Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Lovely Lunch

Why is it that so many people use canned chicken to make chicken salad sandwiches? I guess it must really be a convenience issue, because the flavor comparatively, well, actually there really isn't a comparison. Canned chicken tastes almost identical to canned tuna in my opinion--wet, mushy and a bit stringy. In fact, last weekend when I was at a tea party, I had to ask the hostess if I was eating a chicken or tuna sandwich because I really couldn't tell. I like my chicken to taste like chicken and my tuna fish to taste like tuna, which is exactly why I prefer them both fresh.

Last night we had a rotisserie chicken for dinner, and had plenty left over for lunch today. Stripped from the bone, cubed and tossed in a quickly made curry dressing, along with scallions, apples and peanuts, it was an easy enough undertaking, with scrumptious results. I topped the sandwiches with some watercress for a fresh and earthy flavor, but any lettuce would do. A scoop of this would also work well on top of a bed of salad greens, or even stuffed into a pita. Admittedly, this chicken salad is a bit rambunctious and tends to spill out the sides of the bread, but I enjoy its chunky texture and the contrasting crunch of the apples and peanuts with the smooth and mildly spicy dressing.

Curried Chicken Salad

In a large bowl mix together 1/2 C mayo, 1 t curry powder, 2 T white wine and a squeeze of lemon juice. Fold in 1 chopped apple, 2 sliced scallions, 1/4 C chopped salted peanuts, and 1/2 a roasted chicken that has been removed from the bone and cubed. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if necessary. Makes 3-4 sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Little Heathens' Apple Sauce Cake

Today I made the Susan Boyle of cakes. It is quite ordinary looking, definitely not the glamorous sort, and perhaps would even be mocked in a Cake's Got Talent competition. It seems like the type to have never been kissed, is a little soft in the middle, and might even benefit from a makeover...but boy does it sing. And though you'd never guess it from the looks of it, it has a little sassy kick from all that nutmeg and cinnamon added to the batter.

Admittedly, much of its unsightly appearance is my fault. You see the recipe specified using a 9x13 pan, and I, in my narrow perception of what an applesauce cake ought to be, immediately assumed that it would bake in a loaf pan. Big mistake. As the cake rose up, much of it tumbled over the sides (and landed on my pizza stone...thank goodness!). I took it out of the oven before it was fully cooked in the middle because the edges seemed like they were awfully close to burning. I had fantasies of wrapping up the lovely little loaf in a pretty dish towel for a photo op. But it was not meant to be. C'est la vie.

Despite its homely appearance, this cake is tender, moist and incredibly flavorful. A tablespoon of cocoa powder added to the batter not only enriches the color, but gives it an amazing depth of flavor that is not chocolatey at all, but rather serves to compliment the spiciness of it. I think it would be wonderful topped with cream cheese icing, but that will have to be for another day, when I have baked it in the proper vessel.

The recipe comes from Mildred Armstrong Kalish, author of the delightful memoir Little Heathens, which is about her experiences growing up during the Great Depression. I know that the words 'delightful' and 'Great Depression' are rarely associated together, but trust me, you will love this book! With tales from a simpler time where kids worked hard and played harder, this is how it starts...

I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone but still indelible in my memory. For many years I have had the urge to describe that treasure trove, lest it vanish forever. So, partly in response to the basic human instinct to share feelings and experiences, and partly for the sheer joy and excitement of it all, I report on my early life. It was quite a romp...
Little Heathens' Apple Sauce Cake

1 stick butter
1 1/2 C sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 C flour
1 T cocoa powder
1/4 t salt
2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1 1/2 C applesauce (she says unsweetened, but the applesauce I had in my pantry had sugar and worked fine)
1/4 C chopped walnuts (I omitted)
2/3 C raisins (also omitted)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9x13x2 cake pan. Cream butter and sugar together in a large bowl. Add egg and mix well. Sift together flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda and powder and spices and add to the butter mixture in two additions, alternating with the apple sauce. Stir just until combined. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What's for Dinner?

