Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Dinner in under 30 minutes…Pan-Seared Salmon with Creamed Spinach & Roasted Potatoes

Occasionally I teach classes that include the word “quick” in the title…as in, “Quick Weeknight Meals for ….”  I always make a point of telling people that to me “quick” means it will take about an hour to get dinner on the table.  It might take less, but in general, when you are using real, whole ingredients, “30 minute meals” (or less) is pretty unusual.  Meals that can be prepared that quickly usually make use of prepared products (from your own homemade pantry or the store)…or have a 2 or 3 item ingredient lists (a couple of my favorite pastas come to mind…).  Recently though, I walked into the kitchen one evening without much of a plan and ended up with a surprisingly elegant and delicious meal on the table in under 30 minutes. 

I had originally thought I was going to have some time to devote to making dinner on that particular evening.  When I had been standing in front of the meat and fish counter waiting for my special order for a client, my eyes fell on some beautiful Norwegian salmon.  It looked so good…and I hadn’t had fish in a while…that I purchased it thinking I would have time to do something special with it as a treat to myself in the midst of what had been a string of hurried, tried and true meals. But as is often the case, the day got away from me.

When I finally got around to it, I was more motivated than usual to go to the effort to prepare a nice meal:  the fish was a sunk cost.  So I turned the oven on in case I decided to use it and began to look through the pantry and fridge.  I had some beautiful local spinach that would be easy to prepare quickly.  I thought about a grain pilaf of some kind…but I eat those a lot.  I thought about just wilting the spinach and serving the salmon and spinach with a rice or farro pilaf.  I thought about pasta (of course).  But I had some lovely medium sized gold potatoes from the farmer’s market that I really wanted to use.  They were too large to cook quickly in their whole state…and kinda small to go to the effort of peeling and making mashed potatoes.  They were actually perfect for chunking up and roasting…but I didn’t want to wait that long to eat. 

I decided rice would be the way to go and had my hand raised to switch off the oven when it occurred to me that the solution was in the cut of the potatoes.  If sliced thin (1/3-inch or so), roasting in a hot oven would only take about 20 to 25 minutes.  And the flat potatoes would make a perfect bed for the salmon and spinach.  So instead of shutting the oven off, I cranked the temperature up to 450° and began to clean the spinach.

I decided to make a quick creamed spinach instead of just wilting the spinach (in butter with garlic).  The latter would have been delicious…but the former would make a little sauce for the potatoes and fish.  

Creamed spinach can be a complicated affair that involves béchamel and oven time.  Or, it can be as basic as simply reducing some cream around the wilted spinach…which is what I did.  And since cream sauces are enhanced by shallot, I softened a few slices of shallot in some butter before I added the spinach.  

I started heating the pan to cook the salmon when the potatoes had been in the oven for about 15 minutes.  About ten minutes after that I was plating my dinner.  I admit that if you were cooking for more than one (or two) that this dinner might take a bit longer than the time it took me (the spinach would take longer to clean…the cream would take longer to reduce…).  But it would still be a pretty fast meal.  And the results are nothing like you might expect from the effort involved. 

Pan-Seared Salmon with Creamed Spinach & Roasted Potatoes

For 1 person (see notes):
1/3 lb. medium-sized Yukon Gold (or similar) potatoes
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
1 1/2 to 2 t. butter
1 small or half a medium shallot (about 3/4 oz.), trimmed and peeled
3 oz. (weighed after tough stems have been removed) young spinach
1 filet (4 to 6 oz.) salmon, skinned or not (as you prefer)
1/4 c. heavy cream
Freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 425° to 450°.  Wash and scrub the potatoes.  Slice 1/3-inch thick and toss with enough olive oil to coat (about a tablespoon).  Season with salt and pepper and spread in a single layer on a small baking sheet or in a small baking dish.  

When the oven is hot, put the potatoes in the oven.  Roast until golden and tender—about 20 to 25 minutes.

Melt the butter in a small sauté pan over moderate heat.  While the butter melts, slice the shallot thinly.  When the butter has melted, add the shallot to the pan along with a pinch of salt.  

Cook the shallot at a gentle sizzle until it is tender and beginning to caramelize a little at the edges.  While the shallot is cooking, cut the spinach into rough 1/2-inch ribbons.  

