Thursday, November 27, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Mexican Chicken Soup

Hi folks! We're away on vacation, visiting J's parents in the wilds of Wyoming for the Thanksgiving holiday. I actually wrote this post almost two weeks ago, because I knew we'd be gone when it was supposed to go up, and I didn't really want to think about it in the days leading up to our departure.

Wyoming isn't exactly known for great cuisine, but I know we'll be making one hell of a Thanksgiving dinner with the folks, so I'll be sure to embarrass myself and take lots of pics to show y'all when we get back. Hope everyone has a fun-and-food-filled Turkey Day!

This week's Barefoot Bloggers recipe is Ina's Mexican Chicken Soup, chosen by Judy of Judy's Gross Eats. As far as I can tell, this is basically just Ina's riff on a chicken tortilla soup, but I certainly can't find fault with that - I love soups, I love tex-mex flavors, and unsurprisingly, I loved this recipe.

I have to admit, I kinda screwed up a bit on this because, well, I didn't read the entire recipe all the way through before we did our grocery shopping last weekend. Shame on me. I totally missed that the corn tortillas were not, in fact, intended to be baked or fried for the tortilla chip garnish mentioned at the end of the recipe, but were actually supposed to be added to the soup as a thickener. Since we usually skip the chips when it comes to Mexican soups and chillis, I didn't buy the tortillas. And then I pulled up the recipe on the night we were going to make this, and realized my mistake. Whoopsie!

Luckily, I had a box of quick-cooking polenta in the pantry, and figured that a few tablespoons of that added in near the end of the cooking time would basically accomplish the same thing as the tortillas added near the beginning - it'd thicken the soup, give it some really interesting texture, and infuse a bit of subtle corn sweetness into the final flavor. And in the end I think it worked just fine, and both J and I really enjoyed it just the way it was. Unfortunately that means I can't really weigh in on the success of the recipe as written, but I think the food gods will forgive me just this once.

Aside from that one little foible, I pretty much made the recipe as written with just two small changes. I used dry cilantro instead of fresh, because I just can't bring myself to buy fresh cilantro anymore unless we're going to be using it in every meal for a week. Its impossible to get anything but a bunch the size of my head around here, and every single time we buy it we end up have to throw half of it out because we can't use it fast enough. Given the price of fresh herbs, I just can't keep letting that happen. Also, I substituted a long hot chili (a serrano, I think?) instead of the 2-4 jalapenos that Ina's recipe calls for, mostly because I'm a total wuss and that much jalapeno would probably kill me, but also because we had this other chili lying forlornly in our vegetable drawer and I wanted to use it up before buying more. It actually ended up being the perfect choice, because it definitely added some heat, but not enough that I needed a loaf of bread and a handkerchief to get through the meal. Got my sinuses to open up a bit though, that's for sure.

I guess I should also include the fact that we used some of the leftover chicken from the roast bird we made the weekend before instead of roasting fresh chicken breasts just for the soup, but that's kind of a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned, and all it basically changed was the amount of time needed to make this soup from start to finish.

Unfortunately, my other screw-up was forgetting to bring my camera and tripod into the kitchen while making this, so I don't have a bunch of photos of the raw ingredients and prep work to share this time. Honestly though, this recipe is so easy, I doubt you need the photographic help.

The technique is basically the same as almost every other soup I make - sautee the base flavor ingredients (in this case a standard mire poix with the hot chili and some garlic added in) in some olive oil at the bottom of your soup pot until they are softened and beginning to brown a bit. Toss in your liquid ingredients, herbs and spices (chicken stock, canned tomatoes with their juice, and some cumin, coriander seed, and dry cilantro) then bring to a boil and let 'er rip for awhile to get the veg nice and soft. Give it a taste for seasoning - I found it needed a bit more of both cumin and coriander for my tastes, and I threw in a splash of red wine vinegar for a bit of balancing tang. Then add in the chicken, followed by about 1/4 cup of quick-cooking polenta, which I added very gradually while stirring constantly to avoid clumps. Keep it on the heat for another 5 minutes so that the polenta can rehydrate and thicken the soup nicely, making sure to stir once in awhile to keep things from sticking on the bottom. Once its done, ladle it into some bowls and top with a dollop of sour cream (I spiked ours with a bit of fresh lime juice) and a sprinkling of cilantro. Couldn't be easier, really.

We enjoyed our soup with a double-decker quesadilla made with these fantastic multigrain tortillas from Mission and some fancy Sargento shredded cheese (2 varieties, one with seasoning and one without), which is frankly one of my favorite things in the world to make and eat because its so easy its almost stupid and well, is there really anything better than tortillas stuffed with gooey, melty cheese? I don't think so.

