September 25, 2009

Roasted Root Vegetables with Chicken

Root vegetables are hearty, nutritious, cheap as the dirt they're dug out of, and totally delicious. I am looking forward to experimenting with more root veggies (which are, more accurately, starches) and part of that experimentation was last night's supper.

Inarguably, the best way to sample the best possible taste of a root vegetable is to first taste it roasted and simply seasoned. The sugars in the starch caramelize and sweeten, and the vegetables become dark and golden on the outside, soft in the inside. By seasoning with only olive oil, salt, and pepper, you get to taste the real flavor the vegetable, rather than the herbs or seasonings you've added to them.

For this particular experiment, I went with a pretty simple array of veggies:

3 large Yukon Gold potatoes
3 small turnips
1 really massive parsnip
1/2 large onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced well.

Preheat your oven at 400 degrees.

To get started, give your vegetables a really thorough wash. Remember: these are roots, so expect soil to be basically ground into the flesh.

This parsnip is a monster. Here's Justin displaying its accessory possibilities:

Cut your vegetables really simply. Aim for them being basically the same size, so that they'll cook evenly. I didn't take photos of the cuts I used, but here's a rundown:

Cut off the tops of your turnips. Cut them across the top, through the middle. For very small turnips, just pop them into the pan as is. For large turnips, cut them again into quarters. For the parsnip, I cut off the top, sliced it very thickly (at least an inch thick) cut the top slices into halves, and left the narrow slices whole. For the potatoes, cut once across the width of the potato, then quarter each half. The onion was thickly sliced and the garlic was pretty standardly minced.

Once in the roasting pan, I LIBERALLY coated the vegetables with olive oil. This will keep your roots well lubricated against the pan, resisting sticking, and adds some really nice moisture while its baking. Onto that, I added salt and pepper.

Mix it all together really well so that each piece of food has plenty of oil and seasoning.

I covered the pan with foil to keep the steam in and to keep the veggies from browning too much and popped them in the oven for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, take the foil off, give the veggies a stir, and bake for 15 more minutes.

10 minutes before the roots were done, I added eight spears of asparagus with a touch of olive oil for those. Once they were done, I took the pan out of the oven and covered it with foil to rest. Freshly roasted veggies straight out of the oven are starchy napalm. Let them cool for a bit.

Now, for the chicken and pan sauce. I went simple for this, as well.

One chicken breast (for two people)
Olive oil
1-2c Chicken stock
1/2t Corn starch
1t dried parsley (or fresh pesto)

I cut the chicken breast in half to serve both me and Justin. Smother it with pepper and a bit of salt on both sides. Add some olive oil to a pan and get that sucker on the stove on medium heat. Let it brown for a few minutes and make sure to let a lot of delicious browned goodness gather up on the bottom of the pan, which means that you DON'T want to use a nonstick pan. Use a stainless steel pan for this, always always always. Your tongue will love you forever.

(I slashed the chicken at the thickest part before cooking so that I could get more salt and pepper onto it. Mostly pepper. God, I love pepper.) Also, it helps the chicken cook a hair faster, since there's more of the flesh exposed to heat.

Take the chicken out of the pan once its cooked and let it rest to redistribute the juices.

Add your stock to the pan and get all that crispy brown flavor mixed in. It's also a GREAT way to get your pan nice and clean. This is called "deglazing" and it's a delicious thing to do.

Jack the heat up to high and let it come to a boil. While it's boiling, make a slurry with corn starch. Just spoon some of the stock into a bowl with corn starch in it and mix it well. Add this mixture to your pan stock. Making the slurry first ensures that your corn starch doesn't clump up and will give you a smooth, shiny stock. You can do this will a beurre blanc (butter mixed with flour, uncooked) a roux (butter mixed with flour, cooked) or a slurry of flour, as well. Corn starch is flavorless and more absorbent than flour, so I like using that.

Let it thicken for a few minutes and reduce, still at a boil, and add some dried parsley or some pesto to your sauce just before serving.

Plate up, fool! Get spoonfuls of that pan sauce over your chicken and vegetables and enjoy some totally awesome, quite economical, food.

