Saturday, September 10, 2011

Great Side Dishes

Sometimes the side dish is better than the main dish.  Sometimes its so good that you don't even bother making a main dish...

First off, a combo that sounds bizarre, but once you try it - you'll fall in love!  Liz introduced us to this Tomato and Mango Salad while we lived in Williamsburg.  Here's my version:

Tomato Mango Jalapeno Salad (excellent with fish or as a fresh and light first course or on its own if you had a big lunch...)
Peel and cube one large, ripe mango.  Cube 2 medium super ripe* tomatoes.  Finely chop 1/4 of a red onion.  Finely chop 1 jalapeno (or less, to taste).  Toss with the juice of 1/2 a lime.  Chill and let the flavors 'marry' for at least 30 minutes.  Enjoy!  (I've found that once this salad sits overnight, the jalapenos are actually less spicy.)

Sometimes the simplest sides are the best - in all of these cases, I thought they were better than the main dish!

Super Ripe* Tomatoes with Arugula (topped with balsamic vinegar)
Here, served with rockfish cooked in parchment with herbs, onions, and lemons.

  Spaghetti Squash
Cook the spaghetti squash according to label directions.  (They're always some variation of this:  Poke several holes in the squash.  Microwave 2 minutes.  Cut in half.  Remove seeds. Microwave in a glass dish, face down, until tender - usually 5 to 10 minutes.)  Using forks, pull the squash apart into spaghetti.  Drizzle lightly with good EVOO (quality shows when there's nothing masking the flavor) and fresh squeezed lemon.  Top with fresh ground pepper.  Serve.  (Here it was served with white wine poached tilapia, topped with butter toasted breadcrumbs and capers.)

Sliced Tomatoes
So simple, but so incredible.  Sliced super ripe* tomatoes, drizzled with good EVOO (once again, quality matters), a pinch of sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper.

Sauteed Artichoke Hearts AND Spinach Salad
If you read my post about artichokes, you know how much I love them!  I still stand by my word that whole artichokes are the best way to go, but frozen artichoke hearts are pretty amazing too!  Not every store has them - I originally discovered them because my college roommate Emily would buy them at Trader Joe's.  Unfortunately, Colorado does not have TJs.  I think I found them at Sprouts this time.  Simple preparation:  saute thawed artichoke hearts in a small amount of EVOO.  In another pan, toast butter, breadcrumbs, and fresh ground black pepper.  Squeeze a tiny bit of lemon on the artichoke hearts and top with toasted topping.

Whenever I use a pomegranate for any recipe, I have a ton of the yummy seeds leftover.  They're fun to add to a variety of foods!  They dance beautifully when dropped into champagne, they make an exciting oatmeal topping, they are a tart counterpoint to cake, they're fun on ice cream/sorbet, and they're perfect on salads.  This salad was simply baby spinach, sliced mushrooms, and pomegranate seeds.  Topped with sweet and sour dressing.  This is a simplified version of my family's annual "Christmas Salad" but still delicious.  I've also made the same salad with warm sauteed mushrooms instead.  Yum!

Both sides were great!  They both also out-shined the lemon-white wine steamed tilapia with capers.

Last but not least, is one that the side was fun to make (but I can't claim it was better than the main dish - I love steak too much to claim that!)

Twice Baked Potatoes
I microwave baked my Idaho potatoes, then scooped them out.  I added (per potato) 1 Tb sour cream, a generous amount of black pepper, 1/2 Tb of melted butter, and a large pinch of shredded cheddar then mixed.  I divided the filling between the potato skins, then baked them in a 375 degree oven until golden brown on top.

Here, served with pan-seared steak (seared in melted butter in a cast iron skillet).  BTW - such an easy way to cook a steak and incredibly delicious (if you don't have a charcoal grill)!

*In most cases, the tomatoes at the grocery store are anything but ripe.  Options:  1)  Grow your own tomatoes (we can't do that - we live in an apartment that doesn't get enough sun on the patio).  2)  Buy your tomatoes from a farmer's market (delicious, but they're not always in season).  3)  My most common tactic:  buy the on the vine tomatoes at the grocery - allow them to ripen at home until they're so ripe that they're almost mushy/you're afraid they might start molding at the stem.  This sometimes works to make plum tomatoes palatable as well.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Salad - Its What's for Dinner.

