Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mi Tierrita - authentic Colombian food in the New York suburbs

So I paid a visit to my hometown today to take care of a little business with the realtor who's handling my parent's house. After taking care of business, I was invited out for lunch at a local Colombian restaurant that turned out to be a real treat. My realtor was born in Bogota, so if she says it's good, and that it's the place she eats at regularly, I'll give it a shot.

So off we went to Mi Tierrita - a quaint little place near a fairly busy intersection near the middle of town. The town used to be a fairly typical middle class mix of different ethnicities for the area- a little of everything- but there was always a section of town that was almost exclusively hispanic. It's been about 15 years since I lived there, and since then, the hispanic population has boomed- so I had a very good feeling that I was in for something special- and I was not disappointed.

This is $12 worth of authentic Colombian food... I could use a hand eating all this!
I asked my realtor for her recommendations and the answer I got was "order anything- I hope you're hungry." So I picked out a dish that seemed to have a good cross section of stuff on the plate - the Bandeja Campesina (listed as the "Country Platter" on the english side of the menu). Since it had "Pig Skin" in it's description, I knew I'd like it.

So the photo doesn't do the dish justice- it's huge. I am a big eater, and I had a very small breakfast, but there was no way I could finish this and be able to walk afterward. I got about halfway through, and was still full around dinnertime, although I'm snacking on some of the leftover Pig Skin as I write this. The platter has a fried sweet plantain, seasoned ground beef, a chunk of avocado, a corn cake (arepa), a fried egg, a mountain of rice and red beans, and that glorious sweet candy of the pig- a huge strip of fried pig skin (that's attempting to hide in the back). That's a huge amount and variety of food for a $12 price tag.

The pork rind would seem like the star of the dish- but really- the rice and beans were the stars. Upstaging a fried hunk of pork skin is no small feat. The beans were in a rich, pork laden sauce that leaves a warm fuzzy feeling in the belly. The yolk from the egg mixed with a little of the beef was a nice treat. The plantain had a good sweetness to it, and came off like a smoother, milder sweet potato. There was also a light, oily looking green sauce served on the side as a condiment that looked like it was made from chopped scallions and herbs in some type of vinegar and bits of green chile. I was expecting the flavor to be something more like a pico de gallo - but this stuff packed a strong heat- but a deceptive one. At first you get the herbal and acidic flavors, then a second later, the heat hits and lingers for a while. It paired well with the rice and beans and the ground beef.

My realtor opted for a chicken soup that looked very rich, with large chunks of chicken on the bone and what looked like yucca floating in it, followed by a plate of rice and beans with a large piece of roasted chicken. Apparently it's her standby dish. Our other dining companion ordered what appeared to be a simple plate of grilled seasoned chicken with french fires, that turned out to be a platter of food that could probably feed two or three people. We all brought a large amount of food home.

The service was a little on the slow side, but the massive plate of great food more than made up for it. When you consider how relatively inexpensive the meal was, this place is a hidden jem.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sausage and Peppers

This dish is probably one of the most simple to make. That's also the very thing that makes it great comfort food. This is decidedly not health food. It brings back memories of street fair and carnivals, and most of all, of home. It's not about cooking skill, it's about a simple, filling meal that makes just about anyone who has a last name that ends in a vowel feel happy.

Sausage and peppers- simple, easy, perfect.

Obviously, with a dish this simple, I'm not really going to impress anyone with a new and innovative recipe or technique. There are literally millions of great sausage and pepper recipes, and even more minor variations on it. Some cook some or most of the components separately, some all together- some insist on slicing the sausage, some keep it whole, some use tomato sauce, some don't, and every one has a different opinion on how to season it, or how much of one item or another to use. You've probably had at least one variation of it at some point, and you've probably made it- so I'm clearly not posting to teach anyone something new- rather, I'm posting this more to just share thoughts, and memories about something we all already know, and maybe point out some of the ways that a simple idea can have a bewildering array of variations.

To make Sausage and Peppers (and if you've got family from Brooklyn, you should pronounce it like "sawww-zeetch") you need three major components- Italian Sausage (sweet, hot, or even both), Sweet Peppers (green, red, etc), and onions (yellow, white, red, etc). Everything is cooked in olive oil, and is typically flavored with garlic, salt, pepper, and possibly some herbs such as parsley, basil, and/or oregano.

So already, just listing the thee main ingredients and the four or five minor ones, we've stumbled into a huge number of possible variations. Most people, I think, prefer sweet sausage- although hot sausage works here as well. It would also be a very Sicilian thing to use sweet sausage with a few hot sausages mixed in as a little surprise. After hitting the hot sausage in the Sunday gravy once as a kid, I started to get very good at telling the difference between hot and sweet sausage on sight... until I became old enough to "get" the Sicilian culinary sense of humor when it comes to spicy things- and even later I would start to seek out the hot stuff.

For the peppers and onions- there are many varieties of each. Some consider one color of peppers more authentic than the other for whatever reason, some insist on using a slightly different pepper such as the pale green cubanelle. Some insist on red onions, or yellow onions, or even sweet vidalia onions. Personally, I think the most authentic way to go is just pick whatever variety of sweet pepper and onion looks the freshest at the market this week. Usually, in most supermarkets in the US, you'll find it's probably the green or red bell peppers. If something else looks better- it's probably a stroke of luck that you got a good shipment, and you should jump on it. Same goes for the onions- although there are so many sources for onions that what looks best at the market is going to vary almost day to day, just trust your instincts and pick something that looks fresh and you'll do fine. The last post where I talked about using bell peppers, the red ones looked good- this week, the green ones won the prize.

