Monday, August 30, 2010

Half Coq’ed: Chicken and Mushrooms in Red Wine

I, like most foodies, speak of Julia Child only in hushed, reverent tones. I would venture to guess that most American food bloggers would list her as one of the culinary influences in their lives. (Do you think it’s mere coincidence that her initials are also J.C.?) Let’s face it, the woman is an icon. And I certainly appreciate her dedication to gastronomy – she was a consummate researcher. But be honest (and I swear, I’m whispering as I say this) – a couple of the recipes are a little overblown, don’t you think?

I have made her Coq au Vin recipe from start to finish a couple of times. It is absolutely out of this world! It also dirties almost every cooking vessel I own, takes hours, and completely tries my patience (seriously – blanching bacon and peeling pearl onions are some of the most tedious things I’ve ever done).

Now it’s confession time (Don doesn’t even know this one): I had avoided eating coq au vin since I was a child. If I saw it on a menu, I wouldn’t consider ordering it. I couldn’t believe someone would want to eat that concoction. Want to know why? Because I had no idea what I was talking about.

I guess I’d never seen an episode of The French Chef where she made the dish. I had never seen the name written down. The only thing I was able to pick up was that it was a chicken dish. Also, I don’t speak French. When someone says, “Coq au Vin,” it sounds exactly like “Cocoa Van. “ Putting together the little tidbits that I had gleaned, I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to eat chocolate covered chicken (that I assumed was somehow prepared in a moving car)! I won’t tell you how old I was, but you can not imagine how stupid I felt when I found out the truth (and never let on to anyone that I was so off-base.)

This is all by way of telling you about the dinner party I threw this weekend. My friend, Catherine, is great - a southern belle, through and through. She has this phenomenal home that looks like a French chalet from the outside. Inside, it’s decorated with wonderful French Provencal influences. The kitchen is a complete masterpiece (shameless self-promotion, since I’m the one who designed it). She is a Master Gardener, and has this weakness for all things chocolate. When I say that she’s a serious chocoholic, I’m not kidding. She once brought back cocoa hulls from Hershey, PA to use as mulch around her garden.

So when we decided to have an intimate birthday dinner for Catherine, what else could I make but French chocolate chicken? (OK, I’ve obviously figured it out by now, but this is still what I call it in my head). There was no way I was tackling the Julia Child method - I wanted to simplify it and make it a little less expensive to prepare. I got it all down to a single pot and about an hour’s worth of active cooking time. If you can taste the difference, more power to you – I certainly can’t.

I gave up on cooking with expensive wine long ago, but I still avoid anything labeled ‘cooking wine’ (yuk). I keep a $4 bottle of white wine on the fridge door that I cook with, and I picked up a $5 bottle of Zinfandel to make this dish this weekend. Honestly, you cook the bejeezus out of the wine for this dish, so I just can’t see spending $15 or $20 for something that isn’t recognizable in the end anyway. If you want to, have at it. I also dirtied only one pot for the whole meal, and skipped the stinking pearl onions.

The payoff was completely worth it. Catherine loved the meal, and I found a Chocolate Orange Cappuccino Cake from my buddy, Megan, over at Foodalution that is over the top stupendous! It doesn’t exactly fit into the category if Inexpensive Eating, but you have to splurge once in a while, right?

So I was able to cut out half the steps, ¾ of the pans, and about an hour’s worth of work. Not bad for going off half coq’ed.

Recipe: Chicken and Mushrooms in Red Wine

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brain Dead Weekend: Breakfast Bread Pudding

I love entertaining, but I hate the morning after. It never fails: once the guests leave, we either stay up until the wee hours to clean the kitchen – or worse yet, we leave it until the morning and the kitchen looks like a Williams-Sonoma delivery truck exploded all over the countertops when we wake up. It’s just a no-win situation. (Of course, I’m glossing over the occasional wine-induced deteriorations that add to the troubles).

When I’m faced with these morning-aftermaths, this is one of the dishes I love to make. Partly because is let’s me use up the inevitable leftover bread; partly because it doesn’t take high-level brain function to accomplish; but mostly because it takes an hour to bake, so I can go back to bed. (OK, I actually end up cleaning the kitchen instead of sleeping – but it’s a nice thought).

This is nothing but simple comfort food, all the tastes of French toast without the standing around and babysitting it. It’s not going to win any awards for creative cooking, but when I’m faced with hand washing 637 pieces of crystal stemware, creativity is not high on my list (by the way, how do 8 people dirty that many dishes to start with?) I guess someone more organized than I am could even prep it the night before and stash it in the fridge (I don't see that happening at my house anytime soon though).

