Sunday, June 30, 2013

Easy Sausage Dinner

This isn't so much a recipe as a style of putting things together.  It's an idea for one of those evenings you aren't very hungry and don't want to cook, but also don't feel like going out for something.  All the ingredients are things you can have in your pantry or freezer, waiting for a day like this.

It's all in the presentation.  The most boring meal can look inventive with the right plating.  Don't underestimate the effect of a light dusting of herbs or spices.  Only you have to know how bored and tired you were, unless you want to lay on a guilt trip.

1 C Israeli couscous
1 10oz package frozen spinach, thawed
1 package (4) flavored sausages.  Mine were spinach & feta chicken sausage

1.  Bring 1-1/2 C water to a boil and stir in couscous and spinach.  Add seasonings like salt, pepper, or garlic powder if desired.  Lower heat to a simmer and cook while working on sausage.

2.  Cook sausages according to package directions.  When done, spoon couscous mixture onto plates or bowls.  Top with a sausage.  If you have it, garnish with parsley, green onions, or something else that looks good.  Serve hot.

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Garlic Mashed Potatoes (and How to Peel Garlic)

Well, I had to do something with all the potato bits I just chopped!  Since they were all different sizes and would cook at different rates, mashed seemed to make the most sense.

Mashed potatoes have a bad reputation for being full of fat and butter.  For fun, I read Paula Deen's recipe.  Ultimately, I went with a mutated version of Alton Brown's, using regular milk instead of cream and less of it than he did.  The parmesan replaces the butter and added salt, plus helps to thicken the potatoes.  I think the real difference between his recipe and the others is simmering the garlic in the milk before adding it to the potatoes.  You get a garlic-infused liquid that distributes the flavor more evenly than just using minced garlic.

Having been raised on mashed potatoes out of the box, I prefer whipped to a lumpy mash.  I also go old-school and use the hand electric beater.  That and portions too small for the stand mixer are really the only reasons I keep it.  I also have a hand-crank mixer that was Grandma Sophie's.  It works great for pancake and waffle batters, but I mostly keep it for sentimental reasons.

I've been looking for more sources of dietary iron, and didn't realize that potato skins have quite a lot of it.  So the other potato I put in here, not the one that was chopped up for the previous post, got to stay dressed.

*1-1/2 lb russet potatoes, peeled (or not)
*3 cloves garlic
*2/3 C milk
*1/4 C parmesan
*dash of pepper
*dash of paprika

1.  Dice potatoes into even-sized pieces and place in a medium saucepan.  Add water to cover.  Bring to a boil, lower heat, and cook at a low boil until fork-tender.

2.  To peel garlic: Slice of the bottom end, where you pulled it off the head.  Turn a chef's knife on its side, place over clove, and give it a sharp whack.  The clove will smash slightly, just enough to change its shape and let off some oils.  The skin should slip right off.  For this recipe, it's ok to smash the clove entirely.  Mince the remainder and place in a small saucepan.

3.  To the garlic, add milk, pepper, and paprika.  Bring to a low simmer for 10 minutes (while the potatoes are cooking).

4.  Drain potatoes and mash or whip.  Add milk with seasonings and incorporate.  Add parmesan and beat until combined.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Allow to sit for several minutes to thicken, then serve.

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, June 24, 2013

Knife Skills

I got an online coupon for a 5-lb bag of potatoes for only $1.17.  Great deal, but then you have five pounds of potatoes to eat before they start to sprout.

One of the things you use potatoes for in culinary school is knife skills.  What that really means is practicing all the classical vegetable cuts.  And then having hash browns or mashed potatoes for lunch, because you've just cut up pounds of potatoes.

Why bother?  Well, for everyday cooking, it isn't a big deal.  A six-year-old doesn't care if something is large-dice or julienned.  If it isn't something he likes, a fancy shape isn't going to help.  But for company or that special something you've always wanted to make, it shows you care enough to put the extra effort into it.  In some types of cooking, especially Chinese, having everything cut to a specific size really affects the cooking times and the final product.  At the very least, a perfectly diced garnish can turn an average bowl of soup into a mini-event.