I like to get all the flavor I can out of my sausages, so while it may be convenient to cook the sausages on a grill or a broiler while you work on the peppers and onions in a pan, that just misses opportunities to use all the flavor you can. I prefer to cook everything on one (large) pan- the oil I brown the sausage in (and all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan) becomes the oil I cook my onions and peppers in. Then I put the meat and the vegetables together to get acquainted as they finish cooking. Start off with a pan large enough for about 12 sausages. Heat the pan to medium-high heat, and coat the bottom with a liberal amount of oil. When it's hot, and the oil seems to shimmer slightly, start to lay in the sausages- if the first one doesn't start to sizzle as soon as it hits the pan, take it out, and let the pan heat up a little longer.

Start by browning your sausages in hot oil

The goal here is to put a brown sear on as much of the sausages' surface as possible. If you don't have a huge pan, you'll want to work in batches to keep the pan from getting too crowded. Either way, you'll need 3-5 minutes per side. By the time you get all sides of the sausages done, they should be cooked all the way through- or at least close to being cooked through- we'll finish them a little later so we don't really need to check  yet.
A nice dark-brown sear is the key to great sausage and peppers

This sear is the key to making everything come together. The sear adds flavor and a little snap to the sausage casing, and it leaves those dark bits stuck to the pan that will help the sausage flavor permeate the peppers and onions as well. A word to the wise- use a pan with a lid, and keep it covered unless you need to turn the sausages- they can spit and fling hot oil surprising distances! The lid will also help ensure that the sausages get cooked enough by trapping the heat like an oven. Once the sausages are done, take them out of the pan and set them aside. Leave the oil and all those tasty dark bits on the bottom of the pan- we'll use this to cook everything else.

Next, we'll deal with our onions. I'm not too particular about how they're cut, but I think they cook better in larger pieces in this case- so I take 2-3 medium onions, and give them a rough chop. After cutting the onions in half and peeling, I'll trim both ends, then cut it into chunks end to end, rather than cross-wise like you would do if you wanted thin half-moons. The larger cut is a little more forgiving, and less likely to overcook or burn if your kids decided to run amok with permanent markers as you're putting your onions on the heat.

Rough chopped onions
 If you haven't done so already, you should prepare your peppers now as well. There are many opinions on how to cut up the peppers- I like mine in strips about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide. If you slice off the top of the pepper first, you can usually pull out the seed bulb without too much mess.

When you clean peppers- start at the top
You can then slice off the bottom, then cut the rest of the pepper in half to get at the inside. It should be fairly easy to trim out the white ribs on the inside, then lay each half flat and slice it into strips. You'll need to do this for about three or four large peppers. The classically trained french crowd will point out that I should shave off that thin, slightly waxy skin on the inside of the pepper. Luckily, I'm not french, and neither is this dish, so we'll skip that part. I've never found that part of the pepper unpleasant. As far as I can tell, the french do that bit of trimming just so they can make a pretty julianne, and/or brunoise cut... no we're not going there today. 

Peppers, cut in half, cleaned, then chopped into strips.
Turn the heat down a little, then put your onions in the pan you used to cook your sausages. They'll pick up some shockingly brown color quickly- don't worry, they won't burn that quickly - that's just the juices and tasty brown bits from the sausage sticking to your onions! Season with a little salt and pepper.

Onions sauteed with salt and pepper
Keep the onions moving around so they break up and separate. After a few minutes, they should start to become translucent and soft. At this  point, I'll add in a few cloves worth of minced garlic.This is the point where the audience for the old Emeril Live show will be prompted to cheer. You may do so if you like...

Add a little garlic to our onions.
Saute the garlic with the onions for about a minute- make sure that you don't burn the garlic, or you'll end up ruining everything in the pan- the onions, and the oil that has all those little bits of sausage in it. Keep the onions and garlic moving in the pan, and be ready to toss in our peppers. After the garlic gets it's chance to get to know the onions, add in our pepper strips, and season with a little more salt and pepper, and some herbs if you wish- I like to use parsley and basil here. If I'm in a more Sicilian mood, I'll sneak in a pinch or two of red pepper flakes... but not today since I'm cooking for family members that are sensitive to the hot stuff.

Adding peppers to the onions with some basil and parsley

Cook the peppers  long enough for them to be covered in oil, and they begin to change color slightly, then return the sausages to the pan. Lower the heat a little more, and cook with the lid on the pan for about 10-15 minutes or until the peppers are soft. Don't forget to stir the peppers and onions every few minutes just to make sure they cook evenly.

Let the sausages get to know the peppers and onions for a while
If you were in the mood for tomato sauce, this would be a good time to add it, then simmer for a while. I'm planning on serving my sausage and peppers on a sandwich tonight, and I personally would rather use the tomato sauced version served over pasta or rice. For a sandwich, it's ready to go as is in all it's oil coated, rich and heavy goodness.

Sausage and Peppers served in the traditional way- on a roll.
It's the kind of meal that sits like a brick in your stomach for a long time- but in a good, comforting way. This is not health food, this is food that will make you feel good, and maybe a little guilty. For me, the smells that fill the house are a big part of the experience. Anything that fills the kitchen with the scent of peppers and onions cooking in olive oil has to be a good thing. My wife found out the hard way that it's a scent that triggers some primal part of your brain and makes you feel hungry. Right on cue about a minute after I had the peppers in the pan I began to hear "how much longer before dinner)...

