Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My kids will hate this

But they’re not here to complain. Another gray and rainy day, albeit warm, deserves another stick-to-your-ribs meal, as my father would have said.

Navy bean soup

Dried or canned navy beans
Light oil (walnut, corn or canola)
Ham, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
zucchini, peas or green beans
2 cups ham, chicken or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon each sage and thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare dried beans per package instructions, or use canned ones. One can or one 1/2 pound of beans will make 4 bowls of soup for moderate eaters, 3 bowls for hearty eaters.

In a large soup pot, brown ham in a light oil (I used walnut today), add vegetables to sautee. Sautee the onions. Add the stock and all ingredients and simmer for an hour. For vegetarian, leave out the ham (obviously). Serve with toast points and braunschweiger and a nice lager.

Friday, March 20, 2009

For the carnivores in the family

Here's some stovetop recipes for chicken and pork. A family stand by, so it probably qualifies as comfort food. As a child, I had no idea chicken could be cooked any other way.

Porkchops with mushrooms and onions

Season one porkchop per person, both sides, with parlsey, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Melt about 2 T of butter in a very hot sauce pan, sautee a pint of mushrooms until all the butter is absorbed (this will happen very quickly. Pan will end up slick but not greasy). Dash with the juice of half a lemon, or jar equivalent, and sautee until the shrooms release moisture. Add another 2 pats of butter, and sear both sides of the chops. (It's seared when it releases easily. If you have to pry it up it's not done). Cook another 5 minutes, until the pan browns nicely. Add a little liquid (water, tea, or stock, maybe 1/4 cup at most) and the onions. Continue sauteeing, turning the meat periodically, until the onions are transparent. Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of stock or tea, about 1/3 c at a time, until a nice brown gravy forms. You can thicken the gravy by dredging the meat with about a tablespoon of flour before adding the liquid.

Greek chicken

Marinate the chicken in the juice of one lemon, oregano, salt and pepper. Let sit at least one hour (or, in fact, all day if need be).

For true Greek Chicken, you'll want to bake it at 375 for 45 minutes, turning it once. You can also pan fry this dish. Put 2 T of olive oil on the hot pan, then sear the chicken, turning it when it releases easily, until it's nicely browned on all sides. Add stock and simmer until the meat is thoroughly cooked. The stock will make a nice clear gravy; to increase the amount, just add more after you remove the chicken and make sure the pan is scraped clean. For pretty gravy strain it, but it's fine with all the flotsam in it too.

Serve with garlic mashed potatoes.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Food for a rainy day

Forty degrees and torrential winter rain, plus a long discussion on line about fennel of all things, inspired this meal today.

Nearly identical recipes for tomato fennel soup are all over the web, but I originally found it in the Chicago Tribune Cookbook 20 years ago when I grew fennel and tomatoes in my own garden for the first time. Back then, I grew the wrong kind of fennel (some fennel you grow for seeds, and some for the fleshy bulb). I got the seed kind, which has a woody, inedible root and no bulb. I used it anyway, but it added just flavor, no edibles. This one is made with proper bulb or Florence fennel. The anise flavor of the fennel adds both sweet and savory elements, and compliments the acidic tomato beautifully.

This recipe made two large bowls of soup, which we served with grilled cheese made the America’s Test Kitchen way (with melted butter, butter the bread, not the skillet).

Roasted Tomato and Fennel Soup
Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray; preheat oven to 325F/160C

Halve 6 medium tomatoes (or 8 plum tomatoes) and place skin up on the baking sheet. Add two small fennel bulbs cut into wedges or chunks, a halved onion, and 2-3 garlic cloves wrapped in foil. Brush the vegetables with olive oil, season with salt and pepper (I use sea salt and mixed white and green pepper for this recipe) and roast for 50 minutes. While this is baking, make stock with the fennel greens and onion skins. (You can also used canned stock—vegetable or chicken, but making your own stock both improves the flavor of the soup, and reduces your carbon footprint.)

Once roasted, place the vegetables in a large saucepan with 2-3 cups of stock and simmer until the fennel is very soft. Remove the tomato skins and puree. I use a hand held immersible blender, or you can put it in a blender or food processor. Once it’s pureed, run it through a food mill to smooth it and reduce bulk.

