Gone fishin’.

It’s been quite a long, unintentional hiatus for this blog in the past month – I have to confess that I have not been cooking many blog-worthy dishes. Of course, the “fall back” from Daylight Savings time hasn’t helped matters – it’s very challenging for an amateur photog like myself to work in a not-well-lit kitchen with no professional setup! I’ll have to get on that, since I can’t possibly only photograph breakfast and lunch items for the entire stretch of winter.

Enough of my sorry excuses. I thought I’d mark my return to the blogging world with a simple yet satisfying food item – the tuna salad sandwich.  I’m pretty particular about tuna salad – there has to be some crunch, but not so much that you feel like you’re eating an actual SALAD; a good bit of mayo, but not so much that the tuna is swimming in it (haha); and for the love of all things edible, NO RELISH! I love relish on a hot dog, and a touch of relish in a classic potato salad is perfectly acceptable, but it should stay far far away from the tuna sandwich. The same could be said for bits of hard-cooked egg – what’s that all about??

So here’s my take on a favorite salad sandwich – it’s simple, it’s got a little of everything, and when piled thick on homemade wheat bread, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Tuna Salad Sandwich – Salami’s Way
(Makes enough for about two sliced-bread sandwiches, or one super-duper one)

1 can olive-oil packed tuna (Do not drain!)
3-4 tablespoons of mayonnaise (use the real, good stuff, not the unholy Miracle Whip ‘spread’)
1/4 red onion, finely diced
1/4 cup finely diced celery
2 tablespoons capers (I use Trader Joe’s capers in vinegar)
Handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon, or more if you like more punch
Pinch of sea salt (Fleur de Sel or Maldon would be heaven) and freshly cracked pepper

Put tuna, oil and all, into a large bowl and flake with a fork until it’s pretty well broken up.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Spread onto good bread, grab a bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips and a cold beverage of your choice, and have at it.

Red-hot and saucy.

There are some (ok, many) days when the thought of cooking dinner for yourself and your loved ones sounds about as appealing and relaxing as running a marathon. Those are the days when you can’t even peel your lazy behind off the couch to brush the crumbs off your shirt and refill your water glass (yeah, that’s water in there – it’s clear ain’t it?), and your only wish is that you are some medieval queen with butlers and cooks and pantlers galore.

Lucky me, I’ve got my own butler in my trusty cellphone, which has a handful of programmed numbers to our favorite takeout joints. The entries that get the most play are our two local Thai restaurants, and the dish around which all dishes are ordered is one of our favorites, red curry with pork. Yummy. I love coconut milk in all its rich, creamy coconutty glory, and if you marry that with the heat of the red curry paste concoction, it’s simply magical.

I recently threw in the towel and purchased a tub of red curry paste from the local Asian grocery store after having shelved some lofty plans of making it myself following this recipe (what can I say, I don’t own a mortar and pestle). I also discovered how ridiculously effortless it is to throw together a red curry meat or veggie dish using this paste. I opted for shrimp as the protein component since it cooks so darn fast (love that), and it helps to have a kickass wok. I used the very short recipe printed on the side of the curry tub as a guideline, but sort of improvised a bit on the quantities since they can be varied to please your own tastebuds.

Of course, I won’t be deleting the Thai restaurants’ numbers anytime soon – after all, I still haven’t attempted Pad Thai at home (the tamarind and shrimp paste wait patiently in my pantry), or any of the loads of other yummy dishes they offer. Besides, I really like my butler.

Thai Red Curry Shrimp
(Adapted from the side of the Aroy-D brand red curry tub)

Ingredients:

2 tbsp canola oil
3 tbsp red curry paste
1 14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk (I use the Aroy-D brand, but I’m no connoisseur)
1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
1 tsp sugar
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into srips
1 lb large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails removed if desired
Handful of Thai basil leaves

In a hot wok or deep skillet, saute the red curry paste with the canola oil until fragrant. Add coconut milk and bring to a simmer. You can add some water to thin the sauce, if you wish. Add the fish sauce, sugar and peppers and cook until peppers are soft, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the basil leaves until wilted. Serve with hot jasmine rice and an iced tea to cool your tongue.

Note: If you don’t live near an Asian market, here is a recipe that uses regular supermarket ingredients. The red curry paste should be available in the Asian aisle of any reputable market.

Bathing beauties.

