The Gut Buster

Eating good, healthy food is an admirable goal. It’s a really good goal.

Sometimes though, it’s just. so. dang. hard. Ya feel me?

Exhibit A: three sticks of butter. When does that ever make sense? Well, a lot of times, that’s when. Just ask Joy the Baker, or Bon Appetit magazine, or Paula Deen, or my Aunt Faye. They’ll tell ya the truth about butter.

Exhibit B: bourbon and homemade vanilla extract? These make sense practically all the time, and I’m not even joking. They are much less problematic than those sticks o’ butter.

Exhibit C: pe-cans? coconut? These are problems, too. I grew up shelling pe-cans, eating ice cream full of pe-cans, pies loaded with them (and not just Thanksgiving day, either), and almost everything sweet is better with pe-cans.

Coconut? Well, I even like coconut in my hair, so I think I don’t need to say anything more here.

So let’s imagine a utopia where all of these things existed at one time. Let’s imagine that such a place was fat-free, calorie-free, and just as tasty. But truthfully, that isn’t the case, as we all know. Truthfully, some things are just meant to bust your gut.

These bars are those things. I can’t even begin to warn you about how ridiculous they are, how sweet and rich and heavy and butter-laden they are. How much they remind me of every Southern pe-can pie I’ve ever eaten, which is to say that they are a-freaking-mazing, each and every little gram of fat contained in them. Which, if you haven’t noticed, is probably a lot.

But some things are worth a splurge. Like maple cheesecake. Red velvet cake. Homemade Oreos (yep!). Rhubarb-Cornmeal tarts.  And now, these: ooey, gooey, buttery “bars” that taste just like your favorite Southern woman’s pe-can pie.

Go ahead, bust a gut. Or three.

Pecan Pie Bars
Adapted from The Pastry Queen; makes 2 1/2 dozen bars

time commitment: 2 hours (includes 1 hour cooling time)

printable version

ingredients
crust
1 1/2 c (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
4 c all purpose flour
1 t salt

filling
8 large eggs
6 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 c bourbon
6 T unsalted butter, melted
2 T vanilla extract
1 c all purpose flour
1 t salt
2 c unsweetened flaked coconut
2 c pecan halves

instructions
Preheat oven to 350 F.

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter in a large bowl on medium speed (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat about 1 minute, until fluffy. Add the flour and salt; mix on low speed until evenly incorporated but still crumbly. Press the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan (I used a 9×13″ pan and used about 2/3 of the mix, but the recipe itself calls for 12×17″ pan but I didn’t have one that big. You could probably divide the mixture between two 8×8″ pans as well and just adjust the baking times accordingly and watch more carefully). Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until it has darkened to a deep golden brown. Leave the oven at 350.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until blended. Stir in the bourbon, butter, vanilla, flour, and salt, then the coconut and pecans. Once the crust is parbaked, pour the filling over the crust, spreading evenly. Bake until set, 25 to 30 minutes (mine baked longer, like 40 minutes, since I poured all of the mix into a smaller pan, resulting in less “surface area” to bake). Cool thoroughly, at least 1 hour. Once cool flip over on wax paper to cut into 3-inch squares or diamonds. (Yields about 2 1/2 dozen bars)

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Way Overdue

I don’t pretend to pay too much attention to what goes on around here. Oblivious? Well, no. But truthfully, I more or less talk about whatever recipe is on my mind without so much as a thought about whether it’s been pasta overload or slim pickin’s in the sweet category, or you know, more of that.

But for once, I actually did do that. Think, I mean. And this resulted: we are way overdue to talk about macaroons.

Not to be confused with the adorable macaron, these here morsels of goodness are feisty while the French similarly-spelled-but-that’s-it treats are graceful. Macarons are intimidating, what with their folding and piping and turning on and off of the oven; macaroons can be made in one’s sleep, or while intoxicated, or both. Macarons are a tease, but macaroons are, well, easy.

I can’t imagine a macaroon without shredded coconut, but I can envision exactly 10,148 ways of flavoring macarons.

Of course, macaroons aren’t meant for the days when you’re feeling creative, and they certainly aren’t meant for the days when you want to spend hours in the kitchen concocting your best dessert production yet. What they’re meant for are the other times – the most of the times, days filled with other obligations and pantries containing only a few random ingredients.

