Friday, July 30, 2010

Zucchini Quesadillas

I imagine that for today's children a cheese quesadilla is as common as a PB&J or toasted cheese sandwich was when I was a kid. But I didn't grow up making and eating them, so they don't seem mundane to me at all. They are one of my favorite things to eat for Sunday lunch.  On busy weeknights they often make an appearance on my dinner table along with some sliced tomatoes or a salad.

I appreciate any food that will function as a blank canvas upon which I can improvise with whatever ingredients the market and the season provide (pizza, pasta, savory tarts and salad greens are other "blank canvas" favorites). Quesadillas have the added charm of being all about crisp, sizzling bread filled with hot, melting cheese—pretty much at the top of my comfort food list.

Many things make good fillings for quesadillas—roasted or sautéed peppers (sweet or hot), cooked black beans, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted winter squash, cooked chorizo, grilled chicken—the list goes on and on. Quesadillas are also a great way to use up leftovers. As long as the ingredients that make up your filling are cooked and well-seasoned, you can hardly miss. Choose a nice melting cheese (Monterey Jack, Fontina, Chihuahua, etc.) to act as a "glue", add some herbs or spices, if you like, and you're done.

I think that pretty much everyone is comfortable making quesadillas (apparently even Napoleon Dynamite), so I will just mention a few things that I think are important to think about so you will end up with a nice crispy quesadilla that isn't soggy or greasy.

Even though a quesadilla is about hot cheese, use a light hand with the cheese. I think a couple of ounces of cheese is plenty for an 8-inch quesadilla. It might not look like much when it is scattered over the tortilla, but when it melts, two ounces is just about perfect. Too much more than that and you end up with a thick, unappetizing wad of melted cheese. Any other fillings you use should be added sparingly as well. Thick fillings tend to make the quesadilla soggy and stodgy.

To cook the quesadilla, a cast iron pan or griddle is ideal, but a nonstick pan will work too. Make sure that your pan is moderately hot so that the tortillas will brown in the amount of time it takes the cheese to melt. Add just enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan—too much oil and the quesadilla will be greasy. To guard against this, you could lightly brush the quesadilla with oil, instead of adding the oil to the pan.

This time of year I am always looking for interesting ways to use zucchini. This quesadilla is one of my favorites. It also makes use of the sweet red onions that are abundant at the market right now and the thyme that is abundant in my back yard.

Zucchini Quesadilla

For each 8-inch Quesadilla:
3 to 4 t. vegetable or olive oil
1/4 cup diced (1/4-inch) red onion
2 or 3 sprigs of thyme, picked
1 small zucchini (about 3 oz.), trimmed, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly (1/8-inch thick) on a diagonal
½ c. (about 2 oz.) coarsely grated Fontina or Monterey Jack Cheese
2 8-inch flour tortillas

Heat a teaspoon or so of the oil in a small sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft, tender and beginning to turn golden around the edges. Stir in the thyme and transfer the onions to a plate.

Return the pan to the heat and add more oil. Add the zucchini and sauté until tender and golden. Season with salt and pepper and add to the onions.

To build the quesadilla, spread half of the cheese over one of the tortillas. Spread the onion/zucchini mixture over the cheese and cover with the remaining cheese.

Top with the second tortilla. The quesadilla can be made to this point a few hours ahead—wrap and refrigerate until ready to cook.

Heat a cast-iron or non-stick pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add a thin coat of oil. Place the quesadilla in the pan and cook until golden brown. Carefully turn the quesadilla over, adding more oil if necessary and continue to cook until the second side is golden brown and the cheese is melted.

Serve the quesadilla with salsa as a snack or an appetizer or with sliced vine-ripened tomatoes and avocados for lunch or a light dinner.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Everyday Blueberry Muffins

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I was looking for the "perfect" blueberry muffin recipe. I should probably have said that I was looking for a recipe for a particular type of blueberry muffin. What I had in mind was an exceptional example of a muffin made with the traditional quick mixing method called (surprisingly) the "muffin method".

There are many different methods for mixing up baked goods. All of them have been designed to help the baker create the proper amount of gluten to obtain the best result for the baked good in question. For quick breads (muffins, scones, tea breads, etc.) and cakes—baked goods leavened with baking soda or baking powder—too much gluten development will produce hard, tough and dry results. This over-development of gluten is a result of too much mixing. An experienced and talented baker is adept at judging when to stop mixing.  In reference to this, you will often hear a fine baker described as having a light hand or a deft touch.

