Tag Archives: cooking

Kitchen Tricks: Tomato Paste

paste1Sometimes I presume that everyone does all the same little tricks in the kitchen that help make our cooking lives easier and more efficient. Like laying down a dampened paper towel under a cutting board to keep it from slipping around on the counter (though my no-skid KitchenAid cutting board makes that unnecessary). Or using the side of a broad chef’s knife to first crush hazelnuts a bit before trying to chop them, avoiding the whole nuts rolling around on the board.

But thought I’d go ahead and pass this one along just in case. I have a pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove for tonight’s pizza (making enough to have a few portions to freeze for another time). After the onions and garlic had lightly browned and the canned diced tomatoes simmered for a few minutes, I added a generous tablespoon of tomato paste. Didn’t need to open a can, just grabbed this sheet of frozen tomato paste from the freezer, snipped around one of the mounds, and plopped it into the pan. Could not be simpler, and does wonders for stretching the life of one of those cans of tomato paste, large enough that I seldom use the whole thing in one recipe.

Whenever I do open a can of tomato paste and have used the tablespoon or two called for, I cut a piece of plastic wrap and set it on the counter. Then, on go the mounds of tomato paste, spaced well apart. You can be precise if you like, making them each a level tablespoon for measured portions, but I just do it freestyle.

paste2Then the paste is covered with another layer of plastic, a bit larger than the first to allow for covering the mounds. I don’t obsess about there being no little pockets of air, but do my best to seal the outer edges and envelop the tomato paste as well as I can. Then into the freezer on a flat surface until frozen solid. At that point, you can bunch up the sheet and store it in the door nook or some other out-of-the-way spot. Next time you need some tomato paste, just cut around a mound or two with scissors, peel away the plastic, and you’re good to go.


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A Market Basket Cook-Off

What a phenomenal Saturday morning it was yesterday. It was such an honor to be asked to judge the Ready Set Go…Cook (friendly) competition at the University District Farmers Market, an annual affair that pits two Seattle chefs against each other using their pick of items from market vendors. My cohorts on the judging panel were Joe Gruber, Executive Director of the University District Food Bank and Joane McIntyre from Rents Due Ranch, a longtime market vendor. We were introduced by Mayor Greg Nickels who had moments earlier been part of a ceremony celebrating the city’s purchase of the University Heights building and property, under a banner that touted “celebrating community and supporting local farmers.” It’s a phenomenal step forward in helping ensure that at least one of our city’s neighborhood farmers markets has a permanent home to count on for years to come.

One proviso for the cook-off was that each dish–serving four–should come in at or below a $10 cost. An new this year was the added challenge to integrate pantry items provided by the nearby University District Food Bank, in an effort to show shoppers how well you can eat without having to bust your budget on expensive gourmet products.

The two contenders yesterday were Rachel Yang, chef/co-owner of Joule restaurant in Wallingford and Juli Guillemette, a just-recently-departed sous chef at BOKA downtown (she’s headed off on a road trip adventure back to Vermont where her family has a dairy farm–best wishes for that Juli!). Here’s how each provisioned their kitchens for the cook-off, best as I could note.

Rachel’s market products included fennel, small Asian eggplants, zucchini and yellow squash, hazelnuts, eggs, zucchini blossoms, purslane, honey, goat yogurt and (coolest product of all) zucchini stalks, which included crunchy stalks, tender tendrils and leaves. From the Food Bank pantry she used vinegar, cider, rice, mandarin oranges, and …. Spam!!

Juli’s choices from the market stalls included purslane, Walla Walla sweet onions, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers, garlic, oregano, basil, and chicken livers. And from the Food Bank pantry she opted for flour, vinegar, tuna, oil, and maybe one or two other items I missed.

Oh, and each chef was allowed to bring a secret ingredient.

Juli presented her dishes first. She noted a love for meat and fruit combinations, pairing the chicken livers with peaches. The peach halves were lightly sugared and caramelized cut-side down in a cast iron pan (she’d have grilled them if that had been an option). Then cut in pieces, the peaches were partnered with chopped basil and sautéed Walla Walla sweets tocookoff3accompany the crispy pan-fried chicken livers. Her secret ingredient went to use here as a simple sauce: exquisite aged balsamic vinegar. I’m not, unfortunately, a fan of meat-meets-fruit, but do really like chicken livers. And I appreciated the creativity of this combination, particularly given the more savory basil and onion elements.