Now, for the knives themselves.  The most common to use for this kind of work is the Chef's knife, which is the big one that is not serrated.  It has a solid, wide base and handle, and tapers to a point.  It is usually 7" to 9" long, whatever is most comfortable in your hand.  The other knife, for precise work, is the paring knife, which should be the smallest one in the set.  Both should be kept very sharp.  It sounds illogical, but a sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one.  A dull knife will slip off the skin of a tomato instead of piercing it and cut your hand.

Let's start with the skill you're likely to use most...

Dicing an Onion
1.  Peel and wash onion, then cut in half crosswise, so you have a solid root or handle on each half.  Always cut an onion with clean slices, instead of pressing down and crushing the cells.  If you have time, soak in ice water for 5 minutes to reduce the amount of sulfuric acid that escapes (the reason your eyes water).

2.  Hold one half with the cut side facing your knife.  Slice in towards the base at regular intervals.  Then rotate 90º and do it again.  Hold firmly and slice down through the outer ring.  What falls off should be diced onion.

The Classical Cuts
In descending order of size...

Clearly, I failed tournée
Large Dice: 3/4" cubes.  That's pretty big, but it comes in handy for salads.
Batonnet: 1/2" by 1/2" by 2-1/2" stick.  If you were cutting something to cook with asparagus, this would be a good size.
Medium Dice: 1/2" cubes.  The most common size.  It's just a batonnet cut in 5 pieces.
Allumette: 1/4" by 1/4" by 2-1/2" stick.  Also called matchsticks.  A very useful cut for carrots and many other vegetables.
Small Dice: 1/4" cubes.  A nice garnish.  An allumette cut into cubes.  Sensing a pattern yet?
Julienne: 1/8" by 1/8" by 2-1/2" stick.  A common garnish and salad decoration.  Plus, you can say they're julienned and people will kind of know what you're talking about.
Brunoise: 1/8" cubes.  Really the smallest garnish size you're going to use.
Fine Julienne: 1/16" by 1/16" by 2-1/2" stick.  Looks feathery.  Pain in the butt, and at this point no one can tell how much effort you really put into it.
Fine Brunoise: 1/16" cubes.  Confetti.
Tournée: A very wasteful and time-consuming way of making seven-sided, football-shaped pieces of vegetable.  Only the most frou-frou of diners will even recognize what you did.  The shaved off parts are used in restaurants for purées, mash, and to flavor stocks.  This one uses the paring knife, as opposed to the Chef's knife for the rest.
Chiffonade:  Used primarily on leafy greens, it looks like long shreds.  The best way to do it is to make a stack of leaves and then roll them up, kind of like a cigar.  Then, when you slice the log, the strips just fall off.
The things I do for this blog....

Friday, June 21, 2013

Gluten-Free Apple Tart

No, I have not joined the gluten-free craze.  Like Atkins and the Zone, this diet will eventually pass as a fad.  After the hard crust on the Pork Pie for the tea, I thought I'd pick a crust for dessert that I knew would come out softer... OK, I didn't have enough white flour for everything on the menu and didn't feel like going back to the market.  Happy?

I found the recipe on a Vegan recipe site, and it sounded worth a try.  This is just a pie crust made out of buckwheat flour instead of all-purpose, and no flour mixed in with the apples.  The tart isn't vegan because I put a bit of butter on the apples, but the crust is.

As for taste, I wasn't terribly impressed with the crust.  The texture was similar to a graham-cracker crust, but not as flavorful.  It did make a beautiful contrast to the light flesh of the apples.  It also required quite a bit of water to stick together properly, being gluten-free.  Because I'm a gluten addict, I probably won't make it again, but it is certainly more healthy than a white pastry crust.

*1-1/2 C buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 C vegetable shortening
3 Tb (or more) cold water
2 Tb lemon juice
3 apples, cored and thinly sliced
2 Tb sugar
1 Tb brown sugar
*1 Tb cornstarch
2 Tb butter

1.  In a small bowl, stir together flour and salt.  Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Add cold water a tablespoon at a time until mixture clumps together.  Press into 9" tart pan with removable rim and flute the edges.

