Archive for November 2011

I’ll Take the Unusual

November 28th, 2011 — 9:58am
pumpkin cheesecake

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Like most everyone else when it comes to Thanksgiving I tend to stick with the tried and true, the usual. It is not that you cannot try to do new things at Thanksgiving. It is just that there is something comforting in the knowledge that a well-cooked turkey is going to be accompanied by mashed potatoes, dressing and a handful of other dishes usually followed by a pumpkin or pecan pie, or hopefully both. This year we opted for a few things that were a bit out of the ordinary. Not like a walk on the wild side with Lou Reed, but more like a pleasant variation on some old themes.

Instead of a whole turkey we just cooked a turkey breast. Considering the number of people dining it made a lot of sense. Although in prior years it would have seemed like blasphemy. With careful preparation it turned out moister than the whole-turkey version. Rubbed with butter and fresh herbs it was a very nice change. Instead of mashed potatoes we had the “Greek-style” potatoes made in an earlier post. Definitely emphasizing the lemon and feta cheese, this went well with the turkey. I played with my usual cranberry compote relying on apricot preserves more than sugar. I liked the new version better. Less cloying with the orange and ginger flavors really coming through.

whole pumpkin cheesecake

The Whole Pumpkin Cheeseake

The biggest change came from me complaining “pumpkin pie again?” I pushed for a pumpkin cheesecake. I know, not exactly pushing the envelope, but definitely more interesting. After a lot of research the resident pastry chef came up with an excellent and light version using a mix of spices that really made the pumpkin flavor shine through. And, unlike the “America’s Test Kitchen” version which takes two days to make, I believe he was done with the whole thing in a matter of a couple of hours. This is definitely worth a try if you ever suffer from pie fatigue.

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November 15th, 2011 — 9:53am
cream of broccoli soup with bacon

Cream of Broccoli Soup

When in the course of culinary events you cannot find a recipe that fits your idea of a very common food offering, you go out and invent a new version. A version not so new as to be unrecognizable but new enough that someone might actually think your iteration is a step forward in the development of cooking. Not a giant leap mind you. Just a little step forward that will put a smile on your face. One of those food “aha” moments.

I was on a soup jag after

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the white bean soup. There was something so natural about eating a bowl of soup with a slice of crusty bread for dinner that I had to continue with at least one more. So armed with some broccoli in the refrigerator I went in search of a cream of broccoli soup. To my chagrin this was not an easy task. The most common recipes included cooking the broccoli to mush in some chicken broth, pureeing the mixture, adding some cream and then some salt and pepper. Not the most inspiring concoction.

So thinking about my recent foray into potato and leek soup I came up with the idea to cook the broccoli with a potato. This would allow be to add some creaminess without adding a whole lot of cream. Next I thought the whole thing would be made more interesting with just a touch of bacon, a couple of dashes of hot sauce, and chopped roasted chiles of the mild variety. This also allowed me to keep the palette mostly in the green category. (I hate it when someone wants to know why there are “red pieces” floating in the sea of green broccoli. It is easier to give the philistines what they want.)

I never had the “soupspicion” (old Creole for “suspecting” something) that this would turn out so well. The bacon was a nice addition but not overpowering. The smoky heat from the hot sauce was just right. And with the potato I kept the cream content to a minimum allowing the flavor of the broccoli to dominate. You can of course follow the usual recipes, or you can take a leap into the unknown and try my cream of broccoli soup.

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Leftover Heaven

November 13th, 2011 — 10:52am
Ham and White Bean Soup

Ham and White Bean Soup

Sometimes I even surprise myself when something I produce is so wonderful. I had the leftover white beans and smoked ham from my dinner last night. I decided to make them into a soup. To the beans I added some sauteed onions, carrot, celery and ginger, a dash of hot sauce and some chicken broth. I pureed the beans and added the leftover diced ham. I let the whole thing simmer for about 15 minutes.

All I can say is “Wow!” The soup had a wonderful creamy consistency. The smokiness of the ham from cooking the previous day permeated the soup. The heat from the ginger and the hot sauce gave it just enough interest. With a slice of bread and a garnish of cilantro leaves it is one of the best meals I have had in a long time. More good news…I have some leftover for lunch today!

fall garden bouquet

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Elemental Beans

November 12th, 2011 — 10:45am

smoked ham shank with white beansOur last housekeeper was from El Salvador. When I asked her what was her favorite meal she replied, beans and rice. It has been my experience that beans and rice are considered peasant food throughout Latin America. I have never seen them offered on a menu or offered as a meal when visiting someone in their home. And yet, despite the lack of status, she chose beans and rice because to her they are the ultimate comfort food. She was fascinated by the fact that I usually prepared my own beans rather than using a canned variety.

