Monday, August 24, 2009

Mini-Break

I was gone most of last week at a work conference, and looking forward to the next couple weeks, I realize I have little time for cooking or blogging. My kids are coming home from being away for the summer and need to get ready for school. A loved one is having a big surgery. I am also about to enter the most frenzied time of year in my work life.

Once I am resettled into the routine of the school year and I know my relative is on her way to recovery, I'll be blogging again and reading my favorite blogs.

Happy cooking, and I'll see you soon!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Easy Peasy Peach Tart



There's a rest area on the turnpike that is a standard stop for us on our way up to visit Mark's parents. During the summer, they have a small farmer's market with vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and bread.

I love the fact that I can take a quick driving break and pick up some healthy food at the same time. Take that, McDonalds!

During our most recent stop, I bought a basket of fresh peaches. They weren't giant peaches but petite yet shapely things. So pretty. So juicy.

For dinner, I decided to make a quick fruit tart using puff pastry. There are hardly any ingredients in this tart: peaches, sugar, apple pie spice, and puff pastry.

All I did was peel and cut the peaches and put them in a bowl, sprinkle them heavily with sugar and a little apple pie spice. While the peaches macerated in the bowl, I took out the puff pastry to defrost for 30 minutes.

When the pastry was defrosted, I cut the pastry in thirds, each third into four pieces, and then lined up the peaches on each one for 12 individual tarts. Alternately, you can make three long tarts out of each third. I threw the tarts in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes and we had one of the most lovely summer desserts we could wish for.

Check out Veggiebelly for a recipe and a wonderful pictorial.


Curried Chickpeas, Spinach and Tomato in Roasted Eggplant Sauce


I'm ugly, but you will still love me.

This is what my new eggplant dish would say if it could talk.

I don't have much experience with eggplants, except to turn up my nose at them. The only reason I cooked something with eggplant is because of my dad.

This year my dad is growing eggplants in his garden in Cleveland. They're so pretty, their shiny, aubergine flesh peeking out between the full leaves. A world in a microcosm, the plants reveal all stages of life, from incipient flower buds, to blooms stretching their delicate petals to the sun, to voluptuous, full-bodied beauties bowing down to the earth.



From the moment I saw them in their natural state, I fell in love.

With one of my dad's gorgeous eggplants, I sliced it in thin rounds and pan roasted them in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Such a simple preparation but everyone loved them.

When I got back to my home after visiting Cleveland, I was still thinking about eggplant.

This time I decided to throw a whole eggplant in the oven to roast for about one hour, along with a head of garlic and 1/2 a red onion.

When they were soft and their flavors concentrated, I pureed the eggplant with the onion and three of the roasted garlic cloves with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

I then put it on the stove to simmer and added a can of Trader Joe's curried chickpeas, diced tomatoes, and spinach. A little bit of half and half to smooth out the sauce and my dish was done.

I ate the dish on its own for lunch the next day with some grilled chicken breast, and it was delicious as well as gluten-free. I gave some to my friend, Kate, and she served it as an appetizer with pita bread.

Give this dish a whirl and let me know what you think!



Friday, August 14, 2009

Daring Cooks August 2009 Challenge: Spanish Rice Dish (Chicken and Chorizo Variation)


The August 2009 Daring Cooks challenge is hosted by Olga of from Las Cosas de Olga and Olga’s Recipes. She chose "a delicious Spanish recipe, Rice with Mushrooms, Cuttlefish and Artichokes by José Andrés, one of the most important Spanish Chefs at the moment."

For the recipe on the Daring Kitchen site, click here.

Making the Spanish rice dish was a lot of fun, and my family thoroughly enjoyed it.

This dish had four different steps if you wanted to take the challenge all the way: 1) making a sofregit (sofrito) of tomatoes, onions, and peppers; 2) making a garlic allioli, either the traditional way with just garlic, oil, salt, and a mortar and pestle or the modern way with a food processor and the addition of an egg; 3) preparing artichoke hearts from fresh artichokes; and 4) the actual making of the dish.

If you're in a time crunch, I would recommend making the sofregit and allioli one day and the paella the next. To make it the same day, you'll want to give yourself 3-4 hours.

Making the Sofregit

The sofregit is fabulous! My recommendation is to cook it until the liquid from the tomatoes and vegetables is mostly evaporated, in order to concentrate the flavor. I think this took between 30 and 40 minutes. I considered the sofregit done when I could run a spoon against the bottom of the skillet and I could see the bottom, as you can see in the picture below.