All you do is heat up a large, flat pan on the stove (we use an old, warped griddle pan that desperately needs to be replaced but still does the job) and brush one side of one tortilla with some melted butter or vegetable oil. Put it on the hot pan, lube-side down, and top with a decent sized pile of one kind of cheese, spreading it around to make an even layer. Top the cheese with a second tortilla (no oil or butter needed here), then top that with a second kind of cheese. Finished with a third tortilla, again brushed with butter or oil and this time placed lube-side UP so that when you flip it, the oil will come in contact with the pan. Weigh down with a flat pot lid or a plate to help the bottom tortilla get nice and crisp and brown and to help the cheese melt, and let it sizzle away for a few minutes. Check after 3 or 4 to be sure its not burning, but don't flip it until you see plenty of golden toastyness down there. When you DO flip, do so carefully in case there is cheese in that top layer that isn't quite melted yet and the thing doesn't stay together - you really don't want shredded cheese flying all over your kitchen. Trust me. Now put the pot lid or plate back on top of the quesadilla and give it another 2-3 minutes to crisp up on the second side. When its done, just cut it into wedges with a pizza cutter or a big, sharp knife (a chef's knife or santoku works well) and serve. The wedges make absolutely awesome dippers for this soup.

I would totally make this dinner again. I'd make it all the time, in fact. Its hot, spicy, hearty and comforting, and a really nice change from a regular bowl of beef-and-beans chili. And, well, anything that gives me an excuse to make quesadillas is just fine in my book.

Its a crying shame that J managed to get all the leftovers, because I could really go for a bowl right now.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why We Don't Go Out For Thai

Consider, for a moment, the plight of the peanut-allergic American. If you don't have to worry about dying from accidental contact with this particular legume, you probably don't even realize how much it's used in everyday foods. Cereals, snacks, candies, and convenience foods often contain things like peanut flour or peanut oil when you'd least expect it. Even those which do not intentionally include peanut products in their ingredient lists will frequently carry that potentially life-saving warning, "Manufactured in a facility which also process peanuts." While this means that your granola bar probably does not contain, nor has it come in contact with, a peanut or its byproducts, it also means that it MIGHT have, and you'd just better not take the chance.

Then there's fried foods, which have at least a 50/50 chance of having been cooked in peanut oil, and sometimes its almost impossible to tell. I often wonder how many unaware folks with peanut allergies get sick every year from innocent trips to Chick-Fil-A. (Because yes, they fry just about everything in peanut oil, and the warning signs in their restaurants are notoriously small and easy-to-miss. I had a close call there myself a few years back.)

If you don't have to think about it, you probably don't realize just how dangerous the world can be for someone with a severe peanut allergy, and how limited the options become when you really take every step possible to keep yourself. And no matter how hard you try to protect yourself, there is still always the slight possibility that, under the wrong circumstances, you just might get hit with an allergy attack seemingly out of nowhere due to a chance encounter of your purse with a peanut shell on the ground.

And possibly worse than all that is the fact that it is damn near impossible to go out for Thai food.

As you may have determined, I am one of those unlucky 1.5 million Americans whose bodies cannot process the proteins in that beloved of all "nuts", the peanut. I've learned as I've grown up how to best avoid accidental ingestion of the evil little beans, and know to be very careful when eating out or trying new foods. However, in my younger days I was sometimes a bit more reckless than I should've been, and it was during those years that I first discovered Thai food.

I suppose I was lucky. There were a lot of Thai restaurants in New Haven County in CT, where I grew up, and I went to at least three different places where I was able to enjoy untainted Thai food, probably due to some extreme care and consideration by the restaurants' chefs and servers. Through these visits I learned to love Thai cuisine, its unique, fresh, and vibrant flavors, colors, and textures, and I became a regular customer to the restaurant closest to home, craving their food constantly between visits.

And then I moved to NY, where there must be a thousand Thai restaurants to try. And it was then that I had my first bad experience in a Thai restaurant, one which must not have taken such impeccable care in keeping their kitchen clean and their peanut products quarantined, because despite having ordered a dish that I knew full well should contain no peanuts whatsoever, I had a reaction and was sick for days.

Since then I have not set foot in another Thai restaurant, other than the one back home that I know is safe.

Just try to imagine not being able to go out for your favorite kind of food because, well, it just might kill you. I probably don't need to spell it out, but I will: IT SUCKS.

But, not being one to take my eating limitations lying down, I resolved that I simply had to be able to make my own Thai food at home, where I knew it would be 100% safe for me to eat. And after introducing J to my beloved "safe haven" Thai restaurant in CT and turning him on to the stuff, he was more than willing to take on the challenge with me.

Since then we have made several soups, stir fries, and noodle/rice dishes from various cookbooks and online recipe sources, some more successful than others but all of them better than no Thai food at all. We will continue to experiment until we have a retinue of reliable, delicious, and authentic (as close as possible, anyway, working within the no-peanuts limitation) recipes that we can turn to whenever we feel that particular, special craving that no other food can satisfy. But for now, the one recipe we've come back to time and time again has been this, my favorite Thai noodle dish and one of my favorite things to eat, ever: Pad See Ew.

A relatively simple dish of wide rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli or gai lan, egg, and thin strips of chicken or pork with a sticky, sweet soy sauce, pad see ew is a popular lunchtime street food in Thailand. It is hearty and incredibly flavorful, and like so much of the Thai cuisine I've tasted, incredibly well balanced. Sweet, savory, peppery, and tangy flavors meld together into a truly perfect sauce, binding the tender chicken, soft eggs, crunchy broccoli and chewy rice noodles into what I can only describe as the ultimate noodle dish. Seriously, I could eat this stuff every day for a week and not get bored with it. It is amazing to me that such a simple dish with such basic ingredients can taste this good.