There are two primary methods for mixing up muffin batters. The aforementioned muffin method consists of mixing all of the dry ingredients in one bowl and all of the wet ingredients in another. The two are then combined using a few brief strokes.  Most recipes will even tell you that it's OK if the batter is still lumpy or if there are traces of flour still visible in the batter. The muffin method is simultaneously one of the easiest methods and one of the most difficult. Easy, because it is fast. Difficult, because the temptation to over mix is great.

The second type of muffin is made with the creaming method. The butter is beaten together with the sugar until it is fluffy, then the eggs are beaten in and finally the dry ingredients are added alternately with any remaining liquids. This is the classic mixing method for American-style butter cakes. When well-made, a creaming method muffin is fine-grained and tender—just like a creaming method cake. There is more protection built into this method of mixing as far as gluten development is concerned. The batter can still be over mixed, but it isn't nearly as easy to do.

Most muffin recipes in popular circulation today are creaming method. As anecdotal proof of this, when I posted that I was looking for a perfect blueberry muffin recipe I received a number of messages from readers providing me with links to their favorite blueberry muffin recipes. All but one were creaming method recipes.

You might wonder why I particularly want a muffin method recipe since the creaming method produces such good results. For me, it has to do with the place a muffin holds in my "sweets" repertoire. I think that a muffin should truly be a quick bread. I want to be able to make them on the spur of the moment for an impromptu breakfast or a surprise visit from a friend. Muffins made using the muffin method can be measured, mixed and baked in about a half hour.

If I am going to go to the trouble to make a creaming method muffin—soften butter, bring eggs to room temperature, get out my mixer, beat the butter and sugar for 3 or 4 minutes, etc.—I would rather just make a coffee cake. A creaming method muffin is really just a miniature coffee or tea cake—called a muffin because it's baked in a muffin pan. By baking a coffee cake, I give myself more control over the portion size (one muffin is kind of a small portion—but two is probably too much.)

What I really want in a blueberry muffin is the best of both worlds—fast, but with a more fine-grained and tender result than is normally found in a traditional muffin. Several years ago I happened upon a blueberry muffin recipe (in a book called Morning Food by Margaret Fox) that used all heavy cream for the liquid. This made some pretty wonderful muffins--just like using all heavy cream makes really great scones. But unlike my cream scone recipe, these all-cream muffins were a little too rich for me. I adjusted the recipe over the years to use less cream and more milk, but whenever you start to tinker with a recipe, you find that it is rarely just one thing that needs adjusting. I have continued to play around with the recipe and when I made the blueberry muffins that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I felt like I was getting pretty close to the muffin I wanted.

I am pleased with my most recent result. It is sweet, tender and has a finer grain than most muffin method muffins.  It is also substantial enough not to become damp and soggy with the blueberries. I made a second batch with peaches (topped with sliced almonds) and they were good too. I expect I would be happy with raspberries as well.

Everyday Blueberry Muffins

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (9 oz.)
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. granulated sugar
6 T. light brown sugar (packed) 
1 large egg
8 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
1 1/2 c. blueberries, washed and dried
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling (see note)

Preheat the oven to 375°. Grease and flour or line with muffin-liners, a 12-cup muffin tin. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the first five ingredients; set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the melted butter into the egg until smooth. Whisk in the cream, milk and extracts.

Add the blueberries to the dry ingredients and toss to coat. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and stir until just combined—this will only take a few strokes. A few clumps of flour will be visible in the batter—this is as it should be (do not over mix!).

Divide the batter into the prepared muffin cups—a 1/4 cup ice cream scoop works perfectly for this. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with some turbinado sugar, if you like.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes--until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 12 muffins.

Note:  Instead of Turbinado sugar feel free to use coarse decorator sugars or plain cinnamon-sugar.  You could also top the muffins with a simple butter/sugar streusel or some sliced almonds (as I did for my peach version):

Variation (18 April 2011):  I wanted to make an impromptu batch of these and discovered I didn't have any heavy cream in the house.  I did have sour cream, so I substituted sour cream for heavy cream and increased the milk to 1/2 cup.  Because of the added liquid, I increased the baking powder to 1 T. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

Beet, Arugula and Cucumber Salad with Yogurt Dressing served with Spicy Sautéed Halibut and Basmati Rice

One of the best experiences you can have as a diner is to eat a meal that so far exceeds your expectations that the surprise itself increases your enjoyment of the food. The experience is even better if you are also the cook.  Tonight's dinner was just that kind meal for me.

