March 30, 2011

Age-ing is Sage-ing

The simplicity and elegance of Japanese food can be deceiving. As any woman worth her salt can attest, putting on make-up that comes across as, "natural," is more difficult than slapping on some blue eye shadow. The same can be said of seemingly simple foods. As I grow as a foodie and cook, I'm pushing myself to prefect "the natural look." It's all well and good to make a divine Coq Au Vin when you have things like bacon and red wine to make it delicious, but what about one, single, lonely shrimp? How do you strip down your foodie instincts to enhance that solitary bit o' protein? Enhance being the critical word here. Because in fact, that's the key to a cuisine like Japan's... enhancing.

It starts with the best, freshest ingredients. That doesn't mean the most expensive, either. The monetary difference between a frozen and fresh chicken breast is most likely pennies, but the difference in texture and sometimes even flavor, can be dramatic.

It's one thing to wax poetic about food philosophies and another thing entirely to cook them, however. So, in my own, informed way, I'm navigating the calm, simple culinary waters. Below is my own take on two very classic Japanese dishes that are beautiful and easy to make at home. I urge you, as always, to make your own additions and versions.

Tofu Agedashi, Duchess-Style
Firm Tofu (not extra firm or regular, but firm)
Diakon Radish
Asian Pear (sometimes Asian Apple)
Enoki Mushroom (optional, for garnish)
Corn starch
Oil, for frying
Lime Zest

-The most important step is to drain and dry the tofu well. Wrap up the tofu block in either paper towel or a dish towel, then weigh it down making sure its not so heavy as to break the tofu block. Repeat this as many times as necessary to wick-away all the moisture.
-While the tofu is being pressed, using a mandolin, slice the Daikon. Core the pear and also using the mandolin, slice it. Mix together, cover with plastic wrap to retain the moisture, and set aside (you can refrigerate if you like, too). Slice scallion in thin strips or coins and set aside.
-Put about two or three inches worth of oil in a pot and heat. Slice the tofu into approximately two inch cubes. Cover in corn starch and shake off excess, then fry. This is a quick fry, no more than three minutes. The point isn't to color the tofu, but to crisp the outside.
-Compile your bowl. Place a nice pile of Daikon and pear on the bottom, then pour a tablespoon or so of Ponzu over it. Place the tofu on top, then garnish with scallion and Enoki. Zest lime directly over the entire dish. Serve.

Soba Noodle Soup, Duchess-Style
Soba noodles
Vegetable or Chicken Broth
Soy Sauce
Miso Paste (red or white. I prefer red - it has a more intense flavor)
Shrimp*, peeled and de-veined
Chicken, sliced in thin strips
Shitake mushrooms, sliced
Scallion, sliced

-Boil Soba noodles according to package. Drain and immediately rinse in cold water. Set aside.
-Dissolve two parts Miso paste to one part water in pan. Sautee the chicken and shrimp in concentrated slurry, then set aside.
-Bring the stock to boil with mushrooms and 3/4 scallions. Add soy to your liking.
-Compose soup in serving bowl with noodles, broth (containing the mushrooms and scallions), chicken, and shrimp. Garnish with a little raw scallion and serve. This can be done with any protein you like.

*Just a quick word about shrimp. Unless you live someplace where shrimp is farmed or fished daily, buy frozen. Most of the shrimp you find in fish stores or grocery stores was frozen anyway. Fresh shrimp is caught and frozen immediately, usually on the actual boats they were fished from. It's as fresh as you'll get away from the shore. 

March 17, 2011

Garlic & Soup-a-Palooza

Over the years, soups are something I've discovered that I love to make, am good at making, and enjoy immensely. That being said, an excellent soup can take time, much more time than I usually have when I get home at night. Sure I could freeze homemade chicken and beef stock to have at all times, but that doesn't happen often. When you don't have the option of homemade, there is no shame in store-bought stocks especially at 7 P.M. on a work / school night. (By the way, for my money, Kitchen Basics is the best brand on the market).

This post isn't just about soup though, it's also about garlic butter... homemade garlic butter to be exact. Having a tub of garlic butter waiting and ready in the fridge, is a blessing. Whereas, you can find decent chicken stock at a store, you can't really find garlic butter at all. What a shame, because it's perfect for bread, a quick saute of any seafood, to let melt over a steak, for basting poultry, and for a million other little tasks. And the key to the quickest, most satisfyingly garlicky butter? Garlic paste. I've touted the joys of garlic paste before and I won't quit. It's a life saver. 

So, below are two nights of incredibly easy, classic soups with a twist, and of course... garlic butter.

Garlic Butter
1 cup unsalted softened butter (or substitute, I use Smart Balance)
3 tbs garlic paste
1 heaping tsp fresh pepper
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

-Combine all ingredients in bowl and mix very well. Taste. Adjust pepper or garlic paste to your liking. You might have to add salt, not all garlic pastes are equally salty.
-Store in air-tight container and put in fridge. Will last as long as any other butter would. 

Garlic bread made with said butter, served alongside soups:

Tortellini and White Bean Soup
Tortellini of your choosing (about 1 cup dry, 2/3 cup fresh)
1 15.5 oz can of Cannellini beans, drained but not washed
1 cup raw greens of your choosing (I used spinach, you can use kale, escarole, etc)
32 oz. Chicken Stock
Grated Parmesan cheese

-Boil stock, add tortellini. 
-When tortellini is a minute from being finished, add greens and beans. Let cook until everything is hot and wilted.
-Serve soup with a heavy sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and garlic bread. 

