Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mixed roasted root vegetables

This weekend we celebrated Burns Night at Charlie and Colleen's house. This Scottish holiday traditionally features a haggis, in order to commemorate the stirring Robert Burns poem "Address to a Haggis" (if you want to read it, you can find it here). It's sort of ridiculous good fun and we tried to keep things as Scottish as possible. Charlie made meatloaf instead (a particularly fantastic one) but Katie made a vegetarian haggis so that we could sort of get it right, but without all the intestines and sheep stomachs that go into real haggis. I brought some things for a charcuterie plate--pâté, salami and a delicious goat cheese called Purple Haze that has lavender and wild fennel pollen in it. I also made a batch of particularly well thought out roasted root vegetables. Usually I just chuck whatever I feel like cutting up into the oven without too much thought, but this time I actually spent a lot of time picking out veggies and considering their needs, so it really turned out pretty well. As things are wont to do, if you just take a little patience and time with them. The More You Know!

I selected 1 large rutabaga, 1 large turnip, 3 parsnips, 1 garnet sweet potato, a bag of tiny literally pebble-sized Yukon Gold potatoes and a bag of miniature carrots that still had a bit of green on top so they looked whole but were only maybe 2 ½" long. The tiny potatoes and carrots were really cute and I think they elevated this basic dish into something a little more festive for a special occasion. Oddly, this time I ended up going to Whole Foods for my vegetable shopping rather than my beloved DeKalb Market and they seem to cultivate their own adorable tiny carrots, so if you want to find them yourself, try looking there. I sliced up a bit more than half each of my enormous turnip, rutabaga and sweet potato saving the rest for something else. I ended up using half each of the bag of tiny Yukon Golds (picking out the ones that were tiniest of all) and adorable tiny carrots. You want to keep a balance between the vegetables and also I think it would have made way too much. I left the carrots and Yukon Golds whole, sliced the parsnips and sweet potatoes into matchsticks and cut the rutabaga and turnip into half-moon slices about ½" thick. The goal is to make sure everything is more or less the same width so it will cook at an even rate but also to keep some visual interest with different cuts between the veggies. Tossed all the vegetables together with about 10 whole cloves peeled garlic (it will become soft and mellow as it roasts), 5 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1 teaspoon each red pepper flakes and cumin, 2 teaspoons salt and a healthy grinding of fresh black pepper over all. I took them over to Charlie & Colleen's, divided them into 2 pans, and roasted for a little while along with the meatloaf and vegetarian haggis at about 350 (I think?). Then after the other things were removed from the oven we cranked it up to 425 and continued to roast. They probably went for about 20 minutes at the lower temperature and then about another 25 at the high one. Shake the pans or stir them often to redistribute the vegetables to ensure even cooking.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chicken satay, sort of

Like I said, I had all this leftover peanut sauce in the fridge from the soba noodle thing the other day so I decided that we'd have chicken satay at some point. Melanie seemed really enthusiastic about it when I broached the topic at the Tupperware party that we all attended (and, no, that's not code for a sex toy party, we actually went to a real, live tupperparty with a tupperlady and everything. Ariane can verify). So I gave it a shot.

I had just shy of 2 pounds worth of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Mark Bittman says that chicken thighs work better for satay because they don't dry out and he's probably right but I happened to have breasts so breasts it was (whee!). Sliced them into thin strips of about 1 ½ " width (this is easier if they are a little bit frozen so you can stick them in the freezer for five ten minutes). Put the strips into a big (non-tupper) plastic bowl for marinating and added the juice from one lime, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 2 crushed cloves garlic, a drizzle of rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, salt and pepper. Tossed it all really well together and left it in the fridge for about 5 hours, giving it a stir every now and then to distribute the marinade. When it was time to cook dinner, I confess I did not end up putting the chicken strips on bamboo skewers and grilling them. That would have been awesome and delicious and maybe I'll do that one of these days. But I hate getting the grill all going just for one little thing and I didn't have any veggies or anything else to use the grill for so I skipped it. Also, as it turns out and as Jeremy later pointed out, my grill is actually sitting on their porch right now, all covered in street grime. So, whatever. I got my cast iron grill pan and heated it up super hot with a thin film of sesame oil on it. Lay the strips of chicken on the very hot grill pan and let them go about 3-4 minutes per side, at least until they were well-marked with brown grill lines. My grill pan is not huge so I had to do this in several batches, keeping the finished strips warm in the oven. I heated up the remaining peanut sauce (about ¾ cup) very gently with a few tablespoons of water whisked in to smooth it out. I sort of got careless and it burned on the bottom because I was toasting sesame seeds for the broccoli and got distracted. Don't let it happen to you! Poured the peanut sauce into a small bowl in the center of a platter surrounded by the grilled chicken strips and let everybody grab their own and pour the sauce over the top. Not as much fun as if it had been on skewers, but pretty delicious anyway.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Peanut sauce with soba noodles and cucumber-pepper relish

Last night Ali and Nik came over for dinner as part of our ongoing automotive-work-for-food exchange program. Nik is gifted with knowledge of diesel engines and a deep understanding of the peculiarities of my particular VW, as he has the exact same one. Apparently one dinner is worth one fuel filter; labor is free because he enjoys it. It's a good deal, especially for Ali because she doesn't have to do any car work at all but still gets to eat. Last night we had sesame salmon in a soy-orange sauce (I think I've written about it before) and soba noodles tossed with peanut sauce and topped with a tangy cucumber-orange pepper relish. It's a good addition for peanut noodles because they can get sort of overly sweet and unctuous if you try to eat a whole pile of them; a spicy, tangy and crunchy counterpoint is sort of needed to go with.

