Monday, February 28, 2011

Justify Your Subscription - The "Winter" Braise and More from Laos

When October comes and fall weather makes its visit, I notice many of my blog buddies anticipating the hearty comfort foods of fall and winter - particularly soups, stews, and braises.

I always agree wholeheartedly with them in spirit, but not always in practice. I cook according to my own whims. Sometimes it's because I see a recipe or ingredient I want to try or because I happen to have certain ingredients in the house, or sometimes it's because I just have a craving for something. That craving can be ice cream in January or fried chicken on a hot July day.

It's not spring yet, but you can see if from here. Right now foodies are thinking of this summer's garden and the first ramps and fiddleheads of the year. Everyone is tired of winter and winter food.

I notice all too well that it's not spring yet. We have another three weeks of official winter and because this is New York, the Vernal Equinox does not guarantee spring weather in any way. The snow may stop (if we're lucky), but plenty of rainy, chilly days will follow and comfort food may very well still be in demand.

Well, at least that's my excuse for making a braised dish recently. Once again, I marked a "must make" recipe in Food & Wine to make sure that I am speding the money on this subscription wisely.

The first recipe was Cider Vinegar Braised Chicken Thighs. I was a good girl and mostly followed this recipe to the letter except for using some breasts along with the chicken thighs. I suppose it would have been even more comforting to serve it with noodles, but I continued to be a good, almost virtuous, girl and used brown rice instead.

I was a little afraid of how this might taste as my husand is not a fan of vinegary foods. The cooking with the leeks and carrots mellowed it out so that I had a sauce that was tangy, but not throat-burning. It was a nice change from always staying safe and braising in wine.

Next up was more Laotian food. The Loatian recipes in the February issue continue to haunt me. This time I went for Lemongrass Cilantro Chicken with Honey Dipping Sauce.

I LOVED the flavors in the recipe, so I believed I had a winner on my hands as soon as I saw it.

I made some adjustments to it though. First the recipe called for boneless, skin-on chicken breasts. Those are not easy to find and I wasn't in the mood to start deboning breasts. I just bought them with the bones on and kept the meat on the bone.

You are supposed to grill them. Had I bought boneless, skinless breasts I might have done that - if it were July. I don't like using my grill pan in the winter because it smokes up my place too much and I can't exactly open a window when it's freezing cold outside. Instead I roasted it for 30 minutes at 350 degrees and then blasted it under the broiler for 4 minutes to crisp up the skin.

I added mint to the marinade and also sprinkled some mint on top of the chicken before roasting it rather than after. I love fresh mint.

I didn't serve it with rice. I dug into my archives and pulled out my old Tropical Cole Slaw recipe. I think it went well with the light flavors of a psuedo-grilled chicken.

THe chicken had great flavor and the dipping sauce was pleasantly sweet-tart. It was a real winner.

I just realized I did two chicken recipes in a row with vinegar sauces. So much for being original. But I have to look at it this way. It's pretty amazing how some of the same ingredients can produce two very different recipes.

I am beginning to think the subscription may be justified.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What To Do with Leftovers

I had leftover lime and cilantro from the Laotian laap.

I had leftover tortillas from the duck tacos.

I had poblano peppers leftover from I don't remember what.

I also made a ridiculous amount of chicken stock last week that was taking up room in my freezer.

What do I do next?

The answer was simple – Tortilla Soup!

When I researched recipes for tortilla soup I found many many ways of making it. The few common elements seem to be chicken stock, hot peppers, cilantro, lime, and, of course, the tortilla strips.

I made mine with chicken stock, garlic, poblano peppers, tomatoes, chicken, cilantro, chili powder and lime. It was definitely a sinus-clearning soup. For my tortilla strips instead of frying them, I tossed them with olive oil and baked them in the oven over high heat. They were nice and crispy this way, but not super greasy.

Boring post, but a good soup. Comfort food on a winter's night with a spicy kick.

Chicken Tortilla Soup

1 Tbl oil for sauteing
1 poblano pepper, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ancho chili powder
1 quart chicken stock
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
2 cups cooked chicken meat, diced
Juice of 1 lime
1 handful chopped cilantro
6 corn tortillas
Oil for brushing over the tortillas (I used olive because it was in easy reach, but you may want to use something more neutral flavor)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Brush tortillas with oil and cut into strips. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet and bake 10-15 minutes or until crispy. (13 minutes worked well in my oven.)

