Friday, January 22, 2010

Balsamic Glazed Chicken and Vegetables & Herbed Couscous.. The Food So Nice They Named It Twice

On an off night where I was unprepared with a meal plan, I took stock of what I had in the fridge and pantry and whipped this number up. It just happens that I had found fresh basil in Dean & Deluca that day so it was an obvious decision I should do something Italian-ish and with balsamic vinegar.

1# Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast – cubed
1 lg Yellow Onion – diced
1 lg Bell Pepper (pref yellow or orange) – diced
3-4 Portobello caps – diced large
Olive Oil
Salt & White Pepper (TT)
2 T. Balsamic Vinegar Glaze
Small package of Feta Cheese – diced or crumbled
1 ½ c. Quick-cooking Couscous
Small bunch Basil – chiffonade (cut into thin thin ribbons)

In a screaming hot large saute pan, swirl some oil and saute onions & peppers for about 2 minutes until colored some. Then add mushrooms and cook for 5 more minutes. Add 1 T balsamic glaze and toss to coat. Set aside in a non-reactive bowl and return pan to heat.
Season chicken with salt and pepper, add another swirl of oil to the pan and saute the chicken for about 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add 1 T balsamic glaze, toss to coat and add vegetables to pan.

For couscous, bring an equal amount of salted water to a boil, add couscous and cover immediately. After 5 minutes all the liquid will be absorbed. Drizzle with some olive oil, fluff with a fork and toss in basil.

Pile couscous on a large serving plate, make a well in the center and top with glazed chicken and vegetables. Top everything with crumbled feta and serve immediately

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I went a bit overboard with the cheese, so it looks a little busy but my husband just loves the stuff!
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And I believe I already expressed my love for cilantro. I substituted it for basil the next time I made it and tried to make it a little neater but still failed going overboard with the cheese, lol
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About Couscous

Couscous is the very small pellet-like product of mixing together and rolling roughly two parts semolina with one part wheat flour. It's basically a tiny tiny pasta. The name is derived from the Arabic word “kuskus” which means “well rolled/rounded”. Indeed, couscous is consumed in many middle-eastern regions as well as in north Africa, near eastern countries such as Turkey and even in Spain, Italy and France. There is a larger [levantine] version (nearly 3 times larger) that is popular in Israel, but that version is toasted to give a nuttier flavor.

The product that most of us in western countries consume is a quick-cooking variety, in which the preparation is simply reconstitution. Traditionally couscous is cooked by method of steaming, usually over a pot of stew so that it can absorb the flavors of the dish it is to be served alongside.

Israeli Couscous
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It is wonderful with an array of vegetables, cheeses, meats and even fresh or dried fruits. Quick-cooking couscous is an exceptional pantry staple, ready to use on one of those hectic nights where your goal is to get dinner on the table quickly. It can even be eaten cold and/or as a salad. I can't help but love a product that is so versatile.

About Balsamic Vinegar

If you aren't yet acquainted with balsamic vinegar I hate to tell you but, you live under a rock. This delicious Italian condiment is basically the “wine” of vinegars. It has a truly unique process of production that it is kicked off by cooking and reducing white grapes (traditionally the “trebbiano” varietal) and is then left to ferment and age for at least 12 years – being passed through several casks of different size and wood type (ex: chestnut, cherry, oak, ash and even juniper).

The best balsamic vinegars are those aged for at least 25 years, and can go for as much as $400 for a 100ml bottle. However, the older the vinegar the less you need use.

True balsamic vinegar is produced in two regions of Italy – Modena and Reggio Emilia. This is very pertinent information when purchasing your vinegar. There is a product plainly called “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” that mimics traditional balsamic vinegar but is really just standard wine vinegar to which caramel color and thickeners have been added. So read your labels! Good vinegar is worth it!
Especially when you consider both the incomparable flavor AND health benefits. Yes, I said health benefits. Some of which are:
* aiding in digestion (AND nutrient absorption)
* combating diabetes and cancer
* source of antioxidants
* anti-bacterial & anti-viral properties.

