Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nuts: The holiday slow food

Adapted from the Pinch archives

We always have nuts around. Of the already-been-shelled variety, almonds, plain and smoked, and peanuts (GORP is a favorite household snack) are in steady supply. There's always a small tin of nuts in my glove box. A handful of nuts has gotten my children (by “my children” I mean me) through many an episode of food anxiety.*

In the summer we eat a lot of peanuts in the shell - either at Wrigley or at home watching the game on WGN. Sunflower seeds, also in the shell, are a summer snack when we’re camping or on a road trip. But it’s the holiday nuts that I get really excited about. Each year, right around November 1, I pull down a pewter challis from its perch on the shelf above my cookbooks and fill it with mixed nuts - walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts - all in their pretty shells. We have a growing fleet of nutcrackers. My favorite is an olive wood screw turning one that I got my daughter out of a Montessori catalog.

Maybe it’s the excitement of the season, but something about cracking my own nuts and enjoying no more than five or six of them in one sitting makes for a delightful seasonal tradition. And this is what slow food is really all about - slowing down, enjoying our food more. It’s not about munching a handful of nuts between frenzied errands around town.

Slow down this season. Enjoy your food, whatever it may be.

*food anxiety - [food ang-zahy-i-tee] -noun
1. Distress or psychic tension caused by fear of one’s next meal not coming quickly enough.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Audacity of the Cookie Exchange

I have thoughts about cookie exchanges. See, this is why I have a blog. I'm more of a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell person. Some people are Tellers. They give you every life detail before you’ve even gotten a chance to introduce yourself or ask for directions. I have my Teller moments. My husband contends I'm guilty of sharing my hopes and dreams with the UPS guy. I wish I were making this up. So does the UPS guy.

In a regular conversation - as opposed to a blog post - I don’t tend to tell too much unless I’m asked. Then, the flood gates open. I’ve sensed your interest and intend to cure you of it, permanently.

What I’m trying to say is that no one has ever asked my opinion on cookie exchanges and it’s burning a hole in my esophagus. Pinch protects you and me both - me from maxillofacial injury and you because you can skip this post if you like.

But about the cookies.

I attend an annual Christmas cookie exchange that I’m partly responsible for. By partly, I mean that it wasn’t my idea, only that I set the date for the group. It’s next week.

I have nothing against cookies, Christmas or otherwise. One of my life goals is to produce a French macaron that rivals that of the amazing Ladurée. I sampled macarons from Bouchon Bakery while in Napa last month. While quite good, I was surprised by their size. Thomas Keller obviously took notes from Alice Medrich regarding the enlargement of French confections. I don’t think of Keller or Medrich as part of the American supersizing problem, but the reality is that AM created the American truffle, in its gargantuan proportion, and TK’s macarons are close to four times the size of the French counterpart.

But I digress.

The point of the exchange is to expose yourself/family to different cookies than the ones in your repertoire. No point in everyone trading gingerbread men. It’s all about variety. Rugelach. Amaretti. Pfeffernussen. Biscotti. Shortbread. Linzer.

It is NOT about one-upping your friends. Indeed, the messgage, “Your sugar cookies are swell and all but my Pecan Shortbread are better,” is not at all in the spirit of Christmas.

Forrest Gump was wrong; life is like a cookie exchange. Some people will put lots of time into their cookies; some won’t. Some people will buy cookies at Safeway; some will buy them at Ladurée (I’m going to Paris for THAT cookie exchange). Some will arrive empty handed and leave laden; some will bake for days and leave the spoils for their friends. Some people won't eat a single cookie this year and others will overdo it.

We know life is too short. It's simultaneously too short not to enjoy cookies and too short to complain that our bodies look like we've eaten too many cookies. But there’s something more substantial, too. Do we have friends who will send us home with cookies when we didn’t bring any to the table? Do we have a healthy diet and body image? Do we share our lives, time and talents with others? Do we endeavor to sweeten a life besides our own?

Oh, the audacity of the cookie exchange!

Favorite cookies for the season:
Chewy Ginger Cookies
Christmas Press Cookies
Coconut Macaroons (shown above)
Cornmeal Christmas Cookies
Triple Chocolate Cookies

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pinch Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday guide! Last year, readers admonished me for failing to produce a good list of ideas. Here they are. Many of these items are in the Pinch kitchen. If they're not, they're on my list of things that should be.

Thanks to AP for allowing me to photograph her hilarious kitchen plaque. I've been dying to feature it here.

Stocking stuffers or things to tie onto wrapped gifts
Fun cookie cutters - I just stuck some initial cookie cutters in my daughters' new advent calendar as a little gift.

Silicone spatulas and basters- The Rubbermaid spatulas are commercial kitchen compatible, and my personal faves. After shedding too many basting hairs into food, I've switched completely to silicone.

Kuhn rikon paring knife/sheath - These come in a variety of colors. I use mine for picnics and camping. The bright color will stand out in your carry on and serve as a reminder to transfer it to your checked baggage. And you'll be able to find it when you drop it in the grass.

Microplane zester - No one should be without one of these. I use mine for Parmesan and citrus zesting.

Lemon squeezer - I have the lime and orange versions. I only recommend the lemon, as it accommodates lemons and limes. You just don't need the orange one.

Zyliss Susi garlic press - Incredibly efficient, this thing will amaze you if you've been stuck with the kind of garlic press that requires you to exert tons of pressure yet yields no pressed garlic.

Cheese slicer - You can pick between the wire version and the plane

Foil cutter - I got one recently and surprised myself by using it all the time

Fluted Pastry Wheel & Ravioli Cutter - This is for the pie- or ravioli maker in your life.

Smaller ice cream scoops - Different sizes are so fun.

Good kitchen shears - So many kitchens lack shears. How else are you gonna trim your artichokes, people? You can spend a lot on shears. This is a pretty low-end model.

Nutmeg Grinder - This particular one is kinda spendy. I have a $10 model purchased at my spice shop. The upscale version I bought as a gift has a better design.

Food Mill - These are incredibly useful and require elbow grease rather than electric power.

Salter Electronic Scale - Every cook worth their salt should have an electronic scale tucked in their cupboard.

5-inch utlity knife - I usually don't advocate purchasing knives for people because they're so personal. But this is a knife that every tomato-lover should have.

Good cake pans - Every home baker should have two 8- and 9-inch round cake pans, a 10-cup heavy-weight nonstick bundt pan and an 8-inch heavy-weight cheesecake pan.

Nicholas Mosse Pottery - gorgeous Irish pitchers, creamers, sugar bowls and butter dishes.

Cookbooks - Cooks always enjoy new material. Faves that are not oft found in cookbook libraries are Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday and Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible.


