Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter! An Early Celebration!

Happy Easter!  The holiday came early on the calendar this year and even earlier at our house because we celebrated with our Easter meal yesterday!  It was so wonderful to have Marie and Miles here for the weekend, but since they had driven in from Dallas, we knew they wouldn't have much time here after church, so we decided to enjoy a more leisurely Easter dinner at home on Saturday.  How fun it was for me to cook with Marie (if you haven't seen her cooking blog, it's !) !  She's become such a great, creative cook, and working together in the kitchen are happy times for us!  We came up with a menu of bright, spring-celebrating dishes.  I wanted to make my recipe for crispy, super tender, real southern fried chicken (paired with champagne-- yes!), and Marie loves making tender, tasty biscuits of all types (she made cheddar-chive, buttermilk ones last night!).  We rounded out the menu with Ina Garten's "Green Beans Gremolata", and our takes on two of Ree Drummond's (the Pioneer Woman) dishes: a smashed new potato dish that was incredibly yummy and the light and pretty "Strawberry Sparkle Cake".  Marie was in charge of the potatoes and biscuits, so you'll have to convince her to give out her versions of those recipes, but I've included the recipes for the cake, green beans, and fried chicken!  

After years of being told, "Eat your dinner, THEN you can have dessert."  My cousin used to say that when he grew up he was going to always eat his dessert first!  Well, so here's the recipe for our dessert-- FIRST!

Strawberry Sparkle Cake (adapted from the Pioneer Woman)
1.5 cups superfine sugar (or process regular sugar in the food processor until fine)
1 cup sifted cake flour
12 egg whites, room temperature
1/2 tsp. salt
1.5 tsp. cream of tartar
1/3 cup warm water
1 tsp. almond extract
10 inch angel food cake pan with removable bottom
a wine bottle (or other tall, narrow bottle) Check to see if the top of the bottle will fit into the cake pan center tube.  You'll see why below.
1, 3oz. pkg. strawberry jello (not sugar free)
1 lb. frozen, sliced strawberries
boiling water
1.5 cups cold whipping cream
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Sift 3/4 cup sugar, the flour and salt together and set aside.  Add the egg whites, water, cream of tartar, and extract to the bowl of a stand mixer with the whip attachment.  Beat the egg white mixture on medium-low speed until a bit past the frothy stage.  Start adding the other 3/4 cup sugar a couple tablespoons at a time until the whites hold fairly stiff peaks but are still glossy and moist looking.  Don't let them get dry or lumpy.  Take the bowl off the mixer.  Sift in a bit of the flour mixture and fold it in with a wide rubber spatula.  Repeat until all the flour is used.  Fold the flour in well, so you don't see streaks of it anywhere, but don't over mix the batter.  Push the batter into the pan, scraping out of the bowl with the spatula. Run a knife around through the cake batter twice to remove air pockets.
Bake the cake for 35 minutes.  It should be browned and beautiful!  Take the cake out and immediately turn upside down on the wine bottle to cool (weird-- but necessary!).  
When the cake is completely cool, run a knife around the edge and around the center tube.  Push the pan up from the bottom to remove the cake.  Run a knife around the bottom of the pan.  Turn the cake upside down on a cake plate.  
Combine the Jello with 1.25 cup boiling water and stir to dissolve thoroughly.  Add the frozen strawberries and stir well.  Set aside.
Cut about 1-inch off the top of the angel food cake.  Remove and set aside.  Cut a "trench" all around the cake by taking a knife and cutting about 1-inch from the outer edge, but not to the bottom of the cake.  Cut about 1.5 inches inside that cut again, all around the cake-- not cutting through to the bottom.  Remove the cake between the cuts with your fingers.
Stir the strawberry mix well, it should be almost set, but not completely.  Spoon the filling into the trench in the cake, filling completely.  Replace the top on the cake.
Whip the cream with the extract.  Add the powdered sugar once the cream starts to thicken.  Beat until stiff peaks form.  Frost the cake all over with the frosting and refrigerate until serving time.  This is a wonderfully light, refreshing dessert!