2.  Preheat oven to 375º.  Toss apple slices in lemon juice.  Arrange slices evenly in tart pan in a pretty pattern.  In a small bowl, combine sugar, brown sugar, and cornstarch.  Sprinkle over apples.  Dot top with bits of butter.

3.  Bake for 30 minutes, then check to see if the apples are cooked.  If not, add 10 minutes more.  Allow to cool in pan to room temperature.  Carefully remove outer ring and slide onto serving platter.

Serves 8-10

Difficulty rating  :)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hobbit Tea

This was my secret theme for the party.  It's just a tea party that's heavy on 19th-century British foods, like the ones mentioned in The Hobbit, but it's more fun if you make it a costume party.

I still had to work around multiple food restrictions: vegetarian, kosher, low cholesterol, and low-carb.  As usual, I did not try to make every dish fit every restriction category.  I labeled them instead, with vegetarian/kosher friendly foods in green and high-carb in red.  The pork pie label was written in black.  As in, don't even bother unless you're an omnivore and okay with an unusual culinary experience.

This was a less formal gathering than usual.  Because it was themed to something nerdy that guys would like, I opened it up to spouses and children.  I didn't think the china was appropriate for this Middle-Earth theme, so I used my regular plates.  I did haul out the good silver because I never use it and thought it deserved some love.  It turns out that Techie Smurf is very good at polishing silver.  Hobbits eat a lot, and what I put out was less than half of what was mentioned in the book.  I'm guessing they do away with the formalities of serving tea by courses, and put everything on the table at once.

That left no room for guests to sit at the table, so it was a buffet that folks could take to the living room or out back.  It also meant I had to wash down the patio and its furniture, an annual event as loathed as cleaning out the gutters.  It doesn't really take that long, but I have to lug the pieces out onto the lawn and hope they dry before scary things grow.  Plus, I'm not terribly fond of the pieces I inherited.  Maybe next year I'll get a new set.  I can't believe that nice patio furniture costs as much as the indoor kind!


First Course
Cucumber sandwiches
Pork Pie
Deviled Eggs
Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Assorted Cheeses and home-baked Rye Bread

Second Course
Strawberry-Lavender Jam
Rhubarb-Orange Jam
Freshly made butter

Third Course
Seed Cake
Gluten-Free Apple Tart
Fresh Grapes

Basil & Mint Tea
Earl Grey Tea

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Pesto Focaccia with Tomatoes and Artichokes

I'm starting to understand the appeal of backyard gardening.  When you're successful, it's fun.  I'm just used to everything dying on me before I get to that point.  The asparagus probably won't survive to its first production year, unless I get a surprise like the artichokes.

The first tomato
The first cherry tomato started to ripen on Memorial Day.  In a week, I had enough to make something. This pizza was first on my list of what I wanted to use them on.  It just sounded really good.  (The difference between a pizza and focaccia is generally how evenly you stretch the dough.)  I haven't made a batch of the pesto in over a year, and I still have dried basil.  This isn't exactly what Shauna suggested in her comment, which sounds like a really good pizza.  I considered the goat cheese, but was afraid it might overpower the tomatoes.

You can do this with a store-bought pizza crust.  I was making this on one of my baking days at work, so it never occurred to me not to make my own crust.  I also wanted to try a buckwheat dough.  Buckwheat does not contain gluten, which totally goes against the general theory of pizza-making.  You use a high-gluten bread flour for pizza dough as a rule.

This is a dish that my chef at culinary school would have hated because it looks like you're just throwing money at it to be impressive.  I got nearly everything out of the back yard and pantry, and all I had to buy was the cheese and pine nuts.  Total, about $3.  If you include the original costs of the store-bought ingredients, it was probably closer to $8.  Hardly budget-breaking.  We're not including the three growing seasons invested in the artichokes.  That was my own fault for not reading up before planting.

1/2 C warm water
1 tsp yeast
1 Tb honey
1/2 C buckwheat flour
about 1 C all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
olive oil for coating bowl
cornmeal for dusting baking sheet

1.  Stir together water, yeast, and honey.  Let sit until slightly foamy, about 5 minutes.

2.  In stand mixer with the paddle, beat together water mixture and buckwheat flour into a batter, about 2 minutes.  Add 1/2 C flour and the salt and beat again to a thick batter/ soft dough.