Pepper Grinder - I have the Atlas but also like the wooden Peugeut models. Salt and pepper sets area also a great idea. Find some good ones with glass (no acrylic!) and metals - copper, stainless or pewter all are lovely.

All Clad butter warmer - Butter should be melted in a heavy bottomed pot - and this one is perfect.

Pizza Stone and Peel - You'll be a pro with this set. My stone resides in my oven almost permanently. It lends some humidity to the dry electric heat.

Really good gifts
Laguiole waiter’s corkscrew - The wine lover in your life will love you for this one. Some sites will engrave it for you, too.

Bob Kramer knife - Bob was my knife sharpener when I was a working chef in Seattle. Now he's expanded his operation and is selling knives through Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table. I normally don't advocate knives as gifts since they're so personal, but I'd make an exception for Bob's knives. I have a parer he made me 12 years ago and it's gorgeous.

Le Creuset - I love the 3 1/2 and 2-quart models and like everything else they make, save the fruit shapes. Who cooks in a blueberry?

Bad ideas
Cheap espresso machines - a Starbucks gift card would be a better gift.

Slap chop, egg separators, anything that screams, "I really have no idea what I'm doing in the kitchen." (For the person who really has no idea what they're doing in the kitchen - a plaque like AP's)

Cookware sets - usually contain unnecessary pieces

Knife sharpeners - have your knives professionally sharpened by someone who knows what they're doing.

Cool gifts you can present in a cute basket:

Gifts that don’t exist but should

Cast iron double-burner griddle. Not reversible. No reservoir. Short walls so you can cook breakfast potatoes, but not so high as to steam pancakes. I've been searching for one for like 15 years.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Do YOU Read Cookbooks?

Adam Gopnik has some ideas. Read them here, in the New Yorker's recent Food issue. I like anyone who echoes my opinion that if you eat out regularly you're eating a lot more salt and fat than you would if you cooked the meal yourself. Which makes it all the more important for the home cook to be a good cook. How else could you be expected to eat your own food? Cookbooks, I'd say, are around to encourage and excite us about food so that we'll do what we're itching to do anyway: TRY THIS AT HOME.

Gopnick puts cookbooks into categories: cookbook as dictionary (where recipes are written to remind the cook of the ingredients of a dish they already know how to prepare); as encyclopedia (which will enable the cook to master a particular cooking style); as anthology (enables the cook to prepare a culturally diverse menu than the encyclopedia approach). The final category, Gopnik calls "grammatical." By this, he means that the cook is not trusted to know anything about cooking or food preparation. Grammatical cookbooks offer extremely specific instruction.

In Gopnikese, Pinch is an anthology. I generally appreciate books written that way. I am always looking to broaden my repertoire. One of the reasons I'm always irritated by Cooks Illustrated is that it's SO grammatical. There are times, though, when I need this kind of instruction. Brining a turkey? Trussing a chicken? Filleting a whole fish? Cooks Illustrated is the perfect resource. I do have some dictionary-type reference books. Many times I just scan a familiar recipe just to make sure I'm not leaving anything out. And as for Mastery...well, I have other demands on my time right now. Also, I'm lazy. I'm not a bread baker because that art demands mastery and nothing less. Of course I just love to buy bread books. I just nabbed The Bread Baker's Apprentice at a school book swap.

I read cookbooks to learn new techniques, new ingredients, new recipes. It's kind of like listening to political pundits. Some get an Amen. Some make me change the channel. The good ones make me think.

How about you?

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

On the Menu This Week

What I'm craving, after a week of multi-course meals, is some simple fare. To be sure, we're still plowing thru leftovers. The beets and goat cheese that I bought but didn't use on Thanksgiving will go into the Warm Goat Cheese and Roasted Beets on Mixed Greens, and I'll serve that with leftover Turkey Soup. I made the day after Thanksgiving, having allowed the broth to simmer all night. I sweated a leek, some celery and carrot and then added about two quarts of delicious broth. I added a bit of turkey too, but tend to like to throw that in during the last minutes of reheating since it retains it's flavor and texture better that way.

My biggest hankering, tho, is for fish. Salmon Sandwich with Dill Aioli, and a side order of steamed Artichokes will be on our plates tomorrow, with any luck at the market. We've been eating fish twice a week pretty regularly for about a year now. And we didn't have it ONCE last week. Since I finally made it to the one store in my hood that sells my favorite malt vinegar (Heinz; harder to come by than you'd think) we'll also have Fish and Chips this week.

Also featured this week are Cantonese Pork Tenderloin and Baby Broccoli; Lamb Kabobs and Quinoa; Salad with Lemony Pesto Dressing and Grilled Chicken; and another lemony Chicken Fricasse. To make the last one, I just pound chicken breasts, dredge in salted flour and cook about two minutes per side in a skillet with a smidge of olive oil. Once browned, add a half cup or so of white wine and a bit of chopped parsley, and maybe another splash of olive oil. Season to taste and serve with something green.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Menu this Week

It's a short menu this week - three regular dinners with extended family in town and then the Hootenanny that is Thanksgiving. Last night we had Italian Beef on Sourdough and Spicy Green Beans; tomorrow will be Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad and Chanterelle Pizza; Wednesday, with even more family coming in, will feature Flank Steak Fajitas with Spanish Rice, Salsa Verde (pictured left) and Guacamole.

And then, of course, there's Thanksgiving. I'm reconsidering the starters. Last year I did a seared scallop on a smidgen of butternut squash puree with a sage leave garnish. It was lovely but I want something new. Was considering a little Tenderloin Crosini topped with Gorgonzola cream...or a pumpkin soup served in sake cups, but I don't know. Maybe I'll do the antipasti. Will probably decide on Wednesday morning at the chilly farmer's market.

2009 Thanksgiving Menu

To Start
Antipasti Platter of Roast Vegetables, Salumi, Olives and Crostini...maybe
Seasonal Mixed Greens with Gorgonzola, Candied Pecans and Pear

The Dinner
Salted Roast Turkey with Gravy
Mashed Potatoes
Spicy Sweet Potato Fries
Green Beans with Shallots and Pancetta

The Dessert
Pumpkin Pie
Cinnamon Ice Cream and Apple Pie

Here's some background on method...I'm a turkey-rinser (and, yes, I scour afterwards). Turkey prep begins Wednesday. After rinsing I rub it down with kosher salt and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap overnite. I hate doing it, but I did it once a few years ago and the turkey is so good every year that I have to continue. I'm honestly dreading the process already. It's so, so gross. The salt is rinsed off on Thursday prior to roasting.

