My Lemon Has a First Name, It’s M-E-Y-E-R

There are times when you just impulsively pick up ingredients with no plan whatsoever for how to use them, just because they are intriguing or exceptionally fresh and inviting.  At $20 each, I had already made the decision not to pick up the emu egg, and, feeling particularly good about myself for avoiding the temptation of that purchase, was completely blindsided by the sack of Meyer lemons.  At the bargain price of $1.99, it was a risk well worth taking.

We had taken an evening to go visit the stupefyingly immense Whole Foods that had recently opened in Plymouth Meeting, PA.  At 65,000 square feet, the store sits above a parking garage with enough room for 345 cars.  Pulling into the space, you feel as if you should be checking airline arrival and departure times, and the escalator ride up from the garage feels like an ascent into hippie heaven.

Back to the lemons.  I had heard of Meyer lemons, and had the occasion to sample them as an ingredient in some courses here and there, but never has a star component of any dish.  Having only seen them once in my local market years ago, I did not take the opportunity to try them at that time, mainly because they were considered to be such an exotic item that the price was a deterrent.  So, having run into them again, and at half the price, I just had to pick them up, plan or no.

The mesh bag of golden orbs sat on our kitchen counter for a few days as I looked for an appropriate way to inaugurate my taste buds to the wonders of the Meyer lemon.  There were, to be honest, many more applications than I could ever have hoped to find – Meyer lemon sorbets, granitas, and savory dishes.  Ultimately, I decided on a very straightforward pots de creme, which beckoned with its simplicity – just a mixture of one egg, egg yolks (4), sugar (2/3C), lemon juice (1/2C), cream (1.25C), and zest.  Whipped up in a single bowl, then baked in a water bath (425 degrees) for about a half hour, there seemed to be no more straightforward way to experiment with the fruit.

The Meyer lemons actually looked nothing like lemons at all.  Instead of bumpy skin, these lemons were smooth, and instead of being bright yellow, they trended more towards orange and, in truth, looked like tangerines.  Cutting into them yielded a lot of juice, and tasting it off of my fingers, I noted that Meyer lemons are sweeter and less tart than traditional lemons – think of a cross between lemon and tangerine.  Having zested the lemons and juiced them with a reamer, I was satisfied that I had extracted as much flavor out of each of them that I possibly could have.

The Meyer lemon pots de creme turned out to be a test of willpower.  After cooking, they needed to be cooled to room temperature, covered in plastic wrap, then chilled overnight.  But the next night, after a trying day at work and a challenging commute through the cold, dark early evening of January, there was no brighter end to the day than the spoonful of pure sunshine that the pot de creme provided.

January 28, 2010   Comments

One Final Tribute to Summer, in a Pot of Sauce

I used to dream about San Marzano tomatoes, gladly shelling out three times the cost of a can of “regular” plum tomatoes for 28 ounces of pure Italian summer joy.  The low acid San Marzano variety is less sweet than other tomatoes, yielding an absolute superior flavor when used as the base for sauce.  They grow only in the small town of San Marzano, near Naples, and they are subject to the strict regulations of Denominazione di origine controllata that are used to certify authenticity of origin.

With all of this in mind, I was excited to be able to order San Marzano tomato plants for the garden this year.  They’ve provided a steady crop of plump roma fruit throughout the summer, and last weekend I harvested the last of the ripe tomatoes from the plants, along with a handful of basil.  The tomatoes sat on the kitchen island for a few days while I devised a proper way to say goodbye to summer.

As it turns out, the best use of San Marzano tomatoes will always be as the primary ingredient in sauce.  Since they are less sweet, and carry less moisture than other tomatoes, they’re not really the best thing to slice and eat like their larger beefsteak cousins.

I started by peeling the tomatoes (cut an ‘X’ into the base of each, place into boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then hold under cold running water and strip the skin), slicing them in half to let the seeds drop into the sink.  I placed a generous mound of chopped garlic into a puddle of olive oil in a saucepan, letting that heat gently as I roughly chopped the tomatoes, tossing them into the pan once the garlic turned golden and aromatic.  A splash of white wine to the pan, then I let the whole thing cook slowly, breaking the tomatoes up with a spoon.

When we were ready to eat, I adjusted the seasoning of the sauce with sea salt, then added about a 1/4 cup of half and half.  It’s amazing to see and taste the differences between a plain tomato sauce and one that’s had a little dairy added to it.  Slivers of basil, stirred into the sauce at the very last minute, provided the perfect herbal companion.