The recipe I follow for this dish is slightly non-traditional, but it achieves the same flavor that I fell in love with back in CT, and for that I don't mind breaking the rules a bit. I always use chicken and have never had it with pork, even though I'm pretty sure that pork is the standard protein in Thialand. I also use regular-old broccoli florets instead of Chinese broccoli or gai lan, because frankly I have access to neither. It doesn't matter. Because really, the star of this dish is the noodles; wide ribbons of chewy, starchy goodness that soak up all that delicious sauce and become almost unbearably addictive. I bet you won't be able to stop at one plate.


Pad See Ew
Adapted from a bunch of recipes that I can't really remember all mashed up together; technique adapted from Pim's Pad See Ew for Beginners.

If you can't find fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, or dark sweet soy in stores near you, try ordering them online from any of a number of Thai ingredient suppliers. That's what we did, and unless you cook Thai every day, they'll probably last you a good long time.

12oz flat, wide dry rice noodles
1 large boneless skinless chicken breast, sliced thinly (you could substitute pork or even tofu here if you wanted)
2 cups broccoli florets (one large crown should do fine)
1 egg
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced

2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
3 tsp dark sweet soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1-2 tbsp white sugar
1/2-1 tsp black pepper

Vegetable oil for cooking (Choose something with a high smoke point like safflower or grapeseed oil or, if you aren't allergic like me, peanut oil. I won't even bother giving a measurement because it depends on too much - the seasoning of your wok, the type of noodles you use, how hot your stove gets, etc. - just be aware that you will probably use a lot.)

30-60 minutes before you intend to start cooking, mix together the ingredients for the marinade and pour over the slices of chicken in a large bowl. Toss around to coat each piece with the marinade, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand until you are ready to cook.

Place the rice noodles in a dish and cover with hot water (I bring my tea kettle up to just shy of the boiling point) and let stand long enough for the noodles to become pliable. You'll want to move them around every so often with a fork or tongs to keep them from sticking together and forming one giant noodle clump. 5-10 minutes will probably do it, depending on how hot the water is. Just don't let them get soft or mushy, or you'll be setting yourself up for failure later. They need to be able to finish cooking in the wok. Once the noodles are pliable, drain them in a colander and rinse well with cold water, then let stand to drain completely.

Make sure the rest of your ingredients are prepped and ready to go - cut up your broccoli florets and put them in a bowl. Do the same with the garlic. Scramble the egg in another bowl, adding a touch of soy sauce if you like. Finally, make the sauce, whisking all of the ingredients together to help the sugar dissolve. I used the full 2tbsp the last time I made it and felt it was a little too sweet for my tastes, so next time I'll cut it back to maybe a heavy tbsp, but season it according to your tastes. Same goes for the pepper - I like a lot, but use as much as you like.

You should now have a bowl of chicken in its marinade, a colander full of flexible but not-exactly cooked rice noodles, a bowl of broccoli, a bowl of garlic, a bowl of egg, and a bowl of sauce. Now get out your vegetable oil and a big wooden spoon or spatula, and make sure everything is within easy reach of the stove; its time to start cooking, and it's going to move quickly.

Place a large wok over high heat and preheat for at least 5 minutes to ensure the whole pan is heated evenly. Add a tablespoon or two of oil to the pan, enough that you can swirl the pan around and coat as much of the sides as possible. Let that heat up for just a few seconds, then dump in your marinated chicken and garlic. Keep the chicken and garlic moving around the pan by swirling the pan gently and tossing/stirring the meat with your wooden spoon or spatula, letting it cook on all sides without burning. You'll probably get some smoke and some spatter, so just be careful when you move the pan. Once the chicken is cooked and browned in places, remove it and the garlic back to its bowl. Wipe out the pan with a couple of paper towels and replace on the heat.

Now, the broccoli. Add some more oil to the wok, then dump in your broccoli and cook the same way that you did the chicken, though you probably won't need to move it around as much because it wont be as likely to stick as the chicken was. Cook until the broccoli is bright green and slightly softened but still crisp in the stems, and the florets have gotten brown and crispy in spots. Remove from the wok back to its bowl, and replace the wok on the stove. No need to wipe it out this time.

Drizzle some oil over the noodles in their colander and toss around gently so that all of the noodles are individually coated with oil, then add a bit more oil to the wok. This is where things can get tricky, as rice noodles tend to stick like crazy and will break apart and completely lose their structural integrity if they do, so although it goes against my usual healthy sensibilities, use as much oil as you need to keep that from happening.

One the noodles are coated and the oil in the pan is hot again, dump in the noodles and get them moving in the pan immediately. The longer they stay stationary, the more likely they are to stick. Stir fry them until they start to show crisp, brown spots. Now, this is the only part that I still have trouble with - move the noodles up the sides of the pan where it will be cooler, creating a well at the very bottom of the pan, and pour in the scrambled egg. Resist the urger to start shoving it around in the pan the way you have every other ingredient - the noodles at this point should be lubed up enough that they won't stick, and the egg needs to cook without being fooled with for awhile so that it can actually set up. You want to be able to break it into pieces once its cooked, not turn it into a coating for the noodles.