Several weeks ago (yes, I am that far behind on my posts – summertime slacking), I purchased a basket of these gorgeous purple baby artichokes on my way out of the farmer’s market simply because they were too pretty to resist. I don’t cook artichokes all that often because the preparation seems so labor-intensive, but these babies were crying out to me, and the gazillion other bags of produce I was already holding couldn’t stop me from buying them. I took them home, trimmed them oh-so-slightly, and peeled away the few tough outer leaves (Agh! Such waste! It was a travesty to toss them away, but I didn’t know what else to do with them). They then relaxed in a fragrant lemon juice and water bath, a brief beauty treatment to help maintain their lovely-hued complexion before hittin’ the hot tub.

Not that all this pampering mattered in the end; once cooked, the vibrant color faded away. I followed this recipe for preparing them and served it alongside crispy chicken cutlets. Scrumptious.

Golden nuggets.

When all you’ve got left in your icebox are five varieties of cheese and a few sticks of butter, you know you’re in for a fatty meal. At the end of last month, I found myself desperately trying to stick to my grocery budget for the month, and was fully committed to sustaining ourselves on whatever was left in the fridge and pantry. Along with the dribs and drabs of various cheeses, the only substantial quantities of anything remaining were a tub of ricotta cheese and about 2 pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano (a Costco error in judgement – I think it’s time to cancel our membership).

I was never too creative with ricotta cheese. I suppose it’s because I typically buy the kind in the plastic tub and have never had the pleasure of truly fresh ricotta (though I did make some at home once using this recipe which was pretty tasty). The familiar recipes come to mind as vehicles for this creamy cheese: lasagna, stuffed shells, cheesecake. I couldn’t make any of the pasta dishes because, for one, I didn’t have any and wasn’t about to whip out the pasta machine; and feeding cheesecake to a three-year-old for dinner isn’t generally advised (I, on the other hand, wouldn’t mind a cheesecake dinner once in a while).

So I scurried off to one of my current favorite search engines for reliable recipes and commentary, Food Blog Search. I happened upon a link to a recipe for Pan-Fried Lemon Ricotta Gnocchi, and my heart skipped a beat. Gnocchi! It always slips my mind that potatoes shouldn’t be the only food to be granted the privilege of being transformed into these wonderful dumplings. I had also completely forgotten that I had made ricotta gnocchi some time ago, and naturally couldn’t recall if it had been noteworthy or not. Of course that was a long long time ago, when my gnocchi-making skills were still in its infancy; now my abilities stand proudly at preschool level.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my butter sauce to sit as a glossy, frothy little pool in the bottom of the dish as shown in the Steamy Kitchen photo, since the thirsty little nuggets kept drinking it all up. Needless to say, this dish was fairly rich, and my sorry attempt at assuaging that guilt was to throw in some cherry tomatoes for nutrition (but really, why bother?). Although pretty heavy as an entrée, these delectable morsels – crispy on the outside, tender and dotted with cheesy goodness on the inside – would make an fabulous finger food for a cocktail party, parked on a fancy toothpick alongside a cube of roasted eggplant and mint, or maybe chatting it up with a sliver of a sundried tomato, some fresh mozzarella, and a basil leaf. This one’s got potential to be a real charmer.


Shrimp boat.

I suspected that I had officially gone off the deep end when I found myself googling around for hot dog bun recipes a few weeks back. I couldn’t tell you how it came up – I don’t even think we had hot dogs in the house at the time, and it’s not like I’m some snob about store-bought buns (though the infamous discrepancy between the quantity of packaged hot dogs and quantity of packaged buns still baffles me, but let’s veer away from tangents for now). At around the same time, I was struck by a craving for a shrimp salad sandwich in the style of a lobster roll (I’ve never even had a lobster roll, just seen some great photos of them), since I had a bag of frozen shrimp waiting to be used for something other than the usual stirfry.

I got going on the rolls first. I found an easy recipe for the buns, which can be used for dogs or burgers or cheesesteaks or whatever, and got crackin’. Oh. My. Gahd. These buns were so supple, so pillowy, and the absolute devil coming out of the oven and straight into my belly with some sweet cream butter. These buns freeze beautifully and you can bake ‘em up in any shape, and the dough is easy to handle, too.

For the shrimp salad, I used a one-pound bag of frozen jumbo uncooked, unshelled shrimp (Trader Joe’s frozen shrimp is pretty awesome, and not too hard on the wallet). I must not have ever boiled shrimp before, because I would have recalled that you can smell up the entire kitchen in doing so. Anyway, the salad was simple enough: about ¼ cup of good mayo, a teaspoon or so of Old Bay seasoning, ¾ cup of chopped celery, salt, pepper, lemon juice and Tabasco to taste. The cooled rolls were split down the top, lined with cold, crisp romaine lettuce, and filled to the brim with the chunky shrimp mixture. I inhaled two of these “shrimp rolls” within ten minutes. Belch-erific.