And, at the time of this writing, it’s only three months before I can place my order for next summer’s tomato plants.  Until then, I’ll have to make do with what we’ve canned.

October 16, 2009   Comments

Hello, Autumn: Ginger Ginger Blah Blah Blah Ginger Cookies

The weather has taken a definitive turn towards autumn in our neck of the woods.  Even though there are still a few tomatoes on the vine, and the basil plants have not yet succumbed to the first frost, the chill in the air makes me crave something that would usher in the change of season – but gently, gradually, not like those garish displays of animated Christmas decorations in the supermarket.

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve never posted anything about cookies here.  It’s not that I don’t like cookies (really, quite the opposite), but more because our house has always pledged allegiance to the chocolate chip cookie, with the occasional nod to a bittersweet chocolate drop cookie.  A couple of weeks ago, we found ourselves in a bakery/cafe for brunch, and I had the most wonderful ginger cookie which left such an impression, evoked such a timely feeling of seasonality, that it sent me on a quest to find a way to enjoy that same feeling at home.

There are a lot of ginger cookie recipes out there, and I ultimately decided on this one, from Epicurious.  If you do the research, you’ll find that ginger cookie recipes all have some basic ingredients in common, and already I am feeling confident enough to start experimenting with variations on this recipe.  In fact, I’m looking to translate the core flavors of this cookie, along with some special modifications, to a cake or loaf pan recipe.

A proper ginger cookie recipe is loaded to bear with all manner of fall weather spices – besides the obvious ginger, there’s clove and cinnamon.  To have the cookies turn out as chewy as possible, the primary sweetener is dark brown sugar, along with the addition of molasses to add another depth of flavor.  My favorite thing about this particular recipe, though, is the inclusion of chopped candied ginger.  If you’ve never worked with candied ginger before, let me warn you that it is an addictive ingredient – you can eat the chunks like candy, and each bite is a tiny explosion of intense ginger flavor, offset by the sweet coating of sugar.  It’s no wonder that candied ginger works so well in baking.  Whatever remains after you’ve assembled the cookies will probably be gone by the time they’re done baking.

Besides the brown sugar, the balls of dough are rolled in white sugar right before baking.  As they cook, the cookies will spread out and crack, but remain soft.  I actually should have abided by the recipe’s instructions to the letter – at 12 minutes, the cookies still seemed a bit underdone, so I let them go for another three or four minutes, which turned out to be a mistake.  That quality that I perceived to be underdone was actually the star attribute of a ginger cookie, since it will remain soft and chewy for several days if you keep them in an airtight container.

September 24, 2009   Comments

The Birth, Life, and Death of the Perfect Summer Tomato

Here’s an ugly confession: I’m very bad with keeping up with our garden.  I always begin the summer filled with great expectations of abundant crop yields, but by the end of July find myself with a box of bolted lettuce, cilantro that has since gone to seed, various weeds, and an eternal, neverending supply of mint.

With this firmly in mind, this year I built a second square foot garden exclusively for tomatoes and peppers.  I ordered a variety of tomatoes, some of which were cherry tomatoes for a deck box, from, which were shipped to me in the first week of June.  Overall, I planted four tomato plants in the 4-foot square box – two San Marzano plants, one Ramapo Hybrid (which was a substitute for the very popular Rutgers VFA) and one Mortgage Lifter, which produces particularly impressive beefsteak specimens.

As it turns out, I’m glad that I only planted four plants.  Given the rain that we’ve had (so much so that I never had to break out the sprinklers this year), the tomato plants thrived, growing outward in all directions.  They were relatively quiet during the first half of the summer, but a few weeks ago I noticed clusters of San Marzanos, and a fairly plentiful supply of Ramapo and Mortgage Lifter types.  Then, about a week later, the tomato plants really start to peak, yielding a bounty of robust red fruit at an alarming rate.  This required much discipline to remind myself to check the garden every afternoon to make sure we didn’t lose any to gravity.

On Sunday, we picked a particularly ripe Ramapo and let it sit on our kitchen island until yesterday, when we finally cut into it.  It turned out to be the most perfect summer tomato we’ve ever had.