Give it just a minute or two until it looks mostly opaque, then get in there and stir to break it up a bit and toss it with the noodles. Now dump the chicken, garlic, and broccoli back into the pan, toss it all together, and finally pour in all the sauce. Do your pan-shaking/hot-food-tossing bit until everything in the pan is coated in sauce, the noodles have absorbed most of the liquid, and the heat has thickened up anything that's left, just a minute or two. You should get a bit more caramelization and browning during this step. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, with an extra shake of black pepper and a drop or two of soy sauce as a final flavor boost.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Herb-Roasted Onions

Its that time again! Time for all the Barefoot Bloggers to roll up their sleeves, grab a wooden spoon, and dive into a new recipe from our muse, Ina Garten. This week's recipe is Herb-Roasted Onions, chosen by Kelly of Baking with the Boys.

I knew as soon as I saw the recipe selection that I'd want to have these onions with roasted chicken. We've never balked at roasting whole birds for just ourselves, but this past weekend afforded the perfect opportunity to have a few less leftovers as we'd planned to have another couple over for dinner on Sunday. And really, what could be better for a casual dinner party than roasted chicken and veggies?

We rounded out the meal with some more of those perfect crispy roasted potatoes and a quick gravy made from the chicken drippings, and if it wasn't the healthiest meal we've ever made, it was certainly one of the tastiest.

The onions themselves really couldn't be simpler, and for once I actually really stuck to the recipe. My only changes were a mustard substitution and using dry herbs instead of fresh. Otherwise, I followed Ina's instructions just about to a T. Aren't you proud of me?

You start with two red onions and one white - mine was an absolute monster, so even with 4 people we ended up with some extras that didn't get eaten.

Aren't onions beautiful? Especially the red ones. I just love their color, and the satiny-sheen of their papery outer skins.

You trim off the barest bit of the root end and peel each onion, then slice into thick wedges through the root - this keeps the wedges more-or-less intact when they roast. This was seriously the most difficult part of the recipe, because these were some POTENT onions and I had to walk away at least twice during the prep to keep the fumes from blinding me. Also, my cutting skills are lame and I missed the root on half my wedges, so my onions fell apart more than they probably should have. Ah well.

Next, the vinaigrette. Again, couldn't be simpler. Whisk together some mustard (I used a slightly sweet, whole grain variety), lemon juice, garlic (grated or minced), salt, pepper, and thyme leaves, then stream in some olive oil while whisking to make a loose emulsion. Dressing done.

The onions get tossed in the vinaigrette (being sure that every onion is completely coated) and, in my case, left to marinate for about an hour while we got some of our other dinner preparations done and got the chicken into the oven.

When the time to cook them rolled around, I lined my brandy-new Cuisinart stainless steel everyday pan (just bought a whole set of these pans and I LOVE them) with aluminum foil and placed the onion wedges in the pan in a single layer. Then the whole thing got shoved in the oven at 400 for about 40 minutes. I found that my onions gave off a LOT of water and didn't really brown or caramelize just by baking them in the time indicated, so I switched the oven over to broil for the last 5 minutes of cooking time and that did the trick.

When the onions came out of the oven, the extra vinaigrette left in the bowl got poured over top and I tossed them around with some tongs just before serving.

Aside from one person who doesn't like to just eat onions, I'd say this was a successful dish. For my case, I liked them, certainly, but I'm not entirely sold on the seasoning. I think I would've liked to switch out the lemon juice for balsamic vinegar, and added some sugar or honey to play on the onions' natural sweetness. I'd like to try a different herb, because although I love thyme on onions (and things like mushrooms) I think its getting a little played out. I'm not sure what I'd use in place of it, though. Chives perhaps, or maybe rosemary?

I also wish my onions had caramelized more fully, but all the liquid in the pan kept that from happening. I'm wondering about trying this at a higher heat next time, maybe 425 or even 450, so that they'll cook and brown faster and won't have time to get soggy.

At any rate, I do think I'd make these again - they look awfully pretty after they're cooked, all golden and red and crispy in places, and the big wedges really make a nice presentation alongside roasted chicken on the bone, rustic and pure in flavor and intent. There's just something about dishes like this, where a solitary ingredient is the star and the seasoning and cooking is simply meant to bring out the best of that ingredient, that really appeals to me. These are onions being everything that onions can be - sweet, pungent, soft and satiny smooth. And I love that kind of cooking. Simple, basic, unadorned and unimposing, just tasty and satisfying and even homey in a way.

I think I'd like to experiment with ways to use them in other dishes. I bet they'd be awfully tasty in a pasta dish with a bit of parmesan cheese, some mushrooms or greens, some olive oil and garlic. Or on a sandwich, thin-sliced steak with swiss cheese, arugala, and an herbed aioli. Or maybe even cut into thinner wedges and stirred into some mashed potatoes for an extra hit of flavor and texture. I think the possibilities for this dish are virtually endless.

So, overall, the recipe needs some tweaking to suit my tastes, but is definitely one I'd go back to.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

SSD: The Standard Steak Dinner (TM)

Ok, so its not really a trademarked name. At least, I don't think it is. But believe me, it should be, because a steak dinner just doesn't get any more tasty, classic, or all around RIGHT than this. And once you've tried this, I can almost guarantee you'll agree with me.