On Friday night, my supply of fresh produce is definitely on the wane. Tonight I was down to golden beets, one cucumber, some arugula, a few green beans and some corn. This didn't seem too promising to me. Since I wasn't really in the mood for corn or green beans (I ate a lot of both this week), I was left with the arugula, cucumber and golden beets. In what I consider to be a sort of freakish coincidence, it just so happened that earlier in the week I had seen a salad in one of my new cookbooks (Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins & Mindy Fox) that featured these three ingredients. I had noticed it because I am always on the lookout for new things to do with beets and also because these three ingredients did not seem like an obvious combination to me.

Beets and arugula are a natural pairing, but I wasn't sure about the addition of the cucumber. You may recall from a previous post that cucumbers are not something I acquired a taste for until recently. I still don't naturally think of them when combining ingredients. Since I had all the ingredients on hand it seemed like a shame not to try this unusual salad. When I pulled the book out to double check the recipe, I was surprised that there was nothing else to speak of in the salad—it was just these three ingredients tossed together with a yogurt vinaigrette. It could hardly have been simpler. Jenkins suggests serving the salad as a first course or as part of a mezze spread. But I thought I would just serve it as a side dish.

While I was out running errands today I stopped to pick up some halibut. Halibut is in season now. It is a fish that I don't like to eat if it has been frozen. It is so low in fat that it doesn't seem to be able to withstand the loss of moisture inherent in the freezing process. After it has been frozen, it is invariably dry and cottony when cooked. Fortunately, its season is long and I am usually able to get my fill of it from mid spring to late autumn. You can tell by looking if halibut has been frozen. The flesh of fresh halibut has a translucent quality. If it has been frozen, it is generally an opaque white.

As I considered the cool yogurt and cucumber and the sweet roasted beets, I thought of a favorite way of preparing fish I picked up in an article I read about Boulette's Larder in San Francisco. In the article the chefs shared a recipe for sautéed fish seasoned with a spice mixture they called "instant easy effect". The spice mixture they use is equal parts salt, chili powder and turmeric. I like this idea of sprinkling spices on a piece of fish to be seared. The searing process toasts the spices, further releasing their flavorful oils into the fish.

For my 9 ounce piece of (skinless) halibut I used roughly 1/4 t. kosher salt, 1/4 t. turmeric, 1/8 t. Ancho chili powder and 1/8 t. cumin.

Rub the spice into the fish and heat some olive oil and a little butter in a sauté pan set over medium-high heat. After the butter foam subsides, add the fish to the pan. Always put the fish into the pan "service side" (the side that will face the diner) down—this is because the side that goes into the pan first will always look best. In the case of a skinned piece of fish, it will be the side that was against the bones (not the side that had the skin). Cook the fish for 3 to 5 minutes, regulating the heat to maintain an active sizzle, until it is crisp and browned. Carefully turn the fish over and continue to cook until it is done the way you like it.

I think it is best when it is still slightly translucent in the center. The rule of thumb is about 10 minutes total cooking time for every inch of thickness of the fish. If you like, you may finish cooking the fish, after turning it over, in a 350° to 400° oven (make sure you are using and ovenproof sauté pan if you are going to do this).

While the fish was finishing up in the oven, I finished the salad.  The individual ingredients were all very good—particularly the cucumber which was still juicy and crunchy even though it was almost a week old—but I still had my doubts about the combination.

I served the salad and fish with some plain basmati rice from a large platter—"family style" for the two of us. I knew the minute I put it in my mouth that I wanted to write about it. The combination of the lightly spiced halibut with the fragrant basmati rice and the amazingly flavorful and refreshing beet and cucumber salad was very fine—a delightful contrast in textures, temperatures and flavors. As we ate, I drizzled some of the extra yogurt vinaigrette over the fish and kept saying over and over again, "This is so good!" I think you will agree.

Beet, Arugula and Cucumber Salad with Yogurt Dressing
(Recipe adapted from Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins & Mindy Fox)

3 medium beets (I used golden beets)
White Balsamic (this is not in the original recipe--I think beets need a little acidity and I particularly like white balsamic, but you could use something else)
1/4 c. plain yogurt
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 clove of garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
5 T. olive oil
1 bunch of arugula, washed, stems removed if large, and torn
1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch half-moons

Heat oven to 400°. Place the beets in a baking dish with a splash of water. Cover tightly with foil and bake until tender—45 minutes to an hour. Remove the beets from the oven, drain and let cool slightly. Trim the beets and rub the skin off with a paper towel. Cut the beets into eighths. Drizzle with white balsamic vinegar to taste. (See basic roasted beet recipe.)

While the beets are cooking, whisk together the yogurt, garlic and vinegar. Season with salt. While whisking constantly, add the oil in a thin stream. If necessary, add 2 or 3 drops of warm water to smooth and emulsify the dressing. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper.