Here’s the thing about tomatoes – so long as the skin remains intact, without any bruising or blemishes, a tomato will continue to ripen on your kitchen counter for several days without rotting.  As each day passes, the tomato will continue to concentrate its flavor, becoming a pure distillation of summer, barely contained by the thin layer of protection provided by its skin.  If you can time it just right, if you can abstain from eating it until the very last moment, when the essence of the tomato threatens to burst through its fragile shell, you will have one of the most memorable tomato experiences of your lifetime.

We decided to turn this perfect summer tomato into a simple meal of tomato sandwiches.  The preparation is as easy as can be, just layer freshly sliced tomatoes onto bread that’s been spread with mayonnaise, and top with some sea salt, black pepper, and sliced onion.  The sweetness of an ultra-ripe tomato plays nicely with the sharpness and crunch of the raw onion, and the sea salt just brings the whole thing together.  The result is an instant summer memory, one so strong that it will sustain you even through the darkest, coldest days of winter.

September 4, 2009   Comments

Check Out My Awesome Sausage

Some time last year, I purchased a food grinder attachment for our KitchenAid stand mixer, with visions of homemade sausage and burger patties dancing in my head.  Soon after it arrived, we threw a grilling party and invited some friends over to try out some freshly ground burgers.  This was probably the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in the kitchen as I had violated the cardinal rule of cooking for guests: never serve anything you haven’t successfully made before.

When I passed the chunks of beef through the grinder, some fat and gristle hit the grinder blade and clogged up the works.  The meat that did make it through the grinder into the bowl was devoid of fat and flavor, which resulted in horribly compact, dried out pucks of grilled meat.  I was not pleased, and I expressed my great displeasure by banishing the grinder attachment to the dark recesses of our kitchen cabinet, never to be used again.  Having missed a routine fly ball, was I blaming the glove?  In hindsight, yes.

Time, as the saying goes, heals all wounds.  So, like finding an old college buddy on Facebook, the craving to explore uncharted waters made me reconnect with my grinder attachment after nearly a year of exile.  The mission: homemade sausage.  The unavoidable challenge – I would have to try my hand at grinding meat again.  I was hoping that my grinder would not turn out to be the Kobayashi Maru of meat.

I had been considering making my own sausage for several months, but out of the universe of food, sausage is one of those items with a greater  potential ick factor.  It’s not so much the grinding of the meat, really, than the average person’s unfamiliarity with sausage casings.  Having never worked with casings before, I had this nightmarish vision of cracking open a tub of tubes, getting hit full-on in the face with an odor that would confirm that, yes, these are organic casings that were once piggy parts, then losing my nerve to make sausage forevermore.  Sure, I could just form the loose sausage mixture into patties and fry them, but that’s not REAL sausage.  Real sausage comes in links.  Real sausage is measured using the length of your arm.

To my great and welcome surprise, and as a reassurance to all of you, there was no odor at all, and working with the casings is actually quite easy.  They come packed in coarse salt to keep them dry, and prepping them is as easy as dumping the whole lot into a pot of cool water, using your fingers to separate them, then running cool water through them.  While I initially regarded $7 as a bit on the pricey side for casings, I didn’t realize that the plastic tub contains quite a few casings, and you’re only going to need one or two per batch of sausages.  In other words, so long as you repack your leftover casings in salt and keep them in the fridge, you shouldn’t need to buy more casings for quite a while.

The sausage turned out unexpectedly well, and the grinding went without a hitch, thanks to a few very critical tips that I did not have the benefit of knowing the first time around.

First, it’s important to keep everything as cold as possible – that means freezing your cubes of meat and fat until they are slightly firm, and refrigerating the various parts of your grinder attachment.  The semi-frozen fat, when it hits the grinder blade, will be ground up and passed through to the bowl because it is too firm to melt, smear, and clog the disk.

Secondly, you must always maintain a fairly high ratio of fat to meat in your grind mixture.  If you think about this, we already take this into account when we buy ground beef from the market – we know that the 80/20 mixture makes the tastiest burgers because a full fifth of the weight of that package is fat.  The reason why my first attempt at grinding meat for burgers was such a miserable failure is because I had not ground enough fat into the mix.

Those two rules of thumb are really all that separates success from failure when it comes to making your own sausage.  Because of the abundance of sage in the garden this year, I decided that my inaugural attempt at sausagemaking would be the Sage and Red Wine Sausage recipe in Fine Cooking magazine.

