Friday, May 30, 2008

Egg Soft Taco: the best breakfast you haven't tried

I did my Memorial Day weekend shopping at Pete's Market in Pilsen (the Mexican community on the lower west side of Chicago). What a treat! I picked up some glorious produce, a great selection of dairy (cotija, crema and queso fresco) hunks of roast pork and piles of fresh corn tortillas. Nearly every meal since has employed the corn tortilla in some form.

The breakfast featured above is known as the Egg Soft Taco. It cannot be beat. Scramble up some eggs, heat up your fresh corn tortillas on the stove top or griddle. I prefer the former. Toss a tortilla directly on the burner with the flame at a medium heat. Leave it to warm through for a minute or so then flip, using tongs or - for the brave - fingers. Cook the other side until softened or a bit charred and then transfer to a towel to keep warm. Divide the eggs between the tortillas, shake on your favorite hot sauce (Cholula and de cero's hot sauce are my faves right now) and serve immediately. As for quantities, I recommend one egg per tortilla.

I cannot recommend Pete's Market in Pilsen highly enough. The produce was spectacular ($.58 for a perfect avocado!), good organic selection, roast pork carnitas were great (with the caveat that I did remove a lot of fat while shredding it) and fresh corn tortillas?!? C'mon! Go shopping in Pilsen. You won't be disappointed. And get some caramel lollipops for dessert. Mmmm...cajeta.

Pete's Fresh Market
2526 W Cermak Rd
Chicago, IL
(773) 254-8400

* Warm thanks to Mariana for making the Pete's introduction.

Read Full Post

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Raspberry Breakfast Bars

It was 89° yesterday in Chicago. It was 44° this morning at 7am. That sad fact, coupled with a return to school following a leisurely long weekend, told me that I needed to show my kids some extra love this morning. They were ecstatic I chose to show it in the form of Raspberry Breakfast Bars.

These lack nutritional value entirely, and are perhaps better suited to a tea time or midday snack. All the same, I often make them in the morning for afternoon consumption only to have half the pan devoured right out of the oven.

You can make these pretty quickly. Having streusel on hand in your freezer definitely helps.

Raspberry Breakfast Bars

Print recipe only here

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 350°

Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with canola spray

• ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter

In a small mixing bowl combine:
• 2 cup flour
• 1/3 cup powdered sugar
• Pinch salt

Add butter to dry ingredients and stir with a fork to combine.

Press the mixture into the baking pan evenly. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden.

Remove from oven and spread a layer of raspberry jam on the crust (I probably use about ¼ cup or a bit more).

Top with about ½ cup streusel and return to the oven for about 15 minutes or until the jam bubbles up and the streusel is golden brown.

Combine in a mixer with the paddle attachment:
• 1 ¼ cup flour
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1 cup oats
• 1 T cinnamon
• ½ t salt
• ½ t nutmeg

Add and mix gently for 2-3 minutes until just combined:
• ¼ cup (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed

To use, press a handful in your palm and squeeze together to form clumps. Scatter clumps over surface of muffins, pies, tarts and the like.

Streusel keeps well in the fridge and in the freezer indefinitely. Be sure that it’s well covered to protect it from absorbing odors.

Read Full Post

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Happy Asparagus Season

The Chi-city farmers markets are up and running. It’s early, of course. This week was heavy on baked goods and potted herbs. As for produce, it was mostly about asparagus - thick ones, thin ones, purple ones, green ones. I have never tried the purple ones. James Peterson's Vegetables cookbook reports the purple ones turn green when cooked and taste the same as well. I chose a few bunches of thin stalks and served them up alongside lamb burgers last night.

I didn’t see the white ones that Europeans like so much. The white asparagus (spargel, in German) isn’t albino; it’s deprived of light while being grown. Cauliflower lacks color for the same reason, but with white asparagus the effect is achieved artificially by keeping a cover of dirt on the stalks. No light means no chlorophyll and no color. To read more about the glories of white asparagus (and find recipes) check out Delicious Days - a food blog run by a couple in Munich.

