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.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mushroom Ravioli w/Pesto, Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread, Spring Salad

We've been talking about possibly taking a trip to Italy this summer. I was there 9 years ago on a business trip, but have never been there with my family. Anyways, thinking about Italy got me hungry for fresh pasta served simply with bread and salad. I made this on Sunday. Perfect fare for a rainy spring weekend. If you are daunted by the work to make fresh pasta, I encourage you to try it, at least once. If you don't have a pasta roller, you can use a rolling pin to roll out pasta. It's a little tricky getting the thickness right, but it yields a rustic result that has home-made charm.

A word on fat - are you afraid of fat in your diet? You shouldn't be. Humans need fat, and the right fats are an important component of a healthy diet. I believe in eating real food, and real food has fat. But here's the thing: if you eliminate processed foods from your diet, cook real recipes and eat a balanced diet, fat will take care of itself.

This meal has eggs, olive oil, nuts and cheese, but relatively small amounts amounts of each, and no meat (not that you should be afraid of meats, either!). Further, most of the fat comes from olive oil, which is a monosaturated fat (think: helps good cholesterol, lowers bad) and is high in anti-oxidants. Check out this link for more on the merits of olive oil:

So remember: fats are not all created equal! Eat real food, and live well and healthy!

Mushroom Ravioli w/Pesto
Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
Spring Salad w/Balsamic Vinaigrette

Mushroom Ravioli w/Pesto
(serves 4)
Mushroom Filling
8-10 crimini mushrooms (small portobellos), minced
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, minced fine
generous pinch of dried thyme
2-3 generous pinches salt
freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. butter
1/3 c. ricotta cheese

Melt the butter in a small saute pan over medium-low heat. Add mushrooms and garlic and heat through until beginning to steam, but not brown. Add thyme, salt & pepper. Reduce heat to low and slowly cook, stirring often, until the pan has no remaining moisture, about 25 minutes.

Transfer to a small bowl and add the ricotta cheese. Allow to sit for a minute so the mushrooms heat the cheese a bit to soften it. Stir together thoroughly and taste for salt. It should be just a bit salty, but not brightly so - the earthiness of the mushrooms and cheese should prevail. Set aside.

Fresh Pasta
2+ c. flour
3 extra-large eggs
1/2 tsp salt

Next, make the pasta. Place the flour in a medium bowl. Form a small well in the flour and into it add the eggs and salt, and, with a fork, blend the eggs and begin to draw in flour. Continue to work with the fork until the dough is forming chunks. Dump out onto a work surface and begin to knead and work the dough to thoroughly mix it, about 5-6 minutes. It should be very firm, but not sticky or dry - it should hold together without being crumbly. Add more flour if needed. If it's too dry, wet your hands with tap water and work it into the ball of dough - you should not need much.

(Liquid-to-flour ratios are difficult to get precise in pasta recipes because eggs are not all the same size, and flour is more or less dry in different climates. You just need to get used to the feel of it when its right.)

It is critical to rest the pasta dough at this point. Wrap it in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 15-30 minutes, or up to an hour. You will find the proteins have relaxed and the texture is much more malleable.

Cover a large sheet pan with wax paper or parchment. Lightly flour a board on which you'll work the ravioli. Set your pasta roller on its thickest setting. Work with 1/4 of the dough at a time, keeping the rest tightly wrapped. Roll the chunk of pasta dough through the roller. Fold it in half and repeat (still on widest setting). Do this 6 or 7 times. You are actually finishing the kneading process.

Now, begin to roll it thinner by reducing the thickness on the pasta roller by one setting each time, then rolling the sheet through. After it is at its thinnest, lay the sheet on the lightly floured work surface. With a sharp knife, trim the irregular ends. Picture (but don't actually do this!) the sheet being cut into two rows of evenly-sized squares. Using a teaspoon, scoop a dollop of filling onto the middle of each of these imaginary squares in the row closest to you. Using a pastry brush and a small bowl of water, brush a very small amount of water all around each dollop of filling. Carefully fold the pasta sheet over, pressing out the air as you go to avoid sealing in air bubbles, and press down to seal. Using the knife, trim away the edges around the ravioli, and cut them apart. Transfer them to the paper-lined sheet until ready to cook (as you pick each one up, pinch all around to make sure they're sealed).

Repeat this process with the next 1/4th of the dough. If you have filling left, repeat with another 1/4th. If you have dough left, roll it out and cut it into whatever shapes you like and cook it for the kids.

Fresh pasta cooks much faster than dried. Bring a large pot of lightly-salted water to a boil, drop in the ravioli, and cook at a low boil for about 4-5 minutes (plain noodles will cook in 3-4 minutes).

Fresh Pesto
1/2+ c. rough-chopped fresh basil leaves
1-2 cloves garlic, cut into chunks
~3 oz. Parmesiano-Reggiano cheese, sliced into thin pieces, then broken up
3 T pine nuts, lightly toasted in a saute pan over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, then cooled
1/3 c. or more high-quality extra-virgin olive oil (I usually use Colavita)
freshly ground pepper

Place all ingredients except oil in a food processor. Pulse until rough-chopped. Begin drizzling the olive oil into the processor and puree continuously. It should start to emulsify and get creamy. Be careful not to add too much olive oil. Transfer to a small bowl, adjust salt as needed, and set aside. This can be done up to 2 hours before dinner and left at room temperature until needed. Stir a bit before use.

To Serve:
Slather a little of the pesto onto each of the serving plates (preferably pre-warmed). Place the freshly-drained ravioli on top, then spoon additional pesto all over the ravioli. Top with a little more of the Parmesiano-Reggiano, cut into thin shavings and broken into pieces. Serve immediately.

Tuscan-Style Grilled Bread
1 baguette or loaf of Italian bread
olive oil
2-3 cloves raw garlic, cut into 2-3 slices each

Cut the bread into thick slices - 1" or so. For baguettes, cut the bread diagonally to get longer pieces. Brush both sides lightly with olive oil. Heat the grill and carefully toast the bread on both sides so that it is slightly charred and shows grill marks, but is not burned.

While it's hot, rub both sides with the slices of garlic. The garlic oil will infuse the bread with its essence. Keep warm until time to serve.

Spring Salad wBalsamic Vinaigrette
green leaf lettuce, torn to shreds
4 radishes, sliced
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 pound of snap peas, shelled (pick the plumper pods so the peas are larger)
3 T high-quality balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. olive oil
salt (about 1/2 tsp Kosher)

Chill 4 plates. Arrange the lettuce, radish slices, and tomatoes attractively. Sprinkle the fresh peas over each. In a shaker, combine the vinegar, oil, salt & pepper. Shake vigorously and pour over the salads. This dressing will not hold its emulsion, so you'll have to shake each time before pouring. Serve immediately.

This is a meal you can work on leisurely while doing other things. I started with the mushroom filling, which took about 15 minutes (with some cooking time in the middle). This can sit at room temperature for a couple hours until it's used. I mixed together the pasta dough, rolled out the ravioli, then started the salad. It's OK for the ravioli to dry out a little after they're made. However, once you start rolling sheets of pasta, you must finish the ravioli fairly quickly - if the sheets get too dry, they won't be easy to work with.

