Sunday, January 27, 2008

Asian Grilled Salmon

Asian Grilled Salmon

Ah, Ina. How did I ever live without you?

This is the simplest recipe for salmon, and grilled this time. The "asian" part is just soy sauce in the tasty marinade (though I have heard that soy sauce actually isn't a common or ubiquitous flavoring in Asia).

It was helpful to see Ina do this on-screen (on Barefoot Contessa, of course), for details like which side of the fish faces the grill first (skin side), how to handle turning it (it's tricky and messy!), how long to cook it. A good tip was to grill it until it's almost completely cooked through, then take it off the grill and it will finish cooking as it's resting. She chuckled as she commented to open doors and windows, as it smokes a lot, and it certainly did. I also found that the cabinet I store my cast-iron grill pan in smelled like fish after I put it away!

The marinade is intended for sauce after grilling too, but I found it a bit strong for sauce. As a marinade flavoring, once it's cooked, it's perfectly subtle. I loved the grilled crust on the salmon, and to my surprise, it didn't stick to my non-nonstick grill pan.

This is now my second-favorite way to prepare salmon (first is to buy it already encrusted with nuts at Trader Joe's and broil it). Unfortunately, this one will have to be shelved for next time I want to impress a visitor. My husband liked the preparation, but isn't a fan of salmon anyway, and neither are my fish-eating sons. (I didn't need to waste any of it on my 15-month-old, as it'd almost certainly end up as floor wax.) But no matter, it made a wonderful, classy leftover for moi. Mm.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Plum Jam Cookies

Plum Jam Cookies

I pulled this recipe from some months ago, because a friend had just made plum jam with plums from the tree in her backyard. I wanted to use it in something I could give back to her, as well as enjoy myself. So, much searching turned up this recipe, though really, you could use any sort of jam.

The recipe itself, though highly rated, has a few problems. It calls for baking soda in the instructions, but not in the directions. I looked up some other basic rolled sugar cookie recipes, and none of them used baking soda, so I left it out. Then it called for brown sugar, which I thought made it heavy. Finally, it had the very un-cookie-like ingredient of water! In the end, the batter was coarse and heavy, though easy to work with. Maybe that was the point.

I used a tiny star cutter that came in a set of three fondant shape cutters to cut out the center, a chopstick to push out dough out of the cutter, and a 2-1/4" biscuit cutter for the main part. I managed to roll the dough mostly to the 1/4" thickness recommended, but between the dough thickness, the sandwiching, and the diameter, overall it made for a big heavy cookie!

My new spatula was invaluable for handling the cut-out dough pieces. I knew there would be a good reason to drag my husband to Sur La Table to browse for stuff I wasn't quite sure how I'd use! (He's come to dread going out to restaurants near cooking stores.)

With the last pieces of rolled-out batter, I used the middle-sized star cutter for the main part, and the same tiny cutter for the center. That was a much better proportion, and made for a very attractive little bite-sized cookie. Next time, I'd make all of them that size.

Ironically, my friend's plum jam didn't have the right consistency, so I used some of her scrumptious apricot jam instead. That was stickier and thicker, and perfect for sticking two cookie halves together.

The recipe called for baking the cookies already assembled with the jam, which I like since the jam got a sort of film on top, making the cookies a lot easier to handle and transport.

Overall, I can't recommend the cookie recipe itself, but the basic technique of sandwiching two dough cutouts together and baking them with the jam is sound. I'm pleased with the equipment I had too (I sense another trip to Michael's for more fondant cutter shapes is in my near future). I'll use the Joy of Cooking's sugar cookie recipe for the dough next time. And most definitely my friend's apricot jam again!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Chicken Chili

Chicken Chili

It's not easy for me to catch Barefoot Contessa these days (VCR? Tivo? pfff! Takes out the joy of discovery!), but even just a few minutes almost always yields something. This time, it was a figure-friendly chicken chili she made for her chef friend and colleague, who'd recently lost 40 pounds. And simple. Roasted chicken, peppers, onions, pureed tomatoes, spices and herbs.

For me, the kicker was when she substituted basil for cilantro, because, the grand Ina Garten herself hates cilantro! Yoopee!