Following is a picture of the completed sofregit:




Making the Garlic Allioli

Second was the allioli. I did try the traditional way, mashing the garlic to a paste with a little salt and adding olive oil drip by drip until it started forming an emulsion. I was going gangbusters until the cat jumped on my leg, claws extended to climb up to my lap. OUCH! I dropped a huge glug of oil into the mortar and pestle on top of what was turning out to be a great thing. Bummer. I couldn't get the allioli to go back together again, so I took the mixture, transferred it to a food processor, added an egg, and whirred away.


The texture was not as thick as the traditional allioli, but it was intensely flavorful. Like the sofregit, this allioli can be used for any number of dishes. After I made the paella, I used some of the remaining allioli in a tzatziki sauce that I served with grilled vegetables.


Preparing the Artichoke Hearts

Since I had never prepared fresh artichokes, I went ahead and did that for the paella. I watched this helpful video and went on my merry way. To my surprise, preparing artichokes is not hard at all. That said, I think I would definitely use jarred artichokes the next time around.


Making the Rice Dish

Since one of my kids doesn't like seafood, I didn't make the cuttlefish version but opted to use chicken thighs and chorizo sausage instead. I browned both the chicken thighs and the chorizo in the same pan that I cooked the paella in.

I think the trickiest thing about this dish is the rice. The last time I had made paella, my rice was mushy, so I definitely wanted to avoid that.

I used Goya medium-grain rice, but apparently the Spanish bomba rice, if you can find it, is more forgiving (click here for a great description). Click here for another link, which describes the process for an authentic paella.

Instead of following the recipe instructions, I cooked the dish, uncovered, on the stove for 15 minutes and then stuck it, covered, in a 425 degree oven for 10 minutes. Then I let the rice rest for 10 minutes off the heat, still covered. My rice was perfectly cooked.

I served the finished dish with the remaining sofregit and allioli, so people could customize the paella to their taste. It was a real crowd pleaser!

Do you want to join this daring and fun group of people who love to cook and try new things? Go to Daring Cooks for more info.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bacon-Wrapped Scallops and the Oddity of Blogtography Outside the Home



Between the summer trips, weekend jaunts to the lakehouse, and all the other tomfoolery the warm weather brings, it's hard to blog during the summer.

It's not that I don't cook. Every weekend, up at my parents-in-law's lakehouse, we cook up a storm.

But it's a little embarrassing to do my blogtography out of the comfort of my own home. The careful plating, the click click of the camera, the positioning of the lighting ... it all seems kind of, well, weird.

It's the equivalent of rolling out of bed at someone else's house and lollygagging in the family room in your holey pajamas, hair sticking up all over the place and with coffee acting as the first mouthwash of the day.

You just don't do that outside the home.

A good-mannered blogger would just let people see the finished product on the blog, right?

But then again, when you don't feed your blog, it gets grumpy.

I could hear it growling at me out on the deck where I was drinking G&Ts and eating crudite. I could hear it whining when a plate of hot, delicious mussels fra diavolo or a warm blueberry and raspberry galette hit the table, in all its un-photographed glory.

FEED ME.

Okay, okay.

Shedding my sense of self-consciousness at letting people see what a food-obsessed blogger does, I said to my mother-in-law, Joyce, and sister-in-law, Rachele, "Okay, Ladies, we must feed the blog," as they were wrapping some bacon around large sea scallops.

Smiling, Joyce said to Rachele, "I don't worry about how the food looks, as long as it tastes good. But Ninette wants her food to taste and look good."

To which I replied, "Are you all doing a good job and making some blog-worthy scallops?"

They rightfully ignored me, but of course, made some beautiful scallops all the same.

While the rest of the scallops merrily rolled themselves onto a plate after their tanning experience under the broiler, I rescued one, found a sprig of parsley to be its friend, and placed them carefully on a pristine, white plate. Click click under the blue-white lights (on the floor of course, since I didn't have my blogtography table with me), and this model scallop had its day in the sun, or rather, the Lowel photo light.

And of course, all of this happened in front of an amused audience of parents-in-law, brother- and sister-in-law, friends of brother- and sister-in-law, and my family. They enjoyed the juxtaposition of salty, crispy bacon against the firm, smooth texture of the scallops while observing the rather bizarre machinations of a middle-aged Asian woman with a six-year old Canon Rebel, half bent over a solitary scallop wedged between a photo light and a light bouncer on the kitchen floor.

At least the blog is not hungry anymore.