Let’s face it: we all like a few challenges in life, but at the end of the day, these little things, treats that are always way overdue, these are the ones we appreciate the most, aren’t they?

Coconut Macaroons w/ Chocolate Drizzle
adapted loosely from Epicurious; makes  ~2 dozen

time commitment: 1 hour, including cooling time

printable version

ingredients
2 egg whites
2 T sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
kosher salt
1 1/2 c sweetened flaked coconut
1 c dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

instructions
put oven rack in middle position and preheat to 300 F. line baking sheet with parchment paper.

stir together egg white, sugar, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until combined, then stir in coconut. divide mixture into small mounds, dropping onto baking sheet about 2 inches apart from one another.

bake until tops are pale golden in spots, ~15 minutes, then carefully lift parchment and macaroons and place on baking rack to cool completely (they will harden more at this point), about 15 minutes.

meanwhile, dump chocolate chips into a microwavable bowl. zap in microwave on 50% power in 30 second intervals, stirring between each zap, until chocolate chips are melted and smooth. dip a fork into the melted chocolate and wave it over the macaroons, so as to sling the chocolate onto them. coat until you’re happy, and let the chocolate dry over the macaroons before eating. (Alternatively, you could dip these in chocolate in place of or in addition to drizzling chocolate. Just sayin’.)

Something like this

For whatever reason, it has become abundantly clear to me, this week, that summer is LONG gone, fall is about to wear out its welcome, and winter is fast-approaching.

Maybe in your part of the world you’re sitting out in the still-warmish sun, wearing your flippies, and still enjoying the leaves falling, changing colors. Maybe you’re wearing your jacket (the one you can barely call a jacket because it’s so damn thin), but the gloves are still packed away, and maybe you’re trying to squeeze in another grill-fest or make another batch of iced tea. Maybe your scarf is just an accessory, rather than a neccessity.

If that’s you, please shush yourself. I’m quick to report that I’d be extremely jealous, and if you were in front of me bragging about your gorgeous weather, I’d contemplate punching you in the groin, and if you were on Facebook I’d highly consider de-friending you. I’m that jealous, people. It’s weeks like this that I wonder why I don’t live back in the south, or in California, or New Mexico, or freakin’ Jamaica.

Have I told you I can be a bit dramatic? It’s not really that cold…and to be perfectly honest, what troubles me most about this weather is the fact that I’ll soon have to start wearing socks every day, and every night I go to sleep. I hate socks. I like to expose my wonky toes to the world, donning sandals and flats, and even flippies although those were put away a month ago, thank you.

Yesterday, I reached into the depths of a closet and out came one of my gramma’s handmade quilts. And even though I hated the fact that I was cold enough to need it, once I wrapped myself up in it, I sorta had a change of heart. I was warm, and I was home, and in a matter of moments I’d be gobbling up a bowl full of this soup.

This soup, I tell you. When you have flavors of curry and coconut and lime at your tongue, you realize the weather outside doesn’t matter much.  You realize that one of the many inherited blankets you have in your possession is oh so comforting, and even though the sandals are no more, the gloves much needed, and the snow not far away, it doesn’ t quite matter as long as you come home – to something like this.

Coconut Red Curry ‘Hot Pot’ w/ Braised Chicken & Mushrooms
adapted from Cooking Light, October 2010; serves 4 as main, 6 as first course

time commitment: less than 1 hour; 30 minutes active time

a traditional hot pot is an ultra hot bowl of broth where the meat is generally thinly sliced and cooked tableside in the pot. the meat here, as well as the ‘shrooms, is braised prior to serving, but the Thai flavors are still present, still tasty.

printable version

ingredients
2  14 oz cans  fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
2 stalks chopped peeled fresh lemongrass
5  (1/4-inch) slices fresh ginger
2 Thai chiles
1 1/2  T  red curry paste
1  (4-ounce) package presliced exotic mushroom blend (such as shiitake, cremini, and oyster)
8  oz  skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1  (13.5-ounce) can light coconut milk
1  T  Thai fish sauce
2  t  brown sugar
1/3  c  thinly diagonally cut green onions
3  T  fresh lime juice
6  T  coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, divided
5  oz  uncooked wide rice noodles

instructions
Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; stir in lemongrass, ginger, and chiles. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve over a bowl; discard solids. Return broth to pan; add curry paste, stirring with a whisk. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; cook 2 minutes or until tender. Stir in chicken; cook 3 minutes or until chicken is done. Add coconut milk, stirring well to combine. Stir in fish sauce and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat; stir in onions, juice, and 1/4 cup cilantro.