The best part about sausage and peppers is the leftovers. It reheats well, and a night in the refrigerator actually lets everything meld together even more than it already has. You can make another sandwich out of the leftovers, or you can get a little creative- slice up the sausage, and toss it with the peppers and onions and some pasta. The leftovers also make a great pizza topping. Ages ago, my mother would use the peppers and onions (with or without the sausage) and some leftover potato to make breakfast- peppers and eggs. She'd warm up the leftover sausage and peppers in a pan with chunks of leftover potato, then cover the whole thing with scrambled eggs. I haven't had peppers and eggs in a long time, so right now, I'm wondering if I'll have enough time to do ti before I have to leave for work in the morning.

I'm sure that just about any Italian American can understand how I feel about this simple, unassuming dish. They probably have their own opinion about how to make it, and their method will probably be very different from mine- and that's the way it should be. Those simple dishes that have countless variations are usually the recipes that we take the most personally.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Crispy Skin Chicken

My family ends up eating baked/roasted chicken fairly often- just because it's easy and you can get chicken thighs or drumsticks reasonably cheap at the local stores. The problem is that I like my skin nice and crispy - crispy enough that you could strip it off the meat and eat it like a potato chip. With that in mind, I've been trying to come up with methods to keep the meat tasty and still moist, but get the skin nice and crunchy the way I like it.

Crispy chicken skin is a tasty treat!

If you bake/roast your chicken in the usual baking dish- cooking the chicken covered at about 350, then uncovering and bumping the heat up to 450 for the last 15 minutes or so produces half decent results- but when I say half, I literally mean half. The skin on top will come out great, but the rest will usually end up soggy, flabby, and generally unappealing.

The solution I've been using recently seems to work fairly well - although it does leave the meat itself a little drier - that problem, has not been so bad as to be a deal breaker, so I believe fixing it will just be a matter of tweaking the cooking times and temperatures a little more. The solution is fairly simple- before I put the chicken in the oven, I put a nice hard sear on as much of the surface as I can, then I finish the chicken in the oven - uncovered, to finish the job. The searing cooks the skin enough that the heat from the oven is enough to transform it into a crispy, crunchy treat. Searing also has another advantage- the chicken skin will develop more depth of flavor from the two-stage cooking process- enough that I've found that I really only need minimal seasoning to have a great tasting piece of chicken.

This routine seems to work best for dark meat sections (skin on of course!) - in my examples, I am using drumsticks, which turned out pretty good. The previous batch I did as a test run used thighs, and they turned out even better- that is probably due to the fact that it's easier to sear the thighs more completely- more of their surface area actually touches the pan/grill without performing a balancing act, and due to the slightly thicker skin on the thighs.

Start off by heating up your pan or flat-top grill - you'll want the pan fairly hot- medium to high heat, but not "screaming hot" or you'll risk burning the skin outright. As I mentioned earlier, it doesn't take much in the way of seasoning to get a good flavorful piece of chicken, so I restricted myself to salt and pepper only- if you need a different flavor, I'd probably only want to add one type of herb/spice at this stage. Make sure your chicken pieces are thawed- you have a little bit of leeway- if the surface is thawed but the center is still cold, you still won't have problems- the middle will be thawed by the time you finish your searing. Give your chicken pieces a good coating of salt and pepper, and grease your pan/grill with a little oil, butter, or cooking spray (I used olive oil).

Chicken legs, ready for the grill

When ready, start loading the chicken onto your grill or pan - use the first one as a test- if you hear a good sizzle when the chicken touches down, you're in good shape- if not take the chicken off and let the pan heat a little longer. Sear the chicken for a few minutes on each side- your goal here is to put a hard, golden-brown sear on as much of the skin as you can. The meat should only be cooked part of the way through at this point.

Chicken leg with a hard sear - try to do this to as much of the surface as possible.
After searing the chicken, load the pieces into a baking dish. I had a little extra chicken stock left over from my chicken gravy demonstration, so I put a little in the bottom to help keep the chicken from drying out (just enough to keep the bottom of the dish wet- not even 1/4 cup). Bake the chicken uncovered at 350 degrees until done (usually about 45 minutes to an hour- possibly less if you have a convection oven).

The parts that are fully seared are already crispy, and the gaps between the seared areas will have enough of a head start that the oven will bring them up to crispy. Since we've already partially cooked our chicken, it should be cooked through by the time the skin has a nice even color, and has become crispy. The cooking times I've cited are approximate- they will vary quite a bit from oven to oven- so use your judgment, and an instant read meat thermometer if you have doubts.

The chicken will end up with a nice crunch to the skin, and a deep golden-brown color that looks great on a plate. I served mine up with green and yellow string beans, couscous cooked in chicken stock, and placed the chicken on a puddle of my simple chicken gravy.

Crispy skinned chicken looks great on the plate
The drumsticks turned out to be good, but you'll probably find, like I did, that this process works even better with thighs. The key is to get a good hard sear on as much of the skin as possible- which can be difficult with an odd-shaped piece like a leg, but much easier with a broader, flatter thigh piece. The skin has a good solid crunch, with a salty bite almost like breaded-fried chicken, but much lighter. The chicken, surprisingly packs a good amount of flavor even though I only seasoned it with salt and pepper, thanks to the complex chemistry of the browning process (known to chemists and food scientists as the Maillard Reaction). The gravy brings in even more flavor and contrasting texture- and helps compensate if your chicken came out a little drier than you'd like.