Oh, yeah... That's some deliciousness right there.

P.S. Turns out, turnips are kind of bitter and not my favorite. They're okay, but not great. Parsnips, however? OH MY GOD. They're SO delicious! They're like sweet plantains! It's amazing! I'm in love! MORE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

Unorthodox Spinach Pesto

I love flavors. I like sweetness, I like sourness, I like saltiness, and I like bitterness. Especially with vegetables (except brussels sprouts. They're a little TOO bitter. But straight up cabbage? Hell yeah!) and spinach is one of my favorites. I love it raw, I love it cooked, I love it smothered with cheese and baked into a casserole (I ESPECIALLY love it smothered in cheese and baked into a casserole!) but there are some dishes where the texture of spinach and its overwhelming flavor aren't appropriate in the amounts you'd usually want to put in as a vegetable portion. So, I thought, spinach pesto! With parsley, because parsley is DELICIOUS.

Traditionally, a pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and balsamic vinegar. However, I think my favorite pesto is one that I made with basil, parsley, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil. It has a lighter flavor than traditional pesto, but it's still delicious! This spinach pesto is an experiment, but I think it's pretty good.

One bunch of raw spinach
One bunch of parsley (flat-leaf, if you can get it. I went with curly, which has a sharper flavor)
Four cloves of garlic
1/2c or so of almonds
Olive oil

Into a food processor, add your nuts. Anything with a milder flavor would work. Walnuts are especially nice if pine nuts are too expensive (which, for me, they always are) but almonds give a unique sweetness that I thought would be useful for this recipe.

Then, because you got ahead of yourself, turn away and get your leaves washed and dried. Be very, very thorough with your washing! There's usually a lot of sand/dirt in leafy greens, since those leaves are close-packed and hold onto dirt with a passion.

Pretty! Either let these drain really thoroughly, or pull out your handy-dandy salad spinner. I found my salad spinner out by the dumpster at my apartment complex. ROCK!

You want to get as much of the water off as you can before adding your leaves to your processor. Water and oil don't mix, and you eventually want to incorporate lots of olive oil into your pesto, and if it's too wet, that will be difficult to do effectively. Don't worry about it being perfectly bone-dry, just spin it through a few times. Add a handful of each to the food processor.

Now, my food processor has a pretty small bowl and it's pretty old, so I have half of the nuts, two cloves of garlic, and a handful each of spinach and parsley. I ground these down, added another handful of spinach and another handful of parsley, and blended in oil as I pulsed the processor until I'd incorporated half of the spinach and half of the parsley. Between handfuls of herbs, I scraped the sides of my processor bowl. If you have a bigger, better, newer processor, you might not need to deal with all of this. I don't have one of those, so I had to take a bit more effort.

Don't skimp on olive oil.

Let me repeat that to make sure it's abundantly clear:

Don't. Skimp. On. Olive. Oil.

Olive oil is what will make your pesto smooth as silk and hearty and delicious. You will use a lot of oil. This is a good, good thing. Olive oil is good for you! Love it. Use it. Eat it. You want your finished to pesto to look kind of like this:

It's smooth and uniformly blended and totally delicious! This is really potent stuff, but it would be delicious mixed in with a cream sauce, added to a pan sauce, smothered over a mild meat like pork or chicken and roasted, etc. Probably not eaten with a spoon. This stuff is really strong. AND DELICIOUS!

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Got some classic Nestle Tollhouse cookie recipe cookies here.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts (optional--I left them out)

Preheat your oven 375 degrees while you get your ingredients ready.

Please, please, please, PLEASE don't soften butter in the microwave. Ideally, butter that is softened is basically room temperature. The best way to soften it is to cut the butter into small pieces and let it rest an hour before baking, assuming you can't just leave it out all day for some reason. Microwaving it melts random pockets of butter and doesn't soften other parts, so you end up with butter that's all wrong for making delicious cookies. So, plan your cookie baking in advance, as much as you possibly can so that your butter will be just right for giving you chewy, awesome cookies.