When the shallots are tender, add the spinach to the pan a handful at a time, turning each handful to coat with the butter and shallots and adding the next handful as the previous begins to collapse. When all the spinach has collapsed, season with salt and continue to cook until tender and any excess water has evaporated.  Set aside and keep warm. 

When the potatoes have about 10 minutes left to roast, heat a small cast iron, French steel or other non-stick sauté pan that is just large enough to accommodate the fish over medium-high heat.  While the pan is heating, season the fish on both sides with salt & pepper.  Film the pan with oil.  When the oil is very hot, add the fish to the pan, service side (see notes) down.  Cook until golden brown and crisp—2 or 3 minutes.  Carefully flip the fish over and continue to cook until the fish is barely opaque in the center—another 3 to 5 minutes or so (you will need to reduce the heat—or, simply transfer the pan to the oven).

While the fish finishes cooking, return the spinach to the heat and add the cream. 

Bring to a simmer and cook until the cream is bubbling throughout and has thickened very slightly.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

Remove the potatoes and fish from the oven.  Arrange the potatoes on a plate. Spoon the spinach onto the plate in the center of the potatoes.  

Top with the salmon.  Give the fish a squeeze of lemon (about a half teaspoon).  Serve right away.
  • This dish can obviously be multiplied to feed as many as you like. Simply increase the pan sizes accordingly. Also, when you cook large quantities of spinach it takes longer to cook off the liquid. If the liquid persists, you may simply pour it off before adding the cream. A larger quantity of cream will also take a bit longer to reduce.
  • The “service side” of a piece of fish is the side that will be facing you when you put it on the plate. If the filet is skinless it will be the side that was on the interior of the fish (or the side that never had any skin). If you left the skin on your filet, this will be the side with the skin. The side that is sautéed first will look the nicest and is thus the “service side.”
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Monday, December 16, 2019

“Sheet Pan” Chicken with Spiced Carrots & Cauliflower

I have had a class called “Quick Weeknight Meals for the Holidays” in my rotation for several years now.  All but one of the recipes has appeared here on my blog.  The one recipe that hasn’t is a simple roast chicken with spiced cauliflower and carrots.  This year I converted the recipe to the popular “sheet pan dinner” model.  I was so pleased with the result…and a technique I discovered during the conversion process…that I thought I would share it here.

Sheet pan roasting recipes are successful because the sheet pan provides a wide surface area for a large quantity of food—creating an environment conducive to the caramelization that is the prize of the roasting process.  Crowded pans with high sides make it so the foods are more likely to steam than roast since the moisture produced by the cooking process can’t escape as efficiently. 

There are of course pitfalls inherent in the sheet pan roasting method too.  If the food is spread too sparsely it can burn (or dry out) before it is cooked through.  Also, you still have to consider the properties of the individual items in terms of cooking time—you can’t just throw everything on at once (which would most likely produce a pan filled with a mixture of cooked, under-cooked and over-cooked foods).  But if a sheet pan is filled so the ingredients are just snug…and items that take less time to cook are added at a later point in the roasting process than those that take longer…you can produce a simple, relatively quick and delicious meal using the method.

When I decided to alter my recipe to the sheet pan model I took some time to look around a bit to see how other cooks and chefs have approached the method.  In the process I came across a great trick at Food52:  Placing the chicken skin side down on a preheated sheet pan and letting it roast for 10 to 15 minutes before flipping it over and adding the vegetables.  

This guarantees crisp and well rendered skin.  It also makes it so that the final dish isn’t oily or greasy because you can use some of the chicken fat released during those first few minutes of cooking to coat the vegetables.  You will still need some olive oil…but not as much.  If you have ever tossed chicken with vegetables and olive oil and then put them in the oven to roast, only to discover everything is swimming in fat at the end, you will understand the advantage of this method….

This particular sheet pan chicken recipe is very simple and straightforward.  It’s just the chicken, carrots, cauliflower, spices and lemon juice (which is a not-to-be-missed finishing touch—it really lifts the flavors).  The carrots and cauliflower are cut to a size that insures that they cook through and are nicely caramelized in the 25 to 30 minutes or so that the chicken needs to finish roasting after its initial stint in the oven (you might need to stick the vegetables back in the oven for five minutes after the chicken is done—but since all meats taste better if they are given a brief rest before serving, this is not a problem).  To obtain a good result, make sure you cut the vegetables the size specified in the directions.  If they are too large, they won’t cook through (and they’ll probably burn before they are tender since the oven temp is fairly high).  If they are too small they will cook to mush before they are caramelized

In general you can improvise your own sheet pan dinners for chicken…pork…fish…etc. if you have a good idea of how long your chosen protein will need to cook…and if you have a good understanding of how to roast vegetables (how size, oven temperature, etc. affect the process).  If you aren’t as familiar with the process of roasting vegetables as you would like to be, check out the basics post I wrote several years ago.

