Monday, December 28, 2009

Macaroni and Cheese with Tomatoes



What do Jews do in Phoenix on Christmas?  Barbeque!  Unless you want Chinese food, there will be no going out.  Plus, I’m here visiting my baby niece, and a barbeque was a nice opportunity for everyone to see her, and give her lots of kisses.  You would want to give her kisses, too, if given such a golden opportunity.  My psycho-cooker-contribution to the occasion was macaroni and cheese.  Mac and cheese is always a welcome contribution to a barbeque, and this is not just any mac and cheese.  It is a very special one with tomatoes, that also happens to be ultra-delish, and has the added bonus of consisting of six ingredients, including salt and pepper.  I have been making it for years, and it always receives rave reviews. 

I adapted it from a recipe in Joan Schwartz’s macaroni and cheese cookbook.  My slightly altered version is remarkably simple: penne pasta, 2 types of cheddar, canned tomatoes, salt, and pepper.  The key to success lies in allowing it sit for at least four hours in the refrigerator, between assembly and baking.  During this incubation period, something magical happens between the juicy tomatoes and cheese, and the pasta absorbs the mysterious sauciness.  After everything is allowed to saturate, the pasta is baked, and becomes crunchy and browned on top, and saucy and cheesy below the surface. 

Another distinguishing element: the cheese is diced, not shredded, resulting in an über-cheesy final product.  Please refrain from laughing, but this macaroni and cheese is also fairly healthy when compared to other recipes within the mac and cheese genre.  Perhaps “less unhealthy” is a more accurate description.  It lacks butter, cream, half-and-half, whole milk, double cream Brie, or anything of the sort.  The cheesy factor is created solely by the presence of abundant cheddar.  Not only do I believe that this makes the dish less unhealthy, but it also gives the dish a greater cheesy flavor since it doesn’t have any cream or béchamel diluting the cheese.  As wonderful as this mac and cheese is, and despite the fact that I firmly believe that it is the least unhealthy of mac and cheese recipes, I will not attempt to claim that the tomatoes count as a vegetable.  Not even a cheese-addicted psycho cooker would be that foolish.  However, the flavor they impart is invaluable, cutting the richness and monotony of endless cheese, and there must be at least a trace of lycopenes.  
      
Mac and Cheese with Tomatoes

1 lb. penne pasta
1-28 oz. whole peeled tomatoes
½-1 lb. of mild cheddar, diced
½-1 lb. of sharp cheddar, diced
·      You want somewhere between a pound and a pound and a half of cheese total.  I think a pound and a quarter is perfect, but it’s a personal preference.
·      Place the cheese in the freezer for 10 minutes for easy chopping.
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

·      Placed a large pot of water on the stove over high heat.  When boiling, add a tablespoon of salted water and the pasta.  Cook the pasta, but drain the pasta 2-3 minutes before it is fully cooked (about 8-9 minutes).
·      Place the tomatoes with juice in a large bowl.  Break apart tomatoes with your hands or a wooden spoon.
·      Add diced cheese, pasta, and salt and pepper to taste.
·      Add pasta mixture to a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish.  (A sprintz of cooking spray will make the pan easier to clean.)
·      Cover the pasta mixture and allow to sit in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (or as long as overnight).
·      Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes, or until hot, bubbly, and browned on top. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pasta Puttanesca


I survived finals.  It was a little vicious, but I am alive and breathing, and feeling fairly successful.  Thus, I have no complaints, especially in light of the fact that I am now blessed with abundant free time.  The other night, I leisurely cooked pasta puttanesca, while listening to the Takeaway (my favorite news-radio program) in its entirety, rather than rushing through it like I usually do in the mornings.  All of this occurred after spending the day with friends, just hanging out, rather than suffocating in a group study room of the library.  Of course, it cannot last.  Reality will beckon for me in a few weeks and, I assure you, I will be ready for it, and most likely complaining of boredom by then. About a week later, I will lament my demanding schedule. The human spirit can be inconsolable, always desirous of whatever it lacks.  To be honest, I was plagued by a dash of anxiety, and a twinge of guilt prior to my puttanesca production.  After counting the minutes until my finals passed, I felt uncomfortable in my aimlessness, but the puttanesca brought me back.  Cooking is a rare, albeit temporary, cure for our lack of sustainable contentedness.  If anything can bring you back to the present moment, it’s something sizzling aggressively on your stove, or a big knife in your hand, that is unavoidably close to your fingertips.  Cooking is like a meditation that happens to result in something good to eat.   

Puttanesca sauce is a tomato-based pasta sauce full of bold, sultry flavors:  spicy red pepper flakes, briny capers, rich olives, and a little anchovy paste in the base of the sauce.  I beg of you: do not let the anchovy paste scare you off.  There is nothing fishy about this dish, but the anchovies elicit a mysterious depth of flavor, a certain “je ne sais quoi.”  I cannot accurately identify what the anchovies add, but I guarantee, you will notice their absence.    