Real Southern Fried Chicken

I've tried making fried chicken for YEARS, but this is THE recipe as far as I'm concerned.  It's got a perfect balance of crispness, tenderness, seasoning AND a method that doesn't take all the fun out of fried chicken (If you've ever brined, breaded, and fried chicken over a three day marathon, you'll know what I mean!) !  
Southern Fried Chicken (be sure to read the note below before starting)
1, 2-3lb. chicken, cut into pieces
1.5 tsp. Spanish spicy paprika (or regular)
1.5 tsp. salt
1.5 tsp. ground black pepper (the "old-school" kind if you have it)
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
2 eggs
1 cup whole mile
1 cup self-rising flour
Canola or peanut oil for frying
Mix the paprika, salt, pepper, onion and garlic powders together in a small bowl.  Place the chicken in a glass shallow casserole.  Sprinkle with the seasonings and turn the pieces to coat all sides thoroughly.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, about 1 hour before you want to serve the chicken, place the flour in a strong paper or 1 gallon sized zip-lock plastic bag.  Whisk the eggs and milk together in a bowl.  Place a wire rack on a sheet pan.  Pour enough oil into a deep frying skillet or an electric skillet to a depth of about 1/2-3/4 inch.  Heat the oil to 350F.  
Pick out the thighs and legs first.  Dip them in the egg mixture, then into the flour bag.  Seal the bag (or fold over) and shake around to coat the chicken well.  As you remove each piece, shake it to remove the excess flour and place it gently into the hot oil.  Don't crowd the pieces, but fill the skillet.  You can fit all the dark meat in at one time.  The oil temperature should stay at around 325F.  Watch that carefully.  Cook the chicken for a total of 20 minutes, turning it after about 10 minutes, then as needed to get an even browning.  After 20 minutes, remove one thigh and cut open to make sure it's cooked through (no pink!).  Remove all the pieces with tongs to the wire rack and allow to drain while you repeat the process with the white meat pieces.  Allow the oil to return to 350F to start.  Cook the white meat 18 minutes at 325F and check for doneness.  Generally, the white meats pieces cook faster.
Put the chicken on a big platter and serve hot, room temperature, or cold!  It's wonderful!  I usually double this recipe because the leftovers are so yummy!  But don't be surprised (or sad) if there aren't any!
Note:  There are a few things to remember when making real fried chicken.  I'll spare you the details of why, but trust me:
1.  Start with a fresh chicken, not frozen.
2.  Buy the smallest chicken you can, not over 3lbs. if possible and preferably around 2-2.5lbs.
3.  Cut each breast crosswise into at least two pieces.
4.  Use a deep frying skillet with a thermometer, or an electric skillet.
5.  Do everything else ahead so your attention is only on the frying.  Lock all children out of the kitchen and ask someone else to watch them (not kidding!--safety first!).

This is my take on Ina Garten's "Green Beans Gremolata".  Okay, these green beans are absolutely scrumptious!!!  They are so fragrant with lemon, garlic, and roasted pine nuts!  The one change I made was to leave out the Parmesan cheese.  It wasn't because I didn't like the idea.  I thought I had some, but, well, you know how that goes........Anyway, the dish was still SO GOOD, and since we already had cheese in the Cheddar biscuits, we convinced ourselves that it was actually BETTER to leave out the cheese in the green beans!  
Green Beans Gremolata
1 lb. French green beans (or regular, fresh green beans), trimmed
2 Tbl. pine nuts, toasted 
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 Tbl. grated lemon zest
3 Tbl. minced Italian parsley
2.5 Tbl. olive oil
freshly ground pepper
Steam or boil the green beans for 5 minutes, until crisp-tender; not soft or mushy, but not hard.  Drain and set aside.  
Mix together the pine nuts, garlic, lemon zest and parsley in a small bowl.
When ready to serve, heat the olive oil in a skillet and toss the green beans around in the oil until they are heated.  Add the pine nut mixture and toss well.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.  
Delicious!!  Maybe next time I'll try it with the Parmesan cheese! :)
Marie's Cheddar Chive Biscuits!