Cook noodles according to package directions; drain (if your noodles are like mine and the package writing is in another language, this won’t help… rice noodles are generally soaked in water for 30 minutes, then cooked in boiling water for 3-4 minutes; cook noodles right before serving, and not in advance). Add noodles to coconut milk mixture. Ladle 1 cup soup into each of 4-6 bowls; sprinkle evenly with remaining 2 tablespoons cilantro.

Whine & Brine

I’m sure we all have a list of pet peeves, correct? I mean let’s get real here, people, it’s not a crime to be annoyed by things, so let’s not waste time pretending we’re one of those “shiny happy people” 24/7, ok?

Raise your hand if you can think of at least 5 pet peeves. If you can’t, I’ll give you a dollar. I’m gonna share 5 of mine, but believe-you-me, I have more.

First and foremost: too, many, commas. I’m not an English major by any account, and I hated learning about dangling modifiers and how to diagram sentences (The former still makes me chuckle, as does anything involving the word ‘dangling’. I’m so mature.). It seemed pointless at the time, but thinking back I’ve realized how crucial those grueling days in Mrs. McCutcheon’s class were. When I read something, I can’t seem to read it for content alone; I am constantly editing, pausing when I come upon a comma, adding an oomph to a word that’s bolded or italicized, and lingering over any mis-spelled wurd. It’s a problem, and I can’t help but think I missed my calling – is it too late to make a career as an editor?!

The comma issue is my greatest source of annoyance though, and I can’t stand it when someone overuses the comma. Like I said, when I see a comma I pause, because that’s what commas are for. Sometimes the pause is mid-sentence, or mid-thought (when a pause isn’t usually needed), and it drives me batshit. Yes, I really am a tad nutty, I know.

Number two? Also, I should say here that these are not in order of importance, and if they were I wouldn’t tell you anyway. I don’t know if you’d call this a pet peeve, but I type the word “breast” so often at work that I accidentally type it all. the. time. If I’m talking about bread, I always type “breast” first (ha – yeasted breast, and Do you like butter on your breast? Or maybe just a little jam?), then I have to delete the ‘-st’ and type the ‘d’. If I’m saying something is great, I instinctively type ‘greast’ instead because my fingers naturally gravitate towards ‘st’ after any word with ‘ea’ in it. Oh, boy – someone is bound to think I have deeply-rooted issues with my boobs when they read this. I don’t, and truth be told, I like them just fine. And jam, please.

Three. Those of you who know me well know that I have a huge “social pet peeve”: rejecting commitments. I get way bent out of shape if someone bails outta something they’ve previously committed to, especially at the last minute. I try to be better about that and realize that just because it’s one of my no-no’s it doesn’t mean it has to be someone else’s and that if someone wants to be rude and inconsiderate, why not leave them be? And I don’t mean to say that if you are in the ER with kidney stones that you’re still expected to show up at my barbeque, but you get the point here, right?

Four & five: food-conscious.

Food-wise, there’s more than just these two, but I’ll start here. One is a restaurant thing – when they lie about the dish, claiming it contains a certain ingredient it does not. I can recall two specific times when that’s happened (one very recently), and I’m sure there are more. The problem is, restaurants know that most people can’t tell the difference between ice cream and gelato, queso fresco and feta. It seems obvious at first, but you trust the ingredient is what it claims to be, and you move on. I have yet to really call someone out on it, but my opinion of the place certainly changes. You falsely advertise to the wrong person, and it’s gonna getcha. Luckily for them, I only complain to you guys.

Lastly, for today at least, is the ever-annoying brick of meat, the cooked-so-much-you-could-break-a-tooth-off-by-chewing-so-hard pork chop, or the we-definitely-won’t-give-you-salmonella-because-we-cooked-our-chicken-to-180 degrees chicken. Sure, salmonella’s scary, and I for one wouldn’t want to take it home after dinner, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want good chicken. Often times folks forget about carryover cooking and even though chicken is generally cooked in smaller batches than roasts, it still continues to cook a bit, nonetheless.

