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Monthly Archives: February 2015

What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’

Jake Bellucci Le Creuset CC BY-NC-ND 2.0One of the things I love about winter is that it’s a season conducive to cooking in bulk — think soups, stews, casseroles, gratins, the list goes on. I have gotten into the habit of preparing one to two soups for the week on Sunday afternoons, and boy, has it been scrumptious, not to mention economical and time-saving. I thought I’d compile a list of my recent soup pursuits, with some of my forays into baking, fish, and why not, mashed potatoes thrown in for good measure. One of the pleasures of blogging for me is documenting what I cook throughout the year, so as I give into that, I hope that you find something posted here that you might consider trying. (Also, if you don’t already have one, I hope you’ll consider busying yourself an immersion blender… the one I recently acquired has been a godsend this winter, as evidenced by the list below. If not, a regular blender works too. Just a thought 🙂 ) Bon appetit!

tracy benjamin tortilla strips CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I first tasted this chicken tortilla soup recipe from Food and Wine at the home of my friend, Allison, on a much-needed getaway trip to Nashville, Tennessee. (The trip ended with the discovery of frozen pipes in our frigid condo, due to my flakiness in leaving the heat off just as Chicago morphed into Chiberia. Even our jar of olive oil was frozen solid, but that’s another story!) This soup makes clever use of the aforementioned immersion blender, thickening up the tomato/onion/garlic/five spice/chicken broth/cilantro base with fried tortilla strips, puréed. The cubed chicken is added raw and cooked conveniently in the broth, and chunks of avocado are mixed in at the end. It’s hearty, zingy, and deeply satisfying when topped with the usual Southwestern suspects: grated cheddar, homemade fried tortilla strips, sour cream, cilantro, scallions, and lime wedges.

Steven Lilley Broccoli CC BY-SA 2.0Padraic told me he felt like he was dining at Panera after eating Ree Drummond’s broccoli cheddar soup, and I took that as effusive praise! I used 2% milk instead of whole, and things turned out quite creamy nonetheless. The recipe starts with preparations for a roasted broccoli garnish, and proceeds with sautéing onions in butter, then simmering pieces of raw broccoli in a mixture of milk, half-and-half, flour, and nutmeg. Three cups of cheddar cheese are added, with the option of puréeing the mixture or breaking up the broccoli with a potato masher. I think this might be the most indulgent broccoli dish there is, but January/February is certainly a fitting time for it.

nick mote Lentil Macro CC BY 2.0Surprise, surprise, this recipe does not use a blender — no, instead, Ina Garten’s lentil sausage soup, from her cookbook Barefoot in Paris, is richly textured with softened vegetables, lentils, and chunks of sausage. In my unsuccessful search for the recommended French green lentils, I learned that French lentils are simply smaller in size, so I just bought the most petit ones they had in the store, which worked fine. The process starts by cooking onions, leeks, and garlic flavored with cumin, thyme, salt, and pepper; then celery and carrots are added. This mixture plus pre-soaked lentils, chicken stock, and tomato paste simmers for an hour, then pre-cooked sausage is added and warmed through. You finish it off with a drizzle of red wine vinegar or red wine, take your pick.

cookbookman17 White Beans CC BY 2.0Cristina Ferrare’s minestrone soup from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love is another hearty, one-meal wonder. It’s basically a compilation of fresh vegetables, beans, and tomatoes, puréed thick and served with freshly grated Parmesan and a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I couldn’t find an exact reproduction of the cookbook’s recipe on the inter tubes, so I’ve posted the recipe at the bottom of this entry.

PINKÉ Pyrex Casserole CC BY-NC 2.0Then, of course, there comes a time when enough soup has been had and a casserole — what else? — beckons. The notion of chicken tetrazinni was so delightfully retro to me that I felt compelled to whip up a behemoth batch of it. Who else but Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman, to guide me through layers of spaghetti, mushrooms, melted cream/Monterey Jack/Parmesan cheese, bacon, peas, and toasted bread crumbs? Hers is technically a turkey tetrazinni, which sounds delicious, but the only time I have cooked turkey on hand is the day after Thanksgiving. So I turned to The Kitchn for advice on poaching chicken breasts. Ree suggests adding up to two extra cups of chicken broth to the cheese/veggie/pasta mixture before baking it, even if it’s a little soupy. I second this — I added this amount and the consistency of the finished product was just right — cheesy but not overwhelmingly so, and moist. I skipped the chopped olives, but hey, that’s just me.

essgee51 Dill and Lemon 2 (20/365) CC BY-NC 2.0 Sometimes soup and casseroles don’t carry you through the entire week, which makes room for minimalist dishes like… salmon, roasted with lemon, butter, and dill. This is my go-to recipe for salmon — it’s as easy as melting butter with lemon juice and seasoning the fish with dill, minced garlic (or garlic powder), salt, and pepper. Comes out moist and flaky every time.

