Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Entertaining with Ease

Life passes quickly. It's imperative to stop and smell the slow roasted tomatoes - and savor them with friends.

When entertaining I consistently have to remind myself of what’s important: friends first, food second, domestic order a distant third. Erma Bombeck said it best, “If I had my life to live over I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.”

My house is rarely as tidy as I’d like but I still align myself closer to Martha along the Stewart-Ray spectrum. Martha Stewart sets the bar at great food and sophisticated presentation while Rachael Ray eschews elegance all together and suggests the unthinkable: Mini Cheeseburger Salad.

When faced with finite time and infinite aspirations, entertaining comes down to choices. If you have all day you can entertain like Martha. I’ve done it – it’s gorgeous and exhausting and burns me out from hosting subsequent gatherings. If you’d like to entertain with more regularity, which I recommend since it really is fun, then something has got to give. But it doesn’t need to be the food. It’s more important to greet your guests with a welcome calm than an immaculate kitchen.

Other advice:
1. Rely on purveyors to help you out. I usually take a Yes, You Can! approach to cooking. This is the exception to that rule. When you have access to people and products that will be time and stress saving for you, use them. Sushi from your neighborhood counter is a great appetizer (your guests will love you for it) and store-bought sorbets and berries make great desserts.

2. Greeting guests with a drink is a welcome touch. My favorite pours right now are Blood Orange Cocktails (blood orange soda with vodka) and prosecco, though the gents prefer beer or wine.

Here’s a few themed three-course menus I regularly cook from when entertaining. Each one is sophisticated enough to separate you from Everyday mediocrity and simple enough to give you time to enjoy a glass of wine before the doorbell rings.

1. Sushi – allow 4-5 pieces per person
2. Asian Grilled Salmon Salad
3. Lemon and raspberry sorbet

1. Antipasti platter (roast vegetables: beets, red peppers, onions; fresh mozzarella; olives; charcuterie; crostini)
2. Family style pasta: Pesto or Pomodoro
3. Poached pears or simple almond cake or seasonal berries with mascarpone mousse

1. Chips & Guacamole
2. Carnitas or tacos
3. Kahlua Truffles – Yes, you can!

1. Cheese/charcuterie/crackers or baguette
2. Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken or Salmon
3. Brownie sundae – make or purchase good brownies and chocolate sauce. Serve on a plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and top with chocolate sauce.

One more thing:
“Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.” - Erma Bombeck

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Making Crêpes for a Weekend Breakfast

Crêpes get a bad rap for being difficult. Heck, I basically agree. My family eats such a quantity of them that whoever is on cooking detail is stapled to the stove while the rest of the family languishes about eating and barking out orders: One cinnamon! Two raspberry!

That can be difficult.

Kitchen equipment purveyors exacerbate the perception by selling crêpe pans. You don't need one. I just use nonstick omelet pans.

The truly difficult thing about crêpes is waiting. Once the batter is mixed it must sit in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes. This gives the gluten time to relax after whisking the heck out of the batter. Gluten is a protein in flours. Different flours have different amounts of gluten. Cake and pastry flours, which go into more delicate bakery items, have less protein. Bread flour has higher protein, giving breads and bagels a dense and chewy bite. All purpose flour is right in the middle. If you cooked a crêpe right after mixing it would be rubbery and unpleasant.

When I cut butter from my diet I thought for sure I wouldn't be able to make crêpes. Happily, I discovered canola oil makes a fine substitute. I often have a hard time with substitutes, thinking them at best silly and at worst an affront to cuisine. Both add necessary fat - canola is just a healthier one - and very often canola oil quietly replaces butter much like a televised awards ceremony seat filler. Feel free to re-substitute an equal measure of melted, unsalted butter if the substitution offends. I won't lie: butter provides a better taste and texture. But try substitution yourself - you may be surprised.

Print recipe only here

Serves 4-6

Sift together in a large mixing bowl:
• 2 cups flour
• ½ t salt

Add and combine:
• Zest of 2 lemons

Whisk together:
• 6 eggs
• 2 ½ cups nonfat milk
• 3 T canola oil
• 2 t vanilla extract

Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly whisk in the liquid. When completely combined cover and allow to sit for 45 minutes in the refrigerator.

Cooking method
Preheat 1 or 2 nonstick omelet pans over a low-medium low flame.

Spray with high heat canola oil. Holding the pan at an angle, ladle a small amount (about ¼ cup or less) directly into the center of the pan. Tilt slowly to allow the batter to evenly coat the pan.