The SSD is the only original meal that we've come up with in our almost 4 years of cooking together that we've consistently gone back to several times a year, and have never really had to change. Its part recipe, part formula, and all delicious.

The recipe part of it that never, ever changes is my original sherry steak gravy. "Gravy" is a bit of a misnomer here; there is very little about this recipe that resembles your standard brown, smooth, thick sauce that is usually served with roast beef or turkey. Instead, it is coarse and rustic with diced onion, garlic, mushrooms, and a goodly amount of bacon, with the gravy part being more of binder than anything else. It is sweet, savory, and peppery, a perfect companion for a thick, medium-rare steak, and I've barely changed the recipe since I made it the first time nearly 3 years ago.

The rest of the meal is just a simple formula, wherein the components follow a theme but are easily substituted and adjusted to achieve the same general result without getting old or tired. This formula is incredibly classic: a good cut of steak, simply seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper; a green vegetable; a potato dish. But I'm a big believer in the philosophy that if a thing ain't broke, you shouldn't try to fix it.

The beauty of it is the wide range of options available for each component. You could use a sirloin steak, or a ribe eye (as we did here) or even a filet. You could sautee up some broccoli or spinach or steam some snow peas, any of which could follow your particular favorite side dish recipe. And we all know how versatile potatoes are. Want a mash? Go for it. Scalloped potatoes your thing? We've done that too. Baked and stuffed? Roasted? Hashed? They all work. There's really just no way to break this meal.

But the sherry gravy is what ties everything together, each and every time. And we have never made this meal without feeling completely and utterly satisfied when our plates are clean.

We made an SSD earlier this week, upon realizing that it'd been several months since we last did so. This time around we used some well-marbled rib eyes for the steak, and combined the potato and green veg by roasting some cubed red potatoes and halved brussels sprouts together. And incidentally, if you think you don't like brussels sprouts, I absolutely recommend that you try them this way. I first discovered them last fall, having never actually tried them before and therefor being devoid of any of the normal negative connotations that most people have. And at first taste, I loved them. Slightly sweet and tender-crisp when cooked correctly, I often find myself craving them when the weather gets cool. And when they are roasted this way, their natural sugars concentrate and caramelize on the outside, much the way carrots or sweet potatoes do, and they become positively candy-like. Seriously, just try these. They aren't your parents' sprouts.


Eri's Sherry Steak "Gravy"

I have always used white button mushrooms in this recipe, because I like their texture and mild flavor. However, I recommend that you use whatever variety of mushroom that you prefer - I am sure it would be equally good with portobellos, creminis, or shiitakes. I'd even like to try this with porcinis... sometime when I don't mind potentially breaking a recipe that has been so completely foolproof for so long.

This recipe makes enough "gravy" to top two average-sized steaks.

1 tsp olive oil
1/2 a white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 slices fatty bacon, chopped
1/2 cup diced white button mushrooms
1 tsp black pepper (Believe it or not, I use preground pepper for this because the first time I made it, we didn't have a pepper grinder, and I haven't wanted to change the finished product. Feel free to fresh-grind your pepper, though I might suggest cutting back a bit as fresh-ground pepper is significantly stronger.)
1/2 cup strong beef stock (and I mean STRONG. I've always made this with beef stock cubes, using twice as much as the package directs for the amount of water. You could also use a demi glace, or homemade stock that you boil down to half-volume.)
1/4 cup sherry (the real stuff. Don't go using "cooking wine" in this recipe.)
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tbsp worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp cornstarch (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a small sautee pan (not nostick) over medium heat until gently shimmering. Add the bacon and cook slowly to render out as much of the bacon fat as possible into the pan. When the bacon is about half cooked, add in the onions, garlic, and mushrooms, and sautee until everything is softened and the onions are translucent.

Crank up the heat to high for a few minutes to achieve some slight caramelization on the veg and develop a bit of fond (stuck on brown bits) on the bottom of the pan. Deglaze the pan with the sherry, then add the stock, worcestershire, pepper and brown sugar. Turn the heat down again to medium-low and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly and about half the liquid has boiled away. At this point, if you like a thinner gravy, you could use the gravy as-is. Or, you could thicken it by placing the cornstarch in a bowl, adding a couple spoonfuls of water or gravy liquid and stirring to dissolve, then adding the mixture back to the pan and stirring to combine. This will create a thick, velvety sauce to bind all the ingredients together.

Spoon the gravy over your choice of steak and serve hot.


Roasted Red Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts

This was the first time I've successfully achieved the crisp outside, fluffy inside roasted potatoes that most people dream about. I think that the pre-cooking step, the generous amount of olive oil, and the high heat in the oven were what make it work, and for once they were totally perfect. I didn't measure anything or keep track of time while I was doing this, however, so I'm making some guesses here. I will be retrying this method tomorrow when we have some friends over for dinner, so I will try to pay more attention and nail down this recipe.

