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.