The second dish Juli served was a twist on salade niçoise, with the tuna, tomatoes, blanched green beans, cucumber and purslane, topped with a vinaigrette that included minced garlic and fresh oregano.  What’s not to love, great fresh bright flavors, quite summery, and nice to show how much you can dress up an inexpensive can of tuna.

Rachel followed with her first of two dishes. The halved baby eggplant and cookoff2pieces of fennel bulb had been marinated (honey-soy) and cooked in a grill pan, served with a salad of purslane and mandarin oranges, a sauce of yogurt and honey with chopped fennel fronds alongside. Delicious.

For me, the star dish of the day was Rachel’s second, a zucchini congee. Congee is, as Rachel simply put it, a rice porridge, typically savory. She noted that giving the time constraints of the competition, cooking the rice congee-style was a quicker option. The long grain rice soaked in cold water for maybe 20 minutes, then she whirled it in the blender with water for a bit, tossed it all in a saucepan to cook. Later she added grated zucchini, sliced zucchini stalks and zucchini leaves. For a finishing touch, she sautéed diced yellow squash and Spam to spoon over.

Rachel put her secret ingredient–soy sauce–to unique use, curing egg yolks from the beginning of the competition (about 1 hour before serving). A cured raw egg yolk was then added to the center of each bowl just before serving, which then oozed deliciously into the congee as you eat it. The lastcookoff1 of many flourishes in this dish was a small piece of lightly fried zucchini blossom on top, a lovely crisp contrast to the silky rich texture of the dish. Wow.

Both chefs did such a great job, really got into the spirit of the challenge and into the pleasure of sharing their favorite ingredients and techniques with the crowd. But Rachel prevailed to take away the coveted blue ribbon first prize for this year’s Ready Set, Go…Cook!

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A Love for Endive

I fell in love with endive while at cooking school in France, one of many ingredients I’d had little interaction with before embarking on that adventure. Among salad greens, endive has a bit more character and flavor endiveidthan everyday lettuce, not as bitter as radicchio, and is more versatile than many other greens. As I mentioned in this post, one of the fail-safe dinners in my tiny Paris apartment, with its two-burner kitchen, was sautéed endive with rotisserie chicken from the neighborhood butcher.

And a favorite traditional bistro prep with endive is going to be dinner here soon. Heads of endive (baked or steamed first, until tender) are wrapped in good sliced ham, arranged in a gratin dish and topped with a rich béchamel sauce that’s embellished with a good dose of grated Gruyere cheese. Boy, does that sound delicious right about now!

My all-time favorite salad is composed of sliced endive, toasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese tossed with a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar and walnut oil. I swear, I could eat that every night and not tire of the delicious combination.endiveduck1

Another beautiful thing about endive is that it’s one of the very best edible serving pieces. Having friends over for some game-playing? Consider a clean-fingers menu item served in whole endive leaves. Spoon some shrimp with Louie dressing, crab with cocktail sauce, chicken-tarragon salad or other tasty mixture into the broad end of the leaf. Guests can pick up the leaf by the tapered end and enjoy the treat without dirtying their fingers. This past weekend I did just that for a cocktail snack, using leftover roasted duck from the night before. I added some hoisin sauce, soy sauce, chopped cilantro, sesame oil and a splash of sake. It was a big hit. Endive to the rescue, yet again.

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Dinner at Home: Freestyle Portuguese

“Come over for dinner tomorrow night, why don’t you?” I asked a friend Friday. “Sure, sounds great. I’ll bring the wine, I was recently at a tasting of Portuguese wines and have a couple of bottles to share,” she tells me.

Oooh. Portuguese. That sounded like fun.

My plan for dinner had been simply to follow whatever random inspirations hit as I made a tour of the market–which is the way I approach any dinner party that has no predetermined focus. When I’m cooking for fun, it’s all about going freestyle. I spend many of my work days meticulously testing recipes, noting every extra teaspoon of this, every 5 minutes more time needed, every shift in oven temperature. I spend as much time editing portwinerecipes over and over again, a sometimes eye-glazing task making sure steps are clear and accurate, phrasings are consistent, no ‘i’ remains undotted. When that work switch goes into “off” mode, I run in the other direction and get my giggles from unscripted cooking.

