Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cooking in 2015 & Bittman's Mini Minimalist

Happy New Year! I'm not a big one for resolutions, but I've realized that I've been slacking on cooking, and that has to change (for both budget and health considerations). I do love Blue Apron, but while I'm on break from teaching I'm trying to plan meals and cook more often.

Santa was kind enough to bring us Mark Bittman's The Mini Minimalist set, as well as Ottolenghi and Tamimi's Jerusalem cookbook.

Thus far in the new year, I've made Bittman's "Broiled Bluefish or Mackerel with Green Tea Salt" (The Mini Minimalist: Meat, Fish & Poultry, 20-21). We had to substitute sea bass as that was the fish that was available and least likely to compete with the green tea (something told me salmon would be funky).

The neat part of this recipe is the green tea powder with coarse salt. Bittman recommends grinding one's own green tea, but I went for Matcha powder since I had it on hand.

The recipe worked out fairly well, except that I'd cut the salt down to 1/2 tablespoon next time. You will have to adjust how much salt you want according to your taste. I served it with "Stir-Fried Leeks with Ginger" (Bittman, The Mini-Minimalist: Vegetables, 48) and "Rice Salad with Peas and Soy" (Bittman, The Mini-Minimalist: Pizza, Pasta & Grains, 86). The rice salad was really excellent as were the leeks. With the latter, the recipe doesn't make a lot, so I recommend more than two leeks.

Broiled Sea Bass with Green Tea Salt; Rice Salad with Peas and Soy; Stir-Fried Leeks with Ginger

Feeling more adventurous, I tried the "Slow-Cooked Lamb with Fresh Mint Sauce" the next day. I toyed with the idea of doing this in the slow cooker, but I think the cooking time would be much longer as most slow cookers seem to fall under 250 degrees at their highest temps. The recipe is for a six pound leg of lamb, and I should have cut the cooking time--probably in half. Bittman doesn't provide a temperature guide. But aside from being well-done, it was very very good. The secret is poking holes in the lamb and stuffing those holes with a paste of  minced garlic and salt. If you enjoy spackling, you'll enjoy this process:
Not so beautiful at this point, but you get the idea. The good news is, I'm glad I chose to do it in the oven because I don't think it would have looked like this in the slow cooker:
 It was supposed to be accompanied with a green beans and tomato dish, but I forgot to buy the green beans. So, quick n' dirty salad to the rescue. The mint sauce would have been better if I had remembered to make it sooner--I didn't have the patience to let the sherry vinegar and sugar become more viscous, so all the mint floated to the top of the "sauce." That's what you see scooped on the finished product below:

Slow-Cooked Leg of Lamb with green salad
Broiled Mackerel (Sea Bass) with Green Tea Salt (Bittman): 4 stars
Rice Salad with Peas and Soy (Bittman): 4.5 stars
Stir-Fried Leeks with Ginger (Bittman): 4.5 stars
Slow-Cooked Leg of Lamb (Bittman): 4 stars

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Blue Apron: A Review

5-Spice Pork Buns with Red Cabbage, Carrot & Thai Basil Salad (4/4 stars)
A friend was kind enough to send me a free trial of Blue Apron, a subscription cook-it-yourself service. I was skeptical at first, based on some of the  criticisms I have below, but after three weeks,  I'm quite hooked. It has been perfect for this busy end of the semester as it removes the parts I hate most: planning and shopping.  I don't plan on using it much this summer when I have access to farmer's markets, and time to think about something other than my career, but since many have asked, I thought I'd do a little review here.

Orange-glazed Chicken Drumsticks with Mashed Yucca and Arugula Salad (4/4 stars)

  • not having to plan the meals (which I like to do occasionally, but not for the entire week)

  • no food waste, as they send you only the amount that you need for the recipe

  • no food shopping other than to pick up staples (breakfast stuff, etc) for the week

  • geared toward people who don't know how to cook a whole lot, so, for example, a recipe will direct you to "peel a lemon, avoiding the pith, then cut the peel into zest with a sharp knife."  Glory hallelujah was I ever excited to have my Microplane zester. (I have this under "pros" though because they really are serious when they say you just need salt, pepper, and olive oil). 

