Archive for July, 2008

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!

A tale of two breakfasts.

Homemade biscuits were the order of the morning last wednesday. I don’t know what possessed me to turn on the oven at 9 o’clock in the a.m., but I went with the flow. It actually took no time at all to whip these up because I have gotten into the habit of pre-mixing the dry ingredients of baked goods recipes (wheat bread, pancakes, cornbread, etc.) and storing them in plastic containers in the freezer. I highly recommend this timesaver; I usually store two or three containers of a few favorite recipes, which lasts us a while. Then, whenever the mood strikes, all I have to do is throw in the wet ingredients and bake off. Easier ‘n pie.

My original intended accompaniment for the biscuits was simply butter and some apricot jam. Along with a hot cup of strong black coffee, what could be better? Being no fan of jam, Housemate J had a different agenda. Driven by an unwavering obsession with breakfast sandwiches (he apparently hasn’t found a satisfactory one since we left NYC), he set off on what amounted to an hour-long kitchen frenzy (i.e. too many dirty dishes to count) for the ultimate handheld breakfast. The resulting masterpiece was a scrumptious compact omelet layered with ooey-gooey melted cheddar and jack cheeses, partnered with many slices of thick Niman Ranch bacon (you can find this awesome bacon at Trader Joe’s) and stacked between a split, warm, golden biscuit. Perfection indeed.

The pressure was on. Now I had to dream up something a heck of a lot more sophisticated than just butter and jam (plus, he was taking so long making his sandwich that I got bored and had to make one for myself!). Being that I am sort of a fanatic about sweets, my project was to make a breakfast sandwich to satisfy the dessert-lover in me. Since I had a boatload of strawberries on hand that were not very tasty (another generous produce endowment from my fruit-obsessed mother), I sliced and macerated some in a few shakes of sugar, then placed the syrupy fruit on a thick bed of mascarpone cheese smeared on a warm biscuit. A breakfast strawberry shortcake of sorts, and quite delicious!

Good for your heart.

I love beans. Refried, pureed into a dip, in salads, and especially with rice – it’s tasty and satisfying in any preparation, whether front and center or hidden in the shadows. There was a pound of dried red chili beans hangin’ in our cupboard (they look similar to red kidney beans, but were marked as “red chili beans” at Whole Foods), so I decided to cook up a very simple chili beans and rice dish inspired by a recipe found on one of my favorite food blogs, Simply Recipes.

I slow-cooked this dish in my little crockpot, which I really should utilize more – it is perfect for minimizing kitchen heat in the summer, and is THE easiest way to make homemade chicken stock (more on that in a future post, possibly). I understand that crockpots are supposed to be perfectly safe for unattended cooking, but I’m still paranoid that it will explode if I even set one foot out the door. I did end up prying myself away from the house for a few hours (can’t pass up Family Free Day at Kidspace!), and I am happy to report that it was an explosion-free afternoon – whew!

I customized the original recipe to suit my tastes, and also to use up what I had in my kitchen inventory. First, I sauteed some diced pancetta (pork fat good) in a bit of olive oil with diced onions, garlic powder (ran out of the real stuff) and a dash of salt and pepper before adding ground turkey (dark meat, please). After tossing the cooked meat mixture into the crockpot, I added the following: a 28-ounce can of Muir Glen fire-roasted diced tomatoes, for a bit of smokiness; a small can of mild green chiles, chopped; probably 3-4 tablespoons of chili powder; a few shakes of sugar; and about 3-4 cups of cooked red chili beans (don’t forget to precook the beans! Or you can use canned, of course). The whole lot was stirred together and crock’d on high for two hours, then low for four. I served the chili beans over cooked long grain white rice (the rice cooker is also an awesome appliance) with lots of fresh cilantro leaves and a squirt of lime juice. Oh, and if you’re into the fire-in-your-belly feeling, throw many many slices of super-hot pickled jalapenos on there as well. Yowza. Mmmmm.

Fruity heaven.

My mom is a compulsive fruit buyer. Every time we visit my parents’ house there’s always a flat of some variety of fruit laying around on the kitchen or garage floor – “12-pack of strawberries! Only 23 dollars!” or “Two dozen mangos! Only 6 dollars!”. The Costco mentality is so firmly rooted in her shopping brain. This is where I come in, the beneficiary of all this fruit she has too much of and suddenly realizes she must give away – “Take some! We can’t eat it all!” (oh, ya think?).

A few weekends back, she loaded about ten mangos into a shopping bag and thrust it into my car as I was leaving her house. Even at the rate of one or two mangos a day that Dizzy devoured, we could not manage to eat them fast enough, and before we knew it the last few were looking mighty pathetic. Were they mangos or prunes??? I had to find a good use for them – fast. Well, off to sorbet heaven they go…

I used a simple lime mango sorbet recipe, which is a mixture of simple syrup infused with lime zest, lime juice and pureed mango. I churned it for a mere 15 minutes in the ice cream maker, et voila! Next time I may try it with the splash of tequila suggested in the recipe, just for an extra kick. It was, as a certain someone close to us always says, “DELISH”.

(Note: these were the yellow-skinned mangos that come from Mexico, not the ones with the variegated tones of red/green/orange; I personally find that the yellow ones have a better texture and superior flavor).