Enter brining – a soaking process, similar to marinating, that I’m convinced makes it almost impossible to overcook anything, especially your money-well-spent pastured, organic chicken from your local farm. I’d never planned far enough in advance to brine, but thanks to Art Smith, I’m converted, and the amount of effort is so minimal I can’t believe I never tried it before. You start the night before you want to cook your chicken, heat up the brining liquid, and cover the meat in it, with water, overnight.

The result? Like, OMG, it is totally rad. Silky smooth, ultra-moist, and just plain heavenly. Of course, this particular recipe was a gold mine anyway, and thanks to the Food Photo contest I have a whole book of Art’s recipes to try, but I’m having a hard time imagining any of them stacking up to this one. I may just have to cancel all my plans for the next week to work my through a few of them :).

So now it’s your turn: what are your pet peeves? Play nicely by sharing in the comments section, and I may just come up with a ’round 2′ post. Fun times, right?

Pistachio-Crusted Chicken w/ Coconut-Chili-Ginger Sauce
Adapted from Back to the Family, 6-8

this recipe is adapted rather heavily, but the overall idea is the same. I used different quantities of herbs, and the recipe appeared to make more ‘crust’ than was needed for the amount of chicken, so the quantities are all scaled back a bit. i also tweaked the sauce some, using a couple of different ingredients and less butter to make it a little healthier. believe me, it’s still rich and as Art said in the book’s commentary, you could totally drink it…

a couple of quick notes: please don’t skip the brining. did you not read the paragraph at the end of this post?! brining = genius. also, i thought this went nicely with a serving of millet, but couscous or rice would work too, with a little lime zest, coconut, and lime juice tossed in. enjoy!

printable version (with brine recipe)

ingredients
pistachio-crusted chicken
4 brined*, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 quart buttermilk
1 1/2 c shelled pistachios
1 c grated Parmesan cheese
2 T fresh thyme, chopped
2 T fresh rosemary, chopped
2 T fresh parsley, chopped
2 c all purpose flour
sunflower oil, to taste

coconut-chili-ginger sauce
5 T butter, divided
2 shallots, minced
2 blades lemongrass, chopped
3 1/2″ pieces of fresh ginger, sliced thinly
1 c sweet white wine (I used Muscato)
2 c chicken broth
2 T Thai red curry paste
1 T tamarind concentrate
1 T sweet red chile sauce
1 8-oz can light coconut milk
salt and pepper

instructions
remove chicken from brine and cut breasts in half. with a meat mallet, pound until 1/4″ thick and place in nonreactive bowl. cover with buttermilk and cover. refrigerate for 1 hour.

place pistachios in food processor and pulse until finely chopped.  place in bowl. add Parmesan cheese and herbs and pulse; add to bowl of pistachios.

meanwhile, prepare the sauce. in a medium saucepan over med-hi heat, combine 1 T butter through wine and reduce by half. add broth, curry paste, tamarind, and sweet chili sauce and reduce by half. then add coconut and reduce by half. remove from heat and whisk in remaining 4 T butter until incorporated. season with salt and pepper. keep warm. (optional – take an emulsion blender to it to smooth it out, or toss it into the blender for a couple of pulses.)

preheat oven to 250 F.

place flour in a bowl separate from pistachio mixture and season with salt and pepper. remove chicken from fridge. remove one piece at a time, shake off excess buttermilk, and coat each side with flour. dip one side of the breast into the pistachio mixture and press pistachios onto that side. repeat with all chicken.

preheat a large nonstick pan over medium with a thin coating of sunflower oil. when ready, place chicken (in batches) in pan, pistachio side down, and cook 2-3 minutes. turn and cook other side the same. place chicken on a sheet pan and finish cooking in the oven for 8-10 minutes. removed, let rest for 5 minutes, and serve with warm coconut-chili-ginger sauce.

