Friday, November 30, 2012

Feeling a bit run down during this holiday season? Make Chicken Spaetzle Soup!


We were both coming down with minor colds after Thanksgiving Holidays once Chicago weather suddenly changed from a relatively balmy 60 degrees to a high of 35.  The fairly dramatic shift occurring before the holiday shopping season and the busy end of the semester meant that we had to nip this little cold in the bud.  When I asked Will what he fancied for dinner, he requested Chicken Soup.

Just about every culture or region seems to have some sort of comfort food that includes chicken: the Jewish matzo ball soup with chicken broth, southern U.S.’s chicken and dumpling, Mexican chicken tortilla soup, Chinese chicken congee.  [Koreans also have their equivalent of the congee: dak (chicken) juk (porridge), and I will write about that in another post.]  Especially when feeling a bit “under the weather,” the body craves—and flourishes under—the soothing combination of hot broth, stewed chicken, and a starch of some type.  Will and I are no exceptions.  We wanted that chicken noodle soup.

Having discarded the remaining half bag of fine egg noodles just two days ago—in a last-ditch effort to clean out the kitchen cabinets in preparation for a weekend of cooking and hosting—I lit upon a different chicken soup variety.  Since I recently purchased a package of spaetzle (tiny flour dumplings, sometimes made with eggs), I decided to make a mock quick version of Southern chicken and dumplings.


This was a completely improvised dish—just relying on my experience in making similar soups—so the recipe could use some tweaking.  It did hit the spot though, and we will return to this recipe the next time we want a little more special version of the traditional chicken noodle soup. 

Since I used no item I had to make a trip outside to purchase, this was a very convenient soup to make.  I already had roast chicken and caramelized corn left over from Thanksgiving dinner, and the other items were in the pantry (chicken broth, saffron, spaetzle) or the fridge (carrot, onion, peas).  Of course, if these are not the items you have around the house, then you should definitely substitute and create your own version.

Ingredients (to serve 4-6):

2 ½ quarts chicken broth (a quart of this could be water)
½ t saffron threads
½ roast chicken (about 2 lbs)
1 large carrot sliced
1 medium onion sliced
2 cups uncooked spaetzle (from a package)
½ cup cooked or frozen corn
½ cup frozen green peas
salt and pepper to taste
(chives or sliced scallions for garnish optional)

Steps:

1.  Set a large soup pot over medium-high heat and bring 2 ½ quarts of chicken broth (and water, if using) to a boil.  Once the broth comes to a boil, add saffron threads, ½ roast chicken parts, sliced carrot and onion, and the spaetzle.  Reduce heat to low or medium-low once the soup comes to a boil again, and simmer for about 25 minutes for the spaetzle to cook.

Note: We wanted a soup that was slightly thickened with the spaetzle cooking together with the liquid.  If you prefer a thinner or clearer broth, boil spaetzle separately according to package directions (usually 25-30 minutes) and then just add the cooked and drained spaetzle to the soup after the other ingredients have simmered at least 15 minutes together.


2.  Leave the rest of the soup on the heat, but take chicken parts out of the soup and shred meat from bones.  Discard skin, and put meat back in the soup.  Add corn and peas at this point and cook for another 5 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste, ladle into deep bowls with a garnish of your choice.  Cracking some more black pepper at the table intensifies the flavor of the soup.

If you are not going to consume all of the soup right away, do remember that the spaetzle (or rice or noodles or dumplings or whatever you use) will continue to absorb the excess liquid as it sits in the fridge.  When you reheat, be prepared to add more liquid (water or broth) to make the soup of the consistency you’d like.

Get well!



Friday, November 23, 2012

Lots of Food and Company to be Thankful for


I’ve discovered that there are many more international readers of my blog than I had expected, and there were visits to this site—just this week alone—by readers from Australia, Ireland, United Arab Emirates, Philippines, Canada, Brazil, and the United Kingdom in addition to the preponderance of readers in the United States.  So, perhaps not everyone perusing this page would know that yesterday was Thanksgiving Holiday in the United States.  (But, yes, that is the reason why this post is updating a little later than usual on a Friday.)

In the exhausted aftermath of the whirlwind of activities, here are some thoughts I have about the preparation for (and serving of) our Thanksgiving meal yesterday.

1.  Make sure that the pre-dinner appetizers are relatively light—and elegant!


We all know that there is a lot of eating to be done between Thanksgiving and New Year.  Snacks before dinner are de rigueur—while we wait for everyone to get to dinner and for the last-minute preparations to conclude—but we also don’t need to be consuming too much.  What we really don’t need are huge bowls of chips and dips which will spoil our appetites for dinner while adding nothing to our culinary experience. 

