Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Italian Wedding Soup

When I was a kid, I loved Progresso's Chickarina© Soup which is chicken soup with little chicken meatballs. It's a regional thing; I can't find it in Colorado. But, Italian Wedding Soup, a chicken broth with little chicken meatballs and greens, is pretty close. It's a good dish for sneaking some greens into your diet.

Here's my rendition of that soup.

The broth is stock in a box, the best way to get a decent stock without simmering bones for hours. The meatballs are made from scratch and take a bit of time, but you can cook them, freeze them, and then reheat them in soup when you want a comforting bowl of soup. These meatballs are very tasty and would be delicious in a meatball sub too. For the soup, we make them small.

Italian Wedding Soup
(serves 6, costs $10)

Meatballs (makes enough meatballs for 2 batches of soup)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground chicken
½ pound ground lean beef
1 large egg
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (see Note)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
10 sprigs of parsley, chopped
1 ¾ teaspoons salt
leaves from 1 sprig of basil, minced or 1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper

10 cups low-sodium chicken stock
salt if needed
6 cups (about 6 oz.) fresh greens such as escarole, chard, or spinach, washed and chopped coarsely
¼ cup soup pasta such as stars, alphabets, or use broken pieces of angel hair pasta
2 Tablespoons grated Parmesan for garnish
¼ teaspoon black pepper for garnish

Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for a few minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking until onion is soft and golden. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray a large rimmed baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray or oil lightly with vegetable oil.

Combine the rest of the meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix together thoroughly. Shape into 1 ½" meatballs and place on the greased baking sheet. Bake the meatballs for 20 minutes. You can turn them after 10 minutes if they seem to be browning quickly on the bottom, but this usually isn't necessary. Remove from oven. At this point, you can drop half of them immediately in the soup and serve. Cool the rest in the fridge and freeze for some later batch of soup or refrigerate for use with a few days.

To make the soup, bring the stock up to a simmer. If using frozen meatballs, add the greens and meatballs. You'll need to simmer them for about 15 minutes. Add the pasta after 10 minutes. The meatballs are completely cooked already but you don't want to bite into a semi-frozen meatball.

If using hot meatballs, add the pasta along with the greens and meatballs and cook for 5 minutes until greens are wilted and the pasta is done. Taste for salt. You may need to use more if you use a sodium-free stock.

To serve, ladle in soup, greens, and 4 meatballs into a bowl. Garnish with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and black pepper.

Note: To make fresh breadcrumbs, very lightly toast the bread (or use slightly stale bread which isn't as soft) and use the fine side of a grater to grate it into crumbs. You can also grate them in the food processor. A slice of bread with yield about ½ cup bread crumbs.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Edamame Succotash Salad

Succotash is a combination of corn and beans. It is an original American dish, passed down from the Native Americans who tended fields of corn and beans. It's usually made with lima beans. Here's my twist: edamame. Edamame are young green soybeans. They aren't as mealy as your average lima bean (not a big fan of lima beans) and now you can get shelled edamame in the frozen food section of most supermarkets. Which is wonderful because it takes a while to shell those edamame in the pods!

In the summer, the best corn is fresh corn. It's not hard to cut the kernels off a corn cob (below is a really short video on how it's done) but frozen corn kernels are a decent substitute when corn is out of season or you don't want to deal with corn on the cob.

Edamame Succotash Salad
(serves 6 as a side dish, costs $3.50)

1 ¼ cups shelled edamame (about ½ pound frozen)
corn kernels from 2 medium ears of corn, about 1 ¼ cups or use frozen corn
2 Tablespoons finely minced onion or scallions
1 Tablespoons cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon pickle relish
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Thaw the edamame in the microwave. It's OK if it gets hot; it will soak up the dressing even better. Drain and place in a large bowl. Microwave the corn (either fresh or frozen) like you were thawing it. Again, it's OK if it gets a little hot. Drain the corn and add to the edamame. Add the minced onion. In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, relish, oil, salt, and pepper. Pour over salad and toss well. Can be served warm or refrigerate so it has a chance to absorb the dressing. Season with more salt, if needed, when the salad is cold. Cold dishes need extra seasoning.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sesame Soy Vinaigrette

My salad lunch with tomatoes and lettuce from the garden, grilled corn, and seared tuna
It's salad days, what with the heat of mid-summer bearing down on us. Here's a delicious dressing for just lettuce or a main-dish salad, like my lunch above. It's great on a variety of cooked things that you might add to your salad: seared tuna, chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp. It's a little sweet but not too sweet.