Heat oil in a large pot. Add poblanos and cook until softened. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Stir in the ancho chili powder until it is very fragrant.

Add stock, tomatoes and chicken. Simmer 30 minutes.

Mix in lime juice and cilantro. Ladle into bowls and top with tortilla strips.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Here's to the Laddies Who Lunch

Sometimes I really hate being an adult.

I remember how in college and the immediate years beyond when I was officially an adult, but still transitioning from living the life of a carefree youngster, my social life was so easy.

It was a Saturday night. I’d call up my friends Mike and Rich and say, “You want to hang out?” We’d pick a place – usually either Mike’s house or the diner – and just spend hours goofing off together. Sometimes we would plan adventures. We would head to museums and water parks and historic sites and hiking trails. We’d climb into my giant old Buick (The Blue Bonnet we called her) and take off parts unknown.

Now we have grown up almost completely. We have jobs. We have moved multiple times. We have married or partnered off. Getting together is no longer as simple as picking up the phone and asking if your friends are free that night. It means spending weeks of emailing back and forth, trying desperately to find a date everyone is free, often not finding a date until two months after the first contact. It’s a sad fact of life. Growing up stinks!

It does mean that we really do cherish those times when we do get together and we try as often as possible. We had the extraordinary luck that on President’s Day we all had the day off and we all had open schedules. All of our spouses and partners were working, so it would be more like the old days. Rather than plan some elaborate getaway, we decided to have the kind of day like we used to have. Everyone would come over to my place for the day and we would simply hang out, goof around, play Trivial Pursuit (although we have stopped playing the version where you have to take a drink every time you have a wrong answer, or roll a 6, or land on a yellow square, or land on “roll again”), and play Xbox karaoke.

I decided that there would be one change and that’s in the quality of food we would eat. There would be no diners or junk food. I am compelled to feed people, so I would cook them lunch.

Cooking for friends isn’t as easy as it used to be. Mike has become a vegetarian in recent years (the man anthropomorphizes every living thing.) Rich isn’t picky and generally eats everything, but when he doesn’t like something, he really doesn’t like it. What could I make that everyone would like?

The answer was simple: Macaroni and Cheese! It’s something I almost never make for myself because it’s hard to eat a whole pan of it myself and Sir Pickypants won’t touch it. It was a cold, snowy, winter day, which was ideal for comfort foods as well. Macaroni and Cheese is also something I can really play with and do all kinds of fun variations on.

So how would I make my Mac & Cheese more interesting? The best place to start is in the cheeses you use. I was very tempted by this recipe, but Rich hates rosemary (“It’s like eating pine needles”). I decided to do it with a Spanish twist. I started with manchego cheese. Since it’s strong and it’s expensive, I tempered it with havarti. I added bit of piquillo peppers, caramelized onions, sherry and paprika. On the top I put a layer of garlicky breadcrumbs, lightly seasoned with smoked paprika. I also used some heavy duty shells for my pasta. Elbows are good, but I wanted something a bit heartier.

This was some mightily impressive M&C. I had trouble restraining myself from eating the whole dish of it. What made it even tougher is that Rich ended up having to go into work at the last minute (I suppose on the good side his wife probably didn’t feel so bad about working), which meant that the two of us were eating this whole dish ourselves. I could at least send a good chunk of it home with Mike. He and his partner Paul could have it for dinner.

Yes, of course I provided dessert. I made my Bourbon Orange Pound Cake, which I always say is one of the best cakes I ever came up with.

