Category Archives: cooking at home

No-Fuss French Fries

I can’t tell you the last time I cooked French fries at home. Years ago, easily. If not a decade or more. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good French fry, but I’m just pretty loath to glug out a pan full of oil and go through the work of frying at home. Not the mention the clean-up.

So I’m not quite sure why I perked up as much as I did when I read Christopher Kimball’s tweet about the cold-start French fry method they’d perfected at Cooks Illustrated. But for whatever reason, I immediately made a shopping list and the next day was doing the unthinkable: adding freshly-cut Yukon Gold potato batons to a pot of cold, fresh-from-the-bottle peanut oil. So counter-intuitive, it did feel just wrong as I was doing so….. But in the hands of Cooks Illustrated, I at least knew that if I was being led astray, I was being led astray by the best!

This is the link to their synopsis of the procedure and why it works so well, along with the recipe itself. The article’s delightfully simple because, in fact, the method just IS delightfully simple. No rinsing of the cut potatoes, just a brief scrub whole and pat dry before cutting. No preheating of the oil or worrying about a thermometer to evaluate the heat level. Most importantly, no fiddling with the double-fry method, long-held to be the answer to perfect fries: frying first at a lower temperature to cook the potato, then removing from the oil, which gets heated to a slightly higher temp to then fry a second time for the crispy-brown finish. Nope, none of that. Instead just combine those potatoes and oil (peanut oil is recommended, that’s what I used, though others are good options), set it over high heat and monitor things a couple times for the next 20 to 25 minutes.

My only departure from the printed recipe was that the fried got pretty brown (as you can see) a few minutes earlier than the targeted time. Not too brown, but just browner than I’d intended. I might recommend you consider doing that gently stir-with-the-tongs step at 10 or 12 minutes instead of the 15 mentioned. Depends on the heat of your burner and random other influences I guess……

Oh, and the freaky thing?? They did both the cold-start method and the traditional double-fry method, sent the forensic evidence off to an independent lab and found out that there’s actually LESS fat retained in the cold-start fry than the traditional fry. Isn’t food science fun?!!

Couldn’t help myself. Homemade French fries had me immediately yearning for some luxuriant aïoli in which to bath them to celebrate their deliciousness (flowery enough for you?? good French fries are worthy of a little excessive adulation). Having whipped up a batch of mayo by hand in South Carolina for the day-after shrimp salad (more on that next post), I was thrilled to have my handy little mini chopper this time that makes the process so easy even a caveman could do it….

Oh yeah. We did have some chicken and a green vegetable for dinner that night too. But far as I was concerned, it was a French fry dinner. Easy enough to recreate any night of the week, though I’ll resist that urge. But surely it won’t be another string of years before I next serve up some homemade French fries for friends and family. Hmmm. Now about those variations on aïoli that I can start playing around with. The delicious fun never ends.

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Microwave, Schmicrowave

I FINALLY bought my first microwave.

Nah.

Just kidding.

April Fool’s!! A day late.

I’ve never had a microwave. And I plan to live the rest of a full and satisfying life without ever owning a microwave. This week’s piece in the Wall Street Journal about microwave manufacturer’s trying to breathe some new life into the ubiquitous appliance only renews my feeling that I’m making the right choice.

I’m not old enough to remember when the first microwave oven was released (apparently first developed in 1947, home versions started hitting stores by the mid 1960s). But I am old enough to recall the plethora of microwave cookbooks that came out throughout the 1980s. Never did any of that hoopla make me in the least bit anxious that my family should get a microwave (we never did in the family home, I think everyone but me has one now). I was excited about cooking back then, very much so. But I was excited about making food from scratch, creating doughs, simmering stocks to make onion soup, dipping beautiful vegetables in batter and frying them for tempura, making sauces for beef fondue. Nothing about the microwave excited me as I was discovering cooking. And nothing about it has ever excited me in the days since then.

Yes, yes, yes. I hear across the web-o-sphere, “but you can melt butter so quickly!” “coffee reheats like a dream!” “What about leftovers?!?!” “Did ya know it will soften ice cream?” I’ve heard those arguments a thousand times.

1. I have small pans I put on the stove in which to melt butter nearly as quickly. Very old-school but works like a dream.

2. Who the hell wants reheated coffee? I make mine one cup at a time and it’s delicious. (Also no coffee maker in this house, just a simple cone filter and ground-to-order coffee beans. Wouldn’t want it any other way.)

3. I have a wonderful small pyrex lidded baking dish that’s ideal for heating leftover pasta, curry, enchilada, whatever came home with me from the restaurant the night before. I pop it in the oven, go work for 15 more minutes and it’s hot and ready to go.

4. Take ice cream from freezer and set on kitchen counter. Go watch 7 or 8 minutes of Damages or Dexter or M*A*S*H reruns and then the ice cream will be perfect for scooping.