If this is your first crepe-making venture, allow yourself 2-3 crepes to get a hang of it. Crêpes should be as thin as possible while still coating the entire bottom of the pan. Just experiment with the amount of batter you use.

When the surface looks cooked through (about 45-60 seconds of cooking), slide a spatula around the sides to loosen and flip over. I use my fingers to do this, and sometimes it’s pretty hot, but it’s really the easiest way. Cook the other side for about 10-15 seconds, then flip onto a plate or surface to fill and roll them. I use a cutting board here.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Spring Salad Nicoise

When my children were smaller I always got a chuckle out of watching them play in a sprinkler. They would scamper around the yard shrieking with ecstatic anticipation. How do you describe the absurdity of a child’s thrill with something as predictable as a sprinkler? Will it come around again? Aaaaahhhhh! Here it comes!!!

Though I have discovered the timed rotations of the sprinkler I am equally enthralled by the predictable. Case in point: I am consistently captivated by the change of seasons as if their change were not guaranteed.

I think (I hope) I’m not alone here.

It seemed that the winter of 2008 would never end. It has. It seemed like I’d be eating stew and brussels sprouts and slurpy hot things in bowls forever. But hearty fare has given way to a small bounty of spring vegetables. I’ve been gazing with childlike wonderment at the small bounty of produce suddenly available. Spring greens! Rhubarb! Asparagus!

Salad Niçoise is a favorite spring dinner. Topped with fresh tuna and plated with a variety of color, you’ll hardly recall the long winter from which we’ve emerged.

Salad Niçoise
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

• 1# fresh or 2-3 cans tuna
• Salad greens
• 3-4 tomatoes, quartered
• 1 cup olives - Niçoise olives are traditional. I'm not a fan so I substitute kalamatas.
• Asparagus - roasted or steamed. Green beans can substitute.
• 4 hard boiled eggs, quartered
• 8-10 small Yukon gold potatoes, steamed and sliced. Other smaller variety potatoes can substitute.

• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1/4 cup walnut oil*
• 3-4 T red wine vinegar
• 1 shallot, finely chopped
• 2 t dijon mustard
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 1/2 t honey
• Kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper* to taste

* The walnut oil and white pepper lend a decidedly Provençal flavor to the dressing. You can substitute olive oil and black pepper and still enjoy the dressing.

Roast asparagus. Trim tails (and peel the thicker ones), line them on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper and roast in a 425° oven for about 10 minutes until bright and tender. Cool to room temperature and reserve.

Brush tuna with olive oil, salt and pepper and cook to your liking (grilling or searing both work well here).

Assemble salad ingredients on individual plates. I like to center the greens and then scatter the other ingredients in small piles around the plate. Have fun with the design.

Top each plate with tuna and drizzle with dressing. Serve immediately.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Two Takes on Eggs: the scramble and skillet

People are notoriously picky about how they like their eggs: wet, dry, over medium. It can be as convoluted as a Starbucks order and make any eater sound like Sally Albright.

Enter the scramble and skillet.

A scramble is eggs scrambled up with your choice of meat and vegetables. It's an omelet station in the comfort of your own home (with the added benefit of not having to eat an uncooked omelet). A skillet, pictured above, is just a scramble with potatoes. Both are all sorts of delicious and pretty hard to ruin. Add what you like and cook as long as you like. In our house I take my portion out and allow the rest to cook a bit longer, per my husband's specs. The addition of jalapeno, ham and green onion turn ordinary scrambled eggs into something you'd eat at a great breakfast spot.

Breakfast Scramble
Print recipe only here

Serves 2

10" Nonstick omelet pan
Heat resistant spatula

5 eggs
1/2 cup thick cut ham, cubed
1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, finely chopped
1-2 green onions, finely chopped
1 t canola oil
1 tomato – optional (don’t make a special trip)
Kosher salt

1. In a nonstick pan, heat the canola oil over a medium flame
2. Add the jalapeno and green onion and sweat briefly
3. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs well and reserve
4. Add the ham to the pan and cook for a few minutes
5. Add the tomato when the ham is a bit browned. Cook for a minute or so, until it softens and the color deepens.
6. Add the eggs and a pinch of kosher salt. Allow to sit for a moment.
7. Using a heat resistant spatula, gently scrape the bottom and sides of pan, releasing and turning the cooked eggs. Allow to sit a moment between scraping again. You’re aiming to form large pieces of scrambled egg. Continue to turn and scrape gently until the eggs are cooked to your liking. Serve with a good hot sauce.