For some, the eternal questions run deep; What is the meaning of life? Where will I go when I die? Is there a God? Do I have a greater purpose? For me, this quest has always had a decidedly gastronomical rather than spiritual focus--what's for dinner? This question has plagued me since I was a child when I would pester my poor mother practically from the moment I got up in the morning. Mom, what are we having for dinner? I would ask. You haven't even eaten breakfast, she would sigh, already exhausted by the prospect of spending a day with a persistent redheaded girl who asked a lot of questions. It's no different today, when I still wonder the same thing, except for the unfortunate detail that I am the one who is in charge of meal planning and preparation. So, of course, it falls to me to both present the query and the answer. Ugh. I hate that sometimes.

Today was no exception--all day long I fretted about dinner; what I should cook, if I needed ingredients at the market, and if I needed to look up a recipe. I was uninspired, uninterested and underwhelmed by the idea of cooking. I like it so much more when I've assessed what I have purchased at the market and I set aside time to make a plan. The good news was that even though I lacked a menu for the week, I did have bagfuls of fresh farmers' market produce looking to be put to good use, and some tofu in the freezer. So I pushed through my inertia and nearly overpowering desire to order take-out, and made dinner after all. A spring veggie stir-fry with brown rice.

Healthy and satisfying at once, this dish really is an easy one to fall back on, provided you have plenty of fresh veg. The sauce works with just about any produce, so use what is freshest and what is seasonal, and most of all, what you have on hand.

Quick Hoisin Stir-Fry
serves 4

1 T freshly grated ginger
1 small head broccoli, chopped (including stems which can be thinly sliced)
5 carrots, scrubbed and sliced
2 small bunches bok choy, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound sugar snap peas, de-stringed
1 bunch scallions, washed well and sliced into 1-inch segments
1/2 block tofu, cubed
Brown rice, cooked according to package directions
Toasted sesame seeds

For the sauce:
Combine 2 T soy sauce, 2 T hoisin sauce, 1 T rice wine vinegar, 1 T sherry or white wine, 1 t chili garlic paste, and 1 t cornstarch.

Heat 2 T vegetable oil in a large wok or saucepan over high heat. Add ginger and stir-fry until fragrant (1 minute). Add tofu and stir gently until lightly browned. Toss in broccoli and stems and carrots and fry for 2 minutes, then add the remaining vegetables and stir well. Pour in 1/2 C water and scrape up any dark bits from the bottom of the pan. Cover pan and let steam for 1-2 minutes or until veggies are crisp tender. Uncover, pour in sauce and stir until thickened (1-2 minutes). Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with soy sauce on the side.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Do You Know the Muffin Man?

Just like the old Cheer's song...I wanna go where everybody knows my name. And often when I go shopping, everybody does know my name. Or at least they recognize me. Like the folks at Trader Joe's. The food demo lady and I have become very good friends over the years. We chat food (of course), vacations (she is from the east coast), kids (we each have 3), politics (she's even crazier than I am), and she even gives me the occasional 'inside scoop' on new products. Another lady who works there has watched my kids grow up, and is sorry when I don't bring them with me (but I'm sure not). She remembered when I was pregnant with my daughter, how she was born 2 months early, and how I used to carry her like a purse in a sling. She always gasps in disbelief when I bring her to the tall she is....she's lost teeth....1st grade!??! The manager who rushed to help me with frozen peas when my young and energetic son pulled the cart down on top of him still works there, and last week, he got to see me two days in a row...weren't you just here yesterday? he laughed.

Today when I was in Bristol Farms looking for pork shoulder, the friendly butcher who always helps me, kindly cut and trimmed a very nice piece of meat for was a special favor because, well, I'm kind of cute. Just kidding! It's because he knows me, we've formed an alliance of sorts, a friendship over special cuts of meat, recipe exchanging and banter about our families. When I'm in no mood to make my own pizza dough (yes, it does happen), Bristol Farms provides a fine substitute to homemade. The pizza dough guy and have chatted over dough chemistry and stretching techniques and he often offers to get me extra cheese and toppings at no cost.

And the same thing goes for the farmers' market. I show up late every week because Sunday is my only day to sleep in and I always need plenty of coffee and newspaper reading to get my engine running. I'm sure you know that at the farmers' market the early bird gets the worm and all the best things are snatched up quickly. But because I have relationships with those who provide my food, they save things for me...strawberries, blueberries, nectarines, sweet peas, you name it.