It was a great day and I hope we can do it again – hopefully with Rich the next time. Maybe we’ll even let Kevin and Mickey and Paul join us the next time. ;-)

Manchego Macaroni & Cheese
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (I used a small, stale, multigrain, artisan baguette)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp salt
4 Tbl olive oil, divided
Butter for buttering baking dish
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 pound hearty macaroni (shells, rigatoni, cavatappi, etc.)
4 Tbl butter
4 Tbl flour
1 quart tepid milk(whole is good, but you can mix in some half and half if you feel like it)
½ pound manchego cheese, shredded
½ pound havarti cheese, shredded
2 tsp paprika
Pinch nutmeg
1/2 tsp white pepper
Salt to taste
1 10oz jar piquillo peppers, drained and diced
2 Tbl dry sherry

Heat 2 Tbl olive oil in a large pan and add garlic, cooking until fragrant. Add the crumbs and cook until well coated with the garlic and oil and a bit crispy. Stir in salt and smoked paprika and set aside.

Heat remaining 2 Tbl of oil over low heat in a pan. Add onion and cook over low heat until very soft and light brown. The thinner you slice your onions, the faster this will happen.

Heat oven to 350 and butter a baking dish.

Cook macaroni in boiling, salted water for about 5 minutes. You want it to be very firm still. Drain and set aside. You can throw in a little butter to keep it from sticking together.

In a large saucepan melt butter and whisk in the flour. Keep whisking until the flour starts to smell good and loses its raw taste. Slowly whisk in the milk. Keep whisking over medium heat until thickened. You should be able to coat the back of a spoon and draw a line with your finger through it.  Stir in nutmeg and white pepper and season with salt to taste.

Add cheeses and stir until mixture is melted and smooth. Stir in paprika, nutmeg, and sherry.

Mix cheese sauce with macaroni, onions, and peppers,  Pour into buttered baking dish. Top with garlic crumb mixture.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden and bubbly.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Justify Your Subscription – Some Fusion of the Old and Something Brand New

Everything is fusion these days. Fusion is hot stuff. Restaurants are all over the place mixing one cuisine with another.

But in the end, what isn't fusion? Thanks to exploration, colonization, and good old-fashioned travel, no country’s cuisine is truly unique to its own borders.

Let’s take Italian food for example. Many snobs/purists complain about the Americanization of Italian food and how most Italian-American food isn’t authentic. Well, I think Italian-American food is a cuisine in its own right when done well (in other words, NOT Olive Garden). Yet think of how the tomato is so integral to the cuisine of Italy, even so-called "authentic" Italian food. The tomato is native to the Americas and not Italy!

The January issue of Food & Wine had chef Jose Andres inquiring, “If Mexico hadn't shared its chiles with China, would we have spicy Chinese food?" Which made me think, about whether or not the Szechuan-inspired dishes at our local takeout simply a form of Mexican fusion?

I never knew that there were no hot peppers native to China. How did they migrate? Years ago I watched this fascinating documentary about the possibility that European explorers were not the first non-indigenous people to set foot in the Americas. There are legends that Chinese explorers made it to the west coast and went as far as Mexico on foot. This may explain the sudden advances over short period of time in the culture of the Aztecs and also the similarities in iconography. The snakes that adorn Mexican temples look a bit like Chinese dragons. Did the explorers take hot peppers back with them?

Today it is not uncommon for there to be Asian influences in Latino cuisines. My first foray into a local Peruvian restaurant introduced me to a half dozen fried rice dishes – a clear influence on Peru’s Chinese immigrant population. This topic was expanded on nicely by We Are Never Full recently. Even though it doesn’t seem as if it should sound out of place, how strange does a Chinese-Mexican fusion sound in such a context?

Andres answered that question with these Duck Confit Tacos. In this recipe, shredded duck confit is warmed in a mixture of stock, five-spice powder, and soy sauce. Then it is rolled in a tortilla and served with a sauce of roasted tomatoes, tomatillos, and hot peppers. The duck skin is rendered into cracklings via microwave, which is reminiscent of those duck skin shards you get with Peking Duck. When you consider that duck confit itself is a European technique (or so I think but correct me if I’m wrong and they do cook duck this way in Asian cuisines), this is truly a fusion of cuisine from 3 different worlds.

I wish I had a better photo. After doing all of this work, I was tired and didn’t feel like trotting out the light box to make a pretty photo. There was no good light in the house, so I had to use a flash. One of the hallmarks of a bad blog is bad photos and I really shouldn’t post photos like this anymore.

Regardless of the photo, these tacos were so delicious I couldn’t wait to eat the leftovers the next night.