  • there's no minimum commitment, so with 6 days notice, you can do it, or not do it, for the week. Cancelling the service involves writing an e-mail.

  • The price runs $55-$65 for three meals a week for 2 people. That's very reasonable considering how much money I spend eating out at restaurants and paying for food that is sustainable and organic.

  • packaging.  Supposedly it is all recyclable and/or biodegradable, but there is A LOT of it, as you might imagine. It comes with these huge monstrous ice packs which can be re-used (by you), or defrosted and emptied of their gel. This is a pain. And my freezer can hold maybe one or two of these if I'm getting one every week...

  • not knowing where the food came from.  I will say this---the produce is quite beautiful, actually.  The meat seemed to be high quality, but I have no idea about its sustainability. Their website says "emphasis on sustainable practices" but that doesn't really tell me anything.  I appreciated the organic soba noodles, but my primary concern is not the soba noodles.
Cod over Linguine with Fresh Peas, Meyer Lemon & Spring Herbs (3.5/4 stars)

In a perfect world, this is what I'd love to see:

  • Less packaging: Have key ingredients for the week and the cook has to be responsible for portioning the parsley or scallions,  for example. This is part of learning how to cook!
  • Packaging Pick-Up: If there was some way to pickup the boxes, liners and ice-packs when the food gets dropped off, that would be fantastic. I'd even be willing to pay a bit extra to have some way to plop a return label on the box, seal it, and send it back with those materials that the company can reuse.
Fennel-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Grapefruit, Mustard Greens & Japonica Black Rice (4/4 STARS)
 I think Blue Apron is really a great service and very well-suited toward:

  • People who are very busy but don't want to eat take out or go out every night.
  • People who want to learn how to cook
  • People living on their own (3 meals = 6 meals, as there is a 2 person minimum)
If you wind up using the service, I do recommend buying a Microplane zester as almost every recipe has some sort of zest in it! That zester is my absolute favorite kitchen tool.

More Info:
This article in from Fortune Magazine (online) reports that Blue Apron is doing quite well. It also mentions how it contrasts with Plated, a similar service.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Leftover Peas: A Triple Threat (Couscous, Purée, Risotto)

Ina Garten's Couscous with Peas and Mint: 3.5 stars

Sometimes you make couscous for 15 people (Ina Garten's "Couscous with Peas and Mint" from her Foolpoof: Recipes You Can Trust) and convince yourself that you need to double the recipe. Then you find that it probably wasn't necessary to buy TWO bags of frozen peas. Now you find yourself staring at a whole lot of leftover defrosted peas. What to do?

Here's one idea! How about lamb sausage (more specifically, lamb-apricot sausage from Savenor's) with a mint-pea purée? (It is winter, so I used this recipe for the purée and left off the pea shoots, etc). Do remember that a little bit of fresh mint goes a long way, so you may want to adjust the amounts depending on your preferred pea-taste to mint-taste ratio.

 Serious Eats' "Lamb Sausage with Pea Purée": 4 stars

But one can only make/eat so much mint-pea purée. I was excited to try Food52's Peas Porridge Hot recipe until I discovered I only had "quick-cooking-but-not-instant" steel cut oats. So, I threw together this simple risotto for lunch, and finally used up the rest of the peas!
Peas Risotto Hot

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large chopped shallots (of course)
1 cup arborio rice
3 cups heated chicken stock (you may need more, depending on your preferred consistency)
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
1 to 2 cups frozen peas (defrosted)--yes, fresh are better if they are seasonal
1/8 cup heavy cream
freshly ground pepper
prosciutto (4 slices, shredded)--optional

In a medium saucepan or heavy-bottomed dutch oven, melt the butter and oil over medium heat.
Add the chopped shallots and cook until translucent (3-5 minutes).
Add the arborio rice and coat all the grains with the butter/oil mixture.

