Friday, January 30, 2009

It's a Wrap

I realize it is Friday and we are supposed to be having pizza, but I simply could not commit to it. I don't know why, really. I suppose it is fatigue of some sort...but we did have a fantastic dinner anyway of Thai beef lettuce wraps, which I declared, was the best meal I had made ever! I had seen a picture of something like these in a magazine article I read earlier this month (which one I could not tell you now). But they seemed easy enough to make even though I could not find the recipe.

Sweet and spicy, light yet satisfying, and completely easy to throw together, it was a perfect meal to end a very, very long week. Tender strips of sirloin were marinated in a soy, rice vinegar marinade, then quickly sauteed. Thin rice noodles were simply soaked in boiling water then tossed with chopped cilantro and green onions. Wrapped in lettuce and topped with sliced mango (I know so not local, but everything else was) and that amazing sweet and spicy Thai chili garlic sauce, this is a recipe I know I will make over and over again, and you should too. It would also taste great with chicken, or even tofu.

Thai Beef Lettuce Wraps

Marinate 1 pound of sirloin or chicken breast (organic preferable, thinly sliced) in 1/4 C soy sauce, 1/4 C rice wine vinegar, 3 chopped garlic cloves, 1 t dark sesame oil, 1 T grated ginger (I no longer bother to peel, just use a microplane grater) and 1 t sambal oelek (or chili garlic sauce) for 30 minutes. Heat 1 T vegetable oil in a large skillet, and saute beef, stirring frequently until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

While meat is marinating, make the sweet Thai chili garlic sauce.

Heat a kettle of water to boil. Pour boiling water over one package of thin, dry rice noodles to cover (they look like angel hair pasta, but made from rice...check your Asian section of the supermarket). Let soak for 10 minutes or until tender, then drain in a colander. Toss with 1/4 C chopped cilantro and 4 scallions, cut diagonally.

Wash several leaves of lettuce (romaine or butter lettuce is good). Slice mango into long slivers.

Layer lettuce leaves with beef, noodles, and mango and top with sweet chili sauce.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dainty Delight

I'm off to Grandmother's house today for our weekly visit, which I love. She always has the most interesting stories, like how I learned last week that she can knit (or used to be able to) but never really had the patience for it (sounds like me). Evidently, her mother was quite the avid knitter and used to knit all sorts of wonderful things for her children to wear, like the beautiful knit wool sweater suit my grandmother had when she moved to California from Canada. Though very lovely, it was quite inappropriate for the warm and sunny California weather, but she had to wear it, because it was one of the only articles of clothing she owned. I may never complain that I have nothing to wear again....well, for a while at least.

I always like to bring my grandmother something sweet to eat because she has a wicked sweet tooth and when a person is 90, why not indulge a bit? But unfortunately I have no flour because I haven't had a chance to get to the market yet this week due to unforeseen circumstances. But a post on another fantastic blog caught my attention. Have you heard of Palmiers or elephant ears? They are cookies that are light, crisp and sweet, a perfect treat to go with coffee or tea. And because they are made from puff pastry (which I will probably NOT ever make from scratch) I can pull the dough right out of my freezer; it's an easy and delicious solution to my bare pantry, much like my cinnamon roll recipe.

It is so important to use quality ingredients if you are going to fake it instead of making it from scratch. So make sure that the puff pastry you buy uses real butter, not some nasty emulsified oil stuff. The ingredients on my Trader Joe's puff pastry are as follows: wheat flour, butter, salt, sugar, water. That is as close to homemade as anything!


Remove one large or 2 small sheets of puff pastry from the freezer. Let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes (or as long as the package directs).

Set dough on a lightly sugared board, sprinkle the top heavily with sugar, about 1 C total, and roll dough out to 1/8 inch thick.

Roll each edge towards the center, jelly roll style until they meet in the middle. Place the rolls in the fridge to rest for about an hour, or until firm.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove from refrigerator and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices. Lay on a greased cookie sheet, or one that is lined with a silicone liner or parchment paper. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown and baked through. Remove to rack to cool.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

At Market...Japanese Bok Choy

I was so very happy to find my favorite vendors back at the farmers market after a two month's long absence (I guess everyone needs a vacation occasionally). Luckily, their tables were packed high with the most beautiful selection of winter produce one could lay eyes upon, so their absence was almost excusable, after all, they were still obviously working hard tending their crops. They had Chinese spinach, cilantro, dill, lemongrass, carrots, sweet potatoes, ginger, bok choy, scallions, leeks and more. I settled on what they called Japanese bok choy, mostly because it was so beautiful and I had never seen it before.