Make friends with the people who provide you with your food. Get to know them by name. Who is the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker? Does the muffin man have a family, like to read or travel to faraway lands? My life is richer because of George, Sheila, Laura, Frank, Juan and Brenda.

So onto what it is that I did with that succulent pork butt (or shoulder) that Frank cut for me. It got a long slow braise in my oven this afternoon, was shredded up and then quickly broiled to crispy perfection. Then we piled it into a corn tortilla along with cilantro, onions, guacamole and jalapeno sauce. It was crisp yet tender, juicy and flavorful, and a tasted fantastic with a tamarind margarita (or two). Though it cooks for 3 hours, the hands-on time is minimal and the results are out of this world.

serves 3-4

2 pounds of boneless pork shoulder or butt
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 C stock (beef or chicken is fine)
zest from one orange
juice from 1/2 and orange
2 onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a large dutch oven over high heat. Drizzle in a glug of olive oil. Season meat well with salt and pepper, then brown quickly on each side (about 2 minutes per side). Add stock, orange zest and juice, onions and garlic. Place lid on pot and put in the oven. Bake for 2 hours or until meat is almost fork tender. Remove lid (and keep it off), drain off all but 1/2 C juice and return to the oven for another hour, turning meat halfway through. This will help brown the pork nicely. Remove from oven and shred meat, discarding any fatty bits. If you like your carnitas tender and juicy, stop here. If you like them crispy (like me), place the meat on a large rimmed cookie sheet. Place under the broiler for a few minutes or until all the meat is dark golden brown and crackling hot. Serve with corn tortillas, chopped cilantro and green onions, guacamole and salsa.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Death by Chocolate Brownies

I don't have much to say today, nor do I have much time to say it. But I do want to quickly mention one thing; if you are having one of those days--you know, the extra long and tiring days full of substitute teaching and changing peed-on pants (not mine by the way) and picking up dog poop and washing last night's dishes and folding MONDAY's laundry and mopping floors and shuttling the 'gang' from school to piano lessons to open house to a baseball game--yes, one of those days, then you really need to do something for yourself and sit down for a moment with one of these brownies. It will nourish you and make you whole, I promise. At the very least, it will give you enough energy to push through 'til the end of your day, where nothing but your cozy bed requires your presence.

The recipe is so simple and only requires one bowl, provided that bowl is microwaveable. When pierced with a fork-because you will need a fork to eat these-the crust shatters pleasingly to reveal a fudgey soft-set center that is sinfully rich and so decadent that you really should just eat a small one, or risk a serious belly ache. And don't forget the tall glass of icy cold milk.

Death by Chocolate Brownies

1 1/2 C good quality semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cube of butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 C sugar
4 extra large eggs
1 t pure vanilla extract
3/4 C flour
1/2 t salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8-inch square baking pan. Place chocolate chips and butter into a large microwaveable bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute, remove and whisk until chocolate is completely melted. When mixture is room temperature (it may be already), whisk in sugar and then eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla and mix well. Carefully fold in flour and salt until just combined. Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until soft set. A toothpick will not come out clean, and the brownie may still jiggle a bit. Let cool (yeah right) and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Brownies on Foodista

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Scallops with Thai Coconut Sauce

So the other day a long-lost friend (thank you Facebook) made a special request for a blog post. I've never had one of those before, and thought it was hilarious and flattering at the same time. It seems that he is the cook of the house, and his lovely wife has decided that he needs to cook more of my recipes. Since he loves scallops (and his wife not so much) he requested some recipes that use this tender mollusk so that he might encourage her to give them a second chance. Boy, I hope I'm not getting him in trouble right now...

I personally love scallops. They remind me of my favorite fish, halibut. They are mild, tender and not very fishy-tasting at all. In fact, fresh ones should only have a slight briny perfume, and not an overwhelming odor. If they do, don't buy them. There is a season for the smaller of the two types called bay scallops. They are primarily harvested near the shore in fall and winter. The larger sea scallops are harvested year-round in deep Atlantic waters. Read more about them here. The scallops I bought were frozen New England scallops from Trader Joe's. I am a little reluctant to admit that because 1) it was Earth Day when we ate this meal and they have kind of a large carbon footprint coming from 3000 miles away and 2) I put so much emphasis on fresh. But seafood is flash-frozen, often out on the boats themselves, and can be a tasty alternative for when you cannot find them fresh. I have made these many times before and the quality is really quite good. I don't think you will be disappointed.

