Thursday, May 17, 2012

Perfect Chicken Breasts

Please see my new Perfect Chicken Breasts blog at:

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Food Humor 1.1

I love Mark Bitterman's wry description of ordinary table salt in his wonderful volume,
Salted: A Manifesto:

Type:       Industrial
Crystal:   Homogenous cubes
Color:      Abandoned factory windowpane
Flavor:     Phenolic paint followed by rusted barbed wire
Moisture: none
Origin:     various
Substitutes:  anything
Best with:     shuffleboard lubricant

Visit The Meadow's lovely web site and be amazed:

My favorites for everyday use are Maldon, Lemon Flake and Himalayan Pink.

Salt Rocks! (I can't believe I said that)

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Gumbo Series: Episode 1

Confession, but no remorse:  I have a 30+ year addiction to cooking and consuming gumbo.  It is labor intensive, takes a dedication to advance planning, and a ton of care, attention and experience to pull it off.  The payoffs: when it's done, it does not look effortless to the trained cook, and (be prepared) you will develop an army of devoted followers, who will unashamedly ask you from time to time when you are going to fix it again.  Hint, hint.
celery the great aromatic
Celery - the Mother of Aromatics
Step 1: Roux. The tricky part of gumbo advance planning is having the roux done.  Episode 2 will be an entire post and probably a video on how to make roux.  There are probably roux-making videos out there already, too.

Here's the story behind this particular gumbo encounter.  I became possessed of the idea, on Saturday night, that I wanted to make a small pot of gumbo for the next day's expanded-family lunch.  Other food was already in the works.  Sometimes I make main-course gumbo and it turns into a gumbo party, but this time it was going to be just a starter or side dish.

Step 2: General procurement.  As I lay awake that Saturday night, wondering how I would pull it off, I ran through the ingredient inventory in my mind.  I knew I had roux already made, or the whole plan would have been scrapped.  Roux takes too much time and attention for one cook to do both in one day.  The next ingredient most likely to NOT be on hand was okra - was I going to have to make a mad dash to the grocer as soon as I got up?  I couldn't sleep through that one, so I dragged myself out of bed, went downstairs and dug through the freezer.  Amazingly, it's there! When I made the roux I must have thought ahead that the two should always appear simultaneously.  I pulled it out of the freezer to thaw overnight along with a couple of other ingredients.  Another time I will discuss the controversy around okra in gumbo.

Step 3: Wake up and get a pot of coffee going.

Step 4: The rude awakening: gumbo usually simmers eight hours and I only have four.  But many soups are well developed and finished in four hours or even  much less.  Why was gumbo different?  The answer was that, to achieve the desired consistency, the fibrous veggies (celery, okra, onion) needed to completely disintegrate.

A revelation: my new pressure cooker.  The perfect tool to simulate the natural softening effect of long simmering in much less time.

So, without belaboring it here, I got the base made, then threw it and the okra in the pressure cooker for 30 minutes (I could have gone longer but didn't want to risk any scorching).  Took it out and - yes! - everything was as soft and mellow as if it had been simmering for about two hours.

Step 5: everything else needed went in the pot and although I still held my breath a couple of hours later, as I lifted the lid, to my relief, everything came together beautifully, and the flavor and texture had no hint of my tiny shortcut.

Conclusion: Let's shake up our standard routines and add a little innovation to make our favorite dishes easier so we can enjoy them more often!

What is a shortcut you have discovered that didn't hurt the end result in a favorite dish?
Do tell!
Subscribe by email on the right and I will let you know when the remaining Gumbo episodes are posted.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Asparagus Composed Salad

It was a last-minute plan for supper - an unexpected cornish game hen on sale, and suddenly the plan for the meal started coming together.  During the week I eat salad after salad after salad, and though I obviously love them, it is an unexpected delight to deviate from the path occasionally.  So I decided to make another favorite - a Composed Salad.  I then embarked on one of my favorite missions - digging around in the fridge to see what exactly is there, what is at its peak of readiness, what can be brought up to readiness, and so on.  I had several hours before needing to serve, but once my guest arrived, I wanted the food part to be casual and almost instantaneous.  The rest of the meal was going to be very simple and delicate in flavor.
Asparagus, Orange Bell, Egg, Fennel

A small handful of asparagus appeared, and since I had some time, I boiled it in lightly salted water for about 5 minutes.  Shocked it in ice water because I didn't want it to continue cooking, and placed back in the fridge along with the to-be salad plates.  I just LOVE a cold salad plate or bowl.  I then looked for complementary colors and flavors but I wanted the textures to be within a narrow range.  The result - an orange bell pepper which I sliced, seared in a pan, then torched a bit because it wasn't browned enough.  A hardboiled egg which was quartered, and some shaved fennel and Italian parsley (which you can barely see).  Next time I would use a more simple plate - I think this plate competes with the beautiful, colorful grouping.  What do you think?

