Wednesday, April 28, 2010


April is not exactly a joyous time of year for graduate students.  The weather is getting nicer, yet the time you spend studying only increases.  At this juncture, I feel like I worry so excessively about school that I absolutely refuse to worry about how I’m going to be fed.  During times like these, I want to have a big pot of food in my refrigerator, on call for the demands of my stomach.  Mujadra is perfect for such desperate circumstances.  In a nutshell, it is vegetarian, Middle Eastern, comfort food.  It also happens to be nutritious and dirt-cheap.  It consists of just a handful of ingredients: lentils and rice, seasoned with sautéed onions and cumin, all cooked together in stock.  I prefer chicken stock, but of course vegetable stock is would work, as well.  According to the recipe, you can also use water, but I cannot vouch for that. 
I understand if you think it sounds boring.  In fact, I’ll admit it: it sounds boring.  However, it happens to be so delicious and satisfying.  I’m not sure what happens in that pot while it cooks, but there must be little magicians housed in those lentils because somehow that boring ingredient list creates a sum that is much greater than its parts.  Give your mujadra a generous spritz of fresh lemon (or top with caramelized onions if you have the time), and enjoy this simple pleasure, that’s both easy on your stomach and your pocket.  The leftovers will provide abundant repeat performances. 
Mujadra (recipe courtesy of my mom)

1 cup dried lentils (I prefer green French lentils, but my mom always uses brown lentils)
1 cup white rice
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
4 cups stock or water (I use two 14 oz. cans of chicken stock and make up the difference with water)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Lemon wedges or carmelized onions, for garnish

·      In a large pot over medium heat, lightly sauté onion in olive oil until tender, but not brown (about 10 minutes). 
·      Add lentils and sauté for 1 minute, so that lentils are evenly coated with the olive oil.  Add 4 cups liquid of choice and bring to a boil.
·      Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes (25-30 minutes in the mountains).
·      Add rice, cumin, a big pinch of salt, and lots of pepper.
·      Simmer, covered, for 25 - 40 minutes until tender.
·      Serve with lemon wedges or caramelized onions. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Chicken Fajitas

I apologize if you’re tired of hearing me gush about Tastespotting, but it truly is the best website ever.  I don’t necessarily use or even look at the recipes; the pictures are enough inspiration on their own.  As a cook, it’s easy to get boxed in by your own inherent tastes.  You develop a moderate sized repertoire of dishes that you like and you do well, and that’s about all you cook.  Tastespotting can free you of this cycle.  You browse the pictures; you drool a little; you roll your eyes at stupid captions; eventually, you see something that is outside of your repertoire, but you unconsciously always wanted to make.  Recently, it was fajitas.  I saw a picture of some lovely chicken fajitas, and I could not figure out why I never make them.  I saw the picture on Monday, with a plan to make fajitas on Friday night.  They were the light at the end of my weeklong tunnel.  I did look at the recipe accompanying the inspiring photo, but I wasn’t thrilled.  So I made one up.  Fajitas are pretty straight forward, and mine came out quite well.  If you made up a recipe for fajitas, I’m sure they would be tasty, too.  But I owe Tastespotting for planting the idea in my brain. 
My fajitas were made with thinly sliced chicken, onion, and poblano peppers.  The mixture was marinated in a kitchen-sink-type of situation:  lime juice, lemon juice, chili powder, cumin, hot pepper flakes, garlic, oregano, thyme, Frank’s red hot, and oil.  The only thing I would do differently is reduce the oil, and add some fresh jalapeno.  They were certainly tasty after bathing in all of that olive oil, but I don’t think I would have missed it.  I decided to pull out the big guns, and make my own condiments: grape tomato pico de gallo, and guacamole.  Both were simple and tasty, and basically comprised of the same ingredients, swapping tomatoes and avocados.  Next time you’re looking to have a raging Friday night, you may hear chicken fajitas calling your name. 
Chicken Fajitas