The vegetarian stuffing really is amazing, and that's coming from a someone who loves a traditional sausage stuffing. Buy a nice loaf of bread to use - I get a cranberry pecan one from Whole Foods, which I had them slice for me this year. You could, of course, use a nice sourdough, but I like the deeper flavors in the denser bread.

The Golden Pillow Rolls are positively divine. They are like warm clouds. And you can make the dough on Wednesday and do the rest on Thursday, which is nice.

For the green beans, I just saute the shallots and pancetta in a big skillet for a few minutes, then add the beans and season with salt and pepper. The potatoes I often leave up to someone else since I can't bear to use the requisite butter. I just look the other way. The sweet potato fries, which i think i'll do again this year, were the frozen ones from WF - but so good, especially when doctored up with some spices.

As for dessert...Jan's recipe request got me thinking about cinnamon ice cream alongside apple pie. And Gingerbread, which is so good I can't even stand it. Pumpkin Pie just gets made and eaten as obligation. For that recipe, I just follow whatever it says on the Libby's can, but substitute half and half for the condensed milk or whatever nonsense they call for.

Have a happy Thanksgiving.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Method: Perfect Pie Crust. Easier Than You'd Think

I've heard so much advice for perfecting pie crust. Freeze before baking. Visualize it coming out perfectly. Spend a year in culinary school. All three might help, but the best trick ever comes from the cooking side of the kitchen at Campagne in Seattle where I used to work.

On the pastry side of the kitchen we blind baked tarts all the time. We didn't usually use pie weights. Our in-house baker (a culinary student) sheeted sucree dough for the pastry team, and we kept them in the fridge, and they held up pretty well in the oven during blind baking (oops - did I lose you? Blind baking is cooking an empty pie crust.) At all other kitchens, my own included, I used pie weights - usually rice or old dry beans. I would line a tart shell, stick it in the freezer to firm up and then cover with a sheet of parchment paper and fill with the weights, pressing into the corners. I'd bake it for 20 minutes or so, then carefully remove the parchment, prick all over with a fork and bake another 10 minutes, or until it didn't look raw anywhere and was a little golden.

But today, after reading a post on Smitten Kitchen, I revisited the method from the other side of the Campagne kitchen. I removed my sucree-lined tart shell from the freezer, sprayed the shiny side of a piece of foil with baking spray and pressed it onto the crust. I baked it for about 20-25 minutes and voila! It. Came. Out. Perfectly. I'm so impressed. Looking forward to trying it out on other doughs, but don't anticipate problems. The Campagne cook used this technique exclusively on the crusts for quiche - deep dished, pie crusts. And they were always gorgeous. I am positively shocked that I've never tried this myself.

Here's the recipe for Pate Sucree, which I use for most tarts, and here's the recipe for pie dough. Happy Thanksgiving Prep!

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A Guide to Neopolitan Pizza in Chicago

Coalfire. Nella's. Spacca Napoli.

That's the order in which you should try Neopolitan pizza in Chicago.

I've been waiting for months for Nella's to open. It's walking distance from where we live and I was anxious to see if they would impress. Nella's finally opened on Friday and we were there the following night.

Nella herself was the pizza maker at Spacca Napoli and the pizzas at her new establishment on Clark, just north of Fullerton, have very similar crust but a much deeper flavor. My only complaint about Spacca Napoli's pizzas were that they tasted like a pizza that lacked any taste of a pizza. Too bland. But their gelato! Salads! Antipasti! It's a decent place to dine, but they need some improvements to the main dish.

So Nella did that at her place, but she also added a bar and some big TVs so it's a bit noisier. Still, it's a nice family spot. She does have a giant cooking-school style mirror above the open pizzaiolo station, so if your seat is oriented toward the back you can watch a pizza being built. My children were also encouraged to go back and have a look at the cooks themselves, which is always nice. Earning other kid friendly points, the young children at the table next to us had bunny ears on their pizzas.

Anyway, at Nella's we had a few pizza Margheritas and a Diavolo (spicy pepperoni). I started with an arugula/Parmesan salad that arrived perfectly dressed with lemon, salt and olive oil. We'll try the gelato on another visit.

Still, Coalfire makes the best pizza, hands down. And when going out for pizza what I want is REALLY GOOD PIZZA. Maybe someday they'll serve lovely salads, salumi and gelati but for now, we'll continue to make it our family pizza joint.

1321 W Grand Ave
Chicago, IL 60642-6447
(312) 226-2625

Nella's Pizza Napolitana (soon to be renamed Francesca's Pizzeria Napoletana)
2423 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60614

Spacca Napoli
1769 W Sunnyside Ave
Chicago, IL 60640-5312
(773) 878-2420

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Simple Menu before Thanksgiving

I'm keeping it simple this week. For one, I just returned home from a gloriously long weekend in San Fransisco eating so well that I can barely eat my own food again. Duck Confit! Salmon Cozy! Acme Bread! I love trips like that - they rally me back to the kitchen with determination to improve my skills, menus and foraging. But I'm not quite organized enough yet so my menu this week is safe. Last night, armed with just a pack of basil and some chicken breasts, we had an old favorite, Chicken Pesto Pasta.

Tonight we enjoyed a meal make possible by the humble Yukon Gold potato: a Spanish Tortilla/Omelet and a new soup, Ham & Potato. I made the soup by sauteeing a chopped stalk of celery, a leek and 4-5 chopped Yukon gold potatoes. Then I poured in a 32 ounce box of that chicken broth I like so much (Imagine Organic) and simmered it for about 12 minutes. When the potatoes were tender, I turned off the heat and pureed the soup in my food mill (didn't feel like waiting to cool it for the blender). I strained it, too, into a clean pot and simmered it for another 10-15 minutes until it thickened a bit more. Then I sliced some of that lean Applewood smoked ham from TJ's and threw that it, along with a scant half-cup of milk and some salt and fresh ground pepper. After another 5-8 minutes of simmering it was ready, and it was superb.

Whole Foods has been giving away avocados lately ($1 each) so Carnitas with Guacamole and Spanish Rice will hit the table tomorrow night. This week we'll also see Salmon on Arugula or Mixed Greens, Roast Leg of Lamb with Taziki Sauce and Greek Salad and a Flank Steak Sandwich alongside some roasted veg from the winter farmer's market.

I'm also writing my Thanksgiving Menu and shopping lists for next week, and planning other meals to serve when everyone's in town. I'm thinking ahead about lamb burgers, chicken fajitas, and maybe spaghetti and meatballs. And yes, I've started practically every morning with eggnog in my espresso. Yum.

