Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thelma's Chicken Salad

Truthfully, I have always been a little bothered by recipe titles that contain an arbitrary name. What's the point? I'm sure "Sally" or "Ruth" meant something to the original recipe holders, but as recipes get passed down the line, the name becomes minorly annoying. Like a last-ditch effort at homey verisimilitude; an effort to convince someone, somewhere, that this recipe was developed in a warm, cozy kitchen by a lady with a frilly apron and a lot of love.

Well, turns out, I am now guilty of the practice and I finally understand why. For me, it's a way of distinguishing a specific preparation from all others. Especially with a dish as multifarious as chicken salad, which has as many different combinations as cooks who make it, you need a little signal to remind you just which chicken salad recipe this is.

And just which recipe is it? It's the one I grew up on--simple, quick, made of (mostly) pantry staples, and ready in a flash. Rest assured, there was most certainly a Thelma in this story, who made--among other delicacies--this precise chicken salad.

Thelma's Chicken Salad
serves 1-2; ready in 15 minutes if you have leftover chicken already cooked, closer to 30 if you're gonna cook it yourself

1 chicken breast (bone-in or boneless, doesn't matter)
1 hard-boiled egg (instructions below)
1 stalk celery, diced
1 scallion, sliced, or 1 Tbsp-ish of finely diced onion (Thelma says this is optional)
1/4 cup mayonnaise*
1 Tbsp sweet pickle relish
salt and pepper
  1. Bring a medium pot of water to boil and drop your chicken breast in. Cutting it in half will speed up your cooking time. I find bone-in split breast a little cheaper at the store, so go with that if you wish. As a bonus, drop in the ends of your celery, a quarter of an onion, and whatever other veg clippings you have; by the time your chicken is cooked, you'll have a couple cups of broth to use for another occasion. Boil for 15-20 minutes, until you can cut open the meat and see no pink. Remove from water and run under cool water. As soon as you can handle it comfortably, shred the meat and toss in a bowl.
  2. Meanwhile, in a smaller pot, cover one egg with water and bring the water to a boil. Once it boils, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and cook for 10 minutes exactly. Drain and drop in a little bowl of ice water. Peel and dice egg, and add to chicken bowl.
  3. Now, add celery, relish, and mayo and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. David had his on a nice sandwich (with some homemade potato chips); I had mine in a scoop over a bed of greens. Tasty either way.

*So maybe you, like me, are not a huge fan of mayonnaise. I don't know, something about of the taste of it, the coating inside my mouth, I can't really handle it as a dressing for salads like this one. I happen to really like a product called "Nayonnaise" put out by Nasoya (the tofu people), which is a soy-based spread. I can switch it out with mayo on most occasions and never notice the difference. You can also try thickened yogurt or sour cream, though the flavor will be a bit more assertive.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cookies

What a surprise! I have made dessert! And it combines peanut butter with chocolate! I swear I make other things sometimes. Sometimes.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cookies
makes 6 cookies; takes about 30 minutes with optional chill time; 15 without

1/4 cup flour
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
2 Tbsp butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 Tbsp peanut butter (preferably crunchy; if not, add chopped peanuts)
1/4 cup chocolate chips
Coarse salt (optional)
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, soda, powder and salt. Set aside.
  2. Stir melted butter with sugar until sugar is nice and wet. Add yolk and vanilla, mix well, then add peanut butter. Mix until smooth. Stir in flour mixture, then chocolate chips (and optional chopped peanuts). Form into 6 balls, place them on a plate and press down to flatten slightly. Sprinkle tops with a little bit of coarse salt. Stash in the freezer for 15 minutes. (Or go ahead and bake if you must, you impatient fool.)
  3. Preheat oven to 350º. Bake for 10 minutes and remove to cool slightly before enjoying.
What's up with the salt? Well, I'll tell you. Do you know why you love chocolate chip cookies so much? It's because the dough is nice and salty while the chips are nice and sweet. Your mouth really loves the play of those two tastes together. So up the ante a little by sprinkling coarse sea or kosher salt on top of your cookies right before baking. If you're skeptical, just sprinkle one or two and do a taste test with the non-salted ones. Betcha you'll be doing it a lot more from now on.