For carbs, I set out a pint glass of garlic breadsticks and a small plate of olive oil and sea salt water crackers.  Otherwise, snacks consisted of Pepperdew peppers (small, round, sweet, with a slight kick) stuffed with a mild creamy Chevre goat cheese; a tiny mound of baba ganoush with a sprinkling of smoked paprika and drizzle of olive oil; and Castelvetrano olives and feta cheese marinated with Piquillo pepper strips, garlic, herbs and olive oil.

2.  Use an immersion hand-blender for creamy soups.


We love our Vitamix and use it to make smoothies, almond milk, and slushy drinks.  But I never listen to recipe directions to cool down your hot soup and then use a blender to puree a creamy soup and then reheat the soup.  If the soup is going to be served cold anyway I might use the blender, but hot soups stay hot in our kitchen by being pureed with a hand-blender.

Our Thanksgiving dinner’s first course was a Curried Cream of Cauliflower Soup garnished with—at the table—the guest’s choice of crystallized ginger or chopped chives (pictured at the top of this post).  Those who tried both said that the chives were more visually striking but that the ginger added a much more distinctive taste.  The ginger adds a healthy dose of a little heat and bite to the soup and picks up the curry flavor well.

3.  Check on the dry brine of your bird.

We roast chickens often and rely on them as a staple in our kitchen.  Although we don’t actually use a recipe anymore, we started by using one which directed us to dry-brine the chicken for many hours with a prodigious amount of salt mixed with ground black pepper and chopped thyme.  We rarely use the full amount of salt anyway (since they suggest a staggering 3 tablespoons of salt per a 3½ pound bird), and didn’t do so again this time.  Yet I noticed something slightly odd this time around when the salt didn’t seem to be dissolving as per usual while sitting in the refrigerator. 


Normally, much of the salt dissipates into the skin and the flesh—thus producing a lovely tender roast bird—but the salt didn’t seem to dissolve this time.  I wished that I had followed my instinct and brushed off the excess salt before (during, or even after!) cooking.  While the birds were extremely tender as usual, the skin was also extraordinarily salty.  All our guests, being polite, declared the chicken wonderful and flavorful, but I suspect we all thought that the chickens were too salty. 

Afterwards, Will and I wondered whether the fact that the chickens we got were Kosher might have something to do with this salt issue.  Are Kosher chickens packed in salt and therefore already have a higher salt content?  We were both convinced that we had used Kosher chickens before for our roast chickens, but perhaps we were preparing them a different way.  In fact, if anyone knows the answer to our question, please send an email or a comment.

4. “Choice” is plenty good enough for a tenderloin roast.

Will and I have decided not to consume too much red meat, but when a special occasion calls for beef we like to purchase “Prime” meat when possible.  Our experience taught us that “Prime” steaks are so much better and more subtly marbled—and thus flavorful and tender.  This Thanksgiving, we could not find a “Prime” roast at our usual meat source, so we settled for “Choice.”  Since we were planning on bacon-wrapping the roast and then char-grilling it, perhaps “Choice,” especially in a cut like a tenderloin, would suffice.  We hoped.


The tenderloin was a huge hit.  Not only was it grilled perfectly—outside, on the patio, in late November, by Will—but the meat itself was so tender, even in the more well-done end parts.  Really, it cut like butter.  (In fact, see how great it looks the next day, cut for leftovers in the picture above.)  We offered salt and pepper, but no one took any.  The bit of salt and smoke from bacon-wrap and the chargrilling gave the perfect amount of flavor—and reminded many of us why we might not want to become vegetarian any time too soon…

5.  Offer plenty of veggie side dishes to atone for the meat-fest.

To complete the rest of the menu, we had:


*Roasted root vegetable salad with Gorgonzola, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze
*Shredded caramelized Brussels sprouts with toasted pecans
*Buttermilk chive mashed potatoes


*Caramelized corn with shallots and thyme
*Romaine and persimmon salad with a light sesame citrus vinaigrette
*Buttermilk rosette rolls (Will’s specialty at Thanksgiving)
*Pecan and Apple pies (courtesy of our friend Debra)

Another Thanksgiving is done with, and we have plenty of leftovers to ensure that we won’t have to cook again until the end of my term.  Yet another reason to be thankful!



Friday, November 16, 2012

Quick Mid-Week Dinner Solution: Potato-Egg Frittata



These 3-4 weeks before the end are the roughest weeks in a semester.  I seem to be returning exams and papers constantly—returned about 90 this week alone!—and can’t seem to find a break before the final stretch of term papers and final exams.  This is NOT the week for gourmet dinners full of carefully orchestrated dishes.  Omelets are a nice way to get some protein in a continental-style dinner, but there’s something even better: a frittata!

