Archive for January 2010

The End Of Polenta Week

January 30th, 2010 — 8:05am

Polenta with Black Beans and Kale

We are ending the week of polenta experimentation where it began; a recipe that my sister Terry sent to me that shamed me into actually trying to make polenta.  Until last night I had not even tried to make her recipe.  And when I pulled out the recipe I just assumed that there were some steps missing because the cooking method seemed a bit preposterous. There would of course be an easy way around this problem.  I could pick up the phone and call her.  But I would have felt dumb if in fact this was the way you are supposed to make his recipe.  So I forged ahead with her recipe for “Polenta with Black Beans and Kale.”

I immediately ran into two problems: 1) there was no kale to be had at the market, and 2) it called for a jar of marinara sauce when all I had was a jar of salsa.  I do not think I ever cook a recipe the same way twice so I opted for some spinach instead of the kale and because of the polenta and black beans, essentially corn and black beans, I thought the salsa would lend it a bit of southwestern flair.

The issue then became the cooking method.  The recipe called for layering the ingredients in a cold skillet, and then cooking covered for 15 minutes, essentially simmering the ingredients.  I kept lifting the cover while it was cooking to make sure it had not formed a gelatinous mess in the pan.  It seemed to be cooking fine.  At the end I removed the cover and allowed it to cook an additional 5 minutes to allow some of the liquid to evaporate; the spinach had released a lot of water.  And still not happy I put the mixture, which was covered in cheese, under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes just to get the cheese a nice golden brown.

It was a bit messy to put on the plate.  But I managed to keep the layers largely intact.  The taste was very delicious.  There were a lot of flavor contrasts and the cheesy goodness on top made it seem a bit decadent even though this is a vegetarian dish.  I really liked the salsa in the dish.  It added a bit of heat and it did go well with the black beans and polenta. So this week I not only learned how to make polenta but I also learned a skillet method for cooking layered casseroles.  So, thanks to Terry, her brilliant recipe for “Polenta with Black Beans and Kale” can be found here.

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A View On Ragu

January 28th, 2010 — 8:00am

Chicken Ragu with Polenta

Yesterday I told you how I hate to fuss over cooking a dish for a long time.  Today I am taking it back, sort of, because when I cooked my polenta I did cook a new dish that took me about 2 ½ hours.  I did not have to fuss over it very much, but the point is that I did have to watch over it for a long time.  This goes counter to the whole premise of the blog, except it turned out really great.  So I am going to put it here anyway.

I wanted to serve a ragu, or hearty meat sauce, with my polenta.  I also had to use up some grilled chicken legs that I had in the refrigerator.  So I thought a chicken ragu would help me out in both departments.  Searching for recipes there was nothing that really caught my fancy.  There was an interesting recipe for duck ragu.  But it did not seem like it would have the hearty flavor that I was looking for.

I opted to revamp a traditional Bolognese sauce with chicken instead of beef.  I also simplified all the chopping of the vegetables by using a method that I use when I make marinara sauce.  The onions, celery, carrots, and garlic are chopped fine in a food processor and slowly cooked to release their water.  I know this seems like cheating but if you really want to get to the sugars this is a great way to slowly cook the vegetables without burning them.  Most people who have seen me do this think I am lazy.  This is true.  But in this case it is a good way to get more flavor out of the vegetables.

The result of the long cooking process was very good.  It contrasted nicely with the creaminess of the polenta.  It would work just as well with a nice pasta or served with toasted bread.  So taking a walk on the wilder side I give you my Chicken Ragu.

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Polenta Tormenta

January 27th, 2010 — 10:19am

As you have probably figured out from earlier posts I am not a person who likes to stand and fuss over a recipe. Most of my recipes read like this; “prepare your ingredients, cook them in the pot, put them on a dish, put it on the table.” Even better is when you can actually skip one of the steps altogether. This is probably why it took me years to ever try risotto, and why I never cooked polenta before yesterday. The constant admonishments from the television chefs about constantly stirring and worrying about lumps just turned me off to the idea.

