Monday, December 31, 2007

Sage, Walnut and Dried Fig Stuffing

Sage, Walnut and Dried Fig Stuffing

There was a time, in the Dark and Tasteless Ages, when food blogs were nonexistent in my life, until a foodie friend enlightened me and pointed me down the "path." One of her favorites is 101 Cookbooks, and my first click there revealed a most interesting stuffing recipe. With Thanksgiving imminent, I planned to bring it to our annual Orphan's potluck, only to find that another genuine vegetarian was already bringing vegetarian stuffing. So this got filed away until the perfect opportunity: Christmas.

One thing I didn't read in the blog post was a comment about how most of the components can be prepped ahead of time, then all tossed together before baking. So it was after a big breakfast, gift-opening, a nap and much lollygagging on Christmas morning that I discovered how many aspects there were to this recipe. Fortunately, my most excellent sister-in-law served as sous-chef, though she did most of the work.

As every recipe must endure in my limited kitchen, we had numerous technical problems. The sugared walnuts were a lot of work and somehow didn't get crispy or sweet (next time, I'll just buy candied walnuts at Trader Joe's). I lost track of the cranberries and overcooked them. Chopping a cup of dried figs was a time-sink I just didn't need (see previous note about overcooking cranberries). My feeble oven was preoccupied with a turkey, so this had to get baked in an 8x8 glass dish in a toaster oven, and expanded until it hit the top! It was barely moist enough, though that could have been due to any number of previous technical issues.

Despite all these challenges, it was fabulous. Rich in flavor, and stunning in its variety of colors and shapes. The sweet infusion of the figs contrasted with the slightly-sour punch of the cranberries made each bite delightful and surprising. The rosemary bread my sister-in-law bought for the base was perfect. Next time, I'd use more sage, and not chop the figs so finely, since it was easy to lose my meticulously infinitesmal fig pieces. I'd also try the suggestion to use a slightly herb vegetable stock (from an herb boullion) for yet another herb layer.

My photo isn't nearly as pretty as the one on the blog site, but the stuffing really was. We (well, the Royal "we") also made some bagged Pepperidge Farm stuffing, since the sage stuffing contained a double-whammy no-no for my husband (cranberries! figs!). What a contrast. The bagged stuff literally paled next to it, and there was no comparison in flavor or good ol' homey feeling. Or in preparation work, ahem.

This is such a special holiday sort of recipe that it's hard to picture an occasion worthy enough before next Thanksgiving or Christmas. I think I'll just have to make it twice next year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Breakfast Bread Pudding

Breakfast Bread Pudding

Once again, idle Food Network channel-surfing results in accidental inspiration. It's bound to happen if I come across a Barefoot Contessa episode.

This is a bread pudding that's a really classy twist on french toast, soaking brioche in a lot of eggs and cream -- can't go wrong with that! And, being an Ina Garten recipe, predictably it contains orange zest, a nice touch. I used a store-bought brioche loaf from Whole Foods, and with that it was easy to prepare and bake, and came out looking beautiful.

And it is so good! It's tasty and slightly different, with enough sweetness from the brioche that it doesn't need the "serving suggestion" maple syrup, ultimately resulting in less of a sugar fix than regular French Toast and syrup.

But I do have a fairly important criticism of the recipe: it takes a long time! First you have to soak the brioche in the batter for 15 minutes, then bake the whole thing for almost an hour. If the breakfast cook is up before the rest of the household, or "breakfast" is really a leisurely brunch, then it can work quite well. This preparation is too special to be gobbled down on a weekday before dashing off to work anyway.

Ina advises to put the raisins between two layers of brioche pieces so they won't burn in the oven.

Soaked and ready for the oven. The orange zest ends up on top, since it sinks to the bottom of the ultra-thin batter and pours out last.

My camera didn't get to the final product before the Christmas Day brunchers did!