In a medium-sized bowl, toss the beets with the cucumber and arugula. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle some of the dressing over the salad and toss—adding more dressing as necessary to coat the vegetables and greens. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve.  Serves 4.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Midsummer Vegetable Ragoût of Baby Root Vegetables, Summer Squash & Green Beans

From early spring to late fall—basically my "market" season—there is always an abundant mix of vegetables in my refrigerator and on my kitchen counter. This means that even if there is "nothing" in the house for dinner, I can always make a mixed vegetable ragoût of some sort for our evening meal. In my mind, a vegetable ragoût is a medley of vegetables that are finished all together in a small amount of a flavorful liquid. It is not quite broth-y enough to be a soup or a stew, but like a soup or stew, the overall effect is that of a harmonious whole. Served with a grain pilaf, polenta, mashed potatoes, a starchy gratin, or some nice crusty bread and cheese, a vegetable ragoût can be the star of the meal. It can also be a wonderful supporting player to a grilled or sautéed piece of meat or fish.

When combining vegetables for a ragoût, remember that in general "foods that grow together go together". So, if all the vegetables you plan to put in your ragoût grew in the same part of the country, at around the same time (and of course this will be true if you are getting your ingredients from local sources), then you don't need to worry too much about whether you will have a pleasing combination.

To me, the greater difficulty lies in limiting yourself. There is such an abundance this time of year, it would be easy to include so many different kinds of vegetables that the individual character of each vegetable is lost. I generally try and limit my selection to 3 to 5 vegetables—you could of course use more (a classic Moroccan Tagine has seven)—but 3 to 5 gives plenty of variety without being too busy.

For the kind of ragoût I had in mind last night I like to have a roughly even mix of root vegetables and green vegetables—and then for a uniform look, about equal quantities of each vegetable. But another kind of ragoût might feature a large quantity of one vegetable and an equal amount of a variety of several others. Furthermore (not to stray too far from my topic here—but to give you an idea of the possibilities) a ragoût does not need to contain any root vegetables—one of my favorite summer ragoûts contains eggplant, peppers, onions, tomatoes and chickpeas.... Or, a ragoût could be made with all root vegetables....or all green vegetables.... This post today is just a narrow window into the vast world of vegetable ragoûts.

For the ragoût that I made yesterday evening, I chose turnips, carrots, baby summer squash and green beans. Earlier in the season, adding kohlrabi to the root vegetables or peas to the green vegetables would have been nice. Later in the summer, shelling beans add variety and substance. Wilted spinach or chard would be another good addition.

When it comes to the actual cooking process, it is important to consider each vegetable separately. Group the vegetables according to how long each will take to cook and also according to the cooking process you will use for those vegetables. The root vegetables will take roughly the same amount of time to cook—as long as they are cut in pieces that are similar in size. Green vegetables will take much less time to cook and they can simply be added to the ragoût when the root vegetables are half to two-thirds cooked.

The final flavor of a ragoût made in this way will be very good. Unfortunately, the textures of the vegetables might be less than perfect—some or all of the green vegetables might become overcooked while waiting for one or more of the other vegetables to cook to tenderness. It is impossible to estimate perfectly when all of the vegetables will be done. The way to solve this problem is to cook some of the vegetables separately and then combine all of the vegetables together at the end for a brief simmer to allow all of the flavors to blend. Not only does this process give more control to the cook, but it provides the option of choosing different cooking methods for the green vegetables—blanching for peas or green beans, longer stewing for shell beans, sautéing for summer squash and a quick braise or sauté for any greens you might want to add. Each vegetable reaches its perfect doneness this way. Some of the blanching or stewing liquids from the cooking of these individual vegetables can be used in the finishing of the ragoût to contribute to the finished flavor.

Once you have chosen your vegetables and the cooking methods you will be using, you can begin to think about herbs, spices and the sort of liquid you will want to use. I made a simple French-inspired dish of braised baby root vegetables, sautéed summer squash, and blanched green beans, seasoned with garlic, thyme, chives and roast chicken jus. But your choices are almost without limit—as I mentioned above, the world of ragoûts is vast—Spanish-inspired seasoned with saffron, paprika and tomato...Thai with green curry paste, lime and coconut milk.... It would be a monumental task to expound at length on flavor variations here. I love vegetables, so I am sure that vegetable ragoûts will make numerous appearances here in the future. But for now, if you like the idea of the vegetable ragoût and want some more specific recipes, Deborah Madison's cookbooks contain numerous examples (particularly Local Flavors, Vegetarian Suppers and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone).