Sesame Soy Vinaigrette
(serves ½ cup, about 6 servings)

½ teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil (see Note)
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil

toasted sesame seeds

Whisk together sugar, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. Whisk in sesame oil and vegetable oil. The dressing will separate as it sits so whisk it again before dressing your salad.

Sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds after dressing salad.

Note: Toasted sesame oil is used extensively in Asian food. You can find it in supermarkets or Asian markets (where it is usually cheaper). It has a unique flavor. It is used as a flavoring after cooking as the oil is delicate and loses flavor when heated too much. It is used in Mu Shu Tofu and Chinese-style Minced Meat in Lettuce Leaves, if you need some ideas on how to use more of it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Risotto for Meatless Monday

Those are really chickpeas, black ones that I found at the Boulder Farmer's Market.
Risotto has a rather intimidating reputation. You must stir it, constantly! for 25 minutes or so. Or else! What, you'll end up with sticky rice? Which is really the point. Risotto is made with a short-grain rice called arborio which has lots of soluble starch. That's what makes it creamy (not cream or butter or cheese, though these things don't hurt). Fact is, you don't need to stir it constantly but you do have to stir it a fair bit to release the starch. It's also important to have enough hot stock to add in increments as the risotto cooks. Making risotto is a process - not a difficult one - but it will take you about 30 minutes. I think it's worth it, especially on Meatless Monday. The creaminess of the rice makes risotto so rich, even when no cream or cheese is added.

Risotto is adaptable to many additions: vegetables (some raw if quick cooking, others cooked), cooked meats, seafood, beans, mushrooms, and the ever popular cheese.

Arborio rice can seem a little pricey, but compared to meat, it's quite economical. You can find it now in many supermarkets, Whole Foods,  and gourmet shops. If you buy it in bulk, you will get the best price. Also check out Cost Plus World Marketplace, if they have stores in your area. They usually carry it and at the best price I've found.

In this recipe, I've used chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, and some greens. No cheese, no cream. Just a little bit of olive oil and butter.

Risotto with Chickpeas, Sun-dried Tomatoes and Greens
(serves 6 as a side dish, 4 as an entree)

3 ½ to 4 cups stock (vegetable or chicken)
2 Tablespoons olive oil (can use the oil from the sun-dried tomato jar)
1 bunch of scallions or 1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 ½ cups arborio rice
2 cups coarsely chopped greens such as spinach, escarole, or chard (about 2 oz.)
1 cup cooked chickpeas (canned are fine; rinse and drain them first)
½ cup coarsely chopped sun-dried tomatoes in oil (about ½ a 8.5 oz. jar)
1 Tablespoon butter
leaves from 1 large sprig basil, chopped
1 large sprig rosemary, chopped
½ teaspoon black pepper
salt to taste, you may not need any if the stock is salty

Heat the stock in a medium saucepan and keep it at a simmer.

Heat the olive oil in a small stockpot or a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the scallions and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the rice and stir in the oil until it is coated in the oil. At this point, you'll need to pay attention for about 20-25 minutes. Add ½ cup of the hot stock to the rice and stir it around. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir it every few minutes. When all the liquid is absorbed, add another ½ cup of stock and do it again. Keep doing this until the rice is just done, not mushy and not hard in the center. Just right!

Add the greens, chickpeas, tomatoes, butter, herbs, and black pepper. Taste it before adding any salt. Many stocks are very salty and you will not need to add any more.

