Sunday, December 30, 2012

Gyoza: Japanese Dumplings!

Do you recognize these little dumplings from a visit to your local Japanese or Chinese restaurant?  Chinese restaurants call these yummy, pan-fried bites potstickers.  There really isn't any difference that I can tell; they are delicious regardless of what they are called!  Still, since my heritage is Japanese, we'll go with that for now!:)
My grandparents immigrated to the USA, so my parents were born and grew up in Colorado.  My mom made all types of dishes; she loved to cook also!  We had Japanese recipes fairly often, but that was always the menu for the New Year, no matter what!  Our "Japanese New Year" was pretty international though-- sushi and sashimi shared the table with my aunt's macaroni salad, ham, and one year-- a lasagne!  I guess it was actually very American!
Anyway, these little dumplings are so fun to make and even more fun to eat!  They are rather labor intensive since you have to form each one, but it can be a family project, or you can put on a movie, relax, AND feel very productive!  If you line the dumplings up on parchment paper and freeze them on a tray, you can store them in a plastic bag in the freezer.  Then you can have these little treats whenever you want!  
Gyoza can be filled with just about anything, but this recipe is probably the most common.  A lot of gyoza use Napa cabbage in them, but I had some beautiful spinach from the Farmer's Market, so I used that.  (Can you believe Texas?  December and January are the months for spinach!  I still can't get used to it!)  You can also use frozen spinach.
Well, I hope you try these tasty little bites!  They might add something different to munch on during the football games!  Happy New Year!
1 lb. ground pork
10 oz. fresh spinach (not the baby spinach), or 1/2 pkg. frozen spinach, thawed and      squeezed dry
1 Tbl. salt (if using the fresh spinach)
3 Tbl. minced fresh ginger
2 scallions, sliced with green tops
4 tsp. soy sauce
4 tsp. rice wine (mirin) or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbl. sesame oil
1 pkg. gyoza or potsticker wrappers (Don't use wonton wrappers, they are too thin. Find these frozen at the grocery store-- they thaw fairly quickly at room temperature.)
Vegetable oil

If using fresh spinach:  Make sure your spinach is clean by rinsing in several changes of water.  Chop it up and put it in a large bowl.  Sprinkle it with the salt and toss.  Allow to set for 30 minutes.  Rinse the spinach in a colander and squeeze out all the water.
Put the spinach and all the other ingredients except the wrappers and vegetable oil in a large bowl.  Mix altogether very well.  Get out a sheet pan and line it with parchment paper.  Fill a small bowl with water.
To form the gyoza:  Hold one wrapper in your palm and put about 2 tsp. filling in the middle.  Dip your finger in the small bowl of water and wet the inside edge of the wrapper.  Fold it in half and pinch the top together.  Now make three pleats from the middle out with the edge facing you (the other side stays flat) and press them firmly to seal the dumpling.  Now do the same from the middle out to the other side of the dumpling.  Make sure they are sealed well.  One side of the dumpling has pleats and the other is smooth.  Put the dumpling on the paper pleats side up and press down slightly so the bottom rests flat.  If you don't want to do this, just seal the dumpling edges flat, but still make sure to put them on the sheet pan sealed side up and flat on the bottom.

Now, to cook them!
Heat 2 Tbl. vegetable oil in a large skillet that has a cover.  Use medium-high heat.  Put the gyoza into the pan flat side down (pleat side up) and allow to brown on the bottom.  This takes about 2-3 minutes, but watch them carefully so they don't burn.  Add 1/2 cup water to the skillet, cover, and continue to cook on low, simmering 5-6 minutes (longer if frozen).  Uncover and cook for 2-3 minutes longer until all the water has evaporated.  
Serve with a dip of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar to taste.  You can add chile sauce to that if you like things spicy!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