I like to serve this as a “one dish” meal with steamed rice or couscous.  If you are trying to avoid starch, an alternative presentation would be to turn it into a big salad.  Omit the cilantro and toss some arugula with lemon juice, olive oil and salt and mound on a plate.  Then, top with the chicken and vegetables.  A scattering of toasted pistachios would add some delicious crunch.  Either way you decide to serve it, you will have a fast…nutritious…and delicious meal—perfect for this busiest time of year.    

Chicken Roasted with Spiced Carrots & Cauliflower

4 chicken leg quarters or 6 thighs (about 2 1/2 lbs. total weight)
salt & pepper
3 T. olive oil, divided
1 1/2 t. (slightly mounded) ground coriander…or more to taste
1 t. (slightly mounded) ground cumin…or more to taste
1 to 1 1/4 lb. carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into pieces about 2-to 2 1/2-inches long and 1/2-inch thick
1 to 1 1/4 lb. (trimmed weight) cauliflower, cut into large (1 1/2- to 2-inches) florets
1 to 2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Roughly chopped cilantro, optional

Preheat the oven to 450°.  When the oven is hot, place a half sheet pan (18- by 12- by 1-inch baking sheet) in the oven for five minutes to warm up). 

Season the chicken with salt & pepper and sprinkle with some coriander and cumin, if you like.  Toss with a tablespoon of olive oil. Take the hot sheet pan out of the oven and place the chicken on the pan, skin side down.  Return the pan to the oven and roast for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the vegetables in a large bowl with 2 T. olive oil (use less if the chicken is releasing a lot of fat), the spices and salt & pepper to taste.  Toss to lightly coat with the oil and seasonings.  Remove the pan from the oven, turn the chicken over (use a pancake turner style spatula to carefully release the skin if it is sticking).  The skin should be beginning to crisp nicely.  Arrange the vegetables evenly around the chicken pieces, stirring a bit to coat them a bit in the rendered chicken fat.   Return the pan to the oven. 

After another 15 minutes, give the pan a shake…using the spatula to flip the vegetables over if they are sticking or browning unevenly.  Everything in the pan should be sizzling nicely.  If this isn’t happening, increase the oven temperature to 475°.  If the chicken and vegetables are burning or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature a bit. 

Return the pan to the oven and continue to roast until the juices run clear or the thigh meat registers 175° to 180° on an instant thermometer—another 10 to 15 minutes.

When the chicken is done, remove to a plate and let rest. If the vegetables aren’t browned to your liking, return them to the oven for another 5 minutes or so.  Drizzle the finished vegetables with a tablespoon of lemon juice.  Carefully scrape the bottom of the pan (so you won’t tear up the vegetables) with a flat wooden spoon to release the caramelized bits and fold these into the vegetables.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Serve immediately with rice or couscous, scattering some cilantro over all, if you like.  Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from Everyday Food, March 2006)


Monday, December 2, 2019

Savory Braided Loaf…Filled with Spinach, Mushrooms & Cambozola

One of the things I enjoy the most about my cooking classes is the fact that people feel free to ask questions.  Good questions make me think more carefully about almost every aspect of cooking (methods, flavors, ingredients, culture, etc.).  This serves to make me a better cook…and a better teacher…and often it gives me great ideas for new recipes.

During my last class—Cooking for Holiday House Guests—I demonstrated the recipe for a Jam and Cheese-filled Yeasted Coffee Braid.  Because I love sweet breakfast breads—for breakfast, brunch, coffee or a late night snack (basically all the time)—that’s what was filling my mind as I discussed the recipe.  Suddenly someone asked if they could use the dough and method for a savory filled braid.  My initial reaction was: of course not…this is a sweet dough.  But then it immediately dawned on me that of course you could make a savory bread…as long as you reduced the sugar in the dough just a bit (although, not too much…the dough actually isn’t that sweet).

