Monday, December 19, 2011

Thai Chicken Soup

I am on my first-ever paid winter break.  If you are feeling blood rush to your face in a fit of jealousy, take comfort in the fact that I am being punished for my brazen bragging with a terrible head cold.  Luckily, I have the time to take care of myself with good food, sleep, and daylong movie marathons.  Where I come from, chicken noodle soup is commonly known as “Jewish penicillin.”  The garlicky dish is said to have an anti-inflammatory effect.  In my case, I may require a course of actual penicillin, but I figure some chicken soup couldn’t hurt me.  The congestion has completely muted my sense of taste, so I decided to make it “Thai-style” to make it as flavorful as possible, and hoping that large quantities of ginger, chiles, and hot sauce would also provide some added health benefits.

Disclaimer: I doubt this soup can be considered authentic Thai food.  For one thing, I added about a cup of dry Italian white wine to the broth; I don’t think that is a common practice in Thai cooking.  I just happened to have it in the fridge, so it went in the pot.  I also happen to think fortifying soup with wine adds great flavor, but it is most definitely unauthentic and optional.  Nonetheless, I feel slightly justified in calling my soup “Thai” because I included the four tastes that give Thai food its distinctive flavor and balance: spicy (ginger and chiles), salty (fish sauce), sweet (sugar), and sour (fresh lime juice). 

To make this soup, I steeped canned chicken broth with garlic cloves, ginger, jalapeno, and fish sauce, while gently poaching chicken breasts in the simmering liquid.  You may want to eat around the garlic, etc. in the final product, or you may enjoy gnawing on a bit of ginger or garlic (maybe that’s just me).  I was a little disappointed by the spiciness that resulted from this process (or lack thereof), but a healthy dose of Sriracha quickly amended that problem.  I then removed the chicken to slice it up, and added carrots and scallions.  When the carrots were cooked through, I ladled the broth over rice noodles and chicken, and finished the bowl with limejuice and fresh cilantro. 

The soup was spicy enough to get through to my taste buds last night, but the flavor of it was so much more pronounced today.  And by pronounced, I mean heat, garlic, and ginger, ginger, ginger, tingling your tongue and throat, and the scent swirling around you. As is usually the case, this soup vastly matured and improved overnight. Today, I ate a huge mug of it without the noodles, and I preferred it noodle-free.  I want to make it again so I can taste the subtleties of the fish sauce and scallions, but overall this soup was a satisfying and restorative meal.   

Thai Chicken Noodle Soup (very loosely adapted from Jamie Oliver)

6 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
2 cups water
1 cup white wine (optional, or add an extra cup of water/stock)
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2-3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into large chunks
1 jalapeno, sliced in half, some ribs and seeds removed
3 tablespoons fish sauce, divided
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
4 scallions, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon Sriracha chili sauce (optional)
6 oz. rice stick noodles or to taste (this amount will give you generous portions for 4 bowls)
Fresh cilantro leaves
Lime wedges
Soy sauce or extra fish sauce to taste

-       In a large soup pot, add the broth, water, and wine (if using).  Turn the heat onto medium, and add the garlic cloves, ginger, jalapeno, and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce.  Once the mixture is simmering, add the chicken breasts.  Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally for 20-25 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.
-       Remove the chicken from the pot, and add the carrots, scallions, a tablespoon of fish sauce, sugar, and ½ teaspoon of Sriracha.
-       While carrots are cooking, thinly slice the chicken and soak rice noodles in hot water according to package directions.
-       When the broth is ready, place a portion of noodles and chicken in a bowl and add broth.  Top with a squeeze of lime and fresh cilantro leaves.  You may need a spoon and a fork for the noodles.  Add extra fish sauce or soy sauce, if desired.

Spinach-Artichoke Dip

‘Tis the season of holiday parties, and the catch phrase of “bring a dish to share.”  I think this is a great concept, as it allows people to get together more often, without putting the financial burden all on one person.  Although, I will admit that sometimes it can be inconvenient, and store-bought contributions are sometimes necessary.  Hummus seems to go over well.  However, I went to a party on Saturday night, and I was determined to bring something a little more personal.  In my experience, spinach-artichoke dip seems to be a universal crowd-pleaser.  There is a reason that it graces so many American restaurant menus: people love it. 
I had recently wolfed down some spinach-artichoke dip at my cousin’s house, and used the recipe she found as a base.  Honestly, it was perfect as it was.  She found the recipe on All Recipes, and there is a link for its unscathed version below.  But for some inexplicable reason, I cannot make a recipe as it is written.  I feel uncomfortable and jumpy unless I am altering measurements and adding unlisted ingredients.  It’s bizarre and obnoxious, but I am what I am. 