While I was editor of Simply Seafood magazine, we did run a few feature articles about cooking fish in the microwave. The less dense texture, often smaller pieces/thin fillets and other magical characteristics of seafood do seem to make it one of the better selections when it comes to cooking raw proteins on the microwave. But even that never persuaded me since fish is, for those same reasons, incredible quick to cook in a skillet or 400 degree oven. For 2 or 3 minutes’ saving of time, I’m going to get a microwave oven? Kind of ironic, but in most other facets of my life the last thing I am is patient. When it comes to cooking, however, I feel the time invested is time well spent. And we’re talking minutes, not hours. I just don’t get it!

I found it kind of funny to read that a new development in the microwave world is adding steam, “aimed at people who are in the market for an oven with special features but not necessarily a microwave.”  See?? Even the manufacturers are realizing the limitations of the box of waves that go micro. I think of the microwave as a wholly unnecessary use of kitchen real estate, and much as folks have tried to convince me otherwise, I’m pretty strong in that conviction.

Just a week or so ago, a friend told me–after having read through many of the recipes in my new book–that I really needed to get a microwave because some of the tasks in the book could have been done in a microwave. To which my answer was (a) “no, nuh-uh, no way” and (b) if a microwave owner reads my description of putting chopped chocolate in a medium bowl and setting it over a pan of warm water to melt and thinks “duh, I can do that in the microwave” more power to them!! Happy if they find ways to use the microbox to shave a minute off the prep time. But I’m not going to be the one to tell them how to do that. It’s a shortcoming of mine as a food writer and I’m willing to accept that.

It does pain me to read that this past year there was a nearly 10% jump in the number of meals “prepared” (I think they mean “opened the box and heated”) using a microwave oven last year. The first sizeable jump in decades, they say. Is anyone really prepared to consider this “cooking”? I–for a second–was willing to concede that if a microwave oven got someone interested in cooking to the degree that it set the stage for them to pull out a skillet or bake something in an old-fashioned oven now and then…well that there was something to getting people to “cook” in whatever form it takes. But I’m not sure the microwave is a gateway to home-cooked meals from scratch. Am I out of line thinking that way? Does the average microwave user nuke burritos for dinner one night and make chicken and dumplings from scratch the next? Is it a crutch just used now and then, rather than a means to the end of most meals in the house?

But I was likewise surprised to read that only “93% of households have a microwave oven.” I’d have thought it much closer to 100%, given the plethora of products being created just with the microwave oven in mind. (Oddly, I just realized that this household has 3 Easy Bake ovens…. and no microwave. An anomaly in many ways.)

Oh, and about that new steam capability for the microwave oven…. Wait until I tell you about the bamboo steamer baskets you can buy for less than ten bucks.

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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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Happy Val-endive’s Day

There are times when a lousy memory comes in handy. When watching a movie I’ve seen before, for instance, it can be like watching it for the first time again! I’m still moved-surprised-delighted-shocked by the action on the screen and twists in the plot  because I’ve forgotten many of those details from the previous viewing.

The same thing happens this time every year. I get a knock on the door from the UPS guy, he hands me a package that says “perishable: refrigerate immediately” and wonder to myself what that could be.

Oh, yes!

It’s my annual Valentine’s Day bouquet from an admirer. I blush a little bit thinking about the treats he sends. And I start scheming exactly how I’m going to use that endive.

Yep, endive, wrapped up in a lovely bouquet complete with sparkly red ribbon. No endive is ever marketed–I’m sure–as I receive them in this box. The small heads of the pale green and red lettuce still attached to their long, brown, funky roots just for the effect of the long-stemmed rose-like presentation. (NOTE: one year I was convinced that there had to be some culinary value to that root, trimmed some and had a nibble. Blech. If there were a Scoville scale for bitterness, these would be off the chart.)

Six or eight years ago at a conference I met a gentleman from California Vegetable Specialties, folks down in Rio Vista, California who devote themselves to growing, and teaching us about, endive. I guess I impressed upon him my longtime love of endive, because not a year goes by now that I don’t receive the Valentine’s Day delivery.

I struggle with referring to endive as a type of “lettuce,” though by strict definition–a garden vegetable with edible leaves–it is. And since one of endive’s most common uses is as a salad ingredient, the association is natural. But one reason I’m so enamored of endive is its sheer versatility, so much beyond any other member of the lettuce clan.

Starting simple, the first thing I did with a few heads of this year’s delivery was one of my all-time favorite salads, one I’ve mentioned at least a few times in the past: sliced endive, chopped toasted nuts (walnuts or hazelnuts) and crumbled blue cheese tossed with a red wine vinaigrette (preferably made with walnut or hazelnut oil). And last night I simply halved 3 or 4 heads and cut out the tough (and bitter!) core, leaving the heads together as much as possible. A couple tablespoons of butter melted in the skillet, I added the endive cut side down and browned gently a few minutes, then poured in some white vermouth, topped loosely with a piece of foil and reduced the heat to lightly braise them until the vermouth was evaporated and the endive was tender. This is a preparation in which many folks would sprinkle in a bit of sugar to counterpoint the bitterness and contribute a touch of caramelized-browning. But we like them au naturelle.