You'll need two sticks for this recipe:

With these sticks of butter, cream in 3/4c of plain white sugar and 3/4c of brown sugar. I prefer using dark brown to light brown whenever I can. I prefer the depth of flavor and color it gives to cookies baked with it. Also, I fairly recently bought some fancy-schmancy vanilla beans, made some epic cupcakes, and put the used bean in a baggie with some sugar to make delicious vanilla sugar. I like using that for, well, pretty much everything. However, it's hardly a requirement, and non-vanilla sugar works just as deliciously. Regardless of sugar used, add a teaspoon of vanilla extract to the other "wet" ingredients, being the sugar and the butter, and get them all creamed together.

I didn't photograph the two eggs, but add them in at this point, mixing them in one at a time. You want to get a lot of air in this, so you want the butter particles well hacked up by sugar granules before you add the eggs, and the last thing you want is under-mixed egg!

Now, for the dry ingredients. Get the flour, baking soda, and salt mixed together. I'm really lackadasical about sifting flour, honestly. Flour sifting used to be a necessity, but modern flours are very thoroughly pre-sifted and are much softer than flours used to be, so I don't often bother. For very finicky baked recipes, I probably would still sift (you know the ones... Where you measure the flour by weight or risk baked good horror) but for something like completely foolproof cookies? Nah. It's almost traditional to do so, however, so if you insist on sifting flour all the time, you won't get judged by me. I also can't ever see myself baking finicky pastries, but if you do, let me know how it goes!

Add your flour in parts to the wet ingredients, blending completely after each addition. This does a couple of things: It gets your flour in thoroughly, so you don't end up with clumps, and it keeps flour from exploding all over the place when you start mixing. When you're done, you'll have something that looks like this:

Now, for the best part! Adding the chips! Two cups (or so, I think I had a little less, since I eyeballed it and I always seem to under measure stuff like that when I eyeball) of semi-sweet chocolate, please! I am usually all about the milk chocolate, and I've made these cookies with milk chocolate before, but they are burningly sweet unless the chocolate has at least a little bit of bitterness, so I strongly advocate semi-sweet.

Now, eat the dough right out of the bowl with your big, honking, wooden spoon. Kidding, kidding! Well, mostly.

Now, at this point, you can do two things: You can roll the cookies into balls and bake them up, or you can roll the cookies into balls and freeze the dough for later baking. You'd bake the cookies straight from the freezer (which can make for a thick, chewy, and delightful cookie!) if you chose the second option, and this way, you can have a ready supply of cookie dough whenever you get the urge for fresh-baked cookies.

I, however, am not that forward-thinking, so I baked them. How could I not? They look so GOOD!

The original recipe says nine to eleven minutes, at 375 degrees, but I suggest starting with seven minutes and adding time as necessary. Mine baked in about 7-8 minutes. Look for just a little bit of browning right around the bottom edges. They'll spread quite a bit, so don't focus on being particularly economic with your pan space. I always put too many cookies on a pan. Don't be like me.

Whatever, I have no regrets. LOOK at these!

Holy sugary deliciousness, Batman!

September 21, 2009

Rice, Vegetables, and Chickpeas

Three posts in a day! This is a pretty average dinner, honestly. Well, as "average" as our dinners get. I try to mix it up as much as I can, but some kind of starch + some mix of vegetables +/- some kind of meat product or other protein source = basically supper. Sometimes, it's pasta with veggies and chicken, sometimes it's rice with veggies and soy sauce, tonight it was rice with veggies and chickpeas.

So, the cast of characters in tonight's dining experience:
1c rice, uncooked (white or brown is fine, but brown will cook a LOT longer)
1/4 large onion
1 fatty carrot, or 2 small carrots
2 spears of celery
2 cloves garlic (I used 3 because these are tiny)
6 large spears asparagus
1/2c frozen peas
1 can chickpeas
1tsp consomm√© or 1 cup of stock for the rice
1T awesome sauce (more on that later) (No, it is not drugs)
some olive oil
a dash of stock for the vegetables

First, get the rice started. Get a little bit of olive oil the pan on medium heat--only a teaspoon or so--and coat the rice with it. Add 1tsp of consomm√© and coat the rice with that. Jack your heat up to high, add 1 and 3/4c water. If you're not using consomm√©, cook it with a cup a stock and 3/4 cup of water. You don't want an overpowering stock flavor in your rice, so aim for about half water, half flavoring. Once the liquid is boiling, turn the heat to a simmer, lid it, and let it go.