French Christmas

Yay!  Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas yesterday!  We had so much fun with my daughter, Marie, and her new husband (since March), Miles!  
Well, every year for Christmas, I like to choose a theme for the dinner menu.  Okay, I know, it's weird!  I've had to endure my share of teasing from the family ("Who knows what it will be for Christmas this year!).  I guess Marie has had to grow up with NO traditional family Christmas dishes, that's true, BUT, she certainly can't say we don't have any traditions-- no matter how unusual :)
We always have our Christmas dinner in the evening (see, there's a tradition right there!).  We wanted to see the opening of "Les Miserables" at the movie this year, so I decided to go with a French dinner afterwards!  I needed to have a menu that would be able to be prepared ahead of time; then we could just put everything on to cook when we returned from the movie.  I decided on Julia Child's "Braised Filet of Salmon" for the main dish and it was YUMMY!  I'll include that on the next post!  BUT for dessert, I made the traditional (there it is again!), Buche de Noel, the Christmas rolled and filled cake, and it turned out SO good!!  This is the perfect Christmas dessert-- you can do it way ahead and freeze it, it tastes wonderful and complicated (but it isn't), and it's really CUTE!  The little meringue mushrooms are the key to the cuteness factor-- but they can be SO easy to make (see shortcut below!).
Julia's Buche de Noel is probably scrumtious, but her recipe in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is pretty complicated.  To me, it's a bit much at the busiest time of the year!  So, I went with this recipe and added a simple, smooth chocolate buttercream icing.
Once you've made one of these and have the method down, the variations are endless!  Pumpkin Rolls for fall, Strawberry Rolls for spring, Peach Rolls for Summer-- your year in desserts is covered-- bring on 2013!

BUCHE DE NOEL(adapted from the McCalls cooking school recipe)
6 egg whites, room temperature (I microwave the eggs--in the shells-- until they lose their cool! Just a few seconds!) 
3/4 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 dash salt
confectioners' sugar
1.5 cups heavy cream, chilled
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease the bottom of a 15x10x1" jelly roll pan; line w/ parchment paper; grease slightly. Preheat oven to 375.
In a large electric mixer bowl, at high speed, beat egg whites until soft peaks form when beaters are slowly lifted.
Add 1/4 c sugar, 2 T at a time, beating until stiff peaks form when beaters are slowly lifted. Transfer the beaten egg whites to another large bowl.
With the same beaters and mixing bowl, beat yolks at high speed, adding remaining 1/2 c sugar, 2 T at a time; beat until mixture is very thick, about 4 minutes. At low speed, beat in cocoa, vanilla, salt, just until smooth.
With wide rubber spatula, gently fold cocoa mixture into egg whites just until blended (no egg whites should show). Spread evenly in pan.
Bake 20 minutes, just until surface springs back when gently pressed with fingertip.
Sift confectioner's sugar in a 15x10" rectangle on a clean linen towel.
Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it.  Turn cake out on sugar; lift off pan; peel paper off cake.
Roll up cake jelly-roll-fashion, starting with the short end, towel and all. Cool completely on rack, seam side down.
FILLING: Combine ingredients in medium bowl. Beat with electric mixer until thick; chill while the cake cools.

TO ASSEMBLE: Unroll cake; spread with filling to 1" from edge; re-roll the cake.  This goes a lot easier than you think it will.  Use the tea towel to help you get started.
Place the cake, seam side down on a serving plate.  Cut off the two ends of the cake diagonally and save the ends to be "bumps" on the log.
You can now freeze the cake and the "bumps", covered with aluminum foil, to frost and decorate later.  If you do, frost the cake straight from the freezer and then put it in the fridge until serving time, or put it back in the freezer.  Allow the cake to sit at room temperature for an hour before serving if taken from the fridge, and about 1.5 hours if taken from the freezer (refrigerate leftovers!).

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
10 TBL. unsalted butter, softened
dash of salt
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Beat all ingredients until fluffy and softly spreadable.

I use Wilton meringue powder to make two things: these mushrooms and royal icing.  Usually, I'm against this sort of thing, but meringue powder is JUST dried egg whites and if you use it, there isn't any worry about using raw eggs.  Plus, it is SO EASY and that's important at Christmas time!  Follow the package directions to make the recipe for meringue shells.  Put some parchment paper on a baking sheet.  Preheat the oven to 200F.
Put the meringue into a decorator's piping bag (or a plastic bag with a corner cut off) and pipe out buttons of meringue of different sizes.  Those are the mushroom tops.  Then pipe out some tall points.  Those will be the stems.  Don't worry about making them perfect-- they will look cute anyway-- I promise!!  Make extras because they taste delicious-- like toasted marshmallows-- and your family will sneak some for sure!
Bake for 1 hour, or until dry and slightly browned.  When cooled, dig out a little indention on the underside of a mushroom top with a knife.  Use frosting to stick the stem into the indentation.  There it is!
Marie helped me put the meringue mushrooms together.  She and her Dad were also constructing and decorating a gingerbread house (Miles was helping by eating the "extra" candy.), so she used royal icing to stick the mushroom stems to the tops.  You can use the chocolate frosting made above, too.
(Marie also took this excellent photo; however, I couldn't get how to publish it without the weird border-- sorry!)
Final Assembly!
Frost the cake ends and attach them to the log, either on the sides or on the top, whichever look you like.  Frost the whole cake except the ends (the swirled filling looks good!).  Use the frosting knife to make lines on your "log" to look like the bark.
Right before serving, put the meringue mushrooms here and there-- whatever way you like.  Put some fresh rosemary (just to look kind of "evergreen-ish") around the log if you want.  Sprinkle with a dusting of powdered sugar "snow".  Joyeux Noel!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sausage and Rigatoni