And I’m a big proponent of endive leaves as one of the very best edible containers going. For a cocktail party, buffet, any party setting for which finger food is on the menu, nothing beats foods that you can pick up, pop in your mouth and leave no dishes or utensils for cleaning up later. A host’s dream dish! Oh, and speaking of game night (which I’ll be doing a lot here soon, since my new book Gourmet Game Night is being released in a couple of weeks), endive leaves are one of the best ways to serve your guests an elegant, flavorful dish that won’t distract at all from the Scrabble tiles or poker cards or Cranium clay. In that book, I chose to embellish the endive with a simple salmon poke (diced raw salmon tossed with soy, sesame oil, cilantro and slivered red onion). Digging around my photo files, I found this image of the leaves topped with a duck mixture of some kind, I’m afraid that lousy memory leaves me at a loss about details of that preparation. But shows just how diverse uses for endive can be.

One of the most decadent uses I know of for endive is gratin d’endive, or endive à l’ardennaise as Anne Willan cites the recipe in her timeless book French Regional Cooking. The whole heads are first braised until mostly tender. Then each is wrapped in a thin slice of ham and arranged in a gratin dish, topped with lush béchamel sauce, topped with gruyère cheese and baked until bubbly, hot and nicely browned on top. A simple salad alongside, and you’ve got a wonderful wintry way to serve delicious endive.

I totally ♥ endive. And though I use it often throughout the year, always feel an extra attraction this time of year thanks to my annual delivery on my doorstop.

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Peanut Butter Waffles

I don’t know exactly what spurred the urge, but sometime early December I got a serious case of waffles-on-the-brain. And it suddenly became clear that waffles aren’t on nearly as many menus as you might hope when suffering such an affliction. Not that I go out for breakfast all that often these days. That meal’s usually just a cup of coffee and bowl of cereal at home. But the few times that I did go out hoping for a nice warm, crisp, flavorful waffle I found only its brethren: French toast and pancakes. And they definitely don’t have those little crevaces of deliciousness to hold creamy butter and syrup!

Over a month later, waffle craving still unsatisfied, I had to take matters in my own hands. I pulled that simple old waffle iron from the lower cabinet and dug up a recipe.

I don’t make waffles often, for that aforementioned habit of keeping breakfast simple. But I had gone through a waffle-making phase this summer while developing recipes for my new cookbook, Gourmet Game Night (coming out early March!). The premise of the book is foods that are perfect partners for playing games, things that won’t get fingers messy and greasy, items that don’t require you to put down your cards to pick up a knife and fork. In the realm of sandwiches, I was dreaming of some interesting twist on peanut butter and jelly that would use waffles for the bread. Long story short, after multiple attempts at the recipe, I just had to walk away. Waffles weren’t working out. The recipe now sandwiches the berry jam-mascarpone filling between peanut buttery brownies instead.

BUT!!

That leaves me with this peanut butter waffle recipe that I’d developed. Maybe it didn’t work in that sandwich motif to accompany playing games. But as a stand-alone waffle I was pretty happy. So out of my recipes-that-didn’t-work recycle bin and back into the kitchen to help appease this waffle craving.

I’ve come to love graham flour in this past year or so, the nutty flavor it adds to recipes a welcome addition. I thought it would be a great partner to the peanut butter component of this batter. Because peanut butter is so delightfully high in fat (GOOD fat!), I did away with the melted butter that is typically in a waffle recipe. Should you want to omit the peanut butter, this recipe should work just fine using 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter instead.

Man, these waffles did hit the spot. And there’s really no sense in making just enough waffles for one. I went ahead and cooked off all the batter and once the extra waffles were cool, packed them into a resealable plastic bag and popped them into the freezer. Now it’s a matter of a few minutes in the toaster and it’s waffles for breakfast again! In fact, I think I hear them calling my name right now…..

Peanut Butter Waffles

 

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup graham flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups buttermilk

3/4 cup smooth natural peanut butter, at room temperature

2 eggs, separated

Preheat a waffle iron to medium-high heat.

Stir together the all-purpose and graham flours, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, gently whisk together the buttermilk and peanut butter until smooth and well combined. Add the egg yolks and blend until smooth. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredient and stir gently just to mix.

Whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add about one third of the egg whites to the batter and use a rubber spatula to briskly fold them in to lighten the batter, then more gently fold in the remaining egg whites.

Pour a generous 1/2 cup of the batter onto the waffle iron (more or less depending on the size of your iron). Close the waffle iron and cook until lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Continue with the remaining batter.

Serve warm, with butter and maple syrup or a schmear of your favorite jam.

Makes 8 to 10 waffles

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