*Chicken Brine
from Back to the Family; makes 1 1/4 c

printable version (brine only)

ingredients
1 c kosher salt
1/4 c sugar
5 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 T black peppercorns
chicken being brined

instructions
place all ingredients and 2 c water in a saucepan over med-hi heat. stir until sugar and salt dissolve. remove from heat and let cool.

place chicken in a large nonreactive pot and cover with water. use a plate to weigh down chicken. pour brine over, cover, and let sit in brine at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Straight from Bombay

My good friend, Cheryl, used to have a boyfriend. He was (still is) of Indian descent, and he was one pretty cool guy. He liked hip-hop music and Escalades (neither of those necessarily made him cool, and I’m not sure why I keep saying these things in the past-tense, because I’m sure he still likes hip-hop and Escalades). What was my favorite thing about him, you might ask? I’d be hard-pressed to decide between his dance skillz and his ability to make a killer masala chai.

Oh, Lordy-me-oh-my, that stuff was good enough to make you consider selling your first-born child for a lifetime supply of it. Though he’s not around anymore, I’m willing to bet he could be found through a simple Facebook search, and if I do find him, I might ask him if he’d like to have an “ultra-white” blue-eyed, blonde-haired raggamuffin. But then, if he said yes, I’d have to give up wine for 9 months, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for that, especially with a trip to the west coast in my near future (!!), and a hopeful excursion to “the boot” next year (!!!).

Now before I go on waxing poetic about this guy (actually, I was finished), let me say that Cheryl’s new (if you consider new to mean almost 3 years old) squeeze is way more awesome, and I’m not just saying that just because he reads my blog. I’m saying that because he has a motorcyle. And a boat. And, he let Hubs borrow his “De-troits” when we visited them a couple of weeks ago. Also, he has mad photo skillz (to make up for what I would assume to be lackluster dance skillz, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen him cut a rug, or try to, even – it’s just a hunch) and he can make a Mediterranean pizza that might just make me consider trading in my second-born for a constant supply of that. I get the impression that I’d have to up the ante though, cause I doubt Cheryl wants a lil’ Wetzel running around her house, and quite frankly, I’d prefer our bedroom there to be free of mobiles, onesies, and poo.

Back to this chai business. I seem to be losing focus today, don’t I? I’m gonna try to push through, because I do want to talk about this lovely concoction you see here. My breakfast rotation was starting to become a bit stale, if you will, and let me tell ya – I heart the granola bar, I do. But I was in need of a change, actually just a slight variation, you see. I wanted something a little less chewy, but not lacking in flavor or texture otherwise. I wanted to make it myself, because I do adore homemade breakfasts. I wanted there to be oats, and fruit, and nuts (oh, my!), and distinct flavors that wake me up in the morning, sans caffeine.

So quite clearly, what I wanted was granola spiced with all those Indian flavors that you find in a masala chai, those flavors that remind me of those few times the ex-boyfriend-of-my-friend-and-still-Indian-guy-with-the-dance-skillz made when he was visiting.

And since, at some point during the process of contemplating this recipe, I’ve decided that I would probably like to keep my first- (and possibly second-) born children, when and if I have them, I figured it best to make my own spice mix, and that I did. I’m guessing, no I’m quite certain, that you can buy what they call “chai spice” mix from your local spice store, but making it really is just as easy if you’ve got a few seconds. You can do like I did and use ground spices as a short-cut, or you can really keep it real by using whole spices.

Either way, when you do make it, and when you get your hands into that bowl of fresh-made chai-spiced granola, thank those folks from South Asia for their lovely spices. Or me, really – the one phrase I learned during my one German class was, ironically, “Ich komme aus Bombay“.

ps – Happy Birthday Cheryl – this one’s for you!

Vanilla-Chai Spiced Granola
makes ~20 servings (1/2 c each)

okay, this probably seems like a lot of granola – you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that. but here’s the thing: it keeps for weeks, so why not make a boat-load of it?! store in the fridge for weeks, give to friends, or eat it by the handful over a weekend. Your choice. and if you choose to not make this much, it easily halves.

by the way, this granola is awesome with plain yogurt, or with a little milk poured over it. or by the handful, as previously suggested.

printable version

ingredients
6 c rolled oats*
2 c coarsely chopped nuts (I used pecans and hazelnuts)
1/2 c unsweetened shredded coconut
5 T packed brown sugar
1/2 t kosher salt
1 T ‘chai’ spice blend (recipe below)
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/3 c agave nectar
1/3 c blackstrap molasses
4 T vegetable oil
1 c dried fruit (I used blueberries and golden raisins)

instructions
Preheat oven to 300 F. Line two standard-sized baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix oats through vanilla. Combine oil, agave nectar, and molasses in a small saucepan and heat until mixed thorougly and just-boiling. Remove from heat and pour over granola mixture.