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On Why I Love My New Phone

I broke up with my iPhone on November 6 and immediately hopped back in the saddle with a comparable device. Oh, Droid! I love you, I do. I am most pleased by the functioning service. I didn’t think SERVICE was asking so much of a phone. AT&T did not concur that prorating my bill to reflect all the times my phone said NO SERVICE was necessary to keeping me happy. So I took my huge monthly bill and signed it over to Verizon.

Here’s what I love about the Droid:
Get up and Google - I’ve been using Google’s many features - Gmail, calendar, pages, docs, BLOGGER! so the Android platform made perfect sense for me. Within minutes of being powered up my Droid had downloaded my contacts, complete with photos pinched from Facebook and Gmail.

Processor Speed - I don’t know what’s running this thing but, boy, is it ever fast.

Speed of the 3G. I'm a careful (read: suspicious) consumer. I assumed "world's fastest 3G network" was a crock or at least overrated. I was wrong. I didn’t even think it possible to run Pandora on a 3G -assumed I needed WIFI. Now a little bird tells me that the 4G, the next generation, will be even faster than WIFI. Way!

Useful apps. Like the Weather Channel which allows me to upload several locations and gives me a little screenshot of each one on the home page. I like knowing where the sun is shining and who it’s shining on. That way I know who to call and complain about the weather in Chicago.

Talking navigator. Need I say more? TNav got me from Los Gatos back into SF without incident (and I ALWAYS get lost in SF). And it didn’t make me feel badly when I missed an exit off 101. It just calmly told me to how to correct my error. Here an App-on-App would be kind of funny -like setting the voice to a certain accent, or adding on different emotional attitudes (such as passive aggressive where the phone just stops giving you directions but mutters in a barely audible volume). Let’s face it, most of us aren’t used to a calm, competent navigator.

Here’s what I miss:
Visual voicemail. Even if you upgrade for paid visual VM there’s an unacceptable delay between when the caller leaves a message and when you are alerted of it. AT&T/iPhone's Visual VM merits uberprops for novel technology.

The iPod. Just a little. On account of being generally sick of my iTunes collection and wooed by Pandora.

SplashShopper. When I first got the iPhone I spent a few months toting my old Treo just so I could continue using SS (which now exists for iPhone). Well, I’m double fisting again. Only SS doesn’t even work so well with my first generation iPhone. I’m waiting impatiently for the good folks at SplashData to scribble code for Android.

That’s it.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Quick and Hearty Mexican Beef You Won't Want to Share

I always feel just a little bad when I won’t share with my dog. He got up from his nap only because I was reheating leftover Poblano Beef. He even followed me upstairs (he rarely does the stairs anymore) so I would take pity on him and toss him a bite. It just doesn't seem right to try poblanos on him at this point in the game.

The recipe below is (slightly) adapted from Rick Bayless' great cookbook, Mexican Everyday. It's quick, easy, healthy (if you use a nice lean beef) and incredibly flavorful. And amazingly enough, even though I wasn't planning on making it this week, I had the critical ingredients on hand: three poblano peppers and two lean sirloin steaks from Trader Joe's. The steaks were supposed to be used for Coriander Dry-Rubbed Steaks with Avocado Salsa later in the week, but the timing of my ripening avocados wasn’t going to be right.

Anyway, you simply must try the Poblano Beef sometime - if only for the possibility of leftovers for lunch. As good as it was for dinner, it was even better for lunch the next day.

Poblano Beef
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

3 fresh poblano peppers
1 T canola oil
1# lean sirloin steak, cubed
1 medium onion, sliced
3-4 medium potatoes, cubed
4 cloves garlic, pressed
½ cup water, beer, beef broth or white wine
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped

First, roast the poblanos. I did this on my stovetop - just put them right on the burner over the flame and turn them with tongs. You could also broil them. You want them nice and charred - it’ll take at least 5 minutes. When they’re done, place them in a bowl, cover them with a plate or towel and reserve until cooled.

Get all your veggies prepped, the onions, garlic and potatoes. And cube the beef. Don’t forget to dry it with paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Sprinkle the beef with salt and add to the skillet, browning it all over. Transfer the beef to a plate once browned.

Add the onions and potatoes to the skillet and cook over medium heat for about 6-8 minutes. Then add the garlic. Sauté together for another minute, then add the water/stock/beer and Worcestershire.

Reduce heat to low and cook about 7-8 minutes.

Meanwhile, rub the blackened skin off the poblanos and peel off the inside membrane and remove the seeds and tops of the peppers. Rinse to remove the remaining bits of seeds and skin, and then cut into strips, about ¼-inch wide. Add the poblano strips to the skillet and continue to cook for a few more minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Return the beef to the skillet and heat thru. Sprinkle with cilantro and add more salt if necessary. Serve and enjoy.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Best Seasonal Addition to Coffee

Updated from the Pinch Archives

Many a coffee purist would shudder the thought of adding eggnog to coffee, but not this one.

I've loved the eggnog latte for years, since my days frequenting Monorail Espresso in the nation's espresso capital. No Portland, not you.

The eggnog latte is probably loaded with as many calories as one of those Dunkin' Donuts muffins I've heard tale of (700-plus, if memory serves). I don't want those calories to end up on my tail, so I steer clear of Starbucks this time of year.

But this, this most wonderful lowfat eggnog from the good folks at Horizon, fills the void. The easiest way to enjoy it is to pour an inch or so into your mug and zap it up in the microwave for 10 seconds or so. Then fill your mug the rest of the way with coffee. Yum. Oh, and don't add sugar - the eggnog is pretty sweet. [2009 update: This year, thanks to Miss Sylvia, I'll be cocktailing my eggnog with an equal amount of nonfat milk (about 2 ounces each) and steaming the the elixir for a delicious double short eggnog latte. And it will be nice and good.]

Eggnog lovers, rejoyce! It's eggnog season!

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Two New Vegetarian Curries for an Indian Feast

Yesterday I spent the extra hour of daylight cooking up a fine Indian feast. I do a regular Indian meal with tandoori chicken, naan and cauliflower curry. But last night's feast was also a birthday party so it had to be bigger and more special. I added two other curries to the menu, both inspired from the cookbook Lea made me get - Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible - Masoor Dal (Curried Lentils) and Chickpea Curry, a north Indian style curry. I loved both and now consider them integral to the Indian feast.

Masoor Dal
Print recipe only here

Serves 4 as a side dish

3 ounces red lentils (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 t salt
1-2 t canola oil
pinch of chili flakes
2 t sweet curry powder

In a small or medium saucepan, heat the oil. When hot, add the chili flakes. When the pepper darkens, add the curry powder and the onion. Saute for 1-2 minutes. Add water, lentils and salt to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cover. Cook for 10-15 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more curry or salt as necessary.

