Friday, January 31, 2014

Quick, Post-Movie, Saturday Dinner At Home

Since we were dining out on Friday and going out to brunch on Sunday last week, we decided that we would eat in (at home!) on Saturday.  In fact, more and more, the idea of dining out on a Saturday has less and less appeal to us.  

If we are dining with others and only have a Saturday in common to get together, Saturday dinner makes sense.  On the other hand, it is starting to seem like it’s impossible to get a dinner reservation at our favorite places without advance planning—unless we want to be having our dessert at 5:15pm or starting our appetizer at 10:30pm.  Plus, if you have the earlier seating (until 7pm or so), it feels like we are being rushed out.  But if you have later seatings (7:30 or later), our table is never ready close to the time that we reserve.  You wonder if American restaurants should follow the mode of some European restaurants that assume that they will have one seating per evening and be happy if they get more, rather than trying to squeeze in 3-4 seatings between 6 and 10pm.  Don’t they WANT us to have dessert and coffee?

In brief, we often enjoy eating at home on Saturdays.  So, last Saturday, we decided to cook in, but we also had little time to prepare once we got home from our movie (we saw Nebraska—painful to sit through, though very good).  At 7pm, it was pitch dark outside, and we were hungry.  No time to fuss around with special preps and tricky recipes.  I insisted that Will shut up all his cookbooks and just follow my instructions, and talked him through a simple little dessert while I prepared the dinner. 

In less than 30 minutes flat, we had dinner for two prepared from start to finish:

Glazed Carrots:

Heat a pan of water and then slice 2 large carrots into thick diagonal slices (about inch thick), and then dump in boiling water with some salt.  Once carrots are almost done—but still having some bite, 8-10 minutes—pour out most of the water and keep about ¼ of cooking liquid remaining. 

At this point, add about 2 T of unsalted butter and drizzle in about 2-3 T of honey.  Cook this down, uncovered, until the mixture thickens, gets shiny, and the carrots are glazed. 

Nice additions: ground cayenne and cinnamon; minced ginger and orange juice (possibly a little bit of soy sauce if you want an Asian twist).

Pan-seared fish fillets:

(You can prep, but make sure you don’t actually start the cooking process until after carrots are on full boil.)
Salt and pepper both sides of thin fish fillets with edible skin (trout, perch, Artic char, etc.) or skinned (like tilapia).  Get a non-stick pan very hot, drizzle some olive oil until almost smoking, and then place fish skin(ned)-side down.  Sizzle a few minutes (with your stove fan running!) and then flip when the first side is crisp.  Another couple of minutes on the other side will do for thin fillets.  When about to serve, squeeze some lemon juice over the fillet and leave the lemon for more juicing at the table.

Pan-Sauteed Greens:

(You can choose which greens to use, but for the quickest sauté, you might go with spinach.  A bit longer for Swiss Chard, then longer for kale or mustard greens, and then longer still for collard greens.  Honestly, for fish, I go for quick-cooking spinach.)

If you are using spinach, you can just start this after the fish is out of the pan.  Just make sure that the spinach is washed and ready to go while the fish is cooking, and then remove the fish—don’t bother wiping up the pan—and add 1 T of butter and 1 T of olive oil.  Dump the spinach in the hot pan and stir around with a pair of tongs until wilted (which should take all of about 2 minutes) and salt and pepper and add a squeeze of lemon. 

Nice additions, especially if you are using Swiss Chard or one of the less tough varieties of kale: Skip the butter and just use 2 T olive oil and add thin garlic slices (and some crushed red pepper, optional).  If you go with an Asian twist with the carrots, you might want to continue with the greens by adding a bit of sesame oil and scallion/onion.

We added a hunk of French bread (which was actually in the freezer and which we put in a 350 degree oven for 7 minutes) to round out the meal.  With two veggies, we didn’t even need a salad. 

