Thursday, July 30, 2009

Blog Hopping: Salmon in Hawaiian Coconut Spinach Cream Sauce

I have so many delicious sounding recipes bookmarked, and I realized it has been a while since I made a recipe from another blog. This time I hopped over to Kahakai Kitchen and tried Deb's take on a fish with coconut cream spinach sauce from famed Hawaiian chef Sam Choy. Deb's version was made with a type of fish I am unable to get easily here, so I tried this with salmon instead. I think it worked out rather well with the salmon.

I decided to follow Deb's lightened instructions and didn't miss the added fat at all. I was unable to get my hands on the rice flour, so I used 1 Tbsp. cornstarch instead. It came out very creamy and not overly rich, but still quite flavorful. I loved the spinach in this. I used baby spinach leaves and cut them into thin chiffonade strips, which I thought made them look pretty in the sauce. I was unable to get any Thai basil to garnish with, but I did sprinkle some chopped macadamia nuts over the top. I think next time, I would like to try this with grilled shrimp tossed over linguine. This sauce just screams pasta to me.

Homemade Macaroni & Cheese

Macaroni & Cheese is one of those recipes that seems to inspire a lot of arguments of which type is "the best." As a kid, I didn't see a lot of macaroni & cheese on the dinner table. It just wasn't something my mom liked to make, since she rarely prepared foods that came in a box. As a result, I never really developed a childhood fondness for the stuff in the blue box. I had eaten it of course, we did buy it occasionally, but it just wasn't as common in our house. It was never served at special meals or family gatherings, but instead was more of a lunch item, or perhaps relegated to an accompaniment for hot dogs when we didn't feel like having baked beans.

I really didn't develop a taste for macaroni & cheese until I was an adult, and became quite fond of the Southern style homemade versions, baked in a rich custard base, that when scooped would hold a shape, without being too creamy or cheesy. I don't like a lot of complicated flavors in my macaroni & cheese, and I don't want to bite into anything other than smooth cheese-coated noodles, not bits of onions or peppers. As fate would have it, my daughter likes the stuff the comes out of a box. I tried many different recipes, trying to find a happy medium between baked in the oven coziness and the ease and flavor my daughter liked from the stove top boxed version.

While I still love a more traditional Southern style macaroni & cheese, this version is very good and comes very close to a compromise acceptable for the blue box lovers. It is the only homemade version of macaroni & cheese my daughter will eat. It also happens to be somewhat healthier, as the original is from Cooking Light.

Creamy Macaroni & Cheese (adapted from Cooking Light)
(makes 1 large 9x13" casserole, about 8-10 servings)

1 (16 ounce) box tiny pasta shapes (elbow macaroni or mini shells)*, cooked and drained
1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk (you can use whichever % fat you prefer)
6 ounces light Velveeta American cheese, cubed
1 cup sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
1/4 tsp salt (I like Lawry's seasoned salt)

Preheat oven to 375 F and lightly grease a 9x13" casserole.

Combine flour and milk in a sauce pot big enough to hold the cooked macaroni later. Whisk together until flour has dissolved, then turn on the heat to medium. Keep whisking occasionally, and let the mixture cook until it thickens, about 8 minutes. Once it has thickened, stir in the Velveeta and only 2/3 cup of the Cheddar cheese and continue to cook and stir until they have melted and combined, stirring the whole time, about 3 minutes. Add the pasta and salt, stirring to combine.

Pour into the prepared casserole, and then sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 cup cheese. Of course you can sprinkle more cheese on top if you like, I won't tell the diet police. You really just need enough to lightly cover the surface, so I don't bother to measure here. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes until lightly golden on top and bubbling.

*Note: The original calls for 3 cups uncooked elbow macaroni (6 cups once cooked), but that left only a tiny amount, less than a cup, in the box. So I just use the whole box instead.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Simple Fruit and Jello Pie

It has been extremely hot and humid this past week, so I wanted to have something light and refreshing for dessert. Something requiring very little heating up of the house. I decided to throw together a quick and simple gelatin based fruit pie, just using a graham cracker crust, some gelatin, fresh berries, and some Cool Whip. It was easy enough to prepare with my limited supplies and other than boiling some water to dissolve the gelatin, required no cooking. Perfect.

There isn't really much of a recipe here - I simply dissolved the gelatin in boiling water according to the directions on a box of strawberry gelatin, then whisked in some Cool Whip, about 1 cup. I poured this cloudy, thin liquid into the graham cracker pie crust and then let it set in the fridge until firm, a few hours. When I was ready to serve, I sliced up some fresh strawberries and garnished the top of the pie with the berries and some Cool Whip.