Start by making the cucumber mixture because it needs at least 30 minutes to marinate. Wash, de-seed and chop one orange bell pepper into small ½" chunks. Peel one hothouse cucumber (also known, for some reason, as english cucumbers, they're longer and thinner than the normal kind and usually are found wrapped in plastic. Use a regular one if you can't find this type), and chop it into similarly-sized chunks and toss together in a large mixing bowl with the orange pepper. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 pinch red pepper flakes, 2 small cloves crushed garlic, 2 teaspoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons finely minced cilantro, salt, pepper and about 3-4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar. Mix it up really well and let it sit at room temperature until it’s time to eat. Go over and mix it up now and then while you are getting everything else ready so all the pieces of cucumber and pepper get a chance to marinate. For the record, I decided after the fact that a little bit of chopped red onion would be delicious in this and am sad that I didn’t think of it in time to add it in. Try mixing in about ¼ cup—the marinating time will make it mild and delicious.

For the peanut sauce, I used my amazing new immersion blender. You can make the sauce by hand too or in a regular blender, but I’m in love with my new gadget and want to spend all my time with it. It comes with this mixing vessel—sort of a long, tall plastic canister that you can put stuff into for effective blending, so I just made the peanut sauce in that. If you don’t have an immersion blender (or if you do have one but no nifty blender container came with it) just dump everything in a big bowl. Peanut sauce is pretty easy and can be tweaked to suit you, so taste as you go and add more soy sauce or garlic or whatever if you think it needs it. Combine the following: 1 cup smooth peanut butter, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon red chili-garlic paste (you can find it in the Asian foods aisle of the store usually, otherwise just use red pepper flakes), 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 3 minced garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger and ½ cup hot water. Blend the shit out of it with your mighty immersion blender…or puny human hands. You might find that you need to add more hot water, or vinegar or soy as you go along—add up to another ½ cup liquid with few repercussions. Boil a package of soba noodles (or really whatever kind of Asian noodle you like). When they are al dente, drain lightly so as to keep some water clinging to the noodles, immediately return them to the pot and toss with about ¾ cup of the sauce. Add more sauce if you think it needs it and sprinkle with black and white sesame seeds. Serve with the cucumber-pepper relish to go on top or right next to it or something. Leftover peanut sauce is really useful to have in the fridge—you can always toss it with more cooked noodles for a quick dinner or lunch, or use it to dip fried tofu in or make grilled chicken satay strips. You won’t regret it!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Squash risotto and red pepper-mascarpone dip

Last night was a night of firsts! I cooked some things I had never made before, I used a brand-new kitchen gadget, and our friend Sara came over for dinner for the first time (she brought one Josh Le F. with her, but he was old news, having been over before and therefore not a first). As I have mentioned before, I am really not a gadget person but I had been wanting an immersion blender for some time and my dad totally came through on the Christmas present front with a very nice KitchenAid one. So I wanted to try it out and made an interesting dip for appetizer.

Combined one tablespoon of sherry, salt and pepper with 4 roasted red peppers and 2 healthy tablespoons mascarpone cheese in a container appropriate for immersion blending. Got out the immersion blender, marveled at its power tool-like structure and blended hell out of the cheese-pepper mixture. I only used it at a 5 power level, but that sucker will go up to a 9. A 9, y'all! It turns a lovely pastel shade of orange-y red, so this has the added benefit of being a really pretty appetizer as well. Pour into a bowl, sprinkle with some parsley and serve with robust crackers.