When we were in Barcelona I saw a dish that struck me as being so simple and looked so satisfying I have made it several times since then. It is a smoked ham shank simmered in a pot of white beans. Seasoned with some salt, pepper, and a bit of onion and garlic. You cook it in a low oven for about two hours. It has to be one of the simplest yet most satisfying meals that I make. Feeling a bit blue last night I decided to treat myself with this recipe. The good news…I am going to make a white bean and ham soup with the leftovers for tomorrow’s dinner.

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Pasta in a Pinch

November 11th, 2011 — 10:03am
penne in a marinara sauce

Penne in a Basic Tomato Sauce

This week I recalled an interview with Paul Volcker when he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve during the 1980’s. The interview was conducted in his apartment in Washington while he was preparing his evening meal, spaghetti with a tomato sauce. Apparently while living away from his wife, who was then residing in New York during the week, he prepared the same meal every night; pasta with some sort of tomato sauce. I remember thinking “Here is one of the most powerful men in the world reduced to eating pasta every night.” I felt sorry for him at the time.

rigatoni alla vodka

Rigatoni alla Vodka

Well this week I pulled a Paul Volcker (not to be confused with the banking regulation the “Volcker Rule”). I made a big pot of tomato sauce and

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decided to eat pasta on three consecutive evenings using different variations on the sauce. The first night was my basic tomato sauce with penne pasta. In some instances the basics are often the best and with a bit of parmigiano reggiano it made for a satisfying meal. I followed the second night with a rigatoni alla vodka, using the basic sauce and adding some sun-dried tomatoes, some cream and of course some vodka. This was even more satisfying. Finally last night I went all in and made a puttanesca sauce, starting with the basic sauce and adding olives and capers. I put this sauce over a nice plate of bucatini. All in all acting like Paul Volcker for a few nights was not so bad after all.

tuna puttanesca

Bucatini with Puttanesca Sauce

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What To Do With The Leftovers?

November 8th, 2011 — 2:11pm
pastis made with leftovers

Pastis Made With Leftovers

When you are cooking for one you are bound to have a few leftovers. The options of course are to eat the leftovers for lunch the next day or turn them into a new dish for a future dinner. These leftover inventions are hard to categorize because it is likely you will never prepare the dish exactly the same way again. You would have to have the same mix of leftovers to follow the recipe. According to MFK Fisher this is the measure of a true cook; being able to use whatever is on hand including leftovers to create a new recipe. I am actually pretty good at throwing leftovers together and creating something new and delicious.

Last night I found the leftover rosemary potatoes from my roast chicken night. I thought about making some scrambled eggs and sauteing the potatoes with some onions and peppers. Kind of like cooking breakfast for dinner. Instead I took it a step further and made a pastis or a quiche-like preparation I had in Barcelona. The leftover potatoes went on the bottom of the pan, along with some feta cheese, onions and peppers, and some crumbled bacon. I poured the egg mixture over the top and then topped the eggs with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. The result was delicious. I guess all you need for this dish is some leftover potatoes and my pastis recipe.

And my apologies for all the bad pictures lately. The digital camera is in Europe and I am using my phone for the photography. No that my digital camera photos are that much better.

russian sage

Russian Sage

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Salad Solutions

November 7th, 2011 — 8:24am
waldorf chicken salad

Waldorf Chicken Salad

While soup may seem too complicated for a dinner for one, we often fall back on salads as the easy way out of making dinner. There is nothing wrong with a salad as long as you put some ingenuity into it. My days of “training” where I would put sliced roasted chicken breasts on top of a pile of greens was definitely a time saver. But it was not the most satisfying meal especially if you eat it three or four days in a row. And changing the salad dressing or the mix of greens did not really have any great impact either.

Ergo todays chicken salad, the venerable Waldorf chicken salad. This has grown from a simple recipe of poached chicken pieces, apple chunks and some walnuts covered in mayonnaise, and has blossomed into so many Waldorf varieties I cannot count them. I have seen it made with pecans and pistachioes. Some people insist on using grapes or raisins. Others caramelize their walnuts to add a sweet flavor to the mix. I am not a big fan of gloppy mayonnaise recipes so my Waldorf chicken salad uses a bit of mayonnaise diluted with some olive oil and white wine vinegar. And to make the whole thing a bit more enticing I add just a bit of mustard to the mix. I like the sharp contrast with the sweet apples.