Bacon-Wrapped Scallops

12 large fresh sea scallops (about 1 lb.) or as many as you want
6-8 slices bacon (about 1/2 a slice of bacon per scallop)
Fresh ground pepper
Toothpicks
Lemon wedges for garnish

Cook bacon gently over medium heat until partially cooked but not crisp. Let cool.

Pat each scallop dry on each side and sprinkle with some fresh ground pepper.

Cut each bacon slice in half and wrap one half around a scallop, securing with a toothpick. Place on cookie sheet or broiling pan.

Preheat broiler. Place scallops on top rack. Broil 4 to 5 inches from heat for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until scallops turn opaque throughout. Turn a few times so bacon gets crisp.

Serve with lemon wedges.

Ninette's Notes:

-You can also brush scallops with BBQ sauce or teriyaki sauce if you want a little flavor.

-When purchasing scallops, always go to a reputable fishmonger. Buy sea scallops that are ivory or off-white in color. If you see white-white scallops and they are sitting in a milky looking liquid, they have been treated with a preservative, whose side effects are for the scallops to soak up extra water (bad for searing and you're paying for extra water) and to affect the subtle sweet taste of the scallop.

-I've never tried frozen scallops, but if you have, write a comment below and let us know how frozen scallops work in this recipe.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pan-Seared Salmon with Ponzu Spinach



I have several friends who don't cook. I don't blame them. Why cook when you can use that time to work out and when there's so much good takeout?

But sometimes my friends want to whip up something in the kitchen. And that's when they ask me what would be good to make that's simple and not too time-consuming.

I put together this salmon and spinach dish for them, because it uses few ingredients (salmon, spinach, ponzu sauce, and garlic), involves one non-stick saute pan, and cooks under 10 minutes. And it's healthy. I include some tips below on where to get fish and how to know when it's cooked.

I think this dish would pass muster with my friends.

Pan-Seared Salmon with Ponzu Spinach

4 Salmon fillets (1 per person, so you can cook less fillets if you want)
1 bag of spinach
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Ponzu sauce (if you can't find ponzu sauce, click here to find out how to make your own)

Do all the prep before you start cooking:

- If the fillets are frozen, defrost them by putting them in the fridge the night before or the morning of when you're going to cook them for dinner (also see note below). Pat the fillets dry on both sides. Brush the top with oil and season with salt and pepper (don't put away the brush/spoon and oil as you'll brush the other side when you're cooking).

- Take the spinach out the bag. Go through the spinach and remove any big stems and any pieces that are not fresh. Rinse in a colander or salad spinner.

- Mince the garlic. You can also just take the cloves and push down on them with the side of the knife to smush them and release their flavor if you don't want to mince anything. You can also skip this step if you don't want to deal with the garlic.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until it's hot. You know it's hot if you hold your hand over the skillet and you can only hold it there for 2-3 seconds, or you can wet your hand and flick water into the pan. If water sizzles and evaporates when it hits the pan, it's hot.

When the skillet is hot, add the salmon fillets, oiled side down, making sure the fillets are not touching each other and there is some air circulation in between them. Depending on how thick they are, you'll cook them a few minutes on one side (see note below), until the bottom edges get opaque. While the bottom side is cooking, brush the top side with oil and season with salt and pepper.

Flip over and let that side cook for a few minutes until center of fish is just opaque (see note below). Put on a plate.

Add 1 tbs. of oil into the skillet and swirl around. Add garlic, stir around once, and add spinach right away. If you can't fit all the spinach at once, add as much as you can, stir around until it wilts and then add the rest. Add a few glugs(about 1/4 cup) of ponzu sauce and it will help the spinach wilt and cook. When all the spinach is wilted, turn off the heat.

Put some of the spinach on a plate and place the salmon on top of it. Serve as is or with rice and with more ponzu sauce.

Ninette's Notes:

A note on frozen salmon. Fresh salmon is fabulous from the fishmonger, but if you're looking for convenience, you can buy frozen salmon fillets to have them in the house. If you're a Costco or Sam's Club shopper, they have frozen, skinless salmon fillets in the frozen section, and that's where I bought the salmon pictured here. They're individually wrapped, so you can take as many as you need out of the bag and pop them in your fridge the night before or the morning of the day you plan to cook them. Or you can defrost them before dinner in a bowl of water.

A note on cooking salmon: Cooking fish can be a little scary, because you might worry about overcooking. No worries. The only way to learn how to cook fish is to do it.