Anne White Yukon Gold Potatoes CC BY-NC 2.0I made a batch of these super easy, quick, and straightforward mashed potatoes to go with the salmon. It’s another find from Cristina Ferrare’s cookbook, Big Bowl of Love. I love this recipe because it turns what you normally think of as a special occasion, holiday side into a week night staple. The most work and time intensive part is peeling, boiling, and mashing the potatoes — after that’s done, you just add butter, milk, and salt, but in proportions that consistently produce a creamy, fluffy, apporiately-salted mash. The addition of lemon zest may sound strange, but I find that it brightens and freshens the dish in a beautiful way. Then again, I’ll add lemon to anything. A handful of chopped scallions add a peppery bite to the creamy potato canvas. I find that making mashed potatoes during the week is really quite practical — the leftovers can bulk up another quick-cooking protein a few days later or be packed in a lunch.

Tom Gill Apples CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Speaking of packing lunches, the discovery of a homemade scone in my lunch bag is worth the effort, I think. Lately I’ve been on a scone kick, as mentioned here. It’s the byproduct of my newly acquired “mini scone pan,” allowing you to just drop the dough into a greased pan, and the fact that scones are so versatile — good for breakfast, lunch, dessert… These apple and cheddar scones combine roasted chunks of tart fruit with a salty, cheesy bite, and the dough is non-fussily brought together in the bowl of an electric stand mixer — no messy wielding of a pastry cutter or hauling out of a food processor. The pre-roasted apples, grated cheese, dry ingredients (flour/sugar/baking powder/salt), and wet ingredients (butter/cream/egg) are simply combined in a single bowl and mixed together on low.

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 9.01.41 PMWith regard to other baked goods, this Valentine’s Day I was in the mood to make something chocolate, but I wanted to bypass some of the more decadent, ultra-sweet chocolate desserts. I still wanted to make something special, something I don’t normally make. I landed on Love and Olive Oil’s Orange and Dark Chocolate Biscotti, featuring my favorite chocolate-fruit flavor combination. The orange notes come through strongly, and the chunks of dark chocolate impart a subtle richness and decadence of flavor. I love the hearty crunch and mild sweetness of biscotti — making it at home transports you to your favorite café and gets the coffee pot percolating.

zoyachubby Basil CC BY-ND 2.0A second Valentine’s Day experiment, this time for the main course, was seared scallops with basil olive oil pistou. Somehow seafood is romantic to me, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I imagine a Valentine’s Day dinner. I’m somewhat shy to say that this was my first time cooking scallops at home, but searing them proved quick and easy. Pistou (pronounced pee-stew) is a French term, and it’s similar to pesto: a mixture of herbs, garlic, and olive oil (in this version the herbs, parsley and basil, are blanched first. I’d never thought to blanche herbs before — aside from the nuisance of repeatedly hand wringing them dry, the blanching did make the sauce more delicate.) The pistou is spooned under each scallop and fresh herbs are sprinkled on top for a simple but slightly elevated presentation. The pistou certainly distinguishes this scallop dish and imparts lots of fresh flavor, but I have to say, it’s oily. I doubled the recipe, and even leaving out about 1/3 cup, the oil still saturated the plate. You might consider scaling back on it by paying closer attention than I did to the food processor.

