Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Holy Mackerel

For all my complaining about the lack of fresh ingredients in winter, you'd think that by the time summer rolled around I'd be cooking incessantly. But the great irony of our warmest season is that the overwhelmingly abundant produce is already so perfect that I find myself unwilling to do much to it at all. The tomatoes that I've spent nine months pining for typically prove to be well worth the wait—sweet and juicy with just a hint of that signature tomato acidity. Why mar their already candy-like flavor with heat when popping them straight into your mouth is so easy and free of dirty dishes?

My answer to this laziness is to put enough great summer ingredients together so that it looks like you've cooked-up something delicious, when you've only just assembled a bunch of perfectly delicious stuff. But if you're looking to easily (and convincingly) make a full meal out of naked summer produce, there's no better foil than bluefish. It's flavorful, abundant (cheap!), and quick-cooking. Spanish mackerel is a personal favorite, with just a few easily picked-out pin bones running down the center of each filet, and beautiful bright yellow spots down the middle. I like a simple pan-to-oven preparation (a restaurant trick that works just as well in every home) that makes for crispy skin, moist meat, and takes less than 10 minutes. 

As for those barely-touched summer veggies, I like to go southern European-style with a simple tomato-herb salad and roasted baby summer squash (no chopping necessary). For the salad I used sungold tomatoes, the sweetest variety of cherry tomatoes (and my all-time favorite bit of summer produce), along with finely sliced basil and sorrel, a healthy squeeze of lime juice and plenty of salt and pepper. The squash couldn't be easier, tossed whole with extra virgin olive oil, basil, salt and pepper, then roasted in the oven. What's great about this dish is that everything comes together while another element cooks. While the squash roasts, the salad comes together in a flash and the fish is pan roasted (skin side only) for less than two minutes and into the oven for about five. For a half an hour of cooking and prep you get a simple and fresh dinner. Minimal effort, maximum flavor and dinner is...done.

Spanish Mackerel with Tomato-Herb Salad and Roasted Courgettes
serves 2

14 small courgettes
1 pint sungold cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup basil, divided, finely sliced 
3 sorrel leaves, finely sliced
2 Spanish mackerel filets, pin bones removed
1 lime
extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Season the halved tomatoes with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. Finely chop half of the sliced basil and place in a large bowl with the courgettes, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat. Spread the courgettes out onto an aluminum foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until tender.

2. Meanwhile, add 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, juice of half the lime, sorrel and remaining sliced basil to the tomatoes. Toss to coat. Set aside.

3. When there's about 10 minutes left for the courgettes, heat a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil in an oven safe, non-stick skillet, over medium heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper on both sides and add to the skillet, skin side down. Cook until skin is just starting to crisp and brown around the edges, about 1 minute. Flip fish over and transfer skillet to oven. Cook another 5-6 minutes or until fish is just white and opaque. Serve over the courgettes with tomato salad on the side. Enjoy!


Monday, May 14, 2012

Chicken with 40 Cloves

Well, it took long enough, but much like the cherry blossoms in my beloved hometown, the farmers market is finally beginning to bloom. It may still appear to be a heap of potatoes and onions to some, but to me it's the personification of Sunday supper. There are few things I enjoy more than roasting the perfect chicken and potatoes, kicking my heels up and reading the Sunday paper while dinner slowly browns and boils—unmanned— in a toasty oven. 

But, opportunities to luxuriate are few and far between these days, so over the last several months I've turned to pan roasts as a speedy comfort food alternative. You're still cooking an entire chicken on the bone, but cutting it up cuts cooking time by more than half. One of my favorite roast chicken dinners is a classic French recipe called Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic, and it makes the transition from whole chicken to pan roast beautifully. Sure, forty garlic cloves sounds like a lot, but when left unpeeled their skins act like papery cocoons, transforming the pungent cloves from sharp and spicy to sweet and delicate.

Spring is the perfect time to make this dish because you can use young (also known as green) garlic, which is basically garlic that hasn't yet fully matured and separated into cloves. It doesn't have quite as much bite as everyday garlic and it's all over the farmers market right now. Also all over the market? New potatoes, spring onions, bulb onions on the stalk, and numerous other aromatics that would go perfectly in a pan roast. I used all of the above and threw in a few Meyer lemons that had seen better days but were still plenty juicy, along with some of the Meyer lemon zest (on the chicken skin) and some smoky/spicy ground Aleppo pepper. 

