it's ridiculously delicious. Fried spinach is a really special side dish and it would also make a great garnish for some interesting main course.

Melanie and I drank wine and ate butternut ravioli from the farmer's market with sage and butter, to go with our fabulous fried spinach. We also had salmon and roasted spaghetti squash and probably ate too much.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Arugula salad

This might not be very interesting but it is really good, especially if you like arugula. And who doesn't? I buy my arugula at at the DeKalb Market where they are packed up into little plastic bags by the employees there. If you hover over their shoulder you can get a really nice looking bag of greens (and a few dirty looks). I know you can buy it in bulk, in the loose bins in the produce section at Whole Foods and maybe at a Publix. Otherwise you probably would get it in the prepackaged salad greens cooler at any old grocery store. Arugula is for people who want something real out of their salads. It is a dark green with small, delicate leaves that have a full and sort of peppery flavor. It is actual, real food, as different from your average lettuce as wet cellulose is from a hardy, well-built wasp's nest under a Rhode Island porch (a full 24 hours elapsed between the two parts of that simile, so don't hate).

Tossed one bunch of washed and dried arugula with a quarter head of shredded red cabbage. To that mixture I added about 3 tablespoons each of pine nutes and grated parmesan. Tossed this together with grape tomatoes (about half the container) and then with a dressing made like this: 4 tablespoons olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, 1/2 tablespoon champagne/white wine vinegar , salt, pepper, all shook up in a little glass jar. After you have dressed & tossed the salad, top with 1 avocado, cut up into chunks and sprinkled with lemon or lime juice.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Beef vegetable stew

I'm back from my sojourn in Rhode Island. I'd like to say "back and better than ever" but that's not true as I have acquired both a broken toe and an eye infection since being away. While in the Ocean State, I cooked a number of little things but none were really particularly new so I won't go into them much. Caesar salad, sweet potatoes with curry, that sort of thing. But last night I really got it into my head to make a beef stew of some kind, so that's the first thing I did in the kitchen upon getting back home. Even if it is still a bajillion degrees here in the south and feels just like summer, in my mind, fall has begun, so it is time for stews, braises and things like that.

Chopped up about 3/4 of a package of cremini mushrooms into quarters or slices, depending on their size. If you have a whole package, feel free to use all of them--the only reason I used a smaller amount was because that was all that was left over in the fridge. I used my large, cast iron dutch oven pot to make this, so if you have one, use it. Otherwise any big, heavy pot will do. Sauteed the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter until they became soft and were begining to exude their juices. Added 3 cloves of thinly shaved garlic--not chopped, actually go ahead and shave the garlic cloves with your knife to create thin slivers. After the garlic has lightly browned and the mushrooms are soft and getting a little brown, remove from the pot and set aside. Next I dredged small chunks of stew beef in 1/2 cup flour mixed with salt and pepper. I only bought somewhere between 1/2 to 1 pound of stew beef chunks from the butcher (actually, I think it was 0.72 lbs on the scale), so you don't really need all that much. Then when I got home, I cut the chunks into smaller little pieces before dredging them with the flour mixture. Heated 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of the pot over medium-high heat and when it was sizzly, added the floured chunks of stew meat. Turned them over to brown in the pot; it probably took no more than 5 minutes to brown all sides of the beef chunks. When they were browned, I added 3 shallots, thinly sliced. Stirred everything around over the heat until the shallots were softened (about 3 minutes) then added 2 small, diced carrots, 1 large, diced parsnip and about 4 tiny, diced Yokon Gold potatoes. Stirred all the veggies and beef chunks up together and let it cook over heat for 2-3 minutes, then added 1 package of beef stock. I used Pacific Organic beef broth--it comes in an aseptic package, looks like a soymilk container. The package size is 32 ounces and I used all of it. After I poured that in, I added back the mushrooms and garlic, along with 1/2 cup of pearled barley to cook along with everything else and brought it up to a simmer. Then I covered the pot, turned the heat down to medium and left it alone for about 30 minutes. When I returned, the liquid had reduced down somewhat and the barley had softened. I added 1/2 - 3/4 cup of lima beans (if you hate lima beans use green peas instead), let it cook for another 5 minutes, then added 3 tablespoons of tomato paste and 3/4 cup of red wine (I believe cabernet, but I don't think it really matters since it was 2-Buck Chuck. Sigh). Stirred everything in really well and added about 1 cup of water since the liquid had really decreased quite a bit. Cooked for another 10 minutes then removed from heat. It's really to taste at this point: if you think it is too thick--add a little more wine then a bit more water, let it cook off the alcohol and proceed. If it is too thin, simply turn the heat up a bit and let it cook uncovered to reduce. However, if you keep it over night it will not only improve in flavor but it will thicken up considerably so keep that in mind. You can always add a little more liquid when reheating. And this one last thing, I forgot to do this last night, but I will when I reheat it--at the end of cooking, add 2 tablespoons each minced parsley and chives. This will also freeze really well, if you're the kind of person who likes to cook ahead. Make sure you have more red wine to drink alongside and also some good bread.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tomato tarts and grilled vegetables