I made the pesto last, right before boiling the pasta. The other important timing step is adding the pesto to the warm pasta. The warmth and moisture of the just-cooked pasta is important to opening up the flavors of the pesto.

I explain most of the technique with fresh pasta above. The resting is critical - breads need to do this as well. Gluten develops via kneading and resting, alternatively. This is a fascinating chemical process which is explained beautifully by Harold McGee in his classic "On Food and Cook: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen".

I adore pesto. And while it's tempting to think of it as a fixed thing, it's not necessarily so. Pesto is really like a Caribbean sambal - a finely-textured melange of herbs, seasonings and oil or acid (or both). I've made arugula pesto, cilantro "pesto" (adding lime juice) for Asian-style grilled fish, and I make a sauce with garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper that is fabulous on grilled steaks. It's all pesto, baby!

Chicken Drummies, Spinach Salad w/Orange Segments, Lo Mein w/Peanut Sauce & Scallions

On traditional holidays I often get a craving for non-traditionally American food. On Easter we had a fairly standard brunch (yesterday's posting), which called for an Asian-inspired dinner. The chicken drummies recipe is one of our family favorites. They're absolutely addicting.

Chicken Drummies on the Grill
Spinach Salad w/Orange Segments and Red Onion
Lo Mein w/Peanut Sauce

Chicken Drummies
6-8 pounds of little chicken drummies and wings
1 c. fresh lime juice (4-5 limes)
1 12 oz. jar apricot preserves
1 c. soy sauce
2/3 c. sugar
4-5 large garlic cloves, crushed
Tobasco sauce to taste

Mix all ingredients except chicken in a medium bowl. If you want a smooth sauce, puree in a blender (optional). Otherwise it's chunky. The flavor is the same either way. Marinate the chicken in this sauce for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. I do this in gallon-sized ziplock bags.

Preheat oven to 425. Use 2 large casseroles, or disposable foil baking pans, to bake the drummies. Bake initially at 425 for 20 minutes. Turn down the heat to 325 and continue baking for 30 more minutes. Using tongs, turn over all of the drummies and return to the oven for 45 more minutes. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

These come out absolutely falling off the bone and tangy-yummy-gooey-good. You'll want to drink the juices left in the pan.

For a variation, this time I reserved about 1/3 of the marinade in a small saucepan, added a little corn starch, and brought it to a boil to thicken. Meanwhile, I baked the chicken at 350 for one hour. Then I heated up the grill to low heat, and finished the drummies on the grill, turning frequently with the thickened marinade, and regularly brushing with the thickened marinade, until the marinade is all used up, and the drummies are well-browned and thickly glazed, about 30-40 minutes. They are less tender this way, but they have magical grilled deliciousness.

Spinach Salad w/Orange Segments & Red Onion
fresh spinach leaves
naval orange, peeled and cut into segments (see technique below)
1 slice red onion, cut into ribbons
Dress with Asian Salad Dressing (below)

Arrange spinach leaves on a small plate, arrange orange segments and red onion ribbons on the spinach. Drizzle with Asian salad dressing, and serve.

Asian Salad Dressing
1/2 c. peanut oil
1 T soy sauce
1 T sugar or honey
1 T heaping fresh chopped ginger
1 large clove garlic, rough chopped
3 T seasoned rice vinegar (look in the Asian food section, I use Marukan brand)
1 tsp sesame oil

Place all ingredients in blender except peanut oil. Blend on low speed. Gradually add peanut oil in a drizzle. Scrape sides if necessary. Blend into a thick, silky emulsion.

Lo Mein w/Peanut Sauce
(serves 4)
small package lo mein noodles, prepared per package instructions
3-4 scallions, cut into fine rounds, including some of the green part
3 T peanut butter (crunchy or smooth as your tastes dictate)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 clove garlic, minced finely
1 T fish sauce
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1.5 T palm sugar (or 1 T regular sugar)
juice of 1/4 lime (or less)
pinch of dried ground Thai chilies (or other red pepper flakes)

I love peanut sauce, and am almost always disappointed by recipes even in Thai cookbooks, so I developed this one myself. Ingredients such as fish sauce and palm sugar require a trip to an Asian market - I have not yet found satisfactory products in a regular grocery store.

Mix all ingredients except scallions and lo mein in a small glass bowl. Microwave for 20 seconds, and stir well. Microwave 20 seconds more and stir well again. By now the palm sugar should be melted and the peanut butter should be loose enough to blend well with all of the ingredients. Taste. It should be a balance of nutty, salty, sweet, a tad hot, with just a hint of the acid from the lime. Adjust seasonings as need - fish sauce for salt.

Toss just-drained, hot lo mein and sauce together to coat, add scallions and toss briefly. Serve warm.

This was actually a pretty lazy meal to make - prepping the chicken ahead of time is, of course, key. Then you spend your time cutting up a naval orange, mixing a bunch of stuff in a bowl for the peanut sauce, boiling a package of lo mein, tending the grill, and drinking beer.

Segmenting a naval orange is simple, and results in succulent sections with no pith or membrane. Slice off the top and bottom rind of a naval orange so the flesh is showing. Set the orange on a cutting board and slice away the peel from top to bottom, in ribbons, to expose all of the flesh and leave no pith. Holding the orange in the palm of one hand over a bowl, use a sharp knife to cut next to the membranes toward the core of the orange, loosening the segments one at a time, allowing them to slide into the bowl as you cut. Rotate the orange as you go until all segments are cut free. There will still be juice in the remaining flesh and core of the orange, which you can squeeze out and use to make a cocktail or for another purpose if you wish.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Egg Bake, Cinnamon Scones, Banana Mini-Muffins, Blackberry Puree

Wow, I really didn't mean to take a whole week off of this blog! Last Sunday was, of course, Easter, and we had a quiet morning in with just my wife and son. Then I was in NYC all week for a conference, and was too busy to get my recipes to you!

So today I'll post a couple meals from Easter - one more traditional than the other. This posting is about our Easter Brunch, but you could serve this for any special breakfast or brunch. The center point is the egg bake, which is one of the most delicious breakfast entrees I've ever run across. It was taught to me by my cousin, Jack Riebel, Executive Chef at the Dakota and one of the most talented chefs in Minneapolis.

We used Neuske's hickory-smoked bacon for this meal, which makes the whole house smell like a wood-fire, which I completely adore. You could use any breakfast meat you prefer, or omit it as desired, of course.

As you will see, this was *not* a low-fat meal!

Egg Bake
Cinnamon Scones
Banana Mini-Muffins
Fresh Fruit with Blackberry Puree
Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice

Egg Bake
(serves 6)
1 loaf yeasty, dense French bread (I use A Toast to Bread brand)
5 extra large or 6 large eggs
1/3 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. half-and-half
1 c. shredded Gruyere cheese (about 6-8 oz.)
3 ripe roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/4" thick slices
1/4 - 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 small bunch fresh arugula (you could substitute spinach), well-rinsed and dried
pinch cayenne
freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. butter

Pre-heat the oven to 275 degrees. Slice the bread into 3/4" slices and arrange in a single layer on a sheet pan. Bake until dried out and a bit crunchy on the surface, but not browned. Remove from oven to cool.

Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, cream, half-and-half, nutmeg, cayenne, pepper and salt until well-blended. Taste for salt (sorry, you'll have to risk salmonella...this has to be tasted to get the salt right). It should be pleasantly salty, but not overly-so. Start with less and add. Set aside.

With the butter, generously grease a flat-bottomed (not bowl-shaped) casserole pan that is roughly 8"x12". (9"x13" is a little too large.) I use a ceramic oval gratin. Arrange the bread slices on the bottom to completely cover. Next arrange arugula leaves in a single layer to completely cover the bread. Arrange the tomato slices to completely cover the arugula. Spread the grated cheese all over the tomatoes. Pour the egg mixture all over the cheese.

Cover and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake until well-browned and set (test by gently jiggling), about 20 minutes more. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut into serving-sized pieces and serve warm.

Cinnamon Scones
(makes 8 large or 16 mini)
2 c. flour
1/3 c. sugar
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1¼ c. heavy cream
1 T cinnamon
~1 T turbinado (or so-called "raw" or demerara) sugar - large, brownish crystals

I adapted this recipe from the Joy of Cooking. It's absolutely simple, and absolutely delicious. The cream supplies all the moisture and fat needed. I also use a non-stick mini-scone pan I bought from Williams-Sonoma that requires no greasing and wipes clean with a damp cloth after use.

Preheat oven to 425. Mix all dry ingredients except turbinado sugar in a medium bowl. Stir in cream and mix thoroughly. Dough will be stiff. If using mini-scone pan, divide dough in half and continue dividing until you have 16 pieces. Press each into a section of the pan, spreading into the corners. If not using a scone pan, divide dough into 8 equal sections. Form into rough triangles on a cookie sheet (greased, if not non-stick). For both methods, sprinkle dough with the turbinado sugar and bake until light-golden colored, about 12-15 minutes. Do not over-cook or they'll dry out. Immediately remove to a cooling rack for about 2 minutes, then place in a basket or on a serving plate. Serve warm.

These scones are fantastic when they're fresh and warm. They'll keep sealed in a plastic bag for a couple days, but they are not nearly as good. Reheat them a bit in the microwave or in a warm oven.

Banana Mini-Muffins
(makes 12 large or 36 minis, or one loaf)
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 large, ripe bananas, mashed to a puree with a fork
3 T sour cream
1 c. walnut pieces, optional (for extra flavor, roast the walnuts in a 250-degree oven for 10 minutes before using)
1 c. chocolate chips, optional
(if you add these last 2 ingredients, the yield increases by about 25%)

Pre-heat oven to 350. Grease muffin or loaf pan(s) with cooking spray (I use pure canola).

Cream butter and sugar together together until well-blended. Stir in egg. Stir in banana. Stir in baking powder, baking soda and salt, being careful not to let any get stuck to the sides of the bowl. Stir in flour, alternating with sour cream. Last, add chocolate chips and walnuts, if using.

Scoop batter into prepare pan(s). For muffins, fill 2/3rds full. Bake muffins until golden-brown - about 20-25 minutes for mini-muffins, 30-40 minutes for large muffins. Bake loaf 50-60 minutes until it test done with a toothpick (insert into center and remove - no batter should stick to toothpick).

Remove to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm. (Warm banana-chocolate chip muffins are divine.) Stores well for up to 5 days sealed in plastic - allow to cool completely before wrapping/bagging.

Fresh Fruit with Blackberry Puree
1 pint strawberries, stems cored, then cut in quarters
1/2 pint raspberries
1/2 pint blueberries
1/2 pint blackberries

Cut the end off of one blackberry and taste for sweetness. Halve the blackberries lengthwise and put in a small saucepan. If the blackberries are sour, add some sugar. This puree isn't a syrup - don't over-sweeten. You want just enough to compensate for the tartness in the berries. Add about 2 T of water. Place over medium-low heat until bubbling slightly, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The berries will turn from dark purple to red as they cook. They're ready when the berries are falling apart and have released their juices. Keep the heat very low and add cooking time if needed. Do not scald or burn.

Place a fine-meshed sieve over a small bowl, and pour the blackberries into the sieve. Using the back of a spoon, mash and scrape the berries, forcing the juice and pulp through the mesh until what remains is mostly seeds. Keeping the sieve over the bowl, rinse the spoon, then carefully lift the sieve and scrape the puree from the bottom - more puree will be clinging there. Stir the puree and taste. It should be mild, slightly sweet, and velvety.

Place all remaining fruit in a serving bowl, pour over the puree and gently toss to coat. Serve.

This is a tough meal to time if you have a single oven, because everything needs to bake. I have a double-oven Viking range, which helps a lot. Lacking this luxury, I would make the banana muffins first, then the egg bake, then the scones last. Have the scones ready to bake when you remove the egg bake from the oven (but remember to turn up the heat). Since the egg bake has to rest, things work pretty well.

The blackberry puree can be done up to 1 day in advance. Refrigerate if not used within 4 hours.

Berry purees are delicious and simple to make. Do not use a blender or food processor! Use the technique I've described above. It works for raspberries, blueberries and strawberries as well, though strawberry seeds are so fine, you will get some seeds unless you use a very fine mesh. In addition to using them as a fruit sauce, they are delicious on ice cream or other desserts, swirled into cocktails, or even drizzled over some meat dishes or thick soups (though fruit reductions are better for this use...see my posting in a couple days!).

Another technique in this posting is the making of what is really a savory egg custard. Custards are mixtures of eggs and cream, baked until set. The egg-to-cream ratio will vary depending upon the recipe - here it is nearly 50/50. For a creme brulee or ice cream, typically only yolks are used and the cream-to-egg ratio is higher. In this dish, an eggier flavor is desired.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Favorite Form of Easter Egg: Thoughts on Hollandaise

On Thursday night we made burgers on the grill, and last night had take-out Chinese food, so not a lot of cooking to talk about over the last couple of days. However, I had breakfast with my wife at Patrick's Bakery and Cafe at 66th & Xerxes in Edina on Thursday, and was inspired to write today's posting. Today's words are, in part, about the wonders of Hollandaise, but in equal part about how we learn to cook by observing carefully what we enjoy in others' cooking.

Patrick Bernet, co-owner and chef, is a bona fide talent, and Patrick's Bakery and Cafe is a truly fabulous French bakery and restaurant, one you should make the effort to visit if you don't know it (website: It's a true French bakery, with croissants and baguettes that are, in my opinion, the best in the Twin Cities. They have many other treats as well, including fabulous desserts, and now an expanded breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, including a few wines.

I almost always get a pastry item and a cappuccino, but on Thursday I decided to order the Eggs Benedict. I love Hollandaise, and I'm a sucker for a good Eggs Benedict. I make my own Hollandaise pretty regularly, and have learned to execute it quite well. I often make Hollandaise at Easter time because both brunches (thus, egg dishes like Eggs Benedict) and young asparagas (which I love with Hollandaise) are typical of Easter.