Spread 1/2 of mixture on one baking sheet and the remaining half on the other. Bake for ~ 40 minutes, stirring mixture and rotating pans every 10 minutes. Remove and cool granola in the baking sheets on a wire rack. When cooled, mix in dried fruit.

*gluten-free oats if needed.

Chai Spice Mixture
makes ~3 tablespoons

there are dozens of similar recipes out there, so use this or use whatever you find. or buy it, if you don’t have all the spices on hand and don’t want to buy all of them!

printable version (spice only)

ingredients
1 T g. ginger
1/2 T g. cinnamon
1 t g. cloves
1 t g. cardamom
1 t g. nutmeg
1 t g. allspice
1/2 t g. pepper

instructions
isn’t this obvious? mix them together!

Captain’s Corner

There was this store in my hometown, a store-slash-pseudo-restaurant, that was frequented by us highschoolers looking for afternoon cigarettes and the others who were going for an after-school hot dog. At some point, the Captain’s Corner turned into a regular hangout, a place of comfort where friends mingled, where we found older kids to buy us smokes, and where we people-watched till the joint closed for the day and we were forced to loiter elsewhere, which was usually behind “the mall”.

The word comfort emits a different connotation for me today, and in most cases, has something to do with food. And why shouldn’t it?

 

As a kid getting home from school, I had the swingset and a backyard with a grapevine-woven fence; today, it’s a balcony with a grill and a glass of wine. In high school, it was the Captain’s Corner or a drive up and down Vernon Avenue, with anything from Pearl Jam to Biggie Smalls blaring out of the busted speakers and vibrating the windows. Now, it’s an outdoor BYOB for Happy Hour or the tunes Hubs spins on his fancy record player while I whip up something for dinner. And in college, there was certainly alcohol and pizza, but comfort meant a trip home for fresh laundry and quiet time with the family. While I’d still love to have mom do my laundry, I instead find comfort in those carefully prepared, overly luscious dinners – the ones you eat slowly, bite by bite, because they just feel like home, childhood, and all those things you want to last forever.

This is one of those meals.

Country Captain, a dish I’d never heard of until exactly 1 month ago, is the ultimate comfort dish. Though it’s Indian at heart, it’s more commonly lauded as a Southern dish, which either means I’m a fake Southerner or that it’s made in a Southern area other than North Carolina (supposedly Savannah, mainly). Plus, when you have Aunt Faye and her chicken pastry and fried chicken – do you really need anything else? I rest my case, if there was one against me…

So this country captain business – it is really somethin’. And while the cauliflower was almost enough to make me toss this recipe aside, my curiousity and love of all the other ingredients won me over. Fortunately, I not only tolerated, but I thoroughly enjoyed the cauliflower. They are perfectly crunchy, buried in the absolute best smelling made-from-scratch curry powder and crushed tomato sauce you ever did smell, and not only do those little peas in your freezer add some color, they’re juicy in a way, and they pop between your teeth. Dried cherries, as odd as it may seem, are crucial, as they rehydrate and become chewy blips of sweetness.

If you need one more reason to make this, other than all the goodness listed above and the fact that this only dirties one pot, and that it freezes like a dream (I have one serving left), how does finishing this off with a healthy slap of peanut butter sound? I’ll stop here, and I’m heading straight for the freezer…

What’s your favorite comfort food?

