Monday, January 26, 2009

Turns Out Beets Aren't Gross: Shrimp With Chives, Brown Rice, Roasted Beet Salad

Alright, first things first: the beet salad was Melanie's idea, nowhere to be found in HTCE (though there's a similar recipe I've made top priority), but such an eye-opening culinary experience that I had to include it in this post. But more on that later.

It was inauguration night! We had a new president! One we can respect, admire, look to for guidance in these trying times! Our long national nightmare was finally over, as the shirts they were selling in Union Square read. That calls for a celebration, right? And the proper food for an inauguration is clearly shellfish.

Melanie, David and I left work, took the train downtown, grabbed our groceries (and some booze) and continued on to my place. First, Melanie got the beets we bought at the store roasting in the oven. I'd never prepared, or eaten (as far as I can remember) a fresh beet. Canned beets did not do any favors for the reputation of the beet in my mind. But hey! I try new things! I'm adventurous! And I trust Melanie in the kitchen (she pulled a similar move when she made that braised cabbage dish during our Potato Nik/Top Chef night). She seems to know her shit. Anyway, beets take a long time to roast, like 45 minutes or more, so we got those going right away, along with the rice. Stupid brown rice takes so long to cook. But I'm trying to make myself acquire the taste for it, per Bittman's words of wisdom.

Then we watched an episode of Summer Heights High, ate some cheese and crackers, and had a drink. It's important not to wear yourself too thin, you know?

After happy hour, I got started on the shrimp. Take 3-4 bunches of scallions. Cut 3 of the bunches in half or thirds, and blanch them for just a minute or so. Chop up the remaining bunch, and set it aside. Take the blanched scallions and a clove of garlic throw 'em in the food processor with some of the cooking water and a little salt (I also added a little bit of red pepper flakes) to make a kind of scallion paste. Heat your pan, add some neutral oil, and throw in the shrimp. Sprinkle it with some salt and pepper. I kept the heat pretty low (though still sizzling), because overcooked shrimp is no fun at all. Careful, it cooks really fast. After a minute or two, throw in the scallion mixture, mix it all up, and let it finish cooking. At the very end, throw in the chopped scallion, and you're good to go. This turned out to be fast, delicious, and not only healthy but made me feel full without being stuffed silly. As far as I am concerned, that is the hat trick.

Meanwhile, the beets were done. Melanie peeled them, sliced em up, hit them with some salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, soft goat cheese, and I think some olive oil (Mel, let me know if I missed any of that, I was in shrimptown while you were doing all this). Oh, and walnuts, which were an inspired choice. Anyway, like I said before, this was nothing short of an eye-opening experience. Never again will I avoid beets on a menu. I can now call myself a fan of (fresh) beets. Note: if you ever want me to try eating something I don't think I like, just slather some goat cheese on it.

Oh! One last thing that I think everyone should know: Bittman says, in the intro to the shrimp section that you should always buy frozen shrimp. Not only is it cheaper and longer lasting, Bittman says that most of the shrimp at the fish counter is shipped frozen and defrosted in the supermarket. What a scam!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

There's No Shame in Appetizers for Dinner: Smokey Lime Chile Chicken Wings, Quick-Cooked Bok Choy, and Avocado Yogurt Sauce

Chicken wings are the greatest. The meat is usually on the cheap side, you can eat a ton of pieces without getting too full (although I usually end up that way), the spiciness combined with the cooling blue cheese and celery... it all adds up to something that's usually bar food but I think makes a fantastic main course. I decided to do the Smokey Lime variation in the book, which Bittman wisely suggests serving with Avacado Yogurt sauce. For vegetables, I got Bok Choy at the store and made Bittman's Quick Bok Choy.

The chicken wings, you separate into three parts if they didn't come that way (Whole Foods sells them separated in two parts already, but then you don't get the tips and it costs more). Save the tips--little triangular pieces that have pretty much no meat on them--for stock if that's your thing. Toss in some salt, pepper, a little olive oil, and roast them til they're done and a little brown. Then you toss them in the pimenton-chili powder-lime juice mixture, throw them back in the oven for a few minutes, and you're good to go. It took a little time--maybe an hour in total--but was pretty foolproof. How'd they taste? Hot, smoky, little tang from the lime, just perfect. They were a little bit overdone in my opinion, but this is another magical thing about chicken wings: even a little dry, they're still totally delicious.