As the gelatin sets, the Cool Whip mixed into the gelatin makes a separate layer, giving it a pretty ribboned effect. Forgive the messy photo, I had to use a plastic knife to cut the pie and it wasn't very helpful.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Easiest Tacos I have Ever Made

I have always found it funny when people ask me for the recipe for my beef tacos. Most are quite shocked when I tell them the secret, because it is one of those things that to me was a no-brainer, but I guess for some reason doesn't occur to most people to try. It is not a complicated blend of spices and seasonings, in fact, I add nothing of the sort. I also refrain from using anything that comes in a tiny packet marked "taco seasoning" which to me always just tastes like taco flavored salt. My recipe is laughably simple. Are you ready for this? Be prepared to smack yourself for not thinking of it.

Ground lean beef, the leanest you can get, browned in a nonstick pan with absolutely nothing else, fat drained completely. I achieve this by pushing the meat to one side of the pan, dropping a slice of bread into the pan juices and allow it to soak up all of the liquid. The bread is of course discarded. And then... I stir in some fresh salsa and cook until heated through. Any kind of salsa you like.. homemade, out of a jar, spicy or mild, any ordinary or extraordinary flavor salsa you prefer. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out the meat and taa-daa.. the easiest taco filling, moist and flavorful. That's it. My secret. Told you it was simple.

To serve, simply heat up your favorite tortilla or taco shell, and then add a scoop of meat and top with an assortment of chopped tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuces and cheese, diced avocado, chili peppers, whatever you like. It is just so easy and really yummy.

Note: I use about 1 cup or so of salsa per 3/4 pounds of beef, but I don't measure so feel free to add as much or as little as you like.

Chicken Teriyaki and Cucumber Salad

I have been dying for some Japanese food for weeks now. Ever since leaving London, I have not had anything remotely resembling authentic Asian food and I was feeling very deprived. I had tried out a few local so-called Asian restaurants, but so far my luck hasn't been very good. At best I have had Asian influenced foods that tasted ok but not exactly genuine, and at worst, well, I guess I just won't get into the worst. It was bad, overcooked, not worth much mention. There must be hidden gems lurking around Tampa, and I do intend to seek them out and will report on them later.

For now, working with my sparse kitchen supplies in my still very empty abode, I had to settle for soaking some chicken breasts in a bottled teriyaki marinade for a few hours, and broiling them on a foil lined pan for about 15-20 minutes, basting with a bit of extra marinade and flipping once halfway through cooking. Not exactly my greatest culinary achievement, but it came out moist, and at least was somewhat closer to what I am used to.

Funny thing is, for someone who normally cooks rice on a practically daily basis, I must admit to being a bit of a rice cooker princess. I am thoroughly spoiled by them. The ease of dumping in my ingredients, pushing a few buttons and walking away, wandering back into my kitchen later to the smell of warm, fluffy, perfectly steamed rice of any variation... how could I not be addicted to this method?

Well, unfortunately for me, I no longer have my trusty rice cooker. My old one, a switch it on -or-off bare bones model I had for years was sold at a yard sale before moving to the UK, and my lovely modern digital version that I lovingly used while living in London the past two years has been passed on to someone else. UK electronics don't really work in the US without a power transformer, and things that heat or tell time rarely function correctly even with such a device. So therefore, I was faced with cooking my rice the gasp old fashioned way, on the stovetop.

After combing online resources for stovetop rice methods, I followed this method, which worked really rather well: Boil 2 cups water, add in 1 cup Jasmine rice (I didn't rinse, as I had nothing to rinse it in), a tiny bit of salt, and an optional knob of butter, stir once, return to a full boil, then drop on a lid, reduce heat to lowest setting and let steam away for about 20 minutes, without touching the pan at all. You can tell when the water has evaporated, as the steam shooting out the sides of the pan slows down and eventually, just at the 20 minute bell, had stopped almost entirely. I then set the pan aside, still covered, to rest for about 10 minutes. The result was very fluffy, loose grains of tender rice. Not hard at all. Click here for the guide I followed for the rice.