But Portuguese. That’s not a cuisine I have much inherent comfort with. I think about seafood, pork, …., port? Not enough to inspire a whole menu. So I turned to my ever-trusty Foods of the World Time-Life series, and the Spain and Portugal book set me on my way.

Yes, I kind of broke my own off-hours rule: I referred to some recipes. But just for ideas. It’s almost impossible for me to really follow a recipe by the letter when I don’t have to!

Our first course was a soup, based on a garlic soup recipe I’d read. I started with finely minced onion and lots of minced garlic nicely sautéed in olive oil (not just tender, but lightly browned). I added 4 cups good organic chicken broth, 1 drained/rinsed can of chickpeas and a splash of white vermouth. While that was happily simmering away, I plucked a generous handful of mint leaves from their sprigs and blended them in the food processor with a good drizzle of olive oil until smooth. When serving the soup, I added a spoonful of the mint oil, which perked up the  simple soup wonderfully.

portdinnerI came across a number of pork recipes, often braised. I opted for a simple concoction that began with large-cubed pork butt, first well browned in olive oil. Out comes the pork, in goes a chopped big onion and (again!) lots of chopped garlic. Sautéed until partly tender, then I added a good dose of pimentón de la vera (smoked paprika), some thyme and good pinches of salt and pepper. I added a couple cups of chicken broth, on went the lid and into a 275 degree oven for nearly 4 hours.

Preferring to serve this not in a stewy fashion, I scooped out all  the meat and reduced the cooking liquids a bit, keeping the meat warm (covered with foil) in a low oven. Parsley was meant to go in the soup too, but I wanted the mint to shine there, so saved it for the main dish.  To cap off this dish, I combined a small handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves with a couple spoonfuls of Mama Lil’s pickled peppers. No, they’re not Portuguese. Made in the Seattle area with beautiful peppers from Eastern Washington. But I love those things and felt they were in the spirit of Portuguese cuisine! Spooned on top of the tender, aromatic braised pork, the parsley/pepper combo made for a perfect fresh, bright complement. (Braised Pork à la Portuguese with Paprika, Parsley and Pickled Peppers. Try saying that 10 times fast!)

To accompany, I served simple sautéed kale, embellished with toasted pine nuts and a sprinkle of lemon juice just before serving. And sautéed potatoes (delicious bintje potatoes I’d bought at the farmers market that afternoon) tossed with more pimentón de la vera. It all combined into a great main-course medley.

For dessert, I found a porto pudim flan recipe that was beautifully straight-forward. But of course I had to make some alterations! For starters, I heated 3/4 cup each of milk and heavy cream  in a saucepan. Same time, sugar (I portflanused about 1/2 cup) was caramelizing in a separate pan. I poured some of the deeply colored caramel into the bottom of 4 ramekins. Then I carefully poured the warm milk/cream mixture into the rest of the caramel, stirring until the caramel is fully dissolved.

In a medium bowl, I whisked 3 egg yolks for a minute or so, then added the warm caramel-milk (start with a small drizzle to temper the egg yolks, warming them gently to avoid cooking them). The custard went into the ramekins, then the ramekins into a baking dish. I poured some boiling water into the baking dish and the custard baked at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or so, until set. (I’d probably cook them at a gentler 300 degrees for a bit longer next time.) After they were cooled to room temperature, I covered the ramekins with plastic and refrigerated to fully chill. Nothing better than a dessert that takes just a moment to unmold after dinner!

So, my “hey let’s have dinner together tomorrow night” became a little more involved than I’d initially imagined. But boy, did I have fun. Exactly my kind of busman’s holiday, cooking up a storm but just for the pleasure of the moment. And not one little note written down. Just this recounting for you. Sometimes the emphemeral meals are the best.

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In Praise of Fat

Once again, being a food writer–while not the most highly paid profession going–proved itself for the small perks that come along the way. Today it was a box from Ten Speed Press which held in it a copy of the new cookbook from my pal Jennifer McLagan, the Torontonian who penned the awesome (and James Beard award-winning) Bones a couple years back. Her latest is called, simply, Fat and it’s really love at first site: decadently fat-endowed lamb chops on front and a lovely crock of butter on the back. I want some. Right now.