Smashed New Potatoes-- Crisp skinned and delightful!
I hope you all had a wonderful time with family and / or friends!  He is Risen, Indeed!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chicken and Walnuts with Soba Noodles

Do you know about soba noodles?  They are a Japanese noodle made from buckwheat and are very healthy!  They are actually made from the ground seed of the buckwheat plant, not the grain itself, so the noodles are high in fiber and low on the "bad kind of carbs" list.  They also contain a complete protein, which is unusual for plants.  Anyway, enough of that-- how do they taste?!  Well, they are delicious!!  Slightly nutty, but very mild in flavor, they taste like a light whole wheat pasta.  They cook very quickly-- about 5 minutes, and taste yummy eaten hot or cold.
Traditionally, soba noodles are served by themselves on a lovely type of woven mat with some type of dipping sauce.  You wind up a bit of noodle, dunk it in the sauce and eat it!  Some people that make soba noodles in Japan are artists, and it is a big deal the way they go about their craft.  However, mostly they are made like any other noodles, in a factory, and with those, I feel like it's fine to use them non-traditionally!  I like to serve them in stir fries or cold salads.  Here's an easy one that I think you'll enjoy!  Feel free to substitute other veggies.  Baby bok choy was on sale this time!
Note:  I hate to wash pots and pans, so I make this in stages using one frying pan.  It seems weird, but it works and doesn't take any more time than juggling three pans to make dinner!

Chicken and Walnuts with Soba Noodles (serves 2 generously)
1 large chicken breast half or 2 small ones, sliced very thinly
4 baby bok choy, cut cross-wise into about 1/4 inch slices
3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
1/2 medium onion, sliced thinly
1/4 cup coarsely broken walnuts
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbl. Canola oil
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup rice wine (Mirin-- at most grocery stores in the Asian foods aisle)
1 tsp. Sriracha sauce (is that how you spell it?)
2 Tbl. water or chicken broth if you have it around
2 tsp. cornstarch
about a 1/2-3/4 inch bundle of soba noodles (in the Asian foods aisle-- try to get thin noodles)

Mix the soy sauce, rice wine, Sriracha sause, water and cornstarch together in a small cup or bowl.  Don't worry if the cornstarch seems lumpy, but mix as well as you can.  Set this aside.
In a large frying pan, toast the 1/4 cup walnuts until fragrant.  Set aside.  Wipe out the pan with a paper towel of any little walnut crumbs.
Put about 2-3 inches of water in the pan.  Add 1 tsp. salt and bring to a boil.  Add the soba noodles and boil for 5 minutes, or until almost soft, but still a tiny bit resistant to the bite.  Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse well with cold water.  Set aside and wipe the pan dry if necessary.
Over medium high heat, heat the oil in the center of the pan.  Add the garlic and allow to cook until fragrant.  Add the sliced chicken and stir fry until browned a little and cooked through.  This won't take long.  Add the bok choy, carrots, and onions.  Stir and cook until the bok choy is bright green.  Add the soy sauce / rice wine mixture.  Cook and stir a bit until bubbling, then add the drained soba noodles.  Cook and stir over medium heat until everything kind of absorbs the sauce, but not too long or it will get mushy.  Serve immediately in shallow bowls.  Quick-Simple-Healthy-Yummy!

This is the soba package I buy at the Japanese grocery store.

Friday, March 22, 2013

South Texas Spring-- Gardening-- Kind Of!

Ben's Garden Roses

It's mid-spring in South Texas already!  This is a time we cherish both for its beauty and because of its brevity!  Right now the sun isn't blazing hot and the wildflowers are blooming on the sides of the highways, the garden roses are lovely and fragrant, and we get excited about growing things!  Ben has some gorgeous roses right now.  We love the heritage varieties here.  They're pretty, but also hardy and can take the Texas sun, Texas bugs, and well.....Texas!
I don't have recipes for the blog this time, but thought I'd do something different and show you some pictures of some of  my attempts this year with basic vegetable gardening.  Ben has some herbs growing wonderfully in containers, so I thought I'd give some vegetables a try this year.  I've tried this before and have had limited success, but as they say, hope springs eternal!

