Friday, August 21, 2009

Turkey & Mushroom Pate

I love pates, rich ones with foie gras and pistachios and truffles and pheasant and hare - well, maybe not all together. I started making pates a few years ago, and it was hard to get started. There aren't many cookbooks who even address the subject anymore...I guess they're too intimidating, and in some cases, the ingredients a bit scary to most people.

My breakthrough came with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin's cookbook Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (Knopf, 1999). They have a whole chapter on making country-style pate, with strips of veal, pork, ham, chicken livers, and a forcemeat (the ground up stuff) made of pork. I learned to make the whole thing from scratch, including grinding the pork myself to get the right texture and quantity of fat. It's a long process - it takes over a week to make, because of marinating times before you bake it, and a couple days for the flavors to develop after it's baked. It's a fabulous recipe.

Since conquering that recipe, I've branched out. My friend Nick, a hunter, gave me two pheasant last fall. They promptly became the foundation of my annual holiday pate. I found I had mastered enough of the basics that I could adjust flavors and ingredients to match the delicate flavor of the pheasant. For example, I added juniper berries - a classic pairing with pheasant. It came out beautifully.

I think it's sad more people don't make pates...they're fun, a bit adventurous, and delicious. So, when recently we had some friends over for appetizers, I decided to make a simple pate of ground turkey and forest mushrooms - start to finish in one day - served slightly chilled with toasted bread, olives, shaved parmesiano, and a bit of simple red sauce - not my secret red sauce, so I'll give you the recipe :-). It was yummy.

And here's the real deal on pate: it's just fancy meatloaf, as you'll see from this recipe. So don't be afraid - enter the world of pates! If you're really serious, start with Julia and Jacques' lovely book. If you just want to dabble, try this recipe, then play around with the flavors and ingredients.

Buon appetito!

Turkey & Mushroom Pate
(Serves 8 or more)
1 package of dried forest mushrooms
1 lb. ground turkey, not the super-lean (I buy Jenny-O 7% fat)
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 T corn starch
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
freshly ground black pepper

For this recipe, results will be best if you have a terrine mold with hinged sides (look here for an example...I bought mine at Kitchen Window at Hennepin & Lake in Minneapolis). If not, you can use a small loaf pan. In this case, I would recommend lining the bottom with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit.

Re-hydrate the mushrooms by placing them in a small bowl and adding 1/2 cup of hot water. Push the mushrooms down into the water. Let them soak for 30 minutes, turning them over a few times to make sure all are hydrated. Remove the mushrooms from the bowl, squeezing the excess liquid out of them with your hand, taking care to capture the liquid in the bowl. Reserve the soaking liquid.

Meanwhile, saute the shallot and half of the garlic in the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat until soft. Do not allow to brown. Using a very fine-meshed strainer, strain the mushroom soaking liquid into the skillet with the shallots and mushrooms (there will be some sand and dirt in the water from the mushrooms). Slowly reduce the liquid until it is nearly all evaporated, stirring occasionally, and loosening the brown glaze from the sides of the skillet with a spoon or spatula.

While this is going on, mince the mushrooms. First, you need to trim them. Remove any slimy or unpleasantly soft pieces (porcini do not take well to dehydration-rehydration, for instance, and tend to look like gray goo). Also, if any of the mushroom stems are woody and tough, trim them off. Cut large pieces into quarters. Then, using your chef's knife, mince them.

In a large bowl, place the ground turkey. Add the mushrooms and the oil-shallot-garlic-mushroom broth mixture from the skillet. Scrape it clean with a spoon or spatula to get every bit. Mix together. Sprinkle the corn starch all over and mix again. Add all remaining ingredients including the remaining raw garlic and mix again, thoughroughly.

Now, you need to check the salt. I taste the raw mix...I suppose one day I'll die of salmonila poisoning. If you're squeemish (and wiser than me), pinch off a little and fry it, then taste for saltiness. It should be pleasantly salty. Adjust as needed.

Allow the mix to sit and the flavors to develop for a bit. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 275. Oil the terrine mold and press the pate mixture into it. Cover with foil and crimp all around the edges to seal. Find a glass or ceramic baking dish that the terrine will fit into. Place the terrine mold in the baking dish, and add boiling water until it comes 1/2 way up the side of the terrine. Place in the over and bake until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees (use an instant-read digital thermometer - an essential chef's tool!).

Remove the baking dish and terrine from the oven. It's important for the pate to be pressed while it cools. Cut a piece of heavy cardboard to fit on top of the terrine, inside the edges of the mold. Place 2 or 3 soup cans on the cardboard, and something heavy on top of the soup cans, like a bag of flour. Some balancing is required! Allow to cool for about 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, remove the soup cans, cardboard, foil, etc., and use a small, sharp knife to cut around the edges of the terrine. If you have a hinged pan, release the sides, and carefully pry the terrine loose from the bottom, taking care not to break it. If you used a non-hinged mold, carefully pry the terrine out of the mold and remove the parchment. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 2 hours or more.

To serve, unwrap, and using a very sharp knife, cut into 1/4"-thick slices. Arrange on a serving platter with a variety of olives. Serve with sliced bread, shaved parmesian cheese, and bruschetta sauce (see below).

Hotel Davanzati Bruschetta Sauce
This delicious sauce was served during happy hour each evening at the Hotel Davanzati in Florence. They generously share their recipe!

1 lb. red ripe tomatoes (I used high-quality canned whole tomatoes and all of their canning liquid), chopped, with no skin and core removed
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 peperoncino (very similar to dried arbol chiles, which I used)
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 T chopped fresh parsley
salt to taste

Heat the garlic in the olive oil with the peppers until the garlic is soft and not brown. Add tomatoes and cook on medium heat for about 15 minutes. Add the parsley and cook for 2 minutes longer. Salt to taste. Allow to cool (blending hot ingredients can be explosive!). Puree briefly in blender. Serve warm with sliced toasted bread.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Italian Apple Tart with Ice Cream and Balsamic Vinegar

We just got home from a vacation in Europe in which we spent 4 days in Paris, and then nearly 2 weeks traveling from Venice to Florence to Naples & Pompeii to Positano to Rome. One of the highlights was a day trip we took from Florence into the Chianti wine country which lies between Florence and Siena. On that trip, we visited the Montagliari vinyard, a family-owned and operated business that produces primarily Chianti Classico, in addition to Grappa and balsamic vinegar.

There's a restaurant at the vinyard, and the septegenarian matriarch of Montagliari is the chef. Her cooking was the most delicious and comforting we had in Italy. We had a glorious meal on a shaded terrace overlooking the vinyards and the long valley of the Chianti Classico denomination. Our lunch culminated with a warm apple tart topped with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It was pure heaven...we devoured it.

When we got home, I was determined to reproduce it. This is my's not identical, but it's pretty close. Ahhh, Italia!

A note on balsamic vinegar: This queen of vinegars can range from cheap, watery and sour to syrupy, gloriously sweet-sour and complex. Skip the's not worth buying. The latter form, however, is truly a revelation, and is worth its hefty price - I've paid as much as $30 or $40 for a few ounces of good balsamico. When you get the really good stuff, save it for special dishes like this, use a few drops at a time, and savor its completely unique character with meats, over heirloom tomato wedges, fruits and desserts. Even a small bottle will last a long time.

Italian Apple Tart
(Serves 8)
3 eggs, separated
1/2 c. plus 1 T caster sugar (also called superfine, or baker's sugar)
1/2 tsp. vanilla
3 T softened unsalted butter (I use Lurpak imported Danish butter for fine baking)
pinch of salt
pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. corn starch
1 c. apple puree (see below)

Preheat oven to 375. Cut circles of parchment paper to fit in the bottoms of 8 6-oz. ramekins. Place the circles into each of the ramekins, and using 1T of the butter, grease the exposed face of the parchment, plus the sides of the ramekins. Arrange on a baking sheet.

In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and vanilla until very creamy. Whisk in the remaining 2T of soft butter. Whisk in the nutmeg. In a separate bowl with a clean whisk, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff (the tiniest bit of yolk will keep whites from stiffening). Fold into the sugar mixture. Sprinkle the flour and corn starch over the batter and fold in, working out any lumps. Fold in the apple puree.

Fill the molds 1/2 way, and bake until just brown on the top and edges and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Rotate the pan half way through baking for evenness.

To serve: unmold while still warm (hold the hot ramekins with a towl) onto warm plates, upside down, by running a thin knife around the sides of the ramekin, then gently prying loose. Remove parchment paper rounds. Top with a smallish scoop of premium vanilla ice cream that is slightly softened, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar (about a teaspoon per serving). Dust everything and the plate around it with powdered sugar. Elegant comfort food!

Apple Puree
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
1 Braeburn apple, peeled, cored and diced

Place the apples and 2 T of water into a saucepan, cover tightly, and place over medium-low heat. Cook until very soft, about 25 minutes. Cool. Mash with a fork, not a food processor. It's better with a little texture, rather than baby-food smoothness.

This is also the way I make applesauce. You can use whatever varieties of apples you like best.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Grilled Rib Eye Steaks

I don't eat steaks very often, so when I do, I want really good ones.

A lot is being written lately about the right way to raise beef cattle for health, sustainability, and humane treatment of the animals. If you live in the Twin Cities, and want beef you can trace back to the farm, I've found no better than Clancey's Meats & Fish in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis (I don't believe they have a website, but see reviews and directions here). They are truly artisanal in every way.

However, they're not actually my favorite butcher shop in Minneapolis. That honor (such as it is) goes to Everett's Foods & Meats on the east side of Minneapolis just off 38th & Cedar (see reviews and directions here). Why do I love Everett's so much? Maybe it's the 1950's nostalgic feel of the place. Maybe it's the fact that they dry-age their beef to perfection. Maybe it's their incredible house-made sausages and bratwurst and other cured meats. Maybe it's the fact that their prices are working-class-southeast friendly - I bought 2 12-oz. rib eyes there for $15 and change, total.

