Monday, February 23, 2009

Reinventing Left-Overs

Being thrifty with your food dollar makes sense in today’s rough economy. The good news is cutting back doesn’t have to be painful. Get ready to take your creative cooking skills to the next level!

When you shop for single ingredients with multiple dishes in mind, you’re emulating our nation’s best chefs and elite restaurants. Nothing inspires a great chef like fresh, versatile flavor procured at a bargain.

Case in point: let’s say his food purveyor offers the chef a special on lamb shanks; now it makes perfect sense for the chef to offer a lamb shank special on Saturday night’s menu. In order to optimize his time, the chef may cook more shanks than he expects to sell. Utilizing those extra shanks is where the creativity comes in; to offer lamb shanks to his loyal patrons two nights in a row, would be BORING. So, what does he do? He offers braised lamb ragout served over asiago polenta. Mouths water and his (or her!) cash register ca-chings!

My grandmas, both products of the Great Depression, incorporated “left-overs” into their weekly meal plans. You just knew that whatever was served on Sunday night was going to show up again on Tuesday, (and for sure in your lunchbox!) at least a couple of days that week. We never knew that the meals were left-over –only that they were delicious!
Truth be told, left-overs are a mainstay in meal plans for today’s busy moms and dads. Thrifty moms understand the principle of working once to reap two (or more!) rewards. Just think about it. Cooking two chickens takes no more effort than cooking one; yet two chickens yield numerous meals, while one is good for only a meal or two. The dollar stretches further when these whole chickens are on sale for sixty-nine cents a pound, compared with skinless, boneless chicken breasts that sell for two dollars and sixty-nine cents a pound.

If there is a fly in the ointment, a flaw in the system - it occurs when the cook stops thinking like the chef. Left-overs are welcome, so long as they don’t taste or look like left-overs! Therein lies the rub – and the rub, so to speak, is the answer. Chefs incorporate everything in their arsenal to recreate the left-over…and so must we. Rubs and seasonings, fresh veggies and herbs, pantry staples – every ingredient is useful in a “re-invisioning” of what we enjoyed so much last night.

For example, cooking extra steaks for Saturday night’s Pan Seared Steaks with Bordelaise Sauce allows you to use them later in the week in dishes like Steak Panini with Havarti cheese, crisp arugula lettuce and a slather of sun-dried tomato Thousand Island dressing. It works just as well in Steak, Black Bean & Toasted Corn Quesadillas and Steak & Roasted Onion Salad with Poblano Pepper Vinaigrette. And then there is ravioli filled with diced steak, steak and eggs, steak parfaits – no, not really - just trying to get your attention!!
The whole idea is to have FUN with your meal plan, while you spend a little less time in the kitchen and save a little money along the way. These are a couple of examples of my favorite re-invented dishes. It would be wonderful if you would share your favorites with the rest of us. We can all benefit from the creativity of others, and, in these most interesting times, I think we can all agree it’s nice to share. Simply post your recipe idea here and we will all give it a try!

Monday, February 16, 2009

From Field to Table

My CSA farm, Green Cay Produce in Boynton Beach, Florida just delivered the latest box full of their amazing freshly harvested veggies. Because we’re in the tropics, our growing season begins in the fall and goes through the late spring. This box contains zucchini, a ton of cucumbers, arugula, two butternut squash, two kinds of eggplant, almost a dozen ears of corn and a watermelon. There are also two bags of okra, which is not one of my favorites, but definitely worth another try. In addition to the mouth watering rainbow of veggies, there was a special surprise tucked inside the box. One of the Farm’s drivers decided to give everyone a cutting from her vervain plant, a pretty little flower that is likely to attract a butterfly or two. I laid all of the veggies on the counter and tried to decide where to dig in first.

I grab the butternut squash. This versatile veggie is one of my favorites. For tonight’s treat, we’re preparing Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto. I know that cooks are often intimidated by the preparation of this dish, but in truth, it’s pretty easy. Begin by peeling the squash, cutting it in half and removing the seeds. Then chop it into ½-inch cubes. Place the cubes onto a baking sheet (use one with sides so that they don’t roll off the pan). Drizzle the squash cubes with olive oil, salt and pepper and your favorite squash spices. I like ground cinnamon and chili powder, but Chinese five-spice or a combo of dried oregano and fresh garlic is wonderful, too. The beauty of cooking is experimenting with lots of different flavors! Roast the squash cubes until soft about 15 to 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Meanwhile peel and finely dice a large shallot (or small onion). Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until their soft, just a couple of minutes. At this point, I add a bit of white wine to flavor the shallot and then let it cook away. Pour in a cup of Arborio rice. Cover the rice with chicken broth. Stir until most of the liquid is absorbed. Pour in more stock to cover and continue stirring. You want two parts stock to one part rice. When all of the stock is absorbed you are ready to add the squash. Finish the risotto with a touch of cream, a pat of butter, salt and pepper and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Yumm Yumm!!

