Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Technical Problems and Tacos

Well, rats, the photo of my stuffed artichokes experienced technical difficulty. Oh, well. There are no retakes with food-- it gets eaten!
Today my friend called me because she had purchased all the ingredients for shrimp tacos then had misplaced the recipe. She asked me to help her re-create the proportions and cooking method and reports that the tacos were quite tasty. She lives in about a 4 hr. drive from me so sorry, no pics here either, but here's the recipe.

Shrimp Tacos
1lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined, cut into about 1/2-inch pieces
1 T. olive oil
1/4 c. chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 chopped jalapeno pepper (seeded)
1 small handful of fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/2 lime
about 1 c. grated jack or cheddar cheese (more or less to taste)
flour tortillas (she used multi-grain)

1. Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add the jalepeno and saute a minute or two. Add the tomato and allow to cook for about 3 minutes, stirring.
2. Add the shrimp. Add about 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Stir and cook until the shrimp are pink. Add the fresh cilantro and cook very briefly, just until it's slightly wilted.
3. Squeeze the lime juice over all.
4. Place some of the shrimp mixture and cheese on a warmed tortilla.
5. Yummy!
It's hard to say how many tacos this will make because it depends how full you like them. Probably you could make 4-6 "sane" ones!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Something Scrumptious Sunday

Hi! Last Friday there were HUGE, COLLASSAL, GIGANTIC artichokes on sale at the market, 2 for $5. That might not sound terrific, but they were HUGE, COLLASSAL, and GIGANTIC! The problem was Ben, my husband, is not crazy about artichokes! However, he is crazy about sausage, especially Italian sausage, so I had an idea. I made stuffed artichokes and the filing was an Italian sausage mixture with cheese, tomato, and parsley. The filling is nothing complicated, but if you've never worked with fresh artichokes, they can be a challenge at first. This dish turned out to be so terrific though-- a perfect Sunday evening meal. One huge artichoke was a generous serving for one. Ben said it was the best artichoke he'd ever eaten.
This recipe takes some time, but it's very tasty and you learn a lot if you've never prepared artichokes before.

Sausage Stuffed Artichokes

2 large artichokes (mine were a little bigger than a softball)
1/2 lemon
3 bay leaves
2 T. salt
1/2lb bulk Italian sausage (hot or mild, I used mild)
1 c. grated mozzerella cheese
1/2 c. chopped Italian parsley
1 medium tomato, chopped
olive oil for drizzling
1. Get a pot large enough to fit the artichoke and fill with water. Add the lemon, bay leaves and salt and set on the stove to boil.
2. To prepare artichokes: Cut off the stem as close as you can to the base of the artichoke. Cut off about 2 inches off the top of the artichoke. Use kitchen shears to trim the points off all the other leaves.
3. Boil the artichokes about 45 minutes, or until a fork pierces up through the stem end very easily. While the artichokes are cooking, brown the sausage in a small pan. Drain any fat and add the parsley and tomato. Add about 1/2 c. water and allow to simmer while the artichokes cook.
4. There should be a little water left in the pan, but not much when you're ready to use it.
5. Preheat the oven to 350F.
6. When the artichokes are done, remove them from the water and let them cool until you can handle them. Set them upright and use your fingertips to pull out the center leaves (at least all the ones that have a purple cast to them). Then take a spoon and scrape the fuzzy choke off the aritchoke bottom. It should all pull away easily so that you can see what you should scrape off. Don't scrape away the solid artichoke bottom-- that's the best part. When you're done, you should have a hole about 2.5-3 inches across at the base of the artichoke.
7. Add the cheese to the filling. Spoon the most of the filling into the center of the artichokes, but then spread out the outer leaves and put some of the filling between the leaves here and there. It doesn't have to be a certain way.
8. Place the artichokes in a baking dish and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 10 min. until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is warm. Serve one artichoke per person as a main dish.
9. To eat, pull off the leaves and eat the base of them with the sausage filling. Enjoy the yummy artichoke bottom with the filling.
I didn't serve anything else with this dish except beer!