I served my French-inspired, midsummer vegetable ragoût with a couscous pilaf that included red onions, pine nuts and currants. But it would have been good with a piece of salmon or some soft polenta or a creamy potato gratin or...

Midsummer Vegetable Ragoût (for 2)

Prepare the vegetables: Peel and trim 4 small carrots (about 4 oz.) and cut 1/2-inch thick on a long diagonal. Peel and trim 3 small turnips (about 5 oz.) and cut into 1/2-inch wedges. Top and tail a couple of handfuls of green beans. Cut on the diagonal into 2-inch lengths. Wash the baby squash and cut into uniform chunks or wedges to go with the size of carrots and turnips.

In a sauté pan large enough to hold the carrots and turnips in a single layer, heat some olive oil and a little butter over medium high heat until the butter is melted and the foam subsides. Add the carrots and turnips along with a generous pinch of salt and sauté, tossing occasionally until the vegetables are browned in spots. Add a clove of minced garlic and a tablespoon or so of picked fresh thyme.

Continue to sauté until the garlic is fragrant—about a minute. Add enough liquid to come half way up the sides of the vegetables in the pan. Water is fine. If you have chicken stock, even better. I had some roast chicken jus that I had frozen after I roasted the chicken for my Chicken and Cantaloupe Salad, so I used that:

Reduce the heat and cover the pan. Gently simmer the vegetables until they are just tender. Check the vegetables occasionally as they cook and add more liquid as necessary to maintain about a quarter inch depth in the pan.

While the root vegetables cook, sauté the squash in a little butter until golden and barely tender. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Blanch the green beans in boiling salted water until tender. Scoop them out and spread on a towel.

To finish the ragoût, uncover the root vegetables and increase the heat to maintain a simmer.

Add the squash and beans and more broth (or green bean cooking water, if you like) if the pan seems dry. When the vegetables are hot through, add a tablespoon or so of butter and some minced chives and toss until the butter has emulsified into the braising liquid and the chives are well distributed throughout the ragoût. If you have some herbed compound butter on hand, you could use that instead of the plain butter and chives. Pesto would also make a fine addition—add a spoonful along with a drizzle of olive oil instead of the butter and chives. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Refreshing Chicken Salad with Cantaloupe, Feta, Arugula & Mint

Just as the most blistering heat of the summer begins to set in, refreshing melons and cucumbers have begun to show up at my Farmers' market. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate melons and cucumbers. I am certain that my earlier dislike was from having eaten a less than spectacular specimen or two while I was growing up. They just seemed a bit boring and flavorless to me.  As a child I don't ever remember going to a farmers' market and we never had a vegetable garden (only flowers). The fruits and vegetables I ate were from the grocery store and had, I know now, been picked before their prime for shipment. Some fruits and vegetables suffer more under this kind of treatment than others. Tomatoes are a good example. I went for years as a young adult thinking I didn't like tomatoes anymore. Then on a business trip to Florida, I was served a gorgeous vine ripe tomato on my salad and couldn't believe the flavor explosion in my mouth...I did like tomatoes!

Something similar happened to me with Cantaloupe. After years of refusing cantaloupe, I found myself at the end of a wonderful meal at Alain Ducasse's La Bastide de Moustiers in the South of France. The dessert that evening included a simple medley of seasonal fruits. In it floated these peachy colored cubes that tasted like nothing I had ever eaten—sweet, juicy and with an incredible perfume. The waitress seemed surprised that I didn't know what it was—just melon du Cavaillon (a small French variety of cantaloupe). Amazing!

A couple of summers ago while I was working on a class featuring cold foods, I came across three salads by three of my favorite women chefs—Jody Adams, Judy Rodgers and Joyce Goldstein. All three salads featured combinations of these (and other) crunchy and juicy vegetables and fruits of summer accented by the crunch of nuts, salty cheese and a healthy dose of refreshing mint.  I was inspired to put together my own version and the result is the recipe I'm sharing today. I drew most heavily on the salad by Joyce Goldstein, published in an old summer issue of Food & Wine.

Besides getting the chance to use and learn more about a couple of ingredients that weren't regulars in my repertoire, while playing with this recipe I learned a new technique for adding mint flavor to a vinaigrette. Jody Adams says that it is an Italian technique. Basically the vinegar or lemon juice is combined with some minced fresh mint and then brought to a simmer. It is then pulled off of the heat and allowed to steep (much like tea) for at least 30 minutes. The longer you allow it to steep, the more intense the mint flavor. The mint-infused vinegar is then strained and used in the vinaigrette. If you are in a hurry, you could probably skip this step, but if you have time, it is definitely worth trying.