Add half and half or cream and serve with grilled cheese on a cold rainy day.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Not for the squeamish

If you like mudpies you’ll love meatloaf, because there is no avoiding sticking your hands into that meat concoction to thoroughly mix it. You really really need to remember to wash your hands before making this dish, because you’re going to be in it up to your elbows. I also always leave warm water running before I start mixing so that I don’t have to handle the faucet with my icky meaty hands.

This is the meatloaf that my mother always made and one of a handful of dishes for which I never saw a recipe. I have no idea how I learned to make it; just watched her so many times that it sunk in. It’s another major family favorite.

1 1/2 to 1 ratio chopped beef and chopped pork (or lamb if you’re feeling fancy and rich)
1 egg
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (please make your own, it’s super easy; see below)
2 teaspoons fresh or dried oregano
1T fresh or dried parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Coat an 8” or 9” loaf pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350F/175C.

Dump all ingredients together in a mixing bowl and mush them around with your hands until really thoroughly mixed. Form into a loaf and press into the pan, artistically apply ketchup (you heard me, ketchup, this ain’t the Cordon Bleu). Bake 1 hour (longer for a larger meatloaf). Check it at around 40 minutes; if there is a lot of fat, pour it off and return it to the oven. When done it should be brown all the way through; no red at all. If it’s not quite done you can slice it and top it off in the microwave, or serve just the ends, which are probably done, and finish off the rest in the oven.

You can also turn this mix into meatballs— about 1 1/2 to 2 inch round balls pan fried in oil and then sautéed in a can of whole tomatoes for typical Italo-American ones. For Greek style, make them more egg shaped, lay a tomato slice over each one (canned peeled tomatoes are fine, or fresh) and bake them at 350F/175C for about 30 minutes, turning once.

Serve this with potatoes:

Homemade potato chips
Slice potatoes paper thin; blot thoroughly (you want to remove as much moisture as you can so that the oil doesn’t foam up) and deep fry in very hot oil til deep golden brown. The oil should be at least 2” below the top of the saucepan but still deep enough to thoroughly submerge a good sized handful of potato slices. I drop the slices in just 1-2 at a time until there are 10-15 slices at once. This keeps them from sticking to each other. You’ll need a slotted spoon or wok “spider” to scoop out the finished potatoes. Shake the oil off in a brown paper bag or drain on a pad of newspaper. Do NOT leave the cooktop unattended while cooking these.

Once the oil has cooled return it to an empty container; you can probably use it again within a couple of days, or seal it tightly and discard it with your regular garbage.


Mashed potatoes
Peel and boil til thoroughly soft, 1 medium Russet potato per diner (America’s Test Kitchen says start with cold water; the potato will finish with a better texture.) Drain off the water (leave the cooked potatoes in the saucepan). Add 2-3 pats of butter, salt and pepper to taste, an egg, and enough milk to get a creamy texture, then whip with a hand held mixer. You must mix the egg in immediately so it doesn’t cook to solid in the hot potatoes. The egg gives it a nice color. Don’t overmix or the potatoes will have a sticky texture; basically stop when they are just smooth.

For extra interest add to the boil a couple of cloves of garlic and a small diced onion (make sure they are very very soft before mixing), and/or a mix of root vegetables like celery root, parsnips, or rutabagas.

Homemade breadcrumbs

Instead of throwing away the heels of the bread, or palming them off on your partner, toast them in a warm oven (about 250D) until thoroughly dry, then crumb them in a food processor or heavy-duty blender.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rock Stars need to eat, too

I had rock stars staying at my house this week (really; actual members of a reasonably successful band who are friends of my son), and they made themselves a stir fry one night (cleaned up after themselves too, forsooth). Stir Fry is a great “stone soup” sort of recipe—you can make a stir fry from the meagerest offerings of a totally empty fridge.

I never thought about stir fry as needing a recipe, but the rock stars actually had some questions, so here goes.