Juice of 2 limes
Juice of ½ lemon
3 tablespoons Frank’s Red Hot sauce
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup oil (I used a mix of olive oil and canola.  Next time I’d try just using a ¼ cup)

1-1¼ chicken breast, sliced thin
1 poblano pepper, sliced thin
1 onion, sliced thin

Pico de Gallo:
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
1½ tablespoons finely diced red onion
½ large jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of one lime
Salt and pepper

2 ripe avocados, diced
1½ tablespoons finely diced red onion
½ large jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of one lemon
A few splashes of Frank’s red hot sauce

Flour tortillas
Shredded cheese

·      Prep your chicken, poblano, and onion.  Add to a gallon sized Ziploc bag.
·      Make the marinade by whisking together all of the ingredients besides the oil.  When everything is well incorporated, slowly whisk in the oil.  Pour the marinade over the chicken mixture.
·      Seal the bag, and allow the marinade to evenly distribute throughout the bag.  Marinate the mixture in the refrigerator, turning the bag every 15 minutes or so.  Marinate for at least an hour. [I recommend stowing the bag in a baking dish, rather than directly on your refrigerator shelf in case there is a leak.]
·      In the meantime, prepare the pico de gallo by combining all listed ingredients.  Do this about ½ hour before you are ready to start cooking the chicken to let the flavors combine.
·      Just before you are ready to cook, prepare the guacamole by mixing all of the ingredients.  The easiest way to prepare the avocado:
o   Carefully cut the avocado in half by moving your knife slowly around the seed. 
o   Once halved, hold the avocado in your palm and give the seed a careful whack with your knife.  The knife should go into the avocado about a ¼ inch so you are able to pull out the seed from the flesh. 
o   Then carefully remove the seed from the blade (if this scares you, you can scoop it out with a big spoon, but you’ll lose some of your avocado).
o   While still in the skin, cross hatch the avocado flesh with your knife, and then scoop out the cubes with a large spoon.
·      Then add everything else to the avocado, and stir to combine, mashing the avocado slightly, until you’ve reached your desired consistency.
·      When you’re ready to cook the chicken, preheat a large skillet (preferably non-stick), dry, over high heat. 
·      When it is HOT (after about 3-5 minutes), add the chicken, peppers, and onions in an even layer (use tongs, instead of dumping the contents of the bag into the pan, so you leave the excess oil in the bag).
·      Cook, stirring frequently until the chicken is cooked through and the peppers and onions have softened.
·      When the chicken is ready, heat tortillas by wrapping them in paper towel, lightly sprinkled with water, and heat in the microwave for 20-30 seconds.
·      Serve chicken with tortillas, shredded cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tomato Soup with Grilled Ham and Cheese Sandwiches

April is National Grilled Cheese Month!  I have no idea who declares these silly food holidays, or why, but I will embrace any excuse to eat a grilled cheese sandwich.  This very special month-long holiday was revealed to me via Tastespotting, and it was later confirmed by another reputable source.  Such a momentous occasion inspired me to make a grilled cheese sandwich’s perfect companion: tomato soup.  I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a little old school canned tomato soup.  Amy’s Kitchen makes a lovely chunky tomato bisque.  However, it’s entirely feasible to whip up a whole pot of your own (significantly better) tomato soup for the same cost as a dinky can of Amy’s. 
You will find that the ingredients for this soup are similar to marinara sauce.  In truth, the final product sort of resembles marinara soup.  Personally, I don’t think that this is a bad thing.  It’s lovely as soup, and when you get sick of soup, you can add it to your favorite  pasta.  May I suggest sautéed zucchini and grape tomatoes with spaghetti?  Perhaps a soup that tastes like pasta sauce doesn’t appeal to you.  That’s fine; you’re can opener awaits.  I, however, thought it was delicious, and ate it with grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.  Yes, I veered off my original grilled cheese course, but my sandwich could be considered a first cousin of grilled cheese:  crusty Italian bread, sharp provolone, Black Forest ham, and baby spinach.  In my defense, it was heavy on the cheese, and light on the ham.  I don’t think this combination should trigger too many complaints. 
Tomato Soup (adapted from Mark Bittman’s recipe)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
½ onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
½ teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
1 cup reduced-sodium chicken stock
¼ to ½ cup half and half