It goes without saying that you should wait to make this salad until the cantaloupes at the market are so fragrant and ripe that you can't pass the stand without being drawn in by their aroma. The cucumbers should be small and firm so they will be at their crunchy best. I purchased the small pickling type—but any variety is fine as long as it isn't overgrown and soft.

I could go on and on about the contrasts of flavors and textures in this salad—salty and sweet, crunchy and soft—and how this makes for an extraordinary salad, but the thing that I love more than anything else about it is that it is downright juicy. Thirst quenching, refreshing and perfect for a hot day, it also makes a satisfying meal because of the addition of the roast chicken.

For the salad you will need a scant pound of shredded roast chicken. Depending on how your supermarket or butcher trims the chicken they sell, you will need 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. of bone-in split breasts to end up with that amount cooked. It is always better to err on the side of too much rather than too little, because shredded roast chicken can be used up in any number of ways—burrito or soft taco filling, in pasta, on a sandwich, etc. Regular readers of my blog have probably figured out that I frown on prepared foods, but I will concede that one of the "better" prepared foods is the widely available rotisserie chicken. If you must, you could make this salad with meat from a purchased rotisserie chicken. But it's so much better if you roast your own chicken. You will need to do this early in the day, or the day before, so the chicken has time to chill.

To roast bone-in, skin-on, chicken breasts, rinse them and pat them dry. Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a baking dish and roast in a 450° to 475° oven until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 155°--about 25 to 30 minutes. (The chicken will easily reach the safe temperature of 160° as it rests.)  As the chicken roasts, regulate the oven temperature to maintain an active sizzle. Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. (If desired, deglaze the baking pan with water. Degrease and reserve the resulting tasty jus for another use.) When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard. Shred the meat into long strips about ½-inch wide.

Chicken Salad with Cantaloupe, Feta & Arugula

2 T. Lemon Juice
½ c. mint chiffonade, plus 1 T. (heaping) chopped mint
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 ½ T. minced shallot (about half a small shallot)
½ t. honey
Salt & Pepper
1/3 c. Olive oil
½ of a large (2 ½ to 3 lb.) ripe cantaloupe, peeled and seeded
1 small cucumber (about 6 oz.), peeled if the skin is tough, halved & seeded
12 to 16 oz. chilled, shredded roast chicken (about 2 1/2 to 3 cups)
4 oz. rinsed and stemmed Arugula (4 handfuls)
½ c. pecans (2 oz.), toasted and broken into medium-sized pieces
4 oz. Feta, crumbled (or substitute Ricotta Salata, thinly sliced)

To make the vinaigrette: Place the lemon juice in a small saucepan with the tablespoon of minced mint and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the mint wilts—this will only take a few seconds. Remove from the heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain the lemon juice into a small bowl and add the red wine vinegar, shallot and honey. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the shallot macerate for a few moments before adding the olive oil. Whisk in the olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside.

Cut the cantaloupe half in quarters lengthwise. Then slice thinly crosswise (you should have a generous 2 cups of sliced cantaloupe); set aside. Thinly slice the cucumber halves on a long diagonal (you should have about a cup of cucumber “ribbons”).

Place the chicken in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette. Toss to coat. Add the Arugula and the chiffonade mint to the bowl along with the cantaloupe, cucumber, pecans and Feta.

Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with just enough vinaigrette to coat. Carefully toss the salad. Divide among four dinner plates and serve.  Serves 4.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Banana-Walnut Chocolate-Chunk Cookies

Most of the recipes that I post are either recipes that I have developed or recipes that I have altered in some way. It is pretty rare for me, or for any professional or experienced cook I suppose, to leave a recipe unchanged. We just can't help ourselves. But today's cookie recipe is one that I am passing on unchanged. I like it just the way it is. It is destined to become a favorite "cookie jar" cookie at my house (my cookie jar being a Tupperware container that lives in the freezer).

These cookies remind me of the old-fashioned drop cookies of my childhood—Betty Crocker's Old Time Cinnamon Jumbles, Carrot Cookies with orange frosting, and my favorite, a soft chocolate cookie with raisins and chocolate icing that my Grandmother used to make (I don't have any idea what it was called). Soft and cake-like, with a domed, imperfect shape, these kinds of cookies seem to have fallen out of favor. This is possibly because of the supremacy of the chocolate chip cookie and it's relatives, or the fact that people really don't bake from scratch very much (these cookies have a definite homemade look about them). Also, unless you are keeping them in the freezer, they have a tendency to go stale quickly. Whatever the reason, you don't see them very often anymore so I was very pleased to come across this type of cookie in Martha Stewart's Cookies.