I so dearly love really good, crusty, rustic bread. But being on a budget, we usually reserve a trip to the ‘good bakery’ for company. I think that’s the reason I end up with so much bread left over – it’s some subconscious hoarder mentality because I know I won’t get the chance until we entertain the next time. And I think this is the only kind of bread to use when you’re making bread pudding or French toast. When I bite into it, I want it to bite back.

The other thing about this recipe is that it’s not overly-sweet. I’ve had some bread puddings that need to be topped with ice cream to cut the sweetness. Like I said, this one has a little sugary substance, but still plenty of room to douse it with maple syrup.

I have also eschewed the whole water bath approach for this recipe too (too much manual dexterity required for this type of morning). Besides, it would be just one more dish to deal with after already going through 3 bottles of Palmolive soap. Who needs it?

So next time you need to make breakfast without engaging your brain, try this one. It makes tackling that delivery truck’s worth of dirty dishes totally worth it.

Recipe: Breakfast Bread Pudding

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Squeeze: Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad

When I was coming up with side dish ideas for the pasta tasting I did a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to use tomatoes and fresh corn for one dish because they were in such abundance, and both crops have tasted better than average this year. When I showed the idea to a friend, she said “but it’s so everyday and boring.” Well, of course she’s right, but I would not be daunted. I set out to come up with a couple of twists that might look a little less everyday.

I love to squeeze every bit of flavor out of the ingredients I have, so instead of a raw salad, I thought I would roast the vegetable. Besides, I thought a roasted salad would pair better with a raw pasta sauce (pesto).

To try and make it a little more elegant, I decided to serve the salad in tomato boats – just hollowed out the tomato halves and roasted them along with the corn. It makes portioning much easier (don’t you sometimes hate trying to figure out how much is enough?), and I used the tomato flesh for another dish later on.

The salad dressing couldn’t be simpler – just oil and vinegar with a couple of dried herbs thrown in. And I used one of my favorite inexpensive flavor weapons: roasted garlic.

Roasted garlic is such a breeze – I just throw a halved-head of garlic and some olive oil into foil and toss it in the oven for 30 or 45 minutes. It comes out so fragrant and rich. I mash it down, combine it with a touch more olive oil, and stash it in the fridge for weeks. I’m not sure how long you can realistically expect to keep it in the fridge, but I’ve worked off of the same head of roasted garlic for a month or more. The trick is to make sure the oil covers the garlic – it acts as a great preservative. You’ve got roasted garlic add at a moment’s notice, and it costs about 45 cents to make.

Roasted garlic can make all the difference in a simple dish like this. Raw garlic could easily overpower the other flavors, but roasted boosts the overall flavor without drowning out the corn and tomatoes.

This dish was part of the winning combination for the pasta tasting party. You could say that it squeezed out a win.

Recipe: Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Change of Seasons: Grilled Tilapia Packets with Tomato Arugula Cous Cous

I always tell people that there are two seasons in Florida: 1) summer; and 2) Oh, My God, It’s Hot! We have definitely transitioned into the second season around here. I mean, when the overnight low only gets to 85 degrees, it’s definitely time to find a way to make dinner without turning on the oven. READ MORE

Recipes: Grilled Tilapia Packets

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lick the Salt: Corn and Pesto Ravioli with Parmesan Butter Sauce

I get teased all the time by friends because I don’t shop and cook like they do. What can I say, I’m just weird. I know that most people utilize processed foods for convenience sake, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Seriously, I think the only processed foods I buy on a regular basis are peanut butter and dry pasta (do dried cranberries count? If so, add them to the list). I know there is a cadre of passionate healthy-eaters who bemoan the evils of processed food. I couldn’t give a flip about that, I just don’t think it tastes all that good.

I recently picked up some prepackaged fresh pasta and sauce for the first time in ages. It wasn’t until then that I realized exactly how spoiled I have become. While the mass-produced stuff was OK, I just couldn’t get past the amount of salt that was in it. It didn’t taste salty when I ate it, but I bet I drank 3 gallons of water the rest of the night and still woke up the next morning with cotton mouth. I bet if you had tapped my vein, you could have used it to brine pickles. No offense, but I’m not sure how anyone can eat that kind of processed stuff all the time and not suffer some consequences.

My recent experience sent me back to homemade. There’s really no big trick to making fresh pasta – and it impresses the heck out of people when you tell them it’s homemade. If you’ve got the right equipment, you might have 15 or 20 minutes of active working time in it. And if you don’t have the right equipment, then you might spend twice that much time. I still think it’s pretty easy – and foolproof.