But no matter how you roast it, just toss some chicken and garlic in a casserole dish with a few potatoes and stick in all in a hot oven. Thirty-five minutes later I guarantee you'll have a delicious and comforting meal, and no one ever needs to know how (not) long it took you to make, or how much garlic you used.

Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic (Pan Roast Edition)

1 chicken cut into 8 pieces or 4 chicken legs separated into thighs and drumsticks
1 Tablespoon Aleppo pepper (or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flake)
40 garlic cloves, skins left on
15-20 new potatoes (larger ones halved)
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Meyer lemons (regular lemons will also work), cut into 6 wedges
2 onions, quartered
ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400˚F. Season chicken on both sides with salt and Aleppo pepper. Place chicken in a large roasting pan or oven-safe casserole dish and set aside. 

2. Toss the new potatoes, onion quarters, garlic cloves and lemon wedges in a large bowl with the extra virgin olive oil, salt and black pepper and scatter in the roasting pan with the chicken. Roast for 35-40 minutes in the oven or until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are tender. Enjoy!


Monday, April 23, 2012

Protean Protein

Winter may be over, but I struggled with seasonality quite a bit this past season. Long-time readers may recall that I usually spend this time of year complaining about how I'm totally over winter vegetables and how I couldn't possibly think of another way to use them. But this year something strange happened: there were no winter vegetables! There's been a rabid heatwave over the last several months here on the east coast, whih led to a lack of winter produce. Winter vegetables typically get their distinctively sweet flavors by growing in frigid temperatures, which in turn develop their natural sugars. Carrots, beets, celeriac, winter squash, parsnips, and black kale are among some of my favorite winter veggies not to be found at the farmers market this winter. How did I cope without winter veggies? By eating lots of meat.

Without seasonal veggies as a default side dish to lighten my many meats, I began to play with alternatives. After tearing through pantry staples and the usual starchy suspects (rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, orzo, couscous) I turned to the much lauded and much healthier "ancient grains". The category (actually a misnomer since many are in fact not actual grains) includes kamut, barley, oats, millet, farro and one of my favorites, quinoa. What's important about these is that while they're not all necessarily grains, they are indeed ancient, which is to say that they have not been genetically modified in any way since they were first cultivated thousands of years ago. Much of our modern day grains have had their structure (their nutrient balance, essentially) altered over the years for a variety of reasons. What quinoa, for example, can offer is a complete protein profile, that is to say it has a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat.

If you're looking to get a variety of nutrients (including iron) or to reign in a portion control issue, quinoa is the perfect foil. Because it has a slightly higher fat content compared to other grains (but is not a fatty food) and because it's so high in protein, eating just a small amount of it will help you feel full, while giving you a day's worth of protein with just a one-cup serving (it's a great choice for vegetarians or for a meatless meal). So whether you eat it alone, mixed with a few vegetables, or as a side dish, you'll end up satisfied while eating less. Nutritional benefits aside, quinoa is also quick cooking (who doesn't love that?) and delicious. I like to cook mine in stock instead of water for a little added flavor, and if I do happen to have vegetables on hand, will fold in some sauteed spinach and thinly sliced leeks (both finally available at the farmers market). Quinoa's great at absorbing flavors, so I love to serve it alongside a roast with plenty of sauce (it's pictured above alongside an oven-roasted chicken leg) or as a salad (unlike other grains it drinks up dressing). This warm recipe has leeks and overwintered spinach, but any of your favorite veggies will work. 

Quinoa with Spinach and Leeks 

1½ cups quinoa 
3 cups low-sodium chicken, vegetable or beef stock
½ tsp kosher salt
4 cups spinach, roughly chopped
2 leeks, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, very finely minced
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Combine quinoa, salt, and stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook 10-12 minutes until all of the liquid has been absorbed and quinoa is tender.

2. Meanwhile, heat garlic, leeks and olive oil over low heat in a large non-stick skillet, about 30 seconds. Add spinach (in batches if necessary) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until wilted. Fold in cooked quinoa until well combined. Serve and enjoy!


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Let Them Eat Cakes

Winter is officially upon us here in New York, and although it's not as frigid a winter as usual, the farmers market stalls are just as barren as ever. Gone are the squashes, brussels sprouts and cauliflower of fall and early winter, with only a few rutabaga and the odd collard green or kale bunch in their place. The three month period from the start of the new year through late March can be brutal for a seasonal food enthusiast, and having already tired of root vegetable stew and carrot ginger soup, this is the time when I turn to my pantry for a little support. 