Pasta Puttanesca

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper to taste (easy on the salt)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
½ teaspoon dried oregano
10 grape tomatoes, halved (optional)
1-14 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
8 to 10 kalamata olives*, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon of capers, plus more for garnish
Chopped parsley for garnish
Pasta of your choice (I used thin spaghetti)

·      In a medium-sized saucepan, sauté the chopped onion over medium to medium-high heat in the olive oil.  Sauté for a few minutes until translucent, but not browned. 
·      Add garlic, anchovy paste, a few grinds of pepper, oregano, and red pepper flakes (no salt – the anchovies are salty enough); stir to combine.  Sauté until onions are cooked through (about 10 minutes total, but I like to let them go for about 15 because I really don’t like crunchy onions in tomato sauce). 
·      (Now would probably be a good time to put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta.)
·      Add the grape tomatoes, if using.  Allow them to cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
·      Add the can of tomatoes with their juice. Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon (the tomatoes can remain fairly chunky as they will break down while cooking, and will be blended later). 
·      Reduce heat to medium-low; cover the sauce, venting the lid slightly.  Allow the sauce to simmer gently for at least 15 minutes.  Stir occasionally, and taste for seasoning, but be weary of the salt since capers and olives will be added later, and both are quite salty. 
·      Add pasta to the boiling water.  This amount of sauce can handle close to a ½ pound of pasta.
·      Use an immersion blender to smooth out the sauce if desired, but don’t obliterate it of all texture.  This can also be done with a standing blender, but should be done in batches.  Be sure to vent the blender and cover with a dishtowel to avoid explosions. 
·      Add capers and olives.  Stir to combine, and check for seasoning.
·      When pasta is ready, reserve about a ½ cup or so of pasta cooking water and drain.  Combine pasta and sauce; add pasta water as needed to help the sauce adhere to the pasta.  Garnish with parsley and enjoy!


Comments:  You may have noticed an absence of one of my favorite ingredients here.  I deliberately left off the CHEESE.  Although a sprinkle of Parmesan is perfectly appropriate in this context, I honestly did not want it.  The sauce has enough inherent richness and flavor.  Due to my undying commitment to cheese, the fact that I didn’t want it left me a little disturbed.  So after I ate about half my portion, I added some, and I wish to this minute I had trusted my intuition.  It was just too much: I felt like I was taking an exam, and hastily changed one of my answers at the last minute, only to discover that my initial instincts had been correct.  Without the cheese, I found the pasta dangerously close to perfection.  The addition of the grape tomatoes is not traditional, but those juicy crimson pearls helped balance out the boldness of the other flavors.  I made an effort to leave them alone when possible while my immersion blender maneuvered its way through the sauce. 

Ultimately, this dish is pungent and intoxicating, which its name reflects.  According to foodreference.com, in Italian, puttanesca translates to “in the style of the whore,” and puttana translates to “whore.”  A common interpretation of the name is that the smell of the pasta was used to lure customers to brothels.  However, puttana stems from the Latin word putida, which means “stinking.”  And this sauce does have quite a striking aroma.  Despite the mythical origins of this dish, it is quite delicious, though not for the faint of heart.

*See glossary for definitions

Friday, December 18, 2009

Black Bean Salad and Roasted Poblano Quesadillas




I adore Deb Perelman’s blog, Smitten Kitchen.  It’s fun to read, the recipes always sound great, and she takes beautiful pictures.  Deb even provides pictures of her adorable baby, who lacks the alien-like quality frequently associated with newborns.  I say the food sounds great because I had never made one of her recipes until the other night.  I actually have a document on my computer devoted entirely to Smitten Kitchen recipes that I intend to make, but I only acted on this for the first time earlier this week.  It was a variation of her black bean confetti salad.  I stumbled upon the recipe about two months ago, and immediately wanted to make this delightful concoction: black beans, bell peppers, in a lime and cumin vinaigrette.  As ridiculous as it may sound, I have an irrational love of black beans.  I love their creamy texture, and the contrasting colors of the exterior and interior. 

The recipe had me entranced, but I struggled to dream up an appropriate companion for this salad.  Deb suggests a green salad, but the absence of salad on my blog may serve as an indicator for how I feel about that.  Sometime last week, the notion of roasted poblano quesadillas dawned upon me.  I’d love to take credit for the idea, but I have no doubt that the notion was planted in my head by some Food Network show eons ago, and it has just been waiting for an opportunity to come to fruition.  Anyway, once I thought of it, I felt like black bean salad and roasted poblano* quesadillas would be the best of friends, and it would be an utter tragedy to keep them apart.  Plus, school has been audaciously encroaching on my cooking endeavors of late, and I felt that the process of roasting peppers might soothe my culinarily-deprive soul. 

Black Bean Salad (adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Black Bean Confetti Salad)

1 green pepper, diced
½ red pepper, diced
About 15 grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (about a quarter of an onion)
1-14 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or cilantro
Juice of one lime (one generous tablespoon)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon Sriracha* hot sauce
BIG pinch of kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Quesadillas:

2 poblano* peppers
1½ cups shredded Monterey jack cheese
4 large wheat tortillas
2 teaspoons olive oil

·      First, prepare the peppers:
·      Most people prepare these using a broiler or the open flame of a gas stove.  I have an electric stove and my broiler scares me, so I used one of my burners like a broiler.  I turned one of the burners on to high, and let it preheat until it was red-hot.  Then, using tongs, I held a pepper just above the burner (about an inch, give or take) until the skin was charred and blistered (about 3-4 minutes per side).
·      Place the peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Let sit for at least 10 minutes.
·      Peel off charred skin.  Cut or tear the pepper open, and remove seeds and stems.  Cut or tear the pepper into ½ to one-inch strips (this is very easy to do with your clean hands).  Set strips of pepper aside.  Wash your hands thoroughly, and until then, and avoid touching your eyes or face, not that you should be touching those elements while cooking, anyway.

