March 30th, 2012 § § permalink
Although beets didn’t make the list of 2012 food trends, I’m beginning to think that they should have. Everywhere that I go, I see these gorgeous root vegetables. Even restaurants pledging to serve seasonal, local foods are doling out salads, soups and sides of purple, golden, white and candy cane-striped beets. I’m not complaining. If there’s one vegetable that I can happily eat day in and day out, it’s a sweet beet.
Beauty as well as taste must be influencing this current craze for you just can’t beat the aesthetics of this veggie. Tumble a handful of luscious magenta beets over a mound of otherwise bland greens and you go from dull to dazzling in seconds. Toss a few yellow slices atop pasta or grilled chicken and you end up with a sunny meal to brighten the chilliest and rainiest spring days.
Sold year-round, beets are at their peak from June to October. During this time I can buy the usual purple as well as the more colorful varieties. I can also pick up crisp beet greens to use in salads and sautes. When they’re not in season, I turn to canned whole beets. While not as flavorful as fresh, they do a decent job in soups and sides.
Because I love the slightly sweet tang of beets, I keep their preparations simple—just roast and dress them with a dash of lemon juice or vinegar and allow their unique flavor to shine through. When I’m in need of a fancier dish, though, I make the following chilled beet and apple salad.
CHILLED BEET AND APPLE SALAD
3 cups (about 1 3/4 pounds) cooked beets, chilled and diced
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
1 1/2 green apples, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
In a medium serving bowl mix together the beets, onion, and apple. In a separate bowl whisk together the tarragon, cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper and pour it over the salad. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Before serving, mix together the lemon juice and sugar. Drizzle over the salad and serve.
March 23rd, 2012 § § permalink
Like many people, my early experiences with seafood were pretty uninspiring—imagine meals of greasy fish sticks dipped in tartar sauce and gloppy tuna noodle casseroles. After my father suffered a massive heart attack at a high school football game, the choices became even bleaker. Gone were those fatty but flavorful standards, replaced by heart-healthy baked salmon, cod, flounder, tuna and haddock. Although delicious when prepared properly, these unfortunate fish met the same fate as my mother”s over-baked potatoes. Cooked on high heat and without butter, olive oil or even a squeeze of lemon juice, the fillets possessed as much succulence and savoriness as sandpaper.
My way of dealing with homemade fish dinners was simple. No sooner did the tough fillets hit the table than they found their way beneath it. Unfortunately, not even the easygoing family dog, who gobbled up my unwanted spuds, green beans and oatmeal, could tolerate this fish.
What spared me from a lifelong dread of seafood were Friday nights. On those evenings my parents and I went to their favorite Italian restaurant for more omega-3-rich fish. There the cook knew how to prepare frutti di mare. In his hands broiled fillets of cod, orange roughy and salmon turned out light, tender and, most importantly, edible.
While I found these Friday meals magical, I suspected that the kitchen staff wasn’t using any secret tricks. As my mother’s Better Homes and Garden cookbook had pointed out, seafood was fast and easy to cook. Just season it with salt and pepper and bake, broil, grill, sauté or pan-fry until flaky and fork tender. Depending on the size of the fillet or steak, this could take as little as 5 minutes. It should not take as long as 75 minutes, the amount of time that most fish languished in our 350˚F oven.
Since those early restaurant repasts, I’ve picked up more than a few techniques and recipes for fish. Still, my favorite dishes hark back to those straightforward Friday night dinners. Whether pan-fried in a tablespoon of olive oil or baked in a lightly greased dish, fish remains of one the easiest foods to cook. Dressed with a dab of seasoned butter or splash of lemon juice, vinegar or hot sauce, it’s also one of the most healthful and tasty to consume.
Successfully farmed with minimal environmental impact, channel catfish is one of the most sustainable, consumption-friendly fish around. Often used in place of cod and other less eco-sound white fish, its mild flavor goes with a myriad of ingredients. Although I top this pan-seared catfish with seasoned butter, you could withhold the butter and simply drizzle the cooked fillets with fresh lemon juice or dust the tops with sweet paprika.
