Archive for August 2010

A Little Twist

August 31st, 2010 — 10:37am

Gemelli With Sun Dried Tomatoes and Arugula

A few years ago I was showing Will around my old stomping grounds in Boston. There was the requisite luncheon at The Top of the Hub in the Prudential Building, the walk along the Freedom Trail, the snack and a glass of wine at Legal Sea Foods and of course the end of the day dinner in The North End.

Will was astonished that cars actually drove on the sidewalks in The North End due to the narrowness of the streets. He was also amazed at the number of small restaurants on the first floor of just about every building. Not knowing where to eat, we naturally picked the place that looked like it had a bit of a line to get in. If people are waiting it is usually a good sign that the food is pretty good.

After Will disrupted the kitchen staff with a lot of questions (you basically had to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room) and he almost put a complete hex on the place by trying to make a toast with a glass of water (the woman who owned the restaurant caught him before the glass reached his mouth) we settled in to look at the menu and pursue one of my favorite pastimes; seeing what everyone else was eating. This is of course frowned upon in the not so friendly social circles of Boston. But I did not live there anymore and the owner of the restaurant seemed to delight in telling us about every dish that everyone was having around the room even though the people eating the dishes seemed a bit annoyed.

My dish was a gemelli (a pasta made of two strands of pasta twisted together) with sun dried tomatoes, broccoli di rape, and a bit of chicken in a spicy, lemony, clear sauce. I have made it often. In fact the minute I got back to Dallas I made it for us. I had forgotten about it until I had to make something on the fly the other night. I substituted arugula for the broccoli di rape and I used some Italian sausage instead of the chicken. It was all good. So if you are looking for something with a little twist then try the gemelli with sun dried tomatoes and broccoli di rape.

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From Dog Days to Salad Days

August 26th, 2010 — 10:54am

Mockingbird Cooling Off

The heat has finally broken here in Dallas. We had 18 straight days of 100 degree weather through August 17th, followed by a few more days of 100 degree weather after the break including Monday when the temperature hit 107, the highest for the year. Yesterday we topped out at 81, the lowest high temperature since the month of May. This morning we were in the relatively chilly low 70’s.

Society Garlic

There are a lot of signals that the summer is coming to an end including a cold front (a misnomer really as the cold front will give us daytime highs in the low 90’s). The society garlic, which is only good for looking at, is currently blooming. This throws the bees into a frenzy. Which is actually quite nice considering it is about the only time in the year when we see a lot of bees. The lavender is blooming. This is quite a feat given the fact that lavender does not like regular watering from a sprinkler system. We had the good sense to move it to a small garden at the edge of the pool to prevent over watering. And the humming birds have started to feed regularly from the sugar water we leave out for them. They are fattening up, if that is possible for a humming bird, before the long trek back to Mexico and Central America.

Provence Lavender

We have been busy on the food front, although nothing astonishing to report on the blog. Will figured out that guiso can be a completely vegetarian dish by substituting eggplant for the meat. I figured out a new recipe for panna cotta using lime instead of lemon. I like it better as the lime really is pronounced in the dish whereas the lemon is sort of an afterthought. We also figured out that ultra-thin crust pizza on the grill is definitely NAGI (Not A Good Idea!). This also reinforced my notion that arguing is indeed a form of communication, if not a very pleasant one. And we tried out grinding our own hamburger in the food processor. For some reason the hamburger tastes more beefy this way. Although you can get a few knots of fat in there as well. You have to take some bad with the good. We are also very fortunate in that the arugula crop from this Spring, which we allowed to go to seed, has generated a very nice late summer crop of very peppery arugula. Much like basil, a handful seems to find its way into just about everything.

Home Ground Hamburgers

The final news is that I am migrating everything over to Mac from Windows. This is not for the faint of heart. Not everything that works in Windows works on Mac; unlike what the people at the Apple Store will tell you. I am actually composing this on the old Windows XP because I have to run out and buy new photo software and a word processing software that works on Mac. The good news is that the Mac does not hang all the time like the old system. And, maybe with some newer photo software, my food will actually look edible. One can only hope!

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Channeling Recipes

August 23rd, 2010 — 1:07pm

Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Ricotta Sauce

I rarely watch the “Food Network” anymore. With all the cooking competitions and the reality shows it seems more like the foodie version of “Survivor.” I thought “Survivor” was an interesting concept for about two seasons. After that it just became a show about ridiculous people trying to be more outrageous than the next person. Ho hum…sounds a lot like the people with whom I work.