I somewhat followed a piece of a recipe on the Kikkoman website for the cucumber salad. The cucumbers came out better than expected, as they were simply marinated for an hour in a mixture of 1 Tbsp teriyaki sauce, 1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar, and a tsp of sugar, with a few slivered green onions tossed in. They came out crisp, slightly pickled from the marinade, very refreshing. I could have eaten a whole bowl of just the cucumbers with some rice. A really simple and delicious treat that went perfectly with the chicken and rice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Credit Crunch: Spaghetti & Meatballs

As I mentioned previously, I like to make a large batch of marinara sauce and meatballs with the intention of making several meals out of them. Tonight's dinner was simply spaghetti tossed with a touch of olive oil, topped with a ladleful of meatballs heated in the remaining batch of the marinara sauce I made the other night. I wasn't feeling all that well this evening, so having all of that prepared yesterday made things so much easier today and I still ended up with a tasty home cooked meal.

Credit Crunch: Marinara Sauce and Meatball Subs

Although I have only been in Florida for two weeks now, living in a hotel most of that time made it seems like ages. This weekend I was finally able to move into the condo I will be staying in for the next few months while I try to find a "real" job and a more permanent place to live. None of my furniture has arrived yet, and most of my household items are still in transit as well, so I am for now sleeping on an air mattress and using a makeshift desk (ok, technically a plastic tub full of clothes). It feels a bit like camping, only with air conditioning.

I do however have a kitchen again, and a few kitchen items I shipped early so that I would be able to cook some basic meals once I arrived. The first thing I made was a big pot of marinara sauce and a batch of meatballs. These are recipes I make so often, I really don't need to consult the recipes. This is a huge plus when nearly all of your cookbooks are boxed up and still on a boat traveling slowly across an ocean.

Marinara Sauce, heavily based on the version found in Everyday Italian by Giada diLaurentis

(makes about 8 servings)

2 large cans San Marzano crushed tomatoes, including any liquid from the can
2 carrots, scraped clean and very finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, very finely chopped
1/2 of a huge red onion, very finely chopped
4 cloves fresh garlic, very finely chopped
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/4-1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves (or any other herb you prefer, a good tsp of Italian seasoning also works)

Coat the entire surface of a large stockpot with olive oil, about 1/4-1/3c of oil. You need a bit more than you would if you were just lightly stir frying something, so don't be stingy, although too much will just make your sauce taste greasy. While the oil heats over about medium-lowish heat, chop up all of your veggies. I try to chop them as finely as possible, but if you like things a bit chunkier, go for it. Throw all of the chopped veggies (carrot, celery, onion, garlic) into the pot and give everything a good stir to coat, then add some salt and pepper (freshly ground) and let everything cook long enough to soften up - about 10-15 minutes.

Once the veggies are softened up, add the tomatoes, juice and all, the red pepper flakes, and the bay leaves or whatever herbs you prefer instead. I forgot to buy bay leaves this time, so I had to use Italian seasoning, which really was fine. Let everything simmer on medium-low or even low heat, (partially covered to prevent redecorating your kitchen with red sauce spots), for about 1 hour or longer, stirring about once every half hour or so. Taste for seasoning and add more of anything as needed, and a pinch of sugar if you detect anything resembling "canned tomato" taste. I usually don't need to add any sugar if I have used San Marzano tomatoes, but if you just used whatever you had handy, which truth be told I have had to do many times myself, a bit of sugar will do wonders.

A great tip my Dad once taught me - you can tell the tomatoes have cooked down enough when the liquid is no longer bright red, but has instead taken on a golden reddish-orangey hue. You want the sauce to cook long enough to at least notice this change in color, and if you want to continue longer, you may, it only further thickens the sauce and intensifies the flavor. For me, usually 1 1/2 hours works (total cooking time).

When you are happy with your sauce, allow it to cool slightly and go find your food mill, or if you don't have one, a stick blender will suffice. Set the food mill on top of a huge heat-safe bowl (or just another cooking pot) and run the sauce through it. This will result in a smooth texture and all of your picky eaters who hate things like carrots and onions will not have anything to moan and groan about. If you like a chunky sauce, only run about half of the sauce through the mill, then mix the remaining virgin sauce with the smooth portion. Running the sauce through the food mill produces the smooth, thick texture you find in many restaurant sauces and truth be told, purchased sauces as well. It is a really an important step. If all you have is a stick blender, you can use it, although it won't come out quite as well as the food mill. The food mill has the added benefit of straining out any skin, seeds, and other unpleasant bits that the stick blender will otherwise pulverize. Since I am still working with a limited amount of kitchen tools, both my food mill and stick blender were unavailable so i just served the sauce as is. It still tastes great, but I did miss the richer texture.