2-3 large red potatoes, washed and cut into one-inch cubes
1 cup brussels sprouts, stems trimmed, outer leaves removed, and halved
4 cups water
2 tbsp + 1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh-cracked black pepper
2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp good balsamic vinegar

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Pour the water into a saucepan and add the 2tbsp salt and cubed potatoes. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are about half-cooked, probably about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the olive oil, 1 tbsp salt, black pepper and garlic in a medium-sized bowl.

When the potatoes have reached the desired level of doneness, remove with a slotted spoon to the baking sheet and allow to dry and cool slightly for 2-3 minutes.
Add the trimmed and halved brussels sprouts to the pan of boiling water to blanch for 2-3 minutes, or until bright green and slightly softened.

Once the sprouts are in the water, pour half of the seasoned olive oil over the potatoes on the baking sheet and toss with your hands until the potatoes are covered, then place the sheet in the oven. They will need at least 10-15 minutes on their own before you add the brussels sprouts.

Drain the blanched sprouts and add, while still hot, to the bowl with the remaining seasoned olive oil. Add the balsamic vinegar and toss gently to coat.

Remove the pan with the potatoes from the oven and flip gently with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula - you'll notice that the parts touching the baking sheet will be the most golden browned and crispy. You'll want to flip them like this over the course of their cooking time to ensure that all sides get evenly browned.

Add the brussels sprouts with their marinade to the baking sheet and spread out so that all the sprouts and potatoes are in a single layer. Return to the oven and continue to bake, turning every 5 minutes or so, until everything is nicely browned and crispy on the outside. For me, this took approximately 15-20 minutes. When they are done, remove from the oven and hit with a last sprinkle of kosher salt and black pepper while they are hot. Serve immediately so that they retain their crispness.

Greek. Again.

I shouldn't be so hard on myself about the Greek-food thing - truthfully, we haven't made anything remotely Greek in weeks, so I guess I'm not THAT obsessed. And if I've gotta be addicted to a particular cuisine, at least this one is pretty healthy. It could be worse - at least I don't have an insatiable hunger for bad Americanized Chinese food. Right? Right.

Anyway, this was the last of a long string of soup-centric meals, and to my mind at least, the best.

I've always seen avgolemono mentioned in the context of a soup, but the name really has a much broader definition. From Wikipedia:

"Avgolemono is a family of eastern Mediterranean sauces and soups made with egg and lemon juice mixed with broth, heated until they thicken but before they boil, so the egg doesn't curdle. Avgolémono is the Greek name, meaning egg-lemon; in Arabic, it is called tarbiya or beida bi-lemoune 'egg with lemon', and in Turkish terbiye." More...

Up until recently, this idea has not appealed to me; my earlier reference to bad American Chinese food is particularly apt, because when I thought about egg being added to soup, I automatically pictured something akin to Chinese egg drop which, quite frankly, makes me gag. The reality, however, is far more pleasant. Rather than ending up with a thick, gloopy broth with ribbons of barely cooked egg running through it, the method for adding the lemon-egg mixture to the soup in this preparation actually tempers and lightens the eggs, serving to only thicken the soup slightly and give it a smooth, velvety mouthfeel. No runny eggs here, my friends, and that's a-ok with me.

Traditionally, avoglemono in its soup form is made very simply, with rice or perhaps orzo and pieces of poached chicken added to the fortified broth. I had intended to actually stick to tradition on this one at first, planning only to add some chopped spinach near the end as well in an effort to get some good green veggies into the meal. However, our spinach went bad before I could cook this (I HATE supermarket veggies...) so I ended up making some other changes and substitutions to compensate. In the end, my version contained chicken, asparagus, and artichoke hearts, with my beloved fregola sardo subbed in for the arborio rice in the original recipe.

And it was good.

Really, really good.

Avgolemono with Asparagus, Artichokes, and Fregola Sardo
Adapted from Avgolemono: Chicken Soup with Egg-Lemon Sauce by Cat Cora

1 large boneless/skinless chicken breast
6 cups chicken broth or stock
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 white onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup diced peeled carrot
1/3 cup fregula sardo
1/2 cup frozen quartered artichoke hearts, thawed and sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 lb asparagus, woody ends trimmed and stalks cut into 1/2" pieces, tips reserved
1 large egg
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (I felt this was maybe a bit too much - I needed two lemons to get 1/4 cup of juice, so I think next time I might just use one.)
S&P to taste
Lemon slices or wedges, optional

Place the chicken breast in a saucepan and add enough broth to cover. Place over medium-high heat and simmer until chicken is cooked, 15-20 minutes. When cooked, remove the chicken from the pot and set aside to cool. Add the reserved asparagus tips to the pan to blanch for just a minute or two, until they are slightly softened but still bright green. Remove with a slotted spoon to an ice water bath to stop them from continuing to cook, and turn off the heat under the broth. Set aside.

Meanwhile, add the olive oil to the bottom of a larger saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering gently. Add the onions and garlic and a pinch of salt, and sautee until they are translucent and softened. Add the bay leaf and carrots and sautee for another 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant.