While I've yet to develop an interest in canning or pickling (despite my best efforts), I do believe that our ancestors had it right: preserving food for the winter season is definitely the way to go. Sure, these days we've pretty much added preservatives to, well, everything, even if it doesn't actually need it. But I'm talking about only using the canned and preserved items that line supermarket shelves during a time when using fresh, seasonal products is not an option (at least for those of us in cold climates). And one of my favorite items is canned fish. In fact, you can get wild, organic canned fish for super cheap, and even in BPA-free containers and packages (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Fairway are three good sources here in NY; Vital Choice, Wild Planet and Ecofish are three great brands with BPA-free products). 

Canned and packaged fish has come a LONG way from where it was years ago (these are not your grandmother's sardines, trust me). You can get good quality and even boneless fish to use a myriad ways, but my favorite is in a seafood cake. My first attempt at making these several years ago was a disaster. The canned salmon was awful: mealy and disintegrated with a terribly fishy odor, not to mention a salty and unpalatable flavor. I blamed myself and my recipe but it turns out that canned salmon was just not a usable product back then. But after hearing a few good reviews from friends and colleagues recently I decided to try again. I was shocked to find that the salmon was clean and virtually odorless with no added salt. It was in nice large flakes with a good firm texture. 

This time the salmon cakes were great. Good flavor, made with simple pantry staples and showing no signs that they contained a canned product. I served mine over some whole wheat lemon orzo and with a dollop of homemade remoulade, but they'd be just as good served over a salad or as an appetizer (teeny tiny dip-able salmon cakes!). If you've ever shied away from this type of product, it's a good time to explore. From canned fish to vacuum sealed cod fillets, there's a whole world of new options (and most of them are healthy and affordable, to boot) to play with. Just make sure to do a little research and read a few labels, and your winter can be just as full of flavor and wonderful meals as any other season. Well, almost. 

Salmon Cakes 

14 oz salmon (canned or fresh)
1 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¾ cup breadcrumbs, divided
1 small carrot, very finely diced
1 rib of celery, very finely diced
1 medium shallot, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
extra virgin olive oil

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the finely diced carrot, celery, garlic, and shallot and cook over medium-low heat until softened. Remove mixture to a large bowl, adding salmon, mayonnaise, egg, parsley, ¼ cup of the breadcrumbs and salt and pepper to taste. Carefully combine until well incorporated. 

2. Divide the mixture into four even portions (or more for smaller cakes) and form into four 1-inch thick cakes. Spread the remaining breadcrumbs out onto a plate and lightly coat each cake. 

3. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in the same non-stick skillet used for the aromatics. Cook the cakes until browned on both sides, about 3 minutes, cooking in batches if necessary to not crowd the pan. Serve with tartar sauce and lemon wedges, or over a salad of spring greens. Enjoy!


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Restoration Hardware

I don't know about you, but my naughty food consumption goes through the roof during the holidays. Going as far back as Halloween (yup, that's where it all really begins) there's trick-or-treating loot in the office, then Thanksgiving feasting at home (and a plethora of leftovers), only to be overwhelmed by the goodies of Christmas dinner, not to mention the inevitable holiday cookies lurking around every corner. By the time the new year rolls around I've had just about enough of roasts, toasts and all manner of sweets. I'm not big on resolutions, but somewhere along the way my brain seems to naturally crave some sort of post-holiday detox. It's not always easy to make something healthful also feel satisfying and delicious, but I find that there are a few ingredients that can help fool the inner health critic in many of us, and those are usually a good place to start.

For me, avocado is a pretty standard food booby-trap—if it's got avocado on it, I want to eat it. The same goes for rice and shrimp and anything spicy or crunchy. Taking a step back and looking at how I could use some of these favorites to my advantage in making a healthier meal, I remembered ajiaco, a Colombian chicken soup made with a rich broth, three varieties of potatoes, cilantro and fresh corn. It's topped with avocado and sour cream, and one of my all-time favorite summer recipes. By replacing the out-of-season corn with brown rice and adding in some protein in the form of shrimp and turkey, it easily became a light winter soup. Topping the soup off with reduced-fat sour cream and luscious avocado, not to mention a generous sprinkle of cilantro gave what was essentially a light dish a decadent and delicious finish.