I then portion out my sauce into freezer or fridge containers; this keeps about 1 week in the fridge or 3 months in the freezer. I usually make at least one meal using some of the sauce with pasta and meatballs, while another portion is used to make meatball subs. My meatball recipe can be found here.

To make the meatball subs, I preheat the oven to 350, split some Italian sub rolls and line them with about 5 meatballs, pour some warm sauce over them, then top with a slice or two of provolone cheese. I partially wrap each sub in foil, leaving the tops exposed, then bake them about 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbling.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Joys of Moving and Why it Never Hurts to Ask for the Recipe

Ok, so perhaps joy in reference to moving might seem to some, including yours truly, to be a bit of a misnomer. After moving what feels like a million times already, I can say I am hard pressed to find heaps of joy in the process. I am at this very moment sitting in a hotel room (which thankfully has wifi access). It has been a week since I left my old home in London, and I have spent the week doing nothing but search for a new place to live. There hasn't exactly been much cooking going on, unless you count popping a Jimmy Dean Honey Wheat Egg Sandwich into the microwave for breakfast.

Shortly before I left London I shifted from cooking whatever was left to revisiting local restaurants, ordering favorite dishes I would no longer have the pleasure of tasting again directly at the source. And of course, me being the foodie that I am, I asked for recipes. Restaurants can sometimes be quite tight lipped about their actual recipes, especially smaller places, or at least that has been my experience. Undaunted by such responses as "I'm sorry that is a secret" or "I don't know the recipe," I ask for at least a few tips or a list of ingredients. After all, armed with a list of ingredients, the image of the finished dish fresh in my mind, and the flavors imprinted on my taste buds, I can usually piece together enough about a recipe to recreate it at home.

One such restaurant recipe I had to have before I left was a simple yet delicious vinaigrette served with the signature salad at Giacamo's in northwest London. I had already tried to recreate it, unsuccessfully, and I was not leaving London without at least tasting it once more. I ordered the salad, explained that I had enjoyed it several times before, and that I was moving overseas, never to have the joy of tasting it again, and would it be possible to have the recipe. I braced for the no. It came.

The waitress was however willing to divulge a vague description of the ingredients, none of which were terribly unusual. She explained it was more or less a French vinaigrette, and that I could easily look up the proportions in any cookbook. This was actually a huge help, as I had been trying to recreate the recipe thinking of it in terms of Italian recipes, not French. No wonder I had not had success in my previous attempt! She also revealed that they add plain French Mustard, not Dijon. Since I typically do add Dijon to French style vinaigrettes, this was again a helpful bit of information. I am not even sure I have ever purchased something I could classify as "plain French mustard, not Dijon," but simply knowing it is not Dijon will go a long way in helping me make this recipe at home. She also handed me a small plastic bottle as I walked out the door, grasped my hands and said "a going away present"... it was filled with their luscious homemade vinaigrette.

Unfortunately lack of refrigeration and the fun little "no more than 3 ounces of liquid" security measures on airlines prevented me from taking the dressing with me, even though I was quite tempted to try anyway. Instead, I gathered the ingredients for the salad and had another glorious taste, then passed the bottle on to my neighbor so that she could also enjoy a bit of Giacomo's at home.

If you ever happen to be in the area, it is worth stopping in for dinner, but chances are you will need to call ahead if you arrive anytime after 6:30. It is a tiny, unpretentious homestyle restaurant and it does get filled up pretty quickly some nights. Their best dishes, in my opinion, are their meat mains, especially their chicken and veal dishes, and of course the salad. Their homemade desserts are worth a try as well, especially their tiramisu which is better than average, and their simple sliced oranges drizzled with Grand Marnier.

This is the photo of the salad as I made it; the one served at Giacomo's also contains a generous handful of tiny pink prawns, but I left them out in my impromptu home version. The basic ingredients for the salad itself are simply a huge handful of fresh, clean salad greens, they used romaine or little gem and a bit of rocket thrown in for color and nuttiness, I used a bag of premixed rocket salad. Wedges of summer fresh tomatoes, tiny wafer thin rounds of English cucumber, slices of avocado, a drizzle of their lipsmackingly good vinaigrette, and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts finishes off the salad. Once I have a kitchen again to cook in, I will attempt to tackle the vinaigrette recipe, but for now it is simply a mix of oil, white wine vinegar, French mustard, "something sweet" (honey or sugar), "whatever spices you like," salt and pepper.