This idea of searing a meat then finishing it in the oven is a common restaurant technique. It produces a crusty outside with it's distinct flavors, combined with the flavor and texture of the roasted interior. It generally makes it much easier to get your meat to the level of done-ness desired since you're trading time in the oven with time on the stovetop where you have more direct control over the cooking. It's a concept that applies equally well to any thick-cut meat- beef, pork, and even fish.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Using the Bones - Chicken Gravy

When you're cooking a budget, it's always in your best interest to make sure you get the most out of everything you cook, and avoid throwing away anything that can be useful. Once you begin to figure out how to use the stuff most people would throw away, you may also find that you've been throwing away some of the most useful, versatile, and flavorful stuff in your pantry. In my turkey soup post, I mentioned how I like to save the bones from my meats and use them later. Bones can easily be made into a very flavorful stock, which has a wide variety of uses- one of my favorites is gravy.

So one of the little baggies hiding in the back of my freezer contains a handful of chicken bones leftover from a simple dinner of roasted chicken legs. With a little water, and some simple seasonings, we can extract the rich flavor, hiding in the bone marrow and little scraps of meat, and collagen from the bits of connective tissue clinging to the joints.

Old chicken bones can easily become a flavorful stock
Put your bones in a medium saucepan or pot, add about four cups of water, some salt and pepper, and a few herbs (I used a little parsley and thyme) and simmer it over low heat for at least a half hour. This is one of those times where the longer your simmer, the more flavor you get. My bones came from chicken that was previously roasted- if your bones have not been cooked, you'll probably want to roast them in the oven for a while until they get some color, and the marrow begins to ooze from the ends to develop a little more depth of flavor. You can also add a little onion, garlic, celery, and/or carrot depending on what flavor profile you want to build. I wanted to keep things simple, so I limited myself to just herbs, salt, and pepper.

If you are going to cook your stock for a long time, so don't be afraid to add in a little more water as it evaporates to maintain the volume of stock you're looking for. Once you feel like you've extracted as much flavor as you have time for, adjust your salt and pepper- if you've added more water along the way, you'll almost definitely want to add more salt and pepper- use your judgment. You can transfer your stock to another container, and refrigerate if you don't plan on using it right away. Your stock should be cloudy, have a yellowish color, and cling slightly to the back of a spoon. You can strain out the bits of herbs if you like, personally, I don't mind having some herbs floating in my stock, and it may even add a nice visual touch to whatever gravy, sauce, soup, or whatever you end up using it for.

A simple, and flavorful chicken stock.

We can use this stock for almost anything that needs a little extra liquid or a boost of flavor. Once you have a good stock, you are basically one step away from any number of soups, and maybe two or three steps away from a nice sauce. It is also very useful for making rice dishes such as a risotto. Today, we'll be transforming this stock into a classic chicken gravy. This is not the only way to make gravy, and there are many other ways to bring developed flavors to your gravies- but this method is probably the most simple, elemental way to do it.

To start our gravy, we'll need to shift gears. I'm starting this gravy with a simple roux. A roux is a common French  or Creole technique for building a base for thickening a sauce or stew. It also provides most of the color to our gravy. Most gravy making methods use a roux or something nearly equivalent to a roux as a major component. All you need to make a roux is a hot pan, and equal parts fat and flour. The fat used is most often butter, but you can also use oil or even pan grease from cooked meats just as easily- it all depends on the taste and level of richness you're going for. I want to keep my gravy rich, but on the lighter side, so I'll start with olive oil.

A basic roux starts as equal parts fat and flour- in this case olive oil

For most purposes about 2-3 tablespoons of flour and oil will be enough. Don't worry too much about getting the measurements exact- you can always add another pinch of flour or a few more drops of oil. You'll want to whisk the oil and flour together over medium heat- don't go too far, you cannot allow the roux to sit more than a few seconds at a time or you'll risk burning it, or leaving it unevenly cooked.

Basic roux just beginning to cook

The key to a roux is to keep an eye on the color, and keep the roux moving as it cooks. You want to make sure that every grain of flour is coated with your oil, butter, or other fat, and you'll want it to cook enough that the raw flour flavor is gone, and a deeper, nutty flavor develops. When you first get your flour and oil mixed, it will be a pale golden color. Depending on your preference, you can make the final roux anywhere from a medium golden brown to a dark caramel color. You'll need a little patience, it doesn't take long to start developing the color you want, but you can't leave the roux unattended- it will need frequent- almost constant whisking, and if your heat is too high, it can go from perfect to a burnt ruin in seconds. Monitor you roux closely, and if you're in doubt, lower the heat a little- keep the cooking controlled. The darker your roux, the darker your gravy will be, and you'll end up with more of a nutty undertone too. I'm aiming for a moderate golden brown- nicely developed, but still on the lighter side. If this were a beef or pork gravy, I'd probably lean towards a darker color to go with the heartier meat flavor.

Medium golden-brown roux just about ready.

Once you have your desired color, we can add about a cup and a half of our chicken stock, and begin to assemble our gravy. Again, you'll need to stay close, and keep whisking. The first few seconds are critical- the roux may try to congeal into lumps, but if you immediately whisk it all together your gravy will come together nicely.

Add the stock to the roux - get ready to whisk away the lumps before they set.

Once you get your roux and your stock to come together into a nice smooth gravy, you'll need to continue whisking and cooking for a few more minutes. Your gravy is probably going to start more watery than you'd like- this is not a problem- just bump up the heat slightly and let the gravy reduce in volume. The reduction process will thicken your gravy, and it will concentrate all the flavors of our stock. You can relax a little during this phase, but don't stray too far, you'll still want to whisk the gravy to keep all the fats and the starches emulsified. If you go a little too far, and your gravy gets too thick, add a little more stock, whisk it vigorously at first until combined and thinned out, and continue to cook until you have the consistency you want.