Over the next few days I continued to think about all the possibilities of a savory braid.  Then the following week I decided to make one to serve as a snack for a gathering of friends.  I filled that first attempt with a garlic and herb flavored ricotta (in place of the sweetened cream cheese in the sweet version), prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and goat cheese  It tasted good, but I didn’t use nearly enough of the filling ingredients. 

My mistake was that I still had the requirements of the sweet braid in my head.  One of these requirements is to not use too much jam.  Besides the fact that too much jam filling oozes out all over the baking sheet, a generous amount of bread is what I expect in a breakfast pastry.  This isn’t the case with the savory version. I wouldn’t want to go on record as saying that you can’t have too much filling in the savory braid….but in this version, the filling is the star.  The bread is just a convenient and beautiful vehicle.

Since the recipe makes enough dough for two braids, I had the opportunity to make a second pass at getting the quantity of filling right.  Of course it would have made sense (from a recipe-testing, compare and contrast perspective) to just increase the quantity of all the filling ingredients that I had used the first time. But when I finally got around to making the second braid (one of the nice things about this dough is that it will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator) I was more interested in making dinner than testing a recipe.  In any case, I had some other ingredients in my pantry that I wanted to use and that I thought would make a nice filling…so I used those instead.  The second braid was delicious.  And the balance of dough to filling was perfect.

When I made the second braid, I still had half of the herbed ricotta left from when I made the first braid, so I went ahead and used it.  Not only does this cheese mixture taste good, it provides a nice base for the other fillings.  But I’m certain that you could use seasoned cream cheese or goat cheese…or maybe Boursin…or even a simple herbed sour cream.  I still had mushrooms, so I repeated the sautéed mushrooms too.  But for the second version I doubled the quantity. 

The biggest change I made for the second braid was that I added some cooked spinach.  And I think the spinach was the key to the success of the second braid.  Even when cooked to the point where the excess liquid has evaporated (which you must do to keep the loaf from being soggy and damp), greens are still inherently moist.  So not only do they add nice flavor, they keep the filling from seeming dry.  Other greens (kale, chard, beet greens, etc) would work too…as long as you cook them in the manner appropriate for your chosen green.  Kale, for example, will need to be blanched and squeezed dry before it is added to the pan of mushrooms.  And while it isn’t a leafy green, it occurred to me that cooked leeks would behave in a similar manner (and would be delicious!). 

I replaced the crumbled goat cheese with some sliced Cambozola (a German, Brie-style, triple cream blue cheese).  I’m very partial to the Cambozola…but it isn’t something I typically keep on hand.  I wouldn’t hesitate to substitute another flavorful melting cheese.  (But if you are shopping for the other ingredients, you should definitely pick up the Cambozola!)

Finally, if you decide to improvise with your savory fillings, I think it’s important to include ingredients that are strongly flavored.  In my braid, mushrooms and blue cheese fill the bill in this regard.  Cured meats (ham/prosciutto, cooked sausage and bacon) would be good.  Brined/salt preserved foods like olives or capers…or anchovies…would pack a nice flavorful punch.   Other strongly flavored items include pesto, tapenade, and sundried tomatoes.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious possibilities…but you get the idea.    

I don’t know if the person who asked if the jam braid could be turned into a savory filled bread will see this post, but if he does, I would love to hear if he took a stab at it.  And of course I would also like to thank him for asking the question in the first place.  It was obviously a great source of inspiration.  I even think it’s possible that this version might make its way into a class someday….

Spinach, Mushroom & Cambozola Filled Braided Bread

1/4 c. (56 g.) lukewarm (105 to 115 degrees) water
2 1/4 t. active dry or instant yeast
1/2 c. (121 g.) sour cream
4 T. (56 g.) unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick and softened
1 large egg
3 c. (360 g.) unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
1 T. (12 g.) sugar
1 t. salt

1 c. (250g) whole milk ricotta
1/3 c. (30g) finely grated pecorino
1 fat clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt (or grated on a microplaner)
1 t. minced fresh rosemary
1 egg yolk (save the white for the egg wash)

2 to 4 T. olive oil
14 to 16 oz. crimini or white mushrooms, sliced
10 oz. baby spinach, large stems trimmed if necessary, leaves coarsely chopped
7 to 8 oz. Cambozola, sliced a scant 1/4-inch thick and torn into 1-inch pieces 