These are the beans sprouting today.  So far, so good!  I planted both bush and pole varieties.  I've never grown the pole type, so I just thought it would be fun!  Already I saw a bunch of what we call "roly poly" bugs.  On the Internet it says these bugs are generally harmless in gardens EXCEPT in Texas where they LOVE bean sprouts!  Uh-oh!

I planted three containers of tomato plants:  two regular varieties and one small type called "Aggie Grape" in honor of my son-in-law, Miles, an enthusiastic Aggie alum.   I've had exactly one big year for tomato production.  Mostly, I haven't figured out how to keep the birds from pecking every tomato right at the peak of it's ripened perfection! :(  
The year I did have a lot of tomatoes, Marie and I went happily around to the neighbors to give them away.  However, it ended up being a rather weird experience because a lot of people thought we were peddling them and tried to give us money!  

This is the funniest experiment of them all!  I heard that one could just make slits in a bag of potting soil, plant things and they would grow fine:  container, mulch, and weed barrier all in one!  That sounded so much like "Gardening for Guys", it was a hilarious idea that I had to try!  I thought lettuce might be the best suited for this "garden", so I made the slits in the bag and sowed some Mesclun mix seeds.  They sprouted in 2 days!  We'll see how it goes.  It's pretty late to plant lettuce in South Texas, I think, but it will be interesting to see.  Once it gets super hot, the plants will cook in that plastic-- I guess I should have planted spinach-- ha!

Well, anyway, I'll keep you posted!


Monday, March 11, 2013

Menestra: More Friends--More Spanish Cooking!

My friend, Alice, came to visit me from Seattle for a few days!  We had so much fun running around town, trying different restaurants and shopping for bargains!  Alice is a wonderful, creative cook and we've had many years of fun planning meals for our families and cooking together, so of course, that had to be part of her visit, too!  
Since it's spring in south Texas, and we were planning to go to the Farmer's Markets in the area, we decided a seasonal dish that incorporated spring veggies was definitely in order.  After some thought, I remembered this Spanish recipe that is mostly vegetables, but flavored with a generous bit of pancetta, Menestra!  While Ben's not a fan of vegetarian cuisine, I knew the addition of pancetta would make it all better, so we decided to give it a try!
Well, it turned out to be a beautiful, absolutely scrumptious dish that we all loved!  There is an interesting step where the sauteed onions are pureed with the parsley and a bit of wine.  This makes a kind of paste that adds a super amount of flavor and a "not soupy" consistency to the dish itself.  So, it's not like vegetable soup at all, it's not really a stew, it's well, Menestra!  The veggie preparations are a bit labor intensive, but that's what makes this a really fun recipe to cook with a friend.  I'm noticing this is a pattern with many Spanish dishes and a lovely, tasty practice it is!  This makes a lot, but left-overs are super good if you have any!  

Spanish Menestra (serves 6)
1 Tbl. olive oil
8 oz. pancetta, diced 
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 Tbl. chopped flat parsley
3/4 cup dry white wine or French vermouth
1.25 cups chicken stock
5 oz. green beans, ends removed and cut into short lengths
7 oz. young carrots, peeled, cut in half crosswise and lengthwise
6 small new potatoes, scrubbed
cut off kernels of one corn cob (frozen will do)
2 cups peas (fresh if possible, but frozen will do)
small handful of snow peas, ends removed
salt and pepper
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped

In a Dutch oven, or other large pot, heat the oil and cook the pancetta until it is crispy (add a bit more oil if necessary).  Remove the pancetta to a plate.  Saute the onion in the pot until it is soft, add the garlic and cook a few more minutes.  
Puree the onion mixture, 2 Tbl. parsley, and about 2-3 Tbl. of the wine in a food processor until it is a smooth paste.
Bring another pot of salted water to a boil and add the potatoes.  Cook until they are almost done, then add the carrots and cook 5 minutes and drain the carrots and potatoes.  The potatoes and carrots should be cooked through.  They will cook a bit more later also.
Return the pancetta back to the big pot.  Add the chicken stock, green beans, corn, and peas.  Lay the snow peas on top of the mixture.  Half cover the pot and allow to simmer 10 minutes, until everything is just cooked through.  Add the carrots and potatoes, the rest of the wine, and the onion puree.  Mix everything together gently and heat for 5 or 10 more minutes.  Taste for seasoning.
Sprinkle the chopped egg and the rest of the parsley over the top and serve from the casserole with crusty bread.  Be sure to spoon some of the tasty sauce over each serving!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Ben Cooks Paella