3.  Pour out dough onto a generously floured kneading surface.  Knead until smooth, about 5 minutes.  Because of the honey, it will stay slightly sticky.  Pour a few drops of oil in a bowl.  Turn dough in bowl to coat all sides and place in a warm location to rise for 1 hour.

4.  Punch down dough and allow to rest 10 minutes.  Scatter cornmeal thickly on a baking sheet.  Press and pull dough into desired shape and place on baking sheet.  Dough should be no more than 1/4" thick.  Allow to rise 30 minutes before topping.

2 Tb dried basil pesto
4 oz sliced mozzarella
1/4 lb cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 Tb pine nuts
1/2 C marinated artichokes, cut into bite-size pieces

1.  Preheat oven to 400º.

2.  Thinly spread pesto on crust, leaving edges clean if desired.  Evenly distribute cheese, tomatoes, pine nuts, and artichoke pieces.  Bake until cheese is melted and turning golden, about 15-20 minutes.

Serves 2

Difficulty rating :)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Marinated Artichoke Hearts

My artichoke plant is making back my original investment this year.  Even if baby 'chokes are only a dollar, I've broken even.

Two were threatening to bloom at the same time.  I wanted to do something different than just steam them.  I went trolling around several canning sites (and entered a few contests along the way), but those recipes were for "putting up" several quarts at a time.  I merely wanted them flavored for a salad or snacking with cheese.  We're talking barely two servings here.

Saveur had a recipe that seemed to address my needs.  Since the original recipe uses frozen artichokes (which are available at specialty grocers like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods), I've made a couple of small adjustments for fresh.  I'm also scaling up again, just double this time.
Normal-sized lemon, small artichokes

4 small artichokes
1 lemon
1/2 C olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp oregano
dash cayenne pepper

It's just not fair
1.  Cut lemon in half.  Squeeze the juice of one half into a small bowl of cold water and toss in the rind.  Trim artichokes down to the pale, soft leaves and heart.  Cut in half and scoop out the thistle if they're too mature (a tomato corer is great for this).  Toss immediately into the bowl so it doesn't change color, then move on to the next.

2.  Bring 2 C of water to a simmer in a small saucepan.  Drain artichokes and place in saucepan.  Simmer about 10 minutes, until slightly tender.  Drain.

3.  Combine artichokes, oil, and seasonings in the saucepan.  Cook over medium-low heat for another ten minutes, for the flavors to meld.  Stir occasionally.  You don't want to sauté them, just warm them through.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  Stir in juice of other half of lemon and chill until ready to use (up to 1 week).  The olive oil will look pasty in the fridge, but return to a liquid state when it's on the counter a few minutes.

Difficulty rating  :-0 (for trimming the artichokes)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Chunky Salad

As opposed to a leafy salad.  This time, I decided it was cost-efficient to raid the olive bar at Sprouts because I had a coupon from their opening-day bonanza, but I usually buy everything separately for something like this.

You basically have to throw out your usual definition of "salad".  This is all the garnishes you usually put on the lettuce, but no lettuce.  The one I made this time had a Mediterranean flair, but you could do a Southwest with either fresh corn or a corn salsa as your base, or a squash-based one with zucchini once they start to proliferate.  Edamame and green onion would suggest an Asian theme.  Cheese and/or nuts makes it a main dish salad.  Otherwise, it's probably best as a side.

1 lb of your favorite stuff off the olive bar at the market (sneaking in extra cheese)
2 Roma tomatoes
1 cucumber, peeled
1/2 C dried garbanzo beans or 1 14oz can cooked
1/2 onion

1.  If cooking the beans, soak first for at least 4 hours, change the water, then simmer for 1 hour.  Drain.

1.  Coarsely chop tomatoes, cucumber, and onion.  Toss with olive bar ingredients, including the brine or marinade as your salad dressing.  Toss in garbanzos (drain and rinse if canned).  Serve chilled or room temperature with pita or bread.

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Strawberry-Lavender Preserves

Gigantic strawberries were a dollar a pound.  I hated to cut them up for preserves, but they wouldn't fit into the jar otherwise.  To be different, I decided to add a floral note of lavender.  You don't know if it's a good idea until you make it!