Patrick's Hollandaise sauce was a revelation; my understanding of this little sauce was expanded ten-fold by this experience.

When our food first arrived at our table, I took a little taste of the Hollandaise and was a bit disappointed. The texture was sublime - velvety, very light, completely stable (poorly-executed Hollandaise can break and appear oily). But the flavor was a bit bland. It lacked the piquant tang of lemon I so love in Hollandaise, and it seemed under-seasoned. Then I dove into the whole dish. The eggs were poached to utter perfection - the whites completely cooked but so delicately tender they were falling away from the yolk, which was warm but completely loose. The Canadian bacon was tender, salty and a bit smoky. The English muffin was, well, a very nice English muffin. Execution looked completely right.

Then I took my first bite, and was amazed. The delicate flavor of the Hollandaise enveloped and married with the warm soft egginess of the poached egg, and was counterpointed by the texture of the muffin and the Canadian bacon; the salt in the meat provided the necessary lift in seasoning to balance the flavors. As I ate, I realized that the Hollandaise was seasoned precisely to bring out the flavor of the egg, not to smother it. The whole thing became this sensual celebration of egg in two complimentary forms.

This was when the dish became an education, not merely a delicious experience. I continued to marvel at the fact that I could taste almost no lemon in the Hollandaise - if I didn't know it was a standard ingredient of Hollandaise, I probably wouldn't have detected it. Which got me thinking. When a chef is extremely talented and skilled, as Patrick is, one assumes everything was done with purpose. Why would he so tame down the lovely lemony brightness of the typical Hollandaise? Of course, I've already partly answered this question above: it made a more harmonious whole with the rest of the dish. In other words, Hollandaise wasn't the point of Eggs Benedict; if all you can taste is Hollandaise, then why bother with the other ingredients? He was striving for what, in his judgement, was the perfect balance of flavors (and textures) in this dish.

Patrick got me thinking about my own uses of Hollandaise. My favorite is with fresh asparagas: served on a warm platter, drenched in Hollandaise and sprinkled with some diced, peeled & seeded tomato (concasse). In this use, more lemon makes sense: to marry with and balance the sweetness and earthiness of the asparagas you want more acid. The tomatoes add more still. I'd bet 100 francs (or is it all Euros now?) that Patrick would make a more lemony Hollandaise to serve with asparagas.

Then I got thinking about the technique required to achieve this. It is necessary to add some liquid to the egg yolks when making Hollandaise to loosen them slightly (see recipe below). Immediately I realized, he must thin them with a little water. I haven't tried this yet - I'm telling you something in a blog that could never be done in a recipe book: an un-tested technique! I shall be smitten by the gods! Yet I'm convinced from my experience this must be so.

As I mopped up the last of my Hollandaise with my hash browns and sipped the last of my cappuccino, I realized I'd had one of those wonderful dining experiences in which a discovery is made - about what one loves to eat (self), about how to create something beautiful (artistic and technical skill), and about how a chef thinks about his craft (other). Especially on the latter point, I actually felt I could imagine Patrick's training years in France, some master or other talking to him about the nuances of flavor balance and texture, and about how to think about what a dish is really supposed to be.

Thus, I offer two versions of Hollandaise. However, these are merely two points on a spectrum. Depending on your use for it, you may require flavors that are bolder, milder or in-between. You may need more acid (lemon), but less salt. It's all about adjusting flavor profiles to serve the needs of the whole.

Hollandaise Sauce (bright)
(adapted from Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics)
(makes about 1.5 cups)
3 egg yolks, room temperature
about 1.5 - 2 T lemon juice, fresh-squeezed
salt (start with 1/4 tsp, and add more if needed)
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) high-quality unsalted butter, room temperature - I use Land-O-Lakes (their unsalted butter is award-winning and quite good)
pinch of cayenne pepper

Put the yolks in a stainless steel or glass bowl and whisk until lemony and a bit frothy. Whisk in the lemon juice and salt. (If you are not sure how tart you want it, start with 1 T.) Place bowl on a pan of simmering water over low heat such that it seals the pan, but does not touch the water. Continue to whisk until foamy. As they get warmer, the yolks will increase in volume and become like loosely-whipped cream. Be careful not to hard-cook them - they must get hot, but stay in liquid form. If you think they are getting too hot, take the bowl off the steam to let them cool down for a bit.

Once they are at this stage, begin whisking in butter, one T at a time. Whisk vigorously to maintain the emulsion, and to incorporate as much air as possible to make the sauce very light. Again, be careful not to get it too hot such that the eggs become hard and the emulsion breaks. Afer all of the butter has been added, remove from heat, whisk in the cayenne and check seasoning to see if more salt or lemon is needed.

Keep warm until served. Make this sauce as fresh as possible; use within an hour of making.

Hollandaise Sauce (mild)
Based on my experience at Patrick's, use this version for Eggs Benedict or other mild egg dishes. May also pair well with mild sausages, such as chicken sausage.
Reduce the lemon juice to 1/2 - 1 tsp.
Reduce salt to a scant 1/4 tsp.
Eliminate cayenne
Add 2 T of water at the same time lemon juice and salt are added.

Prepare as above, with even more vigorous whisking to give the lightest possible texture. The yolks will be more vulnerable to hard-cooking in this version, as acid raises the solidifying point of proteins. Therefore, be extra-careful not to hard-cook the yolks. Disclaimer: I have not yet tested this version of the recipe!

Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower trained, in part, under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and was owner and executive chef at Stars in San Francisco amongst other restaurants. He became a great chef in his own right, and trained a host of the current generation of celebrity chefs in California and across America. His cookbook, New American Classics, is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. I've read it cover-to-cover twice. He reveals a lot about his techniques and his philosophy of cooking in the descriptions of his recipes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Spotsa", Kielbasa & Sauerkraut, Applesauce

[From Wednesday night.]

My wife's German grandma used to make spaetzle, which the kids pronounced "sput-suh" and the name stuck (we spell it "spotsa"). Spaetzle are little egg and flour dumplings boiled in water, then tossed with browned butter. It's become a favorite of ours, though the fat content is through the roof, so we don't eat them too often. Combined with your favorite tube sausage and sauer kraut and some warm applesauce, and it's pure German/Polish comfort food.

Kielbasa & Sauer Kraut

(serves 4)
4 eggs
2 c. flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 c. (1 stick) salted butter

[You can easily increase/decrease this recipe. For each person use 1 egg, 1/2 c. flour, 1/4 tsp salt.]

Mix the eggs, flour and salt in a medium-sized bowl until thoroughly mixed. The dough will be very thick - nearly the thickness of fresh pasta dough. Meanwhile, fill a 4-qt. stockpot half-full of water and bring to a boil. Do not salt the water. Keep the water at a low boil. Using a long-handled spoon (because the pot and steam are hot), cut small amounts of dough and drop them into the water. Each dollop should be about 1/2-1 tsp in volume, but don't obsess about size and shape. The dough will drop a little more easily if you dip the spoon into the water each time to wet it and dislodge the dumplings.

Note: Many folks cut spaetzle on a floured board and drop them all into the water at once. I've never tried this technique, but I assume results would be similar.