My mother made a Banana-Oatmeal cookie that was very similar to this one when I was a kid. Once, while I was in college, she sent a box of them to me in a care package. Because they do go stale quickly, she went to the trouble of wrapping each cookie individually—a special treat and gesture that has remained in my memory. You might wonder why I am now making the "new" version. Well, Martha's version has chocolate and walnuts instead of raisins and spices, so I prefer her version (sorry Mom).

I took a few of these cookies with me on my trip to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. They were perfect road trip fare—sweet, substantial and full of good things (walnuts, oatmeal, whole wheat flour, bananas), making for a sustaining sort of snack. I think they would make an excellent "on the go" breakfast, too. In general, I think desserts (cookies, fruit pies and tarts, certain kinds of cake...) make pretty good breakfast food. But even for those who don't share my opinion, I think these cookies would pass for an acceptable breakfast—certainly better for you than the processed breakfast foods that many people eat.

The main reason that I first tried these cookies was that I came across the recipe when I had one over-ripe banana sitting on my kitchen counter. It always seems to be this way—only one banana hangs around long enough to become ripe enough for matter how many we buy. I love banana baked goods, but most banana bread, cake and muffin recipes call for more than one banana. I realize I could freeze these singleton bananas and then bake when I have a collection of them—and I do occasionally freeze some, but for some reason this isn't something I'm inclined to do (I guess I would rather save room in my freezer for finished cookies).  Anyway, this cookie recipe only calls for one banana, and since it has the taste and texture of a banana cake, my problem is solved. 

Banana-Walnut Chocolate Chunk Cookies

1 c. all-purpose flour (4 1/4 oz.)
1/2 c. whole wheat flour (2 1/8 oz.)—I used white whole wheat
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. baking soda
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. mashed ripe banana (about 1 large)
1 c. old fashioned rolled oats
8 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 c. coarsely chopped walnuts (2 oz.), toasted

Whisk together the flours, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugars until pale and fluffy. Beat in the egg and then the vanilla. Stir in the banana. Add the flour and mix until almost completely incorporated. Stir in the oats, chocolate and nuts.

Using a 1 1/2-inch cookie scoop, scoop the dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart.

Bake the cookies in a 375° oven, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through, until golden brown and just set—11 to 13 minutes. Let cool on the sheets for 5 minutes.

Transfer the cookies to wire racks; let cool completely. Cookies can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 2 days. (The cookies may also be frozen.)  Makes 3 dozen medium-sized cookies.

(Recipe from Martha Stewart's Cookies)

Printable Recipe

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kale, Potato & Black Olive Pizza

I purchased a bag of Kale at the market last Saturday. Ordinarily, I don't think of kale as a summer food, but it looked especially nice—with small, relatively tender leaves and stems that seemed less developed than usual—it must be that we are at the very beginning of the crop. I bought it, not quite sure what I would do with it. I tend to like kale in recipes that are appropriate for Autumn and Winter—in a hearty soup, or braised and served as a side dish. But I wasn't really in the mood for something so hearty—the weather has turned beastly hot in the past few days.

Last year I taught a class on Greens.  As I was driving home from the market, I remembered that one of the recipes I taught was for a Kale & Potato Pizza. I'm almost always in the mood for pizza.  Even if turning your oven up to pizza-baking temperatures heats your kitchen up too much for the summer, you can always make it on the grill instead. Pizza seems to fit any season. Since I had also purchased potatoes at the market, I knew before I returned home that I would be having my kale on a pizza.

Kale (greens in general, actually) go particularly well with bland starches like potatoes, shell beans and pasta. The addition of a sweet component (sweet potatoes/winter squash, caramelized onions) or a salty component (anchovies, olives, bacon, sausage...) really lights up this combination. A good example of this flavor profile can be found in one of my first posts where I wrote about a White Bean Soup with Sausage & Swiss Chard—the sausage providing the salty accent.

Last week I made a quick, custard-based tart for dinner and made use of a sweet flavor accent by combining some garlicky sautéed Swiss chard and roasted potatoes with caramelized onions. It was very good and I probably should have written a post about it, but it was one of those meals that I threw together with what I had on hand, so I really didn't have a recipe. I did take a picture of the (half eaten) finished tart:

For those interested in making something similar, I can tell you that you can find the crust recipe here and that I used a custard of 1 egg and 1/2 cup heavy cream.  The filling quantities were approximately one bunch of Swiss chard, 3 or 4 new potatoes (cut in scant 1-inch chunks), 1 small onion and 3 or 4 oz. of coarsely shredded Gruyère.