·      Next, prepare the salad:
·      Whisk together lime juice, cumin, honey, Sriracha, and salt.  Then whisk in olive oil, and set dressing aside.
·      Prep vegetables, beans, and fresh herb of choice.  Combine in a bowl.
·      Add about half the dressing and a few grinds of pepper; taste for seasoning, and add more dressing if necessary. 

·      Last, make the quesadillas:
·      In a large skillet, preheat a drizzle of olive oil (about a half teaspoon) over medium-high heat.
·      Place a tortilla in the pan.  Add about a quarter of the cheese and a quarter of the roasted peppers on half of the tortilla, and fold over the empty side.  Cook for a few minutes on each side until cheese is melted and the tortilla is golden.
·      Add more oil if necessary and repeat with the remaining tortillas, cheese, and peppers; cut quesadillas into wedges.
·      Serve quesadillas with black bean salad and enjoy!

Comments:  This was so lovely, and the leftovers made for a few very satisfying lunches, and I did not even bother to reheat the quesadillas.  Be careful with the dressing:  you will most likely not need all of it.  I foolishly dumped all of it on my salad.  The recipe only yields a quarter cup of dressing, which didn’t seem excessive.  Well, it turned out to be quite excessive, and I ended up having to drain my salad through a sieve, which was a simple antidote, but could be easily avoided by a savvy reader like you. 

This method of roasting peppers is a little time consuming, due to the fact that you can only tackle one pepper at a time.  My broiler scares me, so it seemed like the safest way.  Safety aside, it was more fun than an amusement park.  I kid you not:  the process was a lot of fun, and a feast for the senses.  You can smell, see, and hear the progression occurring before you.  The squeaky noise the peppers make as they blister is just blissful.  I would recommend holding the tongs with an oven mitt, because they will get quite hot, and your arm may get a little tired, but it’s worth it.  Not only is it fun, but those roasted peppers are a tasty treat.  Mine had a nice kick, but most poblanos are pretty mild.  If you have an aversion to heat, just use a bell pepper, and I’m confident that you will be quite content with your meal. 

*See glossary for definitions

Monday, December 14, 2009

Say Thank You with Orzo and Chickpea Salad

A reader recently asked me if I always dine alone.  The frequent answer to that question is yes; when I cook, I usually eat alone for a variety of reasons.  For one, I’m not rolling in cash at the moment, thus I can’t exactly afford to do a lot of entertaining.  Also, I tend to cook at odd hours, and most people don’t want to come over for dinner at quarter to ten.  Plus, I really love to cook for myself.  My dad, for one, finds it hilarious that I love my own food to such a high degree.  I’m not entirely sure what this says about me: perhaps this makes me a little narcissistic; or maybe I just know what I like. 

With that being said, I recently had the opportunity to cook for others that was most definitely a worthy cause.  It is a tradition within my graduate program for the first year students to make lunch for the second year students and clinical faculty.  They all put a lot of effort towards coaxing some competence into us green first year students.  In particular, the second year students have been so amazingly supportive and helpful to us measly first years, I think they deserve a whole month of lunches. 

Given this one quasi-formal opportunity to say thank you, my contribution to the lunch was an orzo and chickpea salad.  I almost refrained from posting this recipe because somehow I forgot to photograph any part of the process, or the finished result.  Despite the lacking visual representation, this is a very forgiving recipe:  cook some orzo, make a simple vinaigrette, and add some chickpeas and your favorite vegetables.  It’s great for a light, but satisfying lunch.  It’s full of crunch, and the beans make it filling, but not heavy.  The feta adds a nice salty savoriness, and a little lemon juice in the vinaigrette makes all the flavors a little bit brighter.  I really like this ratio of acid to olive oil: enough vinegar and lemon to add a little kick, but you can still really taste the flavor of the extra virgin olive oil.    

Orzo and Chickpea Salad (note: this makes a huge quantity, and can be easily scaled down)

1-1  lb. box orzo pasta
1 English or hot house cucumber, chopped (these are the large cucumber wrapped in plastic; the seeds are tiny and the skin is tender so neither needs to be removed)
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
½ of a red onion, finely chopped
2-14 oz. cans chickpeas, drained
½ cup finely chopped parsley
8 oz. crumbled feta cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup combined red wine vinegar and fresh lemon juice (half of a lemon, juiced)
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

·      Put a large pot of water on to boil.
·      Prepare the vinaigrette: squeeze half of a lemon directly into a measuring cup, and then add red wine vinegar until you have a total of a third of a cup.  Add a generous pinch of salt (about a teaspoon) and pepper.  Whisk together (salt will dissolve best before olive oil is added).  Whisk in olive oil and set aside.
·      Meanwhile, prep your vegetables and add orzo to pot when water is boiling, and cook according to directions.  When orzo is ready, drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water.
·      In a very large bowl or pot, mix together all ingredients.  Re-whisk vinaigrette before adding it into other ingredients.  Taste for seasoning, and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.