Chickpea Curry
Print recipe only here

Serves 4-6 as a side dish

one 12-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
2 smallish potatoes, chopped into 2-cm dice
one medium onion, chopped
6 ounces tomatoes (I used a scant cup of Muir Glen Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes)
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3-4 hot green chilis (birds eye or serano/or one jalapeno - just use in moderation if you don't want too much heat), finely chopped
1 ounce cilantro
1 T ground coriander
2 t ground cumin
5 whole cardamom pods
½ t turmeric
1 T canola oil
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves

Drain chickpeas in a collander.

Add the tomatoes, ginger, garlic, chilies, cilantro, coriander, cumin, turmeric, ½ t salt and ¼ cup water to a blender and blend until smooth.

Add the oil to a medium, lidded saucepan and heat over a medium-high flame. When the oil is hot, add the cinnamon stick, bay leaves and cardamom pods. Then add the onions and potatoes. Saute for about 5 minutes.

Add sauce from blender and stir. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook 5-6 minutes, stirring a few times during cooking time. Add about ½ cup of water to the blender to wash down remaining sauce and reserve.

Add to the pot the drained chickpeas, water from the blender and a pinch of salt. Stir and bring to a simmer, increasing flame as needed. When it simmers, cover and reduce heat, cooking gently for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and serve.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Best Muffin of the Season

Today really began at the farmer's market. But it didn't get good until I pulled these pumpkin muffins out of the oven later in the morning.

They are so light and airy, so perfectly soft. And they mix up pretty quickly - I had them mixed, baked and served in not much more than 30 minutes. Pumpkin has hit the shelf of every grocery store in the continental US by now.

I topped half the batch with streusel as a sop to the children. It's early in the fall, and they sort of forgot that they like pumpkin. But streusel they KNOW they love.

Pumpkin Muffins
Print recipe only here

Makes one dozen muffins

½ cup canola oil
scant 1 cup sugar
1 cup pumpkin
2 eggs
1 ¾ cups flour
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
½ t salt
¾ t cinnamon
scant ½ t nutmeg
1/3 cup buttermilk

Spray a muffin tin with canola spray and preheat oven to 350° (or 300° convection)

Cream canola oil and sugar in
a mixer with paddle attachment for 2-3 minutes.

Add pumpkin puree and eggs and mix well to combine.

Sift together dry ingredients.

Add one half of the dry ingredients to the mixer and blend slowly for half a minute.

Add buttermilk and mix.

Add the rest of the dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Finish mixing by hand with a spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of bowl to incorporate.

Transfer to greased muffin tin (I like to use an ice cream scoop to do this). If you want to use streusel add it on here, just 1-2 teaspoons atop each unbaked muffin.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until just done. Cool for five minutes in the pan, then serve. Can be stored in a covered container at room temperature for a few days - but they're best right outta the oven.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

On the Menu This Week

I've mentioned about the seasons in Chicago, right? How there are more than four? It's sort of like Eskimos and snow for me...lots of kinds of seasons. Here they are, enumerated:

1. Summer (Memorial-Labor Day)
2. Back to School (Labor Day-September 30)
3. Fall (October 1-24)
4. Holiday (October 24-January 1)
5. Long Monkey Winter (January 2 -Spring Break)
6. Soggy Spring (Spring Break-May 14)
7. Spring (May 15-31)

We are squarely in Holiday right now with Halloween around the corner. We got jiggy with costume-making this year, and are festooned with pumpkins and Brach's Candy Corn, the only candy corn. Soon enough we roll into Thanksgiving and Christmas, with even more decorating, cooking and caroling. Holiday is AWESOME! I love Holiday as much as I loathe Long Monkey Winter. Chicago's cold, interminable drear of January, February and March remains a sticking point for me. I don't think I'll ever stop missing the sparkle of sun on snow in the mountains.

Anyway, the outside temperature is inversely proportional to the magnitude of hot peppers used in the Pinch kitchen. I'm not talking about full-on SPICY food, here - just a little sprinkle of cayenne here and an extra shake of chili flakes there does wonders for raising your body temp, keeping you toasty and just maybe fighting infection. It's like Green Eggs - just try it and you may like it.

I got cooking early this morning so that we could enjoy Italian Beef Sandwiches and Parsley Cashew Green Beans tonite. If you have a slow cooker, you can use it here. I don't - so I cook a tri-tip steak all day in a 200 degree oven, tucked inside a lidded French oven. It smells SO good all day. Get yourself a good jarred Giardinera for this - I like the hot, but you could cocktail the hot and mild.

Tomorrow will feature Adventures in Mole, Part 2, when Araceli (of Mole Verde fame) teaches me a red mole. I shopped for the chilis recently - pasilla, ancho and mulato - they're big and plump and I can't wait to try em.

Also on the menu this week is Rice Penne Pasta with Lemon and Artichoke Hearts, Salmon Sandwich with Dill Aioli, Chicken Pesto Salad with Jicama and Late Season Tomatoes, Orecchiette with Italian Sausage and Broccoli Rabe and an Asian-inspired night including Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps and Wonton Soup.

Oh, and I'm learning how to steep my own Yogi tea! Will include that recipe once I get it down. Happy Holiday!

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Meal. Ready to Eat?

This was sent to me by a relative I'll call Tim and, boy, was it an adventure. To begin with, receiving something so out of the ordinary was a total thrill. Plus, there was the element of criminality; the package clearly states that resale is verboten. Of course, my MRE was a gift, so Tim and I should be safe from prosecution.

I'm curious about the daily life of our troops - even more so since hearing the bit about $400 per gallon gas (and going thru over 800,000 gallons a day in Afghanistan). Speaking of intrigue concerning our armed forces, I'm surprised we don't have war shows on TV, something a la Friday Night Lights.

But back to the MRE. Upon first inspection I was pretty impressed by the Armed Services menu option #23, and Tim’s choice for me - Chicken Pesto Pasta - way more highbrow than the beef, peas and potatoes of yesteryear. Regular readers know Chicken Pesto Pasta is in regular rotation on the Pinch menu.

The MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) is a lightweight packaged meal containing a main course, side dish, bread, dessert, hot and cold beverage mixes, and flameless ration heater. This field ration has been around since 1981 when it replaced the MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual). MCI were canned, wet rations issued by the U.S. Armed Forces beginning in 1958. (Click here to watch a clip of a retiring Army Colonel tasting a 40-year old pound cake he brought back from Viet Nam.) Be prepared for disappointment if you're curious about what exact preservatives are involved in keeping a pound cake fresh for forty years - it's something of a Don't ask, don't tell policy, I'm sure.