After years of grilling asparagus and losing a few through the grates I now only roast them on a baking sheet with a little olive oil, salt and pepper (400° for about 7 minutes). So delicious and simple.

The only thing I dislike about asparagus is the strange smells it causes in [insert your favorite word for pee, wee-wee, tinkle or urine here]. I had long understood that people digested asparagus differently and were either excretors and non-excretors of asparagus metabolites (sulfuric compounds). Further, not every excretor could smell the metabolites, breaking down the excretors into subgroups of perceivers and nonperceivers. But an Israeli study showed while all individuals excrete chemicals that make the urine smell, only about 40% can smell the chemicals. If you enjoy asparagus and have no idea what I’m talking about than you’re likely a nonperceiver. Or at least further along on the evolutionary chain for keeping your head out of the toilet.

Fröhliche Spargelsaison!

Read Full Post

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Broccoli Rabe: It's not easy eating green

The title is misleading; I really enjoy broccoli rabe. What's true is that my husband and children find it repellent.

Broccoli rabe (pron: rob) is not a type of broccoli. Both are members of the large Brassicaceae family but rapini (as it’s also known) is of the species Brassica rapa along with turnip, napa cabbage and bok choy. Broccoli hangs with cauliflower, brussles sprouts and kale in the Brassica oleracea species.

When I cooked and served it recently no one cared about its scientific classification. My loved ones do not resemble Barbara Kingsolver’s gleefully omnivorous family (as chronicled in her still great book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). No, my loved ones hated broccoli rabe with a fervor usually reserved for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Don’t tell them, but I only cooked half the large bunch. I plan to sneak some into a spring soup au pistou tonight.

For the adventurous - or unsuspecting - here’s how to prepare broccoli rabe as a side dish.

Sautéed Broccoli Rabe
Print recipe only here

In a sauté pan, heat (over a medium flame):
• 1-2 T olive oil
• Pinch chili flakes

Add 2 cloves garlic, smashed slightly and sauté until the garlic is lightly browned and fragrant.

Add one bunch rapini - about 12 ounces and cook for about 5-6 minutes until tender, tossing gently every so often. I prefer it cooked al dente; cook longer if you like.

Add a generous pinch of kosher salt and serve.

Read Full Post

Friday, May 16, 2008

On Selecting Artisan Cheese

Back to front: Adante Dairy's Piccolo, Bucheron, Bayley Hazen Blue

My last post discussed moderation and portion control in daily eating, and weekend feasts. Cheese is the best part of the feast. You can enjoy it first, you can enjoy it last. It goes well with crisp Prosecco or a deep red wine. My weekend plans involve tucking into a sparkling Muscato and a selection of cheeses from my favorite cheese counter in the city.

Having a great cheese shop at which to shop makes all the difference in what you'll bring home. As nice as Whole Foods makes their cheese counter look, I’d sooner toss $50 (₤1) into the wind than waste another dollar (3,000 Zambia kwacha) on poorly kept cheese. When not stored or cared for properly (temperature, rotation, wrapping each need to be taken into account) cheese will suffer greatly.

At a great shop chances are the person at the counter will be happy to teach you what they know, allow you to sample a variety of cheeses and send you home with items you will be excited to serve.

A very simple way to put together a cheese board is to pick a selection from each mammal: sheep, cow and goat, and then round the board off with a blue. I like to serve cheeses with a good baguette or Carr’s Whole Wheat crackers – they have a nice heft and sweetness to them and are a wonderful platform for any cheese.

The cheese shown above are, left to right, Piccolo (a triple crème made from Jersey cow’s milk and crème fraiche from Adante Dairy in Petaluma; Bucheron (delicate, semi-firm goat’s milk log from France’s Loire Valley); Bayley Hazen Blue (a raw cow’s milk, Stilton-like blue from Jaspar Hill Farm in Vermont). All three were lovely (I’m not a huge fan of Stilton, so the Bayley Hazen was my least favorite).