Comments:  I have made a few variations of this salad, but I think feta cheese is a perfect compliment regardless of the other ingredients.  The recipe above is true to the version I made for the second year students, and this quantity will feed an army.  In fact, it produced such a huge quantity that I was forced to transport it in a soup pot because it was the only vessel large enough to contain the salad.  Usually, this dish actually has a higher vegetable-to-orzo ratio, but I found myself shocked my how much pasta an entire package of orzo can actually yield.  Make your own adjustments accordingly.  You may want to add more vegetables, scale down the pasta more than the vegetables, or just revel in the orzo-mania.  I suppose the word “mania” may be a little strong given the circumstances, but orzo is delicious nonetheless. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Presidential Broccoli Soup, Addendum

Due to the popularity of the presidential broccoli soup, I feel the following information is post-worthy:  the soup freezes beautifully!  I made the original recipe nearly two months ago, and experimentally froze a generous portion in one of those faux Tupperware items (you know what I’m referring to, right?  Glad and Ziploc make them?)  Anyway, as I mentioned, it’s closing in on two months since the soup has been hibernating in my freezer, which is a fairly decent freezer life span.  I defrosted and reheated the soup tonight, and it was just as good as the day I used my immersion blender to whirr those broccoli florets into oblivion.  I topped the soup with some loitering feta cheese (from another recipe you may soon read about), a grind of pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Overall, this was not a shabby dinner.  Of course, as I discussed in the original post, practically any cheese would be a suitable companion for this soup.


It would probably be best to transfer the soup from the freezer to the refrigerator for defrosting purposes, the morning of the desired dinner.  However, I feel that such advanced planning defeats the purpose of having the luxury of meals in your freezer to begin with.  Inevitably, if you took such a sophisticated defrosting approach, you would develop an insatiable hankering for Chipotle come evening.  At a bona fide dinner hour, I simply gave the rock-solid-frozen-soup a few minutes in the microwave on the illusive defrost setting (seriously, what does that mean, objectively?)  Once the perimeter of the container returned to its former liquid state, I put the soup in a pan on low heat over the stove until it reached a steamy, luscious, soupy state.  Add a little cheese to the soup, and a little Radiohead to the mix (perhaps a cocktail, too?), and there is little else you can ask for when confronted with a chilly Tuesday evening in snowy December. 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Acting Out


Finals are horrible.  Even though they will be over in two weeks, it feels like an eternity.  I recommend keeping a safe distance from me until then, because I am beyond irritable.  I had to get gas today, which seemed like the world’s biggest inconvenience.  My car was at about an eighth of a tank.  Even though I drive an average of a mile and a half a day, it seemed like a good idea to fill up because here in Boulder the thermometers are ringing in at near record low temperatures.  It’s supposed to be about five degrees tonight.  I pulled up to a pump only to discover that the credit/debit machine was out of order.  This necessitated me getting back in my car, and backing up approximately 15 feet, and I nearly cried out of frustration.  This is not normal.  This is finals. 

BUT… there is a bonus to finals that I forgot about until tonight: the inevitable acting out.  Yes, acting out, like a small child who is over-tired, and misbehaves horribly as a result, perhaps enjoying it a little.  In college, it meant finishing studying at midnight and drinking until three, only to get up at seven to study more.  In grad school, it’s a little less exciting, especially in the frigid cold.  I spent an embarrassingly long time at the library today, and there was class squished somewhere amidst those hours, and finals haven’t even technically started.  However, tonight, I found myself drinking vodka, cooking obnoxiously garlicky pasta, and having a dance party to the Beta Band at inappropriate hours.  I was giddy with glee, and pulling dance moves of which the details will not be disclosed.  Did I mention that I have a presentation tomorrow at nine o’clock in the morning?  Like I said, finals are horrible, but the consequential psychosis comes with the occasional swing of mania that makes it worthwhile for a hot minute.

In case you were wondering, the pasta was a garlic and olive oil masterpiece, with lemon, tons of parsley, and enough hot pepper flakes to guarantee heartburn at this late hour.  I finished it off with some Parmesan.  It was all my favorite ingredients piled up together on one plate. This is actually a frequent antidote for exhaustion and desperation in my apartment. On this particular occasion, I garnished it with some capers for a dose of briny, salty goodness.  I will provide more detail one of these days, but not now, because I’m busy acting out.  If we’re all very lucky, I will refrain from posting until after finals are over, and hopefully, I will have recovered from the urge to divulge such psychotic drivel.    

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving



It probably won’t come as a surprise that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  It is a beautiful affair: a day devoted purely to the enjoyment of food, with no religious connotations.  It excludes no one.  Come one, come all, and, please, stuff your face.  And then have another plate.

I am proud to say that when I lived in Philadelphia I produced not one, but two Thanksgiving feasts all by myself in my two years there.  These meals were only for a party of two, but they consisted of all major components: turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and some sort of vegetable.  I never made pie for the occasion, but rather my single baking accomplishment: chocolate chip cookies.  I make great chocolate chip cookies, but nothing else in the line of baked goods (I intend to tackle baking bread soon; stay tuned).  Despite my proficiency in the Thanksgiving staples, I must admit that my role in this year’s Detroit Thanksgiving was supporting, at best.  There is something about Detroit that brings out the laziest side of me.  I lived there for a year before I moved to Colorado, and I didn’t leave the house unless it was absolutely mandatory (i.e. school, work, the library… sad, but true).  After this trip, I can attest that my old habits persist.  As far as the cooking was concerned, I did make somewhat of a contribution helping my mom, but it was probably not what you would expect from a self-proclaimed psycho cooker. 