Get your vegetables prepped. Everything gets diced, except the asparagus. Save that for after you get the other stuff into the pan.

Get some olive oil into a skillet on medium heat and get your soffritto/mirepoix vegetables in to cook. Let those hang out and prep the asparagus.

I wanted slightly longer asparagus pieces. I guess for something different. Since asparagus cooks a lot faster than the other vegetables in the pan, put these in when you put in the frozen peas and the awesome sauce (I'll get to that, next paragraph, I promise!). So just cut the spears in half and then cut into thirds. Nothing too exciting, but something super delicious!

Now, for the awesome sauce. I don't really have any other name for it. It's this blend I made when I made Porky-Pine meatballs for Justin. I took 8oz of mushrooms, one red bell pepper (seeds removed), a couple of cloves of garlic, and a few tablespoons of mushroom stock and beef stock with salt and pepper and ran it through the food processor. See, I really like the flavor of both mushrooms and bell peppers, but I don't actually like eating them. It's a texture thing. So, I figured I could make this awesome sauce (see? See?) and it would have tons of delicious flavor and I could just use a little bit at a time, if I kept it in the freezer! So, that's what I do. I have a tub of it in the freezer and every now and then, I hack at it with a knife (next time I'll make ice cubes...) until I have as much as I want, and then I cook it into stuff. It makes pan sauces sing like angels, it enlivens blander grinds of meat, and it helps to bind and add moisture to any number of dishes. It's awesome sauce. You should make some. Anyway, I chipped out about a tablespoon of it and stuck it in a bowl with some peas.

When the rice was about done and the veggies were almost ready to eat, but not quite completely, I added a shot of stock (I had beef on hand, but anything will do), the awesome sauce, the asparagus, and the peas. I let it cook for another couple of minutes and had this:

Oh, yeah. That meal's looking FINE! I drained and rinsed a can of chickpeas and added them to the vegetables like so:

Gave it a few good stirs to let the chickpeas heat through and it was done! I tasted to adjust salt and pepper (always, always use pepper. It's not the King of Spices for nothing) The rice was fluffy and delicious, the vegetables soft but with a little bit of bite, and the chickpeas were creamy and delightful.

Plated up (well, bowled over would probably be the slightly more appropriate term) it was very nice and very, very tasty:

I added some pre-shredded Asiago cheese and some freshly grated Parmesan to the top and it was perfect. It was mild, but flavorful, and the awesome sauce adds so much with so little. There's a great blend of sweet and bitter with the carrots, peas, and asparagus, the onion and celery adds some heartiness to the dish, and the chickpeas have a nice creamy, slightly nutty flavor that is well balanced with the cheese. The rice adds a bit of a stick-to-your ribs quality and has a little shot of strong stock flavor from having been cooked in it. Best of all? It's a super, super easy meal. Fifteen or twenty minutes in the kitchen and you've got supper. Not a bad deal, I think.

P.S. Here's the frozen, chipped-out chunk of awesome sauce. It's really, really amazingly good. Trust me! But yeah... Definitely doing ice cubes next time...

Vegetable soup with soba noodles

I used to dislike soup. Not in any really meaningful way--I didn't like cooked vegetables for a long time and soup always seemed like it should be reserved for cold winter days when I had a nasty cold. And it had to be Campbell's Chicken Noodle. No other would do. And then, I discovered ramen and stopped having anything in my soup but pre-fried noodles and 10,000% my daily allotment of sodium. And then, I moved out of my mom's house and I left college and I had, like, minus a million dollars all the time and soup suddenly became a lot more appealing. It's cheap, it's pretty filling, and even if you start with a ramen packet, you can make something pretty delicious and healthy by cutting back part of the seasoning packet and adding meat/veggies/eggs/whatever.