All sausage recipes follow the same basic pattern.  You grind the meat, mix in your seasonings, and then allow the mixture to cure in your refrigerator for a little bit, so that the flavors will meld.  After at least an hour, or preferably the next day, you stuff the mixture into casings, and you’re done.  The whole process took far less time than I anticipated.

Following the recipe, I cut about four pounds of pork shoulder and one pound of fatback into small cubes, then froze them on a cookie sheet for about an hour.  While waiting for the meat to firm up, I picked about 30 sage leaves from the garden (which, by the way, didn’t make a dent in the plant at all) and chopped those finely, along with about four times the amount of garlic that the recipe requires.

The moment of truth came quickly – I assembled the grinder attachment, powered up the KitchenAid, and started feeding the chunks of meat and fat into the hopper.  Immediately, I was struck at how different this grinding session felt from my first one, how the fat extruded itself in neat spaghetti-like strands like a Play-Doh barber shop set.  Compared to the stop, start, stop process of my first grinding attempt, this time everything went smoothly, and within fifteen minutes all of the meat and fat had been ground.  I sifted my fingers through the pile a bit to evenly distribute the fat, but had to switch to a spoon when my fingers grew too cold.  I tossed in the sage, garlic, some salt and pepper, then added the 1/2 cup of red wine from a previously-opened bottle that we keep on the kitchen counter.  A small test patty was incredibly flavorful, so I was hopeful for a good outcome.

Having overcome my fear of grinding, I then faced a new moment of truth when it came time to place the sausage into casings.  I assembled the sausage stuffer (a small conical tube with a silly price of $9) onto the KitchenAid, then fumbled around with a sausage casing, trying not to let the slippery string tumble down into the garbage disposal.  Eventually, I was able to wrestle an open end of the casing onto the stuffer attachment, working the rest of it onto the cone in an accordian-like bunch, with about five inches left to hang.  I tied a knot into the free end, retrieved the sausage mix from the refrigerator, and set to work.

It’s important to work as quickly as you can when stuffing sausage, because the risk of bacterial contamination increases as your sausage mix gets warmer.  I used a rubber spatula to load the hopper with sausage, then a food pusher to shove it down into the grinder, maintaining one hand on the feeder cone to regulate the casing as it filled.  There’s no getting around the fact that this step can become extremely messy, so it’s a good idea to line the area underneath your KitchenAid with foil or parchment.  By tightening and loosening my grip on the casing, I could control the thickness of the end product.  Occasionally, I would have to stop and reload the hopper, or take a toothpick to burst the pockets of air that would become trapped in the casing.  When I was done, I twisted the sausage into links, managing to only break two because I twisted one way when I should have twisted the other.

Ultimately, this recipe produced nearly four feet of sausage at a cost of $7 for the casings (enough for several batches, though), $8 for the pork shoulder, and about $4 for the fatback.  Presuming you store the remainder of the casings for future use, each subsequent batch of sausage would run around $12, which is an incredible savings over the typical $5 per pound that most markets charge for premade sausages.  As an added bonus, the sausages freeze extremely well, making for even more options when you need quick dinner ideas.

June 17, 2009   Comments

How to Grill Chicken

There’s something quite primal about cooking over fire – tossing something raw over smoldering coals, hearing the fat sizzle as it melts and drips into the flames, the smell of wood and meat and smoke comingling briefly before being carried off by the breeze of a slightly chilly spring evening.  Three years ago, one of the deciding factors in our electing to purchase our first home was our leasing company’s ludicrous prohibition on outdoor grilling – those were dark years, and I swore to never go that long without grilling ever again.

I now have my own deck, and on it sits a steel monstrosity forged in the very bowels of Amish country, three hundred pounds of black metal that serves as my mechanism for transforming meats into meals.  My name has become a grilling word.

I used to think that everyone knew how to grill, but now I’ve come to reconsider my presumption after having witnessed the embarrassingly cringe-worthy performance of someone who was unfamiliar with charcoal and afraid of fire.  I’ve never seen a situation where more food ended up under the grate, withering away on the coals, than on the grate where it belonged.

So, with that, I’m presenting a short primer on how to grill chicken -  specifically, chicken thighs.  For newcomers to the thrills of outdoor cooking, chicken thighs are fairly forgiving, because their uniform size and shape, combined with the amount of fat that is laden throughout the meat, means that there is a very low likelihood of ruining dinner.  And with the long Memorial Day weekend coming up, there’s a good chance that more than a few of you will be grilling for a crowd.