So here we are day three of the roasted chicken, and it is sadly all gone. Roast chicken and rosemary potatoes the first night, Asian-style chicken soup the next, and finally an inventive Waldorf salad. Not a bad run for the old bird.

red garden roses

Red Garden Roses

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Soup’s On

November 6th, 2011 — 9:02am
asian-style turkey soup

Asian-Style Chicken Soup

Although most people would consider it a lot of work, cooking a fresh pot of soup is one of the easiest ways to prepare a healthy meal for one. With my leftover roast chicken it became a pretty simple process. Cut up some vegetables, saute them for a bit, add some chicken stock, chicken and a starch, a small amount of noodles or rice, and you have a complete meal. Serve it with a slice of bread and you have a very satisfying meal as well. I have to admit I am a bit of a bread dunker.

The meal last night was my Asian-style chicken soup, which was originally a turkey soup invented after last Thanksgiving. It has the usual chicken soup ingredients and includes some fresh ginger and a bit of hot sauce to give the soup some spice and the small amount of soy sauce really highlights all the other flavors in the soup. Depending on how fast you can chop a few vegetables it could be finished in 30 to 45 minutes. Not a huge time invested when you are cooking for one. I am getting good use out of the roast chicken and making a very different sort of meal at the same time.

blooming mexican mint marigold

Blooming Mexican Mint Marigold

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Utility Food

November 5th, 2011 — 7:57am
roast chicken with chinese five spice

Roast Chicken with Chinese Five Spice

If you are cooking for one the most useful of foods is the roast chicken. You can go to the trouble of roasting your own, as I did sprinkled with Chinese five spice, or you can pick one up at any grocery store. I find the grocery store kinds to be pretty reliable if a bit dry. The nice thing about a roast chicken is that it can turn into other interesting meals later in the week. Just wait, I will show you.

A wise old woman in Paris told me the best way to rate a bistro was by its roast chicken. It was supposed to be moist and have crisp skin. I have mastered the moist part by brining the chicken before roasting. However, I am not so good at the crisp skin part. I think it has something to do with varying the temperatures while cooking. This is of course too much work for me. So I will stick with a moist bird with not so crispy skin.

My lemony, garlicky chicken was accompanied by rosemary potatoes. The other nice part about roasting your own chicken is the fragrance while cooking. I simultaneously roasted the rosemary potatoes which added another herby dimension to the aroma. I will not be opening up a bistro any time soon. But my dinner last night was close to the real thing.

white budlea

White Budlea

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A Fisheresque Moment

November 4th, 2011 — 7:12am
marinated and baked chicken thighs with couscous salad

Marinated and Baked Chicken Thighs with a Couscous Salad

I came to the conclusion last night that MFK Fisher was right; when dining alone there is no need to deprive yourself of good food in a pleasant setting. As she described in her book The Gastronomical Me, Fisher would often dine alone in a time when a woman dining by herself in public was considered close to scandalous. She would even refuse dinner invitations while crossing the Atlantic on a steamship, preferring the solitude of her own company to the potential boorishness of a dining companion. After all, we are more likely to get indigestion from our dining companions than from the food.

dinner table setting

Table for One

In my case I suppose I could have invited someone I liked over for dinner. However, I would have needed to wear something a bit less casual than slippers. Last night I just felt like wearing slippers. But I did indulge myself with a nice table setting and a view of the garden in the backyard, my only companion, the cat Mr. Boston, poking me in the leg, begging for a taste of chicken.

Although the table setting and the view were very nice, the dinner was utter simplicity; marinated and baked (I was too lazy to turn on the grill) chicken thighs with a couscous salad. I adjusted my usual marinade using the meyer lemon infused olive oil I bought from the olive farm in Phoenix instead of lemon juice. The lemon flavor is much more intense with the lemon oil extracted in the olive and lemon peel processing. The lemon oil stood up more readily to the soy sauce and ginger. The couscous salad started out as my Middle Eastern couscous recipe. But quickly morphed into ingredients that did not need to be cooked. Obviously I wore myself out while setting the table.

white roses

White Roses in the Front Garden

Incidentally the roses on the table were from the front garden. We had our first frost last night so I decided to rescue them and enjoy them for a few days. The only things that seemed to survive were the chrysanthemums. Thankfully some things do continue to bloom after the frost sets in.

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