I have recently decided to venture on to the “Cooking Channel.” There are a couple of promising shows, one of which, “David Rocco’s Dolce Vita” has recently caught my eye in between my afternoon nap and cocktail hour. It is a precious time of day when I am trying to wake up and come to grips with the fact that I will have to cook something for dinner soon.

I find that David Rocco and I have a lot in common. He is married. He is in his late 20’s or early 30’s. He is short and kind of skinny. He lives in Florence, Italy.  And, he hangs out with his friends who are all “mamones;” men who live with their mothers until well into their 40’s, also known as “Mama’s Boys” in English. Come to think of it, I have very little in common with David Rocco. Except that he hates to measure when he cooks, and he believes you improvise when you do not have all the regular ingredients for a recipe. That’s close enough for me.

The other day he made orecchiette with a ricotta and cherry tomato sauce. It sounded really good, but with no list of ingredients or measurements I had to improvise and use what I had on hand in order to come close to his recipe. I had to use farfalle; it is what I had on hand. I also added some Italian sausage and some arugula to the sauce to add another dimension. I think the arugula or some other bitter green is necessary to make the sauce interesting. The Italian sausage is optional. So with a tip of the hat to my “twin” David Rocco, I offer up my pasta with ricotta and cherry tomatoes.

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A Salad for the Dog Days

August 17th, 2010 — 9:09am

Tortellini Salad

We are beginning the 18th straight day of 100 degree heat in the Dallas area. It gives new meaning to the term “dog days,” a phrase coined by the ancient Greeks for the period in summer when it was too hot to pretty much do anything outdoors. And while I enjoy cooking it can be pure drudgery when the temperatures stay so high for so long.

Yesterday I decided to take the day off from cooking. Will jumped in to fill the void. He asked our friend Jacquie for her tortellini salad recipe which we have enjoyed at a few parties. It does require you to cook some tortellini but the rest of the work consists of chopping vegetables and mixing a salad dressing. Nothing really that would cause you to break a sweat on one of the hottest days of the year.

I also like the idea of a little bit of heft provided by the tortellini. I am all about a mixed green salad. For dinner I usually like to have a bit of something else to eat. The pasta and the cheese in the tortellini work well with the vegetables. So “thanks” to Jacquie for helping us out last night with her tortellini salad. Enjoy the rest of the dog days. Woof, woof!

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The Wonder of Stuffed Things

August 14th, 2010 — 12:21pm

Poblano Pepper Stuffed With Arroz Con Pollo

When I was a kid I had a stuffed dog called Morgan. I am not sure where the name came from. There used to be a charity near where I grew up called the Morgan Memorial which gathered up used clothes and household items. I am guessing the dog originated from one of their piles of used things for sale. My stuffed dog became my constant companion until such time as it became so ratty it became a health hazard and was summarily thrown away. My first love of stuffed things abruptly ended.

Later on my love of stuffed animals transformed into a love of stuffed foods; beginning of course with a donut stuffed with jelly. As my culinary exposures increased I would later move on to a love of stuffed turkey, stuffed ravioli, stuffed pasta shells, calzones stuffed with cheese and some kind of Italian meat, “fried pies” ( an invention native to Oklahoma and Texas) stuffed with any kind of sugary fruits or savory meats, and eventually, when I landed in Mexico for a few years, the lovely empanada and the incredible stuffed poblano pepper.

My inspiration for the next dish, poblanos stuffed with arroz con pollo, came from an empanada establishment in Buenos Aires. It was a small store about a block away from our apartment. It was not the kind of place that tourists ever would venture into; no posted menu, dimly lit storefront, a lot of tattooed and pierced people hanging around, and no doubt a bit of money laundering going on. But the sign said “Empanadas Artesanales,” or basically hand made empanadas. I would do just about anything for a good empanada. And given my propensity to hang out with the local criminal element, I ventured in, scaring most of the people who were hanging out there. After the shock of my appearance wore off eventually I was asked “Que Quieres?,” or “Whadaya want?” Being a wise guy among wise guys I answered “Empanadas Artesanales.” The collective groan that emanated from the people in the shop should have been a good indication that there were other things than cooking going on in this establishment. When I asked to see a menu I was met with incredulous stares from the local hoodlumry and at some point the head tattooed thug blurted out a list of about fifteen different types of which only two remained in my memory afterwards; arroz con pollo, and jamon con queso or ham and cheese. Not wanting a reenactment of the list I chose the two I remembered.