Add the heated stock 1/2 cup at a time. Wait for the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup. (You may be able to add more at a time, so watch it carefully to gauge the rate of liquid absorption). Be sure to stir from the bottom (I like using a bamboo spatula) to prevent the rice from sticking. The adding-liquid process will probably take about 20-25 minutes.

When you have used all the stock, the rice should have a bit of a bite, but also a creamy consistency.

Add the peas, and remove from heat. Stir in the cheese and cream, and add pepper to taste.  Add the shredded prosciutto at the very last minute, stir and serve.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cookbook Geekiness and Braised Chicken

A friend of mine posted a link to Eat Your Books, and so I thought I'd try it out.  The website indexes cookbooks, blogs, and magazines to create a database of recipes. When you sign up, you add the cookbooks you own to your "shelf" (as well as any blogs and magazines), and this creates a searchable database of ingredients. So, for example, last night I typed in "chicken thighs" and my results returned recipes from Food 52, The Kitchn, Barbara Lynch's Stir, etc...blogs I follow and a book I own.  What follows is a little evaluation of the website thus far:

  • The free trial allows for only 5 shelf items (including books, blogs and magazines)
  • Not everything is indexed (although this is to be expected)
  • They do warn you that basic ingredients (salt, pepper, olive oil, etc) are not indexed, but I found that this can also include fresh herbs (tarragon, thyme), not so useful as a grocery store tool, depending on the recipe.

  • you can request that a book, blog or magazine be indexed
  • there is a forum for communicating with other users and the EYB team
  • the index status of an item is marked
  • You can index items yourself (I have not tried this yet)
 The service is $25 a year. That will be a pro or a con depending on your situation.  For me, I decided it was worth it, and so far I've been pretty happy.  It is a serious time saver as I can access the ingredients of the recipes in my cookbooks (many of them, anyway) and the recipes in my favorite blogs, in about 30 seconds, as opposed to combing through my myriad cookbooks.  I hate dealing with "what's in the fridge and what do I do with it?" but this may help with that.

Last night, my search results returned
 Braised Chicken Thighs with Tomatoes and Garlic from Food52. It was easy, and I like things that simmer on the stove in the winter (and allow me to pull the rest of dinner together). I didn't have fresh thyme on hand, but I substituted some dried thyme and basil, and it worked just fine. The salad has a homemade vinaigrette of star date vinegar, Aceto balsamic di Modena, and white wine vinegar (with olive oil), and was mixed with marcona almonds and parmesan. (If you are lucky enough to live near a Vom Fass, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you go splurge on some vinegars and oils...and/or scotch---you can also order online!). The dolmades were bought on a whim and I needed to use them ;-).
(Apologies for the bright red color of the tomato sauce--not that bright in real life!)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Theme and Variations: Crisp Sesame Fish with Soy Glaze

flounder, sesame seeds (black & white), dark sesame oil, butter, soy sauce, sugar

One of the reasons Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is such an invaluable resource in my house is because I can use it for something I hate: cooking without planning. At this point in the semester, my mind is full of grading, student crises, and just getting through the next few weeks. So getting out to the Farmer's Market and picking up fresh flounder seemed like a huge accomplishment.  And then dinner time rolled around, and I realized I had absolutely no plans for that flounder, beyond consuming it.

Enter Mark Bittman. How to Cook Everything has never failed me.  I went to the section on "Thin White Fish Fillets," which includes his mini-rant regarding why he's not a big fan of tilapia (who knew?). Almost all the recipes in this section had ingredients that I had on hand, but I finally settled on the "Crisp Sesame Fish with Soy Glaze," which was a variation on his "Crisp Sesame Fish Fillets," which in turn was a variation on his "Pan-Cooked Thin Fish Fillets."  Bittman's Theme and Variations approach allows you to simply restate a recipe in another key, or add a countermelody and syncopation, if you are feeling adventurous! ;-)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Real Simple's "A Month of New Easy Dinners" (October 2013 issue): Seared Fish...

I've taken on the challenge--yes, challenge--of making a "month of new easy dinners" featured in Real Simple's October 2013 issue. Why a "challenge" you ask? Well, the likelihood that I will cook five times a week is slim to none, for starters. In fact, I know very well I won't. So, this means I'll be cooking "most" of the dinners, but I am going to try to plan according to the weekly menus they propose.