As happy as I was to be home for Thanksgiving with my family, there was one drawback.  My immediate family was missing some essentials: my oldest brother, his wife, and their smiley baby girl.  We made a feeble attempt to compensate for the absence: we had a brisket in addition to the turkey.  No, food is not a sufficient substitute for the beautiful baby, but it helped to ease our pain. 
We had six people for Thanksgiving, but could have easily fed twelve.  While planning, my mom and I kept insisting that we didn’t want to make too much food, but somehow the menu kept growing.  Initially, we planned on sticking to the basics, not a far cry from the Thanksgiving dinners I have prepared myself.  Then the brisket was added on to the menu.  My adorable grandmother wanted to make the brisket, and this somehow justified its presence.  In turn, this necessitated two gravies.  We knew that we would make a vegetable, but in the dwindling grocery shopping hours, we were unsure if we had decided on roasted Brussels sprouts or green bean casserole.  The only reasonable solution was to prepare both.  My mom makes a pretty traditional green bean casserole, except she uses frozen French haricot verts from Trader Joe’s, which really seem to make a difference.  The Brussels sprouts were roasted with olive oil and finished with a touch of fresh lemon juice and honey.  Then somehow a Caprese salad was added to the mix:  just some bocconcini mozzarella and grape tomatoes drizzled tossed with olive oil, and served over a bed of arugula.  You may be asking yourself: Why we would do such a thing?  Doesn’t it seem unnecessary with all of that food?  Isn’t it a little contextually inappropriate?  These are reasonable questions to which I cannot supply reasonable answers.  I will tell you that it was rather lovely, and a nice change of pace to all of that rich, oven-roasted food.  You know a meal is rich when a salad composed primarily cheese lightens it up.  And of course, we had stuffing and our famous twice baked potato casserole (see Rosh Hashanah post for details).  For dessert, we had an apple pie and a blueberry pie.  Again, ridiculously decadent for six people, but isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? 
Not to brag, but it seemed like all the food came out pretty close to perfect this year.  These are pretty standard recipes*, but everything was somehow better than advertised.   Perhaps this was the culinary gods trying to clue me in to how thankful I really should be.  Ultimately, my priority for Thanksgiving is a good meal, but an extra opportunity to appreciate your life and your family should not be overlooked.  And luckily for me, the food was so good that it served as an additional reminder to be thankful for everything I have.  Now that I have gotten the sappiness out of the way, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that the featured plate is my brother, Ben’s.  We agreed that it was a perfectly lavish Thanksgiving specimen, and we do not agree on a lot.  The other photos are the “before” and “after” shots of our feast.  It honestly makes me a little ill to see the amount of potatoes that were consumed, but it is that exact reaction that indicates that we not only did a great job cooking, but eating, as well.

*I did not include the recipes because there were so many, but feel free to contact me for them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Psycho Cooker Dines in Detroit

I have briefly returned to my homeland, Detroit, to recharge my battery before finals.  Detroit is struggling a bit these days, but one thing the economy cannot take from it is its eclectic place on the culinary map.  My sojourn to Detroit also served as a brief break from cooking; below is a synopsis of the smattering of meals I had before commencing the great Thanksgiving cook-off. 


 On my first evening in the D, we had my parents’ version of a “small” barbeque: a couple pounds of bone-in center cut pork chops, burgers (with and without cheese), and sundried tomato chicken sausage.  With such delicate fare and small portions (note the sarcasm), a pizza and salad were deemed necessary supplements to the meat spectacular.  Perhaps this meal sounds palatable, but not exactly noteworthy.  Well, we didn’t have just any pizza.  This was Buddy’s pizza, a Detroit institution.  Square, deep-dished, perfectly greasy, with a generous layer of Brick cheese, and tomato sauce stippled on top of it all.  It’s sort of like what would happen if a grilled cheese sandwich and pizza had a shotgun wedding, and a baby with a perfect balance of their respective genetic traits.  They really would have beautiful children.  
                                                         
On Monday, I met a friend for lunch, and we ate at a bona fide local Jewish deli: Steve’s Deli.  At Steve’s, they pull out all of the stops, and the restaurant is even set up like a long, narrow New York deli.  Although Detroit-style deli may sound like a poor man’s New York deli, I have heard New Yorkers rave about it.  I grew up with it, and it is near and dear to my heart.  In order to protect that heart, I actually chose turkey instead of corned beef, and it was delightful.  I went with the classic combination of Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing.  Jewish fare never ceases to amaze me because it takes questionable ingredients, and sews them together in such a way that results in something delicious.  Let’s break it down: deli-style coleslaw = cabbage, carrot, mayonnaise, a little vinegar, a little sugar (these ingredients probably don’t have you drooling).  And Russian dressing is even worse: mayo, ketchup, and pickle relish.  Honestly, I don’t even know what to say about that.  BUT, if you put it all together and pile it up with some turkey or corned beef, and some Swiss cheese, people will go mad for it.  Of course, the perfect rye bread plays a pivotal role.  My friend had a beautiful sandwich of fresh mozzarella, pesto, and tomato.  It looked amazing and I’m sure it was delicious in a little more conventional way, but I couldn’t let the opportunity for genuine deli slip through my fingers, and I have no regrets.  


I mentioned in a previous post that Detroit seems to have a Greek diner on every corner, and we call them “coney islands” (see the post on avgolemono soup).  I had to make a visit during my stay, but I couldn’t go to any old coney island.  It had to be the best: Greek Islands Coney Island.  They have undoubtedly the best Greek salad in the world.  Perfectly herbaceous chicken breast, grilled to order, baby spinach, radicchio, head lettuce, shredded carrots, kalamata olives*, tomato wedges, peperoncinis*, feta, etc., etc.  With those greens, it may sounds like this place is a little upper crust, but this is not the case.  You can also get an all beef Kosher chili dog for $2.10.  I actually did not get the salad, and went with spanikopita* and avgolemono soup* (see the glossary for a definition or my post on avgolemono soup).  Not only is it authentic spanikopita, but it also comes in its own individual strudel-like package.  Greek Islands does not skimp on the feta, which results in a lovely spinach-to-cheese ratio.  This food is so good that I unfortunately forget to take a picture, but you can see a picture of their spanikopita on their website’s menu. 