Clearly, it's all of this, and one thing more: I have absolutely loved every single cut of meat of every kind I've ever bought from Everett's. For my 40th birthday I hosted a man-feast for 11 of my closest guy friends and relatives. We bought a dozen 1-lb. porterhouse steaks from Everett's for the event - the king cut of beef. They were sublime. Everett's brats and Polish are absolutely old-world in their depth of flavor. I've purchased countless steaks there, and the occasional tenderloin for special occasions. Always perfect.

Unless you're a vegetarian, having a favorite neighborhood butcher shop is one of the great pleasures in life. I don't live in Southeast anymore, but mine is still Everett's.

Grilled Rib Eye Steaks
(serves 1 per steak)
10-12 oz. rib eye
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium clove of fresh garlic, peeled, the end trimmed off, and quartered

Buy the steaks a day or two before your event. Salt both sides with a generous sprinkle of Kosher salt. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 18 hours.

Place the olive oil and garlic in a blender or food processor and puree. Remove steak(s) from the fridge, take off the plastic wrap, and place in a sheet pan, and rub all over with the garlic/oil mixture. Allow to sit for 60-90 minutes at room temperature.

Meanwhile heat the grill to high - preferably mesquite charcoal. I mean fiercely hot. Serious violence must be done to the steaks. When the grill is near its maximum heat and the steaks have marinated and come up to room temperature, put the steaks on the grill. Allow a good crust to form - 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the steaks and cook the other side. You can cook them as done as you like, but medium-rare is the way to eat these babies.

Transfer hot steaks to warm plates and allow to rest for a couple minutes while you load up the plate with yummy stuff like potatoes gratin, sauteed or creamed spinach, or homemade macaroni and cheese. When you cut into the steaks, the juices should run into the other stuff on the plate. Now you're living!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Oysters Three Ways

I love oysters. And I love to come up with creative ways to prepare them. When my friend Martin called this week saying he was in the mood for oysters and martinis, my brain went to work.

I bought two-dozen oysters: 8 Malpeques, 8 Kumamotos, and 8 Blue Points. I wanted preparations that would bring out the natural character of each of these wonderful varieties. The recipes are below.

A couple points on oysters. First, find a brilliant, fantastic, exceptional source. In the Twin Cities, I only trust fresh oysters from Coastal Seafood. Find the supplier in your city that gets the very freshest, and is 100% reliable. I've never been sick from a bad oyster, but I know people who have, and it's really not fun.

Second, buy them the day you're going to eat them. See point #1.

Third, use a stiff brush and scrub them all over under cold running water. Don't submerge them. The shell is the serving vessel, so you don't want mud, seaweed, or other unpleasantness clinging to them. Be sure to put a mesh over your drain - a lot of shell chippings and other nasty bits will come loose.

Fourth, if you don't know already, take the time learn how to properly shuck an oyster. It's really worth doing - it's not hard once you learn, and it's a lot more fun than you'd think. Watch this video, read this posting, and find someone you know who's done it before to help you.

Malpeque Oysters Old School
(8 oysters)
8 dashes Tabasco Sauce
2 tsp. horseradish
1/2 lemon

Spoon about 1/4 tsp. fresh horseradish onto each oyster. Shake on a dash of Tabasco. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over all. That's it. The Malpeques are meaty and briny. They love this traditional combination of flavors, standing up well to the boldness of these ingredients.

Kumamoto Oysters Japanese Style
(8 oysters)
6-8 shiso leaves (shiso is a Japanese herb that tastes vaguely like cumin), cut into tiny shreds
1+ tsp. wasabi paste
3 scallions, trimmed and minced fine - all of the white plus 1/2" into the green part
2-3 drops soy sauce per oyster

Top each oyster with a bit of shiso and scallion, and 1/8 tsp. (i.e., a small amount) of wasabi paste. Dribble each with 2-3 drops of soy sauce.

I invented this recipe for a bachelor party several years ago. The milky, creaminess of the Kumamotos loves the earthiness of the shiso. The scallion and wasabi add a little brightness. Kumamotos aren't as briny as some oysters, so the little hit of soy adds further depth, plus some salt. This is a nearly perfect way to eat raw oysters.

Blue Point Oysters Southwestern Style
(8 oysters)
2 T minced red onion (minced very small)
2 T fresh raw sweet corn cut from the cob, carefully cleaned of silk and bits of husk
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 T fresh lime juice
~1 tsp. chili powder (see the note in this posting for my homemade chili powder)
8 cilantro leaves

I love broiled oysters. They don't really cook - just get warm. This combo had a slightly funky fragrance, but tasted fantastic.

Combine onion, corn, garlic and lime juice in a small bowl. Stir well and let marinate for 30 minutes 0r more while you shuck the oysters.

Heat the broiler to high. Cover a small sheet pan with foil, then pour in about 1/2 cup or more of kosher salt or rock salt. This will form a bed for the oysters preventing them from tipping and spilling their juices. Carefully place the oysters on the salt, keeping them from spilling their liquor.

Spoon a half-teaspoon or so of the marinade onto each oyster. Sprinkle a couple pinches of chili powder over each. Broil for 1-2 minutes until just warm. The won't brown or bubble - just get a bit hot on top. Remove from oven and top each with a cilantro leaf.

The Bombed Goose
Mix 2 shots Bombay Sapphire gin and 2 shots Grey Goose vodka in a martini shaker with ice. Shake (don't stir), pour into a martini glass, add 2-3 olives.

This, for me, is the perfect martini. Exceedingly smooth, icy cold, it pairs wonderfully with oysters.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thai Holy Basil Fried Rice with Calamari

We all have foods that we love dearly, and then there are foods we would make our last meal. On Top Chef this season (a show which I watch obsessively), one of the challenges near the end was to prepare for some celebrity chefs what they would desire for their last meal. Carla Hall, one of my favorite contestants, cooked for the wonderful Jacques Pepin. His requested "last meal" was squab and fresh peas. Comfort food for him. After Jacques finished the meal she had prepared for him, he said, "I think I could die happy after that." I actually cried! For me, that moment was so magical, I can't imagine having Jacques Pepin say those words about something I'd my opinion she won the competition right there.

So, what would my last meal be? Thai holy basil fried rice with calamari. Comfort food for me.

I love Thai food, and grew to love this dish eating at the King and I restaurant in Minneapolis. Their version of this dish can be ordered with beef, chicken, fried tofu, or calamari. I absolutely love the latter. You can prepare this dish with any of these proteins. I challenge you to try it this way!

You can find jasmine rice, frozen cuttlefish, fresh Thai basil, fresh Thai chilies and fish sauce at most Asian markets.

By the way, this dish is smoking-hot, fired up by Thai chilies. You can adjust the heat in your preparation of the garlic-red pepper paste.

Thai Holy Basil Fried Rice with Calamari
(serves 2-4)
1-2 T. canola oil
8 oz. cuttlefish (bodies and tentacles), bodies cut into rings, bony cartilage removed
~1/4 c. garlic-red pepper paste (see below)
1 qt. freshly-cooked jasmine rice
1 bunch Thai basil, leaves pulled from stems (but not chopped)
fish sauce and soy sauce to taste

Cook about a quart (finished volume) of jasmine rice. (See this posting for my technique for cooking rice.) Heat a wok over high heat. Working quickly, add the oil, cuttlefish and garlic-red pepper paste and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes to cook the fish about half-way. Add the rice and stir to mix. Stop stirring, and allow the rice to brown a bit. Scrape it loose, stir up, and repeat 2-3 more times, until there's a moderate amount of browned rice in the mix. Add the basil leaves, and pour in about 2 T of fish sauce and 1 T of soy sauce. Stir well (still over high heat). Taste for saltiness. Add more fish sauce if needed. Cook for a couple more minutes to reduce liquid, stirring every 30 seconds or so. Serve piping hot.

Garlic Red-Pepper Paste
2 T canola oil
1 head of garlic, separated, peeled, and each clove halved or quartered depending on size
1 whole red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2" dice
red Thai chilies to taste, stems removed, cut in half

The heat all comes from the Thai chilies. I use about 16-18 in mine, which is intolerably hot for most people; you can use as few as 4 or 5, and as many as you dare! Be very careful working with Thai chilies - they are the second or third hottest chilies on Earth, depending on who you ask. Their oil is exceedingly hot, and will burn your eyes, nose, mouth, or other sensitive parts.

Place all ingredients in a wok on low heat, and slowly roast for about an hour to 90 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Everything should be soft and well-cooked, and the garlic turning brown. Place in a food processor and puree. Freeze any unused paste for up to 6 months.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Caper-Ranch Dressing

Sometimes a moment of inspiration is all that's needed to make something ordinary become something special. Last night I served my chicken and dumplings to friends (recipe here), and wanted to serve a fresh salad with it. Vicki asked for ranch dressing, and as I had buttermilk in the fridge I thought, OK. But I wanted something with a little more zip - a little more tang than a normal ranch dressing. Then it came to me: capers.

It came out great. Here you have a brand new recipe for a great summer dressing. I served this with a salad of organic red-leaf lettuce, red onion ribbons, roma tomatoes, and radish slices.

Caper-Ranch Dressing
1/3 c. mayonnaise (I use Hellman's)
1/3 c. + 2 T buttermilk
1/2 tsp. fresh minced dill weed
2 tsp. capers, chopped
pinch onion powder
fresh ground pepper
pinch of salt

Whisk together all ingredients. Adjust salt as needed. Serve immediately, spooned over salad.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Turkey Sloppy Joes

Sometimes a good ol' fashioned Sloppy Joe is just the thing for summer. We had these with chips, pickles and lemonade. Life is sweet!

You will notice a lot of approximations in the measurements in this recipe. This is because Sloppy Joes are all about hooking into childhood flavor memories. Everyone's "ideal SJ" is personal and slightly different. It's about that perfect balance of salt, sweet, tang, and spice. I found myself doing a lot of adjusting to get the flavors "just right". You should do the same - start with lesser amounts of the strongly-flavored ingredients, taste frequently, and adjust to your liking.