We took the MRE to the park to simulate an out-of-the-kitchen cooking and eating experience. But since I didn't open it until we got to the park and didn't bring water, we ended up preparing it back home.

There was a lot to praise in the MRE. The directions for the flameless heating element were clear (my favorite part had to do with placing the heating entrée on an incline – the written direction said "Lean it up against a rock or something") and the unit put out some serious BTUs.

Nutritionally, the meal was sound in terms of protein/fat/carb percentages. The Institute of Medicine found that the typical serviceperson burns over 4000 calories per day yet was consuming only about 2400. Giving our troops healthy but good food that they will want to eat will ensure that they are getting the calories they need.

The meal was balanced well for salty/sweet cravings and contained grab and go items that were completely ready to eat. (The entree, which is intended to be heated - NOT ready to eat -requires about 15 minutes of heating time in addition to the rock.) But with 24 different menu options it seems there's something for everyone. Most are comfort type foods like Meatballs in Marinara, Chicken with Noodles, and Beef Stew, and a couple of Mexican options, enchiladas and fajitas.

Now the negatives. For starters, it wasn't tasty. It's hard to imagine that there's not substantial waste involved in MRE shipping and distribution. Given the preservatives needed to keep them shelf stable for over three years, the ingredients list was, like, a mile long.

While the entree tasted better than I expected, it was by no means appetizing. The wet pack of pineapple was tasteless and messy to eat out of the slim package. Dried pineapple or mango would have been better. The chocolate pudding was ok, but it should have been chocolatier. Come on! Give the troops more chocolate!

The non-fruit drink was essentially sugar water. I allow that at some point a calorie IS a calorie, and finding ways to get servicemen ingesting more calories might mean including some empty ones. But sugar water? Couldn't there at least be some vitamins involved?

Other interesting facts:
- The Pentagon pays $86.98 for a case of MREs, or about $7.25 per meal. You can buy a case on Amazon for $79.99. Capitalism 1 Taxpayer 0

- MREs must be able to withstand parachute drops from 380 meters (1,200 ft), and non-parachute drops of 30 meters (98 ft). Um, what CAN withstand a non-parachute drop of 30 meters?

- In March 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune invited three chefs to taste and rate 18 MREs. No meal rated higher than a 5.7 (scale was from one to ten) with the Chicken Fajita meal receiving the lowest average score (1.3).

All in all, while MREs have improved over the years, they need to look and taste better. It really seemed like prison food, tucked into individual portion packs. And that's sad.

Got more time? Click this.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Will Garlic Keep You Healthy?

This is interesting. The "Really?" column is so current (so Seth & Amy, too) for the old NYT, and I love them for it. Their recent look on the effect of garlic on colds caught my interest since it looks to be a long monkey winter in Chicago. Only the study concerned itself with garlic supplements, with no mention of the garlic we cook or consume raw.

I like my garlic with a bite - that is, I don't so much enjoy that circa-1990 roasted elephant garlic novelty. Half the time garlic gets used in the Pinch kitchen it's pressed (using the Zyliss Susi) right into something - tapenade, salad dressing, my mouth. The other half of the time it's smashed to remove the skin and sauteed whole in olive oil with a sprinkling of chili flakes for good company. The only roasting exception is when I'm roasting potatoes with rosemary and garlic - garlic goes into that dish unpeeled. Don't ask me why, just try the potatoes sometime (a bunch of new potatoes, tossed olive oil, kosher salt, 6-8 unpeeled garlic cloves, and a 4-5 sprigs of rosemary - roast at 425 for like 40 minutes, shaking the pan midway thru the baking time.) I like them for weekend brunches, but they're also great for Sunday dinner-type menus.

Anyway, if your cold & flu season has started, you might consider adding a bit more garlic to your diet. I know I will.

Thanks, Wizard Recipes, for use of the photo.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Memory Trippin'

I've been down memory lane today. Not on purpose, really. A Fall Cleanup is underway and I'm sorting thru all sorts of clutter. I'm halfway thru the front steps (the dirt I thought I was scrubbing off seems to still be there), have tackled the game cabinet and the arts-and-crafts cabinet. One of the goals of the day was to locate my daughters' charm bracelets - but they remain elusive. And I can't blame the girls for losing them because I was the bracelets' keeper.

See, I got them charm bracelets a few years ago, and a few charms since. But since charm bracelets are more sentimental than practical (neither of the girls have been begging to wear them) I've been slow to take them to a jeweler to have the charms fastened. And now I can't find them anywhere.

I have found lots of other interesting things, notably: a LOT of stamps in odd places (a half-spent pack of thirty-seven-centers in a purse); a thank you card for a robot hornet, the purchase of which I lack recollection; a Mix CD a friend made for me a few years back when people still made mix CDs (I moved it to my car where I'll listen to it soon); a ticket stub from Lake House - that Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock movie I hated in the theater because Bullock's character was such a downer (but then went on to watch a few more times when it came around on HBO because of all the Chicago scenes and the bits with Christopher Plummer); several STARBUCKSCARDs (tho the only reason Fall Cleanup is even happening today is because I'm totally cracked out on espresso, so the card is useless to me); and lots of very sweet cards from my children that I didn't put away in the box of stuff I save precisely for days like today when I would happen upon them and smile, stop for a moment and count my blessings.

That's all.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On the Menu This Week

One thing on the menu all week: lettuces picked from my AeroGarden. This is my first kit of lettuces (previous kits were all herbs) and I'm loving it. We've had several great salads already and it's so fun to watch the greens replenish themselves after harvesting - it's usually only 2-3 days before I can pick another big bowl of tender leaves.

The week started slowly in the kitchen. I never made it shopping yesterday and was under the weather over the weekend. But now the fridge is stocked and I know what we're going to eat all week. And, as usual, I'm pretty excited about all of it.

For one, it's chanterelle season - one of my favorites. If you've not cooked chanterelles before I recommend starting pretty much immediately. They're not grown locally, so I can't get them at the Green City Market. I got mine at the Saturday market in my neighborhood. Anyway, ask at your market or grocery store. They look and taste like autumn. I like to clean them off with a damp paper towel, slice them and saute them in a smidgen of olive oil along with a pinch of chili flakes and a whole garlic clove. You could add white wine for a nice pasta sauce, or scatter them on a pizza and top with fontina, or make the risotto I've got planned.

Just tonight we enjoyed Grilled Pepper-Sugared Salmon with Artichokes and a Fall Salad. We had these gorgeous jumbo artichokes and some great Coho salmon dusted with Mendocino Seasoning Sand. I just love a good blended seasoning and this one, received as a gift, is really lovely on salmon. It's sweet and peppery. A little goes a very long way. If you want to try to recreate the flavor, start with about about two teaspoons of brown sugar, fresh ground pepper, and some kosher salt. Maybe add some lemon zest. Mix it all together, taste and adjust to your liking. Sprinkle sparingly on salmon and grill.