Mushroom, Barley, and Sausage Soup
3/4 lbs cleaned mushrooms, sliced (I use baby bella because they have more bite, but feel free to use white button mushrooms, too)
1 tbs garlic butter
3/4 cup pearl barley
1/2 - 3/4 lbs sausage of your choosing, cut into 1/2" pieces, (I used lamb sausage from our local butcher, but use what ever you like. I've even used kielbasa in the past.)
1/2 - 3/4 cup chopped fresh dill (about one large bunch)
35 oz beef stock (slightly more than a box or large can. The barley will soak in some broth)
Sour Cream

-Saute the mushrooms in the butter until color changes and slightly softened (about 3 minutes). Add sausage, saute with mushrooms for a minute. Add broth, bring to boil.
-Add pearl barley and let boil until cooked, about 15 minutes. The pearl barley will never be fully soft and instead, will have the texture of al dente pasta.
-Add dill before taking off the heat. Serve with sour cream and garlic bread.

March 9, 2011

Stuffed Peppers

Have you seen these baby bell peppers all over the place recently? I have. Brightly colored, about 3-4 inches long, they're happy, cute, and as I found out, oh so sweet! I'd never cooked with them before and frankly, bell peppers of any size aren't something I cook with at all. But, these little gems were so appealing in their size and color, that I grabbed some on impulse, stuffed them, and threw them in the oven. The results were so good, it's a pity that I hadn't bought more and made twice as many!

This will be perfect come spring and summer, (assuming I can still find the little buggers), as an easy hors de oeuvre or appetizer. Not only are they yummy, but even cooked, they are incredibly tempting to the eye. We eat with our eyes too, remember. As my husband pointed out, this would also be wonderful if you had access to a grill and could char the peppers for a minute before stuffing and baking.

This recipe will make 8-12 peppers depending on their size.

Ricotta-Stuffed Baby Peppers
3/4 cup ricotta (whole or part skim, doesn't matter)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
Zest of one small-medium lemon
1/2 cup fresh, chopped chives
Salt & Pepper to taste
8-12 baby bell peppers
Olive oil or cooking spray

-Preheat oven to 400. Cut the stems off of the peppers and using a small spoon, scrape out all seeds and pith, (the white stuff on the pepper ribs).
-In a bowl, mix Parmesan, ricotta, zest, and chives very well. Taste before seasoning with salt and pepper.
-Spray a baking dish with cooking spray or wipe down with olive oil. Stuff the peppers with the ricotta mixture making sure to really get into every curve and crevice. Using the handle of the spoon will help with this, especially with the smaller peppers.
-Place stuffed peppers onto the baking dish and roll them around to get a thin layer of oil on the surface. The filling will ooze a bit when you bake, so be sure to give them room.
-Bake for approximately 20 minutes until you can smell the peppers and the flesh is tender.

March 2, 2011

Junky but Fabulous, a.k.a.: JBF

Not every dish needs to be sophisticated, interesting, elevated, or unique. Not every dish needs fancy ingredients, (call me guilty, dulce-de-leche frosting). Sometimes you want something junky but fabulous and you know what? Craving JBF is okay. Let's give each other permission, as foodies, to enjoy chocolate covered potato chips and corn dogs without guilt!

Amongst other things, JBF is usually cheap, plentiful, easy to make, and a wild crowd pleaser; I'm talking to you American-style tacos and pigs-in-a-blanket. Here's what I suggest when the JBF craving hits, though... make it yourself. At home, you know exactly what's going into the food, and you know exactly how deep into the calorie hole you're falling. Not entirely comforting I know, but it's better than contemplating the contents of "secret sauce."

So, with that in mind, I give you:

Honey-BBQ Popcorn Chicken
1 lb chicken tenders or any boneless, skinless chicken (cut into popcorn-sized pieces)
3 cups+ white or whole wheat flour
2 cups+ whole wheat bread crumbs (they add a nice flavor, but if you have plain white, no worries)
1/2 cup sesame seeds (optional)
2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
Salt and pepper
2/3 cup BBQ sauce
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup ketchup
2 tbs hot sauce
2 tbs Worcestershire
Vegetable Oil (for frying)
Ranch or Blue Cheese dressing (for dipping)

-Heat oil. Combine 2 cups flour, 2 cups bread crumbs, and sesame seeds, with salt and pepper in one bowl. Whisk together buttermilk and eggs in one bowl. In plastic bag, add 1 cup flour and a generous amount of salt and pepper. 
-Place chicken pieces in plastic bag with flour and coat well. In batches, place chicken in buttermilk, then transfer to crumb mixture and coat well, before frying. You might have to replenish the crumb and flour bowl sometime in the process. Any excess dripping from the buttermilk will make the crumbs and flour too moist to coat properly. 
-The chicken will fry very quickly, no more than 4 minutes until golden and cooked through. Set aside in a paper towel lined bowl, until all the chicken is fried.
-In a small pot, heat BBQ sauce, honey, ketchup, hot sauce, and Worcestershire. Mix well and taste. Adjust to your liking; sweeter, tangier, or spicier. Bring to boil. Immediately, toss the sauce with the chicken and serve with either blue cheese or ranch dressing.