Do you like the Italian dish, sausage with peppers and onions?  I do, but for a lot of people, that's a lot of peppers and onions!  Here's a modification of that dish that combines sausage with green onions and cherry tomatoes.  The green onions add a light flavor without going overboard.  It was very popular at my house a few nights ago.  I used rigatoni pasta, but of course, penne or large shell pasta would work well also.  Recently, on a Lydia Bastianich cooking show, she talked about pairing the pasta to the shape of the other ingredients.  For example, she said bulky pieces, like slices of sausage, go well with bulky pastas, like penne or rigatoni.  If you are using long strands of pasta like spaghetti, you should cut your ingredients in similar long strands so that they will tangle up well with the pasta and not just sit at the bottom of the pan.  A-ha!!  That's how to get a pasta primavera to mix cooperatively!  Anyway, this is a very helpful rule of thumb and does work!
Also, how about sausages?  Usually, I like to buy the "house made" types from my local grocer, but I really like Pederson's sausage as far as a national brand.  It is made without preservatives, including nitrates and other not-so-good stuff.  It costs a bit more than similar products, but think about it, do you really want to buy a cheap version of sausage?!  There's a lot of trust there as it is !  Ha!  Well, hey, trust me, you'll like this!

Sausage with Green Onions and Cherry Tomatoes
1 lb. good quality smoked sausage, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch green onions, sliced (use about 1/3 of the green stems)
1/4 cup white wine, broth, or pasta cooking liquid
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
black pepper, salt
1/2 lb. rigatoni or penne pasta
Big pot of boiling, salted water to cook the rigatoni in

Brown the sausage slices in a skillet, turning to brown well.  Remove the sausages and pour out the accumulated fat.  
Pour the rigatoni into the boiling, salted water.  Stir occasionally so they don't stick.
Add the green onions and the tomatoes to the skillet.  Cook and stir until the onions are slightly wilted.  Add the sausages and stir to combine.
When the rigatoni are cooked, drain them (reserve some cooking liquid) and pour the pasta into the skillet.  Add the pasta water, broth, or wine and cook a minute or two, stirring.  Add the cheese and black pepper and stir until combined and the cheese is somewhat melted.
Serve in bowls with extra grated cheese if desired.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Weeknight Arroz Con Pollo

Anytime a recipe title says "Weeknight", it's a signal that the recipe should be quick and tasty AND flexible-- something that can be put together after you come home from work.  It shouldn't take particularly special ingredients, and it's really good if you can make lots of substitutions so you don't have to go to the grocery store on the way home!  (I LOVE going to the grocery store and even I don't much like doing that at the end of a long day.....Sometimes I do and in fact, sometimes it re-energizes me!-- but I digress....)
This recipe for Arroz Con Pollo meets all the "Weeknight" recipe criteria.  It uses everyday ingredients, putting it together is a snap, and it is a very tasty rendition of the traditional Mexican chicken and rice dish.  Ordinarily, I like to put chiles in it (Hatch, poblano, or jalapenos), but this time I didn't because Ben had some tummy trouble a few days ago and I didn't want to aggravate anything!  
If you don't have a particular ingredient, feel free to substitute!  Really, the only thing you HAVE to have for Arroz con Pollo is the arroz (rice) and the pollo (chicken)!