I am very fortunate to not only have married a non-picky-eater, but also a man who LOVES vegetables.  If I'm at a loss for what to make for dinner and ask Joe what I should cook, I undoubtedly get the same answer:  "Can you make dinner salads?"

We probably eat dinner salads once a week.  Usually, its just a combination of whatever produce/protein I have in the fridge, but sometimes I plan ahead and come up with something worth remembering.

Some recent salads (that I remembered to photograph before we chowed down)...  BTW - I left my favorite for last.

(All recipes serve 2 unless specified.)

Locally-Grown Spinach with Grilled Sweet Potatoes, Grilled Brussels Sprouts, Avocado and Grilled Salmon

Sweet potatoes:  I scrubbed one and sliced it on my mandolin, then brushed with EVOO, grilled the slices, and diced.
Brussels Sprouts:  I halved them, skewered them, and drizzled them with melted butter and lemon juice then grilled/cut.
Salmon:  rubbed with dijon and topped with generous black pepper than grilled on oiled foil.
Served with Gorgonzola-Balsamic Vinaigrette (store-bought).

Shrimp Caesar Salad (adapted from an everyday Food recipe)
Skewers:   I tossed about ~16 thawed peeled/devained medium shrimp with 1 clove crushed garlic, 1 TB EVOO, the zest of 1/2 a lemon, and fresh pepper.  Then I tossed ~20 1 inch French bread cubes (I used 4 French Rolls) with 1 TB EVOO and pepper.  I skewered them and then cooked them on a baking sheet in a 450 degree oven for about 7 minutes (until shrimp was cooked).
Caesar:  I mixed 1 clove crushed garlic, 2 TB fresh lemon juice, 2 TB EVOO, 1 tsp Dijon, and 1 small squeeze anchovy paste (<1/4 tsp) in a salad bowl, whisked, added ~ 4 cups romaine lettuce and tossed.

 Romaine Salad with Shrimp, Mango, Avocado, and Cucumbers
Topped with sliced almonds.  Served with balsamic vinaigrette.  The avocado and mango go amazingly well together!

Salad with Red Veggies
Romaine with tomatoes, pickled beets, radishes, and herbed Feta.  Served with EVOO and red wine vinegar.

Pickled Beets - scrub the beets, peel, and slice.  Boil until tender.  Marinate in red wine vinegar and sugar.  Its also possible to boil the beets whole and then rub the skins off (with rubber gloves on).

And last but not least, my FAVORITE salad of the summer (and of course, its from everyday Food magazine...small changes from the original though)!  Pictures of a few steps included...

Arugula, Chicken and Rice Salad (serves 4)
Cook 4 servings of Jasmine rice according to the directions (I found brown Jasmine - yum!).
Marinate and grill 2 chicken breasts.  Chop.
Slice 1 pint of Heirloom cherry tomatoes in half (or regular cherry tomatoes - the Heirloom were on sale at the store and they're sooo pretty!).  Slice a small bunch of green onions.  Toss with the tomatoes.  (I often keep a few onions to the side to garnish the salad with.)  Add to the chopped chicken.  Add cooked rice.
Blend 3 cups of fresh herbs (I used basil, parsley, and sage leaves) with 3 Tb white balsamic vinegar (or red wine vinegar) and 2 Tb EVOO.  Gradually add about 1/4 cup of cold water.  Blend as you go.  The goal is to get a smooth, pourable dressing (use water if needed).  Season with black pepper.
Toss 1 clamshell (typically 5 oz) of arugula with 1/2 of the dressing.  Add the remaining dressing to the rice/chicken mixture.  Toss.  Divide arugula among the plates.  Top with generous scoops of the chicken and rice salad.  Top with remaining green onions.  Enjoy!

If you're only serving 2 people at a time, only dress half of the arugula at a time.  Store remaining arugula and dressing separately until time to serve.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Evolution of a Recipe

I am so lucky to have grown up in a family where my mother cooked dinner regularly, and we ALWAYS sat down as a family to eat (whether it was a new recipe, an old favorite, "must-go" night - AKA leftovers, or at a restaurant).  Dinner time with my family is something that I'll never take for granted.  People have asked where my love of cooking has come from, and I can say without a doubt its from growing up with parents who appreciated food, pushed us to help cook dinner, and encouraged us to try new foods.  Because of my parents, I've been helping in the kitchen for as long as I remember.