Also, my wife eats no beef or pork, so I make them with ground turkey. You can use ground beef, of course - it's the traditional protein - just omit the cooking oil.

Turkey Sloppy Joes
(serves 3-4)
1/2 lb. ground turkey (I buy Jenny-O 7% fat)
1 T light olive oil or canola oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
~1/2 c. ketchup
~1 tsp. prepared yellow mustard
~1/2 tsp. Worchestershire Sauce
~2 T brown sugar
dash soy sauce
2-3 dashes paprika
dash or two of ground celery seed
dash Tabasco Sauce (optional, to taste)
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Brown the turkey in the oil over medium heat, breaking the clumps into small pieces. When the turkey is nearly done, add the onion and garlic. Continue to brown and cook over medium heat until the onions are well-browned and partially carmelized, at least 15 minutes. Add about 1/4 c. of water, and loosen all of the browned bits from the bottom and sides of the pan.

Add all remaining ingredients except salt, and stir well. Heat until bubbly. Taste a small spoonful, and adjust flavors as necessary, adding salt if needed. I prefer a fairly sweet SJ, and added a fair amount of brown sugar. I also ended up adding a dash of cider vinegar to amp up the tang just a bit.

Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes to marry the flavors. In the mean time, toast onion buns (or whatever type of bun you prefer) under the broiler or over a grill. Serve immediately!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Grilled Salmon Dijon

I find this recipe to be counter-intuitive - mustard with salmon? - yet it is utterly delicious. My cousin, Jack Riebel, is the Executive Chef at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. On a family reunion a couple years ago, he pulled together this dish to feed 35 adults in short order. It was quick, easy, and amazingly good.

Grilled Salmon Dijon
(serves 4-6)
2 12-16oz. salmon filets, with skin on one side, boned
small jar of coarse-ground mustard
small bunch of fresh Italian parsley
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves pulled from the stems
small bunch of fresh cilantro, rinsed well and leaves pulled from the stems
about 1/2 c. dried breadcrumbs
olive oil for drizzling
1/2 lemon

Lay the salmon filets skin-side down on a double-thick layer of aluminum foil, crimped around the edges, or on cedar planks. Slather each filet with mustard to coat all over. Mince the herbs together and spread all over the filets, pressing into the mustard. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, and drizzle with olive oil. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the grill. Put the salmon on the grill, cover to hold in heat, and cook until just done in the thickest part - cooking time will vary with the thickness of the fish, heat of the grill, and pre-cooking temperature of the fish. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then spritz with juice from the lemon and serve.

This dish is great with roasted new potatoes (recipe here) and a salad of spring greens.

4th of July Fireworks

I wanted a little something to eat before the fireworks last night, so I threw together a quick little smokin' hot snack.

I had a little of my pulled pork left in the fridge (recipe here), so I nuked it for 40 seconds to warm it up. Meanwhile, I rubbed a fresh jalapeno with a little oil and charred it all over on the gas grill (you can use the flame on a gas burner as well). After it was well-charred, I cut off the cap and minced the pepper. I also lightly toasted a couple of corn tortillas by tossing them into a hot, dry frying pan over medium-high heat, flipping once.

To serve: put some pork on each of the two tortillas, scoop half of the minced jalapeno onto each, squirt each with a wedge of lime, then dollop some Frontera Grill Habanero Salsa onto each. Ate 'em with a G&T, heavily limed. Kaaaa-BOOM!

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Ahhhh, summertime! What is more summery than lemonade? The brightness of real lemons can almost be forgotten with so many artificial lemon concoctions around, but these two delights are worth the time and effort: limoncello, and homemade lemonade, or lemon slushes.

Limoncello is the lemon-flavored liquor made in Italy, especially in the Naples region and southward. I've always had it served ice-cold, stored in the freezer. The high alcohol content prevents it from solidifying. I have no idea if this is traditional in Italy, but we'll be there later this summer on vacation, so I'll find out.

I've tasted several Italian limoncellos, and have had Buca di Beppo's house-made limoncello as well. I found this recipe on the internet (after rejecting many I didn't trust!), and have made it a couple times, so I know it works, and is just as good as the others I've tasted. I hope you enjoy!

8-10 lemons, scrubbed and toweled dry (preferably organic to minimize pesticides on the peels)
750ml bottle of 100 proof vodka (it's traditional to use grain alcohol, but I prefer this "lighter" version; also, grain alcohol is illegal in Minnesota)
3 c. water
3 c. sugar

Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel all of the zest off of the lemons. Try not to get any of the white pith. Place the peels in a quart jar. Fill the jar to the top with the vodka (you won't use the whole bottle). Cover tightly, and store in a dark, cool place. Each day, shake the jar once.

Steep the peels for at least a week, and up to 2 weeks. To complete the recipe, make a syrup out of the water and sugar by heating both in a saucepan until hot and the sugar is completely dissolved. Be careful to clean any crystals from the edges of the pan and dissolve them into the syrup. Cool.

Strain the lemon-infused alcohol into a bowl with a pouring spout. Pour in the syrup, and stir together. Find attractive glass bottles with cork stoppers and fill them with the limoncello, using a funnel if necessary. Store in the freezer until served.

Fresh Lemon Slush
Now you have a bunch of peeled lemons. What to do? Juice them all, of course, and make lemonade! It takes waaaay more sugar to make lemonade than you'd think. I used about 2-1/2 cups for my last batch...maybe more. Keep adding sugar and tasting until the sweetness seems right to you. Be sure to completely dissolve all of the sugar you've added between tastings.

You can now add water to make lemonade. Or, you can add about 2/3rds of the water you'd add to make it drinkable, and use this concentrated lemonade to make lemon slushes. Fill a blender half-full of ice cubes, pour in chilled lemonade concentrate, and puree. Yuuuuummmmy! I won't suggest adding rum or vodka, since you already have a bunch of limoncello in the freezer. :-)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Roast Pork for Pulled Pork Sandwiches or Tacos

Readers my dear readers! I'm sorry to have taken so long a hiatus from Chez Charles! Summer and starting a new business have swallowed up all of my time. But I've truly missed publishing these recipes and ideas on cooking.

As a sort of compromise, I'm going to change my format a bit, and publish individual dishes, recipes, or techniques, rather than whole meals. It'll be easier for me to scribble out a quick post - and possibly more digestible for you as well!

Today I'm making a small pork roast that will be pulled apart for BBQ pulled pork sandwiches. You could use this same recipe for pork tacos, or as meat on a taco salad.

Pulled Pork
(serves 4)
1 lb. boneless pork shoulder roast (I bought a 2-lb. roast and froze half)
1-2 tsp. chili powder (make it from scratch - see below)
1/2 tsp. paprika (I used smoked paprika, available from Pensey's Spices)
1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
2 tsp. kosher salt (or about half this amount of granular salt)

Two days before baking, rub the meat all over with the salt. Then rub on the remaining spices. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 days. It takes this amount of time for the salt to fully-penetrate the meat.

Heat oven to 275 or 300 degrees. Place roast in a small, covered roasting pan, and roast until very tender and falling apart - 2-3 hours. Allow to cool for 1 hour, covered. The bottom of the pan will be coated in juices.

Place the meat on a plastic cutting board (do not clean out the pan - see below), and pull apart the sections which are separated by fat. Using a paring knife, gently scrape away the fatty membranes, leaving as much of the meat as possible. Cut the meat across the grain to make 1/4"-long pieces, and pull these apart into chunks of desired size, removing any excess fat.

Your pan is full of intensely-flavored drippings and meat glaze. Very carefully, pour off the majority of the rendered fat, which will be floating on top. Don't worry about getting all of it - you don't want to lose any of the darker-colored juices. Add all of the pulled pork back to the pan, and with your hand use it to both mop up the juice and deglaze the pan. Mix well.

You can use this as-is, or add some of your favorite BBQ sauce. You won't believe how savory and delicious this is!

Homemade Chili Powder
Once you've done this, you'll never buy chili powder again. Buy some dried whole ancho chilis, or other large, mild, red, dried chilis. Heat oven to 300. Lay the chilis in one layer on a sheet pan, and roast until deep red and completely dehydrated (about 15-20 minutes). Cool. Pull off the tops and dump out the seeds. Break/tear each chili into ~1" pieces, and place them in batches in your coffee grinder to grind them to a powder. It's that easy, and the flavor is spectacular.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Buttermilk-Dill Rotini and Fresh Mango

For a quick dinner on a warm night, we love this meal. Simple, light, and quick. Augment with a grilled pork tenderloin or chicken breasts if you want to add protein. I invented this simple buttermilk-dill sauce about 10 years ago, and it remains a family favorite.

Buttermilk-Dill Rotini
Fresh Mango

Buttermilk-Dill Rotini
(serves 4)
8 oz. (uncooked) rotini pasta (or pasta of your choice)
1/2 pint (1 c.) buttermilk
1/2 c. mayonnaise
1-2 tsp. fresh minced dill
freshly cracked black pepper to taste (I go pretty generous)

Cook rotini in salted water until al dente. Drain. Rinse the cooking pan with cold water, empty, then re-fill with about 2 c. cold water and a generous pinch of salt (otherwise you rinse off the salt from the cooked pasta). Pour the rotini from the strainer into the cold water and swirl around with your hand to cool. Strain and set aside.

Whisk together remaining ingredients in a small bowl until smooth and creamy. Use salt sparingly - there's salt in the mayonnaise and on the pasta. Pour the strained pasta into a serving bowl. Pour over about 2/3rds of the sauce and stir to coat. Add more sauce as desired. Serve.

Fresh Mango
(serves 4)
2 ripe mangoes

Perfectly ripe mangoes are perhaps nature's most astonishinly delicious fruit. The texture of the flesh - soft but with some firmness, the luscious sweetness balanced with a bit of tang, there is simply no other fruit like it. Finding a perfect mango in our northern climate can be a challenge - and for our friends devoted to local and sustainable foods, I'm afraid it's a poor choice. Yet the payoff is so wonderful when they are good, I keep up the hunt.

