Just the Two of Us

In almost 3 years of blogging, there are a lot of recipes around these parts. And among all the ones seafood-centric, not a one of them involves scallops.

This is going to change that, and majorly.

Chris and I usually do like everyone else and head out to a restaurant for Valentine’s day, whereby all the wait and cook staff forced to work that night provide somewhat lackluster food at dilated prices. It never stops us though – and it’s not like we go to restaurants we’ve been eyeing for years, or places we’ve never been to – we go to the same places we’d go any other weekend. That said, it seems just as reasonable to stay home and just be together, saving the tasting menus and parking hassles for another night.

So we did this year. I mean, at least this year Chris wasn’t about to hop on a plane and move to California without me for two months, right?! So there was certainly plenty to celebrate – a March and April free of selling a condo, shipping our belongings across the country, tempering territorial cats, living out of a suitcase, and apartment-shopping. Instead, months of continuing to settle in and absolutely adore everything different about this year was something definitely in need of appreciating.

So I decided it was well past time to make scallops. I picked up a half dozen oysters, too. We hung out in the kitchen together – me searing scallops and making this amazing lemongrass-tomato sauce, and Chris shucking oysters and putting together a nice, spicy mignonette to eat them with. We even ate at the dining room table like civilized folk. Or do civilized folk eat on the floor in front of the TV, desperately trying to catch up on episodes of Castle or CSI? Because if that’s the case, then we are ultra-civilized. I can’t decide…

Either way, I enjoyed the way things turned out that night. I enjoyed being home, a little music in the background, not having to worry at all that the cooks would serve me raw pork chop (V-day 2009) or that someone would propose in a super cheesy way nearby (V-day 2004) or that we’d be drunk and stumbling home in the cold (V-day 2011). We just ate together, the two of us.

And this dinner was freaking awesome, to boot.

Seared Scallops in Lemongrass-Tomato Sauce
adapted from Self Magazine, 2008 via Epicurious; serves 2 

this recipe was originally slated for 8, probably as an appetizer. I pared it down and made it for 2, but you’ll still have leftover sauce. it would go great on any seafood or even on pasta, so don’t throw it out!

time commitment: 45 minutes

printable version

ingredients
2 T canola oil, divided
1/2 onion, chopped
4 stalks lemongrass, dry leaves removed, stems pounded; cut into 3-inch lengths*
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 red Thai bird chiles, finely chopped*
1 c dry white wine
1 can (14 ounce) whole tomatoes, plus juice
1/4 c Thai basil
1/4 c fresh mint
1/4 c cilantro sprigs
1/2 c baby arugula
Juice from 1/2 lime
10 jumbo sea scallops

*lemongrass and Thai chiles can be found abundantly in Asian markets (Thai chiles are sometimes in their freezer section) or in well-stocked grocery stores, like some good-sized Whole Foods.

instructions
Heat 1 t canola oil in a large, nonstick pan over low heat. Cook onion with a pinch of salt until translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in lemon grass, garlic and chiles. Add wine. Raise heat to high, then simmer 4 minutes. Add tomatoes and juice; break apart tomatoes. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Remove lemongrass and discard; puree the rest in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

Meanwhile, toss basil through arugula together in a bowl; season with salt and pepper. Whisk lime juice and 2 t oil together, then add to salad and sit aside.

Season scallops with salt and pepper. Heat a large nonstick pan over high heat 1 minute; add 1/2 T oil. Cook 5 scallops 1 minute; reduce heat to medium-high; cook undisturbed until golden, about 4 minutes. Turn scallops over; cook 3 minutes more. Remove from heat. Repeat with remaining 1/2 T oil and 5 scallops. Divide scallops and sauce and serve with salad.

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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.

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 🙂