I've been asked how I "make up" recipes, how I know what to add to make something taste better, how I know what will taste good together, etc.  Experience over time and practice are the only keys.  There is no magic list that tells you what to add, but knowing the basics of flavors that go well together and seeing what other people combine in recipes helps you perpetually add to your mental cooking encyclopedia.

Sometimes I start from scratch when I'm making something up, but often I start with a recipe I know that I love.

For example, recently, I started out with my Chicken Marsala.  (A recipe that I cook 3-4 times/year, which is a lot for any recipe for me.)  Keep in mind that this recipe (like any recipe) is just a basis for me - if I don't have shallots, I'll sub onions.  Sometimes I use prosciutto, if I don't have it I add some extra smoked paprika.  Etc.

Chicken Marsala
Mix about 1/2 cup of flour with the following spices (to taste):  smoked paprika (~1 Tb), garlic powder (~1 tsp), black pepper (~1 Tb), cayenne pepper (pinch), dried oregano (~4 shakes), dried thyme (~2 shakes).  Pound 1-1.5 lbs of chicken tenders to 1/4" (between sheets of plastic wrap).  Heat enough EVOO to coat the bottom of a large skillet over medium-high heat (on my electric stove, that's about 1 tick below medium - I hate electric stoves...).  Dredge the chicken in flour mixture.  Slip into pan and fry on each side until golden brown (~3 min/side).  Do not crowd the chicken - cook in batches.  Remove chicken to a platter in a single layer.  Lower heat to medium heat (for me, approx halfway below low and medium on the dial).  Add 3Tb unsalted butter, 1 diced medium shallot, and 2 oz of thinly sliced/ribbon-ed prosciutto and saute for 2 minutes.  Add 3 cups of sliced crimini mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms are slightly brown on the edges and have given off their liquid.  Add 1 cup of sweet Marsala, bring to a boil, and scrape brown bits off the bottom.  Reduce the Marsala by half.  Add 1 cup of chicken stock and cook 3 minutes.  Lower to medium, return chicken to pan, and cook about 5 more minutes until chicken is cooked through and hot.  Serve over pasta (bowtie is my favorite).


While grocery shopping, I saw a package of frozen portobello mushroom ravioli.  Immediately I thought about making a Ravioli Marsala.

First try:
I followed my Chicken Marsala recipe almost to a T (with 4 servings of ravioli).  Obviously, there was no chicken to dredge in flour, so I dusted my onions in about a Tb of flour and small amounts of the spices.  I also had no prosciutto.  The result?  It was ok.  Not terrible but not something I'd want to identically duplicate.  There wasn't enough sauce, and the sauce that was there was very thin.

It wasn't great - but I wasn't giving up.  This happens a lot - good idea but mediocre result.  I generally don't stop trying though until I've tried a few more times.

Luckily, this was an "easy" one - the second try was YUMMY!

Mushroom Ravioli Marsala
This time, I didn't take out my recipe and instead cooked by what looked/felt right and what was in my fridge at the time.  It helped that I've cooked my Marsala on many occasions, so I knew the basic steps.

Finely chop 2 medium red onions.  In a bowl, toss with ~6 Tb of flour, 1 tsp of smoked paprika, 2 hefty shake of garlic powder,  1/2 tsp black pepper, 1-2 shakes of cayenne pepper, 1 pinch of ground cloves, 2 shakes of dried oregano, 2 shake of dried thyme.  Heat enough EVOO to cover the bottom of a large skillet over 'high' heat (on my electric stove, that's medium).  Add the onions.  Cook for ~2 minutes.  Add ~4 ounces of diced prosciutto.  Add ~4 cups of sliced crimini mushrooms and 2 Tbs of butter.  Reduce heat to med-hi and stir occasionally until mushrooms are golden brown around the edges.  <Meanwhile, bring your ravioli water to a boil.>  Add a can of beef broth (to the sauce, not the water).  Simmer for 4 minutes.  Add enough Marsala to make a generous amount of sauce (~1 cups).  By now your water should be boiling.  Add 4 servings of ravioli (32ish) to the water and cook according to package (mine take 3 minutes).  Remove the ravioli to the pan of sauce.  Ladel one spoon of sauce into the bottom of the bowl.  Add ravioli.  Top with more sauce.  Enjoy!

I know that next time I make this, my recipe will vary slightly - but thats ok with me!  At least I know I have a place to start from.