Ben got the latest issue of his "stag mag" (Men's Journal) in the mail the other day.  One of the usual features of the magazine is cooking for guys: how to fix a steak, grilling, etc.  This month the recipe was paella.  Ben loves paella, a yummy Spanish rice dish, and announced that HE was going to make it for our dinner last night!  Before looking at the recipe, I jumped at the chance to just lounge around on the couch while he was busy in the kitchen making something delicious!  
Then, I looked at the recipe.  It was titled "Spanish for Beginners".  If this is a beginner's recipe, I can't imagine what "stag mag" considers advanced!  There are a LOT of ingredients that all need to be prepped in some way, there are a LOT of steps, and it takes a LOT of time!  PLUS, the ingredients are rather pricey.  PLUS, I could tell by reading the recipe, which was to make six servings, that there was no way ALL the ingredients would fit in the pan specified, although I managed to convince Ben to do 1/2 the actual recipe since there would be just the two of us eating anyway.  
So, what I'm telling you is, I'm not sure you'll want to try this recipe because it's neither quick, easy, or inexpensive, but it WAS delicious!
I decided that in order to not be eating at midnight, it would be necessary for me to do the shopping and all the prep work.  That way, Ben could just do the actual cooking-- like on a cooking show!  It took me over an hour to just prep all the ingredients (chop, clean, measure out, grind-- yes, even that!), but it was kind of fun actually, getting everything organized and ready.
Ben did the cooking, I watched while enjoying a glass of wine, and the dish turned out beautiful and scrumptious!  Maybe this is a good "date night" activity because it's definitely a project for two.  Hey, maybe THAT'S what the "stag mag" staff had in mind anyway? :)

Start about 2.5 hours before you want to eat-- no kidding!

Paella (serves 3)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch wide strips
1 mild chile (I used a jalapeno without the veins or seeds)
3 chicken thighs 
4 oz. chorizo sausage, removed from the casing
1/2 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 cup canned, diced tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
15 threads saffron (yes, it actually said this-- just use a medium sized pinch of threads)
1.5 tsp. smoked paprika
4 littleneck or 2 cherrystone clams
1 cup short grain white rice
6 large shrimp, cleaned and deveined, but with the heads still on (if possible-- or not, if you don't like that sort of thing)
4 oz. cod, cut into chunks
4 mussels
4 oz. green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup canned chickpeas
1 lemon cut into wedges
2 Tbl. chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet with 2-inch high sides.  Add the red bell pepper and chile and saute until browned over medium heat.  Season with salt and remove the bell pepper.
Next, brown the chicken on all sides, about 10 minutes.  Add the chorizo and brown it, crumbling it up as it cooks.  Add the onion and garlic and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes and cook about 10 minutes.  Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
Grind the saffron threads and smoked paprika together and stir them into the sauce.  I just pounded them together with the bottom of a wooden spoon handle, but if you have a mortar and pestle, you should use that!
Add the clams.  Remove them as they open, about 10 minutes.
Pour the rice into the pan in an even layer, pushing things around so the rice is at the bottom of the pan.
Nestle the shrimp, fish, mussels, green beans, and chickpeas into the rice.  Bring everything to a simmer.
Turn the shrimp and fish over if necessary to cook evenly.  Add the clams and bell peppers back to the pan along with the lemon wedges and parsley.
Allow everything to simmer for 30 minutes.  Add water if it seems to be getting too dry.
Let stand for 5 minutes and serve!  Whew!

Gathering together all the prepped ingredients!