For dessert, we had mock lemon mascarpone cheesecake with blueberries.  I can talk about this in another post, but it’s so simple—though very tasty, and just what we needed—that I’m almost embarrassed to reveal what we did…

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bacon-Wrapped Salmon with Mushroom Sauce

There are some dishes which we return to again and again, each time surprised by just how good they are.  Did we really make that?  Was it as simple as it seemed?  And so tasty.  So gourmet-seeming!

Will talks about having a dinner party for friends and serving them this Bacon-Wrapped Salmon with Mushroom Sauce.  I resist in part because the dish does involve using the broiler, and I try not to make dinners for guests which could have the potential to set off smoke-alarms.  But I probably hesitate also because I’d be afraid that our guests would see how simple this delectable dish is and thus would be much less impressed with the final product.

We got this recipe from a Food & Wine issue years ago, and it’s a dish we love so much that I’ve cut out that page from the magazine and saved it in a binder of our go-to recipes.  They called it “Broiled Bacon-Basted Salmon with Mushroom-Oyster Sauce.”  It’s a mouthful, so, to each other, Will and I refer to it as “that bacon salmon dish that we like.”  Click here for the recipe.  It’s a good one, so keep it safe.

Having made this dish several times, I can tell you that there are some things we do differently: Namely, we cut up the salmon fillet before broiling (for cleaner cut and presentation), and we would never think about NOT eating the broiled bacon (?!).

So, here’s our version to version 4.

4 fillets of skinless salmon (about an inch thick, and each weighing about 5 oz.)
6 slices of bacon, 4 slices cut in half, and the other two cut in ½ slices
8 oz. mushrooms (we use cremini and shitake), sliced about ¼ inch thick
3 T chopped parsley
3 T chopped chives
2 t chopped garlic
¼ cup oyster sauce (mixed with ½ c hot water)
Optional: Pinch of nutmeg and 1 T cold butter (See Note)

Step 1:
Prepare the salmon by lightly salting and peppering the fillets.  Then wrap each fillet with 2 half-slices of bacon such that you have alternating inch of exposed and bacon-wrapped salmon.  (See picture at top and bottom.)  Then pre-heat the broiler and place the salmon (in a roasting pan) into the broiler, with the top of the salmon about 6 inches away from the heat.  You will cook about 6 minutes and then turn the pan around for another 6 minutes so that the salmon fillets will roast evenly. 

Note: Since you are using a broiler, make sure that you are very careful with the time.  Don’t let this smoke/burn!

Step 2:
Cook the remaining 2 slices of bacon (cut up into ½ inch slices) until almost crisp, and then add all the mushroom slices and sauté for a few minutes—all over medium-high heat.  Then add all of the parsley, 2 T of chives, and the garlic.  After incorporating the herbs and garlic, mix in the oyster sauce mixture and cook a bit to thicken the sauce.

Optional: Food & Wine has you using a pinch of nutmeg and incorporating 2 T butter into the sauce.  I could go either way with this.  Will’s not a huge nutmeg fan, and the oyster sauce is pretty strong anyway so it’s not clear that this step really does anything.  And while I incorporate cold butter into French pan sauces, I’m not sure the mushroom-oyster sauce needs it—or is much improved by it.  I’m not by any means discouraging you from adding the nutmeg and the butter (and I usually do add both), but I wouldn’t be too worried if I skipped that step.

Step 3:
Remove salmon from the broiler, spoon mushroom sauce next to the salmon, and serve all with some brown rice (to sop up the extra mushroom sauce).  To make it pretty, by all means sprinkle the remaining chopped chives over the entire dish.

Now there’s an elegant dinner!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Enjoying Fond Memories of the Camino

Trying to survive a dreary and bitterly cold January in Chicago, I’ve started to have ever more fond thoughts about the Camino.  While walking, we heard, with a certain amount of incredulity, about so many people who walked the same Camino (Frances) many times.  One pilgrim walked it 17 times!  Who has the desire or the time or the energy to walk a 490-mile trail 17 times?  Despite the fact that we were enjoying our stroll along northern Spain—and loving the easy camaraderie of those who were walking with us—we could not fathom walking it again.  Ever.