Below, you will find my altered recipe, beefed up with extra spinach (oxymoron!) and some additional cheese.  My recipe has more bulk to it, while the original is creamier.  It’s really simple to make.  The most difficult thing is thawing and draining the spinach.  I defrost it in the microwave, and than aggressively squeeze water out by the fistful (with clean hands).  No one likes soggy dip, and it’s a good way to work out frustrations. 

When the dip came out of the oven, it was so hot, that I couldn’t even taste it.  There may be some partygoers that are still suffering because of this.  Then I became distracted and didn’t eat much of it once it reached a suitable temperature.  But, at about 10 pm, a friend took a big bite, looked at me with utter conviction and said, “This. Is. So. Good.”  Enough said. 

Spinach-Artichoke Dip (adapted from All Recipes)

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated Sharp white cheddar cheese, divided
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
½ teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon dried basil
¼ teaspoon garlic salt
Salt and pepper to taste (I used about ¼ teaspoon salt and 25ish grinds of pepper)
1 (14 ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
¾ cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

-       Preheat the oven to 350 (or tell your host to do so; I think anything around this temperature would do).
-       Thoroughly mix together all ingredients except ½ cup cheddar, spinach, and artichokes.
-       Gently mix in spinach and artichokes, and transfer to a small baking dish.  Top with remaining cheese.

-        Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the dip is hot and bubbling. (Unfortunately, I did not take a worthy picture of the finished product, but it was delicious!)  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ode to Grilled Cheese

My mom always says that the egg is nature’s perfect food. I do love eggs, but I think grilled cheese is a close rival. And I dare to say that grilled ham and cheese ranks even higher in my cheese-obsessed brain.  Perhaps you are scoffing at my suggestion. Perhaps you are wondering how I could make such a bold statement.  Perhaps you are asking, “where is bacon in this ridiculous discussion?”

Theses are valid points and questions, but I will maintain that for a true cheese lover, grilled ham and cheese is better than a grilled cheese with bacon. The ham adds a desirable salty, porky flavor; however, it is not as rich as bacon so you taste the flavor of the cheese more, and the tender texture of ham gives way to the oozy, melty texture of cheese.  If you are still appalled, you are probably more of a bacon lover than a cheese lover, in which case, the more power you.

Obviously, cheese wins with me over bacon.  And to satisfy and honor my deep-seeded love, I made the most beautiful grilled ham and cheese sandwich earlier this week.  It has been so cold here in Colorado, which is an excellent excuse for grilled cheese, not that I need one. (Oddly enough, I am now sitting outside writing this, drenched in so much sunshine that I don’t need a coat.)  I used rosemary sourdough bread, which can be found at Whole Foods, and it may actually be the best bread IN THE WORLD.  Seriously.  It is truly unbelievable: crunchy crust, chewy interior, and loaded with fresh rosemary.  It is a work of art, but I digress.
I then layered the bread with a symphony of three cheeses and ham.  First, I put down two paper-thin slices of Muenster, followed by one thicker slice of Swiss cheese.  I then added two thin (not shaved) slices of lightly smoked ham, folded and lightly bunched where necessary to fit the bread.  Last, I added a thick layer of shredded smoked Gouda, which really took the sandwich to a higher level.  I just happened to have these cheeses in my fridge.  It was a winning combination, but any cheese that melts well is a winner on a grilled cheese sandwich.  With a light, even layer of butter on the bread, I cooked the sandwich in a non-stick skillet, low and slow.  My friend, Lindsay, from college makes masterful grilled cheese sandwiches and that's how she’s always told me to do it.  I would spend half an hour patiently grilling a sandwich that ends with oozing cheese and golden bread, than burn my potentially perfect dinner.  I also 'splurged' on a can of Amy's tomato soup.  I will admit that it seems insane to spend nearly 4 dollars on a can of soup, but in this situation, you get what you pay for.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pan-Fried Tilapia

I’ll be honest:  I overcooked my fish.  I am advertising my own error because it didn’t matter.  My pan-fried tilapia was light, flakey, with a crisp coating, despite spending a little too much time in the frying pan.  It is a foolproof recipe, and this is coming from a fool who messed it up.