I don’t know where I picked up this basic pasta dough recipe – it isn’t mine, but I use it all the time. I also substitute some whole wheat flour on occasion (about 40% of the total) to give it a little more bite. I happen to like the texture of whole wheat pasta. I know some people don’t. Because this recipe is ravioli, I didn’t use any whole wheat flour – I figured the ravioli was chewy enough without it.

And it seems like the local corn season has hit its peak, so I want to get a little more out of it before it completely fizzles out. I figured some fresh corn inside the ravioli might be fun, so in it went. And whenever I’m doing Italian food and corn, I automatically think of pesto. But just throwing pesto sauce on the ravioli is too easy, so I decided to put it on the inside instead. (Besides, I treat fresh pesto like gold – if it goes inside, I’ll use less. That way, it will last longer.)

Since the pesto went inside, I wanted something that would be both good with the corn and simple as well. How much simpler (and better with corn) can you get than butter and parmesan cheese? (Remember how I was complaining about too much salt? You would think I’d have some issues with too much fat too, but I don’t. Go figure.)

The nice part of this is that you can make the ravioli ahead of time and just stash them in the fridge. Then at dinnertime, the whole dish comes together in just a few minutes. It’s great to entertain with – you can actually spend some time with your friends when they come over.

So throw together your own fresh pasta and leave the excess salt where it ought to be – on the rim of a margarita glass.

Recipe: Corn and Pesto Ravioli with Parmesan Butter Sauce

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Never-Ending Propane Tank: Asian Marinated Pork

Do you remember Willie Wonka and his Everlasting Gobstoppers? Well, I’ve got the propane tank equivalent. We last traded out the propane tank in September – nearly 11 months ago. Granted, we didn’t use it prodigiously throughout the winter (it was freaking cold this year – even if you did live in Florida), but the thing has been near-empty for the last two months. Every time I use it, I assume I’ll have to finish the dinner in the oven when the tank fizzles. But it just keeps going and going (Maybe the Blue Rhino is somehow related to the Energizer Bunny). READ MORE

Recipe: Asian Marinated Pork

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bothersome Baby Brunch: Ham and Tomato Mini Frittatas

My good friend, Carol, is on her way to Hawaii as we speak (I know – we hate her). She’s headed there for her first grandchild’s christening. OK, it’s not a ‘christening’. It’s a New Age, hippy-dippy, nondenominational, waterside, baby-blessing (but ‘christening’ is so much easier to write). Either way, she’s thrilled. Of course, she’s been there two weeks out of every month since the baby was born (and she wonders why she’s always tired), so you would think the ‘new’ would wear off after a while, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, a couple of nights before she left, she casually said, “I meant to ask you: could you come up with a recipe for me? We’re doing a brunch for 30 people after the waterside baby blessing. Oh, and I leave day after tomorrow, so there’s not much time.” (Some days I really don’t care to be the food and entertaining expert of the group, you know?)

Luckily, the day in between was Sunday, so I had some free time to kill (yeah, right). She wanted something egg-y that could be done ahead of time and could be used as finger food. On top of all that, it also had to be fairly easy to make because everyone’s hands would be a little full, what with a newborn to look after and thirty guests and all. (Anything else? Want me to solve world hunger for you too while I’m at it?)

So that’s what I set out to do: easy, egg-y, finger food. What I came up with was a ham and tomato mini frittata. I think it fills the bill pretty nicely.

I tried desperately to figure out a way to crisp up the ham and use it as the shell, but I didn’t have any luck. When I used just the ham, the egg bled through and you couldn’t get it out of the muffin tin. I tried baking the ham first, then setting it inside a paper liner, but that didn’t get anywhere either. I finally gave up on crispy ham and settled on a paper liner, then lined the liner with ham as well (maybe if I’d had more time).

And evidently the grocery stores in Hawaii don’t stock quite as wide a variety of items as stores here on the mainland do, so I kept to a pretty simple set of ingredients. (Carol loves to tell the story of trying to find smoked salmon while in Hawaii. The clerk said, “You mean, for Jewish?” Turns out, they didn’t have it.) The tomato slice on top helps keep the eggs from being too dry, and the cheese, both in the eggs and on the top, give the whole thing quite a bit of richness.

Personally, I like to eat them warm, but they’d be perfectly fine at room temperature too. And it’s stable enough to make a day or two ahead, stash in the fridge, and just bring back to room temperature on the morning of the brunch. Should be a snap (these are all subliminal directions for the party throwers).

Like I said, being the resident party authority can be bothersome – then again, how could anything be too much trouble for a face like this?

Macy, the Party Girl
Recipe: Ham and Tomato Mini Frittatas