Country Captain with Cauliflower and Peas
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010; serves 6

printable version

ingredients
spice mixture
1 1/2 t coriander or coriander seeds
1 t fennel seeds
1 t cumin or cumin seeds
1/2 t whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
1/4 t cardamom seeds (from 3 whole green cardamom pods)
1 1/2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1/2 t turmeric
1/4 t cayenne pepper

chicken
5 T peanut oil, divided
1 small head of cauliflower, trimmed, cut into 1-inch florets (about 4 cups)
Kosher salt
2 lbs skinless boneless chicken thighs, trimmed, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
1 bunch green onions, dark green and white parts chopped separately
1 T finely grated peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 c reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes with added puree
1/3 c dried Bing cherries, finely chopped
1 T smooth peanut butter
1 1/2 c frozen petite peas (9 to 10 ounces; do not thaw)
1/3 c coconut shavings (or unsweetened shredded coconut), lightly toasted

instructions
spice mixture
Place coriander, fennel seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, and cinnamon stick in small dry skillet (or, to save dishwork, in the bottom of the heavy large pot, below). Stir over medium heat until fragrant and slightly darker in color, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat; cool. Finely grind spices in spice mill or in mortar with pestle. Transfer to small bowl; add turmeric and cayenne.

chicken
Heat 3 T oil in heavy large deep pot over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower florets; sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and sauté until beginning to soften and brown in spots, 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl.

Add remaining 2 T oil and half of chicken to same pot; sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and sauté until chicken is light brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer chicken to large bowl. Repeat with remaining chicken.

Add white parts of green onions, finely grated ginger, and minced garlic to same pot; reduce heat to medium and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground spice mixture; stir 15 seconds. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Add crushed tomatoes; reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Stir in dried cherries and peanut butter; return chicken and any accumulated juices to pot. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add sautéed cauliflower to pot; cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through and cauliflower is tender, about 10 minutes longer. Season with coarse salt and pepper.

Add frozen peas to stew and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes. Ladle stew into bowls. Sprinkle each serving with green onion tops and toasted coconut shavings and serve.

Kick His Ass, Sea Bass!

Chilean sea bass
As I’d mentioned before, this past weekend was a house full of visitors. And not just any ol’ visitors, but the in-laws. Now, some of you may shriek at the thought of your in-laws visiting, or perhaps at the thought of even spending time with them. What about cooking for them, and two of their best friends who have come along for the road trip? Would that make you want to crawl into a deep dark cave and rock back and forth with your knees to your chest screaming, “mommy! mommy!”?!

huge sea bass fillet

I suppose I’m a little different than you, then. I find myself extrememly fortunate in having awesome in-laws. They are a wonderul pair these two, and for a ‘retired’ couple they are highly active. My father-in-law, Barry, has been planning a huge 5-week road trip for the past few years, and clearly stated he’d go alone if need be. But he didn’t have to – his wife, Susan, and one of their favorite couples, Jack & Joan, volunteered to accompany him from North Carolina to Montana, the Rockies, and eventually over to Canada and many spots in between. Now that’s a trip to look forward to! Luckily for us, Chicago was one of those “in-betweens” and so for a weekend, we got to play host to all four of them.

broth components

Not only are the in-laws pretty cool, but their friends don’t suck either. They’re all pretty knowlegable about food and were quite excited about having a ‘chef-in-training’ whip up a dinner. Me? I was pee-in-my-pants excited! I get giddy enough about making dinner for the two of us, let alone for a group of visitors! And visitors who know and appreciate food? Holy heck yes!

ready to plate

But let’s push that excitement to the side for a second: I don’t really cook for ‘foodies’, and I don’t cook for (in most cases) groups larger than 2 and max, 4. So I had to strategize for a minute. I knew we’d be eating out, and eating heavily for most of the weekend. [ps, if you haven’t been to Hot Chocolate and live in Chicago, get your ass over there now! And you better eat dessert.] I also knew a plank-grilled salmon and rice was too easy for this crowd. So I dove onto epicurious in search of a somewhat fancy fish dinner, and decided on a recipe I couldn’t stop clicking back to. I was not misled.

and... plating

If you’re in ‘the market’ for a fun, inexpensive fish market, head on over to Isaacson & Stein. My friend, Caroline, posted about that market and I’d been wanting to go ever since. You walk into a large factory-like building, grab a pair of gloves and a baggie, and peruse the fish to find your match. Then you bag it yourself, get it weighed, pay an ungodly cheap price for the size and grade of fish you’re getting and head home with a smile. A big smile.