John Robinson Lemon and lime CC BY 2.0Two final dinner recipes — last night I tried this fish taco recipe in lieu of Lent. It’s refreshing and light all around, a much-needed break from all these hearty, thickly puréed soups I’ve been making. You can use any white fish, I used cod — flavored with a marinade of lime juice, minced garlic, cumin, chili powder, and vegetable oil. For a healthier meal, the fish is grilled, not fried. The tacos are dressed with a cabbage slaw combining shredded cabbage, sliced red onion, cilantro, and more lime juice and veggie oil. Additional toppings include salsa, sour cream, and sliced avocado. (I opted against bottled salsa for an easy-to-make salsa fresca, containing chopped tomatoes, a squeeze of lime juice, some diced red onion, and a pinch of salt.) Last but not least, what could be easier than this lemon spaghetti recipe, authored by the one and only  Giada Di Laurentiis. You literally whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, and boil noodles, then make a few tweaks with pasta water, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and fresh basil (or in my case, dried). Couldn’t be simpler, and couldn’t be more delicious.

So there you go… a kitchen sink’s worth of good food links. Hopefully it stimulates some upcoming cooking adventures in your own kitchen. Thanks for reading, and please let me know if there’s a better recipe out there for salmon, mashed potatoes, soup, fish tacos, etc. etc. Happy hunkering down this winter!

Hearty Vegetable Minestrone Soup
From Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 small zucchini, diced
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, cut small
  • 1/2 small cabbage, shredded
  • 1 cup cauliflower cut into small pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 (28-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans white navy beans or cannellini
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked small tube, shell-shaped pasta, or orzo
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • fresh basil
  • red pepper flakes
  • balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

Instructions

  • Heat a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and heat until hot. Quickly add the onion, and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onion starts to caramelize. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute; then add the water and stir. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add carrots, celery, zucchini, broccoli florets, cabbage, cauliflower, and salt. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to release their juices.
  • Add the canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the beans and stir. Cover and gently simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.
  • In a blender, (or with an immersion blender), purée three-quarters of the soup until semi-smooth. Pour back into the stockpot and stir well. This will thicken your soup.
  • Adjust the seasoning (taste for salt; you will probably need to add more — 1/4 teaspoon at a time, so you don’t oversalt). Bring the soup back up to a gentle boil. Add the pasta and stir well so the pasta doesn’t stick. Cook the pasta for about 5 minutes or until al dente. You don’t want to overcook the pasta. Ladle into heated bowls. Garnish with 2 tablespoons freshly grated cheese per serving, fresh basil, and red pepper flakes to taste. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top.

Ringing in the New Year with “Quick and Easy Chinese”

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.44.22 PMAs of Thursday, February 19th, Happy Year of the Goat. In case you haven’t experienced it, the Chinese New Year is a two-week event rich both in celebration — fireworks, lanterns, red clothes — as well as clean-slate-wiping — house cleaning, bill paying, lucky money giving. But for me, it’s mostly an excuse to share one of my favorite, recently dusted off cookbooks, perfect for efficient, manageable weeknight cooking: Quick and Easy Chinese. Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.41.53 PMThe author is Nancy McDermott, whose love of cooking began, where else, at her grandmother’s side. Her passion for Asian flavors began, where else, during her Peace Corps term in Thailand. She went on to write Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, Quick and Easy Thai, Quick and Easy Vietnamese, Quick and Easy Chinese, and a host of other Southeast asian cookbooks. As a matter of fact, here she is right here. Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.49.31 PMI really appreciate her general philosophy of home cooked Asian food. In the introduction to Quick and Easy Chinese, she points out how enamored we Westerners are with Chinese food, in which “meat and veggies are napped in delightfully flavorful sauces, creating delicious hybrids that we mall rats love.” (See cheerful couple dressed as carry out!) We seem to think that these clever, slightly foreign flavor combinations equal a cooking process that is beyond us, but in truth, it couldn’t be more familiar. This cookbook won’t have you making dim sum or fancy seafood or some of the other restaurant level dishes that some folks have come to associate with Chinese; rather, the recipes reflect the kind of simple, home cooking that is as manageable in the average American kitchen as it is in the everyday Chinese household. In other words, we’re talking a skillet, a chef’s knife, and knife skills.

Mise En Place

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.55.22 PM This is the first element of Chinese cooking that I’m a sucker for: mise en place is French for “put in place,” in other words, chopping and measuring all of your ingredients on the front end of the cooking process. It sounds a lot like the French phrase, “mise en scène,” referring to the scenic design of a play or film. And in its own, quotidian sort of way, it’s the culinary equivalent of setting the stage. In general, it’s an organized and foolproof way of cooking, but Chinese food requires this step since everything is eventually cooked so quickly and at such a high temperature.