Weeknight Arroz Con Pollo (serves 3-4)
1 lb. chicken tenders, or breasts, or thighs  
1 onion, chopped
1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
1, 4oz. can sliced pimentos (this you might not have, but you can use chopped green pepper, or the above suggested chiles)
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup sliced olives (black, green, Kalamata, plain or fancy-- whatever you have)
1 can chicken stock diluted to make 2.5 cups liquid, or all chicken stock if you have it            (if you don't have stock, use part white wine and water, or just water)
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 cup uncooked white rice
1/2 cup frozen peas or baby lima beans

In a big non-stick skillet, put in about 2 Tbl. olive oil.  Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper and brown quickly on both sides, but don't cook through.  Remove to a plate.  Add a bit more oil if necessary, the chopped onion, mushrooms, and garlic.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute over medium heat until fragrant.  Add the white rice.  Allow to cook further, stirring once in awhile, until the rice browns a little and the mixture smells really good!
Put the chicken back in along with the olives and pimientos.  Pour in the chicken stock carefully-- it might go crazy because of the hot rice.  Sprinkle the peas or limas over all.
Cover and cook for 20 minutes on medium-low heat.  Stir around fairly well.  Cover and cook another 5-10 minutes, until the rice is cooked through.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Apricot-Almond Biscotti

 Biscotti-- those lovely crisp slices that make a cup of coffee an event-- I love them!  They seem so straightforward too:  a hard cookie with fruit and/or nuts baked in.  How difficult can that be?  Well, if you've ever tried to make them at home, you know!  For one thing, recipes for "biscotti" can result in everything from a soft, rich pastry like cookie (delicious, but hardly up to a dunk into a cup of expresso!) to a tooth-cracking dog biscuit (for people!)!  I've tried all kinds of mixtures with all kinds of results.  To me, biscotti is a fairly hard cookie with pronounced flavor and a texture that is rather coarse, but definitely not crumbly.  It needs to stay intact after soaking up some coffee, not fall apart into crumbs throughout your drink-- ick.  Anyway, this is a recipe from an old "Gourmet" magazine.  Wow!  Now that was a magazine for cooks-- but don't get me started.  "Gourmet" isn't around anymore, but thanks to the Internet, a lot of their recipes are.  To me, this recipe makes the perfect biscotti.  It's very adaptable also, that is, you can vary the fruits and nuts, make the biscotti plain, or vary the flavorings.  They can be dipped in chocolate or white chocolate (fancy!), and they survive mailing very well-- Christmas gift!  Biscotti are kind of pricey at the store, so making them is economical also.  Here are some tips to making any biscotti recipe.
1.  If the recipe calls for a large proportion of butter to flour (like 1 cup butter to 2-3 cups flour), the biscotti are going to be softer and more cookie-like.  This isn't bad, and they'll taste good.  It's just something to know if you are expecting the traditional type.
2.  Use chopped nuts, not whole ones.  The whole ones look great in cross-section, but it is really difficult to slice through these large pieces cleanly. 
3.  Toast the nuts for 7-8 minutes at 350F before using them.  It makes a difference.
4.  Slice the biscotti with a sharp chef's knife.  Slice straight down with conviction-- don't use a sawing motion or you'll have crumbled edges.
5.  No biscotti recipe I've ever made makes the amount the recipe claims.  If fact, you'll get only about 1/2 the amount, so plan accordingly!
Now, here's the recipe!
Apricot-Almond Biscotti (makes about 2.5 dozen cookies-- really!)
2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 whole large egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup chopped almonds (5 1/2 oz), toasted and cooled
1 cup dried apricots (6 oz), quartered
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.  Tear off two sections of Saran wrap, about 15 inches long.
In a stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together.  Add the butter and mix on low until the mixture looks crumbly.  Add the egg, milk, vanilla and almond extracts.  Mix well.  Add the almonds and mix.  Add a few more drops of milk if the mixture is too dry to come together into a dough.
Divide the dough in two and put one section on each piece of Saran wrap.  Fold some Saran over the dough and pat it into a disk about 5-6 inches in diameter.  Place 1/2 of the apricots on the dough and fold it over, sandwiching the apricots between the dough.  Fold the Saran over the dough and work / roll it into a log about 14 inches long.  Try to get the ends as thick as the middle of the log, but don't worry if it's not like that.  Pick up the log with the Saran and then unwrap it onto one side of the baking sheet.  Repeat with the other portion of dough and put that log on the other side of the baking sheet.  They won't rise much, but you want them to be far enough apart so they don't touch and bake evenly. 
Brush the logs with the egg wash.  Bake them for 20 minutes, or until they seem dry and cracks appear all over the logs.  They should feel firm.  If your logs are a little thicker than specified, just bake a little longer.
Remove the logs from the oven and allow them to sit for 20 minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 300F.
Carefully lift one log onto a cutting board (don't worry if it breaks-- you're going to cut them up anyway!).  Cut the biscotti into about 1/2-inch slices and put them on the same parchment baking sheet, curved sides up.  Repeat with the other log.
Bake the biscotti for 30 minutes.  Remove them from the oven and allow to cool.  They will crisp up even more. 
Store air tight at room temperature, or freeze!  Yum!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Easy Baked Chicken Parmesan