Note: An important thing that makes cooking fun is being able to cook without having to follow a recipe. That way, when you see something in the market that looks good, you can be creative on the spot. As we go, I'll try to talk about some basic tips that might help you. One tip for now is that sausage and cheese is a versatile flavor combination that can be mixed in just about any way, in anything, and in about any proportion and it will be popular. If you see something at the store that looks good, you can think about preparing it by using sausage and cheese as a stuffing. Mushrooms, zucchini, bell peppers, chicken breasts-- all these are delicious with a sausage/cheese stuffing. The same mixture can be used over tortilla chips or on a pizza crust. The type of sausage and cheese can help determine the way you want to go with the dish-- Spanish, Italian, German, etc. So, already there are a bunch of dishes you can prepare by knowing about one good flavor combination.
I'll have a photo of this dish up soon!


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Strawberry Sorbet

Last night I went to the grocery store after work and there were beautiful strawberries on a terrific sale! Ben was taking me out to the local hamburger place for dinner, so I had time to make this strawberry sorbet. The recipe is simple and you can use whatever fruits are in season and look scrumptious! This recipe is an adaptation of an old Chez Panisse recipe. I changed the method though because almost all sorbet / ice cream recipes require the mix to chill overnight in the refrigerator and then a good chilling again in the freezer for the finished product. That's a lot of advanced planning in my opinion! This recipe allows you to make the sorbet in one session from start to finish. I had it done and in the freezer by the time we left for the restaurant. Then we could enjoy a refreshing dessert at home afterwards! You can use any fruit to make this so I call it:
"Anything" Sorbet
2/3 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
4 c. any kind of fruit
1 Tbl. Kirsch (optional, but very delicious--if you don't use it, use fresh lemon juice)
Put the sugar and water in a microwavable bowl and microwave for 2 min. Stir until dissolved and put in the freezer to cool while you wash and trim up the fruit as necessary. Put the fruit through a food mill or process in a blender or food processer and pour into a *metal bowl. Add the cooled sugar syrup and the Kirsch or lemon juice to the fruit. Place in the freezer for 30min. to cool down well. Freeze in an electric ice cream maker for 25-30 min. Pack into another sealable container and store in the freezer.
*Metals have a low specific heat, which means they conduct and release heat quickly. Using a metal bowl instead of plastic or ceramic allows the mixture to cool faster. I have a background in chemistry, so I think it's fun to transfer that knowledge to making things easier in the kitchen! However, I'm told most people couldn't care less about the specific heat of metals, so feel free to ignore these digressions when necessary!
Notes: If you don't have a food mill, they are terrific kitchen tools. I never had one for a long time and didn't miss it, but now that I have one, I really like it! You can pay a lot (like over $150) for a fancy one, but I bought a plastic mill that had steel inserts for $25 and it works great!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Flat Chicken for Dinner

Hi! We had chicken for dinner tonight. I prepared it in the Italian manner, flattened so that the skin turns our crispy and brown all around, and it is very easy to separate into serving pieces. Usually, these recipes require marinating the chicken and grilling it outside. That is certainly delicious, but not really practical for a weekday meal, at least at our house. Here's my method for a shortcut version that's still delicious! There's also a version if you didn't plan ahead and your chicken is still frozen.

Italian Flattened Chicken
1 3-3.5lb. whole organic / free range chicken
1 Tbl. dried Italian seasoning
3 Tb. olive oil
1 Tbl. salt
1 tsp. pepper
a cast iron pan (to press down the chicken while it cooks)

This chicken takes an hour to cook, but you don't have to stand around while it's cooking. You can go away and do other stuff and just come back to it to turn it. If you have children, be careful that they don't come near the hot cooking chicken though.