If you have a fillet that's about 1 1/2 inch thick, you'd cook it about 6 minutes on one side, flip it and cook for 4 minutes on the other side. If you have a fillet that's thinner, cook it less. For the one in the picture, which was quite thin, I cooked it on 3 minutes one side and 2 minutes on the other. You should take the fish off the heat when it's almost opaque but still a little translucent in the center. To check the color inside, stick a knife in the center and gently pull apart the flesh. The fish will continue cooking in its own heat when you take it off the stove and become fully opaque.

If you overcook the fish and it becomes flaky and a little dry, no big deal. You can still eat it and then next time around, you'll know how to adjust the cooking time.

If you want to see a good video that shows what fish looks like when it's cooked, click here.

Old Bay Steamed Shrimp


Old Bay Seasoning is my best friend when it comes to getting one of the simplest and fastest, but most flavorful and enjoyable dishes on the table, Old Bay Shrimp.

And you'll always know where the recipe is: on the back of the Old Bay Seasoning container.



A little vinegar, a little water, a little Old Bay Seasoning, and shrimp. Steam a few minutes until done.

Ta dah! Your family will love you forever.

Note: If you can't get Old Bay where you are, click here for a copycat recipe.

Old Bay Steamed Shrimp

1/2 cup cider vinegar or beer
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons OLD BAY® Seasoning (or to taste - I like more!)
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined, leaving tails on

In a medium saucepan, mix vinegar, water and OLD BAY. Bring to boil on medium heat. Gently stir in shrimp, then cover.Steam 2 to 3 minutes or just until shrimp turn pink. Drain well.

Serve with rice and veggies for a meal, serve with cocktail sauce for an appetizer, or just eat them solo.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chowing Down in Cleveland

Before I tell you about my little jaunt to Cleveland, sauerkraut balls, anyone?




Whenever I go back to my hometown in the burbs of Cleveland, Ohio, I have to go straight from the airport to Simon's Restaurant & Deli in Brecksville and order a pound of sauerkraut balls. Bursting with sauerkraut and corned beef, these hot, crunchy, tender, delectable bites are utterly addictive. Sometimes they work their way into my dreams, taunting me.

Yes, they're that good.

I came to Cleveland in the middle of my annual summer vacation to help my very fit, very not food-obsessed friend Venetia restock and reload on kitchenware.


Cleveland skyline at night (click on photo for photo source at tek1systems.com/bbs/cleveland-skyline.jpg)

I know. You're thinking, boy, shopping for new, shiny kitchenware ... what a sacrifice for a food blogger. I know, I agree I should go straight to the pearly gates for being a selfless friend.

NOT.

I was like a pig in mud. Kid in a candy store. Ant at a picnic. I don't know who the shopping was for, me living vicariously, or for Venetia who was in dire need of a non-stick skillet. More on our kitchen expedition later as it deserves a whole other entry.


I also came to Cleveland to see my parents and play the undesirable role of bureaucratic assistant to the Grim Reaper. My mom recently had a medical emergency, and we siblings got scared straight enough to get our act together so we could help our parents when the time came.


If this were a movie, I would show up in a black suit, black shirt, and black tie, in direct contrast to the colorful riot of flowers in my father's overflowing garden beds. My pallid, sallow hands would be holding a clipboard, and my monotonous voice would drone, "Now, where are the vital family records located? May I have a copy of the will? Do you have a living will? What is the contact information for your lawyer, accountant, doctors, and insurance agent?"


But this is not a movie, so my round and tan self showed up in my leopard print, kitten heel sandals, and my childlishly high voice droned, "Now, where are the vital family records located? May I have a copy of the will? Do you have a living will? What is the contact information for your lawyer, accountant, doctors, and insurance agent?"

Luckily, my parents didn't kick me out of the house. My dad offered me a Dos Equis (my favorite), and my mom helped fill out the form.

Facing the inevitability of death always requires a beer (click on photo for photo source).

For an emergency list -- believe me, you should not leave Earth without completing one -- click here, and you'll be on your way to giving yourself and your family the gift of peace of mind.

I also came here to visit my friend Gary who recently moved into new digs. Trust me, you guys wish Gary were your friend. He is hands down one of the best cooks I know. We can go on and on about food. We easily could have also gone on a shopping expedition to outfit his new kitchen, but we had more important things to do: Get Sausage.

If you are from the Midwest or you watch Anthony Bourdain on a regular basis, you know that the Midwest is sausage country, a proud culinary distinction inherited from the legions of German and Polish immigrants who settled here. If you're on the lookout for good sausage, come to the heartland.