Fry it in a Pan

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.01.00 PMFrom there, the basic process is delightfully repetitive, whether you’re improvising a vegetable stir-fry or crafting your own, homemade version of Kung Pao Chicken. Start cooking your rice. Heat oil in a pan. Add vegetables, meats, herbs and flavorings, and watch everything sizzle until the consistency is right. Swirl in a sauce, usually containing soy sauce, cornstarch, oil, vinegar, and a few other, more specific, signature flavors. Watch the sauce thicken and turn off the heat. Voilà.

Specialty Ingredients

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.03.12 PMAnother happy discovery is that no, you truly don’t need specialty ingredients to make Chinese food at home. If you currently use red pepper flakes, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, cilantro, ginger, peanuts, or black beans, then you’re mostly covered. I purchased a bottle of Asian Sesame oil, rice vinegar, and Hoisin Sauce and they’ve carried me through numerous incarnations of “Almond Chicken,” “Kung Pao Chicken,” and “Salmon with Ginger and Onions,” just 3 of the 70 recipes McDermott serves up. I’m eager to try her recipe for “Spicy Beef in Lettuce Cups” and “green onion pancakes,” which are street-food flatbreads inspired by the author’s annual trips to Taiwan. Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.08.06 PMTo tout my enthusiasm just a few words longer, this recipe for Eggplant Szechwan (Szechwan being a Southwestern province known for its sophisticated, spicy cuisine) is currently the easiest way I know to use up those suspiciously giant eggplants you often find in the grocery store. Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.12.19 PMWhat the heck — as long as we’re celebrating the Chinese new year, why not make room for another quick and easy recipe that hails from…Japan. (The more the merrier?) I recently tried this chilled soba noodles recipe, adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites. Lest anyone should be offended by my brazen intermingling of culinary traditions under the “Asian” umbrella, let me add that I used whole wheat spaghetti instead of Japanese buckwheat pasta, so technically, my version is a hopeless mutt, infused with commonly used Italian, Chinese and Japanese ingredients: garlic, ginger, scallions, peanut butter, Chinese chile paste, soy sauce, cilantro… It sounds like summer picnic fare, but I find that cold, peanut noodles with a side of cucumber/nut slaw makes for a refreshingly hearty lunch in the dead of winter.

Ingredients, Cold Peanut Noodles

Salt 3 garlic cloves, minced 3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced 4 scallions, chopped 3/4 cup peanut butter* Hot sauce* 1/4 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup freshly chopped cilantro 8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti* *The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup peanut butter + 1/4 cup tahini, or sesame paste. If you have tahini, I’m sure it’s even better that way. I didn’t, so I used extra peanut butter. The original recipe calls for crunchy peanut butter but I was satisfied with my choice of creamy. *The original recipe calls for 2 teaspoons Chinese chili paste. Again, I made a convenient substitution. *Or one 8.8 oz package soba noodles (Japanese buckwheat pasta)

Boil Pasta Water, Mix Pasta Sauce

Boil lightly salted water for the pasta. Mix together the garlic, ginger, scallions, peanut butter, hot sauce and soy sauce. Add 1/2 cup of the hot water for the pasta to thin out the sauce. Stir in the cilantro.

Bring it Together

Cook the noodles in the boiling pasta water according to the package directions. Drain them in a colander and place under cold running water to chill them. Toss them with tongs and drain again. Mix the cold noodles with the sauce. If desired, make them ahead of time and chill in the refrigerator for a few hours. Serve with lightly pickled cucumber and almonds.

Cucumber Almond Salad, Ingredients

1 large cucumber, cubed 3/4 cup coarsely chopped lightly roasted salted almonds* 2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil 2 tablespoons rice vinegar Freshly ground black pepper, to taste *The original recipe calls for cashews. If you don’t have roasted/salted nuts, place whatever nuts you have in a dry skillet over medium-low heat and toast until crisp and fragrant. Season to taste with coarse sea salt or kosher salt.

Mix it in a Bowl

That’s it. Fini. All this talk of peanut butter, Szechwan style eggplant and stir-fry has left me in a dreamy state. I think I’ll just float away on one of these lanterns and leave you to your wok. Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.09.23 PM

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