·      In a medium sized saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Once hot, add the carrot, celery, onion, and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender (at least 10 minutes). 
·      Add the can of tomatoes, dried thyme, and little more salt and pepper.  Increase heat so the mixture starts to boil gently, and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon, and breaking up some of the tomatoes.
·      Add the chicken stock, and simmer for another 10 minutes.  Taste for seasoning, and re-season if necessary.
·      Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until it is smooth, but leave some chunks if desired.  Then add the half and half.  Heat the soup through and serve with grilled sandwich of choice. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Al Fresco Dining

What’s the perfect ending to a perfect spring day?  The perfect dinner, outside, of course.  What’s the perfect outside dinner?  Parmesan chicken topped with a simple salad dressed in lemon vinaigrette.  There’s really no witty story or commentary behind this recipe.  Last Sunday, I just happened to spend a lovely homework-free day in good company.  I literally forgot I was in grad school for they day, and as I rode this wave of contented delirium, this recipe popped in my head.  I saw Ina Garten make it for Mel Brooks on Barefoot Contessa a while back.  If it is good enough for Mel Brooks, it is good enough to complete my perfect spring day. 

The gist:  pounded out chicken breasts, coated in Parmesan and panko breadcrumbs, and sautéed.  Then you top it with a simple salad, and eat perfect morsels of lemony greens with crispy chicken.  It doesn’t take too long to make, and it’s perfect for warm weather because you only need to have the stove on for about 10-15 minutes.  Eating this dinner outside definitely makes it taste better, and I do have a witness.
Parmesan Chicken (adapted from Ina Garten's recipe)

2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (the crumbly kind you find at the grocery store)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Lots of freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs
Olive oil

For the salad:
Salad greens for two (I used about 2/3 of a bag of spring mix)
Juice of one lemon
1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
About ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Extra parm for garnish

·      First order of business:  make the chicken breasts thin (about ¼ inch thick) to make them more tender and quick cooking.
·      You can do this by pounding them out with the flat side of a meat mallet, the bottom of a skillet, or a rolling pin.  Put the chicken between 2 pieces of plastic wrap to contain the mess.
·      Or you can butterfly them first, and then pound them out (my preferred method), but if you’re not very comfortable with a knife go with the other method.  To butterfly, I place the palm of my hand on the chicken breast, and press down to stabilize it.  Then with my Santoku knife sideways, I slowly work it through the middle of the chicken.  The result is two thin pieces.  Then I pound.
·      Mix together panko, Parmesan, salt and pepper in a large shallow bowl.  Taste for seasoning.
·      In another large shallow bowl, beat the two eggs with a splash of water (about a couple of teaspoons).
·      First dip the chicken in the beaten egg, then the panko mixture.  Press the chicken into the panko for an even coating.  Proceed with the rest of the chicken.  [This can be done a couple of hours in advance.  Separate layers of chicken with wax paper and refrigerate.]
·      In a large skillet, preheat a shallow layer of olive oil (about 3 tablespoons) over medium-high heat.  When it’s good and hot, add the chicken in a single layer.  Cook in batches if necessary.  The chicken should sizzle.  Cook for about four minutes, and then flip.  Continue cooking until the chicken is firm to the touch and cooked through (nicely browned, too).  If you are cooking the chicken in batches, be sure to add more olive oil to the pan.
·      While the chicken cooks, make the dressing.  Whisk together the lemon juice, Dijon, salt, and pepper.  Then slowly drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil while whisking.
·      When the chicken is reading, lightly dress the greens with the vinaigrette.  Mound salad on top of chicken breasts, and top with more Parmesan.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Albondigas Soup