This one has bubbled to the top of my special-day breakfast repertoire.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cuban Beef Picadillo

Cuban Beef Picadillo

I cut this recipe out of the newspaper some years ago, long before my nouveau-foodie-ism. I'm really not sure why. I just noticed now that the recipe is actually reprinted from a Williams-Sonoma book -- that authenticates it.

I had to make a few changes though. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of chili powder, a strong flavor I'm not crazy about, so I cut it back to 1 tablespoon. I didn't have enough beef broth, so I filled the gap with vegetable broth. I left out the raisins, since any form of fruit, dried or otherwise, instantly nixes the already slim chance that my husband will like it.

I really, really liked this. It's easy to make, has no unusual ingredients, and has a Mediterraneany-spice aspect to it that I love. I think that's the allspice, my new favorite flavor. This, to me, finds that sweet spot between flavor and heat -- that is, really tasty without being spicy-hot.

But, my opinion matters for zip around here. My husband was "so-so" on it and left most of it on his plate. My older son wouldn't even try it, and my flexible younger son was persuaded only after I picked out all the red "potamos" and promised him chicken parmesan if he really tried it.

To me, this is the best ground beef gets, but I'll have to shelve this one until I find like-minded allspice enthusiasts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Braised Leeks with Sel de Mer

Braised Leeks with Sel de Mer

I've always had a soft spot for leeks, I think because they remind me of my mother. For some reason, I associate leek soup and leeks in soup with her. I've never made anything with leeks though (Knorr soup mixes don't count).

So this ultra-simple recipe I caught on a Food network show, one I've only ever watched 10 minutes of, was just the ticket for this leek virgin. How can you ever go wrong drowning something in butter and wine?

There being so few ingredients, however, the quality of each one really matters. My leek-loving mother being French and all, I knew that Sel de Mer is a ritzy fancy way of saying "Sea Salt," which I have. I used an inexpensive Trader Joe's chardonnay for the wine, and ordinary butter.

And oh, the fragrant and enticing scents that circulated in my grungy kitchen when the leeks were cooking...!

But the leeks themselves turned out tough. I heeded the admonition to wash them very carefully, but I should have left out the tougher outer layers. The few inner pieces that were tender were exquisite, but the rest of it was stringy and hard to cut.

Before and after cooking.

Still, now that I know a little more about leeks, this one will definitely be added to my repertoire of fancy-sounding but easy vegetable dishes I'll make when Bonne Maman is visiting. I wonder how to say "leek" in French?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spanish Chicken Cutlets

Spanish Chicken Cutlets

This recipe is one of the reasons I like Rachael Ray so much. I caught her making this some months ago, and was immediately piqued that something that looked so good appeared to be very simple, and all with ingredients I'd heard of and probably had.

I've never dared time-test Ms. Ray's 30-minute recipes, though she really does make them very convincingly in the 30 minutes alloted for her show. That includes pulling things out of the pantry, peeling and chopping, measuring everything (not like my nemesis Paula Deen whose ingredients are all pre-measured in handy little bowls). This recipe in particular involves the food processor, which inexplicably adds an instant 10 minutes to my time, but on the whole, 30-Minute Meals are uncomplicated.

Once the cutlets are coated, the actual cooking is very easy and fast. On the TV show, she mentions that you can finish off the cooking in the oven, and I did that this time too.

I have made the accompanying olive rice, but the prevailing attitude in this household is is DON'T MESS WITH RICE MOM.

The first time I made these cutlets, it was a huge hit all around. This most recent round, my husband said he thought it was a little oily, and this was the time I finished the cooking in the oven. I'm not sure what to make of that. My sons loved it the first time, other times, they were so-so, but any number of things can distract little boys from food critiquing. The real score was that my almost-toothless 14-month-old couldn't get enough of cut-up slivers of it.

And I absolutely love this. The crunchy, nutty crust and the sherry-based sauce makes it downright luxurious. The effort involved in shopping and preparing this dish is miniscule compared to the payoff. Real bang for your buck. Rachael Ray, you can Yum-O and EVOO your way to my kitchen any time!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Lemony Snickets

Lemony Snickets (PDF)
Lemony Snickets (magazine link)

I didn't mean to do it. Honest. It's just so hectic leaving the pediatrician's office that sometimes I unwittingly walk out with one of their waiting-room magazines. Which is how I ended up with one December/January 2008 issue of Parenting.