Jennifer had been telling me about this book in recent months and I’m so happy to finally have a copy in my hands. Flipping through a few pages made me realize a few wonderful, rich, fatty delights I’d had of my own this past week. Last Wednesday it was dinner at Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Kentucky (more on that trip soon), where chef Ouita Michel celebrated porky deliciousness with this plate that paired juicy pork tenderloin with amazing slow-cooked pork belly. A couple days ago, my husband and I made a visit to our favorite sushi joint in town, Saito’s, where the menu now sports skewered, grilled delights. We sampled the wagu beef imported from Japan, small cubes of utterly rich, melt-in-your-mouth meat that makes a marbled ribeye look like a lean piece of sirloin.

And yesterday after a most interesting hands-on class with other writers at Tilth restaurant, where Maria Hines took us through the steps of the wonderful alchemy of sous vide cooking (more on that one day soon as well), the chef set out an impromptu butter tasting. We sampled the tasty organic butter she brings in from Oregon, alongside the butter they make in-house as often as they’re able, using the organic milk from Fresh Breeze dairy in Lynden, Washington.

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, and rightfully so, that fat carries flavor. But more than that, fat enriches dishes by keeping them moist, helping foods caramelize and adding thick rich texture. AND? On top of all that? The truth is that fat is not nearly the dietary evil that it’s been made out to be. I’m no nutritionist and won’t even pretent to play one on this blog. But Jennifer offers some great food for thought about the role that fat can, and should, play in our diets.

It doesn’t help that I opened this book after a trip to the YMCA and before having lunch. But I want to try EVERYTHING! Especially the Salted Butter Tart, Duck Rillettes and Dandelion Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing.

Funny thing, I was just making my way through the latter pages of the book and noticed a recipe for Bacon Baklava. Odd and freaky, you say? “I’ve had that!” I just said to myself. At Brasa, when Tamara Murphy did an all-pig dinner a couple years ago. In fact, Jennifer attributes that recipe’s inspiration  to a friend in Seattle who had recounted just that dinner. Her version sounds mighty tempting.

Here’s to pure, delicious, versatile fat and all the joy that it adds to our gastronomic lives.

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Dinner at Home: Grilled Whole Chicken

Great minds think alike, don’t you agree? My food-writing cohort and friend Nancy Leson spelled out a few days ago–in delicious detail–the steps she (and her husband Mac) uses to turn out perfect whole chicken roasted on the backyard grill. I’d served at home last Saturday night very much the same thing. Minus the Lawry’s Salt (though I do have a bottle on my shelf) and using a brine instead.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, a classic (oven) roasted chicken is a staple in this house, some nights absolutely nothing could taste better. But with heat like we had last week, no turning on the oven in this house. Grill-roasted chicken it was.

chicken and potatoes

Grill-Roasted Chicken and Potatoes

I brined the bird in a very simple mixture of water, salt (about 1/3 cup per quart of water), grated lime zest, crushed garlic cloves and a few dashes of Tabasco (could have used more!). I started the brine with just half the water, warm, stirring with everything else until the salt was dissolved. Then, because I was in a hurry, I added ice, stirring until melted and the brine was cold. In goes the rinsed chicken, then into the fridge for 24 hours. Wonderful mysterious transmogrifications happen in that time. (By the way, possible flavor combos in the brine are endless: herbs, spices, citrus zest, chiles, wine, onion, ginger, you name it.)

Like Nancy, we’re Weber kettle grill folks in this household and also swear by the chimney contraption to perfectly get the coals a braisin’ without using that awful lighter fluid. When the coals were good and ready, I spread them to opposite sides of the grill, in slender piles right up against the side of the grill. I also made a foil pan (triple layer, fold up the edges; or buy a foil pan at the store) to put between the coals. The chicken’s going to drip fat during cooking, this just helps tremendously with clean-up.

After taking the chicken from the brine, pat dry and set it in the center of the grill grate, right above that foil pan. Set the vents each about half-open, cover, and make a gin and tonic. Or open another bottle of Chinook rose. Or both, in succession. I don’t fiddle much with the bird while it roasts. It keeps the leaner breast meat farther away from the heat of the coals and avoids tearing the skin. I did turn onto the breast about halfway through for 15 minutes or so, just to amplify the crispy-brown character of the skin.

