Monthly Archives: March 2010

Chimichurri: Simple Sauce, Powerful Flavor

I guess it was two different influences that conspired to establish our menu for dinner last night. First, the Sunday trip through our beloved neighborhood grocery store, West Seattle Thriftway, where my eyes caught a “buy one, get one free” special on beautiful, boneless rib-eye steaks from Misty Isle Beef. Couldn’t pass that up, no way!

That same evening, we were chatting with a friend about random things in life and travel came up. “What’s on your wish list right now for one of your next trips?” she asked. Hadn’t thought about that lately. We have a lot of travel coming up this year–South Carolina, Santa Barbara, Italy, France–so what might come next hasn’t come up yet. But after a second or two, I blurted out “Argentina!” It’s maybe not next on the list, but I sure have a growing hankering for making a trip to Buenos Aires, having hear two different sets of friends rave about their trips there. And this friend, too, had been and echoed that the city’s like the Europe of yesteryear, and less expensive, great food, amazing architecture, on and on.

Next thing you know, it’s Tuesday and I’m considering what to serve with those rib-eyes. Must have been lingering images of Argentina that brought to mind chimichurri sauce, the traditional herb-garlic-vinegar concoction that is a classic complement to grilled meat (which seems to be the national food of Argentina, one particularly good reason to make the trip!).

Parsley is the traditional backbone of chimichurri, often with an accent of fresh oregano as well. Parsley’s not abundant yet in my garden, but thankfully had a bundle of parsley left from the weekend, so finely chopped most of that. (Yes, that’s curly parsley in the photo, I usually get flat-leaf. But the husband was on that particular grocery outing and I failed to be specific!) No oregano sprouting outside yet either, but I snipped a few sprigs of really tender new thyme. And while I was out there, some lovage just for good–and green–measure.

Green onions and garlic minced. Same for a red Fresno chile I happened to have on hand. A few good glugs of red wine vinegar, and a moderate glug or two of olive oil. A big pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. No time flat, I’ve got a lovely, vibrant, aromatic chimichurri just waiting for some grilled steaks to party with!

What a tasty dinner that was. There are a slew of bright flavors in the chimichurri–herbs, vinegar, garlic, chile–that serve bold contrast to the richness of the meat. It wakes up and engages your palate with each bite in a way that A-1 (another personal favorite) just can’t replicate.

We ate up pretty much that whole bowl’s worth, a little bit of which was brushed on some sliced eggplant that I grilled alongside the steaks. Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm. And I guess I’ll be on a minor chimichurri kick now until I get down to Argentina myself and try some at the homeland. Can’t wait.

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Dinner in a Flash: Swordfish en Papillote

Don’t let that fancy name scare you away. Cooking “en papillote,” or in a paper pouch, is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to cook fish. You’re essentially creating simple little steam ovens made of paper: the moisture stays fully enclosed in the packet and all the flavor of both the fish and the added seasonings is trapped inside. Otherwise the technique’s as convenient as baking, you just pop the packets in the oven and let the magic happen. Which is exactly what I did last night for dinner.

It may look like an intimidating prospect, but wrapping up in paper isn’t tough. I first learned this curved version of folding the paper, but you can just as well fold in the sides in even straight lines. Though the curved method does seem to hold itself together better. I always start on the right side and fold over at shifting angles to work around toward the other side; than when done, twist the last bit of paper  to secure it, creating a little tail. If you need a couple strategically placed staples to hold things together the first couple of tries, no worries. You’ll get the hang of it! You can even do this with foil instead of paper; a bit less aesthetically pleasing but it holds those folds like a dream.

The technique works best for lean, quick-cooking foods like fish and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I haven’t ventured very far outside that spectrum. When looking at the meat or seafood case, ask yourself “would I want [fill in the blank] steamed?” and it might help guide your choices. 

I like to keep the seasonings simple when I go the papillote route. In my Wild Mushrooms cookbook, I chose to showcase the beguiling matsutake mushroom in a papillote recipe with chicken breast. The thinly sliced mushroom covers the chicken breast, then a little splash of sake and soy is added before wrapping up to bake. The simple, earthly flavors coalesced beautifully.

But back to last night. The basic combo I chose then was swordfish, herbs and garlic. Thanks to our early spring weather here in Seattle, I was able to pluck tender tarragon, bronze fennel and thyme from the garden. Then I thinly sliced a big fat clove of garlic on my handy little mandoline slicer. I laid the frond of fennel down on the paper first. It’s good to place the food just below the center point of a large piece of the parchment paper. (Don’t scrimp on the paper, it should be about 2 feet long; you’ll thank me later.) I like setting the fish on a little bed of something just to add a bit more flavor from the bottom up. It could be thinly sliced yellow or red onion, leeks, green onions, other herbs. But just a thin layer; this is a quick cooking method and you don’t want a volume of leeks to impede the packet being cooked evenly in 8 to 10 minutes.