Cut potatoes into small dice. Follow Step 1 above, but add the potatoes to the pan and cook for about 10 minutes (nearly cooked through) before proceeding to Step 2. Follow remaining method instructions in order.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pigs on the Video Bar

Owing to a small household disaster I haven’t been able to cook the last few days. I couldn’t even make coffee. My Bodum thermal French press sat shivering like the little match girl behind sheets of protective plastic while a drywall guy patched my ceiling. The low point in a week that included death (of a kitchen, now resurrected) and taxes (blechk) was served to me in a 12-ounce paper cup: Starbuck’s new Pike Place Roast. If you haven’t tried it yet, well done. One, it’s always better to avoid advertising gimmicks and two, this stuff is no good.

Anyhoo, I spent the free time I accumulated not cooking watching the Swedish Chef. I also included him in the video bar (below, right) for your entertainment. I wrote awhile back about Food TV, namely how it’s failed to captivate me (well, Nigella captivates, but I think she could be hanging drywall under those soft lights of hers and enchant viewers) and asking what it's done for you lately.

If you’ll allow a Muppet digression…doesn’t John Hodgeman, the comedian who plays PC guy on Mac commercials look just like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew the Muppet scientist – Johnny to Beaker’s Ed McMahon?? (Disclosure: I had to Google “Muppet scientist” to produce the doctor’s name, but “Beaker” is burned on the brain.)

photo courtesy American Public Media

photo courtesy Muppet Wiki

The Swedish Chef accomplishes what food TV should: convey to the viewership that cooking is fun (and frequently funny). The Muppet has to have been based on Julia Child who defined food television and helped create the modern celebrity chef. She demystified the professional kitchen and haute cuisine for her viewers and arguably the country. She was likable, funny, and human. Possibly if it weren’t for her I would never have entered the culinary profession. That’s what Food TV has done for me.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pancake Hat-Trick: Cornmeal, cinnamon and blueberries for the win

Good things come in threes. This is my third pancake recipe following Crack of Dawn Pancakes and Daddy Pancakes. And the cornmeal, cinnamon and fresh blueberries (or in the case above, a quick blueberry compote since it's too early for good fresh blueberries) combine here for a great morning breakfast.

I developed this recipe when I moved away from Crested Butte, Colorado. I can't remember the name of the restaurant that served them, but I ate them every weekend for awhile. The cornmeal makes them heartier than your average buttermilk pancake.

In the summer I toss in fresh blueberries. Don't try it with frozen blueberries - they get all weird when the water is released.

Cornmeal Pancakes with Blueberries and Cinnamon
Print recipe only here

Whisk together (yes, dry whisking works well, too. The cornmeal helps break up any flour lumps):

* ¾ cup all-purpose flour
* ¾ cup cornmeal
* 1 T sugar
* 1 t baking powder
* ½ t baking soda
* ¼ t salt
* 2 t cinnamon

Whisk together in a small mixing bowl:

* 1 egg
* 1 cup buttermilk
* 1 T canola oil

Swiftly combine the liquid and dry ingredients without over mixing.

Cook on a preheated griddle. If using blueberries, ladle the batter onto the griddle, then scatter a handful of berries on top.

Quick Blueberry Compote
Whisk together over medium-low heat:
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
2T blueberry preserves (I like Bonne Maman Wild Blueberry preserves)
2 T sugar
Fresh lemon juice, to taste (start with about half a lemon)

Bring to a gentle boil, simmer for a few minutes. Taste and add more sugar or lemon as needed.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Throwing a Lean Taco Party

It didn’t take reinventing the wheel to create a healthy recipe for traditional beef tacos. It just took some good lean ground beef. I use Trader Joes 96/4 ground beef for everything and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tacos are an easy weeknight preparation. There are some critical components to add to your grocery list – namely ingredients for guacamole which is integral. I don’t put any dairy on my tacos so the richness of guacamole is an obvious substitute.

Beef Tacos
Print recipe only here

Taco Shells – I like both the 365 label at Whole Foods and the Bearitos label of organic yellow corn taco shells. Blue Corn has been getting some good press lately for being higher in protein and having a lower glycemic index than white corn. Bearitos does make a blue corn taco shell and I bet they're good, too.

