Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summer, foodified

So, its come to this. I'm making up words now. My college writing professor would either be ashamed or delighted, depending on her mood. But if anything is worth butchering the English language for, its this meal.

Jamie Oliver has wormed his adorably-mop-headed British way into my heart as a chef who really knows his way around good, simple, honest food. J bought me "Jamie at Home", the companion book to his show of the same name, for Christmas last year, and although we've only tried a few of the recipes they've all been winners. (The "Hot and Sour Rhubarb and Crispy Pork with Noodles" on page 58 is a particular hit, but that's a post for another day.) But so far, my absolute favorite recipe from the book is his "Incredible Smashed Peas and Fava Beans on Toast" from page 156, and it was the star of this supremely summer meal.

There's very few things quite as delicious as a bowl of homemade soup and some crusty bread, and our hot-weather take on this common pairing consisted of smooth and creamy vichyssoise and Jamie's fava and pea crostini. Cool, fresh, light, and beautifully green, this meal was both satisfying and refreshing on a muggy August evening.

I made the vichyssoise based on this recipe from Epicurious, and made it the day before we intended to eat it so that it could chill and the flavors blend thoroughly. I made some changes to make it a bit healthier, and to account for the fact that I'd only bought one leek (oops!). I sauteed the white and light green parts of the leek as per the recipe, but reserved the tough dark green tops to infuse the broth later and inject more leeky flavor into the soup. I also added an equal amount of white onion to ramp up the oniony sharpness and better balance the starchy weight of the potatoes. I used a good amount of white pepper instead of black for an earthier kick, and used non-fat Greek yogurt in place of the milk and cream which gave the soup a delicious, though probably non-traditional, tang. I also had to skip the chives because I didn't have any, but I don't think that the soup suffered much for it.

The finished soup was cool, creamy, smooth and savory, with just a bit of heat tingling on the tip of the tongue. It could have used more leek, obviously, but its hard to imagine a better soup on a hot day. Except, perhaps, a simple cold tomato soup, but we've been over that already.

But really, I'd be lying if I didn't say that the soup, as good as it was, paled in comparison to these simple, vibrant green toasts.

The base of the toasts were homemade English muffins (I'll need to make these again so I can blog about them too - they're shockingly easy and perfectly delicious!), split and toasted and brushed with extra virgin olive oil. Thick slices of fresh, lightly salted mozzarella topped the bread, followed by a tumble of fresh, peppery arugula dressed simply with EVOO, kosher salt and coarse cracked black pepper. Then the whole thing got topped off with a big spoonful of the fava and pea mash, made with the aforementioned beans (this really needs to be made with fresh peas and favas - their bright sweetness just sings here - but since I had neither and frankly didn't feel like buying and then shelling enough of them to make this meal, I made do with frozen. It was still excellent.) coarsely pureed with lemon juice, EVOO, salt, black pepper, fresh mint, and a bit of parmesan.

Biting into one of these babies is a little taste of heaven. Sweet, verdant, peppery, and lightly creamy; the smooth mozzarella, tender but lightly textured mash, crisp greens and crunchy bread... I could eat this every day. Its got a little bit of everything, the perfect blending of flavors and textures. And despite its lightness, its surprisingly satisfying. A few of these would make a wonderful lunch all on their own. But paired with a bowl of vichyssoise and a glass of chilled, dry white wine, it was an excellent summer dinner, one I hope to repeat in the very near future.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers - White Pizza with Arugula

I've been out of the loop with the Barefoot Bloggers for far too long, and I think its time I get back on the horse. I'm not sure if I'll get through both recipes this month, but if I was going to choose only one I knew that this had to be the one: Ina's White Pizza with Arugula, chosen by Angela of Nummy Kitchen.

I've been wanting to try a salad-topped pizza like this for some time, and this was just the excuse I needed to do it. There's just something about the juxtaposition of warm, crisp, cheesy pizza topped with fresh, peppery greens and tart dressing that appeals to me on a very base level - I guess its just the unique satisfaction that only comes from that perfect balance of tastes and textures.

The most involved part of this recipe is the pizza dough itself, and although I thought I had already found my go-to pizza dough recipe I decided to give this one a shot. I'm not sure if it was actually the recipe or the way I went about making it, but it came out head and shoulders above my old recipe. I tried to be patient with this one, adding the flour gradually to be sure I'd get the right consistency to the dough (soft and silky and pliable, unlike the rather dense dough the other recipe gives me) and I let it rise three times over the course of nearly 8 hours so that it could really develop some nice flavor and chewy gluten. I also used a 1-4 ratio of semolina/durham pasta flour to AP flour for a little extra complexity. The finished dough was extremely stretchy but delicate, admittedly difficult to shape and move, but with a light and airy quality that I've never achieved before.