I decided that it was time to try my hand at polenta a few months ago. I even went out and bought corn meal that is supposedly processed for making polenta. However, it has been sitting in the pantry untouched for the better part of a year. Then my sister sent me a recipe which included polenta. So I was shamed into proceeding.

When I did my usual recipe search I found that most people do not cook their polenta on top of the stove. And most recipes called for an initial stir, a long cooking time, and then a final stir with some butter and cheese. So my choice in the matter was to stand over a pot and stir for about 20 to 25 minutes. Or I could put it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 35 to 40 minutes and not worry about it. I decided to combine the two methods and since I was going to chill my polenta then brown it before serving I opted to cook the polenta in the 9” x 9” baking dish I would have used to cool the polenta.

It turned out excellent. I also think I could have skipped the initial stir in the pot and should have gone right to the baking dish to save myself a step. Either way it was rather easy and very delicious. So adding to the internet chatter about polenta you can find my cooking method here.

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How Far Do You Go?

January 23rd, 2010 — 8:00am

Just about the time we begin seeing tulips flood the market we also get a flood of vegetables from Mexico.  All those vegetables that are out of season for us in Texas come rushing into the market; and at a very reasonable price.  With the push to buy local, start your own garden or buy a farm share so we can all save the planet, what is one supposed to do with these nice looking vegetables that land in the supermarket?

I consulted with some food bloggers about this dilemma.  The answers ranged from eating beans and rice until you can get your own garden going again to eating what’s in season when you can, but if you crave tomatoes in January and they are relatively cheap, buy them.  I guess I tend to lean more towards the latter argument.  But I will also add an argument for geography.  We live so close to Mexico I think it is alright to buy produce from there especially in the dead of winter when there is not much available other than butternut squash and apples from the United States.  I am not alone in this argument.  One blogger suggested that she had rationalized buying food from all over the Eastern seaboard because she lived in Massachusetts.  Her winter consumption of summer crops comes from Florida. For us Mexico is like Connecticut if you live in Massachusetts.  Just a little bit South and just a wee bit warmer.   

So I have decided not to feel guilty about buying Mexican produce.  The grape tomatoes and cucumber salad I made last night from Mexican grown crops was quite tasty.  I can go back to the butternut squash and apples next week. And try as hard as we may to save the planet, a few simple compromises along the way are not so bad.  Besides, I am sure someone in Mexico appreciates the fact that I like their produce.

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In Praise Of Braise

January 21st, 2010 — 11:13am

Chicken all'Arrabbiata

I have always liked braising as a cooking method. You get lots of flavor from browning the meat first and then slow cooking at a low temperature allows the meat to soften and gather up all the flavors from the cooking liquid. If you have the time to allow for the cooking process it really is a great way to prepare meat, especially a tough cut of meat.

Lately I have been seeing recipes for chicken all’arrabbiata, most recently in Food & Wine Magazine. All of the recipes had slightly different ingredients. But they all had one unusual theme in common; braising the chicken for a short period of time at a high temperature. The idea of a spicy red sauce with chicken surely is a good idea. But I was skeptical of the short braising time. Although anything that shortens the cooking time but does not affect the flavor has to be a good thing. After all we are Busy Gourmands.

Of course I had to check it out. The preparation of the chicken was similar to my Poulet a la Grecque. The recipe called for some heat so I did my own spin on that for the dish. The only change came from the temperature of the oven, at 400 degrees versus 325 degrees, the cooking time 35 minutes versus 1 hour, and cooked in an uncovered pot versus a covered pot.

I have to admit cooking uncovered made the whole kitchen smell really great. In plating the dish the chicken and the sauce looked much like the braised chickens I have prepared in the past. So I served our resident food critic, Will, and waited for his reaction. Within 5 minutes he said, “I love the flavor of the sauce, but I prefer it when the chicken is cooked to fall off the bone. It has more flavor.”