While the wings were roasting, I whipped up the yogurt sauce in the food processor. So easy: avocado, cup of yogurt, clove of garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper. You probably don't need the food processor (or blender) for this at all if the avocado is nice and soft. Didn't really taste like much on its own, but combined with the wings it was really rich and gave that soothing sensation you usually get from blue cheese, with a lot less fat and calories. Avocados: is there anything they can't do?

Meanwhile, the bok choy recipe is bomb. You heat some garlic in neutral oil, throw in the bok choy stems, let them cook til they lose their crunch, then throw in half a cup of water or stock and let them cook til most of the liquid's evaporated. At the last minute you can throw in the leaves if you like; these just have to soften, really, not cook like the stems. Using my own stock took it to the next level, and if you like bok choy (you probably do), you should try this method out.

Too easy. Overall, this was the perfect Friday night dinner.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What are we doing here?

So, what's all this about? Well, I've long been a fan of Mark Bittman, the Minimalist, cookbook author, New York Times food writer, and most recently, blogger. His recipes are simple, delicious and satisfying to make. His cookbooks are easy to follow, and he writes recipes in such a way that following them is an educational experience. They lay groundwork to be altered, improvised upon, and speaking from experience, they can make you feel like a pretty damn talented cook.

Bittman is the author of the Joy of Cooking for today's generation, How to Cook Everything. Yes, the book is exactly what it sounds like, but it is also so much more. It is not just full of recipes, but advice, techniques, pointers, tips, and words of encouragement. It balances traditional recipes with far flung meals from around the world. It is a nurturing guide of a cookbook, and every time I made a recipe from my copy I felt like I had learned something huge about food, whether it was something I didn't know I liked, something I thought I couldn't do from scratch, or something I thought I needed fancy gadgets to do.

It got to be so rewarding that I decided I should literally cook Everything. And I figured, while I'm at it, why not blog my results for the world to share? I want to spread the word of how wonderful this book and its author are, and maybe some of you can learn from some of my mistakes. Hopefully we will all learn something on this personal journey. Please, let me know what looks delicious, what I'm doing wrong, how you'd do it, or anything else in the comments of the posts.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lazy Monday Night: Sesame-Soy Five Minute Drizzle Sauce

So, I made that chicken stock over the weekend, and Monday night I was feeling lazy. Luckily I had the whole cut-up chicken left over from the stock. I was planning on making chicken salad, but I didn't have any of the ingredients for Bittman's chicken salad in the house and didn't want to go get any of them, and moreover: who eats chicken salad for dinner? I don't know who, but I do know they are probably sad.

After making the stock, leafing through HTCE looking for ideas for the leftover chicken, I came across one of Bittman's great templates: the Five Minute Drizzle Sauce. Heat some oil (or butter if you're feeling crazy), throw in some onions (just like a tablespoon or so), salt and pepper, and then some kind of vinegar or lemon juice. I settled on this sesame-soy version, giving it an Asian flavor by subbing sesame oil and soy sauce for the oil and vinegar, respectively. Microwaved the chicken, threw the sauce down on top of it, and made some rice to go along with it (ok, ok, the rice is a standard go-to recipe of mine that has nothing to do with Bittman. It's my mom's recipe, and I can do it with my eyes closed, and it was that kind of night. I like to think MB would approve of that sort of thing). Altogether, it was delicious, and even tastier for the time saved making it.

This drizzle sauce concept is huge. I call it a template because it's endlessly variable--much like a vinaigrette, you can switch out the oil or acid with any number of ingredients and probably not go too wrong. This would taste great on any kind of meat, seafood, or vegetable and the possibilities for ingredients and flavors are endless on top of the handful listed in HTCE.

I forgot to take pictures of this one. Like I said, I was lazy. I apologize.

Groundwork: Quickest Chicken Stock

Chicken stock: you're supposed to make your own, but I usually just take it easy and buy the carton or can. Works well enough. Well, if I'm going to make every recipe in How to Cook Everything, I might as well start with chicken stock, the base for so many of the recipes in the book. Michael Ruhlman's Elements of Cooking make it seem like you're not worth shit if you don't make your own stock, but Mark Bittman is the one who makes it seem manageable to make.

Take a whole chicken (sidebar: this may be very recent-college-grad of me, but I never realized how amazingly cheap a whole chicken is. Damn! I felt like I was stealing!), a celery root, some onions, carrots, salt and black pepper, add water (MB says 14 cups; I used a lot more, like 20+), bring to a boil then reduce to low heat for about an hour, or til the chicken is done. This is what MB calls Quickest Chicken Stock, and it really is. Didn't take very long, or even a whole lot of work, and now I have more stock in my freezer than I know what to do with. Luckily, I have the rest of HTCE to fill me in on the many uses for chicken stock.