Despite the danger involved in procuring them, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the empanadas with arroz con pollo were nothing short of a brilliant idea. Take one of the favorite, local, everyday dishes, put it in a bit of pie crust, and then bake it. Yum! I have not made the empanada variety yet. But the culinary muses presented me with some of the most beautiful poblano peppers I have ever seen and some leftover arroz con pollo. The result is a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with arroz con pollo and a bit of homemade chipotle tomato sauce. Double yum! I realize that you may not have a bit of arroz con pollo handy. I think some rice and chicken mixed with a few other ingredients would get you pretty close. And you do not have to encounter any dangers to get the recipe.

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One Pot Wonders

August 12th, 2010 — 10:58am

Arroz Con Pollo

When I worked in Mexico I shared a house with my business partner. The house was lacking a few amenities; most prominently central heat and air conditioning. The house did have one very important amenity and her name was Julia. She came in the morning every day to clean. And, if you were really nice to her, she would also make up a batch of arroz con pollo, or rice with chicken. My business partner used to call it “paella de los pobres,” or poor man’s paella.

I was just learning to speak Spanish at the time so my limited vocabulary tended to flummox Julia. However, we managed to communicate on several different levels most importantly when it came to buying her things in the United States (free of charge of course) and when it came to preparing something in the kitchen. I was amazed at what she could do with one pot, one sharp knife and a few ingredients. Arroz con pollo was the perfect dish for this cooking method. Basically you brown some chicken, sauté some vegetables, add some rice and chicken stock (in her case water and bouillon cubes), place the chicken back into the pot, cover it, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

She would make this dish in the morning and leave it on top of the stove for us to reheat in the oven in the evening. I think the key to a good arroz con pollo is to let the whole thing rest for a little while. It allows the flavors to meld together. It also allows the chicken to absorb all the flavors from the broth. I made some last night and while it was good, there was something just a bit better about Julia’s version that I have yet to figure out.

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Ultimate Mélange

August 10th, 2010 — 9:27am

Mediterranean Style Baked Penne

I really hate throwing food away. I think this is largely because as we get older we slowly morph into all the characteristics that our parents possessed as we grew up. The starving children in China aside, I do think throwing perfectly good food away is a bit sinful. I feel a bit better now that we have the compost bin. Leftover vegetables can be placed in there without much guilt. Today’s leftovers become next year’s tomatoes. But throwing away things that cannot be composted really makes me feel wasteful.

This does, however, present us with a few challenges. How do you combine all these leftovers into something reasonably edible? (Perhaps this would be a great new show for the Food Network; The Ultimate Mélange Challenge. I think I better get a copyright on that right away!) Mixing a bunch of disparate ingredients together that may never be combined again is a bit of an art form.

This week the muses presented me with a rather strange array of leftovers; marinara sauce, basil pesto, penne pasta, and hot Italian sausage. I suppose the sauces could have been mixed and then reheated with the pasta and the sausage in the microwave. But what is the fun in all of that? Instead my leftovers became a mélange of baked penne in a Mediterranean style with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes all mixed with some ricotta cheese and topped with some parmigiano reggiano. It was actually quite good. You could of course have skipped the pesto and the sausage if you did not have them. It would have been fine without them. But I was trying to use up a few ingredients. We will call this Mediterranean Style Baked Penne. As with all mélanges you can add or delete ingredients at will.

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The Lowly Game Hen

August 8th, 2010 — 8:00am

Grilled Game Hen

When I am out buying poultry I usually stick with a frying or roasting chicken. On a rare occasion I would consider a duck. On an even rarer occasion I would consider a game hen. The duck is usually an afterthought due to the amount of time you have to invest to cook it correctly. The game hen is an afterthought because, quite frankly, it really does not taste like much once you cook it.

The game hen was one of those great American ideas that took a perfectly good chicken bred it with a stubby legged, big breasted small chicken called a “Cornish Chicken” and with a lot of good marketing convinced us that a renamed “Cornish Game Hen,” a mostly white meat bird, would taste really good. Not to mention look really cute on a platter.

So here I go again walking through the market not even thinking about buying any poultry and there they were; game hens on sale at about half the usual price. Most normal people who were not in the market for a chicken in the first place would not give them another thought. But sometimes a price is so low I have to stop and pick them up. Once in my hand they end up in the basket. And once at home I say to myself “Why did I buy these game hens?”