With the swordfish steak sitting on its bed of fennel, I topped the fish with whole leaves of tarragon and plucked leaves from the thyme sprigs. A pinch of salt and pepper. A tiny splash (maybe 1 teaspoon) of dry vermouth. Then on with the folding! I made these a couple of hours in advance, set them on the baking sheeting and popped it in the fridge until we were ready to eat. A nice do-ahead option, though I wouldn’t prep it too much in advance or the liquid risks softening the paper too much, impeding the effectiveness of the mini-steam-oven effect.

I baked these packets for about 9 minutes at 400°F. One thing about papillote is that the visual-cue-of-doneness factor is eliminated. So you have to gain some comfort with cooking to doneness based on time, adjusting for the thickness and density of the food you’re cooking. Those chicken breasts, for example, I cooked for about 18 minutes. These fish steaks were about 1 inch thick. I’d say in general a minimum time might be 7 to 8 minutes for a thinner piece of fish, up to 20 max for chicken, but I’d recommend staying within that range.

One of the benefits of papillote cooking is that when you first tear open the packet there’s a lovely waft of aromatic steam that rises to entice you. It’s fun to transfer the whole packets to the dinner plates and allow your guests to enjoy that for themselves, warning them of course that the steam’s hot, so not TOO close! Just a simple tear in the top of the packet reveals the juicy, flavorful treat inside. A little drama to go with dinner. And it was, if I do say so myself, pretty scrumptious.

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It’s Game Time!!

Anyone else out there love both food and playing games as much as I do? I sure hope so. Because today’s the official release date of my new cookbook, Gourmet Game Night. It’s the ideal book for that niche of humanity that lives in that overlap of the foodie crowd and the gaming crowd. And I’ve launched a companion web site as well, at www.gourmetgamenight.com. Check it out!

The general premise of the cookbook is a simple one. When you’re playing games, there can be a lot going on. Dice, cards, fake money, dominoes, Cranium clay, game pieces in circulation. You want to keep your food on the tidy side so that those accoutrements of playing games don’t get covered in Cheetos dust and pizza grease. And you also don’t want to distract from the game play by having to put down your cards to pick up a knife and fork to eat along the way.

So I dreamed up this world where playing games and eating well go hand in hand. Fingers never get messy, because everything’s served in small dishes, on picks, between mini slices of bread, or are just pop-in-your-mouth fully edible. And the game momentum continues uninterrupted because the food sits to the side on a small plate, ready for one-handed eating while you ruthlessly collect high rents from your Monopoly opponents.

Along with the 80 or so recipes, I also provide lots of tips for hosting game nights, from considering what types of games to play, to favorite small dishes and picks that make mess-free eating a breeze. I have some menu plans in there, too, whether you’re two couples playing hearts or a crowd playing a bunch of different games.

And did you know that there’s an ever-increasing array of games being released with food lovers in mind? From Foodie Fight to Wasabi!, there are plenty of “gastro-games” on tap today, a number of which I profile in the book as well. If you’re looking for a game shop near year, I have a starter list of a dozen or so in the book. On the web site, I hope to continue increasing the listings to help connect game players with great shopping options near them. Is there one in your area that I should add? Let me know!

Though I’ve written (or co-written) a dozen cookbooks before this, Gourmet Game Night stands out as unique among them. It’s perhaps the most personal, growing organically out of realization that the way we host game nights at our house might be a bit out of the norm and maybe others would like to learn some tricks for making great food game-friendly. I found myself interjecting doses of family history in the book’s introduction, memories of playing Tripoley when I was a kid, and carrying a mini cribbage board on backpacking trips.

And the book’s already garnered interest from a number of different types of media outlets. It’s been featured in USA Weekend and Health magazine. I’ve been interviewed by Faith Middleton from Connecticut Public Broadcasting (for future airing, not sure what date) and will be live on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius the morning of March 3. The book’s been chosen as the March selection for Barnes & Noble’s Food and Drink Book Club! I’m due to be doing an online Q & A with book club folks on March 10.

But I have to say that this review of the book on a gamer’s blog Guilt Free Games warms my heart about as much as anything could. I felt pretty confident that among the foodie crowd there would be a subset of folks who like to play games too. But was it equally true that among the hard-core gaming crowd there would be some interested in eats beyond the usual convenience and fast-food fare? If this review is any indication, the answer is “yes”! He and his wife even ventured to try the wild mushrooms tartlets, happily finding the goat cheese “wasn’t as gross” as he thought it would be (thrilled to help introduce folks to something new!). And I’m glad, too, that my obvious proclivity for more mainstream party games (dominoes, Wise & Otherwise, Balderdash, Scrabble, Blokus) didn’t dissuade this hard-core gamer from appreciating what the book has to offer to game players of all types!

So, are you an avid game-player too? I’d love to hear what your favorite things are to play when you have friends over for a fun unplugged game night at your house. Unwind, reconnect and bring on the fun.

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Filed under Cookbooks, cooking at home, food and family