I’m very much looking forward to trying Adante Dairy’s Bel Canto, which presents like a Valançay (a pyramid with a flat top). The Valançay, named after a town in central France, has a story behind it. It’s a goat’s milk cheese with an ash-washed rind and was originally a full pyramid. Napoleon passed through Valançay on his way home from his failed conquest in Egypt. The pyramid-shaped cheese must’ve mocked him; he took his sword to it, removing the peak.

Either that or the cheese maker’s imbecile apprentice dropped the cheese form. (Isn’t it way more amusing to think of Napoleon being rattled by an arrogant fromage?)

Chi-city cheese sources:
2945 N Broadway Chicago, IL 60657
773 472 4781

Fox & Obel
401 E. Illinois Chicago IL, 60611
312 410 7301

Read Full Post

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How Then Shall We Eat?

Given global hunger it’s a sad state of affairs that overweight is such a problem in America. Rising food costs could likely make it a bigger problem as the cheapest consumables are the highest in fat, sugar, and starch.

We need a better national sense of What Not to Eat (or at least an eponymous TV show) and access to affordable healthy foods to trim America's girth.

The most practical recommendations on How to Eat that I've read recently came in the form of an introduction to Mexican Everyday from Rick Bayless (his book and his introduction) and Jane Brody’s New Year missive in the New York Times Well Blog. Bayless advocates sensible choices on a daily basis and enjoying weekly feasts. Brody cuts thru the clutter of weight-loss advice with simplicity:

“And really, it doesn’t matter whether you choose a diet based on your genotype or the phases of the moon, or whether you cut down on sugars and starches or fats. If you consume fewer calories you need to maintain your current weight, you will lose.”
Controlling consumption is key. As we age our muscle mass depletes, only to be replaced by fat. Muscle mass and caloric needs are directly related: muscle burns more calories than fat. The effect of muscle loss is a lower metabolism and, if caloric intake isn’t curtailed, increased body fat. Maintaining an ideal weight means eating less every year.

For those of us who love to eat, this sounds horrible.

Luckily, there's good news. If you work (via strength training) to create or maintain muscle mass you’ll be able to enjoy extra calories without losing them to fat. The trick is finding that balance - how many calories, how much strength training.

I’m still trying to find that balance and there’s great fun in the process. Especially when enjoying those weekend feasts. More on those later in the week.

Read More About It:

New York Times Well Guide
Mayo Clinic Food & Nutrition
USDA My Plate (the re-tooled Food Pyramid)

Read Full Post

Monday, May 12, 2008

Creating Your House Salad

In the home kitchen it seems people who really enjoy cooking turn out a fine salad.

Your house salad depends entirely on your tastes. It's fashioned with some balance to the sweet and salty elements in every dressing. I tend to pour about 3 T vinegar to 5 T olive oil. Since your dressing has to season a whole bowl of greens, always add salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Sugar, too - it balances out the acidity of the vinegar. Other additions (Gorgonzola, Parmesan, fresh pear or pomegranate, garlic, dijon) or substitutions (fresh lemon or lime juice instead of the vinegar; using different oils) depend on the mood I'm in as much as what else is on the menu that night.

I'm often asked what brands to chose for oils and vinegars. I just love Colavita - they're so dependable for all their products (they produce oils and vinegars). I exclusively use their aged red wine, Champagne, and balsamic vinegars. As for olive oil, I've been really happy with a relatively inexpensive Spanish olive oil from Trader Joe's. It comes in a clear glass bottle, squarish in shape. Always use the best quality oil for your salads. Since they're not cooked you'll get great flavor and all the health benefits.

As much as my family could live on romaine and red leaf alone, I like a variety of greens: spring mix, baby spinach, arugula, frisee, and butter or Bibb. Usually the market dictates the salad. I buy what looks good and cook accordingly. Of course standbys like romaine are always available which is one reason the Chicken Caesar Salad is such a family friendly meal.

Eight Favorite Pinch Salads
1. House Salad
2. Caesar
3. Seatown Salad
4. Greek Salad
5. Spicy Baby Spinach
6. Asian Salad
7. Balsamic Vinaigrette
8. Spring Salad Nicoise

Care to share your favorite dressings?