We talked about this with others.  Would you consider walking this again?  Most said no, initially.  It’s a lot of fun, great exercise, and an ingenious and relatively cheap way to travel (once you factor out the plane ride that got us to a remote part of Europe).  But the objective that drew a good many of us was the task of doing something difficult, the sense of accomplishment at having completed such an arduous task (490 miles of walking!).  Yes, being able to say, “We did it!”  Once having completed it, it doesn’t seem so much fun to repeat for the dubious pleasure of saying, “We did it again!”  (Follows the law of diminishing returns, right?)

In the middle of the Camino, Will and I had a chat with two of our favorite people we met on the trail—Don and Sally, a lovely, recently retired couple from Colorado.  We four had discussed a couple of weeks earlier the quite absurd notion that anyone would want to do this a second time.  Yet, on further reflection a couple of weeks later, they seemed to have changed their minds.  Sally said that she understood why Will and I (and people our age) might not want to return, but she thought that perhaps she and Don would want to do this again. 

Interested in the change of heart, I pressed Sally to identify what shifted in her attitude.  She wondered—in the middle of the time they allotted for the trip—whether or not they would be able to complete the pilgrimage after all.  If they were not able to, they wanted to come back to finish the trip.  Yet, more certain that Will and I would be able to reach our destination, and us being younger—the implication also being that we had better things to be doing—she understood that we might not have the same yearning.  (As a side note, I should say that they did indeed complete the Camino in excellent time, and we met up with them in Santiago to celebrate.)

Last month, the adult son of one of my colleagues returned from walking a week of the Camino (to Logrono), and Will and I met with him to talk about our experiences.  It was nice to be able to talk, back in the states, about this adventure we enjoyed abroad.  When you are on the trail, everyone experiences the same exhilaration and dismay, the same hunger for a tortilla Espanola at 10:00 am and the too-frequent need to stop at a “bar” for a café con leche as an excuse to use the “servicios” (yes, that’s the toilet).  We all know what brand of hot chocolate we’re likely to find (in a packet, served with steamed milk) and how excellent every single orange is along the route.  It’s like we’re speaking the same language.

Towards the end of our adventure, we met three young single women.  When asked why they chose to walk, one of them replied that she is essentially looking for someone, a relationship.  The other two women seemed to want to disown this communal motive for the trip but didn’t know quite how to contradict their friend.  While we were also a bit surprised at her frankness on their behalf, it had to be admitted that there was quite a lot of romance on the trail.  Whether these romances end up being temporary or longer term, I could see the attraction of finding someone who speaks that same—Camino—language because it’s difficult to “return to the real world” when you’ve been dream-walking on the Camino for too long.

So, it comes to this.  You might remember that Will and I opted to skip the first three days of the path (from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Pamplona) because we didn’t want to risk re-injuring Will’s knee so soon after his meniscus surgery.  Well, Will wants us to return to Europe this summer so that we can walk the portion we missed.  We’ll see if the complicated logistics of reaching this remote region for three days of walking will derail us.  Or, if the desire to get back on the trail—unthinkable seven months ago!—will somehow manage to get us to the French Pyrenees…

Friday, January 10, 2014

Two Ways to Prepare Duck Magret Breast

We have decided we simply cannot justify spending a lot of money at restaurants for duck breast anymore! 

Before the holidays, we ordered from Costco (online) D’Artagnan’s Duck Magret Breast and Duck Leg Confit.  The package contained 6 huge duck breasts and 6 (sadly, just normal sized) duck leg confit.  All for $129.99.  Once you get over the initial shock that there is a triple digit price tag, you realize that each duck breast is plump enough to feed two adults with healthy appetites.  That means that, combined with the confit legs, you have 18 individual dinners.  That’s just $7.22 per each delectable, highest quality duck dinners!