Last week I bought three mangoes at different stores, hoping at least one would be excellent. They all three turned out to be! Most mangoes we find in grocery stores are the relatively large, red-green type that come from Central America. If you shop at Asian groceries or co-ops, you may also find the smaller, yellow mangoes which tend to be a bit more sour, but which ripen better.

I cut them all up and mixed them in a mango medley. The result was really delicious, and the family gobbled up every bit.

Look for mangoes that are not rock hard, but also are not too soft. If you do find a soft one, look carefully to make sure it's not soft due to bruising. At home, they will ripen a bit more in the refrigerator.

The key to cutting up mango is to first remove all of the skin. Use a sharp knife, and carefully cut the skin away from the soft flesh underneath. Next, cut the flesh away from the large, flat pit at the center of the mango. If your knife runs into the pit, stop and change directions a bit until you get a feel for where the pit is. Cut as much flesh away from the pit as possible without cutting too far into the fibrous layer at the surface of the pit. Dice it up and serve it.

Timing & Technique
Nothing special here today. One tip: I've found minced "fresh" dill in the produce section of the grocery store. It's a product that is somewhere between dried and truly fresh. The brand I've used is Litehouse [sic] Freeze-Dried Herbs. This product keeps a long time and is nearly as good as store-bought fresh dill. Dill from your own garden is by far the best option, if you have it!

Monday, May 25, 2009

One Chicken, Two Meals

My dear readers, I'm sorry it's been so long! Life has been very busy. Not too busy to cook, just too busy to write about it! I'll try to catch up a few meals over the next couple days.

Last weekend I made a roast chicken dinner on Sunday, followed by mahtzoh ball soup for Monday. I was going to be out, and wanted to leave dinner for the family for Monday night.

Learning to roast a chicken, make gravy, and make stock are fundamentals that cooks perfect their whole lives. Everyone has different preferences. I'll give you my techniques - see if you like them, or augment them yourself to your own preferences.

Sunday dinner was roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, roasted beet salad, and broccoli. Monday was mahtzoh ball soup, a dinner salad, and hard rolls. In the interest of today's topic being how to get two meals from one chicken, I'm going to focus on those elements.

Roast Chicken
Brown Chicken Gravy
Mahtzoh Ball Soup

Roast Chicken
1 roasting chicken - 4lbs. or more
2-3 carrots, trimmed and diced (peeling is optional, but scrub if not peeled)
2-3 stalks celery, trimmed and diced
1 large yellow onion, trimmed, peeled and diced
Kosher salt

When roasting a chicken, I have three objectives: (1) develop the flavor of the chicken as much as possible, (2) cook the breast and dark meats such that both are tender and moist, and they are done at about the same time, and (3) develop the pan juices for the most delicious possible gravy.

I've read and experimented a great deal on this topic. This is the technique I now use to achieve these goals.

24 hours before roasting, rub a generous amount (2-3 T) of Kosher salt all over the inside cavity and outside of the chicken. Wrap with plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator until 1 hour before roasting. This process of salting the meat a day ahead of time is equivalent to brining. However, I find brining to be more unweildy - you have to find refrigerator space for a large pot - and it takes a lot more salt.

One hour before baking, remove the chicken from the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 375F. Trim and dice all of the vegetables. Place a rack in a roasting pan. Scatter the vegetables all over the bottom of the pan. Place the chicken on the rack breast side down [if the neck was included, lay it directly on the bottom of the roaster with the vegetables], and place in the oven.

The sole purpose for the vegetables is for them to brown and add flavor to the gravy. You'll be watching them carefully. For a rich, brown gravy, the vegetables must be very well-browned - almost burned. But if they scorch, the gravy is ruined.

To complicate matters a bit, you are also roasting a chicken. Total roasting time will be about 20 minutes per pound of chicken (e.g., 1:40 for a 5-pounder). However, you'll be using other methods to fine-tune the cooking time. I find I often cook them longer than this rule of thumb. Further, by starting the bird breast-side down, you'll brown and cook the legs and thighs first, which keeps the breast moist. But to brown the breast, you'll need to flip the bird at some point in the baking - typically about 2/3rds through.

After the first hour or so, you should check the pan every 10 minutes. You are looking for the doneness of the veggies, and also the color of the back-side of the chicken. When the chicken is a rich caramel color, turn it over. The breast will be light and will show the marks of the rack, but don't worry, the rest of the cooking will take care of that.

When the veggies are as dark as you dare let them go without burning, add a cup or two of water to the pan. Water does not need to completely cover the veggies, but it must completely cover the bottom of the roaster. The chicken, however, should not have water on it. [For the science-minded, the temperature of liquid water cannot exceed its boiling point, about 212F. Browning reactions occur at higher temperatures. As long as the veggies are kept moist, they will brown no further. Because of this, adding water too soon will also stop the browning. Deep browning creates flavor. Fat remains liquid at higher temperatures, so the chicken fat rendering into the pan will continue to brown the veggies until water is added.]

After you flip the chicken, watch the color of the skin. When it is becoming deep brown, insert a digital thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. It should reach about 165F to be done. Don't let it get much above this, or it will dry out. [The exterior of the bird is hotter than the interior, and will continue to cook the interior after it's removed from the oven, typically raising the temperature another 5 degrees or so until the inevitable cooling down.]

Remove chicken from the roaster and place it on a cutting board to rest - at least 10 minutes - before carving.

This method will produce a well-browned, crisp skin and deep, rich flavor without added butter or other ingredients. If you want, you can stuff the cavity of the bird with herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, bay leaf and Italian parsley. If you do so, remove before making stock (see below).

Save every bit of bone, skin and unused meat from this step. It will become the foundation of your stock. Save the bones from the thighs and legs. Also, save any juices that drain from the chicken before and during carving, and add those to the stock as well.

Brown Chicken Gravy
pan drippings and roasted carrots, celery and onions from roasted chicken
buttermilk (1/2 pint or more)
2-3 T butter
2-3 T flour
salt & pepper

First, make a roux with the butter and flour. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, stir in the flour, and cook over medium-low heat until the flour and butter are nut brown, stirring often. I use a whisk for this. The amount of roux you make will depend on how thick or thin you like gravy. I like a relatively thin gravy. Making a brown roux will enhance the color of the gravy, and deepen its flavor.

In the mean time, place the roasting pan over a burner (or two burners if it is oblong and reaches two burners). The secret to this stage of gravy making is heat and speed. Have all ingredients ready, and get this process done fairly quickly. Add 2-3 cups of hot water to the pan (I often use water from boiling the potatoes) and bring to a vigorous boil. While it's coming up to temperature, use the whisk or a spoon to scrape loose all of the brown bits clinging to the sides and bottom of the roaster. This process is called "deglazing", and is the source of much of the flavor in your gravy. If your roasting pan has a lot of brown glaze left on it when you clean up, you missed a lot of flavor!

Once the pan is deglazed, pour in the buttermilk, whisking vigorously. I love buttermilk gravy. If you don't, just use an additional cup or two of water. At this point, all of the veggies are still in the pan. Bring back to a full boil. Now, working with about 1/4th of it at a time, whisk in the roux. Keep the gravy boiling - this emulsifies the fats and creates a smooth, homogenous gravy. With each addition of roux, let it fully dissolve and cook into the gravy. You'll see it thickening. Stop adding roux when the gravy is at a desired thickness. Reduce heat to low. Grind a generous amount of black pepper over the gravy and whisk one more time.

Place a medium-mesh strainer over a bowl large enough to hold the gravy. Strain the gravy into the bowl. [There will still be tiny bits of veggies in the gravy. If you are a purist for a velvety, pure gravy, use a chinois or fine-mesh strainer and strain a second time. Work quickly so it stays hot.]

Check salt. Salty gravy is yummy, so don't be shy. But be careful. Over-salted gravy is ruined. Better to add small amounts at a time and mix well before adding more.

Mahtzoh Ball Soup
1 qt. chicken stock
carcass from roasted chicken
2 carrots, trimmed and cut into large chunks
3 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into large chunks
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled and quartered
1 tsp. dried Herbes d'Provence
1 tsp. whole peppercorns
1-2 dried bay leaves
1 pkg. mahtzoh ball mix (I use Manischewitz), prepared per package instructions
2 eggs
light olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced

Make the stock as follows: place the chicken carcass and all the residual bits saved from dinner in a stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low. Use a skimmer or small mesh sieve to skim off any foam that forms during the first few minutes of cooking. Add all remaining ingredients (down through bay leaves), stir once, then do not stir again. Cook for at least 2 hours. It should be bubbling very gently, not boiling. If you can't get your burner low enough to prevent boiling, try stacking two burners (if it's safe and not tippy!).

Chicken stock flavor progresses as follows: first shallow and insipid, gradually becoming richer to a sweet-savory peak, then a gradual reducing in brightness as the flavor becomes more tired. You are trying to time it for that peak. This requires regular tasting. Unsalted stock won't have its full flavor, so you have to be discerning. It will develop body and richness as it cooks. There will come a point where the bouquet is heavenly, and the broth has a velvetiness and sheen. It will have a distinct and pervasive "chickeniness". At this point, remove it from the heat.

Strain the stock twice - first through a medium-mesh sieve, then a second time through a paper towel in a large sieve, or through a chinois [without the paper towel]. The paper towel method takes some practice - none can spill out - but it produces a clear broth with most of the fat removed.

Discard bones, skin and veggies from the stock. Rinse and wipe out the stock pot and return the strained stock to the pot. If you have more than a quart at this point, bring it to a low boil and reduce it (evaporate off some water) until it is about 1 quart. Now, check salt and add some until desired saltiness. You're making soup now, so get it to the level of saltiness you like your soup.

In the mean time, prepare the mahtzoh ball mix and dice the carrots and celery. Add the veggies to the stock, then form mahtzoh balls one at a time and drop into the soup. Cover tightly and cook according to the instructions, 25 minutes or so. Serve, or refrigerate and save for lunch or dinner later - this will keep several days.