It is dark leafed and ruffly with long, tender stems held together at its base. When I sliced them apart, I was pleased to find a little broccoli-type floret, hidden in a cluster of leaves. Raw, they tasted earthy, a bit like cabbage, and not overly bitter like some greens. But when cooked they took on a hearty, almost horseradish flavor, which quite a pleasant surprise for my taste buds. I made them into a little stir-fry with a bit of chicken and served it over rice. The recipe is one I adapted from Bon Appetite, and it tasted light and healthy with a burst of fresh flavor on the tongue. Regular bok choy can be used, but seek out the Japanese kind from your local farmers market for a real treat. This recipe would also work well with firm tofu or mushrooms instead of chicken, and can be marinated the same way.

Japanese Bok Choy Stir-Fry

2-3 bunches of bok choy (Japanese if you can find it), cored and washed
2 chicken breasts, cut in small chunks
3 cloves garlic
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
8 scallions, in one inch slices
2 T vegetable oil

Marinate Chicken:

Toss chicken in a splash of soy sauce, a t of grated ginger and a t of dark sesame oil. Let sit for about 20 minutes.

Make Sauce:

Combine 1/4 C soy sauce, 2 T balsamic vinegar, 2 T dark sesame oil, 2 t cornstarch, 2 T honey in a small bowl.

Heat oil over high heat in a large skillet or wok. Add garlic and ginger and saute just until fragrant. Remove chicken from marinade with a slotted spoon (discard marinade). Add to pan and saute until cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove from pan. Add bok choy and scallions and stir just until bok choy is starting to wilt. Return chicken to pan and add sauce. Continue to stir until sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Serve over rice or noodles.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Julia's Last Supper

My babies weren't very good eaters; that is to say, they were very good drinkers (they loved mama's milk) but baby food, not so much. In fact, I was very shocked when my second born son, reached over to my plate and grabbed a handful of mashed potatoes and shoved them in his mouth. He was about 6 months old, and never really had solid food before. Evidently, he wanted real flavor, and a little bit of texture too. I quickly discovered that he preferred "real" food to baby food and when I did try to feed him baby food, even the organic homemade stuff, he gagged and spit it out. So I wasn't very surprised that this same son, not much older, gleefully gobbled down the French Onion Soup that my mom and I often ordered at our weekly lunch date. He would actually scream, his little feet swiftly paddling under his highchair, until we put another spoonful in his mouth. I'm happy to report that in those 9 years not much has changed, and he is still my most adventurous eater.

Tonight, I decided to try an old favorite for dinner, French Onion Soup. Simple to make, yet exquisitely complex in flavor, it was considered poor person's food in days of old for good reason; the only thing it required was some stock (or bones to make it), and onions. Of course, topping it with crusty french bread with a slab of Gruyere cheese, elevates it to something special. The quality of the stock is important, however what really gives this soup its rich color and flavor is the caramelizing of the onions.

After perusing many variations of this recipe, I decided upon Julia Child's, mostly because I already had all the ingredients on hand. Afterwards, when I was doing a bit of research on the soup, I learned that French Onion Soup was Julia's last meal before passing away peacefully in her sleep (not from food poisoning, but rather kidney failure and old age). I also learned that it was probably invented by Louis XIV or XV and is a long-lost cousin of sop (a hearty bread soaked in broth that was eaten in the Middle Ages). Now that the history lesson is complete, on to the recipe!

French Onion Soup
adapted from Julia Child's recipe

2 1/2 pounds of onions, thinly sliced
4 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 t salt
1 t sugar
1 T flour
1/4 C Cognac
1 C dry white wine (something you would drink)
2 quarts (8 C) rich beef stock (or vegetable stock or a combination of veal and beef)
4 slices of sourdough bread
4 thin slabs of Gruyere cheese

Melt butter together with olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat. Saute onions for about five minutes, covered, until they begin to soften. Uncover, add salt and sugar, and continue to saute (still uncovered), until onions are a deep walnut color, about 30 minutes. Add flour and stir well and continue to saute for a couple of minutes to make sure everything is incorporated. Add Cognac, wine and stock. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover loosely and cook for about 1 1/2 hours.

When soup is almost done, set oven to broil and toast bread for a couple of minutes on each side under the broiler. Ladle soup into oven-proof bowls and top with toasted bread, then cheese. Place bowls on a baking sheet and broil about 2-3 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown. Make sure that the tops of the bowls are about 6 inches from the flames of the broiler.