You may find balsamic vinegars from Italy for cheaper than how I just described but they are most likely removed from the casks before the 12 year mark. Not to worry, even 8 year vinegars still pack a punch.
You can make your own balsamic glaze at home by simply reducing balsamic vinegar by at least ½ OR you can buy it bottled (which is what I used for this recipe – Casa Rinaldi Crema di Balsamico which is produced in Modena, Italy from what I suspect is vinegar aged less than 12 years considering the very reasonable price of $18 for a 500ml bottle).

Culinary Fundamentals pg 556 – Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts 2003

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Empañadas, Arroz Rojo, Chimichurri & Mexican Salad with Avocado Dressing

Empañadas.. What's not to like, right? A dish believed to be of Spanish origin, the originating word being Empanar = “to coat in bread”. Savory or sweet, these delicioso (a nickname for them btw) little pastries are loved the world around.. In Italy they're “calzones”, in the middle-east they're “sambousek”.

They can be filled with just about anything that won't liquify when exposed to high heat. They can be baked, broiled or fried. They can be made triangular, half-mooned, circular or pinched into little purses.

The way I do mine is usually half-mooned, fried and filled with shredded meat. Potatoes and chorizo are another favorite under my roof.

I'm on the lookout for different dough recipes, but not because the one I use is not good – it's just a little thick and robust. I have modified fellow alumni Tyler Florence's recipe for empanada dough by adding an egg and some spices to the dough, and frying the pastry as opposed to baking it as Tyler suggests. I find baking them leaves the dough looking still white and I like a uniformly browned pastry so I flash fry them and finish them off in the oven.

So my process is to take a hunk of pork shoulder, sear it on all sides, and let it to slow cook in the crock with some beer, onions & garlic

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Mmm.. Delicious arabic non-alcoholic Budweiser! (Nahhhht! - Gotta make due with what I got though)
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Goodnight sweet carne. See you in the am!
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Afterward, I shred the meat, add in some sauteed minced onions & bellpepper and preferrably coat the mixture in a chimichurri sauce or something similar (recipe will follow).

Empanada Dough

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup masa harina
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg beaten
Oil, for frying

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the melted butter. Gradually add 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of water, working it in with your hands to incorporate; the dough should be easy to handle and not sticky. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic, and chill for 30 minutes.
Lightly flour your rolling pin and counter. Divide the dough in 1/2 so it will be easier to work with and roll it out to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 4-inch cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out 10 circles of dough; repeat with the other 1/2.
Spoon 2 generous tablespoons of filling into the center of each pastry circle, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Brush the edges with the egg wash and then fold the dough over in 1/2 to enclose the filling and form a semi-circle. Tightly seal the edges by crimping with the tines of a fork. Chill at least 30 minutes before baking.
Flash fry empanadas in hot oil (heated to 375F) for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 20 minutes.

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Empanadas are wonderful to make for get-togethers because you can make them ahead of time in their raw state, and the dough is so resilient you can keep it in a warm oven without ruining any of it's integrity.

Serve with a side of salsa or chimichurri and you're in business.

Chimichurri is a classic Argentinian sauce prepared from parsley, garlic, oil, vinegar and red pepper flakes and other herbs/spices. It is used in many South American countries and it makes for a stellar marinade, let me tell you..

I make mine with cilantro vs. parsley because I can't ever seem to get enough of the stuff. A bunch of cilantro, few cloves of garlic, favorite vinegar (or lime juice), olive oil, salt, red pepper flakes and I add oregano and paprika for more red contrast to the green of the cilantro. All done in a food processor which emulsifies everything rather nicely.

For this meal, I also prepared mexican rice (aka Arroz Rojo) and “mexican-esque” salad of bibb lettuce, sliced red onion, red and yellow cherry tomatoes (sliced vine are fine too) and sliced chayote (rather bland squash but adds a nice crunch. Conversely, radishes can be used). For this salad I made a rift on Rachel Ray's avocado dressing, using limes instead of lemon.

(tip: everytime lemon or lime juice is called for (or any citrus for that matter) I zest the fruit as well. I believe in capitalizing on as much flavor as you can get out of a product as is possible.)