[Note: if you've gotten the stock right, the chilled soup will be gelatinous. This is caused by dissolved marrow and connective tissue from the chicken, and is a rich source of flavor and nutrients. If the chilled soup is runny, either the stock didn't cook long enough, or it wasn't reduced enough.]

Technique & Timing
Since this post doesn't follow my normal format, most of these topics were woven in above. On timing, I prepared all of this in one night. That may sound formidable, but it's not too bad. Except for the final stage, the carrots, celery and onions can be rough-chopped - especially in the stock. Most of the elapsed time is taken by roasting or simmering, during which you can do other things.

One more thing: ever had demi glace, that super-rich beef-broth-based sauce served in high-end restaurants? You can make an extraordinarily rich and delicious chicken demi glace as well. After you've double-strained your stock, return it to a clean pot with the heat on low. Gradually reduce it to about 1 cup. If skin forms on the top, remove it with the back of a spoon (the film will cling to it) - this film is made of impurities that you can gradually clean away in this manner. Eventually, skin will no longer form. When the stock is reduced to a cup (this will take several hours, and it will seem like the pan is almost empty), carefully pour it into a bowl or measuring cup with a spout. It will be deep-golden in color, and very velvety, with incredibly intense flavor. Pour a little - 1/4 cup or so - into snack-sized ziplock bags and freeze [write the date and contents on the bag in permanent marker to remember what they are and when you made them].

I use chicken demi glace to finish stir-frys, make quick pan-sauces for roasted potatoes, in pasta dishes, or to enrich soups. Pretty much anywhere you want rich, intense chicken flavor.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spinach & Egg White Omelets, Fresh Fruit, Wheat Toast

The ladies in my life are watching what they eat, so despite the chili dogs a few days ago I'm mostly keeping things healthy. Two nights ago I made my broiled walleye with broccoli (see this post) and a baked potato (served with yogurt, no butter or sour cream).

Last night I made an omelet with egg whites and fresh spinach. I developed this technique a while ago, and the outcome is both delicious and quite beautiful, especially with the red of the tomato against the pale-green of the omelet. My kids were skeptical, but they loved it after tasting it. This is a great way to get spinach into a meal. Enjoy!

Spinach-Egg White Omelets with Asiago and Fresh Tomato
Fresh Fruit Salad of Strawberries, Raspberries and Tangerines
Wheat Toast (lightly buttered)

Spinach-Egg White Omelets with Asiago and Fresh Tomato
(serves 4)
8 oz. fresh baby spinach, rinsed and trimmed (or buy a bag that's pre-cleaned)
9-10 egg whites
about 1/2 c. grated asiago cheese
about 1/2 c. diced tomato
salt & pepper
butter (for cooking)

Pour an inch of water into a 3 quart saucepan, bring to a boil, add the spinach, reduce heat to low, stir once, cover, and let cook for about 4 minutes. Drain in a mesh sieve. Use the back of a spoon to squeeze out moisture. Allow to cool in the sieve resting over the sink.

Place the spinach in a blender with about 2 of the egg whites. Blend briefly to puree (about 6-10 seconds is all you'll need). Pour the spinach-egg mixture from the blender into a bowl with the rest of the egg whites and whisk until well-blended. (At this stage the mixture will be a dark green that isn't very pleasant, but after it cooks, the whites turn white and the spinach lightens, making the appearance much more beautiful.)

Heat a 6-8" non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 tsp. of butter; melt and swirl around the pan. Working quickly (so the butter doesn't brown), pour in 1/4th of the egg-spinach mixture. Swirl around the pan to cover the bottom. Cook until nearly set. Carefully flip over. Sprinkle 1/4th of the cheese over half of the omelet. Turn heat to low. After about 30 seconds, fold the omelet in half over the cheese and cook for about a half-minute more. Transfer to a plate, and top with 1/4th of the diced tomato.

Turn the heat back to medium-high and repeat 3 more times to make the remaining omelets.

Fresh Fruit Salad of Strawberries, Raspberries and Tangerines
(serves 4)
6 oz. fresh raspberries
10-12 oz. fresh strawberries, cored and quartered
2 tangerines

Place the raspberries and strawberries in a serving bowl. Working one at a time, trim the top and bottom off of a tangerine. Place a flat side of the tangerine on a board, and carefully cut away the rest of the peel, working from the top towards the board. Squeeze any juice from the trimmings over the fruit. Hold a sharp knife in your dominant hand, and the tangerine in the other, over the fruit bowl. Cut the tangerine into wedges by cutting into the fruit along each membrane - cutting on either side of each membrane to loosen each wedge. Allow them to drop into the bowl as they come free. Tangerines can be seedy...don't worry about any flesh you leave in the core and around the seeds. After cutting out all the wedges, squeeze the juice from the tangerine into the bowl.

Toss gently to mix and coat the fruit with the tangerine juice, and serve.

This is a quick meal. I cooked the spinach first, and while it was draining and cooling, separated the eggs, grated the cheese, diced the tomato and finished the fruit. Put the shredded cheese and diced tomato in prep bowls by the stove. Then you can quickly make the omelets and serve immediately. You'll have time to toast bread while the eggs are setting for each omelet.

I love this technique for pureeing spinach with eggs. I don't remember ever having it taught to me...I just tried it once when I was looking for ways to get more spinach into my non-spinach-eaters' diets. You can do the same with whole eggs, then mix it with flour to make fresh spinach pasta. The spinach retains moisture, so your ordinary proportions of flour to egg will need to be adjusted.

I also love this technique for segmenting citrus fruits. You get delicious, juicy segments without seeds, and the remaining flesh and membrane can be juiced, as we did for this recipe. And it's so sweet, no added sugar is needed.

Tabbouli Salad & Pitas

When my daughter arrived home from college on Sunday evening, she was ready for anything that was a break from dorm food. The perfect light meal was tabbouli (or tabbouleh) salad with pitas, feta cheese and Greek olives. This is a fairly quick meal, and super-good for you.

I buy whole-wheat pitas, warm them in the oven at 300 for a few minutes, cut them in half, then carefully open the "pocket" with a sharp knife.

Tabbouli Salad
Crumbled Feta
Kalamata Olives (pitted and halved lengthwise)

Tabbouli Salad
(serves 4)
3/4 c. bulgur wheat (I buy Arrowhead Mills organic)
1 c. hot water
1 medium tomato, diced
1/2 c. or more fresh parsley, minced
1 bunch scallions, trimmed, rinsed, and sliced thinly (all of the white plus 1" of the green part)
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
a generous pinch of salt and freshly-ground pepper

Place the wheat and water in medium bowl, stir once, cover with plastic wrap or a lid and let sit for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, prep all remaining ingredients. Remove the cover from the wheat, stir it, and, holding the bowl over the sink, carefully drain off any excess liquid. Add all remaining ingredients, and mix thoroughly.

Folks have many preferences for additional ingredients - mint and cucumber are typical. Some add garlic, but I prefer not to. I prefer this simple version for its clean, earthy flavors.

Serve with pitas, crumbled feta cheese, and olives.

This is a quick, easy light meal. Or you can add kebabs (chicken, lamb, or beef) to make it more substantial. I also sometimes make a yogurt-cucumber-garlic sauce with it. Buy good-quality plain (unsweetened) yogurt. Peel, seed and finely-dice a cucumber. Mince, then mash a clove of garlic (or press it through a garlic press). Mix together with a little salt. Add a bit of dried, ground cumin if you like.

Even with the extras, it can all be done in about 45 minutes, the time it takes the bulgur wheat to hydrate. The Tabbouli keeps very well in the fridge for a few days.

Most of the work on this meal is chopping and mincing. Use it as an opportunity to work on your knife skills.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chili Dogs and Potato Salad

Summertime, and the livin' is easy. OK, it's not quite summertime, but warm spring weather has us hungry for summer favorites. I rarely get chili dogs at restaurants or ball games, but I make them at home fairly often - in part because I can control the level of sheer grease-o-mania. I have been known to make my own chili for chili dogs, but it's so much easier, probably healthier, and possibly more delicious to use Amy's Vegetarian Chili (I get the "spicy" variety) - look in the "canned chili" section of the grocery store (I usually add a little salt, but find the rest of the flavors to be well-balanced).

This potato salad recipe comes from our long-time neighbor and dear friend Joan Alger. It's my favorite recipe for potato salad ever - mild, velvety sauce that has a bit of tang via the use of sour cream, plus big slices of potatoes and eggs. Again, don't do this the night before a cholesterol check.

But hey, we gotta worry about the arteries of our souls clogging, too, and this combo evokes sunshine, kids tearing around at picnics, parents enjoying conversation in brief respite from life's duties, and grandparents fanning themselves in the shade. Ahhhhh, summer!

If you're feeling particularly in need of spiritual renewal, throw in a rootbeer float. Doctor's orders.

Chili Dogs
Potato Salad
Radishes and Pickles

Chili Dogs
(serves 4)
4 all-beef wieners
4 large hotdog or bratwurst buns (whole wheat if you like)
1 c. chili (vegetarian or meat), heated
small bowl minced onion
1/2 c. or more shredded mild cheddar cheese

Grill the wieners, or simmer them in water, or microwave them. Toast the buns on the grill (if you like). Place a cooked wiener in each bun. Scoop a couple generous tablespoons of chili over each wiener. Sprinkle with onions, then with cheese, and serve.

Potato Salad
(serves 6-8)
6 medium potatoes (I use Yukon Golds), peeled and gently boiled until just soft but not falling apart, cooled and cut into pieces 1-2" large and 1/4" thick (roughly)
6 eggs (I use one or two extra), hard-boiled (see my March 27th posting for tips), peeled and sliced
3/4 c. mayonnaise (I use Hellman's)
3/4 c. sour cream
1/4 c. cider vinegar
3 T sugar
1 T prepared mustard

Whisk together the ingredients for the sauce in a medium bowl. Drizzle a little in the bottom of a large bowl (to provide a base). Working in layers, add potatoes, egg slices, and sauce, ending with sauce on top. Try to assemble such that very little stirring is needed to mix, so the potatoes and eggs don't break up too much.