I tried to be creative and 'chefy' in the plating of this dish, but it was by no means a difficult endeavor. First I created a rice timbale, where I packed hot rice into a ramekin and then turned it out onto the plate, and then I drizzled a coconut sauce moat around it, in which the succulent golden scallops were floated. Then each scallop and the rice were topped with a dollop of my tomato chili jam (which you can buy at many stores by the way-not my tomato chili jam, but tomato chili jam all the same) and a roughly chopped handful of cilantro and basil. It was salty, sour, spicy and sweet...everything good Asian food should be.

Thai Coconut Scallops
serves 4

1 pound of sea scallops with muscle removed
1 handful of cilantro, stems and leaves separated
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T fish sauce
zest and juice from 2 limes
1 T sesame oil
2 t chili garlic paste
1 thumb of fresh ginger, chopped
1 can coconut milk
1/2 t tamarind paste (optional)
1/2 C chicken stock
1 bunch of bok choy, thinly sliced
fresh basil leaves
hot cooked rice
Put rice on to cook.

Into a small food processor place cilantro stems, garlic, fish sauce, zest and juice from limes, sesame oil, chili garlic paste and ginger. Whiz until completely smooth. Heat a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Drizzle in a bit of olive oil and then pour in the cilantro paste. Stir for one minute then add the coconut milk, chicken stock and tamarind paste if using. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for about 5-10 minutes, or until mixture thickens slightly. Add the slivered bok choy and leave on heat just until bok choy wilts. Cover, and remove from heat.

Heat a large skillet over high heat and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Pat scallops dry and season both sides well with salt and pepper. Score lightly in a cross-hatch (tic-tac-toe) pattern. Place in the skillet, taking care not to crowd (you might need to do two batches). Cook on each side for about 2 minutes. Scallops should be golden brown, but be careful not to overcook them or they will become tough.

Pack hot rice into 4 oz. ramekins and turn out onto plates. Spoon coconut sauce over rice and around it. Place 4 scallops on each plate and top with tomato chili jam (or chutney of some sort). Sprinkle on chopped cilantro and basil leaves. See? That wasn't so hard.

Taco Time

Mexican food is a definite staple in my diet. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if you did a chemical analysis, my body would be made up of water (well, maybe coffee?), corn from all those tortillas, rice and wine. (And I'd be scared to know which of those would be at the top of the ingredient list...) But I do eat Mexican food a lot. A LOT. Like today for lunch. These tacos used up some leftover steak and come together in a snap. You pretty much can't go wrong with tender meat folded into a cheesy corn tortilla and topped with cilantro and onions. These would make a fantastic quick supper too.

Steak Tacos
serves 2

Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Chop up enough leftover steak to make one cup. Saute, in a bit of oil if the meat is very lean, until steak is just heated and a bit browned. Meanwhile heat some oil (1 t) in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add a corn tortilla and cook for about 30 seconds, or until it begins to become the slightest bit crisp. Flip over and sprinkle on some grated cheese and 1/4 C meat. Carefully fold the tortilla in half and cook on each side for about 30 seconds or until just crisp and golden brown. Remove from heat and repeat with 3 more tortillas. Sprinkle on some chopped green onions and cilantro, and some hot jalapeno sauce....and EAT!!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

At Market...English Peas

Yes, it's true...they (being peas) are here. I am always thrilled to watch the seasons unfold through produce, and am keenly aware of how much better food tastes when we truly long for it, when we fantasize about that first taste after so many months without. There is much truth to the old adage, absence makes the heart grow fonder. I am excited about the appearance of peas, but what I really long for is stone fruit. But peas...peas are a beautiful thing. And we are doubly lucky to have a two harvests here in southern California-one in the spring, and a smaller one in the fall.