These are just a few examples of Detroit’s great food.  Although I am enjoying my time in Colorado, Detroit has a lot of options that would be impossible without its diverse population.  Unfortunately, I have just grazed the surface: Cantonese Chinese and the most spectacular Middle Eastern food will just have to wait for the sequel to this post.  To be continued...

*See glossary for definitions

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Braised Chicken, Provençal-Style


I do not consider myself a ravenous carnivore.  Besides the infrequent cheeseburger, I don’t really eat red meat.  Unlike a lot of people, USDA Prime steak doesn’t make me swoon.  I get bored after a bite or two.  However, chicken on the bone is one delicacy I cannot part with.  I just love it.  In fact, as tactless as it may be, on Thanksgiving, carve the bird and give me what remains; I will involuntarily hum as I eat out of sheer happiness.  This gem of a recipe is perfect for chicken on the bone.  Make adjustments as necessary; besides potentially dry white meat, it will come out fine.  Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are actually quite nice, although they sacrifice aesthetic appeal.  But, please, keep modifications to yourself, and spare me the heartache.  I inherited my poultry-bone-picking genes from not one, but two grandmothers, and my love runs deep.  Aside from the chicken controversy, this dish is pretty straightforward: tomatoes, olives, garlic.  It’s a classic combination for a reason, and that reason is that it’s utterly delicious.

1 ½ to 2 pounds of chicken pieces (I used thighs and drumsticks, skin removed)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1-14 ounce can of diced tomatoes
½ cup chicken stock, white or red wine, or water
½ to ¾ cup good quality olives, coarsely chopped (I used Kalamata olives* and Greek green olives)
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

§  In a large deep skillet, preheat olive oil over medium-high to high heat until very hot (about 3 minutes).  Add chicken, seasoned with salt and pepper, and allow to brown, about 5 minutes per side.  Remove from pan and set aside; reduce heat to medium.
§  Drain all but about a tablespoon or so of oil from the pan.  Add onion and anchovy paste (if using) and some pepper and salt if you are not using the anchovies.  Sauté until softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. 
§  Add garlic, dried herbs, red pepper flakes, tomatoes, and salt/pepper (easy on the salt: olives and anchovy paste are salty).
§  Allow mixture to simmer (increase heat if necessary) for a couple of minutes and add stock. 
§  Bring it back to a simmer and return chicken to the pan. 
§  Cover the pan, and allow to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.  Turn chicken every 5 minutes or so.  Scatter olives across the chicken and cover the pan to allow the olives to heat through, while the rest of meal is finished.  Garnish with parsley.  (If you want a more traditional preparation, add olives to tomato mixture before the chicken is returned to the pan.  I personally don’t like gratuitous cooking of olives.)

§  Serve with soft polenta (I added Parmesan and parsley to mine.  See my post on grits for details) and zucchini sautéed in live oil with garlic.  Couscous, rice, crusty bread, or extra vegetables are all appropriate accompaniments (add some eggplant to your zucchini and you will be oh-so-Provençal).

Comments:  The quality of the olives is paramount.  Go to Whole Foods, or another quality market, and indulge in the olive bar.  It will be priced at $7.99-9.99 per pound, which sounds like a lot, but a third of a pound of olives goes a long way.  I like to think of it as an affordable luxury.  Also, olives with pits will always taste better than those already pitted.  Just whack them with the side of your knife, like you would a garlic clove.  The firmness of the olive will dictate how hard you need to hit it.  Generally, black olives take a lot less force than green.  Like I said above, traditionally the olives should be cooked with the chicken, but I really don’t like that, especially with black olives, which get too soft.  However, each cook has to make his/her own judgment.  I did remove the chicken skin to avoid the temptation.  It obviously won’t get crispy in a dish like this, so I might as well spare my arteries.  Because if it’s there, crispy or not, I will eat it. 

This dish makes great leftovers.  I store the chicken, sauce, and polenta separately because it gives you more options.  For example, when you walk into your apartment starving, you can grab a drumstick and eat standing in front of the refrigerator.  But that is purely hypothetical.  Also, you can fry up the extra polenta and serve it with eggs or vegetables (again, see my most on grits for details).  If you’re tired or lacking creativity, you can recreate the whole meal by piling up the three components in a bowl; give it a quick spin in the microwave, and dinner is served.

*See glossary for details

Monday, November 16, 2009

Where the Soup Has No Name

Oh, this soup made me so happy.  Only for the few brief moments when I was allowed to directly interact with it (aka cooking and eating it), but every little bit helps when you’re bogged down my professional growth plans, exams, final papers, take-home finals, portfolios, and being sick on top of it.  The illness was the catalyst for the soup.  Besides a little extra sleep and vitamin C, soup was the only remaining attack-strategy I could summon.  If you read my previous post, you will know I was planning on making something fool-proof, one of my old standby recipes that I have up my sleeve which can always be counted on to satisfy (I’ve been holding out on you, but I’ll reveal those secrets eventually). 

Instead, I embarked on a massive experiment that had optimal results.  This was particularly risky because this is ultimately a modified version of my mom’s vegetable soup with some pasta added.  My mom happens to make the most wonderful vegetable soup, and I was most likely setting myself up for disappointment, as I was innately expecting a similar flavor.  By some miracle of the forces that be, the soup did indeed resemble my mom’s soup in flavor.  There is a subtle, but crucial distinction between a bunch of ingredients swimming together in a pot and an actual soup, where a multitude of ingredients come together as a whole.  You’re not thinking about the components as you scoop up each spoonful because the ingredients take on a group identity.  This recipe epitomizes just such a magical merger.