Normally I have little use for these magazines, but often their food sections have creative and very useful ideas. This one had a simple recipe with a tempting photo for a lemon-ball sort of cookie, with an intriguing ingredient: ricotta cheese. I was hooked.

The recipe was easy to make, though it has a silly anomaly. The first step says to preheat the oven, but the third step says to chill the dough for an hour! I wish recipe-writers would get out of the habit of always calling for preheating first thing.

I actually had to chill the dough overnight, instead of an hour, and in retrospect, this caused some problems. The first balls I rolled were uneven and had lots of contours and even folds, but the second batch of balls I rolled had a much more even surface. The extra warmup time made the dough more compliant and easier to roll. The cookies that were smoother were a lot easier to spread glaze onto, also.

For glazing and sprinkling, I put the cookies on a wire cooling rack, and put the rack over a jelly-roll pan. This worked perfectly to let the excess glaze drip down without forming pools at the bottom of the cookies, and the pan handily caught all the extra sprinkles too.

As usual, I underestimated how fast the glaze hardens and waited too long to put sprinkles on some cookies.

As usual, I overestimated how fast the glaze hardens and was barely able to stack the cookies by the time it was time to take them to a party.

It probably would have been fun for the kids to put the sprinkles on, but too many sprinkle bottles have such big holes that sprinkles just pour out like water. I need bottle tops with a little more resistance, that have to be shaken, instead of held just so and skillfully tapped to eject a smattering of sprinkles. So I did the sprinkling. My son was easily consoled with a few preview cookies.

I love little twists on otherwise standard formulas. The ricotta cheese made for a chewy, not-quite-cakey texture, and the balls held their shape well. The glaze and the sprinkles made them attractive and festive. And there was no mistaking the lemon-ness about them, mmm!

And who can resist cookies with such a cute name? These will be a cookie-exchange staple.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tangy Cherry Chicken with Couscous

Tangy Cherry Chicken with Couscous

It's time to go public with this: I love Rachael Ray. I know, it's very fashionable to dislike her (I think there's even a Web site about that), but Rachael Ray was a big part of the reason I started cooking. I caught her show 30-Minute Meals one day, and my whole impression of cooking shows was transformed. Her meals were accessible and down-to-earth -- even I can do this!

Since then, I've grown to like other shows too (Barefoot Contessa is my favorite), but none are as practical for my life as Rachael's 30-Minute Meals. So it was like coming home when I caught an episode in which she made chicken with a dried-cherry sauce. Mm-mm-mm.

Unfortunately, I was forced to leave out one key ingredient: dried cherries! I love dried fruit in recipes, but I'm the only one in this household who does. I also left out the celery, because I hate celery. And, I left out the red pepper flakes too, to avoid new holes in the ceiling when the hot stuff hits my over-sensitive tongue. I happened to have some fresh thyme, and can't understand what this wonderful fragrant herb has to do with the dried stuff. They're completely different.

Another modification I made was to use chopped red onion instead of white or yellow, having had such fabulous success with red onion in the Cuban Pork Chops with Mojo. Not to mention having the other half of the red onion looking for something to do.

The one complaint I'll make about Rachael Ray's recipes is that they're hard to read, and they mix more than one dish together. That's to streamline the process and keep the time down, but I need quick-reference recipes, since my reality is 30-Interruption Meals. Still, neither the chicken nor the couscous were hard to make, and both had enough nice little touches to make it a step above ordinary cooking. The fresh thyme on the chicken was fabulous. The allspice and cinnamon in the couscous was subtle but gave it that Mediterranean-y flavor that I love, and the chopped scallions unblanded the couscous just enough.

Pictured is an unauthorized step, in which I put the sauteed chicken back in the pan with the wine sauce.
I used my new Anolon 10" 3-quart saute pan, one of the few with insulated handles. I absolutely love this pan and can't understand how I ever lived without it.