Serve immediately (I prefer this recipe when it's fresh and not ice-cold). (It will keep in the fridge for a few days, though.)

Timing this meal is all about the potato salad. The potatoes always take longer than you'd think, and they have to cool down after they're cooked and before you slice them. Leave 90 minutes or more for this process. The eggs are easier because you bathe them in ice-cold water after cooking.

Nothing too technically challenging in this meal.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Notes on New Orleans Cuisine

For those of you who follow my Twitter stream ( you know I've been in New Orleans for the past 24 hours. It's been insanely fun. I'm proud to report every meal I had was at a local establishment, and it was truly amazing - gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, oysters cooked two ways (probably the best cooked oysters of my life), beignets and chicory coffee, hot sausage po' boy, pecan pie, bread pudding with whiskey sauce. It was my first trip here, so I probably went a little overboard.

Because I love to cook, I love to eat the food of great cooks and think about what they've done. For example, the crust of the pecan pie was not the typical flaky pie crust used for fruit pies up north. It was the flavor and texture of unsweetened shortbread, the perfect foil to the super-sweet jellied filling of pecan pie. Note to self: unsalted butter and flour, with very little added salt, worked into a smooth, even mixture.

The oysters were stunning morsels of warm richness, flavored with wine, butter, salt, shallot and bay leaf; their soft, fatty richness was reminiscent of foie gras. They were not the least bit fishy. Note to self: buy super-fresh oysters, marinate in wine first, then braise carefully in buerre blanc until hot, plump, and just done; serve with a single slice of well-browned garlic bread in the middle of a bowl, oysters all around, and plenty of the braising liquid.

And on it goes.

Great cooking requires careful attention while eating. When you taste something you love, start asking how it could be done. Pay attention to the balance of seasonings, textures, and aromatics. Think about the technical steps that might be required to achieve what you're tasting. File away what it looks, smells and tastes like when it's perfect, so you can refine your own version later.

Cooking is not about recipes alone. Recipes list ingredients and describe a process for assembling and transforming them. But you make a hundred decisions with every dish - even simple ones - that are not specified or dictated in the recipe. It's much like music. Every violinist who plays a Mozart violin concerto plays the same notes, yet sometimes it's boring, other times magical. It's your job to figure out how to achieve the latter.

Vietnamese-Style Fish "Grilled" w/Aromatics, Southeast Asian Green Salad, White Rice

I have never been to southeast Asia, but the flavors of Thailand, Malaysia and Viet Nam are my favorites. I've learned to cook them by seeking out the best Asian restaurants in the Twin Cities (and wherever I travel), reading cookbooks, and talking with the Vietnamese, Thai and Malay travelers and immigrants I meet.

Our dinner Sunday night was a super-simple, quick meal evocative of the flavors of Viet Nam. You can make this meal in about 25-30 minutes.

By the way, the Chez Charles survey is still open - please take a minute to give me some feedback! For those who already have, thank you!

Tilapia in Aromatics, Lime Juice and Fish Sauce, Cooked over the Grill
Green Salad w/Pickled Cucumbers and Onions
Jasmine Rice

Tilapia in Aromatics, Lime Juice and Fish Sauce, Cooked over the Grill
(serves 2)
12-16 oz. mild fish - Tilapia, Red Snapper, and Walleye all work well - cut into 4" pieces
1/2 medium vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced thin against the grain, then halved (into 90-degree arcs)
1/2 c. rough-chopped fresh cilantro
1" cube of fresh ginger, sliced very thinly
1/2 lime
1-2 tsp soy sauce
fish sauce to taste (about 2 T)
drizzle of light olive oil

Preheat the grill. If you have a has grill with an upper shelf, set the heat to high. If you have a gas grill without an upper shelf, set it to medium-low heat. If using coals (preferred), get them started, then push them into a ring at the edges of the grill so there's no direct heat under the center of the grill.

Make a tray for the fish using foil (or buy a small foil pan). I used two sheets of foil about 2' long, folded them in half (to make 4 layers), then folded up the sides to a height of about 1 inch or a bit more and crimped them at the edges to hold them in place. Sprinkle a little of the ginger and onion on the bottom, add a layer of fish, sprinkle on more ginger and onion and half of the cilantro, add remaining fish, and top with remaining ginger, onion and cilantro. Drizzle one T of water over the fish. Squeeze the juice from the lime all over the fish. Spoon the soy sauce and fish sauce all over the fish. Drizzle lightly all over with the olive oil.

Carefully transfer the foil tray to the grill, taking care not to spill any juices. Depending on your grill configuration, cooking time will vary. The grill needs to be covered because you are essentially baking the fish, but you'll need to check periodically for doneness, and also to make sure it's not getting too hot. If the contents of the tray begin to scorch on the bottom, add a little more water. Cook until the fish is flaky and cooked through, but still moist.

Carefully remove the pan from the grill, reserving the precious juices. Pour fish and juice into a serving bowl. Gently turn pieces once or twice to coat, but try to keep the pieces whole. Keep warm until serving.

Green Salad w/Pickled Cucumbers and Onions
(serves 2)
3-4 leaves of green leaf lettuce, trimmed, rinsed and dried with a towel or paper towel
1 smallish cucumber, peeled (but not too deeply - leave the pale-green flesh next to the skin), halved lengthwise, seeded (scrape out seeds with a soup spoon) and cut into 1/8" slices
1/2 vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced thinly against the grain, then cut in half lengthwise to form 90-degree arcs
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced in to thin discs
~1/4 c. seasoned rice vinegar
sugar to taste - 2 tsp. or more
crushed dried hot chilies, preferably Thai

Place the cucumber slices, onion and rice vinegar in a medium-sized bowl. Add 2-3 T water. Toss until well-coated. Add sugar and toss again. Taste - it should be slightly sweet-sour. Add sugar or vinegar if needed. Allow to marinate for 30 minutes, tossing every 10 minutes. The cucumber slices will release liquid, diluting the vinegar mixture. Taste again just before serving and adjust vinegar and sugar as needed. The salt in the seasoned vinegar adds enough shouldn't need more, but trust your judgment and add a bit of salt if you think it's needed.

Lay the lettuce leaves in a stack, roll them up, and slice thinly to make ribbons. Make a pile of ribbons on each of two plates. Spoon cucumber and onion slices over the lettuce, plus a generous amount of the sauce. Sprinkle with carrot slices and hot chili flakes (if desired). Serve.

Jasmine Rice
(serves 2-3)
3/4 c. high-quality jasmine rice
water for cooking

Cooking rice perfectly is the easiest thing on Earth, if you have the restraint not to mess with it, and the gumption to shop for good rice. Go to an Asian grocer's...they'll inevitably have a dozen varieties of jasmine rice. Ask the proprietor which is best, and buy it. (Do the same with fish sauce, by the way.)

Place the rice in a medium saucepan. Pour in cold water until the pan is 3/4 full, swirl the rice around with your hand until cloudy (this is loose starch being rinsed free of the rice), and carefully pour off the water without pouring out any rice. Repeat 4-6 times until the water is mostly clear after rinsing. Add cold water to cover the rice by about 1". Place over medium heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Immediately turn the heat to low (if you have electric burners, move the pan to a separate burner set to low) and cook for 15 minutes, covered. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes more. Fluff with a large spoon, let sit for a couple more minutes, then serve.

You should never stir the rice throughout this entire process. You'll get perfectly-done, delicious white rice.

Serve with the fish and salad, drizzling a little of the juices from the fish over the rice.

This is a quick meal. Take the fish out of the fridge to warm up a bit. Start the grill/coals. Then start the rice - it takes the longest to cook. Get the cucumber marinating, then add the onion. Since each dish calls for 1/2 an onion, and the pieces are the same size, cut up the whole onion at once to save time. Once the cuke and onion are marinating, make the foil tray for the fish and assemble the fish dish. Check the grill, and re-arrange the coals if cooking with them. Get the fish on the grill. Finish the salad prep and chill plates. When the fish is done, pour it into its serving bowl. The rice should be done. Assemble the salads and serve.

This fish recipe is adapted from a similar one that calls for steaming the fish, which results in a lot more liquid. I prefer grilling, which intensifies flavors and adds smokiness to the aromatics. I have no actual experience to validate this, but my instinct tells me this would be cooked over coals or wood quite often in Viet Nam.

You have to watch this dish carefully during cooking (though without losing too much of the cooking heat) and add water if it's drying out. Having some residual sauce with the fish is critical to the cooking and eating. This is a fabulously delicious and healthy way to make fish. The only fats are the natural oils in the fish plus light olive oil - both help raise "good" cholesterol levels.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Italian Feast

We recently had our neighbors Don and Mary Lee over for talk about travel, and lots of Italian food and wine. It was a fun night, one in which we all ate too much and loved every minute of it!

I've already discussed the fact that I'm not ready to divulge the recipe for my red sauce, but I'll tell you everything else we did, and you can substitute your own favorite red sauce in the meal.

Also, the Chez Charles Survey is still open. I'd love your feedback to make my blog better. It's short and sweet - one minute tops. Thank you!

Cheese and Olives
Green Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
Rigatoni with Red Sauce
Italian Sausage
Black Cherry Gelato & Chocolate-Cherry-Heath Bar-Oatmeal Cookies

Cheese and Olives
assorted cured olives (Olive Bar at Byerly's)
three cheeses:
truffled sheep's milk cheese
Pecorino Toscana fresca
Asiago Lagorai
crisps (I LOVE Lavasch crisp flatbread, sold at Byerly's and not expensive)

This is the simplest of first courses. Put everything out, stick cheese knives in the cheese, pour the beverages, and enjoy. With it, we drank a peppery zinfandel and also beer - Surly Furious, which is hoppy and spiked with coriander.

Green Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Simple green leaf lettuce salad with tomato wedges and a little red onion. For extra crisp, super-fresh tasting greens, rinse them 2-3 hours before dinner, layer them in a dish towel, roll them up and put them in the fridge. Just before serving, unroll them and tear them into pieces for the salad. I also chill plates for salads.