Also this week: Buffalo Burgers with Corn on the Cob and Avocado Salad - kind of a summery meal but it works since peppers and corn are still abundant at the market. I'm hopeful that Bennison's will bring burger buns to market tomorrow since I forgot to add them to my shopping list. Let's see, there's Spanish Omelet with Seatown Salad, Asian Pork Tenderloin with Broccoli and Rice, Flank Steak Fajitas with Spanish Rice and Guacamole, and something we've not had in quite awhile: Gnocchi with Basil Pomodoro and Grana Padano. For this, I'll just add very thin sliced basil to my standard pomodoro sauce, and stir it into the gnocchi with lots of grated Grana - my favorite Parmesan. Mmmm. I think I'll make that one tomorrow.

It's been cold this week and the warmth of spices and comfort of deep colors is very much intentional. Hope you're staying warm wherever this finds you.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When You are Attacked by a Squirrel

The biggest problem with city life is that it precludes chicken ownership. If you read Susan Orlean's Chicken Chronicles in a recent New Yorker you know what I'm talking about. Of course this is the Susan Orlean of Orchid Thievery-Adaptation fame. I'm just saying, she does tend to get carried away. And now she's got me daydreaming about a red Eglu and Gingernut Ranger hens. Thanks, Susan.

Another problem with city life: it's entirely possible that there's a hit on me.

My dog just LOVES squirrels. Bode is getting on in dog years and doesn’t have a lot of speed left in him but he usually makes an effort to stalk a squirrel. We egg him on, inciting him to GET THE SQUIRREL. It always ends the same way, with the squirrel running up a tree.

Of course one day Bode did get one. The “one” in this case was definitely a squirrel of sub-par intelligence, an unfit squirrel in the Darwinian sense. This substandard specimen was safe overhead in a small tree but decided a better move would be to launch itself onto a nearby taller tree that was, in point of fact, not a tree but a lamp post. With no bark to cling to, he slowly slid down the post like a frightened, furry fireman and into my dog’s eager smile. Oh, it was so awful. I started shouting LEAVE IT! LEAVE IT! Poor Bode, who was pleased as punch at his good fortune, mulled it over for a second or two, then dropped it, reluctantly. Relieved, I watched the squirrel quickly gimp away.

Now, the fact of the matter is that I like squirrels just as much as my dog (an ominous indicator of personal fitness, in the Darwinian sense). They’re just so darn cute with their scampering and nut gathering. Anyway, a few months after our run-in at the lamp post, reports of Rogue Squirrels started hitting the wire. Turns out some squirrels were doing some stalking of their own, and launching themselves out of trees and onto the unsuspecting heads of passersby.

The incident at the lamp post left me convinced of imminent retribution so I prepared for certain attack. I tried imagining my response to having a squirrel drop onto my head, but I couldn’t figure it out. What should one do when this happens? Surrender was almost sure. If I were attacked by a squirrel I would be at its mercy.

I thought it through some more (it was a slow day) and then called my husband to see if he had any ideas. I like to think of calls of this nature as a welcome break in a dreary day at the office, but I’m assured they are not. My timing must have been good because Josh had some brilliant - if violent - ideas. They all hinged on the basic premise that any person - even me! - could TAKE a squirrel. Here's what you do:

The key is taking a STOP, DROP and ROLL approach. Rather than running around squealing, “There’s a squirrel on me! There’s a squirrel on me!” do this instead: STOP. Keep still and simply detach the squirrel from your body (let’s be honest, that little monkey is not going to stay put on your head - it’s gonna totally run speedy circles around your entire person). But stay still and seize it. Then, you throttle it.* I’m pretty sure this defensive move is also known as "wrassling," as in, “I shall wrassle this squirrel or die tryin’.”

At this point, you have put the squirrel in it's place but you are by no means safe from future attack. I think it's kind of like lightening, in that it actually does strike twice. You should return home, pack your bags and move to the country. And get some chickens.

* If you really want to put on a show for any gathered spectators try this: Throttle the squirrel within an inch of his life then suddenly release him. As he wobbles off, shout at him: YEAH! TELL YOUR FRIENDS, TOUGH GUY!

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But of Course She Is

Of course Ruth is going to write another tell-all. Listen to this:

“This has been a fascinating place to work,” she said. “But I’ve always said I can’t write it until I leave here.”

Reichl has done an outstanding job at Gourmet. I've been a quiet fan of hers since reading her memoir Tender at the Bone. But then she came out with Comfort Me With Apples. See, the first book introduced her and made me like her. But in her next book she told me all about her affair with Coleman Andrews (founder and former editor at Saveur) and it was just TMI.

I'm still feeling nostalgic for Gourmet. I hope Reichl's next book doesn't ruin the memory. Oh, in case you don't follow these things (like why Pinch cares about the editor of a dead publication), before beginning her tenure at Gourmet Ruth Reichl's was the NY Times restaurant critic. In addition to authoring several books and receiving FOUR James Beard awards, she co-owned a restaurant and work as its chef. [FIN]

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Gasp! Gourmet Bites the Big One

This makes me so sad! I've been enjoying Gourmet so much for the last year. There was a long while where I didn't feel it met my needs as a healthy gourmet cook, but lately they really had my number.

So many nagging questions...What will Ruth will do next? (Could she possibly have another tell-all left in her?) Will they keep the online site? What happens to all the gift subscriptions I just bought thru my children's school magazine drive? No, really...who's gonna pocket my cash?

Oh, Gourmet! You were nearly 70 and I was just starting to love you.

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On the Menu This Week

It's getting colder. It's tea and soup season. And this is the year that I'm going to learn to make a good chicken soup out of a CHICKEN! Chicken totally grosses me out. It ain't right, but it does. For this soup I'm going to get a nice farmer's market chicken, and cut it up (blechk), and make me a nice chicken broth, just like Aunt Jennie used to make. I should have learned this lesson already, but I've avoided it. Pinch readers know my affinity for Imagine organic chicken broth.

This week we'll be eating Wagamama Noodle Soup with Teriyaki Pork, Cornmeal-crusted Tilapia with Quinoa, Chicken Soup with Wild Rice, Coriander Dry-Rubbed Steaks with Avocado Salsa, Pan-fried Salmon on Arugula, Lemon Chicken Fricassé and an oldie, Herb Frittata with Pepperonata. The frittata will be great on Bennison's little ciabatta rolls, so I guess we'll have that on Wednesday when the Evanston bakery brings its goods to the Green City Market. I like Bennison's a lot. I hope they continue to come to the GCM once the show moves to the Notebaert. I don't do Evanston, not even for ciabatta. Nothing against Evanston, of course, it's just too far to drive. I've pretty much given up on Metropolis as well, as I can't justify driving 10 miles for coffee beans. Yeah, I'm buying Peet's again. Espresso Forte!