Once all dumplings are in the water, boil for an additional 15 minutes. Dump into a collander to drain, then dump into a large ceramic bowl for serving.

Meanwhile, place the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Slowly melt and brown the butter. This will take time, and there's no way to speed it up without burning it. I swirl the pan frequently to wash foam from the sides of the pan. If solids are stuck to the bottom, loosen with a small spoon. What's happening here? Butter is a compound substance - both an emulsion and a suspension of milk liquids and solids in butterfat. As it heats up, the emulsion breaks, the water boils off and evaporates, the proteins in the solids begin to cook and solidify, and the fat renders out. You essentially have clarified butter plus bits of milk solids. You are slowly deep-frying these solids in the butterfat.

The stages are these: first, largely-homogenous melted butter, then a foam forms on the top as liquid begins evaporating out of the solids, finally, a visible layer of clarified fat with a sediment of solids at the bottom. It's very easy for the butter solids to burn, so you have to let this process happen slowly, and watch carefully, especially in the last stage. I like the butter to be extremely brown but not burned. This takes practice. Typically, once it's dark-brown, I force myself to let it darken a tiny bit more. Once again, we have maillard reactions occurring, and they produce lots of flavor. If the butter burns, it's obvious - it immediately changes aroma from a deep, rich, roastiness to smelling burned. Start over if this happens.

When the butter is adequately browned, pour it over the strained spotsa and toss well to coat all of them with the browned solids. Serve immediately.

My family has developed the practice of dipping spotsa in ketchup or Heinz 57 sauce. Your call on this one.

Kielbasa & Sauer Kraut
1 ring Kielbasa
about 1.5 c. sauer kraut
1 c. water

This couldn't be easier, and it's delicious. Buy your favorite brand of Kielbasa or other ring sausage, and your favorite brand of sauer kraut. These products are pre-cooked, so all you need to do is heat them through. Cut the sausage into 1-2" lengths and put in a large skillet. Cover with the sauer kraut and water. Heat over medium heat until bubbling, and allow most of the liquid to steam off. Remove from heat and serve.

2-3 firm, tart-sweet apples (Braeburns, Honey Crisps, Granny Smiths and Harrelsons all work well)

Yep, that's it, just apples. People often over-complicate applesauce. Peel, core and dice the apples, place in a 1-2 qt. pot, cover and cook over medium-low heat until extremely soft. This typically takes 20-30 minutes, depending on the apple. Mash with a fork or the back of a wooden spoon. Serve warm.

If the apples are very tart, you can add a bit of sugar, but I actually like the sauce a bit tart. Fruit doesn't need to taste like candy. For variety, you can add a bit of cinnamon or fresh-grated nutmeg. You can add raspberries, cranberries (plus some sugar...cranberries are very sour), or strawberries if you like. I like it plain.

I put the apples on first. Next I start the butter and the water for the spotsa at the same time. I mix the dough for the spotsa while the water is heating up to a boil, and also cut up the Kielbasa and throw it on with the sauer kraut. After getting all of the spotsas dropped into the boiling water, I check the apples for doneness. Typically, they get done a little before everything else, which is fine - I mash them into sauce in the pan and leave them covered, off of the heat, to retain some warmth but not be super-hot.

Of course, I'm watching the butter the whole time. If it burns, you have to start over, and the whole dinner is delayed.

Start to finish, this meal takes me about 40 minutes.

Browning butter is a great technique/ingredient. It's great over pasta (though typically I make it less dark than I make it for spotsa). For an extra thrill, throw in some fresh sage leaves and pine nuts for the last minute or two of the browning. The sage leaves will get crisp and yeild up their flavor to the butter. Toss this with ravioli - absolutely yummy! Brown butter is also the base for brown ghee, an Indian clarified butter that derives flavor from the browning process, but then discards the solids. This form of clarified butter has a delicious nuttiness and is used for deep frying, and as an ingredient in rice dishes, brushed on naans, mixed with spices for marsalas and curries, and is also used in desserts.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Egg Salad Sandwiches, Pixie Crinkles, Chipotle Ketchup, Mango

We like egg salad sandwiches, so here's my first repeat. However, we mixed it up a bit from last time. We had fries & fruit instead of chips and pickles. Also, I had mine on a hamburger bun, reprising my favorite egg salad sandwich from my youth at the A&W Drive-In. The chipotle ketchup is addicting. This is dinner from Tuesday night this week.

Egg Salad Sandwiches (see March 27th posting)
Pixie Crinkles (frozen Ore-Ida crinkle-cut fries)
Chipotle Ketchup
Fresh Mango

Pixie Crinkles & Chipotle Ketchup
(serves 4)
1 bag fozen Pixie Crinkles (prepared per package instructions, cooked until a little crispy)
popcorn salt (plain, not flavored)
1/4 c. ketchup
1 T pureed chipotles in adobo sauce (see "A note on chipotles" from my April 7th posting)

Bake the fries. Immediately after cooking, sprinkle with popcorn salt. As I do with my homemade tortilla chips, I use popcorn salt on fries. The extra-fine texture seems to "melt" onto the fries and gives them a pleasant saltiness.

Stir the chipotle puree into the ketchup and divide into individual ramekins for serving. Adjust the amount of pepper puree based on heat tolerance. I like it pretty hot.

Fresh Mango
1 large mango, peeled and cut into 1/2" chunks

We love fresh mango, but it can be tricky to get a ripe one. Don't go by color - green mangoes are sometimes deliciously ripe, and red ones sometimes hard and starchy. As mangoes ripen they pass from green, firm, starchy flesh to pale-yellow, sweet-tart al dente flesh to bright-golden, super-sweet, soft flesh. There are wonderful uses at each stage. Typically, I go for the late-middle stage for this kind of eating - I like them when they still have some tartness to them. This is a matter of preference.

The smaller yellow mangoes often sold in Asian grocery stores are usually delicious - get two or three instead of one because they're smaller. Also, this variety of mango tends to be more tart, even when well-ripened. Again, I love's all what your preferences are.

When shopping, pick a mango that is slightly soft when gently squeezed, but be sure to check for bruises - sometimes mangoes have soft spots because of bruises suffered in shipping. Also, smell near the stem. It should have a pleasant mango aroma. If it has no smell at all, don't buy probably won't ripen for you. Let them ripen in a cool place at home for 3-5 days, if needed. Even with all of this planning, they can be hit-or-miss. I probably get 1 mediocre, 2 decent, and 1 delicious mango for every 4 I buy, but I still think they're worth the effort.

If the mango is really soft, peel it first, then cut the yellow flesh away from the hard pit inside. (I do this because it seems to be gentler on the tender flesh of a really ripe mango.) Use a sharp knife, and be very careful - the mango will be slippery. I peel them by first cutting off a chunk of the skin at the stem, which gives you a flat end you can stand on a cutting board. I then cut off the skin at the "top", stand it up, and working around the mango cut the remaining skin away in strips. For really juice mangoes, I chew on the pit after slicing away the flesh, to nibble away any remaining fruit. This is my treat for being the cook :-).

