Friday, February 27, 2009

Polenta, and a successful dinner

The last two dishes I've cooked have been - how to put this? - if not exactly failures, then at least pretty blah. One involved a not-so-great combination of flavors, the other involved burnt garlic, among other issues (Burnt garlic?! Who does that? How amateurish...). I needed to redeem myself a little and give my culinary ego a little boost, and so I set out to cook dinner last night determined to make something more than just palatable. Jeff and Lindsey agreed that my creation was indeed quite tasty, the only criticism being that it was little unfocused. If nothing else it was aesthetically pleasing:

I started off by slowly cooking onions, carrots, and white sweet potato in abundant olive oil in a cast iron skillet, eventually adding some frozen bell peppers, a couple chipotle peppers, and garlic, which I did not burn.

At the very end I added some incredibly tasty baby spinach from the farmer's market, cooking it just long enough for it to wilt, and a splash of sherry vinegar (see ingredients I put in pretty much everything). I served this over polenta, and topped it off with a fried egg and a little bit of grated pecorino. Ok so you can see why this might have seemed a little unfocused: there was a lot going on for one dish. But at least all the flavors were delightful and on good behavior, not clashing with each other despite a couple strong personalities. It all went down quite well with a bottle of vinho verde.

Let's talk about the polenta for a second. I adore polenta, but when something involves almost constant stirring for 20 minutes, it will inevitably fall into the category of "something I make only occasionaly." I wish it weren't so, but it's the truth. Then I discovered that there is actually a way to cook polenta without stirring! It takes about twice as long, but who cares when you can kick back and sip your whiskey while it does its thing? It goes like this:

No-stir Oven Polenta

Preheat your oven to 360 degrees.

Depending on how thick you want your polenta, use anywhere between 4 and 7 cups of liquid for every cup of polenta.

Mix polenta and liquid together in an oven-proof pot.

Bake for 40 minutes with the lid off.

That's all it is. Personally my favorite way to do it is to use 4-5 cups of stock, then when I pull it out of the oven stir in 1/2 cup of whole milk and either a little butter or parmesan. But there are so many ways to tweak it, it's fun to play around and this recipe is very forgiving.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chili basics

We have had a cold spell in Chapel Hill so in the past couple of weeks we have been making big pots of Chili. I call this post Chili guidelines because our method for making chili is pretty general and takes advantage of whatever we have lying around the kitchen. For example the first time I made this recipe I used smoked pork chops as the meat and the second time I used left over bbq chicken. This recipe can easily be made vegetarian (maybe using the crumbled tofu from this recipe) but we like using just a little bit of meat as a seasoning. In my opinion that is one of the coolest things about southern cooking, the way they use meat sparingly for flavor rather than as the center of a meal, this is a great way to make use of left overs and make great tasting economical food. This Chili recipe makes about 8-10 servings so you can freeze some and reheat it for a quick meal.

You will need:
3 cups dried beans (white, pinto or a mix)
1 bottle cheap beer
1/2 can tomatoes
1 onion roughly chopped
garlic (to taste)
Canned chipotle peppers (we used 3 peppers)
1 cup meat can be cooked or smoked (if using bacon, cook first and use the grease to brown the onions)
4 cups stock or reserved bean cooking liquid
Optional: Grain such as quinoa, barley or rice, you can cook this in the chili to make it more of a stew or just serve the chili over a grain, or just crumble corn chips into it at the end.

First off soften the beans. When cooking beans make sure to rinse them and pick them over, taking out any bad beans, small stones or other weirdness. It is a good idea to soak your beans earlier in the day so you dont have to worry about it when you are cooking. Cover beans with water, throw in a bay leaf, maybe a clove of garlic and some salt if yo are planning to use the cooking liquid as your stock and put them on low heat. When they are softened but chewy take them off and rinse them, saving the liquid if you want.

To assemble the chili begin by softening the onion with garlic and chipotle until onion is translucent over medum heat. At that point add meat and cook for about 5 minutes. Pour in bottle of beer, scraping the bottom of the pot to deglaze any browned bits. Add tomatoes and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add beans and ladle in stock, should be a little more liquidy than you want your final product to be. Add grain if you are going to use it. turn heat to low and simmer for at least 30 minutes, preferably more, until you like how it tastes. ladle into bowls and serve. Cheese and avocados make great garnishes. OR To take it to the next level, ladle into ramekins, top with cheddar cheese and throw under the broiler until cheese is bubbly and slightly brown and THEN serve, like this.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


This is very simple and hardly even a recipe but it is a good idea. I was playing around last night looking for a good dipping sauce and I combined one part Sriracha hot sauce (Cock sauce) and one part ketchup. Genius. The spicy sweet sauce was awesome for dipping fritters and also with sausages. Basically just a great replacement for ketchup and also a pretty sweet dipping sauce.