We love duck confit and have gads of uses for them (and more on duck confit on another post).  On the other hand, we don’t usually cook duck breast at home.  In part, I think it’s because we didn’t really have a reliable source for good duck breast.  That’s why it was heartening to see all those amazing reviews about the D’Artagnan package.  We felt comfortable, like we weren’t putting our health at risk by cooking up iffy duck breasts at medium-rare.

Weather wasn’t horrendous on Christmas (the way it is in Chicago this week), so for our special holiday dinner we grilled the duck breast on our Weber.  We read from reviews that this was a good way to make sure that the fat drained away from the duck rather than having the meat sit in its own fat while cooking.  The downside of the grilling was the flaring.  The duck breast has an amazing layer of fat, and the fat caused so many flare-ups that the duck was a bit scorched—even with Will checking on it constantly outside in the cold.  The result, scorched or not, was something that tasted like the best medium-rare rib-eye!  Yummy.

As timing would have it, while we were patting ourselves for our first successful duck breast dinner at home, we came across the January 2014 issue of Bon Appetit in which the magazine recommended pan-frying as the simplest method to cook duck.  Fresh from our recent success—and suffering from sub-zero temperatures outside—we decided to cook in the kitchen a second duck breast.  Normally we don’t like to repeat a dish so soon after having it the first time, but we wanted to experiment with this other method of cooking the duck while we still remembered the grilled duck.

With both methods, the preparation is the same: Score the duck fat in a criss-cross pattern and then salt and pepper it.  (There is absolutely no need to oil the duck!)  In each case, the fat side goes on the hot cooking surface first.

On the grill, we cooked pretty much 6 minutes per side—being very careful about flare-ups when the fat side is down.  In our stove-top method, we put the duck (again, fat side down) in a preheated cast-iron pan over medium heat.  If you have the heat at any higher, the grease spattering might be out of control!  As it was, we kept on draining the fat every few minutes so that the duck wouldn’t sit in its fat too much—and so that the smoke alarms could be kept quiet.  We kept the breast down for about 10 minutes before we decided that the skin was crispy brown enough to flip.  (Photo at top of post should give a good indication of how brown and crispy the skin side should be before flipping.)

Then we gave the flesh side another 6 minutes.  (The magazine said 5, but these are very plump, and I wasn’t keen on seeing it too rare.)  The duck then sat for 8 minutes.  The magazine actually said to let it sit for 10 minutes, but since 5 minutes was perfect for the grilled breast, we split the difference.  We actually think even 8 minutes was too long.  Otherwise perfect, we felt that the duck was cooler (yes, in temperature) than it could be—and much cooler than we remember the grilled breast being.  After it rests, slice thinly (above photo should give you an indication of how much meat you will have with one breast) and serve plain or with your favorite sauce.

With the grilled duck, we had brown basmati rice and a vinegary green cabbage slaw with red onion, cilantro, and lime juice (to cut the duck’s fattiness a bit).  We also made a sauce of port wine reduction and dried cherry (photo above).  With the pan-seared duck (photo below and at the top of post), we had a warm roasted root vegetable salad and a brown rice medley (with black barley and daikon seeds) and drizzled a balsamic reduction glaze over both the duck and the root vegetable salad. 

We’ll take a little break from duck breast, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some duck leg confit cassoulet on the way, given all this frigid weather that makes us hunger for comfort foods…

Friday, January 3, 2014

2014 New Year's Food Resolutions

We were traveling back from Los Angeles to Chicago on New Year’s Day and found ourselves on the night of January 1, 2014 without having yet traded New Year’s Resolutions.  Will said that he would make a list over the weekend.  I requested that we do them right before going to bed.  Being an indulgent husband, Will agreed.  (I think he secretly enjoys our New Year’s Resolutions Tradition…)

I told Will that I’m going to eschew the “usual” impossible resolutions: Don’t procrastinate, waste less time and money, exercise more, etc.  Instead, this year, I focused on some very do-able food resolutions.  In part, it had to do with the fact that we found ourselves in very good shape after we were finished walking the Camino—only to find ourselves in much less good shape at the end of the year.  Obviously, we could not replicate walking 32 days at 15-17 miles per day.  So, how could we modify our diet and exercise so that we could get healthier again?