I was working at the Palm Steakhouse, in Philadelphia, when I first ate albondigas soup.  When I was really unlucky, I had to write the specials on a chalkboard for everyone to see.  I have horrible handwriting, so my being delegated this task was not just a punishment for me, but for everyone else that had to look at it.  One day, the chef hands me a piece of paper with the specials on it.  I proceeded with my usual grumbling about the task at hand, until the soup of the day distracted me.  It was something magical called “Albondigas.”  As soon as I had finished scribbling on that blasted chalkboard, I bolted into the kitchen and ate a bowl.  Albondigas is a hearty soup Mexican soup.  It consists of a rich broth, flavored with cumin and cilantro, mingling with vegetables and tender little meatballs.

This soup is essentially a meal in bowl.  At the Palm, albondigas is garnished with fried tortilla strips.  In general, I think fried tortilla strips are over-rated.  But they have their place on albondigas.  I recently found a recipe for this soup in Bon Appétit.  I used this, combined with what I could remember from the Palm, to form my own conglomerate.  The resulting soup was comforting and hearty, but not too rich.  I skipped the tortilla strips because I am afraid to deep-fry in the tight quarters of my apartment.  This may be a little irrational, but it is what it is.  I’m sure crushed up tortilla chips would have been a fine substitute, but I don’t think anyone missed them.  I apologize for the lack of pictures.  I was cooking for actual people (instead of my own lone belly), and I apparently found it too challenging to chat, cook, and photograph simultaneously.  I’ll try to do better next time.

Albondigas Soup (loosely adapted from Bon Appetit)

1 lb. ground chicken
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1 large egg
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
¼ onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater
1 garlic clove, grated (a microplane works best here)
About a tablespoon of tomato paste (or ketchup)
1-2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon kosher salt
lots of freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 poblano pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
8 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
1-28 oz. can diced tomatoes, with juices
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chile powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)
½ cup white rice
1 zucchini, chopped
½ to 1 cup frozen corn

Shredded cheese

·      First make the meatballs.  In a small mixing bowl, add all of the ingredients for the meatballs, besides the chicken, and mix together with clean hands.  Then gently fold in the chicken with your hands until it is just mixed through.
·      Set up a sheet pan or large baking dish and line with waxed paper.  Then about a tablespoon and a half of the mixture into a meatball and set on the waxed paper.  It’s helpful to a have a bowl of water near by to dip your fingers in to prevent the meat from sticking.  The meatballs can be whatever size you like.  Mine were about an inch and half in diameter.
·      Cover the meatballs and store in the refrigerator until you’re ready for them.
·      In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium to medium-high heat.  Add chopped onion, celery, bell pepper, poblano, and minced garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and sauté for 10 minutes. 
·      Then add the stock, tomatoes, cumin, chile powder, oregano, and hot pepper flakes.  Stir to combine.  Increase heat to high, and bring to a gentle boil, and reduce heat to a simmer. 
·      Add rice and meatballs to the soup.  Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, making sure the broth is simmering at all times.
·      Add zucchini and corn, and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until meatballs are cooked through.
·      Serve soup and garnish with shredded cheese and fresh cilantro.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese

I think I have a gift for finding fabulous recipes.  I suppose “gift” might not be the right word, since it implies an innate talent, without practice or effort.  Given the amount of time I spend sifting through recipes, I suppose I can’t exactly classify my recipe-finding talent as naturally occurring.  Regardless of this silly semantic argument, I knew I had found a crowd-pleaser when I came across a recipe entitled “buffalo chicken mac and cheese.”  If this doesn’t make your stomach grumble, you must be my oldest brother, who won’t eat cheese, or someone who shouldn’t be reading this comfort-food-laden blog. 
Honestly, this concept may just qualify as the Holy Grail of comfort food.  The idea is ingenious, and the preparation does not waste any of the abundant conceptual potential.  The recipe has quite a few steps, but it is entirely manageable, even for a novice cook, with a little motivation and organization. 
First, chicken breasts are marinated in pool of Frank’s Red Hot, then roasted, shredded, and mixed with even more Frank’s.  Second, carrots, celery, onion, and garlic are sautéed, which provide the dish with flavor and texture, and another philosophical nod to buffalo wings.  Third, a simple cheese sauce is made with a roux, milk, a few dried herbs, and buckets of cheese.  Then all of the previously mentioned components are mixed together with some elbow macaroni, piled into baking dishes, topped with extra cheese/bread crumbs, and baked.  I know; there are a lot of steps, but it’s worth it.  And note that I said this masterpiece is piled into baking dishes, as in more than one, because it makes an obscene amount of food.  I supposed you could cut the recipe in half, but you might regret it.  Or, you could prepare the whole recipe, which would make some hungry friends really happy, and you would still manage to have leftovers for some significantly above average lunches. 
Based on the reactions of two very tall boys, my cousin, and myself, I can say that this dish is indeed a crowd-pleaser. This mac surpassed expectations regarding the cheesiness factor, and general flavor.  In hindsight, I was hoping it would be a little saucier, and spicier.  The texture wasn’t exactly a bad thing; it was just different than my expectations.  For ultimate buffalo satisfaction, be sure to bring the Frank’s (or hot sauce of choice) to the table.     
Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese (from Choosy Beggars)

1-1½ lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
¼ cup Frank’s Red Hot sauce, plus 3 tablespoons, plus more for garnish
1 lb. elbow macaroni, or other small, cut pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper (Be easy with the salt.  Frank’s is very salty)
3 ribs celery, small diced
3 small carrots, small diced
½ onion, small diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 cups milk (I used 1% lowfat)
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 pound cheddar, shredded (I used a combination of extra sharp and sharp)
½ pound Parmesan or Pecorino, shredded (it will make a huge difference if you buy a chunk, and shred it yourself)
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 cup panko bread crumbs

·      Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, and marinate chicken in ¼ cup Frank’s hot sauce for at least an hour (or all day), flipping them occasionally.
·      In an oven preheated to 400 degrees, roast chicken breasts for about 25 minutes, or until cooked through.  Set aside to cool, then shred or chop meat, and toss with remaining 3 tablespoons of Frank’s.  Reduce the oven to 375 degrees.
·      Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil, on high heat.  When boiling, add macaroni, and cook a few minutes less than the instructions indicate.  Drain and rinse (yes, I said rinse the pasta, and no, you’ll probably never hear me say it again).  Set aside.
·      In the meantime, add the olive oil to a medium saucepan over medium to medium-high heat.  Add celery, carrot, onion, and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and sauté for 8-10 minutes, or until softened, but not mushy.  Set vegetables aside.
·      Add the butter to the same pan, and heat until foamy.  Stirring with a whisk, add the flour, and whisk until well incorporated.  Cook the flour and butter, whisking frequently, for about two minutes (this is a roux).  Then whisk in the Dijon mustard.
·      Add the milk, about ½ to ¾ cup at time, whisking constantly.  Proceed until all milk is incorporated, then add basil, oregano, hot pepper flakes, and black pepper. 
·      Cook the sauce over medium-low heat, whisking frequently, for 5-8 minutes, or until it thickens to the point of coating a spoon (see photo).  Add all of the cheese except 1 to 1¼ cups.  Stir to combine. 
·      In a large pot or bowl, combine pasta, chicken, vegetables, cheese sauce, and parsley.  Stir to combine and then distribute between two casserole dishes, coated with cooking spray (I used one 9x13 and one 8x8 casserole dish.  It may have fit in the 9x13, but I was scared).
·      Top with extra cheese, then panko breadcrumbs.  Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.