One important point is that the coals will likely need some replenishing along the way. And don’t wait too long; consider that a handful of new coals added to the glowing ones will take a good 20 minutes to kick in. Hopefully your grill grate has those little hinged openings; just lift them up and scatter 5-7 coals on top of the existing ones. After that, you deserve another glass of wine.
Dinner is served

Dinner is served

Also on the menu, some grill-roasted potatoes. I cut some Yukon Golds into big wedges, tossed them with a little melted butter, sliced garlic and salt and wrapped in a couple layers of foil. They went on the fire after about 45 minutes; also in the center, if possible, away from direct heat.

The menu was rounded out with a simple tomato salad, tossed with regular chives and garlic chives from the garden, in a simple vinaigrette. And red chard that I quickly sauteed with garlic. A colorful, delicious, aromatic, relaxing meal to have out back on the cool patio on one of Seattle’s longest and hottest days.

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In My Kitchen: Tools

Not long ago, a friend emailed asking for some input on knives for his kitchen. He wasn’t happy with the last set that he’d bought and wanted to know what brand I might recommend for replacements. I suddenly felt that my “serious foodie” façade might crumble around me. I didn’t have a succinct answer, couldn’t rattle off the knife brand of choice and its most salient characteristics. Truth is, my knife collection is among the more motley you might find and I’m pretty happy with it. Have a look (sorry about the darkness):



In there you’ll find a mix of Viking, LamsonSharp, Ecko, Anolon, Sur La Table, Henckels, Sabatier, Flint Stainless and one or two of nonspecific origins. Of them, the knives I pick up most often include the Sur La Table bread knife, the Viking chef’s knife and my old Sabatier paring knife. But as long as they’re sharp, I honestly find any and all work well for the appropriate task.

When it comes to stocking my kitchen, I’m pretty much an independent type relative to brand-driven purchasing. There are a handful of branded items that I swear by. They include a number of Microplane items (a personal favorite is the nutmeg grater, super efficient), Mario Batali 5-Piece Measuring Prep Bowl Setand this Kyocera Adjustable Mandolin Slicer.

 nested bowlsnutmeg grater






But otherwise, I tend to be pretty much an anti-gadget person. It wasn’t a fully conscious decision to avoid clutter (trust me, I still have drawers and cupboards full of plenty of stuff nonetheless) nor to avoid spending the money on said gadgets. Just a proclivity toward max functionality with minimum of space requirements. Same reason I’ve never owned a coffee maker. I make coffee using a cone filter, brewing directly into an insulated carafe.

I still clearly remember a cooking class I was teaching in a local cookware shop; and no, it wasn’t Sur La Table. I was about to peel some garlic during the class, when the owner tossed one of those rubber tubes at me and said “here, use this!” I fumbled with the silly thing for the sake of her potential customers, but was hard pressed to make it look easy and expedient. I’d much rather simply lay the flat of my knife over the clove and smack the blade to help loosen the skin. A gentle rap leaves the clove whole, or a more aggressive whack mashes the garlic enough to take you at least halfway to chopped.

Which leads me to one of the tools in my kitchen I would surely put near the top of my “10 items for a desert island kitchen” list. The lowly paper towel. At about paper towels$1.15 per roll (Costco prices), I get more mileage out of paper towels than almost anything else in my kitchen, well beyond the standard “dry this” and “wipe up that” work they do. I use dampened paper towel to wipe down mushrooms and other vegetables.  When I’m not using my favorite no-skid KitchenAid Chopping Board, laying a damp piece of paper towel under the board will help avoid slipping around.

And when I’m doing mise en place, I lay a damp piece of paper towel over the chopped herbs, onions, mushrooms, whatever else might be appropriate to avoid drying out before I get to cooking. After I’ve cleaned a bunch of herbs, lettuce or other greens, I layer them in paper towels, roll up in a relatively snug cylinder and store in a plastic bag. I find this creates just the right amount of moisture–not too much (which promotes spoilage) nor too little (which risks wilting)–to keep well for a few days, if not a week.

And, honestly, while we break out the nice cotton napkins when guests come over, for most dinners at home my husband and I use folded paper towels for napkins. When you think about it, isn’t a package of paper napkins just a more showy version of the same product?

So there you have it, my starter list for the “101 kitchen uses for paper towels” project, which only just occurred to me. Do you have other favorite uses for the ubiquitous paper towel that I’ve missed? Always looking to get more use out of this and other kitchen workhorses.

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