For the Dressing:
1 small clove garlic, minced
pinch of dry mustard
1/4 tsp. (scant) onion powder (I keep onion flakes from Pensey's in my pantry, and crush a few in a mortar with a pestle when I need powder)
pinch of white pepper
4 tsps. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
dash of tobasco
1/3 c. sour cream
1 c. mayonnaise (I only use Hellman's)
1-2 oz. buttermilk or half-and-half
3 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
3 oz. blue cheese, small chunks

Dissolve spices into vinegar along with garlic, Worchestershire, and tabasco. Combine with sour cream and mayonnaise. Thin dressing with buttermilk. Add blue cheese. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours for flavors to develop. This dressing is best 1-2 days after you make it, and will keep for a week or more covered tightly in the fridge.

This is, hands-down, the best blue cheese dressing I've ever eaten. Maytag Blue is my favorite cheese to use, but I also use Pete's Select, or a good Gorgonzola when I'm doing Italian. When I was given this recipe, I was told it's from Kincaid's restaurant.

Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
See my April 20th posting for this recipe. In short: Slice a baguette diagonally into 1/2"-thick slices. Brush each side lightly with olive oil. Grill carefully over low heat until browned on both sides. While still warm, rub each side with sliced raw garlic. Store leftovers in a plastic bag - keeps pretty well for a couple days.

Rigatoni with Red Sauce
(serves 4)
Boil 1 lb. of your favorite dried pasta (I use Barilla brand) in a large pot of lightly-salted water to desired texture. Drain, transfer to a large serving bowl, and cover with piping-hot red sauce. Toss briefly, and serve family style. Put out a bowl of extra sauce on the side, if you like. Serve with red pepper flakes and freshly-grated Parmesiano-Reggiano, if you like.

Italian Sausage
Buy your favorite mild or spicy Italian sausages. For extra fun, go to a good local meat market, such as Clancy's Meats on 38th & Cedar in Minneapolis, and buy their house sausage. You can also get fantastic sausage, cheese and other products at Cosetta's in St. Paul on 7th Street. I've had great results with national brands such as Johnsonville as well.

Slow-cook the sausages on a low grill, turning often, until deeply-browned all over but still juicy, about 15 minutes (depending, of course, on the heat of the grill). Let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes, then slice into 1-2" lengths. Place in serving bowl, toss with a little of the red sauce, and serve. You can also add them directly to the pasta bowl and toss with the pasta as well.

Black Cherry Gelato & Chocolate-Cherry-Heath Bar-Oatmeal Cookies
This pairing for dessert was delicious. The gelato was light, with both brightness and depth contributed by the black cherries. The cookies are very sweet, thin and crisp, a perfect foil to the gelato, and of course the cherries in the cookies marry them to the cherries in the gelato. We drank a 10-year-old Chianti Classico with dessert, and it was lovely.

For the Gelato:
3/4 c. potted black cherries with some of their syrup, placed in a food processor and pulsed briefly to chop into chunks
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. cold heavy cream, whipped with a whisk until a bit foamy (be careful not to over-whip, it should be nowhere near the firm stage)
3/4 c. water
1.5 tsp. corn starch

Stir the sugar, corn starch and water together in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring often, and boil for 1 minute to dissolve the sugar and corn starch. Remove from heat. Pour into a medium-sized, chilled ceramic bowl. The chilling won't be enough to make the syrup cold, but it will bring down the temp a bit. Stir in the cherries and their juice. Stir in the cream. Mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until completely chilled - at least 3 hours or overnight. Transfer to your favorite ice cream maker and process until beginning to set. Put in a small bowl and freeze until firm, 2-3 hours or more. Serve 2 or 3 small (1.5" scoop) balls per person.

For the Cookies:
(makes 3 dozen)
1 c. salted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
1.5 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1.5 c. oatmeal
1 c. dried whole cherries, cut in half
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli)
1 c. Heath toffee bits

Cream together butter and sugars until fluffy. Beat in eggs. Beat in Vanilla and salt. Thoroughly stir in baking soda and flour, being careful not to get the soda on the sides of the bowl. Stir in all remaining ingredients. Lay out three 2-3'-long sheets of waxed paper. Divide the dough into three parts, and form each into a log on the waxed paper. Wrap up and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350. Cut parchment paper to fit on a large cookie sheet (or use a silpat). Working with one log at a time, cut into 1/2"-3/4" slices and bake (the dough will spread out so leave room between the cookies) for about 8-10 minutes. Cool and serve.

This dough freezes extremely well. Just wrap some plastic wrap over the wax paper you initially wrapped them in. I've used dough frozen for 6-months and it tasted just like fresh.

These cookies are sinfully delicious. They're very sweet, and though they're crisp, they're also chewy, with a bit of tart from the cherries and a nice robust texture from the oatmeal. This was originally a Martha Stewart recipe. I placed one on each plate with the gelato, and set out a separate plate with a bunch more cookies. They were all eaten. :-)

This meal takes some preparation. Both dessert items require long lead times. I did both in the morning, but you might want to start the the day before your meal. The blue cheese dressing is best if made a day ahead of time as well.

The prep that takes the longest with this meal, though, is shopping! Take a trip to your favorite gourmet cheese shop, butcher shop and bakery. It may take some hunting to find potted black cherries (I found them at Byerly's). Rummage through your local wine shop (or your cellar, if you've stored your own wines) for somet special bottles. Because the preparations are simpe, what really makes this meal special is using high-quality ingredients.

Ice cream making is easy, but getting that perfect texture and flavor balance is harder than you'd think. In his tome, On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee devotes a whole section to sorbets and ice creams. Getting the right balance of sweet and acid, adequate aeration, and freezing speed all influence the final product. Gelato is different from ice cream in two key ways: it has no egg yolk (so it's not custard-based), and typically has less cream by volume. This recipe combines cream, fruit and simple sugar. Nearly every gelato recipe I've seen calls for a little corn starch to help thicken the base. I'm not a big fan of corn starch, but in this case it does contribute a smoothness to the final texture. Whipping the cream lightly adds air (and lightness) which is not possible with ice cream (because the cream is cooked with egg yolks into custard). Finally, the tongue perceives warm foods as sweeter than cold. When you've made the base, taste it for sweetness. It should taste a bit sweeter than you want your final product, because after freezing it will taste less sweet.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Garlic Smashed Potatoes, Sauteed Mushrooms, Creamed Green Beans

Happy Monday morning, and thank you for your readership! I've been running this little experiment for a few weeks now, and I'd love your feedback. Please take a minute to take the Chez Charles Survey.

On the warm, lovely day we had on Thursday, I did a little grilling and we had a delicious summer dinner. These green beans take me back to my childhood. My paternal grandmother died before I was born, and her sister, my great aunt, Mayme Wester, became my adopted grandma. She lived to 96, and spent all but the last 4 months of it on her own in her little house. She was a great cook and baker - especially her pies and cookies. She used to make these creamed green beans for me when I was a boy. Luckily, she lived until I was in my 20's, so I was able to get some of her recipes, including this one.

Grilled Pork Tenderlion
Garlic Smashed Potatoes
Sauteed Mushrooms
Creamed Green Beans

Grilled Pork Tenderlion
5-8 oz. pork tenderloin per person
olive oil

At least 2 and as many as 5 days before serving, rub the tenderloin all over with coarse or Kosher salt. Use a generous amount, but not excessive - you're not creating a crust. I use about 1/2 tsp for a 6-7 oz. tenderloin. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator (not freezer!). 1 hour before grilling, take the pork out of the fridge, and rub all over with a little olive oil.

Grill over hot coals or a gas grill on high, turning 2 or three times to brown on all sides. Test for doneness by texture - very soft for rare, quite firm for well-done. There's still a lot of squeemishness out there around uncooked pork, but tenderloin is at its best medium-rare. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before slicing into medallions and serving.

Garlic Smashed Potatoes
1/4 lb. skin-on new potatoes per person, scrubbed with a brush (we're eating the skins)
1 clove garlic per person, peeled and ends trimmed off
1 tsp butter per person
half-and-half or whole milk, about 1/4 cup per person
olive oil

Heat oven to 300. Place the garlic in a little packet of foil with a drizzle of olive oil. Bake until soft, about 25 minutes. Mash with a fork in a small bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in a large pot covered by at least 2" of cold water. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and keep at a low boil until soft and peels are cracking - about 30 minutes. Drain off all the water, and add the mashed garlic and all remaining ingredients. Mash with a potato masher until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

You can use fingerlings or other gourmet potatoes for this recipe such as Yukon Golds, but I prefer simple baby or medium red potatoes, which are less waxy.

Sauteed Mushrooms
8 oz. fresh button mushrooms, rinsed and quartered
1 T butter
1 tsp. flour
1 c. white wine
1/2 c. chicken stock
1 clove garlic, minced

Melt 1 tsp the butter in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute briefly until soft. Add the mushrooms and a couple pinches of salt and saute for 10 minutes, stirring or tossing frequently. They can brown slightly, but don't let them get too brown - they should be releasing their moisture into the pan. Add the white wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated.

Meanwhile, in a separate small pan, make a roux of the remaining 2 tsp of butter and the flour. Melt the butter, stir in the flour, and cook, stirring frequently, until it just begins to brown - it should be a deep yellow color.

Working quickly, add the chicken stock to the mushrooms, bring to a boil, and add about 1 tsp. of the roux. Stir quickly to dissolve and cook. If the sauce is too thin, add a little more roux. Do this step quickly so the stock doesn't evaporate too much. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed.

Creamed Green Beans
(serves 4)
8-10 oz. fresh green beans per person, trimmed and cut into 1" pieces
salted water
1 T butter
1 T flour
milk - about 3/4 c.

Cook the green beans via the "salt water" technique I described in my March 31st posting. In short: gently boil in salt water until al dente. The water should be as salty as sea water.