Mix the olive oil, seasoning, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
Put some paper towels on your cutting board. This helps it not slide around and is safer. Set the chicken on the board and hold it upright (legs down) with the backbone facing you. Use a sharp French knife to cut down each side of the chicken's backbone. Lay the chicken skin side down on the board. Using a sharp paring knife, cut around the hard part of the breastbone in the center of the chicken and wiggle it out. Be careful the first time you do this, but after you've done it once, it's no big deal. Turn the chicken over and cut off the wing tips. Wipe the chicken with more paper towels. It should be laying pretty flat.
Preheat an electric skillet to 350F. Or use a large regular skillet over medium high heat.
Spread the olive oil seasoning over the skin side of the chicken. Lay it in the skillet skin side down and put a cast iron pan on the chicken to press it down flat to the skillet. If you don't have a cast iron pan, use aluminum foil covered bricks.
Allow the chicken to cook for 20min. Take off the cast iron pan. Spread the other half of the olive oil seasoning over the chicken and turn it over. Place the cast iron pan on the chicken again. Cook another 20min.
Take the pan off the chicken. Turn the chicken over and cook 10 min. Turn and cook another 10 min. Remove the chicken to a plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Allow it to sit for 5-10 minutes.
Separate the chicken into serving pieces. It should cut apart easily.

If your chicken is partially frozen: Put the whole chicken in a deep bowl of cold water that has about 1/3-1/2 cup salt dissolved in it. Allow the chicken to soak for about an hour (if it's still frozen, put the bowl in the fridge and let it complete thawing in there). Salt lowers the freezing point of water, and it will cause the chicken to thaw faster. Also, it serves as a kind of brining, but it's not that effective as such because the chicken is frozen.

I served this chicken with butter and cheese polenta and lima beans (I know, a rather heavy veg, but I like them!). It was yummy!
Note about chicken. It seems like an organic chicken is too expensive, and there is no doubt that it costs more per pound. However, once I measured the amount of waste between a conventionally produced chicken and an organic, free range chicken. The conventionally produced chicken had about three times the amount of waste in the form of fat and extra flabby skin (yuck!) that I had to trim off. After cooking, the organic chicken has firm, flavorful meat with tasty, thin skin. The other type has a more watery, loosely textured meat, with thicker skin that doesn't crisp as well-- it can be quite unappetizing. I've found that I can serve smaller portions of the better quality chicken (as long as there are tasty side dishes) and everyone is still happy. So, from the standpoint of waste, taste, and nutrition the organic chicken might be a better value for you, although it costs more per pound. Still, price is price and if you can't justify the extra according to your budget, this is still a fun way to prepare and eat chicken!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Canning Adventure!

Hi! I had a super fun time cooking with my daughter last week. She was home from Dallas, so we had made plans to make some jams for Christmas presents. We made plum jam with some great organic red plums and hot pepper jelly with local jalepenos that are in season in Texas right now. If you want to try home canning, it is a wonderful, fun experience that lends itself especially well to working with a friend or relative in the kitchen. A few tips for beginners:
1. Your first project should be a type of jam. Jams can be made in water bath canners (don't need pressure canners), are simple recipes, and are made in small batches that are easy to work with.
2. Use a jam recipe that requires sugar and a type of pectin, liquid or powder. There are recipes for sugarless and natural pectin jams, but they require more cooking time and canning skill.
3. Buy the best, most beautiful, peak of perfection, local, organic fruit you can find. Most jam recipes consist of three ingredients: sugar, pectin, and fruit, so the fruit needs to be terrific for the jam to be terrific!
4. Use reliable, recently published recipes from the Ball Canning company or the local agricultural extension agency.
It might seem old fashioned and a lot of trouble when you can just buy something like jam, but there is a lot more to it than the product. I hadn't canned anything since I was a kid working in the kitchen with my mom. Now I was teaching my daughter the same things. Each jar of the season is a memory and a lesson. Plus it tastes good!