As I child I always hated peas. But then again, I hadn't really had a fresh one, only the frozen variety. And never, ever in my own home, only over at friends' houses. They were grayish green, mushy and tasted...well, they tasted about as appetizing as they looked. But peas plucked fresh from the pod are a wonder indeed and a true harbinger of spring. Cooked properly, they burst in the mouth with a sweet earthiness that is a far cry from the overcooked frozen variety of my childhood. If you can't find them at a green market, don't bother, because they need to be eaten quickly after harvesting or they turn starchy. All they need is to be plucked from their shells just before you are ready to use them, and then the very briefest dunk in a simmering pot of water. One pound of peas in their shells turns out to be about a cup full of actual peas when all is said and done. You won't regret the minor trouble to shell them, and if you have small children, like I do, it is a perfect way to keep them busy and out of your way in the kitchen.

I'm sad to report that this pasta dish used up the last jar of my homemade tomato sauce. Next year, I will have to make a double batch. The recipe is adapted from the very energetic Jamie Oliver, who inspires me with his fresh, carefree approach to cooking. I have never tried a recipe of his that I didn't like, and as always, there is room for improvisation. Use what you have, what is seasonal, and serve it with confidence and flair, and you will be virtually guaranteed success in the kitchen.

Pasta with Peas and Sausage Meatballs

Cook one pound of fusilli according to package directions. Meanwhile, heat one jar of your favorite tomato sauce (homemade is great as is TJ's Organic Tomato Basil Marinara, or Rao's for a splurge). Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Pour in about 1 T of olive oil and when hot, squeeze out from its casing plops of one pound of Italian sausage into the pan, forming mini meatballs (about the size of a walnut is good). They shouldn't look round and perfect, we are going for a rustic look. Brown meatballs on all sides and continue to saute until cooked through, about 5-7 minutes. When the pasta is done pour it into a large bowl and toss with enough of the hot marinara sauce to moisten. Dump 1 C freshly shelled peas into the boiling pasta water and cook until they return to the surface, which should take less than 30 seconds. Pour pasta out onto a platter, top with meatballs, blanched peas, fresh basil leaves and Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April Heat Wave Brings May....?

It is still April, right? Mother Nature is confused, it seems, and so am I as I sit here in my sun dappled living room, wilted like the spring flowers in my garden. Outside, the mercury is hovering around the century mark, and indoors it is not much better...okay I'm exaggerating a bit, because it is only 81 degrees. In my house. In April. On CNN tonight as Lou Dobbs was listing off California's ailments, the current heatwave was lumped in along with the budget deficits, unemployment rate (over 11%!!), and housing market. The worst part about it is that we are already experiencing a serious drought, with many localities facing steep rate hikes or rationing, so these high temperatures are just adding insult to injury.

Sunday, at the farmers' market, I asked my favorite farmer if they had any cilantro with the root still attached. He told me that they couldn't harvest it that way right now, because it requires too much water to be able to pull the plant up by its roots, and that their farm's water supply had been rationed. It is going to be a long, hot, and dry summer I fear. A summer without cilantro roots. But aren't these sweet peas lovely? I bought them at the farmers' market...3 bunches for $6.

On days like today, summer days usually, I really, really don't feel like cooking, or even eating. But it's easy enough to make a salad for dinner using up some fresh and bright spring produce (sugar snaps, scallions and strawberries), and when it's topped with grilled chicken breasts and a sprinkle of salty crisped prosciutto (elitist bacon bits I like to call them) it makes for a fine main course. The salad dressing is studded with toasted white and black sesame seeds and is so delicious it is hard not to eat by itself.

It was a late dinner tonight, with the boys not returning from baseball practice until after seven. You wouldn't believe how tempting the lovely chopped ingredients at-the-ready were....especially the crispy pile of prosciutto. I did as Julia for me, one for the bowl. Thankfully our early summer should come to an abrupt halt by this weekend, when temperatures are expected to be some thirty-five degrees cooler. Thank goodness for that!

Sesame Dressing

1 T sesame oil
1/2 T Dijon mustard
1 T soy sauce
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1/4 C sugar or honey
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 T minced shallot
1 T toasted white sesame seeds
1 T toasted black sesame seeds

Place all ingredients into a smallish lidded container. Shake vigorously until combined.