I admit that I made a few calculated choices in forming this dish so that even though the main components were relatively healthy, they definitely wouldn't taste that way. I started with low-sodium chicken broth but infused it with flavor by poaching the proteins in it. This meant I could avoid using oil (and sauteing altogether), impart flavor into the broth from both the shrimp and the turkey as they slowly poached, and make it nearly a one-pot dish. I also chose to use turkey because it has a stronger, deeper flavor than chicken, making my broth tastier and my stew heartier. I cooked the potatoes right in the broth so that any starch they released during cooking would slightly thicken the soup, giving it added body and infusing the potatoes with a richer flavor than they would get from just being boiled in salted water.

Those are just the tweaks that worked for me, but there are plenty of other directions to take this soup that are just as satisfying and still healthy. If you're a chili head, add some jalapeƱos or serranos for heat. Want a richer broth? Go Asian style and toss a little ginger, scallion and soy sauce into the broth and take out the potatoes completely. Maybe add some tofu instead (marinate it beforehand for even more flavor). Or, go Italian with a small can of diced tomatoes, cannellini beans and a pinch of dried oregano. The possibilities are endless, but I know that in my case, I'll be making versions of this soup over and over again, especially as cold and flu season approaches. I've already got a mean case of the sniffles, which means another version of this recipe is just around the corner.

Turkey and Shrimp Ajiaco 

7 cups low-sodium chicken stock
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound boneless, skinless turkey breast, chopped into 1 inch pieces
10-12 large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 cups cooked brown rice
1 avocado, peeled and diced
sour cream
cilantro, finely chopped
lime wedges
cracked black pepper

1. Bring chicken stock to a boil in a large soup pot. Add potatoes and cook 10-15 minutes or until completely cooked through but not falling apart. Remove potatoes from broth and set aside.

2. Reduce heat to a light simmer and add turkey to broth. Poach turkey in broth until just barely cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add shrimp to the broth and poach until pink and opaque (keep an eye on them—overcooked shrimp are the worst).

3. Add potatoes back to the pot to reheat. Taste broth for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Divide rice evenly among soup bowls and ladle the soup over it. Top with avocado, sour cream, chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Enjoy!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Rainbow Connection

This is about the time of year when my oven goes into overdrive. As the weather gets colder and I happily bring the oven back into the fold, I sometimes manage to cook an entire meal right in the oven, without ever turning on the stove top. The other day I roasted a whole chicken for an hour and during the last fifteen minutes of cooking chucked a tray of olive oil-coated brussels sprouts onto the top oven rack. It was such a low maintenance meal that I managed to fold laundry, reply to a few emails and watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother before the timer ever went off. 

But not all meals are quite that hands-off, which is why earlier this week I turned back to the oven for a little help. It's no secret that roasting vegetables is the way to go this time of year (unless you own a deep fryer and can make due with all the calories), and I'm a big advocate of roasting…well, just about everything. It uses less oil than frying but still gives you great flavor. And as far as I'm concerned, the more dark and crunchy bits there are, the better, which is why I roast veggies in a super high oven (400-450 degrees). Classically over-cooked vegetables like brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli are especially tasty done this way, the idea being to maximize the color (i.e. flavor) on the outside, while making sure the inside is just barely cooked. 

If you're looking for a super fast dinner that will encourage the kids (and maybe a spouse or two) to eat their veggies, try making rainbow cauliflower. Aside from the common white variety there's purple, yellow and beautiful spiky green romanesco, and they all taste great (and you get a ton of vitamin C, to boot). I like to buy a small head of each and roast them together for a beautiful side dish that goes well with any protein. I served mine with gorgeous seared sea scallops that only took a minute and a half to cook on each side. Altogether the meal was healthy, fast and delicious. At under half an hour to prepare, this meal is a stunner, and helps you catch up on your veggies (just don't tell everyone else at the table). 

Seared Sea Scallops with Roasted Rainbow Cauliflower

1 lb sea scallops
1 tsp smoked paprika, divided
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, divided
3 small heads of cauliflower, cut into florets (assorted colors if possible)
1 Tablespoon vegetable, canola or peanut oil
Extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Pat scallops dry and set aside on a paper towel lined plate or platter.

