Monday, February 27, 2012

On Recreational Peppers

Several years ago I decided to keep green and red bell peppers on hand in my fridge. They are useful in so many things - Greek SaladSunday Breakfast Scrambles and Cauliflower Curry, just to name a few. Weekly dinners improved immensely with peppers in the fridge. Plus, you don't need to use them right away, unlike other quick-spoiling veg.

It came to be that the bulbous bell wasn't quite the kick that was needed. So I started stocking jalapenos. Jalapeno heat is sort of overrated; once seeded, they really aren't all that hot. Finely chopped jalapenos go into my Guacamole and Breakfast Potatoes. Cut into long, thin strips they take Fajitas to new heights. In marinades for chicken they transform bland bird into succulent, spicy Tandoori. Thin rounds of jalapeno make Ginger-Jalapeno Rice Appetizers more spectacular. And I could scarcely produce a homemade salsa (Pico de Gallo, Mango or Salsa Verde) without the trusty Jalopy.

I'm beginning to think the jalapeno is a gateway pepper.

I frequent the Whole Foods pepper bar with increasing regularity, stashing Bird's Eye chilis for Thai Green Curry; Poblanos for Braised Pork Tenderloin, Poblano Beef, and Mexican Pork Stew; and Scotch Bonnets for Jerk Sauce. No chance I'm going to get off these peppers. Last week we had Poblano Beef. I had forgotten how good that stuff is! The only thing wrong with it seems to be that it's impossible to make enough.

A great bit of fun is roasting a pepper over a flame on the stove. If I need to roast lots of peppers I'll throw them under the broiler. But when one or two are all that's needed, I just balance them right on the burner and use my tongs to rotate them. I only do this with the bigger peppers, like poblanos and red bells. Jalapenos go under the broiler or in a  cast iron pan for browning.

There is some care to take when working with hot peppers. Poblano fumes sneak into my lungs when I'm rinsing off the blackened skin. Jalapenos are surprisingly juicy - I often think it'd be a good idea to wear my glasses when cutting them. And don't forget to wash cutting boards and knives. Just don't let these warnings dissuade you! Food smells fear, I'm sure of it. But your cooking will be much improved if you identify some ways to incorporate hot peppers into your menus.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Updating the Indian Feast with a New Chicken Curry

I would love it if my Tandoori Chicken was as wonderful as the versions I've eaten in great Indian restaurants but, alas, it is not. Side note: my favorite Indian restaurants in Chicago are India House, downtown on Grand, and Tiffin, uptown on Devon. Left-field observation: it's a shame that Blogger doesn't have a pull-quote option.

Anyway, I've developed a very basic chicken curry recipe from a favorite cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible. My friend Lea tipped me off to this cookbook and it quickly became a favorite once I got my own copy. If you love Indian food you really ought to have a copy, too.

This dish is totally dependent on the curry powder you use, so don't think about using something that's been in your spice drawer since the Spice Girls were girls. If you live in Chicago, get thee to The Spice House. I use the Sweet Curry Powder, along with a few chili flakes for a bit of a kick - nothing my children can't handle.

Classic Chicken Curry
Print recipe only here

Serves 4


For the marinade:

1 to 1/2 pounds pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed into 1-inch chunks
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
3 T fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 green onions, sliced
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and chopped
1 T fresh ginger finely chopped
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

To cook the chicken:
1 - 2 T canola oil
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed
chili flakes
1 T good curry powder
1 cup chicken broth

Mix together the chicken pieces and the marinade ingredients and let sit for 30 minutes, or cover and refrigerate for a few hours or up to overnight.

When ready to cook, add 1-2 tablespoons canola oil to a large skillet. Add the pressed garlic, chili flakes and curry powder and saute over medium heat. If you want a spicy curry be heavy handed with the chili flakes.

After a minute or two, add the chicken, scraping all the marinade bits into the pan. Turn up the flame to medium high and saute until the chicken is white all over.

Add the chicken broth and simmer for 3-4 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Serve with rice or Naan or Cauliflower Curry or Masoor Dal.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Things You Like if You Like Sugar: Caramel Corn

We have dinked around with various recipes for Caramel Corn over the years, mostly in an effort to reduce the amount of butter that goes into the caramel. And therein lies the rub: caramel is sugar and butter. You cannot so much reduce it. This is how I ended up becoming a fan of kettle corn:  you get the sweet and salty and no butter.

Anyway,  I decided yesterday was the right time to try a David Lebovitz recipe for Caramel Corn. It was that witching hour of late afternoon (otherwise known as tea time) when the weary, the down-trodden, those with hope but not expectation, circle the kitchen in earnest pursuit of a little smackerel of something.

There has arisen a demand for transparency regarding food prepared in-house. The table where my children convene to complete homework and assault one another over rights to the laptop is right outside the kitchen. When I pass them to enter the kitchen they turn on me (I'm sure I'm not the first mom to honestly appreciate being ganged up on since it affords my children the rare moment to side with one another) with questions, then complaints, about what I'm intending to cook. Yesterday was different. When "Caramel Corn" was announced there was a moment where Likelihood of Truth was considered, then a scramble of chairs and legs to be on hand to help.

This Caramel Corn was pretty much wonderful, and one step removed from a recipe I posted a couple of years ago.  We followed DL's directions verbatim for the syrup but parted with him on popcorn popping method. We make a lot of popcorn and take the advice of no man on how to pop it.  One thing I'm looking forward to this summer is figuring out the best way to dry an ear of corn. We were splurging on dried ears at the Green City Market once in a while last summer. At home, we'd stick one in a paper lunch bag in the microwave where, after a few minutes of zapping, it would produce a small mountain of popped corn - way more than I would assume was a single serving and yet how could one ear of corn not be a single serving?

Caramel Corn 
Adapted from David Lebovitz (who adapted it from Epicurious)

A candy thermometer

2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
1½ cups packed brown sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
OPTIONAL: 1 cup salted peanuts, or toasted almonds, pecans, or cashews.

Add oil and popcorn kernels to a large pot and set over medium high heat. When the kernels start to pop, lower the heat a bit and stay close. It will take about 3-4 minutes for all the kernels to pop. Listen for when popping slows down, then turn off the flame. Remove from heat and uncover. Transfer to a large bowl.

Alternately, skip all that and pop 1/2 cup kernels in an air popper.

Spray a large mixing spoon and baking sheet with baking release or coat with butter. Set aside.

Melt butter in a 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat. Add brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt and stir to combine. Set a candy thermometer inside the pot. Bring to a boil and allow to boil without stirring until syrup registers 300 degrees F on thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat.

Using a wooden spoon or a heatproof spatula, stir vanilla and baking soda into the syrup, then quickly pour over popcorn in the mixing bowl. Gently toss the popcorn with the buttered spoon until it is evenly coated.

Transfer to the sheet pan and allow to cool.

Here you have a choice: While still warm, form into popcorn balls. Or, allow to cool completely, then break into small clumps.

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