Reducing the gravy

A good, simple gravy like this one is best served hot. It makes a great accompaniment to roasted chicken, or as a topping for rice or mashed potatoes.

Our simple chicken gravy served with a piece of roasted chicken
If you still have leftover stock, it can be used in dozens of ways- especially when dealing with grains- to add a little extra flavor. A very simple way to take advantage of the flavor in a small amount of leftover stock is to use it as a cooking liquid. In this case, I had a box of instant couscous and about two cups of stock left over. Simply replace some or all of the water you'd normally use to cook a rice a grain dish with our chicken stock.

Substitute stock for water when cooking grains or pastas to add a little extra flavor

Note that the directions also call for salt- since we've already seasoned our stock, we should probably omit the additional salt. So, making our substitution, we'll take 2 cups of stock, and a tablespoon of olive oil, and use that as the base for our instant couscous.

Chicken stock and oil as a cooking liquid for couscous

From here on out, simply follow the rest of the directions on the box, and you'll end up with a couscous that an extra boost of flavor. Mine turned out to be tasty- when I paired the couscous with a little of the chicken gravy, there was enough chicken flavor between the two that it almost didn't need the actual meat to go with it.

Couscous with a little extra chicken flavor
Between our gravy and our stock infused couscous, we've managed to extract a huge amount of flavor and protein from a handful of bones that would often be tossed away. The gravy and the couscous are both now rich enough to stand on their own without a meat- add a vegetable and you will have a complete, and inexpensive meal. If paired with a nice piece of chicken, you have a slightly more expensive meal that packs an almost decadent amount of flavor. Either way, you'll be making better use of the money you've spent on your meat.

Remember- if you use your gravy and stock infused couscous in a meal with more chicken, save the bones, so you can do it again. We've barely scratched the surface of the multitude of things we can use leftover bones for, so don't let it go to waste. With a little patience and ingenuity, you can assemble nearly complete meals out of the scraps and a few very inexpensive pantry items.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rita's Italian Ice - Giving away free ices for the first day of spring.

So on the first day of spring, Rita's Italian Ice gives away free Italian ices to anyone who shows up- so naturally, we took the kids out to get a little treat.

Rita's Italian Ice Guy helping everyone celebrate the first day of spring
Of course, the local Rita's was completely mobbed, with an incredibly long line- too long to wait with three young kids. Luckily, there are several Rita's nearby, and it was a short ride to find one that was much less crowded.

Rita's sells Italian ices, soft serve ice cream, shakes, and a few other treats. During the summer months we usually pick up dessert there several times. The thing I like about them is that they always have interesting flavors mixed in with the old standbys - today's giveaway was no exception.

Eight free flavors at this particular location - other stores may have a different selection.

Rita's makes a simple product, using quality ingredients, I always like to find the most unusual flavor on the menu- and when you consider that today, I don't have to pay for it, there's no reason not to try something risky. Cranberry sounds like an interesting flavor for an Ice, so does Banana Split Cream... but Butterscotch Krimpet seems to be the winner for most unusual- Butterscotch is an easy flavor to mess up- too much and it becomes cloying and overwhelming- after a few more minutes on line, I'll find out of Rita's got it right.

Rita's Butterscotch Krimpet Italian Ice

The color was on the pale side, and I was expecting something with a darker caramel color. For a dessert like this though, I'm less concerned with how it looks and more concerned with how it tastes...

Enjoying my free Italian Ice in the car.
...and they got it right. The Butterscotch flavor was there, but was balanced well with a more creamy, cake-like flavor. The folks who formulate the flavors at Rita's seem to know when less can be more. The creamy notes seemed to take center stage with the butterscotch flavor taking more of a supporting role- when it easily could have been overwhelming. My wife and kids all went for the chocolate- a Rita's standby. They manage to get a nice rich chocolate flavor in an ice- one you'd expect from something more creamy such as ice cream. To top it off, the manager decided that she liked my kids and took a nice family photo of us that will eventually find it's way to the Rita's of Bridgewater, NJ website and/or facebook page. All in all, a nice short trip out with the kids for a tasty classic dessert.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Corned Beef and Cabbage - the one-pot wonder.

It's that time of year again. Even if you're not Irish, it's a good time to celebrate all things Irish with a very traditional, very inexpensive, very simple, and very good dish. A pint of two of Guinness won't hurt either.

Corned Beef and Cabbage - a mid-march treat for everyone.
So this year, I have to work a late shift on St. Patrick's Day, so we decided to have our corned beef and cabbage dinner a few days early. I'm entirely NOT Irish, but I can't get enough of the hearty simplicity of most Irish food. This dish is one of the most simple to make, but will leave you with a full belly and will probably end up in a sandwich for lunch the next day. Aside from the corned beef itself, all the ingredients in this dish are very inexpensive, even in today's crazy economic environment. It nice to know that even though the price of everything is sykrocketing, a reasonable amount of money can easily become a great and plentiful comfort meal.

All you need to make the dish is the biggest pot in the house, and plenty of room to chop up vegetables. I don't own a huge amount of high-end cookware, but my biggest pot is actually one of the best pieces of cookware I have- a gigantic all-clad pot with a nice thick chunk of metal for a bottom. It's indispensable for it's ability to make all manner of soups, stews, mass quantities of pasta or tomato sauces. The thick bottom makes it a good choice for low-and-slow cooking, and it's big enough to feed a small army. If you have a tight budget for cookware- go for the best quality, biggest pot you can afford. You'll also want a good quality large saute or saucepan, but that's another conversation. With a big pot, large one-pot meals such as corned beef and cabbage become easy. My one pot was able to feed four adults and three young children, and left enough vegetable scraps to keep the family rabbit quiet for the day.