I opted to grill my pizza rather than bake it, partly because it was hellishly hot and humid the day I made this and the thought of turning on the oven was not even close to attractive, and partially because I still think that grilling is the ideal way to get that puffy but crispy crust which I've never quite accomplished indoors. It was a good decision, and the finished crust was as close to perfect as I think I will ever get making pizza at home.

I brushed the crust with the garlic/thyme/crushed red pepper-infused oil and put it oiled-side-down on on the heated grill grate. The crust cooked until the bottom was just getting golden brown, then I brushed the top side with more of the oil and flipped it. Immediately the cooked side got another coat of the oil, some scattered slices of fresh mozzarella, Italian fontina, and low-fat feta (the original recipe called for goat cheese but I wasn't really interested in that) and a sprinkle of diced red bell pepper. By putting the cover on the grill it was transformed into an oven, allowing the cheese to melt and the dough to cook through. About 5 minutes later, the pizza was perfectly browned and crispy on the bottom and gooey-melty on top.

Bringing the pizza back inside, I tossed some fresh young arugula in a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, black pepper, and a smidge each of sugar and spicy brown mustard for flavor balance and body. The dressed greens got piled on top of the hot pizza where they began to wilt just a bit, but before they had a chance to get too limp I sliced it in quarters and served it up.

Man, was this tasty. The combination of cheeses, the perfect (seriously, I mean it, it was perfect) crispy crust, the peppery tangy greens, the occasional sweet pop of the red bell pepper - just delicious. Surprisingly light but totally satisfying, it was an ideal summer dinner.

I would make this again in a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, I think I'd consider making this in personal pizza form at a bbq - a bit non-traditional maybe, but I think it'd be a hit.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A low-fat dieter's dream

I've just got a quickie (harhar) for you today, because this particular recipe is certainly nothing challenging or complicated, but it is one of the most surprisingly awesome things I've made in a very long time. I never expected this recipe to work as well as it did, but now that I've tried it I'm kicking myself for not doing so sooner, and I can pretty much guarantee that this will be going into my regular rotation. Its easy, relatively fast, and pretty much guilt-free - but believe me, you'd never know it once you taste them.

So what is this miracle recipe?

Microwave Potato Chips.

Yes, you read that right. Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? I figured this was doomed to fail, or to work well enough but turn out a palid replacement for the sinful oil-fried chips we all love, whether we admit it or not and whether we allow ourselves to indulge in them or not. But I couldn't have been more wrong - despite the bizarre cooking method and the almost total absence of oil, these chips came out crisp and savory and the spitting-image of full-fat chips. They're a low-fat dieter's dream.

Some of you may have already tried these before, and if so all I can say is "Why didn't you tell me?!?". But for those of you who haven't, I implore you to do so. With one potato, some water and salt, cooking spray and a microwave, you'll have a bowl of shatteringly crispy, salty snacks in less than an hour.

I made mine based on this recipe at recipezaar.com. I used a mandoline to slice the potato super thin (Have I mentioned how much I love that tool? Perfectly uniform paper-thin slices in seconds.) and found that for the size of my slices, I got golder brown crispy chips in 3-4 minutes. With bigger slices (surface area, not thickness - you want them as thin as you can get them) it may take anywhere up to the 5.5 minutes recommended by the recipe. Just keep an eye on the first batch and see how long it takes to get your chips to the doneness you want, then use that to set up later batches.

Try it. Seriously. These just might change your snacking life.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I'm back! And now I'm a Daring Cook!

It's been awhile hasn't it? Far too long, frankly. Life just got crazy for awhile, as it tends to do, and although cooking never became any less of a passion during all that craziness, the blogging part of it sort of fell by the wayside. I even missed my one year blogiversary, which is just sad.

But, well, I'm back, and with a new challenge to keep me occupied - I've joined the Daring Cooks, the newest offshoot of the ever-popular and wildly active Daring Bakers. This is my first challenge with the group, and I think its a fitting re-entry for me into the blogging world.

The August 2009 challenge for the Daring Cooks was chosen by Olga of Las Cosas de Olga and Olga’s Recipes: Rice with Mushrooms, Cuttlefish and Artichokes. Mine used squid in place of cuttlefish, but close enough :)

This was actually a three-part challenge. The rice was only the last piece; to make and serve the rice dish required that you also make a sofregit (a slow-cooked tomato-based sauce with garlic, onions, bell peppers and mushrooms) and an allioli (a condiment made from fresh garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice).