When you’re shopping for chicken thighs, try to select pieces of poultry that are roughly the same size, to ensure that they will all cook at the same rate.  When you get them home, rinse each piece under cool running water, then pat dry with a paper towel, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate for transport to the grill.  Pick up a nice bottle of barbecue sauce, one that’s hopefully not too sweet and not packed with corn syrup, or make your own.

About an hour and a half before you plan on eating, start your coals, preferably in a chimney starter (which allows for the preparation of coals without the chemicals of a liquid starter – hover over the link for a picture).  I presume you are cooking with charcoal – if you aren’t, I can offer no guidance, since I’ve never used propane.  Once the coals have turned ashen, about 20 minutes, spread them in your grill, mounding slightly on one side, and set your grate into place.

Now comes the part of grilling that’s filled with fun and danger.  Using tongs, place your chicken thighs, skin down, on the grate over the higher portion of the charcoal mound.  Squeal with delight as the fat from the chicken skin drips into the fire, causing massive flareups!  Don’t panic – just take your tongs and move the chicken pieces that are over the flareups to the side of the grill that contains fewer pieces of charcoal, and wait for the flames to die down.  Every so often, move the chicken pieces around and flip them over – your goal is to achieve a nice char on both sides of each thigh.  Treat it like a big game – the fire wants to eat your chicken, and you have to play keep-away.

Once all of your chicken is browned, with a nice, crisp skin, move the thighs to the cooler part of the grill (skin up) and close the grill by setting the cover on it.  Open the vents slightly to let air through.  During this time, the grill will act as an oven, roasting each chicken thigh to doneness.  Since the thighs are dark meat, they will remain moist even if left in the grill for a few minutes longer than needed.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet called for barbecue sauce.  A lot of novice grillers make the mistake of putting their barbecue sauce on their chicken/ribs/whatever too early, which only serves to insulate the chicken from browning properly.  It also guarantees that the high heat of grilling burns the sugars in the sauce, resulting in a carbonized, blackened mess.

After about 35 minutes, pour some barbecue sauce into a small bowl and equip yourself with either a large spoon or, preferably, a basting brush.  Take the lid off of the grill, flip each chicken thigh over, and splash a dollop of sauce on each piece, using either the spoon or brush to coat each chicken thigh evenly with sauce.  Flip each thigh over, so that the skin faces up, and repeat.  Replace the cover, cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, then serve.

May 20, 2009   Comments

A BFBE Original Recipe: Kitchen Sink Mac and Cheese

This all started because I had a nostalgic craving for macaroni and cheese mixed with cut-up hot dogs. By the time I was finished, I had created an original recipe, which I now present to you here as Kitchen Sink Mac and Cheese.

This preparation was largely driven by what was available in my refrigerator, and, as with any Mac and Cheese recipe, you are more than welcome to take liberties with ingredients and amounts. I had put a lot of thought into what types of cheese to use, and ultimately decided on a majority of sharp cheddar, a little bit of bleu cheese to add tang, and a small mound of grated romano cheese. We had some cherry tomatoes sitting on the kitchen island that we like to snack on, and I picked out a handful of those to add a little bit of flavor and color. Then, feeling guilty about the overly indulgent aspects of a dish that involves pasta wallowing in a slurry of melted cheese, I opted to add some chopped kale to the mix, just so that I could say that it’s got a serving of vegetables in there.

Oh yes, the hot dog aspect. I didn’t have any hot dogs, but I did have some turkey kielbasa, so I took about half of a package, diced it, and folded it into the mixture just before putting the casserole into the oven.

Kitchen Sink Mac and Cheese, as with every recipe of this type, starts with a bechamel sauce, into which the cheeses are melted until you have a nice, thick, satin-smooth sauce. Toss with boiled pasta, add your supplemental ingredients, top with bread crumbs, and set into the oven for about 30 minutes.

The results of my hodgepodge approach were surprisingly tasty, and quite photogenic. The sauce was far from bland, which avoided the cardinal sin of most single-cheese preparations – the bleu cheese added sharpness, the cheddar contributed body, and the romano possessed a salty aspect that brought out the best in everything else. The rest of the ingredients presented a nice contrast of textures – kale holds up well under cooking, so it doesn’t disintegrate into nothingness like spinach and still retains some crunch, and kale’s bitterness presents a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the cherry tomatoes, which were little mini-explosions of fresh tomato flavor whenever you encountered them on a fork. Plus, hey, kielbasa chunks!