A brief aside on cilantro here. Anectodally, I've heard the (fishy) statistic that 10% of the population finds that cilantro tastes very strange, and the (equally fishy) fact that this odd perception is inborn, not learned. There are enough cilantro haters to have formed an online support group: I am not among those. I don't have issues with cilantro per se. But I really really dislike the taste of soap, and that's what cilantro tastes like to me. And, apparently, to Ina.

Basil, on the other hand, is one of my favorite herbs, so what a perfect substitute for the pretty, but soup-ruining Thai-food-ubiquitous cilantro. Ick.

So following Ina's instructions, I roasted the chicken, bone-in, skin-on. These days, so much chicken is done boneless skinless, I almost didn't know what to make of this! Especially when I saw the total price on the package at the checkout at Whole Foods. That's 20 bucks worth of chicken, folks, and that's not even the expensive organic stuff! OW!

I deliberately made the full recipe, since Ina mentioned this was one of those recipes that tastes better after being in the fridge for a few days, and that was a good freezer staple. It almost overflowed my inadequate pot.

I made a few other mods. I only put in 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, as "hot" and I have a very dicey relationship. And, half the chili powder called for, as I actually don't like that much either. This resulted in a ratatouille-ish flavor that I love -- it had me wanting to put eggplant in it -- but the chili flavor was still acceptably perceptible. I was really surprised not to see salt on the ingredient list; I added some anyway and thought it needed more.

As is almost always the case with Ina recipes (and her chef friend even commented that this was such an "Ina recipe"), I loved it. As is almost always the case with any preparation that mixes things together, my kids didn't. My husband, so-so on the whole thing. He was probably suspicious that I snuck some eggplant in there, as he likes eggplant about as much as I like cilantro.

But, no matter -- I stashed some in the freezer for the next time I have a hungry grownup in the house, and what I didn't freeze made for yummy low-carb lunches for days. Occasionally I count too.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Pepin Potatoes

Yukon Gold Potatoes: Jacques Pepin Style

My gal Rachael Ray. She saved me from an elbow-busting potato-mashing on Christmas Day with this ultra-simple fabulous recipe. She gave full credit to Jacques Pepin, or rather, to his grandmother or great-great-grandmother, or whoever really originated this recipe.

Rachael (and perhaps Jacques' grand-grand-mere) calls for Yukon Gold potatoes, but i happened to have some lovely and tender Baby Dutch Yellow from Trader Joe's. The label might say "No butter required!" but I begrudgingly side with Paula Deen on this one: keep the butter.

A bag of these fit perfectly in my 10" saute pan.

It's sooo easy. Braise the potatoes in chicken stock, dot with butter, salt and pepper. When they're tender, you take the lid off and let the stock finish evaporating. That's what the recipe says, though the full-fat thick stock I use from Trader Joe's never completely goes away.

Then the fun part: once they're tender, pop them. I found that placing gentle pressure on each one until it cracked open was all that was needed, and a good test of doneness. From there, they're supposed to brown, but mine never really did.

No matter. Tasty and tender, and popular all around. Potatoes especially are dangerous to futz with in this habit-driven household, but even my husband approved. The most rousing endorsement came from my 5-year-old son: "These are my FAVORITE POTATOES Mom!" Now that's worth inviting Rachael and Jacques into a group hug.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Grilled Asparagus

Early readers of this blog know about my foibles with indoor grilling. My grill pan and I finally made peace over grilled zucchini, and now it was time to move onto the more advanced: asparagus.

Trader Joe's is a consistent source of good inexpensive asparagus. Usually I steam it, and it's very hit-and-miss if it turns out stringy. I usually chalk this up to the asparagus itself.

This time, I was grilling steak anyway, while steaming the asparagus. But I rescued a few pieces to test on the grill pan, as one must tread lightly in this household when one messes with a staple.

A quick brush of olive oil, sprinkles of the ubiquitous salt and pepper, and toss on the grill (that sounds a lot hipper than "stick them in the pan").

Turns out, the steamed asparagus was stringy and a little tough. But the grilled asparagus -- crisp, bright green, and savory enough not to need any dressing or dip. A clear winner!