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Mexican Rice (“Arroz Rojo”)
1 ½ c. Long Grain Rice
1 can Chopped Tomato
2 Garlic Cloves
1/2 Yellow Onion
Southwestern seasoning or paprika with mexican oregano and ground cumin (TT)

Wash and drain rice.
In blender or a medium bowl with immersion blender combine tomatoes, onion and garlic & puree. Add enough water to mixture to make 3 cups of liquid. Cook in a rice cooker or bring to simmer on stovetop & cook for 20 minutes.

Avocado Dressing

1 ripe avocado
1 lime, juiced
Handful fresh cilantro leaves, 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons water, a couple of splashes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Cut the avocado in half lengthwise cutting around the pit. Separate the halves and scoop out the pit with a spoon, then use the spoon to scoop the avocado from its skin. Place the avocado in a food processor bowl and combine with lemon juice, chopped red onion, cilantro, coarse salt and water. Grind until the avocado mixture is smooth, then stream oil into dressing. Adjust seasonings and pour over salad, then serve. Dressing may be stored 3 or 4 days in airtight container.


Hoppin' John Yall!

Since this blog is a resolution of sorts for me, I figure what better way to kick it off than with a helping of Hoppin’ John?

“Eat poor that day, eat rich the rest of the year.
Rice for riches and peas for peace.”
- Southern saying on eating a dish of Hoppin' John on New Year's Day.

I’ve spent several years of my life in the south, but was introduced to this dish by my ex-stepmother in one of my last years there. Granted, her blasphemous version was served straight out of a can, but perhaps it’s better that way considering her skills around the kitchen.

Since then, I’d always had the idea of this dish stored away in my memory banks but had never set out to prepare it before. It just so happened that this year, my husband managed to find and bring home a couple of awesome smoked hocks and I knew immediately what I had to do with them..

Hoppin’ John is a dish of African/Caribbean origin and has been eaten throughout the south as the traditional New Year’s meal since as far back as the mid 1800’s. It is thought that the black-eyed peas used in the dish resemble coins, and therefore has a connotation of prosperity.

Other traditions involved with serving Hoppin’ John is to place a coin in the pot, and whomever finds the coin in their serving is thought to be the beneficiary of extra good luck that year. Also, it is a common practice to leave behind three peas on your plate to assure your New Year will be full of Luck, Fortune and Romance.

There are a few different theories as to how the dish earned its moniker. Some are…

…It was the custom for children to gather in the dining room as the dish was brought forth and hop around the table before sitting down to eat.

… A man named John came "a-hoppin" when his wife took the dish from the stove.

…An obscure southern custom was inviting a guest to eat by saying, "Hop in, John".

…The dish was originally hawked in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina by a crippled black man who was know as “Hoppin' John”.

The dish is very commonly served with a side of wilted greens (to symbolize money/wealth) and cornbread (to symbolize gold – again with the prosperity theme). And depending on the cook, rice is generally served as well either on the side or cooked right in with the beans.

This cook however, decided to leave the rice out all together. This was my first attempt at making this dish and I daresay it turned out rather well. I kept it simple as possible. I cooked the beans and hock in my slowcooker to save gas for my stove, which is notorious for running out in the middle of preparing a meal (and I am no good at replacing the canister). I did the finishing simmer on the stovetop, after sautéing onions, shallots and garlic (and adding in more ham – I only used one hock because I didn’t want the smokiness to take over the dish by using two like some recipes call for).

I was on the look for collards in the grocery store but the best I found was spinach (which I rather prefer anyhow). I also looked for cornmeal but alas; all I could find was a packaged mix. I did a scampi-style prep for the greens and baked the cornbread in my trusty cast iron skillet. The cornbread was woeful but I plan on ordering some real cornmeal very soon.