Spring Salad with Strawberries

Place 1 C chopped snap peas (de-stringed), 1 C sliced strawberries, and 4 chopped scallions into a large salad bowl. Toss with 5 oz. of mixed baby lettuce (1 bag). Top with 1/4 C toasted slivered almonds, 4 oz. prosciutto (crisped in a frying pan and cut into chunks) and 2 sliced, cooled grilled chicken breasts. Toss with enough dressing to just moisten, taking care not to drown the tender lettuce leaves. Serve immediately.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Light Lunch

Often, when I return home from the farmers' market, I am overwhelmed with the variety and volume of food I have purchased. I don't think about much in the way of recipes when I am buying produce there, but I do always try to find something new that I haven't ever tasted, get something that is recently in season (like fava beans and English peas this week), and obviously look for things that I enjoy. At home, I lay everything out on the counter and sort and bag things according to type (all herbs together etc.), and only then does my mind begin to assess what I might throw together to make a meal. It probably isn't the most efficient way to do things, but I don't like to shop encumbered with lists. I want to get my inspiration from the beautiful things I find at the market, and perhaps the farmers themselves, who are always eager to share recipes with their customers.

Because storage space in the refrigerator is always an issue, I must clean out containers of dubious leftovers and straggly half-used veggies to make room for the fresh stuff. Today, I noticed that we had a bit of left over rice vermicelli from the soup I made the other night, and so I decided to make some summer rolls using those noodles, and some fresh from the market slivered snap peas, carrots, scallions, and baby lettuce. Summer rolls are like a salad in a thin, cold, translucent wrap made of rice flour. We enjoy them occasionally when we are on the Cape (there is a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant nearby), but now that I see how easy they are to make at home, I'm happy that we can have them a lot more often. Besides veggies and noodles, they are often filled with cooked shrimp or thin slices of steak (or even tofu), but I made a vegetarian version this afternoon and thought they were just fantastic. To accompany the rolls, I made an easy dipping sauce out of hoisin sauce, peanut butter, rice wine vinegar and chili garlic paste. It made for a quick, refreshing, and healthy lunch, and I'm looking forward to them making a more regular appearance on our menu.

Summer Rolls

4 Vietnamese rice spring/summer roll wrappers (they are different than the soft won ton wrappers, but can be found in the Asian section of many markets)
1 C cooked rice vermicelli noodles
1/3 C julienned carrots
1/3 C julienned snap peas
1/3 C julienned red or yellow bell pepper
1/3 C julienned scallions
handful of baby lettuce
handful chopped cilantro and mint

Soak one wrap in hot water. (I put some very hot water in a skillet that is a bit larger than the wrap then place the wrap into the water, pressing down with my fingers so the edges don't curl.) When the wrap becomes soft and yielding, after about 10 seconds or so, carefully lay it out on a clean dish towel. On the bottom third of the wrap, layer some lettuce, some rice noodles and a bit of each veggie, and top with cilantro and mint. Take care to not put too much or it will be difficult to roll. Fold in the outer edges over the middle, then roll from the edge closest you up to the top. It is not too much more challenging than rolling a burrito (or a sandwich in parchment paper) and much the same method. If your first one turns out lumpy, don't worry, it gets much easier with practice. It will still taste delicious. Place your roll onto a plate and do it again with each remaining wrap.

Dipping Sauce

Place 1 T hoisin sauce and 1 T chunky peanut butter in a small bowl and mash together with a fork. Stir in 1/4 C seasoned rice vinegar and 1 t chili garlic paste. If necessary, add a tablespoon or so of water to loosen to your desired consistency.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Get Your Peanuts!

Have you tried those blistered peanuts from Trader Joe's? They are crunchy and salty and perfect in every way. They taste fantastic on top of ice cream, or curried chicken, or all by themselves, but today I decided to use them in some brittle. (Because we don't have enough Easter candy in the house or something...) I've made it only once before and so I needed to do some quick research to find a good recipe, and an easy one too.