Serve with a simple baby greens salad dressed in a French Vinaigrette, of course.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Chicken in Every Pot

In almost all of my cooking magazines this month (and there are many), there is a feature article about budget friendly recipes. In these hard economic times, everyone is looking for ways to pinch pennies, and your grocery cart is a great place to start. I'm kind of a stickler for organic, free-range, grass-fed, artisan made things, and unfortunately those foods come with a much higher price tag than the mass factory produced foods. But I hardly spend any money at all on processed foods, or packaged meals, and that in and of itself is a great way to save your hard-earned dollars. Cooking meals from scratch is not difficult and it saves money, not to mention the numerous health benefits that come from eating a whole foods diet.

When Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, who could imagine that chicken would be considered "economical" and most people would be so prosperous that their cars wouldn't be able to fit in a garage for all the excess stuff? But these days, even an organic chicken is quite budget friendly, especially when purchased whole.

I am a huge fan of whole chickens. I either chop them up into parts or roast them whole. They are virtually a blank slate with endless ways to prepare them, and we can usually stretch one whole chicken to feed our family of five for two meals. Chicken assumes the flavor of whatever you season it with, and can be mild, herbaceous, or hot and spicy. For tonight's dinner I chose the latter. It is a recipe that my mom makes that originally came off the back of a bag of Foster Farm's whole chicken. I have no idea if the recipe I make today is exactly the same one, but it is a close approximation. It is quick, saucy, and tender, with heat from a spice rub and diced green chiles. I always serve it over white rice to absorb all the flavorful sauce. I think it tastes a lot like arroz con pollo, one of my favorite Mexican dishes.

Green Chile Chicken

1 broiler chicken (about 3 pounds)
2 t chile powder
1 t ground cumin
1 t salt
1/2 t ground pepper
2 T canola oil
1 can diced green chiles
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 C chicken broth
1 T corn starch
3 T water
1/4 C sour cream

Remove gizzards, rinse chicken and pat it dry. Combine chile powder, cumin, salt and pepper and rub all over the chicken's skin. Heat 2 T canola oil in a large dutch oven. Brown chicken over high heat on all sides. Turn chicken breast side up and add onion, garlic, diced green chiles and chicken broth to the pot (I like those packets of chicken stock base now widely available). Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.

Remove chicken from pot and cover with foil. Mix corn starch with water to make a slurry (a sludgy mixture of starch and water). Pour into the pan juices, while whisking, to thicken gravy. Whisk in sour cream and simmer, over low heat for 3 minutes. Cut chicken into parts and serve with gravy over rice.

Cooking with Kids

I am way too high strung. I realize this every time my children request to "help" me in the kitchen. My good intentions of family togetherness usually end up with me sweeping flour off the floor that I just swept, retrieving eggshells out of the batter, and refereeing the children to make sure that everyone "gets their turn." Who are these mothers that actually enjoy this torture?

Perhaps I need to just relax a bit and let the fun of the moment prevail, and worry about the mess later. I do, after all, want to foster my children's independence and skills in the kitchen so that someday they might be able to prepare (and clean up) an entire meal by themselves. And certainly, they cannot live on Top Ramen alone when they get their own apartment (in 10 years). And what better a day to practice these skills than on a rainy day, where outside play is not an option, and their brains are already precariously close to becoming mush from all the television watching and video game playing? To be fair, my kids have spent a good portion of the morning knitting more scarves for their Ugly Dolls, and my oldest did walk the dog. But cooking together, now that sounds like a splendid way to spend the afternoon. (positive self talk!)

My kids (and I) just love soft pretzels, especially the really salty kind, with a squirt of mustard. They always fight over the one that is the saltiest, and they also love to dip them in that disgusting imitation nacho cheese stuff (which unfortunately I can't make at home, because we lack a science lab). But I don't think they will miss the cheese because I have found the perfect recipe, courtesy of Alton Brown, that looks fantastic. It is a basic yeast dough that is risen, rolled and twisted into pretzel shapes. But then they are boiled, bagel style, in a mixture of water and baking soda, which will ultimately give them that gorgeous caramel color, before they are finished off in a hot oven.

Unfortunately, I could not find any pretzel salt, but instead bought some sel gris, which is a moist, gray sea salt from France. The kids had a lot of fun rolling out and shaping their balls of dough. And they were able to easily shape the forgiving and elastic dough into the standard pretzel form. However, some of those beautifully shaped pretzels were not able to withstand the rigors of the water bath and came out looking much like white piles of...well, let's just say that they were not so pretty. But we egg washed and salted them anyway, and popped them into the oven to bake, hoping that they taste better than they look. They certainly smell good!

Despite their dubious appearance (after baking some of them now looked like brown piles of you-know-what), the pretzels tasted delicious. And really my kitchen is no worse for the wear. I will try to make these again in the future, maybe making a larger quantity to freeze and save for another rainy day.