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And this is basically the same recipe I used except I let them sit in the crock all day, as I said before. Beans are best soaked overnight in the refrigerator. Or if you didn’t plan that far ahead, you can do the quick soak method described below

2 cups dried black-eyed peas
Cold water
1 pound lean slab bacon or 1 pound meaty ham hocks
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 cups water or chicken broth
2 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
Salt and black pepper to taste

Before preparing dried beans, sort through them thoroughly for tiny pebbles or other debris. Soak, rinse, and drain dried black-eyed peas. Place black-eyed peas in a large soup pot over medium-high heat and cover with cold water; bring to a boil. Remove from heat; cover and let stand 1 to 2 hours. Drain and rinse beans.

Using the same large soup pot, over medium-high heat, add soaked black-eyed peas, bacon or ham hock, onion, and red pepper. Add water or chicken broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the peas are tender (do not boil as the beans will burst).

Remove bacon or ham hock and cut into bite-size pieces. Return meat to pot. Stir in rice, cover, and cook 20 to 25 minutes or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 8 servings.

ETA: Something I also found that was amusing about the dish is if you eat it for leftovers the next day it's called "Skippin' Jenny" and if you replace the black-eyed peas for blackbeans it's called "Hoppin' Juan". :D


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What this blog is about..

Starting a foodcentric blog has been a long thought-about notion for me, but for whatever reasons I've never really felt compelled to create or keep up with one. However, inspiration has hit and the time has come - the catalyst being a cursory look-over I was taking of the new changes to my alma mater's website. They are now offering a Bachelor's of Science in Culinary Arts completely online and being that I am currently a housewife (with no immediate plans to change that status) who would like to start the next step in my higher education, this news has been of particular interest to me.

I was browsing their admissions requirements when I noticed that for returning students wishing to apply, if more than 10 years have passed between the time of graduation and application, they must include a cover letter and resume demonstrating how they have kept their culinary skills current.
Now, I've only graduated 5 years ago but it got me thinking about what I'VE done in the meantime to stay relevant.

I've come up blank...

In my last place of employment, I was sous chef of a wonderful little (but successful) catering establishment in central Virginia. Absolutely loved it. But a great financial and professional opportunity came along for my husband, so we capitalized on it and moved our family to Kuwait (where we still reside). So for the past 3 years I have been a full-time stay at home mother.

The understanding has always been, I will stay at home with our children until they are all school aged BUT I can always work if I so choose. So while it's been quite sometime since I've been in a kitchen and I miss it immensely, I know that for the time being, my presence and attention is better deserved by my children.
I can't deny that I love being the one to drop them off at school and pick them up in the afternoon. That I enjoy having dinner on the table for my husband when he gets home from work.. So it hasn't been all that bad but, I digress..

I find myself in the unsavory place of being out of touch with the foodie scene and culinary world. I've become stagnant. A creature of routine. A slave to my small children's limited preferences in dinner entrees. I have tried new recipes and have attempted to widen my repertoire, but it's not enough..

As my kids get a little older, I feel they're more and more capable of expanding their palates. Of at least trying to eat more.. mature foods I guess you might say. I think it's time to branch off from old standbys like spaghetti, mac'n'cheese, pizza, breaded chicken tenders.. I'm not talking escargot or beef wellington or anything like that but.. I'm ready to cook meals with more variance rather than base my weekly menu by foods I know the kids will eat w/o putting up a fight. I like to think they'll thank me later for it..

So I'm going to blog about my home-cooking exploits. The experiments, the successes, the failures & the tried and true. My aim is to create a portfolio so that when I'm asked what I've done to stay relevant, I have something to SHOW rather than try to parlay the past several years spent as a housewife into a convincing case for experience.

Also, in the interest of making things as educational as possible, I'm going to research every thing I post about. The history and origins of the ingredients and dish itself. I will include interesting bits of information as I find them, along with recipes and tips.
I'm going to read more blogs of my peers, more food oriented publications, and will rifle back through all my old textbooks. And since I've spent the past few years in the middle-east, barely bothering to experience their food scene, I'm going to make more attempts at acquainting myself with arabic dishes and foodstuffs. I won't be in Kuwait forever so I really need to take full advantage of my unique position as an expat and a foodie.

The time has come to get my mind right.. Who's hungry?