If you must, you can stir in some Parmesan cheese or goat cheese. :-)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Easy Summer Breakfast: Cheese and Peach Toast

This time of year, I'm figuring out all sorts of ways to get ripe peaches or nectarines into my cooking. This is an really simple way: pair them with a soft cheese on toast and eat it for breakfast or as a light snack.

I used goat cheese with herbs, but Neufchatel cheese (aka low-fat cream cheese) is tasty too. Toast a couple of slices of bread, smear on a bit of cheese, and top with slices of ripe, juicy peaches. It's a great combination.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Carrot Salad with Orange-Corinader Dressing

This is a simplified version of this recipe for a beet and carrot salad. It's very, very hot here and I have little desire to cook anything that will heat up my kitchen. I recently returned from the east and it was plenty hot (and humid too!) there so I'm sure there are plenty of people who are feeling the same as me right about now.

I use only carrots because:
  • almost everyone likes carrots,
  • you can find shredded carrots at your local supermarket,
  • carrots are cheap and delicious!
Shredded Carrot Salad with Orange-Coriander Dressing
(serves 6-8, costs $1.90)

¼ teaspoon onion powder
a pinch of garlic powder
½ teaspoon sugar or honey
1 Tablespoon rice, apple cider or white wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons fresh orange juice (about ½ an orange)
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 Tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
1 pound carrots, shredded

Mix together onion powder, garlic powder, sugar, vinegar, orange juice, zest, ginger, coriander, and ½ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Whisk again to make sure salt and sugar are dissolved. Whisk in the oil. Place the carrots in a medium bowl, pour on dressing, and toss to coat the carrots. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and additional salt, if desired.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Making Cooking Easy: Don't think like a Chef

Bananas, December 2006 by photographer Steve Hopson (from WikiCommons).
One of the best bits of advice I can give to people just getting the hang of this cooking thing is "Don't get too ambitious." Chefs create new recipes and wing it a lot. This is skill that most people do not have, certainly not if they are learning to cook. We all need to eat and if cooking stands in the way of eating, you'll get frustrated and seek out that quick, easy, and nutritionally bereft convenience food. That's why I suggest that beginning cooks get a set of basic recipes that they like and make them a lot. Variety may be the spice of life, but trying new recipes all the time is hard work. I have a culinary degree and I try new recipes nearly every day so I have plenty of experience here. You don't know if they will work. You have to constantly check the recipe to see what ingredients you need next, what steps you need to do next. If you have a limited number of go-to recipes that you know like the back of your hand, you can almost execute them in your sleep. This makes getting a meal on the table so much easier.

Don't be seduced by the gazillion recipes out there. Sure, try a new one when you have the leisure to do it. It will take a little while to build a repertoire of recipes (and you'll be building your cooking skills at the same time). But once you have that list of standards, for most of your meals, stick to the tried and true. For lots of folks, the familiar makes them feel good, which means that cooking the same thing a bunch of times is a source of security. Or just plain easy.

I don't happen to be one of those people. And, that's why I keep trying new recipes. New recipes that you know will work for you, the first time and every other time you try them. Keep checking back here. I'll keep giving you new ones, if you need a change in your routine.

Here's a recipe I have made a bunch of times because it is one hearty loaf of banana bread. It's a whole grain version. You'll need to find whole wheat pastry flour, which makes it lighter than all regular whole wheat flour. You can often find it in the bulk aisle of supermarkets (bulk is very economical) and in stores that specialize in natural foods like Whole Foods and Sprouts. Bob's Red Mill produces a huge array of flours including a whole wheat pastry flour and Bob's Red Mill products are available nationally.

Unlike a lot of banana bread recipes, this one uses a lot of bananas. They need to be ripe or even overripe (the skin is all brown). You can buy a bunch especially for making this bread, or you can stash overripe bananas in a bag in your freezer and make it when you collect six of them. Thaw frozen bananas before beginning.

Banana Bread
(serves 10)

⅓ cup honey
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 6)
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ cups regular whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder (1 ½ teaspoons if at Boulder altitude)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup chopped dried apricots (see Note)
½ cup toasted chopped nuts (I like pecans but walnuts or almonds are good too)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 8"x4" loaf pan.