Note: We use organic ketchup which it turns out actually makes a nutritional difference, silly as it sounds. Organic ketchup is made with tomatoes skin on and contains much more lycopene than conventional ketchup. It also does not have high fructrose corn syrup in it like the conventional stuff.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Continuing with the tofu theme...

Looking back over the recipes on this blog I just realized that I never posted my tofu "meat" sauce recipe. I make this hearty pasta sauce about once a week in the winter and it is a great way to add some protein to a simple pasta and red sauce. The basic sauce principles can be used to make any kind of home-made pasta sauce (so much better and cheaper than the jarred stuff). In addition, the technique for cooking the tofu, crumbling, marinating, frying then re-adding the marinade, is another great way to approach the tofu "problem" Alex mentioned in his post and you can use this technique to cook tofu for all sorts of dishes not just this sauce.

1 onion
5 cloves garlic
1 can tomatoes (I like whole ones but diced work too)
1 bay leaf
1 pepper, 1/2 bag TJs frozen mixed bell peppers (Optional)
Artichoke Hearts (optional)
olive oil
Red cooking wine/ balsamic vinegar

For the tofu
1 block extra firm tofu
olive oil
soy sauce
worcheshire sauce (NOTE TO VEGETARIANS: If you live in Chapel Hill/ Carrboro Weaver Street sells vegetarian Worcheshire sauce, otherwise you can leave this out or you might try using balsmaic vineger. The point is to add some "meatiness" to the tofu and I Balsamic has the depth of flavor to suite the purpose.)

To prepare the tofu (you want to do this first). drain the tofu and crumble it into a non-reactive bowl with enough room for marinade, there is no need to press it at this point. In a cup or other bowl (I like to use a measuring cup) mix up a marinate with the olive oil soy sauce woostershire sauces cayenne and whatever else you want (sriracha etc.) Make your marinade to taste but it should taste a little stronger than you would want in the end. There are no quantities on this because I have no idea how much of anything I put in, just kind of splash it, there should be a total of 1/2 cup of liquid). Pour the marinade onto the crumbled tofu, mixing it up to get full coverage if you need to, and set aside to get your sauce going.

Chop up your onion and sautee it in a skillet (not cast iron) with about 2 tablespoons olive oil until it is translucent over medium heat. Add garlic and cook both together for a couple of minutes. Add any vegetables (peppers, artichoke hearts) and a splash of cooking wine/ vinegar, stir. Turn the heat down to lowish and add 1 can of tomatoes, bay leaf and salt, stir and then leave it alone.

Now go finish your tofu.
heat up a cast iron flat bottomed pan, a skillet or dutch oven will work. Pour your bowl of tofu onto a clean dishtowel or cheesecloth and twist the marinate out of it into the bowl (save the marinade) you want to get the tofu as dry as possible or it will not brown. Put the drained tofu into the hot cast iron and make sure in is as spread out over the surface as possible. The oil on the tofu should prevent it from sticking but a light coating on the pan certainly won't hurt. Fry tofu without stirring for 5 minutes or until borwn, then stir it up and brown more, when it is brown to your liking scoop out with a slotted spatula either onto a paper towel or directly into your tomato sauce simmering away on another burner. Add the marinade to the sauce as well and stir. Let it all get acquainted for a few minutes while you make pasta.

Cook your pasta, mix it up with the sauce and some parmasan and serve. OR Mix it up with the sauce and parmasan and put it in a casserole dish, cover it with bread crumbs and more parmasan and bake for 15 minutes then serve.
Pictures to follow

Friday, February 6, 2009

Broasted Tofu (with mustard honey sauce)

Lindsey coined the term for this technique because as far as we know there isn't really a word for what I'm talking about here - a combination of braising and roasting. There's probably a good reason for this: I can't imagine it would work well for anything but tofu (though Lindsey suggested it might be good for certain vegetables; hit the comments if you've got any other ideas).