Well, I like a challenge. So I combined a couple of my old recipes together to see if I could make these immature chickens taste good. First I submerged the birds in a lemon, garlic and rosemary marinade which I have used for chicken dishes for years. I decided this was not going to be enough to make these chickens tasty so while grilling them I basted them with an apricot glaze, which I have used for barbeque for many years. The result was actually quite good. The marinade gave the meat a nice subtle flavor and the glaze gave the whole chicken a nice sweet barbeque sauce flavor without tasting like a bunch of ketchup and bourbon (two things I like, but not on chicken). And they really are quite cute when you put them on a plate. So next time you buy a game hen you can try this one with marinade and apricot glaze.

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Presto Pesto

August 6th, 2010 — 8:00am

Vegetable Lasagna with Ricotta and Pesto Filling

Our basil plants have slowly grown into small bushes. If I could just get them to last all year I would use them in the landscape like I do rosemary. One of our neighbors stopped by to comment on the landscape the other day and she asked why I was always taking clippings from the front of the house. I explained that I had two rosemary bushes and a small bay tree in the landscaping. She thought I was so clever. In reality the rosemary is much easier to take care of than other evergreens and the bay tree can be trimmed into a very nice compact evergreen shrub. It is nice that I can use them for cooking. It is also nice that they make great landscape plants as well.

The basil is kept solely in the back of the house in the vegetable garden. It is just easier to get the daily harvest and then grab a bunch of basil all at one time. This time of year I use the basil in just about everything. One of my favorites is of course using it in a basil pesto.

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In keeping with my need to keep life simple I have taken to making one big batch per week and using it in a variety of dishes. If you cover the pesto in a layer of olive oil in a tightly sealed container it should be fine to use for at least a week. I have given you a few ideas on how to use the pesto in the past with pesto pasta with chicken and lasagna al pesto.

I also try to work the pesto into some other dishes. One of my favorites is to add a bit of pesto to some mayonnaise (one tablespoon of pesto to two tablespoons of mayonnaise) and use the converted mayonnaise on sandwiches. It adds a nice depth of flavor to the richness of the mayonnaise. I also add it to the ricotta cheese when I am making lasagna (one cup of pesto per fifteen ounces of ricotta). It turns the ricotta a green color. But once again it really adds to the flavor of the lasagna. I made vegetable lasagna this week and the pesto really gave the dish a richness that the vegetables alone could not muster. I will not give you any recipes for these impromptu fixings. I think you get the gist of it. However, next time you make up a big batch of pesto just remember; it is not just for pasta anymore.

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In A Pickle

August 4th, 2010 — 8:00am

Bread and Butter Pickles

Most relationships when they start out are based on the notion of shared sacrifice for shared benefits. Much like a communist collective (or perhaps you prefer the notion of the Borg Collective; “Resistance is futile!”) you put in your effort and take out according to your own needs. However, much like the communists later figured out, this devolves into the same old assignments of work that we free market believers all end up partaking in anyway. Eventually you are segmented into the categories of “does do” and “does not do.” For example if a contractor or any other service provider needs to be spoken to harshly then that is what I do. If this same person needs to be given a pat on the back then that is what Will does. He is the good cop. I am the bad cop.

When it comes to household duties I have always found that the designations of “does do” and “does not do” seem to gel early in the relationship. Most notably when we started out I was the primary cook. Will would help out a couple of nights per week. At some point though Will decided that cooking two nights per week could diminish to maybe cooking breakfast on Sunday, and eventually to maybe I’ll help out and turn the coffee maker on in the morning. Clearly Will does not cook.

I was therefore very surprised when I returned from an overnight trip last week and found that Will had been busy cooking while I was away! Not only that, but he had taken on the rather ambitious project of canning pickles from the abundance of cucumbers that had largely been relegated to the compost pile. Now a canning project for me would be months in the planning. (Planning is something I do and something Will does not do. Planning of course is just a euphemism for procrastination; something Will does not do.) But Will woke up on Saturday morning and decided he was not going to throw any more perfectly good cucumbers in the compost pile. In a matter of hours he had researched the project, went out and bought the necessary supplies (a few canning jars), and set to work on turning these cucumbers into delicious pickles.

I can imagine Will, in his gingham jumper, standing over a hot stove steaming jars of pickles wiping his sweaty brow all the while. The poor little kitchen urchin relegated to the cooking duties while others played outside in the pool drinking fruity cocktails. That is about as long and as far as my imagination can take it. But I am grateful for the pickles and the rosemary bread he also baked (I guess he was on a rather short lived roll; no pun intended). I am told he steadfastly followed the canning instructions from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook that has stood us in good stead all these years. As I am in the planning (procrastinating) stages about canning I will let you do your own research. And this winter, while I am sipping my evening cocktail while chopping some pile of root vegetables, I will think fondly back to the month of August, when Will actually cooked something.

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