Beat together the honey, vegetable oil, and vanilla in a large bowl. Mix in the bananas and lemon juice. Sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Mix the dry ingredients into the bananas, only mixing enough to moisten all the flour. Gently mix in the apricots and nuts. Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Bake for at least an hour, up to an hour and a half, until a toothpick comes out clean. Because this bread bakes so long and the bananas have a lot of sugar, it can over-brown. If the top is getting very dark, reduce the oven to 325°F for the rest of baking.

Allow to cool completely before trying to slice it.

Note: Dried apricots are very sticky when warm which makes them hard to chop. They won't stick to your knife if you put them in the freezer for 30 minutes before trying to chop them.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

What's in season now: Sweet Onions

Sweet onion with baseball for size comparison. And, as sweet onions go, this one is not very big.
Sweet onions are showing up all over the place right now. There are a number of different types (Texas 1015's, Sweet Mexican, Vidalia, Maui) but they can be treated the same, culinarily speaking.
  • They are all sweeter than your average yellow onion, which is not to say they won't make your eyes water when you chop them! But, the additional sweetness makes them milder and a great raw onion slice on a burger.
  • They are big, sometimes very large.
  • They are juicier than yellow storage onions.
  • They don't keep well.
That last point is the most important thing to keep in mind when buying sweet onions. Unlike yellow onions, which are grown to be stored for months through the winter, sweet onions will get moldy and mushy in short order. Don't buy more than you can use in a week or so.

The shrimp and white beans with pasta recipe I posted recently is great with sweet onions. French onion soup is delicious made with sweet onions, though I rarely make it with sweet onions. French onion soup is a winter dish for me and there are no sweet onions around in the winter. But, if there is a little chill in the air (or you just have the A/C cranked way up), here's a magnificent version. It's not hard, but it does take a long, long time to cook. It also makes a lot of soup, but you can freeze it. Or have a French onion soup party, since this is definitely a treat. All you need to make a complete meal is a simple green salad and fresh fruit for dessert. Very French!

This recipe uses a roux, a mixture of a fat (in this case oil) and flour, to thicken the soup. A roux is a common thickener in French cooking and it is used frequently in Cajun and Creole cooking. Very dark roux, used in gumbo or Étouffée, is sometimes referred to as Cajun Napalm because this stuff will hurt if you get it on your skin. You don't need to go that far in this recipe, but I felt you needed to know that there is something edible called Cajun Napalm. :-)

French Onion Soup
(serves 10)

¼ cup flour
¼ cup vegetable oil

1 stick of butter
4-5 large onions, sliced (about 10 cups)
1 ½ teaspoons sweet paprika
¾ teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
10 cups beef stock
1 cup dark beer
½ cup dry red wine

10 1" thick slices French bread
10 oz. Swiss or Gruyère cheese, sliced or coarsely grated

Heat oil in a large heavy dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add flour. Stir constantly to keep it from burning and cook for about 10 minutes. Remove the roux to a small bowl. Return the pot to the stove and medium heat. Add the onions and sauté them, stirring often, until golden yellow. Add paprika, roux, celery salt, salt, pepper, and beef stock. Stir well. Reduce heat to low and cook for 4 to 6 hours (yes, that long!).

Add beer(if using) and wine and simmer while you toast the bread slices. Heat the oven until very hot, 450°F. Toast the bread in the oven until golden brown. To finish soup, ladle into large soup bowls. Add a slice of bread, sprinkle a scant ¼ cup of grated cheese or 1 slice over the bread slice and place the bowls on a baking sheet. They are easier to put in and take out of the oven this way. Place the soup in the hot oven and bake until the  cheese is melted and gooey. Serve immediately but be careful! The soup under the cheese is burn-your-tastebuds-off hot.

To freeze, freeze only the soup. Reheat to a simmer then proceed with heating the oven and toasting the bread.