I tried out a few different recipes for frittatas, including an egg-white sage one with chanterelles that Martha Stewart created (http://www.wholeliving.com/131024/sage-egg-white-frittata).  During weekdays, a go-to frittata usually includes potatoes and thus is reminiscent of Tortilla Espanola (Spanish omelet).  This dish is very simple, and you can try an infinite variety of combinations of flavors.  I first fell in love with a Food & Wine version with salami and goat cheese, but I’ve since tried it with roasted red pepper strips, brie, and basil with great success.  Or mushroom, thyme, and shallots with Gruyere.  You get the idea: eggs, potatoes, a cheese, and whatever else you have on handy.

For a quick reference guide, here’s the recipe for Potato Salami and Cheese Frittata: http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/potato-salami-and-cheese-frittata.  Remember though that possibilities are endless!

Here’s what you do to serve 4-6:

1) Peel and cube a large baking potato into ½ inch pieces.  (When I’m in a hurry, I cut the potato into ¼ inch dice for faster cooking.)  Melt some butter and olive oil in a non-stick 12-inch pan and then add the potatoes to lightly brown over medium-high heat.

2) Crack 8 eggs in a bowl and whisk with a little salt and pepper and some grated parmesan cheese.  Add to this mixture salami sliced thin and then cut into strips (or roasted red pepper strips).  Turn your broiler on at this point.


3) Heat some more butter and/or olive oil in the pan, and then pour egg mixture over the cooked potatoes.  At this point, you can scatter about 3-4 oz. crumbled boursin or goat cheese.  (If you’ve chosen to use roasted red peppers, you can place strips of brie—with or without the rind—over the egg mixture.)  Let the mixture set for about 5-6 minutes, lifting with a spatula occasionally to let uncooked portions of the eggs flow to the bottom of the pan.

4) Place the pan under the broiler, 6-8 inches away from the flame, and cook for just another 2-3 minutes until the top looks golden brown in spots and the egg mixture is set.  Remove from oven.  If you wish, you can sprinkle chopped parsley over the frittata (or basil over the roasted red pepper version).  Slide the frittata onto a plate, cut into wedges, and serve with a side salad. 

Not bad for a weeknight supper!




Friday, November 9, 2012

A Super Dish for Wintry Suppers: Smoked Turkey and Lentil Soup



An embarrassingly long time ago I found a recipe from Food & Wine for a soup that sounded good—soothing, flavorful, and hearty.  The recipe called for a smoked turkey wing as a healthier and fairly inexpensive way to flavor the soup.  It sounded great, and I wasted no time purchasing a smoked turkey wing.  I was going to go get some dried cranberry beans that the soup also required, and I was going to make that soup right away!

When I didn’t get around to getting the beans or making the soup, I put the turkey wing in the freezer for another use.  There it sat and sat and sat.  One day, Will finally asked if he could just ditch the smoked turkey wing—which was hardly recognizable as such under the layer of frost that had formed between it and the plastic wrapping.  So I had to take quick action.  No longer having ready access to the original recipe I was interested in, I did a quick search and found online a recipe for a lentil soup using smoked turkey.  That was even better since we almost always had some lentil lying around.

As I scurried around getting all the ingredients ready and letting the turkey wing defrost on the counter top, Will expressed some mild misgivings.  After all, the wing had been frozen for many months, and perhaps the soup just won’t be that appetizing…  However, given my argument that all the ingredients were relatively inexpensive—and available on hand to boot!—he gave in and decided to trust me.

Here’s a link to the recipe that I mostly followed with a few changes recorded below (http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/lentil-soup-with-smoked-turkey).

Ingredients:


2 T extra virgin olive oil, and extra for drizzling
4 cloves of garlic
2 celery ribs, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 medium or ½ large onion, chopped
1 can of chopped tomatoes (14-16 oz), preferably a fire-roasted Muir Glen (because it adds some extra smokiness)
2 bay leaves
1 cup green (French) lentils
1-1½ lb. smoked turkey wing
2 quarts vegetable broth, chicken broth, or water (or any combination of these)
1 rind of, and ¼ cup freshly grated, Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Grana Padano) cheese.
4-5 small (or 2-3 larger) red potatoes, peeled and sliced into ¼ inch rounds (and cut further in half if large)
¼ cup chopped parsley
salt and fresh ground pepper

Steps:


1.  Heat the oil in a large soup pot and then add the chopped vegetables (garlic, celery, carrots, onion) and let vegetables soften, about 8-10 minutes over moderate heat.


2.  Add the canned tomatoes (with their juices), bay leaves, lentils, smoked turkey, cheese rind and 2 quarts of vegetable, chicken broth, or water (or any combination of these liquids).  After the soup comes to a boil, partially cover and then simmer for about 1 hour, adding potatoes for the last 10 minutes.


3.  Discard bay leaves and cheese rind.  Remove the turkey wing from the soup and carefully shred the meat.  Put the turkey meat back in the soup, add parsley, and season to taste.
[Note: Using two forks helps with shredding hot meat from the bones.  Do not touch with your hands!]