If the mango is more firm, I cut the flesh and skin away from the pit first, then remove the flesh from the skin and cut into pieces. The pit of a mango is flat and wide, like an oblong disk, not round like a peach pit. You'll get larger pieces of fruit if you slice parallel with the flat side of the pit first. You can tell how the pit is oriented by the shape of the mango - they are all slightly wider than they are thick. The edges of the pit are oriented towards the widest part of the mango, and the flat sides of the pit are oriented toward the narrowest part. This takes a little practice, but you'll soon get the feel of it.

I put the eggs on, then preheat the oven (450). By the time the eggs are cooked, the oven is hot. I then peel and dice the eggs while the fries are cooking. You'll have to work out when to cut up the mango based on your comfort takes me about 2 minutes to peel and dice a mango, so I squeeze it in right before serving.

In my March 27th posting I describe my technique for the perfect hard-boiled egg. Today we talked about buying, ripening and peeling mangoes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Blueberry Pancakes, Sausage & Bacon, Grapefruit

Breakfast for dinner! We do this about once a month. It feels strangely decadent. I love breakfast food - I definitely have some of that residual farmhouse genetics in which a 2500 calorie breakfast sometimes feels necessary to existence. My absolute favorite breakfast anywhere by anyone is the "Jose" at Al's Breakfast, with a side of whole wheat wally blues. For those not in the know, the "Jose" is a complete plate full of hash-browns, topped with melted cheese, topped with two poached eggs, topped with hot salsa. Definitely in the top 5 list for last meal candidates. It's all about the hash-browns - they cook them sooooo dark and crispy. I'm actually salivating as I write (I know, TMI).

But, we're talking about dinner at Chez Charles, not breakfast at Al's. This pancake recipe came from my wife's father's side, and I think it's an old Shriners recipe. It's basic buttermilk pancakes, but I love 'em!

Buttermilk Pancakes with Blueberries
Turkey Breakfast Sausage
Grapefruit Halves
Juice & Milk

Buttermilk Pancakes with Blueberries
(serves 3-4)
1 pint buttermilk
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
2 T melted butter (if you use unsalted, add a pinch more salt)
1.5 c. flour
1-2 pints fresh blueberries (depending on how much blueberry you want)
maple syrup (optional)

Whisk buttermilk and eggs together. Whisk in soda, sugar and salt. Whisk in flour. Whisk in butter. Allow to rest for a minute.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Grease very lightly. When the skillet is completely heated, begin cooking pancakes. Pour in enough batter to make pancakes approx. 5"
in diameter. Immediately sprinkle a few blueberries into the uncooked batter on top of each pancake. When golden-brown on the bottom, carefully flip and cook the other side. Serve while hot! My wife likes lots of syrup, I like a little, and my son sometimes skips it altogether.

Turkey Sausage & Bacon
You can obviously make whatever breakfast meats you like. I experiment with different turkey or chicken sausages, since my wife doesn't eat pork or beef. My son and I both love bacon, and the hands-down favorite there is Nueske's.

Grapefruit Halves
I completely love fresh grapefruit. It's the most refreshing fruit, in my opinion. Simply halve the grapefruit, and with a paring knife cut around each little wedge (cut each side of the membrane that separates the sections).

The pancakes are best when they're fresh off the griddle. I feed my family first and eat last so we all get fresh ones. I cook the meat a little before the pancakes and keep it warm (I have warming shelves on my range hood, but a low oven works great, too).

The trickiest thing with this meal is properly cooking the pancakes. I cook over a pretty hot griddle, so they brown quickly. This requires a little practice, as the batter on top will be loose when you flip them. Pick up the pancake with the spatula, and in one smooth, rapid motion turn it over into the spot in the skillet it just occupied. Think of there being an axis of rotation in the center of the spatula that runs straight out from the handle. We say "flip", but you're really just turning them over on this axis. Also, the initial fine film of oil is all you need...don't re-grease the skillet while cooking.

Baked Tacos, Refried Beans, Margaritas

Sorry, folks, I'm a little behind...this was our dinner on Sunday night. This is another ground turkey recipe that's traditionally been done with beef...good old-fashioned taco meat. Again, you'll find that I mix authentic touches with short-cuts, mostly trying to achieve the best flavor profiles I can in a reasonable time frame. This is one of the most flavorful dinners I make. I hope you enjoy!

Baked Tacos
Green Blender Salsa (see recipe from March 25th posting)
Refried Beans
(Serve also with homemade tortilla chips from March 24th posting)

Baked Tacos
1 lb. ground turkey (7% fat)
1 T light olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pkg. Ortega (or other brand) Taco Seasoning
1 T tomato paste
1 T pureed chipotles in adobo sauce (see note below)
1/2 tsp. ground cumin seed (see note in Chiles Relleños recipe, March 24th)
1/2 tsp. chili powder (see note in Chiles Relleños recipe, March 24th)
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cinnamon (I buy Vietnamese Cinnamon from Pensey's Spices)
1/4 tsp. or more freshly ground pepper
pinch of salt
18 corn taco shells
1 2-cup bag of shredded colby-jack or other preferred cheese.

OK, true confessions again. I use packaged taco seasoning. I do so because it contains a base of seasonings and sauce thickeners that make my life easier. Most of the flavor in this recipe comes from the add-ins. I invented this recipe after falling in love with chorizo, and wanting to emulate that rich flavor. This isn't chorizo, but it's almost like a Mexican curry...redolent with aromatics that blend into an out-of-this-world complexity and savoriness.

Brown the turkey in the olive oil, breaking it up into tiny bits. Add onion and garlic and cook until meat, onion and garlic are all starting to brown. They will want to stick to the pan a bit...that's good. Keep scraping and stirring. At this point, quickly add all other ingredients, and cover the mixture shallowly with water. Stir to thoroughly mix, scraping any remaining stuck bits from the pan. Heat to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until enough of the water has evaporated that the mix is mostly meat with a little sauce (about 20 minutes). Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 350. Arrange taco shells in a large baking pan. When the filling is done, spoon a heaping tablespoon into each shell and spread out in the bottom. The shells will soften a bit, enabling you to arrange them a little tighter in the pan. Sprinkle a generous amount of cheese into each taco. Bake until the cheese is melted and the shells are golden brown.

A note on chipotles. This smoked, dried red jalepeño has become Miss Popularity of pepper society, and with good reason. These hot, smoky babies are unique in the culinary world, and are extremely versatile. They come primarily in two forms: dried and canned in adobo sauce. I use both frequently. When I buy dried, I often grind them in my coffee grinder (the next pot of coffee after that is interesting!) to make a powder I can use in mayonnaises, flavored butters or sour creams, etc. When I buy canned, I puree them in a food processor and store them in a plastic container in the fridge - they'll keep for many weeks. This form works great in sauces, stews, soups, and salsas (I still have to give you my favorite salsa recipe of all time, which includes chipotles in this form).

Accompaniments & Refried Beans
tomato, diced
black olive slices
cilantro leaves, rinsed well and removed from stems
jalepeño, minced
red or yellow onion, minced
scallion, minced
lime wedges
yogurt or sour cream
canned refried beans

We like all of these items with tacos. Just put them all out in bowls and let everyone serve themselves.