This does not involve a ramen packet, thankfully. It's a soup that I cobbled together today for me and Justin. We haven't been so good about that whole "eating more than one meal a day" thing and I figured soup would be a lovely lunch. We had picked up some soba noodles from Uwajimaya last time we went and I wanted to give them a whirl today.

Soba noodles are, basically buckwheat noodles, though they're also frequently augmented with some yam flour. They're a sickly color gray, but they have a mild and delicious taste with a pleasantly very slightly chewy texture. They're nice, give them a go!

So here's what I used in the soup:

From top left:
Chicken broth (preferably low-sodium)
Soy sauce
Eggs (one per person, so in this case, two)
Soba noodles
1/4 large onion
Worcestershire sauce
Hoisin saucse
1 carrot
2 cloves of garlic
2 spears of celery
4 large spears of asparagus

Let's get this party started! Dice up your onion, like so:

It's diced, trust me. Now, mince yourself up some garlic. An easy way to do this is a 1-2 punch. Peel it, slice it into thick slices, and then squish each slice with the flat of your knife. It works like a charm and is way faster than mincing via chopping.

It'll look like when it's squished.

Slice your celery spears in half and then chop into dices:

Now, this carrot is really skinny. It's the Kate Moss of carrots. Usually, I advocate cutting carrots into long quarters and then dicing, but due to the skininess of this carrot, I went with really thin coins, like so:

Grate your ginger. For two people, aim for abooooooooooooout a teaspoon. A tad less is fine, a tad more is fine, whatevs. Ideally, you'll have a microplane or one of those badass Japanese ginger graters. I do not. I have a really crappy box grater with a side that has tiny holes, so I used that and scraped the ginger out of the inside. Also, buy a big honking root of ginger, peel it with a spoon (it works great trust me!) wrap it up, and freeze it. Just grate it straight out of the freezer. It'll keep for 900 years and you'll always have fresh ginger!

Add some oil to your soup pot (I went with sesame seed oil, but olive oil or vegetable oil or something would be just fine) and get it to medium heat. Add everything that I just told you to chop/mince/grate with a pinch of salt. Don't overdo the salt at this point! You're going to be adding some salty ingredients later on, so just add enough salt to get your veggies sweating!

Cut the tough ends off of your asparagus spears and cut them into thicker coins than you did the carrot. Set them aside while these veggies work their magic. Asparagus cooks pretty quickly and I don't like mushy veggies. EVER.

When your veggies are nice and soft, jack the heat up to high and add in about 3-4 cups of chicken stock. You can go all vegetarian on this and use mushroom stock or veggie stock or a combination of the two, and you can go vegan by omitting the egg and Worchestershire (unless you get an anchovy-free version of it, of course). Whatever you have on hand and whatever floats your boat. It's soup! You cannot fail!

Add a splash of soy sauce, a few drizzles of Worchestershire, and a small forkful of hoisin. Taste your soup liquid. If it needs something, add it. If it doesn't need anything, don't. If it's too salty, add some water. I added some pepper. I like pepper in everything.

I'll look like this. Well, mine looked like this:

Get your eggs scrambled with about a teaspoon of water. You want to thin them out a little bit. I was going for an egg drop soup consistency with the egg which requires it being able to be poured in a very fine stream. Get your soba noodles into the soup and let them boil for about five minutes. Just before they're done (they take about six minutes to cook through) lower the heat to a simmer and add your egg, so you have this:

Let the egg firm up in your soup before you try stirring it. You want feathers of eggs, not globs. Globs are gross. Believe me, I know.

Now, add your secret ingredient: Lemon pepperYou'll have to select that little area there to show it up. It's a secret, after all! Just add a pinch of it--maybe a quarter of a teaspoon to a half of a teaspoon to the whole pot. You want just a tiny, tiny bit of a lemony hint--something that is noticeable as separate from the other ingredients in the soup, but not instantly identifiable in such a small amount. I love using this in soups made with a predominately Japanese flavor palette.