So there is a reason for cooking longer at a lower temperature. The chicken has time to absorb more flavor and the chicken has a softer, moister texture. The other reason is that it allows me to enjoy a second cocktail after I do all the hard work of preparing the chicken for braising. Although it may take a bit longer, the flavor impact is worth the extra time. You can find my take on chicken all’arrabbiata, inspired by Food & Wine Magazine, and Men’s Health Magazine, here.

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Leftovers Or Mélange

January 19th, 2010 — 11:46am

I have always had a hard time with the term leftover. It reminds me of the kid who was always chosen last when you played kickball at recess. You eventually had to use him because he was the only one left over. Or when you are putting caulk around the tub, when you smooth it all out, you always have a little bit left over on your fingers. And what do you do with this leftover caulk? You throw it away.

So the whole idea of eating food leftovers has a bit of pejorative connotation. I mean if the food was any good in the first place why was there any left over? Of course the answer is sometimes you just cannot finish all the food that is prepared. A pork roast in our house could last for three or four meals.

Because of the bad feelings I get about the term “leftovers” I never use the leftovers in the same form for which they were prepared. I may use the leftover pork roast in a sandwich or in a stew a couple of days later. But I will never eat it with the same mashed potatoes and green beans I had on the first go round.

So I have decided to banish the term leftovers from our food lexicon and I have chosen to call the food you prepare with leftovers a mélange. Mélange which means mixture comes from the French verb mélanger, to mix. In our house we do not consume leftovers we consume a mélange, which generally includes two different types of left over food. The chicken breasts and rice you cooked earlier in the week may end up being the chicken, rice, and something casserole at the end of the week. By definition to be a real mélange you have to use at least two types of left over food.

Because the mélanges are made from what you have on hand without a whole lot of planning, they generally do not follow any specific recipes; although some general guidelines are usually applied. And no two mélanges will probably ever taste the same again. But in general they can be just as satisfying as the meals from which they originated.

As part of the weekly offering I am going to start including some mélange recipes. The first is a chicken, rice, and artichoke casserole.

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Veggie Burger – The Oxymoron

January 16th, 2010 — 8:00am

Quinoa Veggie Patty

For those of you who know me well the idea of me eating a thing called a “veggie burger” is pretty preposterous. What passes for a veggie burger in the market is usually a disk made from black beans that has the texture of a brick and usually tastes more akin to cardboard than meat. It is probably the main reason why I would never join the vegetarian or vegan club. Someone might actually think I would enjoy eating one of those things.

In the interest of food science I thought I should revisit this concept, the veggie burger, so I could once and for all put to rest the notion that it is actually a part of the food pantheon. First of all the name has to go! A burger is the shortened version of hamburger, which is derived from the city in Germany, Hamburg, where ground meat is used to make disks of meat that are fried. Was there a mention of a vegetable in that last sentence? And having been to Germany I did not notice anyone eating anything that looked like a vegetable, except for the occasional boiled potato and sauerkraut.

We could of course use the term cutlet. This of course moves us into the French language where a “cotelette” or cutlet is actually a slice of meat, usually beaten to a certain thinness, breaded, and then fried. The breading gets us a little closer to something in the vegetable kingdom. But cutlet will not work. There is no meat involved.

We are then left with “patty.” This is a general term for a flattened disk of something or other that is usually fried. If we can get the jingle for the “Big Mac” out of our heads patty seems to be the logical term for a flattened disk of vegetable matter that is fried.

Where am I going with this? I do not know. Maybe I am just angry that I found a recipe for a “veggie burger” now called “veggie patty” which actually turned out pretty good. No black beans to mess up this mixture it is largely comprised of quinoa and chick peas. Yes, in following my quinoa theme this week I actually found a vegetable patty that I liked and that is healthy for you. Maybe the end of the world really is coming in 2012. So here you go, my newly renamed, vegetable patty.