Kitchen Sink Mac and Cheese

4 Tbs butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk

Splash of hot sauce
4oz sharp cheddar, cubed
Small bit of bleu cheese, about 3 or 4 Tbs
1 cup grated romano cheese

16oz penne, rigatoni, or some other tube-shaped pasta

16oz kale, washed and chopped (available in bags for convenience)

8oz kielbasa, cubed

Handful of cherry tomatoes, halved

Bread crumbs (two slices of bread spun in a food processor)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, set out a casserole dish, and boil and drain your pasta according to the directions on the box.

Make the sauce by melting the butter in a large pot over medium heat. When the butter has fully melted, add the flour and whisk continuously. You’ll begin with a thick flour-butter paste that will loosen as it cooks. Continue to cook the roux until it toasts to a light brown color, then whisk in the milk until the sauce is smooth and uniform. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then add the cheeses, whisking until everything has melted. Splash in the hot sauce, then taste and adjust with salt, pepper, and more hot sauce.

Add the chopped kale to the sauce – it will look like a lot of kale, but it will wilt quickly as you fold it in. Once the kale has been incorporated, add the cherry tomatoes and the kielbasa, then fold in the pasta.

Turn the mixture into the casserole, then top with bread crumbs. Set the casserole dish on a cookie sheet (to catch spillage) and bake on the center rack of the oven for thirty minutes. Let sit for ten minutes before serving.

May 7, 2009   Comments

Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk, Gnocchi

I’ve never made gnocchi before. I’ve had the dish in restaurants, seen recipes for it while reading through my cookbook collection, and even bought them frozen from Talula’s Table. It’s not that I regarded the dish as overly complicated, it’s just that I’ve never really thought about making the dish at all. So, I was somewhat surprised, when I really put my mind to making gnocchi, to find that they’re one of the simplest, yet most versatile, dishes that one could conjure up in the kitchen.

Trying my hand at gnocchi for the first time, I wanted to keep things as straightforward as possible. When going down the gnocchi path, you have three options – flour, potatoes, or ricotta. I chose ricotta based on what we had on hand that day, and because ricotta gnocchi also seem to be the easiest to assemble, if you have access to the right equipment. Potato gnocchi require potatoes to be cooked, pressed or mashed, then cooled before proceeding. Flour-based gnocchi are typically rolled out into thin ropes, cut, then boiled. By comparison, ricotta gnocchi can be whipped up in one bowl using a hand mixer in less than five minutes. If this recipe were going to fail, I’d want to get there sooner rather than later.

The gnocchi mixture is essentially ricotta cheese (15 oz) blended with eggs (3), with flour (1 cup) added to give it body. I had mentioned that you need the right equipment to make ricotta gnocchi – since the batter is far looser than flour-based gnocchi, it can’t be rolled out and cut by hand. Instead, you use a pastry bag, or something similar, to pipe small lengths of gnocchi batter directly over boiling water. It seems to be a bit faster than the rolling-cutting-shaping routine of flour-based gnocchi, but you’ll have to wait until I tackle those before I can weigh in with an honest opinion. I used a mechanical pastry bag for this recipe, and it worked beautifully. Pressing the plunger against my chest, I extruded small lengths of batter through the tip (recalling early childhood experiments with Play Doh), using a knife to sever the dough into the roiling, salted water below. Each batch made about 30 gnocchi, which took about five minutes to cook (like most boiled things, they are done when they float to the top), and as each batch was done, I fished them out using a large Chinese bird’s nest scoop, placing the gnocchi on a plate lined with parchment paper.

After all of the gnocchi had been boiled, I melted some butter in a nonstick pan and fried them up in batches, giving them a quick toss to make sure they had all browned evenly. Accompanied by a quick tomato sauce and a grating of parmesan, these light and airy ricotta pillows turned out to be a substantial, inexpensive meal. You could even freeze the gnocchi after boiling them, and they become quick dinners that can be sauteed, sauced, and on the table in less than 30 minutes.

My gnocchi eyes have been opened, to say the least. This was a very basic test recipe – some obvious additions would be parsley and chopped spinach. I can’t wait to try out different compositions and flavor components (sweet potato and sage come to mind), and you’ll see the results right here, every time.

April 17, 2009   Comments

Off With Their Heads!