I set out to buy cod, but couldn’t take my eyes off the Chilean sea bass. I figured it would work just fine, and so I bagged those puppies up and took ’em home for the feast. I also procured some larger than life shrimp for an appetizer dish.
chilean sea bass and baby bok choy

Everything turned out great, and I was pretty darn pleased with the end result and the flavors in this concoction. The fish was perfectly cooked and went really well with the curry broth, which had flavors of lemongrass, coconut, and lime. It was surprisingly light, refreshing, and not soupy in the slightest. The bok choy was crisp, slightly wilted, and a perfect accompaniment to the main attraction. I did feel the need to add some starch to the dish though and tossed some glass noodles into the bottom of the bowl to help sop up the lovely lemongrassy broth that I literally could have drank from the bowl, like the milk after eating a bowl of Cookie Crisp. On a negative side, this dish is definitely one for the skilled multi-tasker; I think at one point I had 3 burners going and the oven at 400 degrees, and timing was crucial. But if you can get it right, you might find it to be, in Jack’s exact words, “the best sea bass I’ve ever had“.

well-fed group

Chilean Sea Bass w/ Coconut, Lime, & Lemongrass Curry Sauce
Adapted from Eric Ripert’s Epicurious recipe; serves 4

So… are you planning a dinner party soon? In the doghouse and need to reclaim the pants in your relationship? Feelin’ an itch to juggle a few pots and pans at one time? Or just want a super tasty weekend meal that you’ll feel ridiculously proud of? Here’s your answer. Hopefully this dish won’t kick your ass.
ingredients
sauce
1 T butter
2 shallots, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 lemongrass stalk*, thinly sliced
1-inch knob ginger, roughly peeled & thinly sliced
3 kaffir lime leaves*
1 T Madras curry
3 cups chicken stock
1 can canned coconut milk (do NOT use light here)
4 cilantro sprigs
sea salt, or kosher salt, to taste
fresh ground pepper, to taste
2 T fresh lime juice (or more if not using kaffir leaves – use 1 T for each leaf)
sea bass
2 T canola oil
4 7-oz Chilean sea bass fillets, 1 1/2 inches thick, skin on
salt and pepper
veggie side
1/2 stick butter (can omit or add less)
fine sea salt
4 heads of baby boy choy, divided in half
kosher salt
starch
7-8 oz vermicelli style noodles (also called glass or cellophane)


instructions
Preheat oven to 400 F. Start a large pot of salted water and butter to boiling (put cover on to speed this up).
To make the broth, melt butter in medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves, and curry and sweat until tender and with no color, about 5-6 minutes. Add chicken stock and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the coconut milk and cilantro and simmer 5 minutes. Season w/ salt and pepper. Strain through fine chinois (strainer) and set aside, keeping warm. Stir in 1 T lime juice.
Put 2 T of oil in one large (ovensafe) skillet, or if using large fillets, divide it into 2 skillets. Place over high heat until oil is just smoking. Season sea bass on both sides with s&p. Put in skillet (skin side down) and saute until golden brown and crusted on the bottom, about 2 1/2 minutes. Turn and sear on the other side for 30 seconds. Put pans in the oven and roast until a metal skewer can be easily inserted in the fish and, when left in the fish for 5 seconds, feels hot when touched to your lip, about 6-7 minutes. (this is an Epicurious tip..).
To the pot of boiling water and butteryness, add bok choy and cook until crisp and tender, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a sheet pan in the fridge to “shock” and stop cooking, retaining the bright green color. SAVE THE WATER and bring it back up to boil.
While the fish are roasting and the boy choy is in the fridge, add the glass noodles to the boiling water and remove the pot from the heat. Let sit for a few minutes until noodles are soft. Drain.
To plate, add a small mound of noodles to the bottom of a large bowl. Place fish on top and 2 halves of bok choy around. Pour 1/4 of broth over the fish. Squeeze a little lime juice on top (~1 T for all 4 bowls). Voila!!
*Both kaffir lime leaves & lemongrass can be found at specialty Asian food stores. Lemongrass is sold in many grocery stores, and Kaffir lime leaves can be found at Whole Foods in some locations (like the Lincoln Park Chicago location) and can be purchased here.
p.s. Title quote courtesy of Dumb & Dumber. Great movie, great quote 🙂