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 (4- to 6-ounce) catfish fillets
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and saute until softened, about 2 minutes. Drain or scoop out the garlic and set aside. Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil.
As the oil is heating, mix together the garlic, parsley, 1/2 teaspoons salt and pepper and butter.
Season the catfish fillets with salt and pepper.
Lay the fillets in the pan and cook for 2 minutes or until the edges of the fish begin to turn opaque. Turn the fillets over and cook until they begin to turn golden in color and flake when probed with a fork, 2 to 3 minutes. If you’re uncomfortable with timing doneness by physical characteristics, check the internal temperature of your fillets with a meat thermometer. When finished cooking, it should read 137˚F; cooked anywhere beyond this and the fish will become dry and tough.
Place the fillets on a serving platter or 4 separate plates and spoon equal amounts of seasoned butter over each. Serve immediately.
March 15th, 2012 § § permalink
Maybe it’s the water from the River Liffey or the way that Irish bartenders pour their stouts. Whatever the reason I have become one of those curmudgeons who grumbles that Guinness tastes best in Ireland.
When I’m in Ireland, I’ll down pint after pint of this smooth, dry brew. Hardly unusual—one out of every two pints consumed in Ireland reputedly is a Guinness. Yet, when I’m back at home, I’m more apt to empty it into a pot and cook with it than I am to drink this Irish beer. Drained from a bottle on American soil, it just doesn’t provide me with that wonderful richness and effervescence of the Irish original.
Because my friends are generous and unaware of my finickiness, I have received many, many 6-packs as well as the occasional case of Guinness. Remember 2009, when the 250-year anniversary stout was released? That was a banner year for beer-based dishes.
What do I make with all that booze? Well, after sampling a bottle and confirming that I’m still a major fusspot, I use it to create sauces, stews and fondues. I also steam mussels and clams in it. I might mix it with lemonade for a shandy. Replace the lemonade with champagne and I’ve got a decadent Black Velvet.
One of my favorite ways to use Guinness is in a cake from Nigella Lawson’s Feast cookbook. I make her chocolate Guinness cake for St. Paddy’s Day and any other time when I have an extra bottle of stout in the house.
CHOCOLATE GUINNESS CAKE
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “Feast” (Hyperion, 2004)
Serves 8 to 12
for the cake:
1 cup Guinness
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups superfine sugar
3/4 cup light sour cream
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
for the icing:
8 ounces cream cheese
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream, plus more as needed
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Butter and line a 9-inch springform pan.
Place the Guinness and butter in a large saucepan and heat on medium until the butter has melted. At this point whisk in the cocoa and sugar.
In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Add 1/3 cup of the beer mixture to the eggs. Stir together and then pour the eggy mix into the saucepan, stirring to combine. Add the flour and baking soda to the pan and whisk until blended.
Pour the batter into the greased pan. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Place the cake on a cooling rack and cool completely before removing from the pan.
Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese in a medium bowl until smooth. Sift in the confectioner’s sugar and beat again until combined. At this point the icing will be extremely thick and stiff. Add 1/4 cup of heavy cream to the icing and beat again. If the icing still seems too thick, add a little extra cream to make it spreadable.
Remove the cake from the pan and place on a large plate or cake stand. Spread the icing over the top of the cake so that it resembles the frothy head on a pint of Guinness. Serve with Irish coffee.
March 9th, 2012 § § permalink
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t eat raisins. In elementary school they were the sugary treat that held me over until dinnertime. In high school they balanced out my otherwise unhealthful school lunch—Cheetos and ham salad sandwiches, anyone? Today they are what I toss into my camera bag when I head out on an assignment or throw into my suitcase when I go on vacation. Small, portable and virtually indestructible, they’re the perfect snack for anyone on the run.