I’ve lucked into one of the best situations, food-wise, that one could possibly have stumbled upon – my neighbor loves to fish, but he and his wife don’t cook on a regular basis, and even if he did cook the fish, I don’t think she’s at all interested in eating it.

A few weeks ago, mere hours after getting his Pennsylvania fishing license for the season, my neighbor called me.  “Want some fish?” he said.  He has a knack for wading into water and, ten minutes later, emerging with the catch of the day.

This brought up something of a dilemma for me.  For one thing, I was just about to put dinner on the table, so the fish would have to be refrigerated for at least a day.  More importantly, I had never cleaned a fish before – in fact, I had never even handled any type of whole fish in the kitchen.  For me, fish is something that comes cleaned and filleted and wrapped in butcher’s paper from the guy behind the seafood counter.

Suffice it to say, then, that the prospect of decapitating and gutting a fish was somewhat intimidating – but the fish were out of the water, and were going to go to waste unless I agreed to take them off of my neighbor’s hands.  With some measure of reluctance, I told my neighbor to come on over, and in ten minutes he was standing in my kitchen with a plastic grocery bag filled with four trout.

He said he would teach me how to clean fish, and that it wasn’t hard to do.  You know what?  He was right.  Sure, it’s messy, but no more messy than dealing with the gizzards from a chicken or turkey.

Dinner was placed in a holding pattern while, at his instruction, I lined the kitchen island with a double layer of newspaper.  I had not expected the fresh fish to be so slippery, almost slimy – it is the antithesis of what everyone comes to expect from kitchen ingredients, since in every other instance, a slimy ingredient is a sure indication of spoilage and rot.  But here, it meant that the fish were the freshest you could possibly hope for.  The newspaper helps to keep the fish in place, more so than a cutting board would, and you’ll appreciate the absorption that it provides when the knives come out.

I know that I haven’t sharpened my knives in a while, and nothing demonstrates the need for a sharp blade more than cleaning fish.  Holding each trout firmly in one hand, I used my other hand to cut the heads off – something that ideally should only take one or two swipes, but with a dull knife can be near impossible – it took me a couple of whacks, but wasn’t an overly frustrating ordeal.  Flipping each fish over, I removed the tails in a similar fashion.  For the squeamish, I can say that the trout did not bleed as much as I would have expected – on the other hand, you should also know that, unlike supermarket chickens, their innards are not neatly held in a little paper bag (but, on the other other hand, they don’t have very many innards, so it’s not like you’re cutting open a tauntaun with a lightsaber).  A turn of the blade, and each trout was butterflied – emptied and rinsed thoroughly under cool running water in the sink.  At this point, they were ready to be placed into a plastic bag and refrigerated.

Fast forward to the next day.  Since the fish were so fresh, I wanted a very simple preparation that would highlight the trout in its purest form.  I decided to steam them with some ginger, garlic, and soy – a preparation that almost doesn’t even need a recipe, but I’ll mock one up here for you off of the top of my head.

Steamed Trout with Ginger, Garlic, and Soy

Trout, cleaned
1 knob of ginger, peeled, sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thinly
2 Tbs white wine mixed with 2 Tbs soy sauce and 1 Tbs sesame oil
Scallions, chopped
Salt and pepper

Set some water in a pot over high heat.  Get your steamer insert out and keep it nearby.  Rinse the trout thoroughly under cool running water.

Lay each trout open on a clean working surface, and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Layer the ginger, garlic, and chopped scallions inside of each trout, and spoon the wine/soy mixture over all of that.  Fold the trout closed to make a packet and place into the steamer insert.

When the water is at a full boil, place the steamer insert into the pot, cover, and steam the fish for fifteen minutes.

How to Eat Whole Fish

Yes, steamed fish deserves a “How to Eat” section in the recipe, because if you attack any kind of whole fish willy nilly with a fork, you’ll end up with a mouthful of tiny fish bones and come away with a generally unpleasant experience.  This is probably why more people don’t eat whole fish.

Once you have your fish on a plate, use your fork to gently pull and scrape away the skin, leaving only the delicate white flesh (don’t flip it over until you’ve eaten the top half).

Orient the fish so that the spine is on your left, tail end pointing away from you.  On the left side, you’ll find a nice, thick ribbon of meat running the length of the fish.  Use your fork to gently pry the fish up and away from the bone – this is the easiest meat to extract.  You can either choose to eat this now or continue boning.