My mom tends to work really late, but one night last week she got home early enough to make this simple dinner, and I decided to do the same.  I am now making a point to use and enjoy my time outside of work, which makes me happier both at work and at home.  The key to enjoying your evenings is to actually do something you enjoy.  Who knew?  Thus, pan-fried tilapia made its way on to my after-work to do list. 

Tilapia has many attractive features that make it perfect for a quick, yet luxurious weeknight meal.  It cooks quickly; it’s versatile with its mild flavor and flaky texture; it’s inexpensive (I spend about four dollars on the fish and still had leftovers).

The process is not unfamiliar: dip the fish into egg wash, give it a dusting of flour and/or breadcrumbs, and cook it in a thin, even layer of hot oil.  My mom was adamant about purchasing “Drake’s Crispy Fry” to dredge the fish in (it was always in our pantry growing up).  I made a special trip to King Sooper’s for it in 15-degree weather, and they didn’t have it.  In my dismay, exhaustion, and defeat, I bought a package of seasoned flour, although I was sure I would regret it (Kentucky Kernel Seasoned Flour, to be exact). 

Why would I buy seasoned flour instead of simply seasoning my own flour?  I was prepared to kick myself later, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It turns out that there is a reason to buy seasoned flour: it is perfectly seasoned!  I tasted a little pinch of the flour before cooking, so I could get my self-loathing under way, but instead I was celebrating my awesome decision making skills. It was delicious (courtesy of pepper, mysterious “herbs and spices,” salt, and a small amount of MSG, which everyone knows is the best).

So, with a sense of celebration, I dredged, I fried, I spritzed with lemon and I enjoyed.  The fish had a crisp, yet light crust.  I served the fish (to myself) with simple pan roasted brussel sprouts, and a baked potato.  I felt so wholesome with all of my food groups.  Make sure you run your kitchen fan and vent a window while you fry the fish.  That way, when you tell your co-workers the next day about your delicious dinner, they will actually be surprised, instead of already being fully aware of what you had for dinner because of the fish odor emanating off you.  I had this happen with curry once, and it was not much fun.

Pan-Fried Tilapia

Tilapia fillets, rinsed and patted dry (I made 3 fillets, almost 3/4 of a pound)
½ to 1 cup of seasoned flour (depending on how much fish you are making)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
2-3 tablespoons olive oil (more as needed if you are working in multiple batches)
2-3 tablespoons canola oil (more as needed if you are working in multiple batches)

-       Beat together eggs and milk in a wide shallow bowl, and add the seasoned breadcrumbs to another wide shallow bowl.
-       Working with one tilapia fillet at a time, dip it first in egg wash, then into the seasoned flow.  Coat it evenly with flow and shake of excess.  Set aside and repeat with remaining fillets.
-       Using a large heavy bottomed skillet, preheat both oils over medium-high to high heat for 2-3 minutes.  You can test the heat of the oil by dropping a pinch of flour into the oil.  It should sizzle immediately.
-       Place the fish fillets in the hot oil (do not crowd them).  Cook for 4-5 minutes per side on medium-high to high heat (depending on how hot your stove cooks; you want the fish to brown).

-       Drain cooked fish on paper towel.  Spritz with lemon and enjoy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blackened Chicken Pasta

On the off chance that you don’t have enough decadence planned for your Thanksgiving festivities, I recommend indulging in this delicious Cajun pasta.  I actually made this a few weeks ago.  Usually, my intrinsic motivation can tolerate about a one-week delay between cooking and writing.  I rarely retrieve the necessary motivation to write outside of that timeline, but this pasta defied my usual patterns.  I had to share it; it was that good.

Those clowns at the Food Network have come up with yet another enticing gimmick: a show called The Best Thing I Ever Made.  A smattering of “Food Network Stars” use their licentious foodie language and provide recipes for delectable items like lamb kebabs, mushroom polenta and… blackened chicken pasta.  It’s a Guy Fieri recipe: blacked chicken, tossed with fettuccine and a cream sauce, flavored with white wine, garlic, and sundried tomatoes.  Guy Fieri is a goof, but charming in his own dorky way.  His pasta is as lush and tasty as you might imagine creamy pasta to be.  I added some tomato puree to the sauce for some acidity and color, and I would definitely recommend that addition (included in my version of the recipe below).  I used canned tomato sauce (which is really just tomato puree with some spices).  The quantities specified below are approximations, but do what looks and tastes right to you.
The best part of this recipe is the spice rub.  Not only is it delicious, but it is so much fun to make.  I don’t understand why I found its assembly so enjoyable, but I grinned like a fool throughout.  The process is simple: measure and dump spices in a bowl, enjoying the aromas and colors along the way.  Then chicken breasts are coated with the rub, and placed them in a very hot pan.  The smell of the spice rub searing on the chicken is intoxicating.  I think the primary culprits contributing to the smell are the cumin and the Italian herb blend, but I’m sure every ingredient plays its part.  The spice rub did not render the dish particularly spicy.  This may be exactly what you want to hear, or you may want to add an extra teaspoon of cayenne, if the news of the mildness is disappointing. Or, you can do what I did: season the whole pasta dish at the end with hot pepper flakes.  Either way, finish it with plenty of Parmesan cheese and enjoy.
Blackening Spice
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
½ tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons granulated onion
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon chili powder
Combine the garlic, black pepper, salt cumin, onion, cayenne pepper, Italian seasoning, paprika and chili powder in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container.