Basically I'm talking about baking tofu cutlets baked at high heat in a marinade/sauce. Here's why we do it:

Tofu gets a bad rap for a couple reasons: one is texture and one is flavor, or rather the lack thereof. I personally have no texture issues with tofu; I think even the silken version can be wonderful if used right. But for most people (myself included most of the time), firmer is better. Using extra firm tofu and draining it before cooking helps enormously. Baking tofu also does wonders.

As for flavor, the real way to go with tofu is marinating it. Tofu is a blank slate, and you want to fill it completely, not just draw on the borders. The problem, of course, is time. I love to keep marinated tofu around, but I don't always get it together to prepare it advance. Sometimes I need to just work with tofu straight out of its watery home.

Enter broasted tofu. The idea is that tofu kind of marinates while it cooks and develops a nice crispy top. Take a block of extra firm tofu and drain it for a few minutes (put it on a cutting board slanted towards your sink, and put something heavy on it, like 3 or 4 plates). Make whatever marinade or sauce suits your fancy (recipe for a mustard honey version below). Cut your tofu into 1/3 inch thick cutlets and arrange them in a baking pan. Now pour enough marinade into the pan that your cutlets are about 3/4 submerged. Sprinkle some breadcrumbs on top of the cutlets for a little extra crispiness. Put the whole thing in a 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Your marinade/sauce should have reduced and thickened, your tofu should be flavorful with a firm chewiness and a lightly crispy top. Spoon a little extra sauce over the cutlets on the plate.

I love tofu, even if it's not always the easiest thing to work with. Broasted tofu, I hope, helps solve some of the more common issues with its preparation.

The recipe makes an excellent dinner served with quinoa (or another whole grain) and simple winter vegetables.

Broasted Tofu with Mustard Honey Sauce

-Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

-Drain 1 block of extra firm tofu for 10-20 minutes.

-Make the marinade by combining:
1/4 cup soy sauce

5 tbsp mustard
2 tbsp honey

2 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup dry sherry (or white wine, or light beer, or sake)
Generous pinch of cayenne

Dash of worcestshire sauce (optional)

-Whisk it all together until well combined

-Cut tofu into 1/3 inch cutlets and arrange in a baking pan. If you're using a fairly standard size rectangular baking pan (mine is about 12''x8'') the cutlets should just fit in one layer.

-Pour marinade all over until it almost (but not quite) covers the cutlets.

-Sprinkle breadcrumbs over the top and pop it in the oven.

-Bake until top of cutlets is golden brown and sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes.

-To serve, arrange cutlets on plate and spoon a little extra sauce on them.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Casserole Redux

(The title of this post is a reference to the casserole post I did last winter when no one was reading this blog, there is an awesome recipe for southern tofu casserole in that post, you can view it here.)

See that delicious looking thing behind our title? That is a casserole. That particular casserole was made from Israeli couscous, red wine, garlic, squash, artichoke hearts (bought frozen from TJs) onions and home made fresh mozzarella. That was an elaborate casserole but really anything can be transformed into a casserole and many things should be. Pasta dishes benefit significantly from being baked together. Last week I made a simple red sauce and penne that turned into a wonderful baked pasta dish. I undercooked the penne and tossed it and the sauce and parmesan together in a pyrex casserole dish, then I coated the top with breadcrumbs and a little more parmesan and baked the whole thing together for 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven until the top was slightly browned. Baking the sauce and pasta together really kicks up the depth of the flavors and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is a huge improvement over plain pasta with sauce and requires almost no effort and a little time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A little food thought....

My friend Beth tipped me off to this crazy idea of smoked french fries from the folks at Ideas in Food. Not sure if I'll ever get around to making that, given my more minimalist, laissez-faire approach to cooking, but my, what an idea. These people are really thinking about how food works.

I started poking around the website this recipe was on, and while much of what's on there is a too science-y for my taste, I love the creative, outside-the-box thinking about food they do. This post in particular caught my attention. It really makes you think about flavors: what element does a given ingredient bring? Is there a better or a different way to it? I know that the more I cook, the more I'm interested in understanding how flavors work. What brings the sweetness, the acidity, the spiciness? And then there's texture: why do you, say, brown and then bake a piece of chicken, instead of doing it the other way around?

Giving a little thought to the why of food, I believe, can only help the curious cook working towards improvement in the kitchen.