For the refried beans, I don't do anything fancy...I just love them plain. Empty the can into a small saucepan and heat over medium-low until warmed through and slightly bubbly. You can also spread them on a plate, sprinkle with cheese, and bake in the oven.

(makes 4 regular or 2 jumbo)
~2 c. Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix
1/2 c. Cuervo Gold
1/4 c. Cointreau
1/4 c. Gran Marnier

Mix the alcohol in a glass container and place in the freezer at least 2 hours before serving. Freeze glasses as well. Just before serving, place two large handfuls of ice cubes in a blender (fill it just under 1/2 full). Add alcohol and the margarita mix so that it comes to about 2" from the top of the blender. Blend on high for a minute or so until the ice is pulverized. Pour into the glasses and serve immediately.

I start this meal by freezing the liquor for the margaritas. I find that I can chop the onions and garlic for the tacos while the turkey is browning, then I can chop all of the remaining accompaniments while the filling is cooking, and then while the tacos are baking. The whole meal takes about 75-90 minutes to prepare - longer if you make chips from scratch.

No real complex technique today. I find this meal is a good time to exercise knife skills - lots of mincing and chopping. Also, the technique of browning onions, garlic and meat (maillard reactions!), then adding spices, acid (tomato paste) and liquid, will recur when we make curries.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Thus far I've been very transparent with my recipes, but when I told my family I was going to publish my spaghetti sauce recipe, they nearly assaulted me. I guess there are a couple of my culinary secrets that will remain secrets.

However, I'll give you my turkey meatball recipe, talk about garlic butter, and give you a couple things to think about with respect to classic spaghetti sauce, or "red sauce".

Spaghetti and Turkey Meatballs
Italian Bread with Olive Oil

Red sauce is akin to French "mother sauces" - it's a foundational element in Italian cooking, especially Italian-American. Its origins lie in various regional tomato-based sauces in Italy, most notably Ragu Bolognese, which involves slow-cooking over a long time with chunks of pork and sausage flavoring the sauce, plus fresh herbs like rosemary, oregano and basil, and of course, garlic. The texture may be chunky or smooth, oily or lean, thinner or thicker, simpler or more complex and layered with flavors.

[Did you know: tomatoes originated in North America, and were not found in Italy or anywhere else in Europe until after it was brough back by merchants and explorers? Can you imagine Italy without the tomato? Yet it was so until the 17th Century.]

My family has forbidden me to reveal the secrets of my sauce, but suffice it to say it was a work of about 10 years of testing and improving (it's been the same, now, for about 7 or 8 years). My mother-in-law, Lillian, is a first-generation Italian American, her father having immigrated here at 16 years old. Her large extended family is full of wonderful cooks and restaurateurs, including the late Nick Mancini, proprietor of Mancini's Char House on 7th Street in St. Paul. I've received some coaching from members of her family, plus deduced little tricks and secrets from sauces I've really liked in restaurants. And I've experimented with my own adjustments as well.

Ultimately, red sauce is very personal, tied to family traditions, childhood memories and personal tastes. Maybe it's one of those things each of us has to make a personal quest, rather than having it handed to us.

Turkey Meatballs
1 lb. ground turkey (I get 7% fat, not 1% fat...a little fat is needed, in my opinion)
2 eggs
3/4 c. bread crumbs (not seasoned...make your own from rock-hard bread in a blender)
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a pulp (I use a chef's knife on a cutting board, not a garlic crusher)
1/2 tsp dried oregano
~1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust depending on desired heat level)
generous quantity freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c. minced fresh parsley leaves (optional)
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle (optional)
olive oil (for cooking)

Thoroughly mix all ingredients in a large bowl with your bare hands. Enjoy's one of the great things about cooking: all of the rich tactile experiences. Check for seasoning (salt level). This is controversial...I taste a little raw mix, which I'm sure will give me some horrid disease one day and I'll die from it. You will too if you do this, but nonetheless that's what I do. Alternately, you can pinch off a bit and fry it in a little oil, then taste it when it's cooked. The latter method will tell you how salty the final product will be, which is an advantage. If you taste it raw, keep in mind that the salt will intensify slightly during cooking as fat and moisture cook off and the mix is concentrated a bit.

Roll into balls of desired size, and cook slowly over medium-low heat in a little olive oil. Turn the meatballs frequently, and brown on all sides. This should cook them through unless they are very large, in which more time may be needed. You can tell when they're done because they firm up. Throw them into the sauce during the last 15 minutes of cooking and they will flavor each other.

These meatballs freeze very well. I make a whole batch at a time and freeze half. A half-batch is about right for a family of 4.

I use Barilla brand boxed pastas most of the time. I find them to be high-quality. I also love to make fresh pasta, and do so fairly often, so you'll get that recipe sometime soon. Either way, cook the pasta in salted, slightly-boiling water, to desired tenderness. I almost never buy packaged fresh pasta. I'm not sure why, but packaged fresh pasta is rarely much better than boxed. Homemade fresh is dramatically better than either, so if I want fresh, I make my own.

Garlic Butter
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1-2 cloves garlic, mashed to a puree
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 T buttermilk

I didn't make garlic bread last night, but I'm feeling guilty about the red sauce, so I'll throw this in. I make garlic butter quite often, and use it to make garlic bread or in cooking (e.g., to coat the crust on homemade deep dish pizza).

Mix all ingredients well with a fork. It will keep in the fridge for a few days, or in the freezer for a few weeks, but wrap it well - it smells garlicky!

Nothing special here today.

Twice today I called for garlic crushed to a pulp or puree. Here's the method: peel the husk off the cloves and cut off the end that attached to the bulb. working on a plastic cutting board, crush the cloves with the flat of a chef's knife by applying pressure with the heel of your hand on the top of the knife. Take care not to cut yourself on the exposed edge! Next, rough chop the garlic with the knife. Now, sprinkle a couple pinches of coarse salt, such as Kosher salt, over the garlic, and using a rocking motion, crush and cut the garlic. This is hard to describe, easier to demonstrate, but I'll try to say more about how it works. Push the chopped garlic into a little pile. Hold the handle of the knife in your dominant hand (right for me), and lay it flat over the pile with the sharp edge of the knife away from you. Place the fingertips of your non-dominant hand (left for me) near the knife's sharp edge, and apply downward force. Now, work backwards (toward you) over the garlic, mashing and cutting it by alternatingly forcing the knife blade down to the cutting board through the garlic, then rocking it back up as you slide back over the rest of the pile. Repeat this process 3-4 times until the garlic is a fine puree.

This sounds more complicated than it is. Once you're good at it, you'll find it takes less time than mincing, produces a wonderful fine texture, and liberates all of the oil from the garlic, greatly intensifying it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Chicken & Dumplings, Spring Greens w/Blood Orange Vinaigrette

We want spring! But the past few days have been rainy, sleety and generally nasty. This calls for serious comfort food. One of my wife's favorite dishes I make is chicken and dumplings. Wednesday night I made it along with a light salad of spring greens, just because we're anxious for spring in any form.