I haven't had a chance to post on the cooking I've been doing lately...Angelica and Marc had a baby so I am here in Rhode Island, enjoying my new baby nephew. Let me tell you--he is one ridiculously cute baby. But there were a few interesting things that have been made recently, so I'll try to write them out.

I first made these tomato tarts back at home last week but I made them again yesterday for a big family meal. They are based on a recipe I read in the New York Times. Marc's parents and younger sister were here, as were my parents and Francesca. Oh, and of course little baby William, but he didn't eat any of these on account of the fact that he's only a few days old. You need to get puff pastry to make these--it should be in the freezer section at the grocery store. Usually it is next to the frozen pie crusts in a box. Defrost it to a point where you can unfold the sheets of puff pastry (usually a package will contain 2 sheets of pastry). Unfold them and cut out circles of about 4 inches diameter. Place the circles on a baking sheet that is covered with a sheet of parchment paper. Take one or two very good tomatoes--hopefully you can find some good heirloom varieties at your farmer's market--and slice them into thin rounds (less than 1/2") that will fit inside the circles of puff pastry with room all around to pull the edges up. Don't worry about making them perfectly tidy--you can cut them to fit inside if you need to. Spread about 1 or 2 tablespoons of marscapone cheese onto each circle of pastry, then sprinkle about 1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil over the cheese. Put a slice of tomato over the basil, salt and pepper on top, then pull up the pastry round and pinch the edges to make a sealed tart with the tomato slice showing out of the top, but the edges all around sealed up. Do this for all the tarts, then sticke them in an oven at 425 for 15 minutes. A good variation would be to add pine nuts sprinkled inside. Also maybe instead of tomato you could make this with slices of roasted eggplant and some mint instead of the basil. Or a sweet variation would involve thin slices of plum with slivered almonds and a drizzle of honey on top. Lots of fun.

For the big family dinner we grilled out flank steaks and I made a compound butter for on top. Minced up 1 small clove of garlic, 1 tablespoon capers and 1 tablespoon parsley. Mixed these all up with half a stick or so of very soft butter until it was well incorporated, shaped it into a little mound, then stuck it into the fridge to solidify. When the flank steak was done grilling, sliced it thinly against the grain then put the flavored butter out for people to put on top. We also had grilled red peppers and small portobello mushroom caps. These are really easy and I know I've written about simple grilled vegetables before but Marc would like to know how to do it so I'll write it out again for him, in simple language that even a professor of of international conflict and territorial disputes can understand: Slice well-washed red peppers in half the long way and remove the very top with the seeds and stem. Take your pepper halves and rinse them well to remove any more seeds that might be hanging around. If the halves seem large to you, slice them in half again, but you probably shouldn't cut them any smaller or they will fall through the grill. Put your pepper slices in a large bowl; and cover them with a liberal amount of olive oil, at least a couple tablespoons. Add salt and pepper and red pepper flakes for a little bit of heat. Toss the peppers around they are well coated, then stick them on a hot grill and turn them continually, keeping a good eye on them. They will get very soft and the skins will blacken a little bit. They shouldn't take more than 10 minutes or so to cook. You can use red, yellow or orange peppers with success; however, green peppers are a fool's errand and should be avoided at all costs. They are not really mature vegtables, did you know that? They are unripe peppers that have not yet reached the delicious status of a full grown red pepper. They are gross. For grilled portobello mushroom caps you just take the stems out of the cleaned mushrooms then cover them with olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, 1 small minced clove of garlic, salt and pepper. Mix them up well in this marinade, let them sit for about 20-30 minutes, then toss them on the grill. Turn them frequently and let them stay over the heat until they are very soft and getting a little browned. They take about 10-15 minutes, but don't let them burn.