But the best part of this recipe may be that it doesn't leave you with a dried out bird when you're done straining the stock. Rather, you get a really tender chicken to do whatever you want with. I carved it up (according to illustrations in HTCE, of course) and threw it in the fridge, saving the bones for more stock later on. You can do that, right?

I have to say, something about making your own chicken stock gives you this sense of accomplishment, like you're doing it the good old fashioned way. It feels good. I can't recommend it enough. And it makes your house smell good.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Spicing It Up: Grouper or Other Thick White Fish in Yellow Curry

I used cod in this one, because it was on sale at Whole Foods. This reminds me: find a good fishmonger and butcher near Stuyvesant Town. If anyone has any suggestions, I'm all ears. Whole Foods is expensive, and what's more, I long for a personal kind of connection with the person preparing my meats. Is that really so strange?

Anyway, this is a recipe that is endlessly variable; once I was done making it, or maybe about five minutes before I was done, I started to think that it'd do really well with some red peppers, or just about any other vegetable. Also, fish works really well here (you keep it in big chunks, which keeps it a little more tender) but I think any seafood (or even meat for that matter) would be great. Shrimp next time, maybe. In the end, it could have used more heat, and we doused it in some sriracha, but other than that, my first curry was remarkably easy and really tasty.

Apologies for the photography, I kept forgetting to take photos. What you see is the curry right before the fish when back into it.

It Begins: Classic Lasagna, Italian-American Style + Breaded Fried Zucchini

Let's start at the start. Not at the start of my interest in the work of Mark Bittman, but at the start of the project. "Do you think we could do one while I'm in town?" Emily asked me. I had recently decided, for various reasons, to cook every recipe in the newly revised edition of How to Cook Everything, and having just received the brand new, 80% redder version of the book from Amazon, it was time to get started. Emily was staying with me for the weekend, visiting from Boston. "Pick a recipe or three while I'm at work, make a shopping list, and I'll meet you at the store after work." I know Emily doesn't play around (we'd cooked together before), and I was not disappointed with her choice of Lasagna and Fried Zucchini.

I'd never made a lasagna before. Emily decided on the Classic American Lassagne (check title) variation, which is light on vegetables and heavy on cheese. We left out the meat because a vegetarian friend was coming (would've upped the vegetables, but it was kind of last minute; no one complained in the end).

I got things started by whipping up a batch of tomato sauce, the way I learned from my Bittman training wheels book, HTCE: Quick Cooking. I sauteed onions, carrots, some crushed garlic cloves (I take 'em out at the end) and red pepper flakes in some olive oil til they were nice and soft, then threw in some canned crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, let it simmer away, and was pretty much done. Emily cooked the lasagna noodles til they were al dente, maybe even a half step firmer than al dente. Then it was time to layer. I must say, lasagna is much easier than it looks. Oil the pan, then a noodle layer, then sauce, then cheese (mozzarella/ricotta/parmesan), pepper, more noodle, more sauce, more cheese, etc. til you're out of materials. Then enough parmesan (we used pecorino romano) on top to make it nice and crispy. If you're doing it right, this is the point where you'll start to feel like you're going to have a seriously delicious lasagna. Is there a name for this point in the cooking process? It's not the ultimate "wow" moment that occurs when you take the lasagna out of the oven, it's the moment where you know that "wow" moment is coming, and it is going to feel great. I'll try to think of something catchy for that.

Throw it in the oven til the sauce is bubbling and you're good to go. I think it was about 40 minutes. While it's not the quickest recipe, and the layering makes it seem like it takes more effort than it really does, it is super easy and seems like it'd be pretty hard to mess up.

Meanwhile, we used the recipe for Breaded Fried Any Vegetable. Emily sliced up the zucchini into kind of flat looking shapes, dredged them through flour, egg, then breadcrumbs, then right into the oil. This was easy enough, though I hate frying stuff, and the excess breadcrumbs in the pan cooked to a blackened mess and I wasn't so into it. But DAMN if they weren't totally delicious anyway (fried is fried, after all, right?) and Bittman's suggestion of squeezing some lemon juice down on top of them was perfect.

I whipped up a quick improvised balsamic vinaigrette for the bag salad I bought (sue me, I buy salad in a bag; I don't own a salad spinner). This all fed 7 people quite well, with a little bit of leftover lasagna for lunch the next day. I may only be two recipes in, but so far this culinary expedition is going quite well.