Now, from the center of the fish, going to the right-most edge (the belly) are the very fine bones that make up the fish skeletal structure.  Use your fork or a spoon to gently scrape the flesh from left to right, which should encourage the meat to slide along the axis of the bones and right onto your plate.

When you’re done, just flip the fish over and repeat for the other side.

April 13, 2009   Comments

Chinese Chicken Nuggets!

It begins, as many of our dinners do, with chicken.  We eat a lot of chicken because it’s versatile, affordable, and freezes well – unlike beef, which never emerges from the freezer in quite the same condition as it had when it first went in, and pork, which is affordable but requires some mental effort to determine a worthy preparation.  Chicken, by comparison, comes in neat little single serving thighs or breasts, can be sauteed quickly in a bit of olive oil, and ka-chow, there’s a meal on the table.

That being said, we were still getting a little fatigued from chicken, chicken, chicken – but that’s all we had on hand at home.  That, and a bunch of cilantro left over from our weekend party.  So I cast my net into the waters of the world wide web, did a search for ‘chicken and cilantro’, and I found this recipe.

Coming out of, they call it ‘Chicken and Cilantro Bites’, but as I formed them and fried them up, the term ‘chicken nuggets’ kept coming to mind, so that’s what I’ve come to rename them.  Chinese Chicken Nuggets!

There’s a lot to like about this recipe.  For one thing, it gave me a chance to break out my Kitchenaid grinder attachment, which I bought last year, used once to grind meat for burgers, which then turned into miserable failures – I had not trimmed the beef, and gristle had clogged the holes of the grinder, resulting in burgers that were dense and flavorless.  Intimidated by that incident, I put the grinder attachment away and have not touched it since.  But this recipe, which calls for a pound of ground chicken, was perfectly served by the Kitchenaid, which produced a nice mound of ground poultry in a matter of minutes.  I used chicken thighs which I had deboned and stripped of skin, but this preparation could just as easily be made with boneless, skinless thighs, or just a purchased package of ground chicken, if it’s available at your market.  The most surprising aspect of this dish is how light and airy the nuggets turn out, despite being made with the heavier, fattier dark meat.

This recipe also demonstrates how effective cornstarch can be as a coating for pan-fried foods.  I had always used flour, or dried bread crumbs, or panko as my coating of choice – but the cornstarch lends an airiness to the finished product that just cannot be achieved by any other means.  It’s important to roll the chicken lightly in the cornstarch, passing the poultry from hand to hand, as if you were juggling.  Any firmer handling would cause the cornstarch to be incorporated into the chicken, instead of coating it.

I made a few departures from the original dish, most notably in the preparation steps.  Epicurious specifies that the chicken should not be white meat – since I used thighs, I can’t speak to using white meat, but I don’t see the recipe failing outright if you want to try it.  Also, because I used dark meat, and because chicken needs to be completely cooked, I followed up the pan frying with a stint in a low oven for 20 minutes, just to be safe.

Chinese Chicken Nuggets

1 lb ground chicken
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt

Combine the egg, cilantro, scallions, sesame oil, and salt in a mixing bowl.  Add the chicken and mix thoroughly using a rubber spatula or fork.

The mixture, I will warn you, will be very loose.  Get a plate, wet your hands, and form the mixture into nuggets, about an inch or so in diameter (they will actually end up being more oval-ish than round).  When you’ve run out of room on the plate, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water, and dry them (you’ll probably get through all of the chicken in two batches).

Set a large frying pan over medium high heat and coat it with about 1/4 cup of vegetable or canola oil.  Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Set aside a large cookie sheet with a rack on it.

Spread a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil on your workspace.  Pour a small mound of cornstarch onto a plate or wide bowl.  Using your fingers, scrape up a nugget of chicken and drop it into the cornstarch, then sprinkle, toss, and flip the nugget gently until it’s coated, then place it onto the parchment/foil.  Repeat for the other nuggets, working quickly before the prepared ones get too soggy.

Using a pair of tongs and a gentle touch, pick up each coated nugget and place it into the hot oil, filling the pan with as many nuggets as you can comfortably fit without crowding them.  After five minutes, use the tongs to turn each nugget over, frying for another five minutes and then rotating each one so that you achieve fairly even browning on all sides.  As each batch is done, transfer the nuggets to the cookie sheet.

When all of the nuggets have been fried, place them into the oven for 20 minutes.  Serve with soy sauce, chinese black vinegar, or peanut sauce.

April 9, 2009   Comments