2. Toss cauliflower florets with 1/2 teaspoon of the smoked paprika, 1/4 tsp of the cayenne pepper, and extra virgin olive oil to coat (about 1 Tablespoon). Season with salt and pepper. Spread cauliflower onto a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 15 minutes or until nicely browned and just crisp-tender.

3. Brush scallops with oil on one side and season with half of the cumin and half of the remaining paprika and cayenne pepper. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a skillet over medium heat until very hot but not smoking. Add scallops seasoned and oiled side down. Brush top side with oil and remaining cumin, paprika and cayenne. Cook on each side until browned and crusted, about one minute per side. 

4. Serve scallops hot and topped with roasted cauliflower and a light drizzle of olive oil. Enjoy!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

It's In The Bag

I was recently speaking with a friend about cooking and wondered why as a foodie, she didn't cook at home more often. She said that cooking a full meal for one person was just too difficult and time consuming to do, and that spending an hour in the kitchen cooking just for herself seemed like a waste of time. I countered (from previous years of experience) that cooking for one is actually a huge advantage when making a fast and delicious meal, and that I could prove it. And so I set forth to make a complete meal (protein, veggies and a side) with minimal effort and in half an hour.

One of the secrets to making a fast, delicious and healthy meal, regardless of the quantity, is to start with fish or seafood. They're the quickest cooking of all proteins and need very little attention, no matter how you prep them. I like a nice center-cut fillet of halibut because it has very little fat, beautiful flavor, and cooks through in ten minutes. Cod or salmon would work just as well and be slightly more affordable, but shrimp are also a great choice.

Another secret to making a fast meal is to cook it en papillote, which means nothing more than cooking in a parchment or foil packet. There's no need to dirty a pan or end up with a house reeking of fish. Simply heat your oven, toss your fish fillet onto a piece of parchment paper (or foil if you're in a pinch) with salt, pepper and a little olive oil, and fold the edges over to create a nice seal. The fish and anything else you toss in the packet will steam and be ready in less than ten minutes. I like to add two or three types of veggies, whatever is in season and steams nicely. This time of year I'd use cauliflower, leeks, squash, turnips, potatoes, and pretty much any kind of root veggie (I made the dish pictured in this post at the tail-end of summer with leeks, sungold tomatoes and summer squash—yum).

That's a protein and veggie prepped and cooked in about 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time to make a side dish or side salad, which can even be completed while the packets cook away in the oven. Roast another vegetable in the oven, put together a nice salad, or slice up some fruit for dessert. Either way, you can make a beautiful dinner come together in minutes, and best of all, it's easy to multiply for more than one (very impressive for company). When it's ready, just slide your packet onto a plate, cut a cross-shaped slit in the top and rip it open. Eat it right out of the parchment, where the juices and steam will have formed a delicious natural sauce. With all that free time and so few dishes to clean, you'll have to think of a reason not to make this dish, for yourself, or anyone else. 

Halibut En Papillote with Cherry Tomatoes, Zucchini and Leeks 

1 halibut fillet (about 6 oz)
8-10 small cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup zucchini or summer squash, halved and sliced
1 leek, washed, white and light green parts thinly sliced
extra virgin olive oil
black pepper

1. Preheat your oven to 400°F. Toss tomatoes and zucchini in a bowl with salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil to coat. Set aside.

2. Fold a 15-inch long sheet of parchment paper in half so there's a crease in the middle, then open it back up. Place the leeks in the center of the parchment near the crease. Season with salt, pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Season the halibut on both sides with salt and pepper and place it on top of the leeks. Carefully pour the tomato/zucchini mixture over and around the halibut.

3. Fold the empty half of the parchment over the fish. Starting at one of the creased ends, make small overlapping folds until the parchment forms a half-moon shape and is sealed tight (see an illustrated guide from Martha Stewart here for guidance).

4. Place the parchment packet onto a baking tray and bake in the oven for 10 minutes until the parchment is puffed and fish is cooked through. Place the finished packet onto a plate and cut a cross-shaped slit into the center of the packet. Pull back the parchment and serve. Enjoy!


TIP: You can easily make this dish with winter-centric ingredients. Leeks, carrots and cabbage make a great combo, and so do bok choy, mushrooms and cauliflower with soy and a dash of sesame oil. And don't forget about citrus—not only is it in season in the winter, it's also seafood's best friend. And some lemon juice and lemon slices to salmon en papillote, or lemon juice, butter and black pepper to some gorgeous bay scallops for an elegant appetizer.