The lemon chicken fricasee thing is pretty simple - rinse and dry boneless skinless chicken breasts and then beat the crap out of em. Do it nicely and evenly, preferably with one of those meat pounder mallets. Then dust them lightly with a mixture of salted/peppered flour and cook in a preheated skillet in a teaspoon or so of olive oil. You want to sort of brown both sides, and then toss in the juice of 1-2 lemons and a tablespoon or so of finely chopped parsley. Cover immediately and cook another 1-2 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Then serve. Make sure you do your mise en place with this one -get your lemons juiced, your parsley chopped and the cover to your skillet nearby before the chicken hits the pan. And be ready to set and eat as soon as it's done cooking.

For the chicken soup-from-a-chicken, I'm going to follow Sherry's method of boiling a whole, cut up chicken for about and hour, then removing the meat and bones and adding veggies to the stock (carrot, celery, onion, parsley). I'll let that simmer for about an hour or so. Then I'll probably walk away from it for a few hours. Later, I'll strain out the veg, sort thru the meat and add the good stuff back in. And I'll add some fresh veg, too - nicely chopped carrots and celery - but I'm not sure when, as I don't like them to be overdone. I'm unsure about total simmering time as well, tho the plan is to start early.

Please share your advice for turning a chicken and water into a flavorful soup. I need all the help I can get.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Candied Pecans for Fall Salads and, Let's Be Honest, Snacking

I'm spending a cool, quiet fall afternoon with a cup of tea (Irish Breakfast, plus a splash of milk and honey), a candle (Autumn Promanade), and a oven filled with pecans. If the calendar or weather report doesn't herald autumn's advent then the scents in my kitchen surely do.

I had to pay attention as I mixed the magic elixer for my pecans - I usually just pour in a little of this and a splash of that. If you've never made them before, I recommend that technique - just use my recipe as a guideline. These are really nice with a little kick - hence the cayenne. If you don't believe me, then just add the tiniest pinch. It'll still be a nice seasoning and you won't get any heat.

You can store them in an airtight container for up to a month, I would think. They are so tasty that they never last that long. They are truly delightful scattered on fall salads, especially the Pinch House Salad with pear and Gorgonzola, and the Warm Goat Cheese on Mixed Greens.

Candied Pecans
Print recipe only here

2 cups pecan halves
3-4 T maple syrup
2 t canola oil
1/4 t cinnamon
pinch kosher salt
pinch cayenne (I like a generous pinch!)

Preheat oven to 275.

Combine syrup, oil and spices in a small mixing bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Add pecans and, using a flexible spatula, toss well to coat. Use the spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl so that the syrup coats the nuts and not the bowl.

Transfer to a baking sheet and bake in the oven for about 30-45 minutes, stirring a few times during roasting time.

Let cool completely, then transfer to an airtight glass storage container.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Method: Cartouche and Ice Bath

Both the cartouche (shown below) and ice bath (shown above) made a recent appearance in the Pinch kitchen. I venture neither are oft used in a regular household kitchen, and it's true that neither are absolutely necessary. But we're not talking sous vide technology here. Both are pretty simple and can be very helpful to any cook.

If cartouche makes you think of hieroglyphs then bravo, you're very smart. But hold onto your headress. A cartouche used in a kitchen is a moisture and heat control device in the form of a flimsy piece of parchment paper. In other words, a cooking cartouche is a lot more complicated than pharaonic ruins.

I only use a cartouche for one thing anymore- poaching pears (tho have used it for stews and tomatoes). It's an absolute necessity in this preparation. First, pears are delicate (especially nice ripe ones). When you poach them you want them to infuse in the cooking liquid (in this case I was poaching 8-10 very small pears in one cup water, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 vanilla bean, three or four cardamom pods, one cinnamon stick and the zest of one orange). If I simply used a standard pot cover the heat inside the pot would've gotten too high; the pears would have cooked too quickly and not held as much flavor. On the other hand, had I left them uncovered, too much moisture would have been lost AND the pears exposed to air (they're not completely covered in the poaching liquid) would have become discolored and ugly.

So now you just need to know HOW TO MAKE a cartouche so you can enjoy Vanilla Poached Pears.

You will need a circle of parchment paper roughly the same size as your pot. This is made most easily by starting with a large square of parchment and folding it in half diagonally. (Click here to read David Lebovitz's Guide to Pear Poaching.) Place your finger in the center of the long side (which would mark the center of the square were it unfolded) and fold the triangle in half again, keeping a note of that spot where the center of the square would be. Fold a few more times until you have a thin pointy piece of folded paper. Then, hold the paper over your pot with that center point in the center of your pot (you're just marking the radius of the pot). Using scissors trim off the excess parchment (the part that extends beyond the sides of the pot). Now you can unfold all that paper - it should be a nice circle - and use it as a lid. It doesn't have to fit perfectly. See how I just pressed a slightly oversized cartouche onto my pears and up the sides of the pot:

Ok, so the ice bath. I employ these when I'm pressed for time, as usually things can just come to room temperature at their leisure. An ice bath is handy lots of times: when you need to blend a sauce or soup but it's still too hot (you cannot do so with hot liquid without scalding yourself and making a colossal mess of your kitchen). And when you're running short on time and your ganache is taking it's time to cool and thicken. And when you forgot to make an ice cream base the night before you plan to serve it. Enter the ice bath.

I used ice bath tonite to cool off my tortilla soup in time for dinner. I usually make the soup early in the day but didn't get to it in time today. I like to puree about half the soup - the corn makes it nice and creamy without adding any fat. (And, as predicted, the addition of farmer's market corn was AMAZING!) I don't care to puree all of it because I like to have the soup to have some texture.

To use an ice bath, all you really need are good nesting bowls. I have the stainless steel variety. I wouldn't bother with melamine for a few reasons, not the least of which include possible chemical leach from a hot soup, but also because a stainless steel bowl will, I think, allow its contents to cool faster than a melamine one.

Anyway, fill the bigger bowl with ice, then nestle the smaller one into the ice. Fill the smaller bowl with whatever needs cooling, then stir every so often until the desired temperature is reached. Note: don't go far if you're cooling ganache - left alone for too long and it'll get so hard you'll need to rewarm it and start over. Ganache cools very quickly on ice.

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