Note: I have not tried this recipe in a slow cooker, but I bet it would work there too. You still need to make the roux and sauté the onions on the stove, though. If you dump the raw onions and the stock into the slow cooker, the onions never get that wonderful soft texture that comes from sautéing them first.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Corn Chowder: All-American for the 4th of July

Corn is an all-American grain, domesticated by Native Americans (those living in Mexico) and it spread from there into the Southwestern US and beyond. Americans eat a lot of it, much of it indirectly as it is primarily used for animal feed.

Just so happens that the 4th of July coincides with the start of corn season in many places (not Colorado; we need to wait until the end of July). But, there will be plenty of corn on the cob throughout the country for the 4th as it is shipped all over. I prefer the local stuff because nothing beats picked-that-day corn on the cob. For this chowder, it will be better with fresh corn but frozen corn will do just fine too. Here's a short video showing how you cut the kernels off a cob of corn. It's not difficult but you need a sharp knife. Though I don't do this in a bowl, I recommend you do. This will keep the kernels from jumping all over the place. If you do cut it in a bowl, you'll need to use a short knife, like a small chef's knife or a paring knife.

This is a simple chowder that you can make in about 30 minutes. The red bell pepper is a nice splash of color but you can leave it out. I just happened to have ½ a pepper and threw it in.

Corn Chowder
(serves 6 as an appetizer or 4 as a light entree, costs $6.30)

4 Tablespoons butter
1 medium yellow onion or ½ a sweet onion, chopped finely
3 stalks celery, chopped finely
½ a medium red bell pepper, chopped finely (optional)
2 Tablespoons flour
3 cups whole or low-fat milk
kernels from 3 ears of fresh corn or 1 10 oz. package of frozen corn, thawed
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)
freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
about 1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the onion and celery until soft but do not brown. Stir in the flour and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the milk and stir until blended. Add the corn and ½ teaspoon salt and cook for 15 minutes. The corn will still be slightly crunchy. If you like it softer, cook it longer until it gets to the texture you like. Reduce the heat to low and add the cheese. Stir until until the cheese is melted. Don't boil or the cheese will get grainy. Taste and season with a pinch of grated nutmeg, the rest of the salt, and black pepper.

From America's Best, a National Community Cookbook to Benefit the US Ski Team, 1983. It's out of print now but it's still one of my favorites.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Meatless Monday: Apricot Baked Tofu

This one is really easy. It's better if you plan ahead and freeze the tofu. That improves the texture of the tofu a lot by getting rid of more water. You can skip the freezing and just press slices of tofu between layers of toweling to remove some of the water, but it's worth it to think ahead a little and freeze it.

The flavor is a little tart, and a little sweet. The fruit is delicious with the tofu, and the mayo adds richness.

Apricot Baked Tofu
(serves 4, costs $3.60)

14-16 oz. firm tofu
4 Tablespoon mayonnaise (regular or low-fat)
2 Tablespoon ketchup
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon vinegar (white, cider vinegar, or rice)
½ teaspoon salt or seasoned salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 Tablespoon apricot or peach jam or preserves
non-stick cooking spray
1 peach or nectarine, sliced into 12 slices or ½ mango, sliced

Slice the tofu into 6 slices, each about ¾" thick. Place on a small cookie sheet and freeze. It takes about 2 hours to freeze, but you can freeze it overnight if that is more convenient. Remove from the freezer and allow to thaw about 30 minutes. Lay 3 layers of paper towels on a rack, place the tofu on top, and cover with another 3 layers of paper towels. Cover with a plate and put something heavy like a bag of flour or a big can of tomatoes on the plate. Place the whole thing in the sink or on a plate to let the water drip off. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, ketchup, garlic powder, vinegar, salt, pepper, and apricot preserves.

Spray a small cookie sheet (you can use the one you froze the tofu on; just wipe it dry) with non-stick cooking spray. Place the tofu slices in one layer and very close together on the cookie sheet. Spread ¾ of the mayo mixture on top. Spread the fruit slices on top in one layer. Spread on the rest of the mayo mixture. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve over rice.