I made the sofregit first, since it was the easiest part. I started by chopping up a couple of plum tomatoes, garlic, white onion, green bell pepper and a handful of cremini mushrooms, then just tossed everything into a skillet with some olive oil and a heavy pinch of both cumin and oregano and cooked it on low heat until everything was soft and moderately well combined. It smelled wonderful as it cooked, savory and fragrant, and the finished product was deep and rich tasting and totally delicious - I'd love to just eat it on some grilled ciabatta, perhaps with some cilantro.

The second component, the allioli, was more of a challenge. Two recipe options were provided, a traditional recipe and a "modern" recipe which was significantly more complicated and involved making something like a curd using egg yolks. I wanted to try something new so I went with the traditional method, though it required a mortar and pestle which I don't have (though its on my list of kitchen implements to buy). So, I improvised by making a paste of garlic and salt by smashing it against a cutting board with the flat of my santoku, then used an immersion blender to mix in the olive oil, lemon juice, and an egg yolk (recommended to cut the garlic flavor a bit). The allioli was more of a thin sauce than the thick paste after blending, but as it sat it thickened up and eventually reached a rather nice consistency. Not quite right based on the recipe and reference photos, but it worked well enough for the final dish.

Finally, it was time to make the rice. The dish called for artichoke hearts (I used canned because frozen are very hard to find in my area and fresh are honestly just too much work for me), mushrooms (I used creminis), and cuttlefish cut into strips (I used frozen raw squid, pre-cleaned because I've cleaned whole squid once before and I think it may have traumatized me - NOT pleasant).

The dish started with the squid sauteed in olive oil, followed by the mushrooms and artichokes (I only put in about 2.3 of the artichokes to start, because I knew the canned ones wouldn't hold the shape in the long cooking time and I wanted some actual pieces of artichoke in the finished dish) and a bay leaf. These were sauteed until the mushrooms were starting to soften and shrink and the artichokes took on some color. Then a few heavy spoonfuls of the sofregit were added to the pan and stirred around until everything was uniformly combined.

Then I added some lemon juice and red wine vinegar as a replacement for the white wine called for in the recipe (forgot to buy it - oops!) to deglaze all the yummy browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Once that liquid had mostly boiled off, I added three cups of chicken stock, a cup of arborio rice, and a heavy pinch of saffron.

Let that boil for 5 minutes, then stirred in the reserved artichokes and turned the heat to low and let it simmer until the liquid had been absorbed and the rice was tender, just a hair past al dente. I stirred in a handful of frozen sweet peas for a pop of green color and flavor, a bit of freshly cracked black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, then removed the pan from the heat and let it sit for a few minutes so everything could settle and the last bit of liquid in the pan could be absorbed gently.

To plate, I started with a smear of the allioli on the plate and topped it with a mountain of rice on one side and a little mound of sofregit on the other. J suggested that a few spears of asparagus might have added some welcome color variance and fresh flavor to the plate, and in retrospect I think he was right. next time I do something like this I'll know to include some sort of vibrant green vegetable in the final plating.

Even without it though, this dish was delicious. The rice was surprisingly subtle in flavor, pleasantly savory with an interesting mix of textures (slightly chewy rice, meaty squid thanks to the long cooking time, tender artichokes and mushrooms, and a slight pop from the peas) and flavors (sweet, tangy, savory). The allioli was a perfect condiment, a sharp and pungent foil to the delicate rice, and the sofregit brought everything together with its rich red color and flavor. A bite of rice with a little of each condiment was damn-near perfect.

My only gripe about this dish was actually the squid, as I'm not sure I really enjoyed its texture when cooked this way. It provided an appropriate foil for the other textures of the dish, but I think I prefer my squid to be cooked very briefly so that it stays meltingly tender. If I were to make this again, I'd add the squid closer to the end so that it would retain that texture.

I'd also initially intended to make this outside on the grill (after an entirely successful experiment last week making jambalaya in this way) but was unable to due to an evening thunderstorm, and I think I'd like to try that cooking method next time. I think the slight smoky flavor imparted by cooking over charcoal would be a welcome and appropriate addition to this meal.

All things considered, though, I'd consider this meal a success, and it's been a pleasant way to get back into this blogging hobby. I'm hoping for more of a challenge next month!