Seems my steaming technique is the culprit for the stringy aspect of the asparagus. Obviously, I'm over-steaming it, but one of the big advantages of grilling is that you can see how it's doing as it's going along. Your nose contributes to the monitoring too: I pulled the asparagus off the moment I started to smell burning, which added a nice flavor to it.

Bonus: grilled vegetables don't smoke and splatter the way meat does. I never had any use for a range hood before attempting indoor grilling, but now I'm anxious for one. But even without one, the grill pan is worth having just for grilled vegetables, with asparagus top of the list.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Zucchini Frittata

Zucchini Frittata

For years, I've made scrambled eggs on Sunday mornings, first for my husband, then for my kids too. All three of them love scrambled eggs, and my husband claims that mine are the best he's ever had (aww). He's even dared suggest that my fine touch rivals my mother's. When you mess with the mother-in-law, it's serious.

So apparently I make good scrambled eggs. Which is surprising considering I don't like scrambled eggs! I've made mounds of scrambled eggs over the years, and never touch a bite. Nor omelettes, though I can take quiches if they have enough other stuff in them. Me, I'm a soft-boiled or sunny-side-up sort of person.

But it was time to expand my mixed-egg repertoire. After a miserable omelette failure, I turned to an increasing favorite, The Joy of Cooking, and came across its Zucchini Frittata recipe. This was just the ticket.

I've tried this several times now, and each time have changed enough variables that I'm nowhere close to converging on a signature dish. Different pan, different proportions of ingredients, different cook times and heats...each time it's a random experiment, further complicated by the fact that I don't like scrambled eggs. But I'm on the right track.

My new love affair with red onions is the first improvement over the original recipe. Having had some handy cubed pancetta from Trader Joe's was also a fabulous addition. The original recipe calls for sliced zucchini, but I go for grated since I always seem to have some around.

The original recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of butter, but that was too much for my 10" cast-iron skillet, and it bubbled over the sides. That quantity of butter did work the one time I tried making it for a large group, and had to use my back-breakingly heavy Le Creuset 12" skillet (the lid itself takes two hands to lift). The nice thing about the Le Creuset skillet is that it's attractive enough to serve in, sparing you the risk of tearing it as you slide it onto another plate.

But the real key was chopped fresh basil (I had frozen some). This is an absolutely delightful and fresh touch, and renders the concoction edible to me.

The original recipe calls for finishing it under the broiler for 30-60 seconds until the top is cooked, but not browned, as a traditional frittata is not browned. But I got complaints from the peanut gallery that it wasn't cooked quite enough inside, so I've found that slight browning indicates perfect doneness.

But eggs under a broiler -- hoo-hah! Watch it verrry carefully, as it goes from gooey to browned in no time, even under my feeble broiler. Without an accurate seconds timer, I find that two little boys shouting "ONE! TWO! THREE!" (up to 30) is a reasonable, if loud and silly, substitute.

The one thing I haven't figured out yet is how to make this quickly. Scrambled eggs, I can do fridge-to-table in the time it takes to toast an English Muffin. Between the prep, cooling the zucchini and onion, and the egg-mixing, my frittata is not a quick fix.

Cooking zucchini and red onion first (this was a non-pancetta version).

(A note on the pan: this cast-iron 10" pan was left behind by a previous boyfriend, something he'd had since he left home and had since relegated to camping. It has a number 8 on it, though it is 10" in diameter. It looks like it has a repaired crack, but its cooking surface is smooth and beautifully seasoned. My guess is that it's decades old. What was a cast-off to him is a prized possession to me!)

Setting the bottom of the egg mixture in the cast-iron skillet....uh-oh, butter boiling over!

After broiling and cooling, the wayward butter has calmed down. Not super easy to slide out, though actually I like the rustic look of my cast-off pan. My Le Creuset skillet is better sliding out, or serving, all 50 pounds of it.

Cut into wedges, and voila -- a little "egg pizza."

It's going to take some refinement, but I'm going to make this one my signature egg dish. If I can ever live down the scrambled legacy, that is.