Blackened Chicken Pasta (recipe adapted from Guy Fieri)

2 skinless chicken breasts (½ to ¾ pounds)
Blackening Spice Rub
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove minced garlic
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 ½ cups canned tomato sauce
½-¾ cup roughly chopped marinated sun-dried tomatoes
½ pound fettuccine
¾ cup grated Parmesan
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot pepper flakes (optional)
2 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat a medium skillet and vegetable oil over high heat.

Dredge the chicken breasts in the Blackening Spice Rub. Place in the skillet. Blacken both sides of the chicken, 3-4 minutes per side.
Transfer the chicken to a baking dish and place in the oven until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer, about 10-15 minutes.
Remove from the oven, allow to rest, then slice the chicken.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and lightly sauté it for 1-2 minutes. Stir in the wine. Allow it to reduce by half.  Pour in the heavy cream and tomato sauce, bring to a simmer and cook until for about 5-10 minutes, simmering gently. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and chicken slices.
Meanwhile, cook the fettuccine al dente, according to the package directions. Drain.

When the cream sauce is at the desired consistency, stir in 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, pasta, and about ¾ of the parsley.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (and hot pepper flakes, if using).
To serve, toss the pasta with the cream sauce.  Garnish with the parsley and the remaining ¼ cup Parmesan.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pasta With Chicken and Mushrooms, Risotto Style

When I’m cooking and blogging, I try to maintain a semblance of balance in my choices.  Ideally, I would avoid my recipe archives being so heavily laden with tales of cheese and carbohydrates.  However, this notion of blog-balance is an art I am yet to master.  There are certain ingredients that are undeniably “psycho,” and this post reeks of them.  This pasta is flavored with onions, mushrooms, and chicken.  It is prepared like risotto: by adding small increments of chicken stock to the simmering pot until the pasta is cooked through.  Everything cooks together in chicken stock.  Unlike traditional pasta cooking methods, the liquid is never strained.  Instead, it is added gradually, so all the flavors in the ingredients are self-contained. If you are not a fan of mushrooms, I would recommend you stop reading here and go make yourself a nice grilled cheese sandwich.  The mushrooms are the crux of this dish, and nothing else will do in their place.

The recipe below is courtesy of Mark Bittman and I made minimal changes.  (He is smart, although allegedly obnoxious.  I have never seen him do anything on TV, and I would like to keep it that way, so I can remain blissfully ignorant of any truth in the obnoxious allegations).  To be honest, I was a little trepidatious about the method of cooking the chicken: raw chunks of chicken are added towards the end of the cooking process.  I’m sure my mother is gasping in horror at the slightest notion of cross-contamination.  However, I followed the method and I have lived to tell the tale with no gastrointestinal distress.  Just keep stirring the pasta so that the chicken can cook evenly and thoroughly.  Make sure the liquid continues to simmer, and add more stock if you need it.  Also, wash your cooking utensil halfway through, and make sure to slice open a few chunks of chicken before eating to check for doneness.  You will be just fine.

The recipe below includes the minor changes I made in italics.  Next time, I would definitely add peas.  This recipe was practically screaming for peas.  The earthy flavor and texture of mushrooms would pair just beautifully with the sweet pop of peas.  I would recommend taking about a half cup out of the freezer before cooking to thaw, and adding them at the end, stirring to heat through.