Super salad.

I have found the perfect summer salad. It’s nutritious, tasty, and relatively easy to prepare (the ‘relatively’ part will be evident later in this post). It’s made up of your typical southwestern elements: hearty black beans, sweet corn, smoky cumin, tangy lime juice, fresh cilantro, and of course, pickled jalapenos – the ingredients alone were enough to make my tastebuds get outta bed.

I stumbled upon this recipe on Epicurious while digging around for interesting ways to incorporate quinoa into our diet. Quinoa is considered to be an amazing superfood. It is actually a seed that happens to be a complete protein (all nine amino acids, thank you very much!), but it walks and talks like a grain. This all equates to almost zero guilt for gorging on this salad – at least, I’d like to convince myself of that since I practically ate the full recipe by myself within, oh, 24 hours (and that includes 8 hours of sleep!). It’s also an excellent way to get some protein into a carb-happy toddler.

This recipe instructs you to steam the quinoa – boy, what a revelation that was for me. I had read about the steaming process before, but dismissed it as being too complicated and chose to cook my quinoa using the absorption method. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there that can produce super fluffy, perfectly chewy quinoa doing it the absorption way, but I was definitely not one of them and mine always ended up a bit too mushy and clumpy. My error, obviously, was overcooking the quinoa, and fortunately the steaming method is pretty forgiving on this front since you parboil the quinoa for a bit before draining and finishing it off in a sieve over simmering water (gadget plug: a strainer with a handle works perfectly for this). It yielded perfectly fluffy and dry quinoa with no clumping – hooray! If this all sounds too fussy to bother with, it truly truly isn’t and the results are totally worth it.

I used frozen corn instead of fresh (perfectly fine), and I added cherry tomatoes for a blast of color, whose sweet acidity was a perfect complement to the other fresh, lively flavors. This salad easily serves as a light entree on its own, but it would also be a perfect side dish to summer’s grilled meats.

Hot off the press.

Panini are, in my book, the best kind of sandwich. I love the crunch of grilled bread against the various textures of the filling components, all compacted into a neat package. Recently, a friend of mine inspired me to make panini at home. She makes them all the time for her little boy as vehicles for veggies (genius!), and she happened to whip one up for me recently that was so delicious, I could not stop thinking about it. I tried to satisfy my craving with a panino from Corner Bakery, but it turned out to be a tad over-salty with bread that was too soft. I then went and ate a pretty good one at the local gourmet Italian place, but at 9 bucks a pop, it was a little pricey. At some point I even entertained the idea of getting my fix at the Vons deli counter – totally desperate! It was clear that to achieve my version of the perfect panino, I had to build one myself. I promptly stocked my fridge with plenty of mozzarella cheese, found myself an easy focaccia recipe, and embarked on my mission to satisfy this newfound panini addiction.

One of the great things about pressed sandwiches is that it’s perfect for using up small quantities of leftovers. Just fuse together whatever you’ve got – grilled or roasted veggies, leftover chicken, etc. – with your cheese of choice. For my first try, I opted for a vegetarian sandwich – grilled eggplant and zucchini, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and balsamic vinaigrette – while J. requested the always popular prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil. The bread I used was a very simple homemade focaccia from a recipe I found in The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger. It was essentially a pizza dough allowed a second rise, then dimpled and brushed with herbed olive oil (I used fresh rosemary) and baked on a sheetpan. It had a beautiful golden brown, olive-oil infused exterior, which meant that I didn’t even need to grease the pan when grilling the sandwiches! Here is a recipe that is similar to the one I used.*

I used a double burner grill pan (to achieve the nice indentations on the bread – very important), and weighted the panini with a cast iron frying pan covered in foil (no need to run out to buy a fancy panini press!). The cheese oozed and sizzled on the pan, the bread crisped, and everything warmed and compressed into colorful layers. Mission accomplished.

* I’m still not entirely certain about the copyright laws regarding posting recipes on this blog. I am working on familiarizing myself with the rules, so that I can include recipes with future posts. In the meanwhile, I will always include links to the recipes I feature, and in the case where I use a recipe from a cookbook I own, I will refer you to similar recipes I find on the web.

My latest flame.