I use room temperature stock from the pantry, but true culinary chefs will advise you to heat the stock and add just a ladle at a time. Most agree that the entire process should take only about 20 minutes – which is the perfect amount of time to roast the squash. If you are preparing the risotto for a dinner party you can make it ahead and then finish it as your guests take their seats. Begin the recipe and start adding the stock. Stop with one ladle full of stock in reserve. You can roast the squash and keep at room temperature until you are ready to proceed with the recipe. Remove the risotto from the heat and cover. When you are ready to proceed, gently warm the risotto and stock. Add the last ladle of stock and stir. The mixture should be creamy, not sticky or loose. You can add more stock if needed at this point. When the risotto is the correct consistency, add the squash and the finishing touches.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My Little Valentine Supper

I usually cook Valentine's Day dinner. I’d rather cook than fight the crowds at the restaurants and when my kids were growing up, they would help out by setting the table and making the dessert. We made Valentine's Day cards and decorated placemats. It became a bit of a tradition. My favorite dinner to make for the holiday was a roasted chicken complete with mashed potatoes, stuffing and sautéed carrots. We usually topped it off with chocolate cupcakes or brownie sundaes.

Now that the kids are grown and it’s hubby and me, the restaurant option would be easy – however, I just can’t help it…. I love to create a special menu for a special day. This year I’m trying something different; in place of the roasted chicken, I’m preparing Gray sole with a delicate white wine pan sauce. In place of the mashed potatoes, I’ve created a Wild Mushroom Hash. And because I just can’t help myself, I'm adding an over-the-top veggie: Individual Cream Spinach Gratins , which just bubble with cheesy goodness. My dessert is a Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and the decorations are all about my three sons …. I guess I just can’t get this matriarch of the family stuff out of my system.

Let me give you a little info about the ingredient components of the menus. Gray sole is a flounder (also called the witch flounder and the pole dab). Most consider the flesh of the gray sole flounder to be of high quality in flavor and texture. You can purchase it at your fish monger’s market. I found Gray sole at Whole Foods. If you can’t find it in the case, don’t be afraid to ask when it may become available in your store. The fillets I purchased were small, about 3 ounces, so I serve two per person, but you can find them larger. Gray sole is not always available because it has been over-fished. Recent news says that the population is coming back – which hopefully will put the fish back into the stores soon.

I used an assortment of different mushrooms in the hash. You can find so many varieties in the grocery market today, that it behooves you to try them all. The secret to cooking mushrooms is to place them into the skillet (either in butter or a combination of butter and olive oil). Let them sit for a minute to caramelize. Do not stir them around, let them brown. For the hash, I actually flattened the mushrooms into the other veggies with the back of a spatula. After a few minutes, I scooped them up and cooked them on the other side until they were golden. Only after the mushrooms begin to turn a golden color do you season them with salt and pepper. The result is an earthy, nutty flavor experience that I am sure you will prefer over the mushy alternative.

I baked the red velvet cake in square pans and froze two layers for later use. (After all it is just hubby and me ….) I couldn’t resist the urge to decorate, so I took three heart shaped cookie cutters and placed them into the frosting. I dug up some of the Valentine's Day sugars that I bought a Williams-Sonoma and filled in the hearts with the candy. It’s cute – and the cake will be gone within 24 hours, since those boys do tend to show up for holiday meals!!

I hope your Valentine's Day is special and warm and spent with dear friends and family. Please send along your Valentine's meal ideas and we’ll share them right here with everyone!!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fresh is Best

The subjects of my cookbooks include learning how to cook at home instead of eating junk food in the car, throwing parties for friends and family that you can enjoy yourself, traditional dishes made quicker, spicier, or lighter, a book on good-for-you-foods, especially good carbs and good fats and, most recently, a book on what you should eat to make you gorgeous – on the inside and out.