Drain the beans and reserve. Briefly rinse the pan and return to heat. Melt the butter and add the flour, stirring and cooking briefly to make a blond roux - it should not brown at all - about 45 seconds. While stirring or whisking continuously, begin to pour in the milk in a fine stream. When you've added about 1/2 of the milk, stop adding; stir and cook for a bit to watch it thicken. If it's getting too thick, add a bit more milk. Continue this process until you have a thick, creamy sauce - it should be a bit thicker than you'd make gravy, but loose enough to be creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the beans and stir to coat. Serve.

This is actually a pretty quick meal. I start with the potatoes, and while they're cooking, I have time to do everything else, ending with the cream for the beans, as that needs to be served right away.

Judy Rogers, chef and proprietor of the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, discusses salting meat in her Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I've tried her technique, and it's brilliantly simple and delicious. Buy your meat far enough in advance to do this. For beef, pork and lamb, rub a generous amount of coarse (or Kosher) salt all over the meat, wrap tightly, and store in the refrigerator (NOT freezer) for at least 2 days, and not more than 5, before cooking. For poultry, only salt 1-2 days before cooking. Salting meat a few hours before cooking can draw out its juices, but if you give it several days, the salt is absorbed all the way through the meat, and has the opposite effect of locking in the juices. It also helps preserve the meat. Baked or grilled meats prepared this way will be tender, moist, and very flavorful.

If you are familiar with cooking techniques, you'll have noticed that the "cream" for the beans is pretty much a classic bechamel (BESH-uh-mel) sauce - one of the French so-called "mother sauces". A favorite use of this sauce in my family growing up was "graveyard stew" - put a slice of toasted thick wheat bread on a plate, slather with "milk gravy" (unsalted or lightly-salted bechamel), sprinkle with sugar and sometimes cinnamon, and eat. Yum!

Bechamel is also the base of my macaroni and cheese recipe, and almost every other cheese sauce I make. It can be made with skim or 1% milk, which yields a creamy, rich sauce that is actually pretty low in fat. The most important step is the making of a blond roux - the flour must be cooked adequately, but no browning must occur or it will darken the bechamel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chicken Kebabs & Couscous Salad

I love skewers of grilled meat. As the weather warms up, I get the urge to grill pretty much every night. Last night (Tuesday) I invented a little salad with couscous and other goodies to accompany it. My son asked for white rice, so I made some. Simple, fresh, healthy, yummy.

Chicken Kebabs
Couscous Salad
White Rice

Chicken Kebabs
(serves 3)
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, trimmed of fat and cut into 1" chunks
1/4 c. white cooking wine (I used Chinese rice wine)
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small clove garlic, crushed and minced

Toss all ingredients together in a small bowl. Salt generously - about 1 tsp or more. Mix thoroughly. Marinate at room temperature for 30-60 minutes. Skewer chicken onto metal or bamboo skewers.

Cook on a hot grill, searing on all sides, until cooked through.

Couscous Salad
(serves 3)
3/4 c. uncooked couscous
1 c. water
1 tsp. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
~10 cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
~6-8 large fresh basil leaves, cut into narrow ribbons, then cut crosswise into small pieces
1/4 c. pitted Kalamata olives, halved lengthwise
1 slice of red onion (about 3-4" in diameter), rings separated and cut into 1/4" pieces
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
~1 tsp. fresh lemon juice - cut the bottom 1/2" from a lemon and squeeze its juice onto the salad
freshly ground pepper
salt to taste

Bring water, butter and salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat, stir in couscous, let sit uncovered for 5 minutes, then fluff thoroughly with a fork, breaking up clumps. Transfer to medium-sized bowl. Add all remaining ingredients and stir. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed.

White Rice
3/4 c. long-grain white rice
water for cooking

Place the rice in a medium saucepan. Rinse as follows: Pour in cold water and swirl with your hand to agitate loose starch. Pour off the cloudy water. Repeat 3-5 times. After rinsing, cover the rice with about 1/2 inch of water. Place over medium-high heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Immediately turn the heat to its lowest setting and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and leave covered for 10 minutes more. Fluff by stirring with a large spoon.

Do NOT stir rice while it's cooking. Don't open the lid. The best way to make rice involves the least possible effort. Also, find the best quality long-grain rice you can. I like to go to Asian markets and ask which rice is best. The range of quality is surprising.

This is a fast, easy meal. I made the whole thing in about 45 minutes (because of marinating time), with only about 20 minutes of work time. Start with the chicken, and while it's marinating rinse an start the rice and prepare the salad. Grill the skewers. Presto, prestissimo! Serve!

Use a very sharp knife when cutting fresh herbs, and don't crush them - slice them. As someone once said to me, if your cutting board is green after cutting herbs, you left a bunch of flavor ground into the board.

When grilling meat, test for done-ness with the flat side of tongs. Raw meat is soft, and it gets progressively firmer as it cooks. Getting these skewers well-browned requires hot heat, so they'll cook pretty fast - 6-9 minutes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sesame-Crusted Tilapia w/Tangerine Glaze, Lettuce Wrap Salads

I've been on a salad binge, and since my family isn't too big on salads, I've had to be creative. For Monday night I thought about making lettuce wrap salads - little self-contained salads wrapped in a lettuce leaf. It actually worked, and the whimsy of it sorta got them interested in salad. :-)

Seared sesame-crusted fish is passe as far as fine dining is concerned, but it's still delicious and very doable in a home kitchen. One warning: this smokes when you cook it, so if you don't have good ventilation, you may want to think twice before attempting it. If you have an old cast-iron skillet, try it on the grill outdoors.

Sesame-Crusted Tilapia with Tangerine Glaze
Lettuce Wrap Salads

Sesame-Crusted Tilapia with Tangerine Glaze
(serves 3-4)
For the fish:
1 lb (or a bit more) fresh Tilapia fillets, cut into 4" pieces
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1/4 c. sesame seeds, ground in a coffee grinder (don't over-process or they'll turn to paste)
2 eggs
~3 T olive oil for frying

Toss the bread crumbs and ground sesame seeds together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and about 1.5 tsp of salt (this is the only salt on the fish, so it's OK for the egg to be salty). One at a time, dredge the fish in egg, then the crumb-sesame seed mixture, and set on a cutting board or wax-paper-lined baking sheet. Allow to rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat, until nearly smoking. Carefully place all of the fish in the pan and allow to sear and brown well on one side. Using tongs, carefully turn each piece and sear the other side. Some of the crumb-sesame coating will become loose in the oil and begin to burn. There will be a lot of smoke. Muscle through and get that fish done, being careful to move fish toward the center of the pan as bits at the edges of the pan burn. (Test for done-ness with the smooth part of the tongs; uncooked meat, poultry and fish is soft when raw, but firm when cooked.) As they are done, remove pieces from pan to a paper-towel-covered plate to drain. Keep warm.

For the Tangerine Glaze
2 medium tangerines, juiced, seeds (but not pulp) removed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small shallot, minced
1 scant T minced fresh ginger
2 T seasoned rice vinegar
1-2 T sugar
~2 tsp. light olive oil
salt to taste

This is a technique taught to me by my cousin Jack Riebel, Executive Chef at the Dakota in Minneapolis. Fruit juice reductions enjoy greatly intensified flavors. Adding aromatics such as garlic and shallot give further depth to them. Finally, adding vinegar adds piquancy. Rice vinegar has sweetness and a little salt, which compliment the fruit beautifully. What you have in the end is intensely fruity, but also savory and bright.

Place oil, garlic, shallot and ginger in a small saucepan over medium heat, and saute until softened, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients except salt, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until 2/3 of liquid has evaporated off (about 40-50 minutes), stirring occasionally. Strain out all the solids by pouring through a small fine-meshed sieve. Press the solids with the back of a spoon to force through the juices, and scrape strained juice from the bottom of the sieve. Remove any remaining solids from the saucepan, and return the liquid to the pan (scrape the bowl with a small spatula to get as much as possible back into the pan). Return to low heat, and reduce further, by about 1/2 again, until it is syrupy and intensely flavored. Taste for salt - it only needs a tiny bit to brighten the flavors, maybe 1/4 tsp.

To serve, place the fish on a warm plate, and using a teaspoon, spoon a little of the glaze over each piece.

Lettuce Wrap Salads
(serves 3)
3 large green leaf lettuce leaves, washed, dried, and the base trimmed off
a small pile of carrot ribbons - peel a carrot, then, using the peeler, shave off thick ribbons (only the deep orange part, not the pale core)
a small pile of cucumber ribbons - peel the skin from a cucumber using a peeler, then shave off thick ribbons of cucumber as above (only the pale flesh, not the seeds or skin)
6 cherry tomatoes, halved (quartered if they are larger)
3 scallions, halved lengthwise, then cut into 1/2" pieces
2-3 oz. brie cheese, rind removed, briefly warmed in the microwave (it will liquify slightly)
small amount of vinaigrette of your choosing (I used some leftover blood-orange vinaigrette from a previous meal - blood orange juice, a little champaign vinegar, minced garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil)
3 decorative toothpicks

Lay out the lettuce leaves on a board. Smear a little of the brie down the center of each. Arrange cucumber, carrot, scallion and tomato in a line on the brie. Drizzle with a little vinaigrette. Carefully roll up and hold shut with a toothpick at the center. Place on a plate and refrigerate until served.

I started the glaze first, as it takes the longest. Then made the salad wraps. When the glaze had been strained and was nearly done, I finished the fish and served everything.

The trick with fruit reductions is to let them cook slowly. Many liquid ingredients benefit from reduction. For example, a high-quality balsamic vinegar will reduce into an intense syrup that is absolutely heavenly with roast pork - it has that raisiny-pruney character that marries so well with pork. Stocks intensify as they reduce as well - the greatest of all sauces, demi glace, is greatly reduced beef stock.

A reduced sugar-vinegar mixture is known in culinary terms as a gastrique. Often the sugar is carmelized before adding vinegar, wine and/or fruit juice. See this Wikipedia entry for more - this is a short, crisp description of how gastriques are made and used.