1 small onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
1 plump garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
hot sauce or hot pepper flakes to taste
2-14 oz. cans reduced chicken broth (you may want a third on reserve)
1-14 oz. can diced tomatoes (don’t drain)
½ to 2/3 cup orzo pasta
2 small zucchini, chopped (or one large)
small crown of broccoli, chopped (don’t worry about keeping it in florets)
5 small mushrooms, quartered and sliced

Optional garnish: baby spinach, cheese (parmesan, mozzarella, feta all work)

§  In a soup pot, sauté onion, carrots, and garlic in olive oil over medium to medium-high heat, until they start to soften (8-10 minutes).  Season with salt and pepper.
§  Add 2 cans of broth, can of diced tomatoes, dried herbs, and hot sauce.  Bring mixture to a gentle boil. 
§  Reduce to a simmer.  Add orzo, cook, stirring occasionally to prevent pasta from sticking to the bottom.  And cook for about 8-10 minutes.  It will not be fully cooked.
§  Add the zucchini, broccoli, and mushrooms.  Let the soup simmer gently for about 15-30 minutes, or until all vegetables are tender.  Stir occasionally and check for seasonings, adding more if needed.  If the soup is too thick, add a little more broth or water (I probably added an extra ¾ of a cup, but this will depend on how much pasta you use).
§  To serve, put a handful of baby spinach in the bottom of the bowl and pour soup over it.  Stir so it wilts and finish with cheese, if desired.
§  When reheating soup, you may want to add a tablespoon or two of broth or water to thin it out, but this is purely based on preference.


Comments:  I really loved this meal, and now that I have the skeleton down, I can use the basic foundation for other delicious soups.  In the future, I might add more vegetables; it could definitely handle more zucchini, more carrots.  Celery would be nice; peas, cabbage, green beans, anything would do.  Actually, with a lot of extra vegetables, the pasta could be eliminated all together, but I think that the starch released by the pasta adds a nice body to the soup.  However, I don’t really know what to call this soup.  It’s not a chicken soup, because it has no actual chicken in it.  It’s loaded with vegetables, but it’s not a vegetable soup, because it’s made with chicken stock and tons of pasta.  So the soup will remain nameless, but lovely nonetheless.  

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Turkey and Artichoke Stuffed Shells




I am a recovering Giada de Laurentiis super-fan.  Unless you went to college with me, you were probably unaware that such a thing existed.  When I first started cooking, there was a part of me that truly felt that Giada was my personal culinary tutor, and quite possibly, my best friend (if only she knew me).  Rationally, I was aware that this was all untrue, but on a visceral level, I had other beliefs.  I watched Everyday Italian at 4:30 pm, daily.  Nothing could deter me; the show brought out a degree of concentration I only wish I could achieve in grad school. 

Thankfully, I have grown out of this specific psychosis.  A lot has changed since I first fell in love with Giada and the Food Network.  I quenched my thirst for basic information, and have since broadened my spectrum of cooking resources. And personally, I think the Food Network (including Giada) has changed tremendously in the last five years.  It has moved towards the mass appeal of the everyday cook, focusing on quick and easy recipes for weeknight dinners.  I mean no criticism of this; the Food Network gets people cooking by making it accessible and entertaining, which is great.  But I do miss the days when Giada wore an apron and her hair tied back, while making pastry dough and marinara sauce from scratch.  And it’s not because I do this all the time myself (I used jarred sauce in this recipe; don’t judge me), but I want the people I admire to do better than me.  With that being said, I will conclude the sob story, because I still watch and enjoy the Food Network when given the opportunity.  Ultimately, the preparation of this recipe is in homage to Giada, who truly did play a huge role in teaching me to cook, and I’m sure many others as well.  There have got to be other people out there like me, right?


Ingredients:

1 (12-ounce) box jumbo pasta shells (recommended: Barilla)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound ground turkey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus 1/2 teaspoon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus 1/4 teaspoon
1 (8 to 10-ounce) package frozen artichokes, thawed and coarsely chopped
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (I omitted the basil and added extra parley)
5 cups Arrabbiata* Sauce, recipe follows
1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella (about 5 ounces)

Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and partially cook until tender but still very firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain pasta.
Meanwhile, in a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and the garlic and cook until the onions are soft and starting to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the ground turkey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is slightly golden and cooked through. Add the artichoke hearts and stir to combine. Remove from heat and let cool.
In a large bowl combine the cooled turkey mixture with the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, eggs, basil, parsley, and the remaining salt and pepper. Stir to combine.
To stuff the shells, cover the bottom of a 9 by 13 by 2-inch baking dish with 1 cup of Arrabbiata sauce. Take a shell in the palm of your hand and stuff it with a large spoonful of turkey mixture, about 2 tablespoons. Place the stuffed shell in the baking dish. Continue filling the shells until the baking dish is full, about 24 shells. Drizzle the remaining Arrabbiata Sauce over the shells, top with the grated mozzarella. If freezing, cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 1 day and up to 1 month.
To bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until the shells are warmed through and the cheese is beginning to brown, about 60 minutes (20 minutes if shells are unfrozen.)

For Giada’s arrabbiata sauce recipe, click here.