Next up I decided to try a new cuisine altogether – Laotian!

Until the February issue of Food & Wine, I knew nothing of Laotian food. I would have assumed it was similar to Vietnamese and Thai since it is also in southeast Asia. I was right too. Many of the spices are the same, although the dishes presented in the magazine were new to me.

I tried Laap, which is very much like the ground meat salads you see in Thai cuisine. This is a spicy mix of turkey, hot pepper, lemongrass, and cilantro. I like it because it’s like a deconstructed turkey burger. You know how I always struggle to make turkey burgers more interesting.

This was very similar to Thai Yum. I made the mistake of forgetting the mint though. Although it is often served with rice, F&W suggests serving it in a lettuce leaf such as endive, or as I did, romaine. I lined my lettuce leaf with tomato slices both for color and to boost the nutrition a bit.

It was a tasty dinner and was certainly much lighter than duck confit and cracklings in a tortilla. It was a nice break from some of the really rich foods I have been cooking lately.

There are a couple of other Laotian dishes I want to try from this magazine, so watch for them.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mint Julep Pork - With a Justify Your Subscription Side

After making the mint and aleppo pepper chicken I was stuck with some extra fresh mint. I also had some lovely pork chops from the farmer's market that were begging for a new recipe.

I considered my favorite things to combine with pork. Pork loves strong liquor and sweet things, so I decided to try bourbon and mint - a mint julep marinade. I tend to think of mint as something you add to lamb and not pork, but I did successfully use it in my Slightly Loco Tacos not long ago.

I used a simple marinade of bourbon, fresh mint leaves and brown sugar. The chops were browned and then I added the marinade to the pan to get a glaze going on them.

On the side were potatoes roasted with lemon, dill, and garlic. I probably left them in the oven longer than many would prefer, but I like them dark and brown like this.

There was also Roasted Cauliflower with Goldan Raisins from a recent Food & Wine issue. I really like the addition of balsamic vinegar to roasted cauliflower and I'll be using it more in the future. I used dark raisins because that's what I had in my cabinet. As you can imagine, my husband ate more of them than I did.

Yeah. I know this was a boring post (with a very beige plate), but sometimes it's not really about anything other than the food. The pork chops really were quite tasty!

Mint Julep Pork Chops

2-4 pork shoulder chops
1/4 cup bourbon
1/4 cup neutral flavored oil (I used peanut) plus 1 for frying
1 Tbl chopped fresh mint leaves
2 Tbl brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt

In a small bowl whisk together all ingredients except for pork chops and one Tbl of oil. Place chops and marinade in a plastic bag, seal, and refrigerate at least two hours.

Heat remaining oil in large pan over medium heat. Remove chops from marinade and reserve. Brown chops well on both sides about 2 minutes per side. Add reserved marinade and continue cooking until chops are cooked through (another 5-10 minutes depending on thickness) and are glazed with the mint julep mixture.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Series: Justify Your Subscription

I've been terribly unoriginal with my cooking in the past few days.

My first post-injury foray back into the kitchen was some soup. I decided it would be easy to just make something out of some stock I had frozen and saved for nights when I just wanted some soup. Not wanting to do any plain ordinary soup, I took a cue from Val and made some chicken soup with avgolemono. This is a great soup. The flavors are refreshing and texture is creamy, but not gloopy. It's a great twist on ordinary chicken soup.

Then came the Superbowl party. I had to take some treats to that one. It was held in the home of my friend and riding instructor Lynne, who came with me to the hospital after my fall, basically escorting my mother there while I rode in the ambulence (Mom had no idea where the hospital was) and stayed with me all evening. She deserved some homemade treats for her party - and treats from the best source possible.

That source is Emily of course, and her Chocolate Pecan Pie bars. I can't photograph them as well as she does, so they don't look as good as they do on her blog. She also managed to get a thicker crust on hers. Regardless these were so ridiculously chocolaty delicious.

I am continuing the unorignal trend after noticing something in fit of bill paying last week (that's one way to pass the time when you're laid up). I had to renew my subscription to Food & Wine. I started thinking about how often I use it. Did I really want to pay the money if I wasn't making the recipes.