For the beef:
1 pound lean ground beef – 96/4
½ medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1-2 T chili powder
2-3 t ground cumin
3-4 T tomato sauce (I keep the 8 oz cans for this)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium sauté pan or skillet, sauté the onion and garlic in a tablespoon of canola oil. Work over a medium heat.

After a few minutes add the ground beef. Turn up the heat a bit and brown until cooked though.

Add the dry spices, salt and pepper and cook for another few minutes. This helps release the full flavor of the spices.

Add the tomato sauce and cook another few minutes. Adjust seasoning if necessary and serve in warmed taco shells. I heat mine in the toaster oven for a few minutes on a low baking temperature – like 200-250° so they don’t brown.

Serve with:
• Shredded lettuce
• Salsa or hot sauce
Spanish rice

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

6 Other Ways to Enjoy Pesto

The title introduces
other ways since I've already covered my most common pesto preparation, Chicken Pesto Pasta with Haricots Verts.

On Monday I was planning to make salmon salad with pesto dressing. This fell apart when I ran out of prep time. But the dinner morphed into something we hadn’t enjoyed in awhile: roast salmon with pesto. I served it with a baby spinach salad and artichokes. It took me about 25 minutes to prepare and it was really good. Here are the components:

Roast Salmon with Pesto Sauce
Salmon – Rub with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast at about 375° for 10-12 minutes. When plating, top with a spoonful of pesto and spread evenly, allowing some of the salmon to still be visible around the edges.
Steamed Artichokes
Baby Spinach Salad

Another dinner we haven't enjoyed in awhile is pesto pizza made on Alvarado Street sprouted pizza crusts. For a quick, healthy meal make a half batch of pesto (per one pizza crust), top with mozzarella and bake at 450° for about 5-6 minutes or until mozzarella is melted. If only I could persuade Whole Foods to carry the crusts.

I make pesto fresh every time because it doesn't retain its awesomeness once it has sat in the fridge. If you want to test that opinion and refrigerate your leftovers transfer the same to a small bowl, spread to make an even surface, and cover with a generous pour of olive oil. The oil will act as an air barrier and will help retain color and flavor. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap or a fitting lid. The items listed below make excellent use of any leftovers:

1. Make it into a salad dressing with romaine, chicken, jicama, and lots of salad veggies. For dressing take 1/4 cup pesto and add ½ cup olive oil and 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, or more to taste.
2. Slathered crostini for an appetizer;
3. Stirred into Minestrone or other soup just before service;
4. Tossed with steamed green beans as a side dish

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Monday, April 7, 2008

5 Steps to a Better Pot of Coffee

Harmless. That’s what you call a non-fat decaf latte in a London café. I wish it would catch on here; a double tall harmless latte is so much quicker on the tongue. Plus, if you feel like showboating your cockney accent you can call it an ‘armless.

I’m a bigger fan of harmful coffee. Not so harmful that it burns holes in the gut or anything. Not quite as harmful as the sludge they brew at Peets (great beans but beware the drip!), and nowhere near as harmful as the angry brown water churned out by my old drip coffeemaker.

I’ve spent some time (too much time) perfecting the pot of coffee and have boiled it down to 5 essentials:

1. Meet your maker. I really enjoy the coffee from my Bodum thermal press. It keeps coffee warm longer than the glass variety and I don’t have to worry about breaking it. I picked up mine at Bed Bath & Beyond with one of the discount coupons they’re so generous with.
2. Know your roaster. Peets has been a favorite for many years, though they’ve changed their tune about the importance of fresh –roasting and the quality has slipped. The beans were way better before the company grew larger. I’m looking for a good micro roaster in Chicago.
3. Get a grinder. The grind is critical here - it needs to be coarse. I have a basic Krups grinder that I’ve been using since college. I just pulse the beans 9-10 times (8 pulses is easier on the plunger but I like the richness of the coffee with 9-10 pulses).What I really want is one of those groovy burr grinders. Alternately, have your coffee ground for French press when you purchase it. Once ground measure out 2 tablespoons per 8 oz. (1 cup) water and add to press.
4. Call your kettle. Our tea kettle lives on the back burner of our stovetop. It never moves. To make French press you need hot – but not quite boiling – water.
5. Set your timer. Four minutes steeping time is standard. Plunge and serve.

Mmmm…I’m enjoying a cup right now. Nothing better.