The comforting thing about a composed salad is that every component on the plate doesn't have to blend perfectly as it does with a tossed salad.  It's like a mini buffet.  However, the dressing needs to work well with all the components, which usually is not difficult.
Freshly zested orange rind
Because I don't trust my brain, I started collecting the various items that would be included on the salad plate, and bunched them together in the fridge.  It was either that or write them on a paper, which seemed more work.
Speaking of the dressing - dinner was going to be very light: roasted hen with a delicate chili-cumin thickened broth, hardly even a gravy, and some pan roasted new potatoes.  So I wanted something creamier in consistency than a vinaigrette, and the idea of a fortified mayonnaise sounded like it would be visually appealing, also.

Asparagus Composed Salad
Here is the full list - the Brilliant Bit: make your own combo with whatever is on hand; if you start a little early, you always have time to poach, boil or fry then set aside.
Serves 2

Asparagus             8 or 10 spears which have been cooked but still firm, and chilled
Orange Bell          1/2 large, sliced and seared in a very hot pan then chilled
Egg, hardboiled    1, quarterd
Fennel, shaved     Small pile for each plate

For the Dressing: stir all this together 30 min to 2 hours ahead and chill
Mayonnaise*        1/4 cup or a bit more (better to have too much than too little)
Orange zest          1/2 tsp
Parsley, minced    1 tsp
Pepper, black        Few turns, freshly ground
Few drops of water if needed: it should flow off the spoon rather than drop in globs.

*you could also use Greek yogurt, but the flavor will be thinner

Place everything on the cold plates so it looks lovely and drizzle the dressing all over.  You could do this 15 minutes ahead.  Write to us with your favorite combinations!


Soup of Roasted Peppers

Soup of Roasted Red, Orange and Yellow Bell Peppers
A country-style homemade soup that is very close to "instant", when you happen to have roasted peppers on hand.  If you don't, just add an extra 30 minutes to your prep time to roast them while you are doing something else. 

Roasting the peppers is easy if you do not have some on hand... see the link below to a prior post:

Country style soup - hearty and toothful, but not rich and I always remove cream from my country style soups (a future post will be Country Style Mushroom).  Makes it a healthier, everyday soup.

This is more of a process and less a tightly defined recipe (which is really how all soups should be prepared).  If you have seen any of my instructional material, you know that I emphasize cooking with all your senses, including [whatever it is you call the one] where your spoon tells a little story as it stirs the soup, sensing the thickness and allows you to taste.  This is the offshoot of a Brilliant Bit - another of the many things you can do with roasted peppers.

Soup of Roasted Peppers
1. Start with either how much roasted pepper you want to use up or how much you have on hand.  This is how much soup you will have.  Makes a great appetizer in a small coffee cup or a full size meal, garnished with feta and croutons.  Leftovers keep fantastic for a week.
2. Consider the quantities below to be ratios - increase or decrease as appropriate.

Roasted Bell Peppers          2 cups (Red, Orange, Yellow, NO GREEN), chopped up some more
Soup base, sauteed             1 minced celery rib + 1/2 cup minced white onion
Chicken or Turkey broth       3 to 4 cups
Some Butter or Olive Oil       Have on hand for taste adjustment
Dehydrated potatoes (2 Tbsp) or leftover plain (1/4 cup)
As always, a little lemon juice can bring soup to life if it seems still a bit flat.  And of course, salt to taste, and a few shakes of Tabasco is wonderful.
3. Simmer everything together for 15 to 30 minutes.  More time is fine, just turn the heat way way down.  These flavors are already individually developed.  If you don't have dehydrated or leftover potatoes on hand, you can use a little flour slurry, but know that it needs to simmer in for at least 5 minutes.  I have found that roasted bell peppers can be a little bitter - great on a salad, but you want to limit it in soup.  The potato smoothes out this bitterness.  It is the only thickener I use in my elegant roasted red pepper soup.
4. Insert an immersion blender and process to desired consistency.  Unless you peeled your peppers somewhere along the way, you will have some skin.  This is not a negative - I actually like the toothfulness of the skins.  But make sure you chopped them up a little even before placing them in to simmer - this removes the possibility that you will get a long, spaghetti-like string.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Reduce Anxiety About The Big Dinner

Getting ready to serve a big dinner can be anxiety-producing, even if you do it with some frequency.  What is the definition of "big"?  It's whatever it is for you.  If you live alone, dinner for four can be big, if you have a big family and are used to feeding a lot of people, it might be more, but you probably don't fuss over 'presentation' for the everyday dinner.