I thought about it some more. I had noted in the last two issues that there were some recipes I had been interested in trying. I decided I would renew the subscription and force myself to make all recipes I deemed interesting. Not only would that help me try some new stuff, but it would make a new feature for the blog.

So I present my new series: Justify Your Subscription

My first recipe was Aleppo Pepper and Mint Roasted Chicken. This is a juicy concoction with butter flavored with mint, lemon zest and aleppo pepper stuffed under the skin, drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and cooked on a bed of red onions and lemon.

I ended up adjusting the recipe though. I used regular red pepper flakes. I would have needed to make a special trip to Penzeys for the Aleppo and I wasn't in the mood to make the trip or spend the money. Red pepper would do just fine. I also forgot to buy scallions. On top of that, I read the ingredient list so quickly that I neglected to notice the mint was supposed to be dried and not fresh.

The resulting chicken was very tasty, but really no tastier than any other roast chicken. There was a little bite from the pepper and it was nice and juicy from the butter, but the lemons and mint really took a back seat. It's probably not a roast chicken recipe I'll be making again.

On the side I stole a recipe yet again. This time I ripped off Stacey and her polenta with caramelized onions. I love the combination of polenta and caramelized onions and haven't made it in a while. I often like to add mascarpone and pancetta to the mix, but I don't want to push myself to an early grave. I had enough health scares recently.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Winging It with Brownies

I shouldn't have been baking this week. Hobbling around the kitchen on my sore hip is not a wise idea, especially since I'm a shortie and use a stepstool to reach things on the higher shelves in the kitchen. That's just asking to fall and aggravate things.

My problem was that I was not only confined to the house due to doctor's orders, I was also snowed (sleeted, iced) in those days. I couldn't have gone anywhere if I wanted to. Being trapped in the house makes me want to BAKE. Cold days just beg for baked goods.

In order to bake I had to take stock of everything in the house. I couldn't drive the first day after the injury so I couldn't make it to the store. The cupboards were close to bare, so whatever I made, I would have to make due with what was available. I had butter, eggs, flour, sugar, and cocoa powder. What could I make of them?

I started thinking of cocoa brownies. It was the obvious choice, but it wasn't my favorite one. When it comes to brownies, I have always been a solid-chocolate girl. To me the best brownie texture can only come from good chocolate squares. One of my favorite ways of discrediting Alton Brown is to say that his brownie recipe uses cocoa (and takes far more time than brownies should take). Could I really make a cocoa brownie that would be moist and chewy and not cakey? (If I wanted cakey, I would make cake.)

I began scouring the Internet for recipes. There were a fair number of converts to the cocoa brownie. Plenty of bloggers and recipe authors swore, "Follow this recipe and your brownies will be as good as brownies made from melted chocolate." I was eventually convinced. I had to be since I had no other choice.

The next dilemma was deciding which recipe. Which one made the most of the ingredients I had on hand? Which one would make a brownie that was truly special?

In the end I took a risk and did what I often do when confronted with multiple recipes for one dish. I decided to simply take what I needed from each recipe and come up with something on my own.

I wanted to do something that would make the brownies just a bit more special and do something the other recipes weren't doing. I had the crazy idea of browning the butter first and also mixing white sugar with brown. That might give me a more caramelly tasting brownie. I patted myself on the back for that, especially when I was mixing up a bowl of brown butter, eggs, vanilla and brown sugar!

They weren't bad, but not quite as distinctive tasting as I had hoped. The texture was very nice. They weren't super-dense, but they were far from dry and were just a little delicate.

Brown-Butter Cocoa Brownies

10 Tbl butter
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup flour
1 pinch salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8x8 pan with foil creating an overhang on two sides. Spray with cooking spray.

Heat butter in a small saucepan. Cook until butter melts and begins to foam up. Allow foam to subside and cook until butter is a nice dark amber color. BE CAREFUL AND DO NOT ALLOW IT TO BURN.

Sift together all dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl beat together eggs, butter, sugars, and vanilla. Combine thoroughly. Gently stir in the flour and cocao mixture and combine until smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and bake 20-25 minutes or until set and toothpick in the middle is fairly clean.