Read Full Post

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

On Being a Careful Consumer and Spring Lamb Stew

The main reason I went to cooking school was to learn how to truss a chicken and butcher stuff. This grosses some people out. It behooves the carnivore to know just what it takes to bring the main course to the dinner table – the whole bloody story. When we are mindful of the animal’s life (not just the life it has yielded, but the animal’s quality of life in terms on confinement and feed) we are more responsible and careful consumers.

Earlier this year my good friend friend Jeff began neighborhood cooperative farm out in Washington. They started with chicks. In a matter of months Jeff’s become something of a slaughter master. Bainbridge Island photographer Stephen Sloan captured the day with a series of photos that begin with a shot of a dozen or so plump, gorgeous chickens, grazing freely, and end with a little boy, age 6 or 7, carrying home the family dinner in a clean Ziploc bag.

Looking at the slaughter day photos made me realize that my animal protein purchases don’t provide much evidence of a completely careful consumer. Because of dietary restrictions I only purchase leaner proteins - flank steak, leg of lamb, boneless/skinless chicken breasts. The eater in me has come to terms with this but the Champion of the Good Farmer in me wants to patronize the beef famers at my local farmers market even though I cannot assess the saturated fat content of their product. Were I a neighbor I surely would’ve purchased and eaten Jeff’s chicken, but felt at odds with the mandates of a lower fat diet.

It’s hard - and costly - to be a careful consumer, especially when balancing footprint and health considerations. For me it means shopping as locally as I can. It means saying no to gorgeous, organic produce that is more well-traveled than I am. It means purchasing leaner cuts from animals that lived a natural animal life and died at the hands of grateful consumers. A natural follow-up and future post will examine how the high-and-rising cost of healthier lean foods prevents the population at large from careful consumerism.

Returning to where this started, a home cook may have no real use for butchering skills, especially when she only buys boneless leg of lamb. But the experience has solidified the this former cooking school student's connection between the animal and the main feature in a spring stew.

Spring Lamb Stew
Print recipe only here

As an adolescent traveling in Ireland I admired the sheep dotting the landscape by day and dined on lamb chops or stew by night. This routine suffered a brief interruption when my sister pointed out the disconnect, only to resume 24 hours hence. My recipe is adapted from one printed in a Williams Sonoma catalog.

In a Dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot heat 2 T olive oil over a medium flame.

Working in batches, brown:
• 2 # boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of all visible fat and cut into 2-inch pieces

When all the lamb is browned return to the pot and add:
• ½ medium yellow onion, chopped
• 2 shallots, chopped

Cook for a few minutes until translucent. Add:
• 1 T flour

Stir and cook flour for 1-2 minutes. Add:
• 1 cup dry white wine
• 1 ¼ cups water
• 1 T beef base or demi glace
• 1 small bay leaf

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for about 15 minutes. Add:
• 2 cloves garlic, smashed
• Small bunch baby carrots, peeled (the ones with the greens still attached, but trim the greens down to about 1 cm)
• 6 baby turnips, peeled

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir, cover and allow to simmer another 30-4 minutes. Add:
• Small bunch asparagus, top 4 inches only – trimmed down to 2” pieces

Simmer 5 minutes until asparagus are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Read Full Post

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tabouli Time

It’s full on warm today in Chicago; the AC came on automatically in my car this afternoon. I love these warm days of spring. The new leaves are turning a deeper green, promising warmer days ahead. I’ve started planning my container gardens. All I can think about are the summer fruits and vegetables I’ve missed so much. In the middle of Whole Foods I thought Tabouli! There will be tabouli tonight! I sped over to the bulk foods aisle and filled a bag with bulgar wheat, tabouli’s principal ingredient.

Bulgar is durum wheat that has been parboiled and had the bran removed. Despite the de-branning, buglar is considered a nutrient rich cereal, with a low glycemic index (low GI foods release glucose more slowly and steadily).