The amazing thing to me about the tart, the soup and the pizza is how astonishingly satisfying they are too eat. I suppose that this should not be surprising since greens are one of the healthiest things you can eat—they are constantly showing up on lists that have titles like: "Ten Things You Should Eat Everyday". The combination of healthy greens with the filling potatoes or beans must satisfy our natural craving for truly nourishing food. To be honest, I rarely think about how to get more "healthy" foods into my diet. I just eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. But, if you are trying to learn how to include more greens in your diet, any one of these recipes would be a fairly enjoyable way to do it.

I will give the recipe as I made it, but this pizza has appeared on my table in numerous incarnations.  I have used sliced and roasted potatoes instead of the crumbled, poached potatoes called for in the recipe. Olives have been replaced with a couple of ounces of  rendered bacon or pancetta--and the rendered fat used to cook the kale. I'm sure the pizza would be good with anchovies or cooked Italian Sausage chunks, too.  My choice of cheeses in the recipe happened to be what I had on hand.  In the past I have made the pizza with crumbled, aged goat cheese (like Bûcheron).  Obviously you should experiment and come up with your own combinations. As always, what is really important is to use a light hand with the toppings so that the crust will be able to cook to crispness in 12 to 15 minutes in a hot oven.

A final note about the Kale. The recipe calls for a 1/2 lb. bunch of kale, which is what is normally sold in the grocery store. After the stems have been stripped (and you should always strip the stems away from Kale—they are quite ropey and tough),

a bunch this size will cook down to about a cup of greens. The bag of kale that I purchased weighed slightly more than a half pound. But because the stems were so young, there was a larger proportion of edible leaves which cooked down to a scant 1 1/2 cups. This left me with some nice braised kale to fold into an omelet, toss with some pasta or serve on a crostini or bruschetta with some cheese. The point is, take the varied nature of things that you purchase at the farmers' market into account when you are following recipes that have been calibrated to what is typically found at an American grocery store. You may have to adjust your recipe as you cook. And to be honest, this is what cooking is really about—learning how to take your cues from the ingredients and equipment at hand and manipulate them to produce something that is good to eat.

Pizza with Kale, Potatoes & Olives

6 to 7 oz. New Potatoes, well scrubbed
1 to 2 T. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
a pinch pepperflakes
1 bunch Kale (about 1/2 lb.), ribs removed and coarsely chopped
Pizza dough (see below), rested
1 T. olive oil
2 to 3 oz. coarsely shredded Aged White Cheddar or Gruyère
12 Kalamata Olives, pitted & halved
3 oz. coarsely shredded Fontina

Place the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with salted water. Simmer until tender. Drain. Set aside until cool enough to handle. Peel away the skins and set aside until ready to build the pizza.

Place the olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes in a medium sauté pan set over medium to medium-high heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle and is fragrant, begin to add the kale a handful at a time, turning it as you do to coat in the hot oil and adding another handful as the previous one begins to collapse. When all of the kale has been added and it has all collapsed, season lightly with salt and add a few tablespoons of water. Reduce the heat. Cover and cook until tender—about 20 to 30 minutes (possibly longer, depending on the age and variety of the kale). Check the kale occasionally as it cooks, adding a little more water if the pan seems very dry. When the kale is tender, remove the lid and increase the heat so that any liquid left in the pan can cook off. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the kale to cool briefly.

Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan or baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with semolina, fine cornmeal, or flour. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim. Spread a thin layer of olive oil over the crust. Scatter the Cheddar or Gruyère over the crust. Crumble the cooked potatoes over the cheese. Season with salt & pepper.

Spread the greens randomly over the potatoes and follow with the olives and the Fontina.

Place the pizza in its pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 450° to 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan to finish cooking directly on the pizza stone for the last minute or two of cooking.

Pizza Dough (adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins):

1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 3/4 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth.  Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Sprinkle some of the remaining quarter cup of flour on a smooth surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface and roll it into a tight ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 15-20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped and topped.

General Pizza making tips:
• Anything that you put on the pizza should be able to cook in 15 minutes or less; or, should be pre-cooked to get it to that point. Any ingredient that produces a lot of liquid when it is cooked (zucchini, for example) should always be pre-cooked. Some wet ingredients—like tomatoes—should be drained of excess liquid first.
• Have all toppings ready and at room temperature before you roll out the crust.

• Don’t pile on too much topping—too much and the crust will not cook in the center. Sauces should be spread thinly and if there is no “sauce” other than olive oil, you should be able to see bits of the crust through the various toppings.
• Pre-heat the oven and pizza stone for at least one half hour and preferably an hour.