For starters, put a nice big piece of corned beef in your biggest pot. Most stores carry corned beef in vacuum packs. There will probably be a little blood and meat juices in the bag- just put it all in the pot (it's all flavor). If the meat came with a small packet of seasoning, you may as well use that too (it's usually a basic pickling spice blend. If there is no seasoning packet- don't worry it takes very little to make the dish work- the meat contains a large amount of flavor on it's own, and only needs a little help to pass it's flavor on to the whole pot.

Red-Skinned potatoes get a quick rinse before going in the pot
I like to add the potatoes next- they'll help weigh down the meat and keep it from floating to the top (and possibly dumping cabbage all over your stovetop). Traditionally, most people use the standard brown potatoes, and peel off the skins before putting them into the pot. I like skin on my potatoes, and my wife suggested something that I liked- red skinned potatoes with the skins still on- so I picked up a three pound bag. Skin-on potatoes takes a major portion of the workload out of the meal- peeling an entire bag can be time consuming.

Big chunky carrots go great in most slow-cooked meals...
The most traditional version of corned beef and cabbage is just corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes with nothing else. There is plenty of room to change things up a little in the vegetable department while still respecting the original. Most of the family is fond of nice large chunky carrots, and they add nice flavor as well, so I peeled a bunch of fresh carrots, and roughly cut them into big chunky pieces. Also, just to add a little extra flavor, I added two small onions, also rough chopped.

There's always room at the party for a little onion.
The seasonings used to cure the meat transform it from a beef brisket into the unique almost pickle-like grainy, stringy, corned beef we all know and love. Those same seasonings will also provide most of the flavor we need for the mountain of vegetables we'll throw into the pot. It needs very few things to really make it work- a little salt, a little black pepper, and a little of whatever else you prefer. There's really no need to over-complicate things, so I'd suggest restraining yourself to one or two additional spices (especially if your corned beef came with the little packet). You should probably start adding your seasonings now- before you fill the pot to a brim with cabbage. Start with about a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of black pepper- you cab always adjust later- but you'll probably get enough salt coming from the meat so be careful about adding too much salt.

Coriander seed pairs well with beef and does well in long-slow cooking dishes.
I added one small handful of coriander seeds. This is a seasoning that, I feel, was made for slow cooking. I also think it pairs well with beef in general, as well as anything pickled- so it seems like a natural companion for a corned beef dinner. That's it for seasonings. It really doesn't need anything else, but feel free to experiment.

Cabbage, lots and lots of cabbage...
Now the cabbage. Rough chop about two heads of cabbage- basically as much cabbage as you can comfortably cram into your largest cooking pot. In my case, the fit was just right- the cabbage filled the rest of the pot with almost no room to spare- which is ok since it will soften and wilt a good amount as it cooks. In general, the cabbage should occupy about 50% or more of your pot. Once you finish stuffing cabbage in the pot- load it up with water- enough to cover the cabbage if you have the room, or up to within about an inch of the top if you've overstuffed yourself with cabbage like I did. Turn the heat on low, and let it cook with the lid on to help weigh down the overflowing cabbage at first. You'll need to simmer away slowly for at least three hours- and, as is usually the case for a dish like this one- longer is better. I set mine up around lunch-time and let it go until it was time to eat .

When you start getting close to dinner time give the broth and some of the cabbage a taste, and adjust your salt and pepper if needed. Turn off the heat about 15-20 minutes before serving. Fish out all the vegetables and potatoes with a slotted spoon, and let the meat rest in the remaining broth for about 15 minutes- this gives the meat a chance to unclench itself a little, and absorb some of that nice broth it's been stewing in all day, and seems to help keep the meat from drying out as soon as it comes out of the pot.  Once the meat has had it's relaxing swim in the pot, take it out and cut it up. Some people like theirs sliced into thin deli slices, I prefer mine cut into chunky, steak like slices- so slice it however you feel appropriate. If the meat looks a little dry, pour a little of the cooking liquid on top to help keep it moist. The liquid is tasty enough that you may just pour it on anyway, and any extra can easily be re-purposed as a soup base.

Corned beef and cabbage dinner served.
The flavor of the meat, and that touch of coriander basically permeate everything on the plate. The corned beef itself shines, but somehow, the cabbage ends up being the star- it soaks in the flavor, and lends it's own earthy counterpoint to it. The carrots and potatoes will have some of the same effect, but the cabbage seems to make the most of it.

This dish just has it all - lots of flavor, filling, makes enough for the whole family (with leftovers), is mostly inexpensive considering the sheer amount of food, and is extremely easy to do well. Corned beef and cabbage exemplifies everything that makes simple comfort foods great.

One odd piece of trivia to know is that corned beef and cabbage is really an Irish-American dish, rather than a native Irish one. The closest original in Ireland is Bacon and Cabbage- which sounds great, by the way. Much the way we Italian-Americans have Spaghetti and Meatballs as our most ubiquitous comfort food- despite the fact that in Italy, spaghetti and meatballs may be served in the same meal, but never paired as a single dish. I think that Corned Beef and Cabbage plays the same role to the Irish-American that Spaghetti and Meatballs does for the Italian-American- a dish based closely on traditions brought over from the mother country, but twisted a little to suit new surroundings- something (relatively) new that's still steeped in a long tradition.