Because of my unabashed love of dried grapes, it never occurred to me that some people might hate them. More importantly, it never occurred to me that I might someday cook for these folks. Yet, today I know a surprising number of raisin detractors. Finding the fruit too rich, sticky, hard or wizened, they fish them out of my salads, sides, desserts and sauces. To a raisin devotee, this seems like sacrilege; after all, they’re rejecting one of nature’s best iron-, potassium- and protein-packed sweets.
While I may never sway raisin haters over to my side, I have had some success in making the fruit more palatable to them. To lessen the chewiness of uncooked raisins, I tumble them into a bowl, cover them with boiling water and let them soak for an hour. To cut the rich taste, I replace the water with hot rum and let the raisins steep in alcohol for 30 to 45 minutes. Sadly, I have no tricks to smooth out the wrinkles. My advice? If you dislike the desiccated skin, eat a grape instead.
The following dish should please both raisin fans and foes.
FRUIT AND ALMOND COUSCOUS
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 cup couscous
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dates, chopped
1/3 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/4 cup almonds, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
Cinnamon, for dusting
In a medium saucepan boil the water. Add the couscous, raisins, dates, and apricots. Cover the saucepan and remove from heat. Let stand for 30 minutes.
In a small frying pan over medium heat, toast almonds until golden.
In a large bowl combine cooked couscous and butter. Rake your fingers through the couscous, loosening the grains and incorporating the butter with the fruit.
Pour in the maple syrup and gently stir. Add the toasted almonds and blend again. Dust the top with cinnamon and serve.
March 2nd, 2012 § § permalink
My early relationship with baked potatoes was a prickly one. Although a capable cook, my mother loathed cooking and took much of her culinary frustrations out on spuds. Russet potatoes were her weekly whipping boys. After vigorously scrubbing and stabbing them with a fork, she would lob the potatoes into the oven and bake them at 400˚F until parchment paper-dry. What could have saved these crumbly creatures—a generous dollop of sour cream or pat of creamy, salted butter—was never applied for ours was a cardiovascular health-conscious, low-fat household.
When I baked potatoes, they didn’t fare much better. Rebelling against my mother’s overcooked creations, I grossly under-baked these root vegetables. In the end they resembled door stops, ones that I fed to our overly plump dog.
While my mother and I waged our separate wars on potatoes, much of the world was enjoying them. As well they should have. Rich in Vitamins C and B-6, complex carbohydrates and potassium, these members of the nightshade family have sustained cultures and countries for centuries. If only they weren’t so dry and mealy, maybe they would sustain me, too.
Just when I was about to give up on tubers altogether, I had dinner at my friend Jenn’s house. On that fateful night her mom served twice-baked potatoes. The thought of a potato being baked not once but twice horrified me. Bring on the extra glasses of milk—this tater was going to be even dryer and deadlier than usual. Yet, it wasn’t. Housed in the crisp, outer skin was a fluffy, savory and succulent potato.
Although new to me, twice-baked potatoes had been around for ages. While their exact origins remain a mystery, how to make them does not. You begin by baking russet potatoes until just done. After slicing them open, you scoop out the flesh and mix it with milk, butter, cheese, bacon, herbs or smoked fish or meats. You then spoon the flavored potatoes back into their skins and bake them until warm and golden. The end result is both moist and delicious. The end result made me a fan of baked spuds.
TWICE-BAKED POTATOES WITH SMOKED TROUT
These potatoes are filling enough to be a meal in themselves. However, If you’re not a fan of smoked fish, leave it out and serve the potatoes as a side dish.
4 large Russet potatoes
1/3 cup milk, warmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup grated manchego or Parmesan cheese
handful of chives, diced
1 pound smoked trout fillets, flaked
Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
Using a fork, poke holes in the potatoes before microwaving them on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and softened. Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving behind a small rim of potato in each skin.
Place the potatoes in a medium bowl and, using a spoon or fork, mash lightly. Add the milk, butter, salt, and pepper and mash again until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the cheese, chives and smoked trout and stir to combine.
Spoon equal amounts of the potato mixture back into the skins. Place the filled skins on a baking sheet and bake until warm and golden-brown on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve warm.