This isn't fast takes several hours to cook. But most of the time you are free to do other things. This makes it great for a Saturday or Sunday when you are working on other projects around the house.

Menu Chicken & Dumplings
Spring Greens Salad w/Blood Orange Vinaigrette

Chicken & Dumplings (serves 4-6)
1 whole chicken, cut into parts (reserve and freeze the back and neck for stock)
1 extra chicken breast, bone-in, skin on
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. flour
1 large onion, peeled and diced
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
1 8-oz. can of button mushrooms, finely chopped
4 scallions, trimmed and minced
1/2 c. minced fresh parsley
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
freshly ground black pepper

2 c. flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
2/3 c. milk

I've adapted this recipe from the Saveur Cooks Authentic American cookbook. Saveur is by far my favorite cooking magazine. Their core concept: authentic cuisines from around the world. This recipe is from the filling for Mrs. Garrett's Chicken Pies, wonderfully southern-style and intoxicatingly savory. The dumplings are a simple baking powder biscuit recipe.

Begin by placing the oil and flour in an 8-qt. stockpot over medium heat. Stir continuously to form a chestnut brown roux. Add the onions and cook another 15 minutes until they are golden-colored, stirring frequently. Add the chicken, turn up the heat to medium-high, and brown on all sides. The onions and roux will begin to get very dark - don't worry, this adds to the flavor. Just don't let it burn - keep loosening the onions and roux from the bottom of the pan as you turn the chicken pieces. When well-browned (the fat from the chicken will have begun to render), add about 1 T salt, plus the celery and green pepper, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 1 hour.

Remove pot from heat, and, using kitchen tongs, remove the chicken from the pot to a cutting board and allow to cool. Meanwhile add the scallions, parsley, mushrooms, cayenne pepper and black pepper to the pot and return to the burner over medium-low heat to simmer.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull all meat off the bones, discarding skin and connective tissue. Pull the chicken apart into various-sized pieces and return to the pot. Stir everything together and taste for seasoning. Add more salt or pepper if needed. Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes while mixing the dumplings.

Mix the dumpling batter, starting by beating the eggs in a medium-sized bowl with a whisk. Whisk in the milk. Whisk in the salt and baking powder. Whisk in half of the flour. With a large spoon, mix in the remaining flour, scraping the sides and bottom.

Using a medium-sized spoon (like a soup spoon), scoop the batter in dollops into the hot chicken broth. Begin by dipping the spoon into the broth to prevent the batter from sticking too much to the spoon. The broth must be very hot - near boiling. As you are dropping in the dumplings, spoon a little broth over each dumpling. They'll swell and float above the surface as they cook, but covering each with broth will help them separate after cooking. When all of the batter is used up, cover the pot, make sure the burner is on low, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the burner and allow to rest for an additional 10 minutes before serving.

Warm the plates or bowls you'll serve on. Serve with a ladle so the yummy chicken and vegetables, broth and dumplings can all be scooped out.

Spring Greens Salad with Blood-Orange Vinaigrette
(serves 4)
Spring Greens bag salad (or whatever salad greens you prefer)
1/4 of a small red onion, cut into thin slices and separated into ribbons
1/4 c. black walnut halves, lightly toasted in a saute pan over low heat for 10 minutes
2 ripe roma tomatoes (or tomatoes of your choice), cut into small wedges
2 fresh radishes, sliced

1 blood orange
~2 T champagne vinegar or red wine vinegar
~1 tsp sugar
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 small pinch dried oregano, ground finely in the palm of your hand
~1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil (I use Colavita as a high-quality, readily available brand)
freshly ground pepper

Make the vinaigrette. Squeeze the juice of the orange into a small plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Add the vinegar, sugar, garlic, oregano, pepper and two generous pinches of salt. Stir together until all of the salt and sugar are dissolved. Taste. The sugar should be balanced with the acid in the vinegar (you will likely need more - it all depends on the specific vinegar use, and the sweetness of the orange), and it should also taste aggressively (but not bitterly) salty, as the oil will dilute the flavor. Adjust seasonings and taste again. When you have balance, add the olive oil, cover, and shake vigorously. Taste and adjust as necessary. Any salt or sugar added at this point will not dissolve as easily due to the presence of the oil.

Arrange the greens on cool salad plates, place tomatoes, onions and radishes attractively on and around the greens. Shake the dressing one more time, and then dress each salad with a couple tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Sprinkle 4-5 walnut halves on each salad and serve.

It takes about an hour for the first stage of the chicken dish. It then cooks for an hour. The next stage takes about 1/2 hour, but there's some down time while the chicken is cooling. It takes 10 minutes to mix and drop the dumplings, and 30 minutes for them to cook and rest before serving. I did everything for the salad during that final 30 minutes.

Almost any amount of time can pass between each of the first two stages of the chicken dish. For example, you could prep, brown and cook the chicken on a weekend, pull the meat off the bones and break it up, then put the whole pot in the fridge for a couple days until completing the final stages. Also, the pot can sit, covered, on the stove with the heat off for fairly long spells. E.g., I did the first stage (which concludes with covering the chicken with water and cooking for an hour), shut off the burner after 45 minutes (instead of the full hour), and left the house for 2 hours to run errands before returning to pull the meat off the bones and finish the cooking.

There are a couple interesting things going on in this dish. First, nearly all of the really rich savoriness of the chicken dish comes from maillard reactions, the browning of sugars and starches combining with amino acids in proteins. This starts with the browning of flour in the roux, then the further browning of the onions, then the browning of the chicken. Maillard reactions only occur at temperatures well-above the boiling point of water. For that reason, fat is required, and the presence of too much water-based liquid will prevent them. This is why onions don't brown right away - some of their moisture has to cook off. Executing maillard reactions properly requires patience. If you use heat that's too high, you'll burn some of the food while other parts have not yet browned. If you add liquid prematurely, you stop all maillard reactions. Similarly, don't cover pans in which you are browning meats - the steam being released from the ingredients will condense back into the pan and slow the process.

A second key technique is the formation of an emulsion when making the vinaigrette. Using a shaker is not the textbook way to make a vinaigrette, but it works. The key is sudden and very vigorous shaking. An emulsion is the suspension of tiny drops of one liquid inside of another liquid. In this case, the oil is pulverised into droplets surrounded by the orange-vinegar mixture - this requires a little violence!

Stable emulsions are greatly facilitated by the presence of emulsifiers, chemicals which help stabilize emulsions at the molecular level. There are trace amounts of natural emulsifiers in most vegetables and fruits, so the minced garlic and blood-orange juice actually assist the process. The greatest natural emulsifier in your kitchen is egg yolk. For this reason, adding a bit of mayonnaise to a vinaigrette will greatly stabilize it, but also make it milky in color.

The book that most improved my cooking (and is one of the 10 books I'd keep if I could only keep 10) is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. This 600+ page tome explains in great detail what's happening chemically during cooking, and elucidates many basic concepts of cooking technique, including emulsions and maillard reactions. It's not for everyone, but if you're seriously into the technical fundamentals of cookery, and have a penchant for a little science, it's fascinating and will greatly improve your consistency in the kitchen - because you'll know what you're doing, and why it works (or doesn't).