Monday, March 14, 2011

String Beans with Almonds

As a kid, I had a problem with many vegetables- I was a meat and bread kind of kid. There were a few vegetables that I actually did enjoy though- string beans were one of them.

Fresh String Beans Sauteed with Almonds, onion, and Garlic, in Olive Oil
I suppose it helped that we almost always had fresh string beans growing in our garden. I think I started out disliking the limp soggy overcooked mess they call canned string beans (and frozen ones are usually not much better. However, I liked to go in the garden, pop a string bean off the vine an crunch away at it- still raw and about as fresh as you can possibly get. Raw string beans have a nice crunch, and a bright, intense flavor that just doesn't happen when they are cooked to death.

With that in mind- I still prefer my string beans either raw or very lightly cooked. This recipe strikes a good balance- the cooking that does occur is light and preserves most of the things I like about raw string beans, and it adds great flavor on top of it.

Yes, this is the very same string bean side seen in my standing rib roast meal.

String Beans with Almonds

1 lb fresh string beans
1 small onion (chopped)
1 clove garlic (minced)
1/2 cup slivered almonds
3 tbsp Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

First, you'll need to clean your string beans- snap off the stem end of the bean, and pull out the stringy bit of material that lives in the seam. Repeat until you get through all the beans. You can leave the other fleshy tip intact- in fact it makes the beans look nicer if you do. This is the most time consuming part, so you'll want to start a pot full of boiling water while you do it.

When you finish cleaning the beans, get a large bowl and fill it with ice water so we can shock-cool the beans after they take their hot water bath. Take your beans and drop them into the boiling water for about 60 seconds. This is a quick "blanch" - the beans should be barely cooked when done- you'll notice that the beans will just begin to turn color- when that happens, you are basically done- carefully move the beans to the ice water, which will shock them so they stop cooking, and will help lock in that nice healthy color we've developed. You may have to work in batches if your beans don't all fit in the pot at once.

Heat up the olive oil in a large saucepan. When hot, add in the chopped onions, with a little salt and pepper. Saute the onions until transparent, then add in the garlic. Let the onions and garlic cook together for about a minute- make sure the garlic does not burn. Add the slivered almonds, and toss them until coated in the oil. (note- you may need to add more oil- you want to make sure there is enough to give the almonds and the strong beans a nice coating- so use your judgment.

Add the cooled string beans to the pan, and toss until lightly coated with oil. Continue to saute for about 2-3 minutes until the beans are warmed through. I don't mind if they develop a little bit of a sear in spots, but I prefer to get them out of the pan and into the serving dish while they are still firm, so your cooking time here should be short.

Serve in a large bowl, they look great on the table, and make a good side for most typical holiday meals such as ham or turkey. Aside from cleaning the beans, the recipe is very simple, has good clean flavors, and a little bit of toothiness to it. If you have kids, you can get them involved in the cleaning part- and you can encourage them to munch on a raw bean or two- it just might get them involved enough that they'll be willing to eat the finished product at dinner time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Parodying the Food Network - Charlie Sheen's winning recipes

OK, nearly everyone has heard that Charlie Sheen has gone off the deep end- but it's hard for me to avoid ti because his rants and off-the-wall behavior seem so focused on internet marketing technique, that I feel compelled to watch to see if he descends into insanity, or pulls of a viral internet marketing coup.

Here, Charlie combines two things I have a passion for- cooking and all things internet related in a hilarious parody of both a typical cooking show and of himself. You may not like it, but it's you have to wonder if he's got a method to his madness, or if he's just plain nuts.

Is this off-topic for this blog? Maybe it is. To those of you that would prefer to see my usual food related content- don't worry, your regularly scheduled food posts will resume shortly!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Turkey Soup for the Soul

Never throw out the bones...

I usually have a few plastic baggies containing bones leftover from various meals hiding in the freezer. Sometimes a baggie may have shrimp shells or a fish head...

The stuff that most people (most Americans at least) throw away is usually some of the best and most versatile parts of the animal. Soups, stocks, bases for sauces, or just a little something to add flavor to a pot of greens.

In this case, it was a whole Turkey carcass with quite a bit of meat on it. We had a frozen turkey that had been taking up space in the freezer for a little too long, so we had an early mini-thanksgiving. The good stuff was what became of the leftovers- the carcass had all the seasoning from our previous meal, and a few scraps of stuffing stuck to the inside, so I put it in a large pot of water with a celery stalk, a bay leaf, and some salt and pepper. After simmering it most of the day, I fished out the bones (now spent, with all flavor extracted, they can be thrown away safely), and chopped up the meat. I added two more fresh celery stalks chopped into bits, a box of dry macaroni, some chopped carrots, sliced onions, and a little shredded cabbage.

A quick seasoning adjustment (the turkey brought in a lot of the seasoning so it only needed a touch), I also decided to toss in a few basil leaves- leftover from my caprese style grilled cheese while they were still holding up well in the fridge. Once the pasta was done, dinner was ready. When you make a soup from scratch, and have a long time to simmer your bones, it's nothing short of comfort in a bowl.

So- keep your own collection of beef bones left over from steak night, that ham bone that you just can't get all the meat off of, every chunk of cartilage and connective tissue, hunks of chicken skin with blobs of fat stuck to it, and keep them a while in the freezer- they may taste better the second time around. The greatest compliment you can pay to a meal, is to make something good out of the leftovers. If nothing else, it will cut down on waste, and make the most out of your meat/fish budget at the grocery store.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Grilled Cheese Caprese - Insalata Caprese meets Bruschetta.

This is a sandwich that I've been thinking about for a few days now, and I'm glad I made it. It is a simple concept based on the components of a classic Insalata Caprese or a simple Bruschetta.