Eat Healthier Breakfasts

In the January 2014 issue of Bon Appetit, editors suggested that we might look to Asia for a healthier new eating style at breakfast.  That idea quickly resonated with us because we had—independently of each other and of the magazine—started thinking the very same thing.  In part, it’s because we decided we needed to cut down on our baked sweets intake.  This move was especially painful for Will since he usually did the baking for those sweets and would miss the chance to create wonderful pastries for our breakfasting pleasure.  But, as we both acknowledged, we didn’t need all that refined flour and sugar.

Our cultural experiences should help with this transition.  Having grown up in a Korean family, I was used to eating Asian breakfasts.  In most parts of Asia, there is no clear distinguishing between what one eats at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  (In a way, that makes sense, right?  Why should there be uniquely differentiated “breakfast food” vs “dinner food”?)  One might have less elaborate a meal with fewer items at breakfast, but the type of food one consumed didn’t really get impacted by the time of day.  When Will lived in Japan while teaching English, he discovered that breakfasts were the most culturally alien of the meals he had to acclimate to since he was used to boxed cereal and coffee in the morning.  He eventually got used to those breakfasts, and we’re confident that we can make this work for a few days at least.

Eat Less White Rice

We’ll see how long our “healthy breakfast” experiment actually lasts.  On Jan. 2, we had brown rice, a fried egg (and a soy-sesame dipping sauce for the egg), and miso soup.  This morning, we had brown rice, Cuban black beans, guacamole, sour cream and salsa.  We’ll either get really tired of brown rice, or decide we’ll need to acquire stocks in a company called Seeds of Change that makes individual pouches of organic brown basmati rice that is microwavable—for those mornings when we cannot find any leftover brown rice to heat up.

Because, finally, we’ve decided that in addition to ditching white bread and its refined flour, we should also cut down on our white rice intake.  With so many Asians suffering from stomach cancer—including some aunts and uncles of mine—and with the diabetes-inducing qualities of starchy steamed white rice, it might be time to opt for brown rice more often.  Our pantry is now stocked with quinoa, couscous, and Trader Joe’s “Brown Rice Medley” (which also includes Black Barley and Daikon Radish Seeds) in addition to the Seeds of Change microwavable brown basmati rice.  We can hardly make the excuse now that it takes so much longer to cook brown rice.

Eat Healthier Desserts

You wonder if that’s possible.  Isn’t “dessert” synonymous with “fattening”?  Well, our desserts usually are.  However, we’ve also traveled enough to know that many cultures offer pieces of fruit as dessert.  In Sorrento, Italy, after a lovely meal of Caprese salad and fried seafood, we saw that really the only dessert on offer was fruit.  We decided to order it.  We were surprised but still also charmed when they brought out a plate of 3 pieces of fruit—unpeeled and not cut-up—and a knife!  On many days of the Camino, the “dessert” offering was sometimes the least interesting.  After foregoing the offer of plain yogurt with a packet of sugar, we often decided on the other option: one piece of fruit.

So we decided that we would attempt more fruit for dessert, or at least fruit-based dessert that didn’t include a lot of refined sugar and flour.  (Alas, cobblers and pies seem to be on this banned list for now.)  I got Will for Christmas a Dessert of the Day cookbook from Williams-Sonoma.  While many of their 365 desserts are indeed fatty and carb-heavy, a good many other desserts are fruit-based.  You can see that the orange sliced chilled with a caramelized sauce looks appetitizing—even without the sweetened Mascarpone-Cointreau topping we put on top later…