Further reading:
Starbucks co-founder and former Peet's owner Jerry Baldwin on why you need a press pot

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hearty Vegetarian: Herb Fritatta con Pepperonata

Usually when I eat a vegetarian meal that doesn’t involve pasta I think, this is nice, but I’m going to need to eat again in 15 minutes. I’m sure my vegetarian friends don’t agree, but plants don’t quite satisfy. Obviously frittatas aren’t plants. They aren’t vegan either. But they do constitute a hearty vegetarian meal – and a delicious one at that.

Fresh herbs and a sweet-sour pepperonata make this a unique sandwich. And it’s easy to make year round. I made it recently after harvesting herbs from my thriving AeroGarden . Pepperonata is like a cooked antipasto or Mediterranean chutney. It's comprised of red pepper, red onion, tomato and garlic. A splash of red wine vinegar gives it a tangy punch.

The herb frittata comes - almost without alteration - from Evan Kleiman’s Pizza Pasta Panini, a cookbook spawned by her LA restaurant, Angeli Caffè.

Herb Fritatta con Pepperonata
Print recipe only here
Serves 4

In 1-2 T olive oil, sauté over medium heat:
3-4 garlic cloves, pressed or finely chopped
½ red onion, finely chopped

After a few minutes, add:
2 red peppers, cut into long, ½-inch wide strips

Sauté for another few minutes, stirring frequently, until the peppers soften. Add:
¼ cup red wine vinegar

Cover and cook for a few minutes. Then add:
3 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped OR ½ cup Muir Glen canned fire-roasted crushed tomatoes

Cook uncovered for another few minutes until the tomatoes become saucy and the mixture thickens a bit. Add:
1-2 T sugar
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste

Set the pepperonata aside to cool.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together:
8 eggs

¼ cup Parmesan
¾ cup mixed fresh herbs
Pinch kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Preheat 1 T olive oil in a 10-12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Also spray the surface with canola spray.

Lower the heat to medium-low.

Pour the eggs in and using high heat spatula (or wooden spoon) stir eggs gently, scraping up sides and bottom, until the mixture is somewhat set (more solid than liquid).

To cook the top I find it's easiest to place the whole pan under the broiler – just keep a eye on it! Or feel free to attempt flipping (sliding the frittata out onto a plate and flipping that way works well).

When cooked, slide the frittata out onto a plate or cutting board.

Assembling frittata sandwich
Prep baguette or ciabatta, toasting if desired (you can also melt some provolone or mozzarella on the bread).

Drizzle a bit of the pepperonata sauce on the bottom half of the bread. Cut a wedge of frittata for each and place a piece on the bread. Top with a spoonful of pepperonata and serve.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Coriander Dry Rubbed Steaks

Before I moved to Chicago a native warned me about the weather. Winter was too long, summer too hot and spring lasted approximately 48 hours.

It’s a tough cooking season, too. I’ve grown tired of winter food (soups, stews, slurpy hot things served in bowls) but it would be jumping the gun to cook from a summer menu, even if many items on my summer shopping list have started popping up at market.

This time of year I like to cook with lots of herbs, fresh and dried. Coriander Dry Rubbed Steaks and Herb Frittata con Pepperonata were both on the menu recently and deserve attention here. We’ll look at the dry rub today and the pepperonata tomorrow.

The steak is a direct result of a similar plate at La Cucina de Luz in Telluride where Lucas made it with a buffalo strip steak. I’ve done it that way too but usually opt for lean NY strip steaks over which I have more control at the grill.

A dry rub is just a blend of dry seasonings with no oil. Here the coriander and garlic comprise a thin crust on the steak and serves to lock in flavor and juice in the lean steak. Ripe avocado offers a nice contrast in the mouth.

Coriander Dry-Rubbed Steaks with Avocado Salsa

Print recipe only here

* One strip steak per person
* Coriander and garlic powder
* One ripe avocado
* Fresh cilantro
* One lime

Preheat grill.

On a sheet pan, measure out a heaping tablespoon of coriander and about 2 t garlic powder.

Add a pinch of kosher salt and a several turns of fresh ground pepper and stir to combine.

Trim all excess fat from steaks and coat the entire surface with the rub.

Rub grill with a thin film of grapeseed or canola oil and grill steaks (if desired you can coat steaks earlier in the day and reserve in the fridge).

Dice avocado and reserve in a small serving bowl. Add:
• juice of a lime on top
• pinch of kosher salt
• 1 T chopped fresh cilantro

Allow steaks to rest for 5-10 minutes after grilling. Top with avocado and serve.

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