The Arabic salad also known as tabbouleh is a heavily dependent on access to good ripe tomatoes. I make mine with garlic, lemon juice, parsley and tomato. Because cut tomatoes need to be consumed quickly, leftover or day-old tabouli is never delicious. When my kitchen was in disrepair a few weeks ago I sampled the tabouli from a new restaurant nearby whose friendly proprietors made me optimistic about the quality of their food. Turned out they’re more charming than talented. The tabouli was not fresh and thus inedible. Shortchanged, I’ve had a hankering for the good stuff ever since.

I'm often asked how to serve it. I think of it as an Arabic micro-panzanella, a bread salad. I'd never eat bread salad with bread, so I eat tabouli as a side salad. Others can't resist having good pita bread on hand. Certainly a pita stuffed with sliced lemon chicken and several spoonfuls of tabouli would make a delightful sandwich.

Print recipe only here

Serves 6-8
Combine, cover and let stand 20 minutes:
• 1 cup dry bulgar wheat
• 1 ½ cup boiling water

Add and combine:
• 1 ½ t salt
• ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
• 1 T garlic, pressed or minced
• 2 T olive oil

Cover and refrigerate 2-3 hours. Then add:
• 2 cups chopped tomato, seeded
• 1 cup parsley, finely chopped
• Fresh ground pepper

Taste, adjust seasoning as necessary and serve.

Read Full Post

Friday, May 2, 2008

Delicious Kung Pao Chicken (宫爆鸡丁)

Lucky us - we have so many choices when looking for a recipe. But how do you know which to choose?

When I need a recipe I start online with a basic Google search. I'll run a food blog search, too, if the Google search seems inadequate but Google does a decent job of picking up recipes from food blogs. Open several browser tabs with a different recipe in each and skim them. I immediately make cuts based on the ingredients or how convoluted they sound, or if it's immediately apparent that the recipe author hasn't a clue about what they're doing.

In the case of searching for recipe for Kung Pao I read 10 or so recipes. I immediately closed out recipes that called for powdered ginger and carrots since neither have a place here. I also jettisoned a few that called for marinating the chicken. Really? you're thinking. What could possibly be bad about a marinade? Nothing. I just find I don't tend to cook recipes where I have to make both a marinade and a sauce. I prefer to sauté the chicken with lots of garlic and ginger and let flavors infuse that way. Also, it takes time and I wanted a quicker recipe.

The last few were discredited for listing water as a sauce ingredient or for calling for just a few teaspoons of liquids for the sauce. I like to have lots of sauce to drizzle on my rice. Plus, I'm still getting used to cooking on my carbon steel wok from Chinatown. It seems a bit thirsty and sauces dissipate quickly. I can almost hear the water sauce recipe author shouting, "I told you that you needed water to compensate for the heat of the wok!"

In the end I chose a recipe that I had stashed in my cookbook from a 2002 Food and Wine magazine. I also like Rasa Malaysias recipes, but in this case she calls for Shaoxing wine as an ingredient and I have been unable to procure it. Shaoxing wine is a Chinese rice wine. In the past I have substituted mirin or dry sherry or a combination, but I want to find the real thing. I'll have to get help next time I'm in Chinatown.

Kung Pao Chicken (宫爆鸡丁)
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

Mix together in a small bowl:

* ½ cup orange juice
* ¼ cup rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
* ¼ cup soy sauce or tamari
* 1 T sugar
* 2 t cornstarch

Cut chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks, pat dry and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt. Reserve.

In a wok or large skillet heat:

* 1 T canola oil

Add to the wok and sauté:

* 8 small dried red chilis, or 2-3 t chili flakes
* 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or pressed
* 2 T fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated

Add the chicken to the wok and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until browned all over. Transfer to a bowl and reserve.

Add 1 T canola oil to the wok and heat. When hot add:

* ½ red bell pepper, sliced in thin strips
* ½ green bell pepper, sliced in thin strips
* 1 small onion, halved and sliced crosswise

When the peppers have softened (allow about 5 minutes cooking time), add the chicken back to the wok and stir to combine. Heat thru and cook everything together for a few minutes.

Add the sauce to the pan and cook until thickened, another minute or two. Stir in:

* ½ cup roasted peanuts or cashews
* 1 t sesame oil

Taste for seasoning and serve with basmati or other long-grain rice.

Read Full Post