I also wanted to make a squash risotto. Actually, that's how plans for dinner started to begin with--I had a couple squash lying around and I thought it might be tasty. I had about 2 pounds worth of small, sweet winter squash. It wasn't my usual favorite kabocha squash, but I wish it had been. I cut them in half, de-seeded, and roasted them until very soft (about 1 hour), then scooped out the flesh and set it aside for later. Begin the risotto itself by sautéing one medium minced onion in 2 tablespoons butter. Don't let them brown at all but get them nice and soft--about 6-8 minutes. Add 2 cloves minced garlic and 1 ½ cups arborio rice. Sauté for 3 minutes--again, do not brown--then begin to add in chicken stock. You will need 5 ½ cups chicken stock and ½ cup white wine, making 6 cups of liquid total. Add the liquid to your rice ½ cup at a time, stirring each ½ cup addition until it is totally absorbed before adding in the next ½ cup. Sara and I discussed this--there is some contention amongst the risotto-producing Italians as to whether one stirs constantly, stirs just occasionally or stirs not at all...but I went ahead and stirred pretty much constantly. For one thing, I think it works well and for another, I sort of enjoy it. It is meditative and fun and everybody is hanging out chatting in the kitchen anyway, so why not? So after you have added in all 6 cups of liquid (you will find it is a bit liquidy at the end, which is fine because you are about to add more stuff in), stir in the roasted squash from earlier, 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage, salt, pepper, and at least 4 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese. I actually had too much sage in the one I made last night (probably something like 2 tablespoons or more) but it gave a funny alkaline flavor, so I would say keep it to only 1 tablespoon. I really like sage but I think also that it stands up better to my beloved kabocha squash rather than the (pale, watery) one I was using last night, so that was part of the problem too. The lesson? Never try anything new once you have found your dream squash.

We had these massive porkchops also--they were really thick-cut and juicy. I just seared them 2 at a time, in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat, on my favorite cast-iron skillet, about 4 minutes per side. Then I transferred them to the oven at 350 for about 15 minutes, basically until the internal temperature rose to 160 degrees. I poured any collected juices from the oven dish back into the pan that I had seared the chops in and stirred it around over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons sherry and ½ tablespoon butter, making sure to bring up any delicious porky bits that had stuck to the pan. Added 1 tablespoon minced parsley and used it as a sauce over the porkchops. We also had broccoli rapini that I sautéed and tossed in the juice and zest from 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon capers, salt, pepper, and 3 tablespoons olive oil.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Black-eyed pea and lentil chili

On New Year's Day in the American south it is good luck to eat black-eyed peas. On New Year's Day in Italy it is good fortune to eat lentils. So this year I made a chicken chili with black-eyed peas and lentils and called it Double Luck chili. Maybe it will bring some good things my way for 2008.

I started the night before by soaking 1 ½ cups black-eyed peas in a bowl of water. As I've said before, I don't think the soaking step is really necessary but it does make the cooking time go faster, so if you remember to do it ahead of time it probably helps. I drained them the next day then covered them with fresh water in a pot along with 1 tablespoon epazote, and boiled for about 45 minutes. When they are soft, take them off heat, drain and set aside. In my dutch oven I heated 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat and sautéed 1 medium, minced onion until soft and golden brown. Then I added 4 cloves minced garlic and sautéed another 2 minutes. Cleared a space in the center of the pot, added a tablespoon more olive oil and when it was hot dumped in 2 teaspoons chile powder and 1 teaspoon cumin. Let the spices bloom in the hot oil for a minute, then stirred up everything together. I de-seeded and minced one fresh poblano pepper and one fresh long, hot pepper and added them into the pot to sauté as well. I also had 2 dried ancho chilies, so I de-seeded those as well and sliced them into thin strips before adding to the mixture in the pot. I de-seeded all these peppers because I was worried they would be too hot, but it actually turned out to be pretty tame heat-wise, so if you want go ahead and leave some of the seeds in to ramp it up a bit. You can use whatever peppers you like--jalapeno or something would be fine. The dried chiles give it a nice smoky flavor so it's good to find a few of those for sure. After sautéeing together the peppers, garlic, onion and spices for a few minutes, I added in about 5 cups of chicken stock, a bouillon cube, 1 ¼ cup dried lentils, the cooked black-eyed peas and a 6 ouce can of tomato paste. Stirred this all up well together, brought to a boil and allowed to simmer for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile I chopped up 1 whole boneless, skinless chicken breast into small 1" chunks, then added into the chili. Let everything cook up together for another 30 minutes or until the lentils were soft and the chicken cooked through. At this point, I stirred in 2 tablespoons of minced cilantro and 1 tablespoon minced parsley. The chili got to be a pretty good, thick-ish consistency but you may wish to add more stock or water to thin it out if it boils down too much for your taste. I also made elbow pasta to serve it over because I sort of like macaroni in my chili. Shredded white cheddar is delicious to put on top, so maybe you should do that too.

I made a jícama salad to go with, as well as cornbread. I think I have already written down the cornbread recipe, but the jícama thing is new. Melanie really liked it. She said it was refreshing and thought it went really well with her wine. In case you've never seen one, jícama (pronounce it "hee-kah-mah") is a really ugly, roundish root vegetable. It's pretty big and brown and usually waxy on the outside. But you just peel it and then inside it is crisp and sweet and wonderful to eat raw. You can shred it, but I just cut it into thin matchsticks. I peeled one carrot into long strips, then cut the strips down to 2" lengths and tossed them together with the jícama, juice from 1 lime, salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. It made a crunchy, sweet and tangy salad that contrasts well with a bowl of chili.

Happy new year!