With some steamed frozen haricots verts, this made for a wonderful well-balanced meal. I think the red onions taste better than white or yellow, and add such nice color.

My husband basically liked it, and my sons basically liked the chicken too (though not those icky onions because I hate onions even though I've never tried onions because they're icky). I loved the thyme, the wine sauce and especially the icky onions.

But next time, the dried cherries are in!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Cuban Pork Chops with Mojo

Cuban Pork Chops with Mojo

It's hard to be convincing that I don't like some Food Network shows when I keep using their recipes.

Usually I'm not a fan of Guy's Big Bite, but I was trapped on a treadmill last weekend and couldn't take any more politics on CNN, so Food Network it was. But it wasn't long before I was intrigued: Latin-style pork chops with ingredients I could pronounce. Then when he marinated the pork chops in orange juice, it was too much. I had to try it.

My life being what it is, I split the preparation across two days, so the chops hung out in the fridge for a day with the dry rub on them. From there, the cooking was easy. I'd never used a red onion in a regular saute preparation, and though it was strong on my eyes, it added a lot of color and was wonderfully sweet.

The result was intensely flavorful and complex, and I don't say that lightly, since I don't have a particularly developed palette. My husband was surprised that they weren't too spicy for me (pepper on salads is too much for me), but they weren't spicy per se, just very very flavorful. The dry rub could stand a little less garlic powder, but that's a nit.

My sons were predictably so-so on it, as they're not used to such zingy flavors. My husband liked them, though still fell short of a rave. I thought they were absolutely wonderful, and authentic...though like Guy, my visa for Havana hasn't come in either, so what do I know?

Guy also made a delicious-looking sofrizo mashed potato dish to go with the Cuban pork chops, but I'd pushed my luck far enough for one night.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chicken Marsala Florentine

Chicken Marsala Florentine

Some years back, my husband noted how infrequently one finds Chicken Marsala on an Italian restaurant's menu. He used this as a quick-sniff, something akin to his Moretti v. Peroni beer test (I forget which one is the mark of the better restaurant), to gauge the diversity of the menu, if not its quality. Then I came across an inexpensive bottle of Marsala wine (ohhh, so that's why it's called Chicken Marsala), it was enough to send me surfing for a recipe.

I came across one on while I was looking for pesto chicken recipes, and saved it. I love recipes with spinach, and this one even had sundried tomatoes -- bonus.

It did require a little shopping though. The recipe called for portobello mushrooms, which I got at Trader Joes, but in my usual Mom-ADHD-fog, I also got presliced Crimini mushrooms, forgetting ("get over here!") that ("stop that!") I ("NO RUNNING!") had ("put that back!") already ("leave her alone!") gotten ("if I have to tell you one more time!") the ("ok that's ENOUGH boys!") portobello ("you go tell that lady you're sorry!") mushrooms.

In the end, presliced was the tiebreaker, and crimini it was. No harm done. The sundried tomatoes also came from TJ's, in a bag (not the kind in oil). I love sundried tomatoes, so it's significant that I thought the recipe could have used fewer of them.

By all rights, this should go over noodles, but I cheated and finally got rid of a bag of bowties I'd stashed in a packrat moment. It worked fine, actually.

I thought this was very tasty and flavorful! The marsala wine and the sundried tomatoes make it sharp and strong, a nice contrast to otherwise bland chicken. The mushrooms were really good too. I'd be interested trying this again with another mushroom variety.

The picture looks awful, but really, this was very yummy. My husband even liked it. My boys...well, they liked the pasta, but preferred the chicken that I'd wisely cooked and set aside to be free of the grownup-tasting sauce. That's actually a huge benefit to this recipe -- you can serve kids and grownups something different simply by pulling some of it out before it's done.

This has earned itself a place in my Top Ten of main entree recipes for serving at home. Easy, fast, flexible, flavorful comfort food.

Now what am I going to do with two portobello mushrooms?