Its been a real learning experience – one that has led me to the subject that I would like to work on for my next book; the focus of which, is on the underrated, under-explored fresh foods found on farm stands, in fresh markets, in CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes, and in specialty food stores like butchers and fish mongers. It’s about finding the freshest food stuffs available; those that have been minimally processed. For reference, I suggest you read Real Food by Nina Planck and the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

I haunt farmer’s markets. I love getting up very early on Saturday mornings, finding coveted parking close to the trucks carrying farmers' wares. One of my most favorite finds is the heirloom tomato. These come in all sizes, colors and varieties, but have one thing in common; they are grown on vines in rich soil (instead of hydroponically). These are the sweetest tasting tomatoes in the world. I gather so many of them that I eat tomatoes day and night - with my scrambled eggs, on my bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, for an afternoon snack and an in my nightly salads. I roast them, braise them, grill them, stack them (with eggplant), stew them – everything but drown them. Masking that delicious flavor with even a tablespoon of store-bought salad dressing is a crime. Just a drizzle of best quality olive oil and a mere grind of pepper is enough seasoning for me. If you haven’t found a local farm stand or farmer’s market, try to find an “Ugly” (it’s a brand, not a description) tomato in the grocery store and let it ripen on your kitchen counter.

To motivate you to start strolling, let me then offer you a recipe for a Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Breakfast Sandwich , which will travel along with you in route to the farmer’s market. You will like it even better the second time you prepare the sandwich, using market finds like organic eggs, Artisan baked bread, organically grown lettuce, heirloom tomatoes and freshly smoked, nitrate–free bacon.

Let me know if you like it. I welcome your ingredient additions or subtractions to my recipes. I look forward to your feedback – oh, and remember to tell you friends about this blog – I need blog hits!!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Clams Casino

These little bites will be a real hit at your next appy party! Experiment with different styles of bacon, as this is the main flavor. The bacon suggested here gives the dish a spicy, smoky twist that is guaranteed to raise eyebrows!

36 littleneck clams, scrubbed
½ pound Hickory-smoked pepper bacon (about 8 to 10 slices)
4 to 5 green onions, thinly sliced, about ½ cup
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
½ cup Panko breadcrumbs (also known as Japanese breadcrumbs)
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated, about ½ cup, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the scrubbed clams onto a baking sheet with a lip. Roast the clams until they begin to open, but are still raw, about 2 to 5 minutes.

Layer another baking sheet with rock salt (also called ice cream salt - the course texture of this salt will help to hold the clams in place). Use a butter knife to pry open the clam shell. Snap off the top shell and loosen the clam from the bottom shell. Place the clams onto the baking sheet with the rock salt. Continue with all of the clams. (You may want to use a towel to hold the clams while you open them – those shells are SHARP!!)

Cook the bacon in a skillet. Drain on paper towels. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool down. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the drippings. Place the bacon into the bowl of a food processor and pulse into crumbs.

Heat the skillet with the reserved bacon drippings over medium heat. Add the onions and fresh herbs. Cook for 1 minutes to just blend the flavors. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the breadcrumbs and half of the Parmesan cheese.

Heat the oven on the broil setting. Mound a spoonful of filling on top of each clam. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese over each one. Broil the clams for 2 to 3 minutes, or until just golden. Serve the clams on the baking sheet.

Servings: 12 (3 per person)
Preparation Time: 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how good you get with the clam shells
Cook Time: 10 minutes for the bacon, 1 minute for the filling and a few minutes to broil the clams

Sources and Substitutions
If you are game, you might want to try out some of the specialty bacon that you can find on-line. For this recipe I purchased Bourbon Street- Cajun Hickory Smoked Bacon from the Bacon Freak Store. It was delicious.

N’Orleans Style Red Beans

Monday was traditionally laundry day in New Orleans, so, because it does not require a watchful eye, red beans simmered on stoves in households throughout the city. This of course works perfectly when your Saturday night buffet comes after a long day of antiquing with houseguests. My version is prepared on the stovetop. However, if you have a busy day planned, you can pour everything into your slow cooker in the morning and the dish will be ready when you are!!

2 (12-ounce) packages dried red kidney beans
3 large yellow onions, peeled and diced, about 4 cups
1 ½ cups chopped fresh parsley
2 bunches green onions, thinly sliced, about 2 cups
8 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced, about 3 tablespoons
2 cups marinara sauce (if you don’t have any home made in the fridge, use a good quality sauce in a jar)
4 to 6 drops (or more) hot pepper sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 smoked ham hocks
2 pounds smoked sausage, diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the beans into the bottom of a large sauce pan. Pour 3 quarts of water over the beans. Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer on low for 45 minutes.

Stir in the onions, parsley, green onions, garlic, marinara sauce, hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce, oregano and thyme. Bury the ham hocks into the bottom of the beans. Cover the pot with a lid and bring the beans to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer on low for 1 hour.

Add the sausage and simmer for another 45 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and uncover. Remove the ham hocks and allow the beans and sausage to cool completely. About 1 hour before you are ready to serve, reheat over low heat.

Serve with cooked rice and a garnish of fresh parsley.

Servings: 12
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 3 hours total
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