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I’ll Take My Quinoa On The Side

January 15th, 2010 — 10:02am

Quinoa Black Bean and Corn SaladWe will continue our journey down Quinoa Lane with a recipe for the most common use of quinoa, as a side dish. As I have mentioned in some previous recipes it is a good replacement for couscous, rice, or even orzo in common salads or side dish recipes. It is also a great way to make a recipe gluten free and a bit healthier. With all of its protein and amino acids it almost makes a complete meal all by itself. And when combined with beans or legumes it truly is a one dish wonder.

You prepare quinoa much like you would prepare rice except the proportions are a bit different. One cup of quinoa pares with 1 ½ cups of liquid and is cooked, like rice, for about 15 minutes. Once cooked it needs to be fluffed with a fork to separate the individual grains.

‘To broth or not to broth,” that is the question. For me whether it is rice or couscous or orzo cooking in broth gives the ingredients a little extra flavor heft. You can eat the quinoa all by itself when cooked in a broth. Or it will stand out in a nice salad. The water cooked version is alright. It is just a bit bland. If you are strictly vegetarian a vegetable or garlic broth can be used.

My salad version of quinoa includes corn and black beans. I did not include any heat but adding a jalapeno pepper would also make an interesting dish. So without further ado here is my quinoa with black bean and corn salad.

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Quinoa Who?

January 13th, 2010 — 10:34am

Quinoa Plant

I was feeling a bit guilty after my antidiet posts. Actually I had nothing but positive feedback about them. But I really do spend a lot of time trying to watch what I eat. A little self indulgence is not so bad in moderation.

So I thought I would make up for the heavy-weight dishes and turn my focus on a little known and little used grain called Quinoa (kee-nwa). It is a type of seed used primarily as a grain in Latin America. In fact it was once the primary food staple of the Incas. It has a high protein content and contains an array of amino acids, including lysine, which are not normally present in other grains. It is cooked in a manner similar to rice and has a somewhat nutty flavor. You can find a lot more about it at Wikipedia.

Much like rice it is often used as a side dish mixed with vegetables and such. I have used it as a gluten free alternative in some of the recipes posted here. And researching the world of recipes I found that only the vegetarian web sites have any real mention of quinoa. Which is kind of odd given its protein properties and its ease of use.

This week we will feature quinoa; making amends for the antidiet and introducing many of you to something that really needs to be one of your food staples. I did not want to tie quinoa to the status of side dish so I have decided to feature three recipes; 1. a quinoa and lentil stew, 2. quinoa, corn, and black bean salad, and 3. (taking a walk on the very wild side) quinoa veggie burgers. Who knows where this will lead us? Let’s find out. First up the quinoa and lentil stew.

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The Oven Option

January 12th, 2010 — 11:48am

Oven Roasted Chicken

With the weather being so cold lately I have been using any excuse to turn on the oven every night. There have been lots of casseroles and I have even gone back to making my own baguettes. (More on that later.) In order to keep up with our weekly need for roasted chicken we actually have forgone the rotisserie on the grill and roasted the chicken in the oven. This presents a few challenges in trying to get the moist rotisserie chicken flavor into an oven roasted bird.

The question becomes brine or not to brine? If you have the time I would try the brining method. Will took over the chicken cooking duties this week and he opted for the no-brine method. If you adjust the salt correctly there is not a huge difference in flavor except that I think a brined chicken turns out a bit moister.

The other problem comes from getting a nice crispy skin without overcooking the chicken. Some people suggest a higher temperature (425 degrees) and a shorter cooking cycle. Others suggest a lower temperature (325 degrees) and a longer cooking cycle. I am all about combining ideas so a short time at a higher temperature followed by a long time at a lower temperature seems to make the skin crisp but keep the chicken moist.

The flavor factor comes into play as well. With a rotisserie chicken we stuff the bird with lemons, garlic, and herbs and use a dry rub on the outside. With an oven roasted chicken you really need to up the ante on the herbs. So herbs need to be used inside and outside. A dry rub will do almost nothing for an oven roasted chicken. So without much further ado you can find Will’s very good version of oven roasted chicken here.

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