Simple stir fry

Extra-long grain rice, 1/2 cup dry for each diner

3-4 vegetables, mix of colors and textures (more below)
extra-firm tofu, and/or almond slivers, and/or unsalted cashews,
and/or chicken, beef or pork cut into finger strips
Sesame, peanut or walnut oil (or corn oil if you don’t have the expensive nut ones)
1 T cornstarch
1 cup water
1/2 cup soy sauce
water in reserve, or left-over tea

appropriate spices for stir fry:
black or white pepper
and/or cayenne or red pepper flakes for a spicy dish
and/or lemon grass or coriander

Start the rice first; a narrow heavy saucepan works best. The water should be about a finger joint deeper than the rice no matter what pot you use (I like a heavy 1-quart aluminum saucepan; this will cook up to 2 cups of rice). Somewhere there is bound to be a proper recipe with a ratio (maybe on the rice bag?), but that’s how I’ve always eyeballed it. Bring it to a full boil uncovered, then turn the flame way down and steam it covered for about 20 minutes. Take it off the flame when it’s done, even if you’re not done with the veggies yet. Leave the cover on.

A wok is best, but you can also make a stir fry in a standard frying pan; you'll just have to be careful to keep the ingredients in motion, as frying pans don't heat as evenly as a wok.

Heat the empty wok over very high flame; put in 2-3 T of the nut oil and sear the tofu or meat. You want the tofu lightly brown on all sides; this will help hold it together. Don’t use a heavy oil like olive; the lighter nut oils or flavorless corn or canola oil are better for bringing out the delicate flavors of the vegetables. You can take the tofu out and set it aside to be added back later, or leave it in and cook the veggies with it. (Tofu can also go in very last.)

Do the vegetables according to texture—those you want softest go in first, crunchy goes in last. I always start with the onion because I like them very well cooked. Put them in and sauté until they’ve just started to go translucent, then start working your way up to the ones you want al dente, typically brightly colored vegetables like green beans, bell pepper, broccoli. Nuts last. You can also wait until here to put the tofu in for the first time. Don’t use more than 3-4 different vegetables as it disturbs the feng shui of the dish (not kidding). Put the meat/tofu back in at this point.

For a sauce thoroughly mix the corn starch, water and soy sauce in a measuring cup (make sure the corn starch is completely dissolved); if you use any of the spices add them here, sparingly. You don’t want too much spice in a stir fry, as the vegetables should provide the sensual point of the dish. Slowly pour this into the vegetable mix, stirring constantly as it will immediately thicken into a creamy sauce; add more water if it gets too sticky. If you have any left over tea sitting around in a pot, you can use it to thin the sauce. For some reason I never make tea specifically for this purpose, but I suppose you could.

Serve with the rice. Use chopsticks, it’s time you learned.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The number one favorite family recipe

This pilaf was originally from the wonderful Can The Greeks Cook cookbook that I inherited from my mother, but I've made this recipe my own.

Pilaf with steamed fish

2 cups rice
1 stick butter
Large yellow onion, diced
4 cups stock
optional: 1/4- 1/2 cup of toasted pine nuts
salt, pepper and parsley (fresh or dried)

1/3 to 1/2 lb fish per diner, cut into strips
5-8 broccoli florets per dinner

Heat the stock in the microwave, about 6 minutes at full power. You can use homemade or canned chicken or vegetable stock, or drain a large can of whole tomatoes into a quart measuring cup and add water to 4 cups. While it is heating, in a very large frying pan, saute the onion in 1/4 cup of water. When liquid is gone, add the butter and melt (do not let it brown). Add the rice and toast it over low heat about 5 minutes, stirring constantly to keep it from burning. At this point add the pine nuts. Season with salt, pepper and parsley to taste. Add the hot stock and bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, cover and simmer until rice just starts peaking through the liquid. Lay the strips of fish, the broccoli florets and the tomatoes pieces on the surface, cover and simmer until the fish is just cooked (no translucent flesh left)

For vegetarian, obviously, no fish, and you can increase the nutritional value by adding pine nuts and sweet white corn niblets (frozen or fresh). We usually use salmon (the color is nice) but a dense white fish like tilapia or halibut will also work.

This dish looks beautiful served in the frying pan it is cooked in.