Soft Baked Pretzels

1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
1 T sugar
2 t kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 t)
approximately 4 1/2 cups
4 T unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for the bowl
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt (or other coarse salt like sel gris)

Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. It will be fairly wet. Place dough in a well-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets. Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the greased baking sheet.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, one at a time, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat, yet slotted, spatula, letting the water drip over the pot. Return to the baking sheet, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sausage and Wild Mushroom Pizza

I know that I have expressed my absolute adoration for sausage before. But I hope you'll forgive me, because this true and abiding love has provided us with so many delicious and memorable meals. And the weather outside is so very cold and dreary, that I thought it might be nice to heat up our taste buds with a spicy Italian sausage, wild mushroom and red onion pizza for dinner.

I found the recipe on the Bon Appetite website. I've made so many different kinds of pizzas lately, that I needed a bit of inspiration. The recipe calls for pressing finely grated cheese, along with fresh rosemary and red pepper flakes, right into the dough for extra flavor. The cheese is called Piave, and it is a slightly sweet, aged hard cow's milk cheese, much like a young Parmesan. If you are lucky enough to have a place in town where you can find specialty cheeses try this delicious one, but if you do not, regular Parmesan would be a fine substitute. Topped with browned sausage, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions, the end result is earthy and spicy, hearty and satisfying; a flavor-rich meal to enjoy with a glass of red wine by the fire.

Sausage and Wild Mushroom Pizza
adapted from Bon Appetite

1 recipe pizza dough
2 links spicy Italian sausage (I prefer turkey)
7 oz. wild mushrooms, scrubbed and thickly sliced
1 yellow onion, sliced into quarter inch thick rings
2 T olive oil
1/3 C grated Piave cheese (or Parmesan)
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 t chopped fresh rosemary
3/4 C mozzarella cheese
2 T chopped parsley (optional)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone on the lowest rack. Prepare dough according to directions (or buy pizza dough from the store...Trader Joe's makes an excellent one). Let dough rest for at least 20 minutes at room temperature. Flatten into a disk with your hand, then sprinkle on Piave cheese, red pepper flakes and 1/2 t chopped fresh rosemary. Roll out into about a 10 inch circle. Cover with a clean dish cloth and let rest while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Meanwhile, remove sausage from casing and brown in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat, breaking up with a spatula into large chunks. Remove from skillet and set aside. Reduce heat to medium low. In remaining rendered fat (or if there is none add a splash of olive oil), saute onions for about 15-20 minutes, until soft and quite caramelized. Remove to bowl and set aside. In remaining fat (or you might need to add another splash of olive oil) saute mushrooms with a pinch of salt until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan.

Place pizza dough on a well floured pizza peel (from which you can slide it into the oven), parchment paper, or a floured pizza pan or baking sheet. Layer with 3/4 C shredded mozzarella cheese, onions, sausage, and mushrooms. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 t chopped rosemary. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until crust is as crisp as you like (I like it really crisp). Sprinkle with chopped parsley, slice into wedges and serve.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bright Flavors on a Dark Day

These lovely little scones are just the ticket for a dreary day. Their amazing aroma alone seemed to brighten up my kitchen. A usual scone batter, it's made special because it it is rolled up, jelly-roll style after being brushed with butter and sprinkled heavily with snowy white sugar and the zest of one orange. Just the orange oil in the air from the zesting lightened my mood, and it's tender crumb and subtle orange flavor will go splendidly with whipped cream flavored with a bit of creme fraiche and fresh raspberries (yes, California still has raspberries). The best part is the center of these scrumptious scones has gone all sticky and marmalade-like from the sugar and zest. Hopefully I can wait until dessert to try one. Well, perhaps I should sample it now, lest it is a bit inferior. I'd hate to serve my family something less than perfect....(Edited to add, these were wonderful with my afternoon tea! Shhhh...)

Orange Pinwheel Scones
adapted from Scones, Muffins, and Tea Cakes

2 C all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
2 T sugar
5 1/2 T cold butter, cut into small bits
1 extra large egg, beaten
1/2 C heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sift together the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Using two knives, a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut in the butter, until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Mix the egg and cream together and stir into the flour mixture until it just holds together. Dump out onto a floured board and knead for one minute. Roll out into a rectangle (about 4x8 inches). Brush with 2 T of melted butter and sprinkle with 1/2 C sugar and the zest of one orange. Roll long ways, jelly-roll style and pinch seam together with your fingers. Cut into 8 equal slices and place on a greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, or until golden. Serve with whipped cream and berries, or marmalade.