1 large egg white beaten until frothy with 1 T. cold water
3 to 4 T. sesame seeds

Place the water in a mixing bowl and scatter in the yeast.  Whisk or stir to dissolve.  Add the remaining ingredients in the order listed, adding only 340 grams of the flour and making sure the salt doesn’t touch the yeast-water mixture directly.  Mix and knead (by hand or mixer fitted with a dough hook) until you have a smooth, velvety dough.  The dough will be very dry at first; resist the urge to add more liquid. It'll come together and smooth out as you knead.  Once the dry ingredients are absorbed (and this only takes a minute or two) the dough may begin to stick.  Use small increments of the extra 20 grams of flour…and the help of your bench scraper…to keep the dough from sticking.  It is unlikely that you will need all of the reserved flour.

Place the dough in a lightly buttered bowl or other container, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk (about an hour).  Deflate the dough, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight (and up to three or four days).  It may or may not look risen when you pull it out to use it.  That's OK.

When you are ready to bake, make the filling: Combine the ricotta, pecorino, garlic, rosemary, and egg yolk.  Set aside.  

Prepare the mushrooms and spinach: Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to sauté the mushrooms in batches—don't overcrowd the pan. Heat a sauté pan (non-stick, if you have one) over high heat. Add oil to coat the pan.  When the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan and tossing the mushrooms occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. If they seem dry at any time as they cook, drizzle in a bit more oil. If sautéing in batches, transfer the finished mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper.  Return the pan to the heat, add more oil and repeat with the remaining mushrooms.  When all the mushrooms are cooked, return them all to the pan and heat through.  

Begin adding the spinach to the pan a handful at a time, turning with tongs to coat the greens in the oil and mushrooms and adding successive handfuls of spinach as the previous one collapses.  Continue to cook until the spinach is tender and any liquid given off has evaporated.  Season well with salt and pepper and set aside to cool. 

Divide the chilled dough into two pieces. Working with one piece at a time (and keeping the other chilled), flatten/pat the dough into a rectangle.  

Flour the surface and dough very lightly and roll the dough out into a 10" x 15" rectangle.  Transfer the rectangle to a piece of parchment paper.

Spread half of the ricotta mixture down the center third of the rectangle.  Leave 1/4-inch of dough bare at each end.  

Spread half of the mushroom spinach mixture over the ricotta.  

Arrange half of the Cambozola over all. 

Using a pizza cutter (or a sharp knife), cut 12 to 13 slightly slanting lines down each side—angling the cuts from the edge of the filling to the outside edge of the dough.  The cuts should be a generous one inch apart and should start about 1/4-inch away from the edge of the ricotta.   Being careful not to stretch the dough, fold the strips of dough over the filling, criss-crossing the strips by alternating a strip from the left with a strip from the right.  

Lightly press/pinch at the two ends of the loaf to seal. 

Transfer the braid (using the parchment to lift it) to a sheet pan and cover loosely with greased/sprayed plastic wrap.  Repeat with the remaining dough and filling ingredients. 

Let the braids rest at room temperature for 30 to 40 minutes.  (Alternatively, transfer the formed covered loaves to the refrigerator for 8 to 10 hours or overnight.)

Whether you choose a traditional rise at room temperature or an overnight cold rise, the loaves will not “double in bulk.”   They might look a bit puffed, but that is all.  This is how it should be.

To finish and bake: Brush the egg white/water mixture over the loaves. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. 

Bake the braids in a preheated 375°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until they're puffed and golden brown.  The cheese might be bubbling or oozing a bit.  This is fine.   Remove the loaves from the oven and place them on a rack to cool slightly (10 minutes or so). Serve warm.  One loaf will serve 4 to 6 as an accompaniment to soup or salad as a light entrée.  Or, each loaf may be cut into 12 slices and served as part of an appetizer spread.

Store any leftovers, well-wrapped, for several days in the refrigerator or for longer in the freezer. To serve, thaw if frozen, and then reheat in a 350°F oven, wrapped in foil, for about 20 minutes.
Note:  Although you can put both of the loaves on one sheet pan, I find that they bake best on two sheets.  When one is done, just slide the second one into the oven…or bake on separate racks, rotating half way through the baking time.
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