Every summer, I make a genuine effort to grill more (well, I have genuine intentions). There really is nothing that reeks, literally, more of the season than taking a hunk of raw meat, rubbing a medley of spices on it or letting it take a swim in an easy marinade, and throwing it over searing hot coals. Cooking over an open fire momentarily revives the primeval lifestyle of us human beings, the last true holdover from much simpler times…but herein lies a problem. WE HAVE TO MAKE A FIRE. Thank the gods I didn’t live way back when, when starting a fire was a daily necessity to keep you warm, clean and fed. Confession: In my entire life I have never successfully started a charcoal fire – it’s embarrassing, I know. I sometimes long for the convenience of a gas grill, but there is something much purer about a charcoal grill; plus, with its round dome and tripod legs, our little contraption looks like a cute little robot.

Grilling is indeed a smelly, messy, sweaty sport – probably why men love to grill. I, Jane, marinate the carne asada; you, Tarzan, ignite the fire thingey. (Yeah, right.) I also never understood why anyone would choose to cook outside just because it’s a hot day. If it’s too hot to turn the stove on INSIDE the house, then sure as taxes it’s gonna be even hotter outside. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe it’s that just we odd birds don’t have real air conditioning in the house.

Anyway, I recently ran across a recipe for Charcoal-Grilled Butterflied Chicken with Chipotle, Honey & Lime on the Cooks Illlustrated website that looked so fantastically delicious, with minimal ingredients. However, the fact that the instructions required that a whole chicken be butterflied, then brined, and then grilled under the weight of two bricks almost had me running for the hills. More confessions: I’ve always been squeamish about handling raw chicken, or any raw meat for that matter; brining just seemed excessive to me (wouldn’t it make the turkey/chicken unbearably salty?); and bricks? They’re not just layin’ around the kitchen, you know.

Fortunately, along with the eagerness to grill more came courage to conquer my hangups and face new food frontiers: in recent months I have found that hacking away at a whole chicken is somehow therapeutic (I know, it’s twisted), not to mention economical; brining for this recipe was totally easy-peasy once I convinced myself that most of the salt would remain outside the bird (plus, I give special thanks to gallon-size ziploc bags); and the bricks? Well, I left that up to Housemate J. and he just dug them out of the yard (remnants from a failed bomb shelter? We live in a very old house). The result of this culinary bravery and our caveman cravings was a superb little bird – juicy, spicy, and flavorful with the always pleasing trademark grill stripes painted across its puckered skin. I will definitely do this all again. Maybe I’ll even try to light the fire myself next time…

Veggie-state.

Meet King Cuke. Proudly perched on his leafy throne wearing his gold crown and sporting a stiff, medieval ‘stache (or is it more Yosemite Sam style?), loyal jester at his side, he oversees the growth and progress of his vegetable subjects as summer presses on.

He sees that there are a great number of blossoms appearing on the eggplant plants, which (coincidentally) are the Little Prince variety from Renee’s Garden. Eggplants are a point of contention around these parts, since I absolutely adore them and Housemate J. would rather eat a sponge. Being that it looks as though we’ll be in for a good harvest of these purple globes, I say J.’s out of luck. You just can’t beat the rich, silky texture of a properly grilled or roasted eggplant!

His Majesty also notices that the bush beans, sowed about a month or so ago, are coming up at a rapid pace. I am pretty excited about seeing these beans finally emerge – slender swords of spring green preceded by a lovely lavender-hued flower. When there is a sizable harvest, I plan on cooking up a simple and tasty side dish of sauteed green beans with crispy bacon and caramelized onions. Mmmm, that would be perfect with a simple roast chicken.

Last but not least, the cherry tomatoes are thriving and there is always enough ripe fruit to toss into our salads or pasta dishes at any given moment. These plump, juicy, supersweet cherries, especially delicious simply sprinkled with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, are indispensible in the realm of the small garden.

King Cuke’s domain is prosperous, and he is immensely pleased.

Think pink.

Have you ever seen a more stunning, more summery looking beverage than this watermelon-lime agua fresca? It was the perfect cure for a much-too-warm summer evening, recuperating in the backyard after a good beating by the SoCal sun. There was an article about agua frescas that appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week, and of all the recipe options this particular flavor blend looked especially enticing (“Water”melon?? HELLO!!). The brilliant pink concoction had just a hint of sweetness (maybe due to a unexceptional melon?) with a mild tart finish from the lime juice, as opposed to being a sugary, candy-like fruit juice that kids would love (though that didn’t stop Dizzy from chain-drinking about four cups of the stuff). I did add more agave nectar than called for in the recipe to compensate for the unripe fruit, and yet it didn’t get all that much sweeter (probably a good thing). Perhaps it’s just that agave is not as unabashedly sweet as white sugar, I’m not sure. For kicks, next time I may try it with simple syrup instead of agave and see how the flavor differs, AND maybe I’ll throw some vodka in there, too – OHHH yeah!

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