Trick to Planning Ahead: start your list during a quiet time, and really visualize the room and the food in your mind.  Then keep your list with you over the week prior, so you can jot notes or make changes.  All this planning actually takes the stress of the actual day, and makes it more fun for everyone, including you.

Does your spouse/partner care about this stuff?  If so, get their input early so you're not having day-of arguments ("what's with the ice cream for dessert... you know my sister is lactose intolerant...").

Way ahead:
Ä Write out your menu, which should also produce a shopping list
        Are there “anchor” food items?  Build around them, and if something you wanted to fix doesn’t fit in, don’t force it, save it for another time
        What can be fixed (or partially fixed) ahead?  This is probably the most important strategy
        What can you ask guests to bring? (and what if they forget or it’s not good)
        It’s okay to fix enough of something that you have leftovers for yourself
         Do any items to be purchased need to be day-of or day-before?  Bread?  Fresh fruit?
        Check with guests to see if anything in their diet has changed that you should know about

Ä Think of a fun (low profile) centerpiece or something event-appropriate at each plate, even if it is just tying a colored ribbon around each napkin (heck, even if they are paper napkins)
Guests feel honored with you've thought of little details

Day ahead:
Labeling platters helps visualize whether "it" will fit
Ä Label your serving platters (can be done ahead if you don’t need a table)
Ä Note about what’s being held in the fridge
Ä Kids coming?  Arrange for something age-appropriate
Ä Think about jackets / handbags
Ä Think about a topic or two to warm up people (not politics!)
Ä Staging the service:
        Buffets are best
        Know your climate
                Humid: cover up crispy things or leave them in their package, sitting on the serving plate
                Dry: put a dampened paper towel over cheeses, salads, bread
        Depending on your dishes, come up with a plan to help warm stay warm, cold stay cold
        Think of the flow – main dish first, then sauce/gravy, then side dishes.
        Okay to have two or more “stations”
Ä Not fond of salt and/or pepper?  Have them out anyway – don’t impose your preference on others

Fridge note prevents forgotten items
Ä Have out wine/beer/whatever glasses, something on the tv or sound system, some kind of nibble
Ä Get a beverage in everyone’s hands immediately
Ä Stop what you’re doing for a few minutes while people are arriving – get them talking to each other, then you can go back to preparing
Ä Someone looking lost and awkward?  Ask them to fill water glasses : the best thing to delegate!
Ä Never, never apologize that something that was not homemade - most people don't expect that any more.  Also (ahem) don't claim credit for it...

Share your strategies and tactics with us!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Japanese Tea Eggs

Click in to see how beautiful the are, up close!
Wow, I've tried a lot of approaches for Tea Eggs, and it is finally perfect (for me).  The flavor seems to come to life if you place them at room temperature for a while.  When I first tried them, I was a little disappointed; we are all so used to gigantic flavors, that a subtle, delicate flavor almost loses us.  So quiet down your taste buds a bit and pay attention to the effect.  Let your taste buds look for the tea, for the star anise, the cinnamon.

Tea Eggs

Eggs:           6 (preferably ones that have been home from the grocer 3+ days)
Soy Sauce   1/2 cup  (not low sodium)
Tea bags     2
Sugar          1 Tablespoon
Cinnamon   1 or 2 sticks, depending on size
Star Anise   2 (or equivalent, if you have broken pieces)
Orange rind (opt)   2 4-inch strips or 1 Tbsp dehydrated orange rind

1. Simmer together everything but the eggs and set aside to steep, between 10 minutes and 1 day.

2.. In a separate pan, cover eggs with cool water and a little salt.  Bring to boil, simmer for 3 minutes.

3.. Drain eggs and run them under cool water just enough to handle.

4.. Use the back of a spoon to crack the shells all over; don't crush them, but don't be too delicate either.

5.. Return eggs to pan, pour the steeped soy sauce mixture over them.  Add just enough hot water to cover by a half an inch or so.

6.. Bring to a boil, cover pan, lower heat as low as possible, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat.

7.. Keep covered and allow to sit on counter for eight hours or overnight.

8.. Peel as carefully as possible.  Doing so under cold slowly running water might help.

9. Refrigerated, these keep for well over a week (if they last that long), but the flavor is better if they warm up a bit to room temp.

Note about quantity and pan size: this recipe calls for 6 eggs because that is exactly what fits perfectly into my 1 quart saucepan. You don't want too much space around the eggs, but they need to fit in one layer. If you want to fix more eggs, use a larger pan, but you must multiply by the amount it takes to fill the bottom of the saucepan... that might be 12 eggs, or it might be 14. I suggest starting with this smaller quantity, then play around with your own pans if you love these eggs as much as I do.  If you multiply the recipe to fit a larger pan, multiply the soy sauce mixture proportionately.