Now, get that soup into some bowls and slurp to your heart's content! This is a pretty non-soupy soup, so having a fork (or chopsticks!) might be useful for eating it. A spoon might not cope with the soba noodles that well. You can avoid that problem by simply breaking up the soba noodles into 1-inch lengths. They're easy to break, so it won't take any time. You could do it as the veggies are softening up, if you wanted to.

And that's what you have, folks! A tart/sour soup with chewy, mild soba noddles and a delicious ginger kick!

Grilled Cheese

All right, ya'll. I love cheese. I do. I have, so far in my life, not yet met a cheese that I don't like. There have been cheeses that I thought I didn't like, but then I had more quality versions of those cheeses and was proven very, very wrong. I like cheese from sheep, goats, and cows. I like cheese that's hard and stinky, and cheese that's soft and mild. I like cheese that's yellow and cheese that's white and cheese that's really crazy colors. I like it cold, room temperature, and napalm. I just really, really like cheese. Which is pretty much the only reason I've got a grilled cheese post. I mean, it's grilled cheese. You take some bread, some butter, and some cheese and you make into something delicious.

I like to also add mustard and pepper, but I like a little bit of spice to my cheesy deliciousness. For this, I used:

Potato bread
Cheddar cheese (as usual, the sharper the better)
Asiago cheese
Grey Poupon (I'm so fancy!)

So, get your cheese sliced. If you have pre-sliced cheese, you can ignore this step (obviously) but you're also a wuss. Kidding, kidding! I find that getting block cheese is more economical and so I tend to grate/slice my own. I have this really crummy box grater that's been with me for way beyond its natural life span that I use for all my cheese-destroying needs. Here's some cheese porn for you:

This is about enough for two sandwiches. Now, get your bread and butter it! Margarine is fine. Sometimes, when I don't feel like softening the butter, I just put the butter in the pan to melt and put the dry bread on top of it. As long as you get something buttery onto the bread and simultaneously into the pan, you're good.

Now, flip that bread over onto a plate (careful about the butter!) and get some mustard onto it. For grilled cheese, I like something a little spicier, like Grey Poupon, but any whole grain mustard would be really nice. Cheap Yellow mustard isn't quite right for this kind of sandwich. Unless you have provolone, in which case all bets are off.

Get your bread into your pan, on medium heat. I like a nonstick pan for this. The bread doesn't brown as darkly/quickly and you can get away with considerably less butter than you can with stainless steel. Cast iron would also be perfectly fine. I like to use more than one cheese for my grilled cheese sandwiches. This time, I had some cheddar and a tub of pre-grated Asiago, so I used those, but any cheese will do. Seriously, I've made these with spreadable goat cheese and it's delicious. Don't fear the cheese. The cheese should fear you. 

So slap a very thin layer of Asiago onto the mustard-covered bread! Don't lay it on too thick--you want it to melt with the cheddar, not next to it. We want our cheeses to fall in love and get married and have happy, cheesy, cholesterol-laden babies. Not greasy cheese divorce.

Then, add the cheddar in a thicker layer. Keep it nice and even. There's nothing worse than a fatty hunk of unmelted cheese in a grilled cheese sandwich.

Add another thin layer of Asiago and some pepper.

Stick the other piece of bread on and let it cook.

I can't tell you minute amounts or even correct burner temperature. I'm a very, very fiddly cook. I relentlessly mess with stuff until it's done, so I'm always fiddling with the heat, turning things over again and again, taking a peek at cheese meltyness. Just, you know, cook it till the first side is done and then flip it. I like it when it looks like this:

But you might like it a little paler.That's perfectly fine, just cook it over slightly lower heat and pay more attention to it. Make the other side look like the first side and make sure that cheese it totally melted! As much as I love cheese, overloading a grilled cheese sandwich can make cooking much longer and more complicated than it really needs to be, so don't overdo the cheese. Unless you really like babysitting your hot sandwiches, in which case, lay it on thick as can be!

And, of course, the last step: Profit!