4.  After ladling soup into piping hot bowls, sprinkle additional cheese and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil for an Italian touch (pictured at the top of post).  Serve with bread and a small salad for a lovely dinner!
[Note: Microwaving bowls filled with a cup of water helps to get soup bowls nice and hot.]


Doctored up with fire-roasted tomatoes and and a cheese rind and flavorful spices like bay leaves, it was not at all noticeable that the smoked turkey wing sat in our freezer for many months.  In fact, this soup was so hearty and tasty that we’ve decided that we need to get another smoked turkey wing to have around the next time the urge strikes us to enjoy some super soup for supper!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mandoline Your Way to a Scrumptious and Elegant Broccolini Salad



Our neighbor Maureen was in our kitchen one day as I was preparing dinner.  As I gathered together components for a Thomas Keller broccolini salad, I saw her looking at my thinly shaved mushroom and red onion with interest.  She mused, more to herself than to me or Will, “Now, that’s a good idea…”  That was when I realized that she was fascinated by the fact that we actually used our mandoline.  And she’s right to be fascinated.

Many years ago, in the first flush of being able to afford specialty items for the kitchen, we purchased our first mandoline.  (Yes, we have more than one…)  It was a stainless steel French-made mandoline, a brand I saw a TV chef using for one of her shows.  Though merely a piece of kitchen equipment, its packaging was reminiscent of an assassination film—with a hard black plastic case that resembled a rifle carrier more than something that was supposed to slice cucumbers. 


Because of the super sharp blade and the jutting spikes intended for julienning, this mandoline announced itself as a serious piece of machinery, something that required a black plastic hand-protector to use.  But that was the whole problem.  We couldn’t really use this mandoline!  Partly, it was our fault for trying to julienne sweet potatoes on our first attempt.  Perhaps the sweet potato’s gnarled rooty texture didn’t let the Miu shine.  It was hard going to yield even a few good strips, and then we hand-cut the rest of the sweet potato after the awkward hand-protector kept slipping out of our hands—and, yes, exposing those same hands to those medieval torture (sorry, julienning) spikes.


So the mandoline sat in its mysterious black case, on the top shelf in the kitchen where we relegate all items we will never really use but are afraid to throw out or donate—lest we later regret our rashness.  Then I surfed the web to see if I could find a mandoline we could actually use.  I found on Amazon an inexpensive but very well rated simple—no julienning—Kyocera with a ceramic blade.  As I was checking out the reviews, I noticed that very helpful (“Frequently purchased together”) note that alerted me to yet another product I could consider.  It was a “cut-protection glove.”  Reading reviews for the glove, I realized that we were not the only ones fearful of making ground meat out of our hands by using mandolines.  I ordered both and never looked back.


Will is actually even more enamored of the glove than he is of the mandoline since it was the fear factor that kept him away from using our expensive Miu.  We still have the stainless steel contraption, but I’m not sure when we will decide that we will get the step-ladder out to get it down from the top shelf.  After all, the Kyocera is so easy to use, and so light.  With its thin profile, it can even fit in one of the sliding drawers in the kitchen and not take up too much space.  It does a lovely job of cutting through delicate produce like a mushroom and still ensure beautiful and whole, super-thin slices.


If you have a mandoline, this Thomas Keller salad from his Ad Hoc at Home cookbook can be made in no time.  I slightly modify the original recipe to use items we usually have around, and you are welcome to change as you see fit.  All the ingredients you need are bold-faced in this streamlined recipe.

Ad Hoc Broccolini Salad with Fresh Mozzarella

Step 1: Blanche the broccolini
After bringing a pot of salted water to a boil, throw in 1 lb of trimmed broccolini and cook for 4-5 minutes (no longer).  Remove, drain, and place in an ice bath.  Then drain again and place on a plate.

Step 2: Mandoline mushrooms and onion
Trim 2 large cremini or white mushrooms and then mandoline into thin slices.  Mandoline ½ a small red onion.  Place in separate small bowls.

Step 3: Make the dressing
Combine 2 T extra virgin olive oil, 2 T walnut oil, and 2 T sherry vinegar.  Sprinkle freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste, and whisk again.

Step 4: Dress everything
Drizzle a bit of the dressing over each of the plates or bowls containing broccolini, mushrooms, and onions.  Place broccolini on the bottom of a wide plate, then pile the dressed mushrooms and onions in a pile.  In a small bowl, place a fresh and very soft buffalo mozzarella or a burrata, cut a small cross on top of the cheese with a sharp paring knife, and then drizzle 1 T extra virgin olive oil on top and around the cheese.  Sprinkle salt and pepper.  Place a few castelvetrano olives on top of the salad.


Enjoy!