Comments:  I probably should have followed the recipe.  On a rare occasion, that’s a good idea.  But I didn’t feel like spending the money on pancetta and basil.  And I certainly didn’t have the time to whip up that arrabbiata* sauce after studying motor speech disorders all day.  So I used jarred marinara sauce, and added a good teaspoon of hot pepper flakes to the filling instead.  In hindsight, I’m pretty sure that a spicy sauce with a salty low note of pancetta* would have been better than the sweetness of marinara (note: Giada's arrabbiata calls for pancetta, but most recipes do not).  Regardless, homemade sauce would have been better.  Plus it’s so much fun to make when I have the time.  Despite, the hot pepper flakes in the filling, the dish was not spicy, although this may have been due to my impending cold.  The artichokes were a major selling point on this recipe, but they didn’t really add much flavor.  I think mushrooms and spinach would have been better.  And I’m kicking myself because I used frozen artichokes for the first time in my life, like the recipe called for, mind you.  Now I’m wondering if the lack of flavor was due to the recipe or the frozen factor because I’ve never been disappointed by a canned artichoke heart.  I will try not to lose too much sleep over it. 

Another strange thing: I ended up with about third of the pasta shells unused.  The filling was depleted, and the pan was packed with 25 shells, yet I had leftover shells.  I threw them out because I could not for the life of me think of a purpose for par-cooked jumbo shells.  I suppose I over stuffed the shells and would have been able to fit more into the pan if I had packed them a little more delicately.  Between the frozen artichokes and the excess shells, I will be pondering the mysteries of this recipe for years.  All in all, the pasta was pretty tasty: hearty and satisfying.  Rumor has it that I may have even scarfed down a few shells cold.  I was just irked because I knew it could have been better.  Sometimes, mediocrity is harder to swallow than failure.  My next recipe better be foolproof.  Every cook needs an occasional confidence booster, and the psycho cooker is currently in such a state.

*See glossary for definitions

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Curried Chicken and Napa Cabbage Stir Fry




As the semester winds down, the intensity of school only accelerates.  For a normal human being, this would result in simplified cooking, or picking up sandwiches.  Not the Psycho Cooker.  This week, a massive neuroscience exam was my most significant burden; I now know the difference between the medial and lateral geniculate bodies of the thalamus, and some of their subsystems.  Please, curb your rampant jealousy; I can sense it from here.  I promise, it wasn’t quite as much fun as it sounds.  In the midst of studying, I decided that making a stir-fry was mandatory for both my physical and mental health.  Besides, I had half of a Napa cabbage that I couldn’t bear to waste.  Thus, my reward for memorizing thalamic nuclei was cooking, even if the pan didn’t start sizzling until 10 o’clock at night.  I’m sure my neighbors were thrilled to have the smell of curry wafting through their apartments as they got ready for bed. 

Curried Chicken and Napa Cabbage Stir-fry (adapted from Marc Bittman’s recipe)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided
1 tablespoon garlic, minced, divided
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated, divided
Handful of chopped scallions
About 3 cups shredded Napa cabbage (about a pound)
6 button mushrooms, sliced (about ¼ pound)
½ cup frozen peas, thawed (just let them sit out during cooking)
½ pound chicken breast, chopped in about ½ inch cubes
about a tablespoon curry powder (optional)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Hefty drizzle of Sriracha* (only if you want it spicy; I probably used a couple teaspoons)

Toss chicken with curry powder (if using) and set aside.
Next prep the rest of the ingredients so the stir-fry can be prepared smoothly (this is called “mise en place*”).
Heat half of the oil over high heat for 3-4 minutes. 
Reduce heat to medium-high and add half of garlic and ginger.  Give the pan a quick shake to distribute, and immediately add the mushrooms, scallions, and cabbage.  Allow to cook for 5-8 minutes, until cabbage and mushrooms have softened.  Remove vegetables from pan.
Add the rest of oil, garlic, and ginger to pan.  Allow to cook for a few seconds, and add the chicken.  Allow to cook for 5-8 minutes, or until cooked through.  Then add the peas, cabbage mixture, soy sauce, and Sriracha.  Toss to combine.  If the mixture looks dry, add about a ¼ cup of water.  Eat as is, or over white or brown rice.

Comments:  This. Was. Fantastic.  The delirium of the eons spent at the library probably augmented this, but I’m pretty sure I would enjoy it any night of the week.  Next time, I might double the cabbage and mushrooms; they were that tasty.  Tofu would have been sublime in this (curried, seared tofu: what could be bad?), but I did enjoy the heartiness of the chicken.  If you’re not a fan of curry, leave it out.  The ginger, garlic, and soy will bestow enough flavor.  However, I LOVED the curry.  This is only the second time I’ve actually cooked with it, and I find that it makes food intensely fragrant, but not overpowering on the flavor front.  When it hits the pan, it’s like getting an olfactory hug.  In fact, I may start carrying around a vile of curry powder and take whiff when I am stressed.  Perhaps it exists in an eau de toilette. 

Being a cheerleader for carbohydrates, I served this over white rice.  Brown rice would have been my first choice, but it needs about hour to cook at this altitude and I didn’t have that kind of time.  However, once I had my first bite, I realized that this dish would have been utterly perfect without any rice at all.  This is a bold statement as there are few low-carb dishes that I find palatable.  The best thing about this dish is that you could apply the technique to other quick-cooking vegetables and proteins, and switch up the flavors to make an infinite array of healthful and delicious stir-fry options.  There will definitely be more to come in the psycho-kitchen.

*See glossary for definitions