Pour in the broth used to cook the chicken, as well as any extra, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer about 30 minutes. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl to strain out the vegetables and bay leaf, then pour back into the saucepan and move back over the heat. Don't worry if you still have a few bits and pieces of veg in there - it won't hurt the soup any; in fact, you could even skip this step completely and only remove the bay leaf, if you'd like to make things easier, and it'd be just as good if a little chunkier than this version. I like the simplicity of the finished soup in this recipe, personally - the onions, garlic and carrots are only there to flavor the broth.

Add the fregola sardo and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the fregola is still slightly al dente.

Meanwhile, whisk the lemon juice and egg together in a bowl and set aside. Cut the cooked chicken breast into cubes, about 1/2"-3/4".

When the fregola is mostly cooked, add in the asparagus, artichokes, and chicken, and continue to simmer until the fregola is completely cooked. Remove from heat and get your egg-lemon mixture.

Using a ladle, add some of the soup broth to your bowl of egg and lemon very slowly, using a whisk to incorporate the hot liquid. You need to do this slowly so that the eggs don't curdle, which would cause that nasty egg drop syndrome. Place your hand against the side of the bowl occasionally to test the temperature of the mix - when it feels slightly warmer than room temperature, you can pour the whole mix back into the pan without danger. Be sure to stir the soup as you add the egg mixture to keep things smooth - the broth should only thicken slightly and should still resemble a broth rather than a sauce or stew. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary. I found that I needed no salt, but added quite a bit of black pepper for just a bit of bite.

Ladle immediately into serving bowls and top with the reserved blanched asparagus tips, garnishing with a lemon slice or wedge if desired.

I think that this could be an extremely flexible recipe; you could add in almost any vegetables you like to cater it to your tastes, or make it vegetarian by omitting the chicken and using vegetable broth. You could experiment with grains, using rice or orzo as is traditional, or perhaps trying something like farro for a nutty, chewy texture that I bet would be especially tasty. And since its reasonably sophisticated on the palate, pretty to look at, and easy to make, I think it would be great for entertaining. Some flatbread or crostini with feta toasted on top would make a great accompaniment. We'll be making this again!

Sunday, November 2, 2008


So I have to apologize for disappearing a bit recently - I felt like I was sort of on a roll with posting regularly and all, but things sort of got off track for awhile.

There are good reasons for this. To begin with, I was sick with some as-yet-undefined infection somewhere in my head for about two weeks, which left me dizzy and light-headed and wanting to do nothing but perform my best imitation of a lump on the couch. The last thing I felt like doing was photographing our meals and then writing about them. Of course this was almost a moot point anyway, because for those same two weeks or so we were basically on a liquid diet, eating nothing but soup, in an attempt to eat a bit more cheaply and healthily for awhile. Everything we made was quite tasty, but little of it felt blog-worthy. (Though our last meal in the Great Soup Extravaganza of 2008 was actually extremely good and quite pretty, so that's high on my list of to-blog meals right now.)

Then, there was work, which has been kicking my rear for about a month now. My staff and I just launched a major marketing campaign this past week, and the days leading up to D-Day were crazy-busy, to put it lightly. And as I'm sure many of you can understand, after days like that its all I can do to help J with a simple meal and then veg for the rest of the night.

However, I'm finally feeling better, we're back to a semi-normal cooking routine, and I think I'm through the worst at work, for now anyway, so I'm ready to start posting again. I've got a couple of things lined up, and with this month's Barefoot Bloggers recipes on their way and Thanksgiving just around the corner, I think there will be plenty to talk about in the coming weeks.

Right now, though, I'd like to tell you about our Halloween party.

Throwing parties is something that J and I seem to excel in, if you'll pardon my boasting. We love to entertain, and have parties at least 4 or 5 times a year for various occasions (holidays, birthdays, etc.) We plan a bunch of finger foods and appetizers to serve, ask our friends to bring beverages (usually beer, and soda for non-drinkers), put together a playlist on iTunes, and voila! Instant party.

Well, not exactly instant - our parties usually require at least a week of gradual prep-work since they are always so food-centric. But its work we enjoy, and its fun seeing a party slowly come together in the days leading up to the event.

Halloween is probably the one occasion that, among our group of friends, absolutely REQUIRES a party. Its a tradition that started five years ago, when I was living in Queens with three friends after my graduation from college. I think it was the first party we threw together, and it was such a phenomenal success that we've just kept it going ever since. Its the one party that everyone really loves because they get to dress up in costume and be a little uninhibited for awhile, and I think I can say with some degree of certainty that people especially love coming to our house because of the food.

That being said, although I don't feel like we made any more food this year than we normally do, we had a LOT of leftovers afterwards. For some reason, people just weren't eating as much as they normally do. We did try a different layout of our apartment for the party and arranged the food tables a bit differently than normal, so maybe we screwed something up there. Regardless though, we got nothing but compliments on everything.

If you'd like the recipe for any of these munchies, just request it in the comments and I'll be sure to add it to the post. And my apologies if some of these photos are a bit dark or oddly colored - it being Halloween and all, the lighting in the apartment was rather dim and atmospheric, which may be appropriate for a party but doesn't make for good photography.

The hot food table. This was a new development for this party, because I finally bit the bullet and bought one of these buffet-style chafing dishes, and we needed to setup an extra table in order to have room for everything.