I just hate to fuss over a boiling pot of molten sugar. For one thing, it scares me to death. You see, I'm very prone to kitchen accidents-the fresh blister on my tummy is evidence of that. Now I'm sure you're wondering how on earth I got a blister there. Unfortunately, I splashed myself with some of the boiling broth I was cooking the whole chicken in the other night. And that , of course, begs the question, how did I manage to splash myself with the scalding water? Well, the chicken was still partially frozen, even though I bought it supposedly fresh, so I couldn't open the cavity enough to remove the gizzards. For some reason, still unbeknownst to me, I thought that I could extract the gizzards with tongs after I had put the chicken on to boil. As you can imagine, I sloshed the boiling water right over the edge of the pot and onto myself. Yes, I was wearing a shirt....a thick one.

Things like that happen all the time to me, and I think I am a fairly smart person. But I have scars all over my hands and arms from kitchen ovens and sharp knives are often the culprits-or my own stupidity is. But whatever the cause, after a recent accident I am always a bit more careful, for awhile at least, and today I did not want to burn myself on sputtering sugar lava. So after settling on a recipe that was easy enough and did not require blacklisted corn syrup, I got to work.

The only slightly problematic moment, was when I put my face close to the pot so that I could smell the caramelizing sugar. With my nose still stuffy, I have to sniff extra hard to smell things. But I heard a hissing sound and quickly moved my face away, and not a moment too soon. Just then, the top of my thermometer burst off and shot straight up into the air (but thankfully not into my eye). I guess I need a new candy thermometer. No harm done. The sugar was about the right color and temperature and it was time to stir in the peanuts. I quickly poured out the amber liquid onto a silicone baking sheet liner and spread it with a spatula. It became stiff moments later and produced a satisfying snap when I broke it into smaller bits for storage.

It is crunchy and salty and spicy all at once and looks like a platter of peanut-studded broken glass. Matt bemoaned the fact that it's too spicy for the children to eat (which, of course, means that he will have to suffer through most of the pile), but I will bring the majority of it to my writing group tonight. We need fuel for the brain, and none is better than pure, caramelized sugar-don't you agree?

Peanut Brittle
Adapted from Alton Brown

Brush the inside of a medium sized, heavy bottomed sauce pan with vegetable oil. Add 3 C sugar and 1 1/2 C water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, over high heat. When boiling, cover and continue to boil for 3 minutes. Uncover pot, reduce heat to medium and insert a candy thermometer by clipping it to the side of the pot. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the sugar is a medium amber color and 340 degrees. It will take approximately 15-20 minutes. While sugar is simmering away, toss 1 1/2 C of roasted and salted peanuts with 1/2 t cinnamon and 1/2 t cayenne pepper. When sugar is medium amber colored and up to temperature, quickly stir in peanut mixture. Carefully pour out onto a greased cookie sheet (or silicone lined one) and spread out with a spatula so that the peanuts are in one layer. Let cool, then break apart into bite sized shards.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Whole Chicken...Part 2

In terms of my health, my illness has migrated from the depths of my belly, into my chest and head. A whopper this time. But I guess I should be thankful that this is only the second time this year that I have been ill. It's not too bad, really, but it does make me want to lay about a bit more than usual. Which isn't great in terms of getting things done, like laundry or vacuuming. Or cooking for that matter. But I still have all that leftover chicken, so at least there is some comfort in that.

In my next life, I think I want to be a cat. My cat does absolutely nothing that doesn't please her, and most of the time is laying sprawled out belly up, legs splayed, in a strip of sunlight on our bed. Occasionally she meows and headbutts in that demanding catty way, and she certainly finds her food bowl, as evidenced by burgeoning waistline (do cats even have a waistline?). She loves to bat things about when the mood suits her, especially the boys' Nerf darts and occasionally the dog, and she loves bacon and will come running, or trotting at least, when she smells its aroma wafting down the hall. Yes, I think it would be wonderful to be a least one in my house.

But alas, I am a mom instead, and have important tasks to take care of, like dinner. Luckily, since I cooked a whole chicken last night and have half of it left over, I don't have to do much in the way of cooking tonight. It could be a somber meal, one of impending poverty and gloom, because today my husband is doing our taxes....sigh. But he will appreciate the thriftiness of it hopefully, and be heartened by what a clever wife he has. Right. Like I said, I'd rather be a cat. I don't think they worry much about taxes.