Remember, jams can take a while.  This one, using the skillet method, involves a lot of sitting around and steeping.  If you didn't do that, the syrup part wouldn't be as flavorful as the preserves.  Since I always end up with a lot of leftover jelly, I want it to taste at least as good as the fruit.

1 lb strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 lb sugar
1 Tb dried culinary lavender
2 Tb lemon juice

1.  Combine sugar and lavender in a sealable container and let sit for a day to make lavender sugar.

2.  Pour the sugar over prepared strawberries in a bowl and let sit until the berry juice is drawn out and the whole thing is a gooey mess, about 8 hours.

3.  In a medium saucepan, bring mixture to a low boil and cook until the sugar is completely melted and the juices run clear, about 5 to 10 minutes.  Stir in lemon juice.  Refrigerate overnight.

4.  If canning, prepare jars.  Pour mixture into a 12" skillet with rounded sides and bring to a boil.  Skim off any impurities and cook until thermometer reaches 220º.  Pour into jars (or whatever).  If canning, process in hot water bath for 8 minutes, let cool, etc.  If just storing, allow to cool uncovered until no longer steaming, then refrigerate.

4a. To separate preserves from jelly, spoon just the strawberries into the first half-pint jar, with enough syrup to fill the spaces.  For the other jar, strain syrup through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the lavender blossoms as you fill it.  Cap and continue.
How you can tell it's canning day

L to R: Cherry pie filling, Strawberry-Lavender, Rhubarb-Orange

Makes about one cup of preserves, plus one cup of jelly

Difficulty rating  :)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bulgur Pudding with Fruits and Nuts

This recipe in the LA Times caught my eye because I still had half a cup of bulgur in the pantry and no plans to make tabouli anytime soon.  It's a lot like steel-cut oatmeal when you get all fancy and put cool stuff in it.  I didn't like some of the ingredients they suggested, so I changed it up for this post.  Like oatmeal, feel free to put in whatever you like.  This is just my suggestion.

The original recipe calls for rosewater, being middle-eastern in origin.  If I ever see it somewhere, I'll pick up a bottle.  Instead, I steeped a pinch of dried lavender in a tablespoon of hot water to make lavender water.  There's so much fruit in this recipe, the floral note didn't make much of a difference.  It's up to you how much effort (and gas) you want to exert to get an obscure ingredient.  If something is expensive or I don't think I'll ever use it again, I either skip it or find a substitute.

Yes, there are a million little ingredients in this.  I raided the bins at Sprouts.  And yet, I put in fewer garnishes than the original recipe did.

*1/2 C #2 or #3 bulgur
3/4 C water
pinch of salt
1 C milk, plus more as needed
1/4 C sliced almonds
1/4 C macadamia nuts
4 dried apricots, diced
1 Tb sugar
1 Tb honey
1/4 C raisins
1 Tb rosewater (optional)
1 small orange
1/2 C blueberries
*cinnamon for garnish

1.  Bring water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Stir in bulgur and return to a boil.  Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the water is absorbed, about 5 minutes.  Stir in 1 C milk and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to avoid scorching.  Reduce heat to low and cook uncovered, stirring often, until the bulgur absorbs most of the milk, 12 to 15 minutes.

2.  While the bulgur is simmering, dice the apricots.  Peel the orange and dice, setting it aside for garnish.  If making your own rosewater or lavender water, steep that now.

3.  When bulgur is no longer soupy, remove from heat.  Stir in sugar, honey raisins, apricots, and nuts.  Stir in rosewater.  If too thick, put back on heat and add more milk a tablespoon at a time and stir until heated through.

4.  Divide pudding between serving bowls and garnish with orange pieces, blueberries, and cinnamon.  If serving hot, serve immediately.  Or, you can put it in the fridge and wait for it to set up.  Served cold, it has a texture like a crunchy flan or rice pudding.  If you do plan to serve it as a dessert, you should probably add a bit more sugar and make smaller portions in pudding cups or ramekins.

Serves 2 as breakfast, 3 or 4 as dessert

Difficulty rating :)