Test tube soup shooters. Half are butternut squash, and half are roasted red pepper and tomato. I hate to admit that I got the idea for this from Rachel Ray but, well, I did. And its ok, because I thought they were terribly cute (and the soup, though mostly ignored by our guests, was tasty too). Plus, now we have test tubes to use for custom shots at future parties. I'm rather tickled by this possibility.

And yes, thats a big bowl of marinara in the foreground, which was the accompaniment for...

...bloody bones! A.k.a. shaped breadsticks made with herbed pizza dough, and marinara dipping sauce. Got this idea from some random Halloween recipes website, and used some pizza dough I'd kept in the freezer from one of our grilled pizza experiments. J made the marinara because he's the resident expert. These led to much hilarity as I beatedly realized that once you bite an end off, they end up looking rather more than a little suggestive. Oops!

In front, mummy dogs (pigs-in-a-blanket made by wrapping strips of dough around each cocktail weenie rather than rolling them in crescent rolls) and a handful of herbed pretzels made with the excess dough for the piggies. In back, our famous Asian meatballs with sweet sesame glaze. I think these were one of the first recipes we developed all on our own and served at a party, with J creating the meatballs and me creating the glaze, way back when we first moved in together. We've been making them for almost every party ever since because people just go nuts over them. Oddly enough, we ended up having quite a few extra at the end of the party, but since J made almost 5 dozen of them I guess that's not really that surprising.

Cold food table number 1. There was a simple vodka punch in the cauldron (we fit a punch bowl inside for a pretty neat fakeout effect) made with two 2L bottles of sprite, lemon and mango sorbets, and 2/3 of a bottle of Stoli citrus - this stuff is sweet and hardly tastes alcoholic, so drinkers beware! Its very easy to have a few too many glasses and suddenly realize you cant quite walk a straight line. Needless to say, it disappeared.

In the foreground are some mini pumpkin spice muffins, and my good friend Cristen's signature dark chocolate truffles, made this time around with caramel ganache and fleur de sel. I always ask her to bring truffles to our parties - she's brilliant with them and, well, I'm chocolate-challenged and have yet to make anything even resembling a decent batch.

Also on this table, a plate of antipasto - an olive mix and some marinated mushrooms from Iavarone (I absolutely drool over their mushrooms - I buy containers of them on an almost weekly basis just to snack on), some quick-marinated artichoke hearts that I made that day (in the back of the photo where you can't really see them), store-bought dill cornichons and some of my home-pickled bread and butter slices. Remind me to share the recipe for those at a later date - they are the best I've ever made and, according to J and several of our guests, the best they'd ever tasted. In the middle is a bowl of toasted pumpkin seeds, salvaged from the pumpkins I carved the night before. I followed Elise's method on Simply Recipes and found they came out far better than the ones I remember my mom making as a kid. They disappeared like crazy, so its a good thing I kept some back for myself for later!

Cold food table number 2, offering massive plates of cured sausage and cheese and vegetable crudite, a pate selection, and some sweets (including the requisite dish piled with Halloween candy). The sausage and cheese plate had 4 varieties of each: Iavarone's sweet soppresetta, hard salami, chorizo picante, and smoked andouille for the sausage; aged gouda, emmenthaler, sharp cheddar, and Prima Donna for the cheese. I made the little signs because the selection was a little unusual and I wanted to be sure people knew what they were eating. The crudite plate included grape tomatoes, broccoli florets, baby carrots, zucchini batons, red pepper slices, and celery sticks, and were paired with an easy homemade dip with lemon, dill, and garlic. We had the most leftovers from these two plates - luckily they were easily put to use in our meals the following week. I guess maybe we just got a little too complicated with them?

A selection of pates that we ordered from D'Artagnan and which, I'm sorry to say, we found a bit disappointing. Our previous experiences with pates have been mind-blowingly delicious, life-changing revelations of savory flavor and aroma, and these seemed bland in comparison. I guess maybe the ones we've had the pleasure of sampling in the past were just especially prime specimens, but D'Artagnan has such a good reputation I was really expecting something more. Unsurprisingly, very little of this was eaten, and we still have a lot left which I don't know how to use. They were paired with some whole grain crackers and crostini made from sourdough baguettes cut into 1/2" slices on the bias and toasted under the broiler with a generous brushing of olive oil an a sprinkling of kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper.

Bite-sized sugar cookie cutouts glazed with colored royal icing. I am rather in love with these little cookies, despite the amount of time it took to make them. Have you ever tried to frost 6 dozen tiny cookies? Its a lot of work. We still have some left and I've been having a couple for dessert every day - they're just sugary enough with a fragrant touch of almond extract, and the perfect size for a little sweet ending to a meal.

I know, not food. But, this is the first jack-o-lantern I've made in probably 4 years, and I was awfully proud of it. I can't figure out if he looks cheerful or menacing!

And just for fun, here's the group before everyone got tired of wearing their costumes and changed into street clothes.

Is it weird that I think this is the best picture taken of me in ages? And fyi, that's J in the background in the Guy Fawkes mask. He made a good V, but I'm really creeped out by masks so I'm glad he didn't keep it on long. (And I am still amazed by Cristen's geisha costume. She looked incredible!)

I hope everyone had a fun and safe Halloween!