Pasta With Chicken and Mushrooms, Risotto Style (adapted from Mark Bittman)

2 tablespoons olive oil, more as needed
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 cups crimini, shiitake or button mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced (I used half button mushrooms and half oyster)
1/2 pound cut pasta, such as gemelli or penne, or long pasta broken into bits (I used rotini, but would have gone for gemelli if I could find it)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine or water (I left this out)
3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (definitely use chicken stock)
½ to 1 tablespoon Dijon or whole grain mustard (optional.  It was an impulsive, but delicious addition)
2 boneless chicken thighs, diced
Chopped fresh parsley
Freshly grated Parmesan

1. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add shallot, garlic and mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms soften and begin to brown on edges, about 10 minutes. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is glossy and coated with oil, 2 to 3 minutes. Add a little salt and pepper, then wine. Stir and let liquid bubble away. (Or skip the wine and go right step two)
2. Ladle stock into skillet 1/2 cup or so at a time, stirring after each addition and every minute or so. (I poured stock directly out the box it came in into the pan).  When liquid is just about evaporated, add more. Mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep heat at medium and stir frequently.
uncooked chicken (gasp)
cooked chicken (yum)
3. Begin tasting pasta 10 minutes after you add it; you want it to be tender but with a tiny bit of crunch. When pasta is about 3 to 4 minutes away from being done, add chicken and stir to combine. (If you are going to use the mustard, add it before the chicken).  Continue to cook until chicken is done — it will be white on inside when cut — and pasta is how you like it.  (I cooked the chicken for about 5-7 minutes) Taste, adjust seasoning, garnish with parsley and Parmesan.

Yield: 4 servings.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Simple Mushroom Pasta

If you read my last post, it may not be surprising that I am in the process of achieving a higher degree of balance in my life.  Over the past few months, I have been wobbling.  So much of my energy has been expelled outward, away from me, and I am now trying to redirect some of that energy back towards myself.  Both my professional and personal life just went through a swift, yet dramatic restructuring, and I am interpreting this is a sign to get back to my roots, and the things that make me tick. 

This weekend, I jumpstarted my personal resuscitation by cutting off all my hair and spending time with friends.  I then slept for about 14 hours (I guess I needed it).  When I emerged from my quasi-coma on Sunday morning, I jumped on my bike, went to a yoga class, read a book in the sunshine, and cleaned my apartment.  I spent hours outside, and I hadn't done that in months.  It turns out that riding bikes on a cool, fall day might even be more fun than on a summer day.  You get to put on your awesome bike gloves, and a hat, and zip around in the breezy sunshine.  I highly recommend it.

I also recommend this mushroom pasta.  It's a quick and easy dinner that seems like so much more once it's on a plate.  It's basically a makeover of jarred marinara sauce; a few fresh ingredients can truly transform store-bought tomato sauce.  While it's easy enough to make tomato sauce from scratch, this can be done in less than a half an hour from start to finish.  I used Barilla marinara sauce (I love all things Barilla.  Their pasta is totally worth the extra money, and the sauce goes on sale a lot).

First, I put a pot of water onto boil, and added 6 (maybe 8?) sliced mushrooms to a tablespoon of olive oil in a really hot pan.  I used button mushrooms, plain and simple.  Let the mushrooms sit and sizzle for a couple of  minutes before stirring.  The mushrooms will sear, and they will start to smell like some sort of delicious meat, but earthy.  Delicious, I promise. (the quantities in this recipe make 2 good sized bowls of pasta and can easily be adjusted).  
Stir occasionally, until the mushrooms reduce in volume and begin to brown.
Push the mushrooms to the side.  Add 2 chopped Roma tomatoes, a clove of minced garlic, a big pinch of dried rosemary, hot pepper flakes, ground pepper, and kosher salt (to taste).  Also, add linguine (1/4 to a 1/3 of a box) to the boiling water. (If you are not sure on timing, remember it's always better for the sauce to wait for the pasta than the other way around.  Sauce can simmer or be turned off, while pasta just gets mushy).
Stir to combine and cook for a few minutes until the tomatoes begin to break down.  If the pan is looking very dry, add a tablespoon or so of water from the pasta pot.  Not only will it save your mushrooms from burning, but it will make a delightful sizzling sound. 
Add about a cup and a half of marinara.  Stir to combine.
Allow sauce to simmer while pasta cooks.  Enjoy the delicious the garlicky, mushroomy smells.
When the pasta is ready, add it directly to the sauce with tongs.  Let some of the pasta cooking water meander into the pan of sauce.  Stir to combine, check for seasoning, and put a big portion on a plate.
Add some olive oil, black pepper, and parmesan.  (Coloradans, Sunflower has amazing shaved parm at a great price).  Enjoy!