Anyway, when I finally got around to making dinner, I decided on a simple chicken salad, to use up not only the leftover chicken, but some produce from the farmers' market that needed to be eaten. I couldn't taste much because I am so congested. In fact, when I pulled out the Gorgonzola from the bag I couldn't even smell it-which is a bit disconcerting-but the salad was a nice combination of cream and crunch, and Matt said it tasted good too. I wish I could say the same. We do have some left over, so I may try it again tomorrow. This salad would also make for a lovely lunch, or be good between two slices of toasted wheat bread.

Dilled Gorgonzola Chicken Salad

Mix 1/3 C mayonnaise with 2 T dry white wine, 1/4 C crumbled Gorgonzola, 1 T minced shallot, and 1 T minced fresh dill. Whisk well and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with 2 chopped celery stalks, 5 chopped Easter radishes, and 1/2 a chopped cooked chicken. Scoop chicken mixture over some mixed baby lettuces and top with sliced avocado and more chopped dill. Serve immediately.

Please Watch This

I thought that this might be of interest....I first saw it here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Whole Chicken...Part 1

Tummy ache doesn't even begin to describe my angst after last night's dinner. So miserable was I, that I crawled under the covers immediately upon returning home, which wasn't much after seven. There I spent a fitful night, tossing and turning, and moaning and groaning. It wasn't the quality of the food in question (luscious roast lamb with spring vegetable melange), or the quality of the wine (Dom champagne, two white burgundies, Arrowood Voignier, and Chateau Petrus 1986). No, it would be fair to say that the quantity consumed was the cause of all my suffering. And I didn't even get to nibble on my kids' Easter basket goodies.

Even now, just re-reading what I have written causes me distress. I think I am in need of a spa week with ultra-healthy and light meals to get me back on track, beginning with the classic cure-all, chicken soup. But since soup is often considered to be a fall or winter meal, I'm going to keep it fresh and bright with ginger, mint and lemongrass. The whole chicken, which I will poach to make the broth, will be used in the soup and then in at least one other meal this week-thus proving that tasty and organic, and thriftiness, are not mutually exclusive qualities (and that a little bit goes a long way).

In the mean time, I'm going to (gently) fill my belly with some steamed rice and seaweed salad-hopefully it will accept the meager offering-and head down to Bristol Farms to pick out our chicken...

The resulting soup was everything I could have hoped for-nourishing but not heavy, fragrant and fresh. Topped with freshly sliced serrano peppers (for the grownups), it helped to generate healing warmth, I'm quite sure. My kids gulped it down and asked for more. So did my husband. I think this is a repeat.

Lemongrass Chicken Soup
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living

1 whole organic chicken, gizzards removed if any
enough water to cover
2 stalks of lemongrass (white an light yellow parts only), smashed and chopped
4 scallions cut into 1 inch pieces
1, 1 inch piece of ginger, sliced
1 fresh chile, seeded and sliced in half
1 t black peppercorns
1/4 C soy sauce
1 T fish sauce
5 stems of cilantro, plus 1/3 C chopped leaves
3 stems mint, plus 1/4 C thinly slivered leaves
2 large carrots, julienned
handful of snap peas, julienned
2 scallions, julienned
thin rice noodles (or angel hair pasta), prepared according to package directions

Place chicken , lemongrass, scallions, sliced ginger, half of the chile, peppercorns and soy sauce in a large pot. Add enough water to cover chicken. Cover with lid and bring to a simmer. Uncover partially, and gently simmer for 1 hour. Remove chicken and set aside to cool a bit. Into the pot add cilantro and mint stems. Simmer for 15 minutes more. Add 1 T fish sauce and strain broth through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Reserve broth and discard solids. Shred meat from the chicken, dividing it equally between two containters. Refrigerate broth and chicken separately for at least 4 hours.

Skim fat from top of broth and reheat along with 1 container of chicken in a large saucepan over medium heat. Place a small handful of cooked rice noodles in each bowl and top with a ladle full of chicken and broth. Top with julienned carrots, scallions and peas and more fresh cilantro and mint. Add chopped chile if desired.