Grilled cheese caprese - part caprese salad, part bruschetta, all good.

The key here is, of course to identify the basic components needed- Insalata Caprese  is probably the most simple salad you can make - the dish depends on having fresh ingredients- fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato, and fresh basil leaves - dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, with a touch of salt and pepper if needed. It is a very small leap to combine this idea with the toasted bread idea from classic Bruschetta and arrive at an item that satisfies my mild obsession with grilled cheese.

I start, of course, with a good quality home-made bread that will develop a pleasing crunch when grilled, but still have some body to it after being on the heat. Take two slices of bread, rub them on one side with a liberal amount of olive oil. Place them on a hot grill, oil side down. Place a few pieces of fresh mozzarella on each slice. Meanwhile, take two or three slices of a vine-ripened tomato, and grill them for about 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side- enough so they begin to get a little color and develop some extra flavor. Place your grilled tomatoes on top of one slice of bread, and layer on about 3 or 4 fresh basil leaves on the other. Dress the tomato side with a small splash of balsamic vinegar. I didn't bother to season with salt and pepper- but you may if you so desire.

Grilling the sandwich - the basil makes the kitchen smell great as it warms up.

By this time, the cheese will be mostly melted, and your bread should be very close to having a nice golden-brown crust. Monitor the bread closely at this point- olive oil seems to go from golden brown, to overdone much more quickly than butter or margarine due to it's lower smoking point. As soon as the bread has a good crisp to it, assemble your sandwich and enjoy. 

The end product is fairly light, with a great crunch. It made a great light lunch - and my wife enjoyed it as much as I did. This same basic idea can be expanded on by adding a little garlic, or other herbs, or even a different cheese (a smoked mozzarella maybe, or a young asiago, or fresh mozzarella with a little sharp provolone for extra kick) - there are many possibilities, however- I feel that this basic version is so good, and so simple, that it really does not need anything else to be a great sandwich.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Plastic Bag Pork Chops

Grilled marinaded pork chop with stuffed potato and creamed spinach

So what the heck is a plastic bag pork chop?

We'll get to that in a minute.

So this week, a relative stopped by for a visit and brought us a big styrofoam cooler. Apparently, her ex is an avid fan of Omaha Steaks- he, for whatever reason, had a bunch of extra meat in his last order that he couldn't use, so naturally, he dropped it off with his ex (my wife's aunt), who kept a few items that she wanted, and brought the remainder to us. So I ended up with a few nice boneless pork chops, filet mignon wrapped in bacon, some stuffed baked potatoes, and a box of gourmet hamburgers. I didn't have a lot of defrost time yesterday, so I didn't think the filets would thaw in time for dinner, so I went with my old stand-by Pork!

By the time the chops thawed, I had about an hour to marinade them before they needed to be on the grill. But, especially with pork- about 20-30 minutes is usually enough for a quick marinade.

So again, why "Plastic Bag Pork Chops?"

Simple- If you marinade in a bowl or a container, you usually end up with your meat swimming in a lot of marinade- and most of the marinade goes to waste. I prefer to make a smaller amount of marinade, then dump the meat and marinade in a plastic freezer bag, give it a toss, and let it sit. That way, I don't have to make a huge amount of marinade, or water it down. If there's enough liquid to coat the meat with a little extra, you're good.

I went with a fairly simple marinade- and since it was going to be a quick soak, I made it a little more acidic than usual.

The marinade-
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste (usually about 1/2 tsp - 1tsp each)
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 small onion (chopped fine)
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1/4 cup water (if needed)
enough plastic storage bags to hold your chops with room to give them a good shake.

Mix all ingredients in a bowl (or plastic bag!) except the water. Add in the water if it looks like you need more liquid to coat your meat (you'll probably need at least some of it)- taste and adjust seasoning.

The marinade ready to be bagged

Take your pork chops and put them in the plastic bag(s) and pour in the marinade. Seal the bag(s) and toss gently to distribute the liquid and onion bits. Set bag aside in the refrigerator for about 20-30 minutes (minimum) - longer is better- if you can set it up the night before, go for it.

Boneless Pork Chops marinading in a plastic bag.

Once the marinade has had some time to do it's work, grill or broil the chops until done. I like mine grilled, and I wanted as much of a sear as I could get, so I used the flat side of my indoor grill. It should take a few minutes per side- I won't give specific cooking times since it will vary wildly depending on how thick your chops are. I go the the "poke test" where if the meat feels sufficiently firm, it's ready. I also watch the sides of the meat- when half of the chop has turned from pink to white, it's ready to be flipped over.

Pork chops sizzling on the grill

You'll probably lose most of the onion bits, but as long as they've been in the marinade they will have already added their flavor to the mix. The onion bits that do manage to cling to the meat will probably be nicely carmelized and somewhat pressed into the meat. The chop should be fully cooked, but still juicy with a nice thin layer of sear on the outside. I served mine with the stuffed potatoes from Omaha Steaks, and a little creamed spinach. My girls are picky about meat, so they had some mac and cheese with theirs. My son, however, devoured about half a pork chop (cut up into tiny pieces), some spinach, and anything else he could steal off my plate despite not even being old enough to have all his teeth yet.

While my daughters are finicky, my son is a good indicator of how well the food came out (he's obviously the most Italian of my kids since he goes crazy for pasta dishes). I thin he's on his way top being a junior foodie- he skipped from jarred/pureed baby food right to solids as soon as his front teeth came in and hasn't looked back. These pork chops definitely received his stamp of approval.