Already I've messed with Week One. I'm skipping the "Barbecue chicken sandwich with sautéed corn, edamame, and pickles" largely because a) I can't eat whole kernel corn and b) I'm trying to stay away from too many carbs (read: bread). So, that leaves for week one:
  • Seared Fish with Tomatoes and Garlicky Escarole
  • Lamb Chops and Parsnip Puree with Coriander Brown Butter
  • Crunchy Dinner Salad with Prosciutto, Apple and Hazelnuts
  • Cheese Ravioli with Kale Pesto and Roasted Carrots

So I began "Week One" yesterday with:
 "Seared Fish with Tomatoes and Garlicky Escarole
While the recipe will be available online next month, I won't violate copyright and will just give you the basics here:

tomatoes, red onion, lemon juice, escarole, garlic, fish (I used cod), olive oil, s & p

Basically, you make a pseudo-checca sauce with braised escarole instead of basil. It is easy, healthy, and delicious. My biggest discovery is that I will absolutely need to either overcome my fear of Teflon or figure out the best way to keep fish (particularly cod, halibut, etc) from sticking in my favorite skillet (which, is not non-stick--so, it is "stick" I suppose). If you have tips or ideas--please leave them in the comments section.

Substitutions/Changes: I used SHALLOTS instead of red onion (of course)

Tip: Escarole, like spinach, kale, and other greens, really reduces to nothing when you sauté or braise it, so make sure you have plenty. The recipe calls for 10 cups of torn escarole--they mean it.

Save a little skillet angst, this was a wonderful recipe that I will make again! 4 STARS

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sole, Slaw, and Salad: A summery triumvirate

First, the sole and the slaw:

I had some frozen sole filets in the freezer, and was desperate for a quick and easy recipe, but something a little better than just butter and onions.  Enter Baked Sole with Lemon.  Now, I'm a little wary of unfairly--as I find one particular site on a topic about which I think I'm rather authoritative, to be full of inaccuracies and astonishingly sophomoric given the supposed "credentials" of the "guide."But that is not of great import at the moment as we are talking about food--not this other subject that shall remain nameless.

I really loved this recipe for the good balance of butter and lemon. I made two adjustments (for pragmatic what-I-had-on-hand reasons): shallots instead of onion (a common substitution here at The Lady of Shallots), and cilantro mixed in with parsley. The real annoyance with baking sole (or any other thin, flat fish) is that you basically have to watch it carefully because even a few minutes difference can overcook it. The recommended 30 minutes would have been far too much for my 5 filets (in two dishes). I took it to about 20 and that was almost too much. Overall rating: 4/5 stars.

The slaw--Napa Cabbage and Sesame Seed Slaw--from Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman (via NPR), was absolutely wonderful. Complex, but not confusing, and for those of you whose taste buds shrivel upon the mere mention of wasabi, fear not.  The honey and the lime cut the heat of the wasabi, and leave the flavor. To give it a little more Japanese flair, I also added some seaweed seasoning--specifically Mishima's Aji Nori Furikake. I will definitely make this again: 5/5 stars.

Finally:  the "salad" that, really, if I'm honest?  They are pickles.  Yummy pickles, but I certainly could have used more sugar. I accept responsibility for that. Now, "Refrigerator Cucumber Salad" isn't exactly the sexiest name, but given that I can't think of an alternative, we'll stick with that. When she said that she cuts the sugar in half, I tried a happy medium: I cut the sugar in half, but I also substituted half the vinegar with apple cider vinegar--hoping to give it more sweetness. This was not all that successful.  The "salad" is VERY vinegary---but I can call them "homemade pickles" without too much shame. I also used celery seed instead of celery leaf, and chopped shallots instead of red onion--good call. The "pickles" are also more convincing when served in a small ramekin next to a fantastic grilled mozzarella, red pepper, and red onion sandwich! ;-) I'll give the recipe 3.5 stars as I made it, and will try it again with more sugar for a hopeful 4/5.