 Did you ever see the movie, "The Big Night"?  It's about an Italian immigrant that opens a restaurant in the USA.  He wants to serve very authentic dishes to his customers, but they come expecting the traditional Italian-American restaurant dishes that ALWAYS come with a "side order of spaghetti".  One diner insists on the "side order" with his risotto, which sends the purist chef / owner into a rage and so moves the plot forward (I won't ruin it for you-- watch it sometime-- it's really good!).  Anyway, another Italian-American favorite that usually comes with a "side order of spaghetti-- which I LOVE by the way- I'm no purist!) is Chicken Parmesan!  BUT, I promise your family won't miss the pasta with this yummy version, especially if you have some good bread with it!
Like a lot of Italian dishes, Chicken Parmesan is a favorite of all ages.  Children and adults love the cheesy, saucy, crispiness of this lovely dish.  It hits all the "likes" for most tastes.  
The traditional recipe for Chicken Parmesan is time consuming and heavy in calories:  pound out filets, bread and saute them, etc., etc.  This is my adaptation of a recipe for a baked version that is just as delicious, but baking the chicken and splitting the chicken breasts instead of the pounding and pan sauteeing makes this version much easier and even lighter!  You'll still get all the goodness of the crisp exterior, tender chicken, and the cheese / sauce.  Another nice thing is you can get all the "parts" necessary together ahead of time, then just assemble and bake when you're ready.  This makes it great for entertaining!  Also, I always use a jarred  tomato-basil marinara sauce for this recipe.  It tastes great and what's the use of an "easy" recipe if part of it involves spending hours making one of the components!?  Serve with foccacia bread (previous post -- or buy it!) and a green salad.  That's amore and your own "Big Night" at your house!  Ha!

Easy Baked Chicken Parmesan(serves 6)
1.5 cups Panko breadcrumbs
1 Tbl. olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup flour
1.5 tsp. garlic powder
Salt and pepper
3 egg whites
1 Tbl. water
3 rather large chicken breast halves (boneless, skinless, and partially frozen if possible)
1 jar marinara sauce (you won't use all of it-- use the rest for a pizza!)
1.5 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Spray a baking rack with PAM and put it on a sheet pan.  If you don't have one, you can line a sheet pan with a piece of aluminum foil that has been crumpled up, then un-crumpled and sprayed with PAM.  This won't work as well, but it will work.  
Mix the Panko and the olive oil in a frying pan and toast the breadcrumbs, stirring all the while, until they are golden brown.  Set the pan off the heat and allow the crumbs to cool, then mix in the Parmesan cheese. 
Mix the flour, garlic powder, 1 Tbl. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper in a shallow dish.  Set aside.
Mix the egg whites and water with a fork in another dish.  Set aside.
Halve the chicken breasts horizontally.  Do this by starting at the thick end of the breast and moving your thin, sharp knife through the breast in a sawing motion.  This is a lot easier if the breasts are still partially frozen.  Hold your hand on top of the breast to steady it as you cut, but be careful!  If it doesn't go exactly right-- don't worry!  It will look and taste fine.  You can even just cut them in two cross-wise, then cut only the thick pieces horizontally.  If you do this, they will bake about 5 minutes quicker.  Sprinkle the breasts with salt and pepper.
Now dip a breast into the flour mixture, shaking off the excess.  Then dip into the egg mixture, then into the panko-cheese mixture.  Turn and press the cheese-panko mixture all over the breast.  Put it on the baking rack and repeat with all the chicken.  Spray the tops of the chicken breasts with a light coating of PAM.
Bake for about 20 minutes (little more or less, depending on how frozen the breasts were).  You can cut one open discreetly to check; the meat should not be pink in the center.  Remove the chicken and top each one with a generous amount of marinara sauce and a mound of mozzarella cheese.  Put back into the oven for another 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted and everything looks scrumptious!  
Use a spatula to remove the breasts and serve!