Gary found out about this place, Gibbs Butcher Block, in Columbia Station, and we boarded our SUV wagon and headed for the gently rolling and rural hills on the western edges of Cleveland. Make that barely gently rolling as Ohio is pretty flat, but you get the idea.




Once we entered the rustic butchery and small market, the aromas of garlic, pork, and other sausagey smells hit our noses. Was this heaven? We floated on the aroma waves straight to the butcher counter.


After joking around with the sausage queen behind the counter, we chose five sausages to sample for dinner: spinach, feta, and chicken sausage, andouille sausage, extra garlic kielbasa, baked potato cheddar cheese, and New Orleans seafood sausages.

With some freshly picked eggplant from my dad's garden, which I pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, famous Ohio yellow corn (can't be beat!) which we parboiled, cut into medallions, and roasted in the oven to concentrate its flavors, an insalata caprese (fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad), and good company, we had a lovely party to christen Gary's new home. The spinach, feta, and chicken sausage took first prize for favorite sausage, although all of them were delicious.


Finally, since I was in town, going to American Iron Chef Michael Symon's restaurant, Lola, was a must. Cleveland has taken its knocks over the years, and it's nice to see that Michael Symon, along with Michael Ruhlman, are getting Cleveland some good press.


My dad and BFF Venetia in front of Lola's

Lola's is on E. 4th Street, off Prospect. When we arrived, my dad said "Are we still in Cleveland?" Filled with people and hanging baskets of colorful flowers, the street is dynamic and energetic, and lined with hip restaurants.


I didn't know anything much about Lola's before I got there, but one look at the menu told me that this was ramped up comfort food -- perfect for Cleveland or any city for this matter. I asked the waiter what was popular, and he said that the beef cheek pierogi (appetizer), bologna sandwich (sandwich), duck confit with frisee, goat cheese, and strawberry salad (salad), and mac and cheese (main entree) were the crowd pleasers.


For starters, we ordered the beef cheek pierogi and Berkshire bacon braised in coffee, almond, apricots, and nectarines. My dad ordered a Lola burger, Venetia the fennel-white bean soup and chickpea salad, and I the duck confit salad. The bacon was simply AMAZING. Succulent and flavorful, the bacon played a symphony on the tongue, its notes starting with the coffee and finishing up with citrus. The pierogi dough was as soft as a pillow and encased the beefiest of beef fillings. And the duck confit, which I've never had before, was crisp on the outside and so tender it shredded at the touch of a fork.

To accompany the rich food, I got a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, a local beer. It was light and smooth -- an altogether delightful beer for a bright summer's day.





If you've never been to Lola's and find yourself there one day, definitely get the bacon. The bacon is definitely dream-worthy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oreo Truffle Balls


I was with my friend Gary the other day, and he told me that people inhale these oreo cookie balls he makes. The recipe is so simple that I had to try it.

All it is is one package of oreos, one package of cream cheese, and some melted dipping chocolate. You mix the oreos and cream cheese together, form them into small balls, coat them in chocolate, and voila, you have an easy treat.

I coated the balls in milk chocolate and white chocolate and rolled them in different ground toppings -- banana chips, almonds, oreos, almonds, and Heath Bar Crunch bits.

The cookies were crunchy on the outside from the rolled toppings and as soft as truffles on the inside. We did a taste test and there was no clear winner. I would say try them all. Next time I make these, I will not ground the toppings as finely as I did this first time around, so there will be more crunch.

This is a great recipe to make with the kids, for the holidays, or during hot weather when you don't want to turn on the oven.

To make them extra pretty, you can also just coat them in chocolate and then pipe on a zig zag pattern on the top with a contrasting chocolate.

Oreo Truffle Balls

1 package Oreo cookies
8 ounces cream cheese
1 package Baker's semisweet, milk chocolate, or white chocolate

Ground oreos, almonds, banana chips, or heath bar chips



Place the cookies in a food processor and process until fine or mash them by hand. Add softened cream cheese and process until combined. Roll into small balls the size of walnuts and freeze for 15-20 minutes.

Melt chocolate according to the directions on the package. Or you can put the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 15 seconds at a time, stirring at the end of each cycle, until the chocolate is fully melted.

Using a wooden skewer or toothpick, dip each ball into the chocolate , roll in topping if you like (you also don't have to roll them in anything) and place on a cookie sheet. Put in fridge or leave on the counter until the chocolate hardens.

Enjoy.