Not a Recipe, More Like a TRIUMPH

Have you seen this movie, 'Big Night', starring a diminutive Stanley Tucci, his "brother" Tony Shaloub, and a silent, as-yet undiscovered Marc Anthony? It's a total charmer about twobrothers who own a struggling Italian restaurant and must cook the meal of their lives for a special gust one particular evening. If you ask me, the star of the show ... well, is Marc Anthony. He mostly just walks from one end of the room to the other in all his (line-less) scenes. But, the food in this movie is as much of a character as any of the gesticulating Italians. Hence, why it became the centerpiece of a dinner-and-a-movie night I recently hosted for some friends.
One of the dishes they serve in the film is called timpano, after the timpani, because it's baked in a giant bowl and inverted after cooking--resulting in a drum-like appearance. It is aridiculous extravaganza of
pasta, meats, cheeses and (inexplicably) hard-boiled eggs, all stuffed into some dough and baked until slice-able. Why not make this for dinner, I thought? Why not indeed. The assembly goes something like this:
  1. Pasta dough
  2. Pasta tossed in tomato sauce
  3. Salami & Provolone chunks
  4. Hard boiled eggs
  5. Meatballs
  6. Parmesan cheese
  7. Repeat
  8. Wrap and close

Well, I did it. I pretty much followed the strategy outlined here, though decreased in size just a touch. It served 6 people generously, and we still have half of it in our fridge. Lunch and dinner for the next week, I think.
I'm posting it here just because it's kind of fun, and I want to remember that I did it. Also, to encourage you to have your own dinner-and-a-movie nights, potlucks even, where you eat a meal inspired by a movie (even a movie that's not explicitly about a meal) with lots of friends. Mangia!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Barley "Risotto"

Whole grain police, here, checking in to tell you that you can bump up your nutritional profile by swapping pearled barley for arborio rice in your next risotto recipe. Great news!

Wait, what's that? You don't make risotto on a regular basis? You don't feel like standing over the stove, numbing your dominant arm by repetitive stirring for a solid hour? You think it's too much trouble for an average weekday night? You think it's too fancy?

Ok, fair enough. This Italian specialty has earned its reputation as a high maintenance dish because, in order to create its signature creamy consistency, you have to add liquid to the cooking rice just a little bit at a time and lock yourself in a perma-stir so the grains don't stick to the bottom. The timing allows the super saturated rice (or in this case, barley) to release its starch into the water (or in this case, broth) for a velvety result. If you're willing to commit 30 minutes to the stove, I think it's worth it.

One of the lovely things about risotto is that it can take on the flavor of whatever you put into it. Want mushroom risotto? Use mushroom broth and drop some chopped fungi into the pot while you're stirring. Want a green risotto? Use rich vegetable broth and toss in some chard and parsley. It's actually pretty forgiving. [NOTE: I used grated beets in this version, hence the jewel-tone of our dinner.]

The basic ratio is thus: 1 part grain to 3+ parts broth. You always want white wine (about 1/4 part, if we're using that ratio) and Parmesan cheese; shallots or onions definitely help. Whatever add-ins you want to use, just add them to the mixture at an appropriate stage in the cooking process. For example, if you're using squash, add it early because it takes a while to cook. If you're using green peas, add them at the end, because they cook in a flash. This picture was taken early on in the process; I had just dumped in some beets and kale with the first dousing of broth. See instructions below.
Basic Barley Risotto
serves 1-2; takes about 40 minutes

2 cups broth of your choice
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup chopped onion or shallots
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup pearled barley
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Start by putting your broth in a small pot on the stovetop and warm it up. This may seem fussy, but it's necessary. If you're constantly stirring cold broth into your risotto, you will be there all night.
  2. Next, in another, medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter and cook the shallots/onions with a little salt until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and barley and stir to coat; cook 1 more minute. Dump in the white wine and simmer until completely absorbed. Now add 1/2 cup of the broth, cover and let boil until absorbed, about 10 minutes (check occasionally). This is a good time to add long-cooking vegetables like roots, tubers, heartier greens (kale, chard, mustard, collard), dried mushrooms, to name a few.
  3. Now, remove the lid and start adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly until completely absorbed. Then do it again. When you have 1/2 cup left, add quick cooking vegetables like peas, corn, lighter greens (like spinach), fresh mushrooms, fresh herbs etc. Stop cooking while you still have some creaminess. Off heat, stir in parmesan and season with salt a pepper. Serve sprinkled with more cheese and fresh herbs.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Poached Pears

Never one to skip dessert, I have been eyeing a stack of decaying pears on my shelf, wondering just what concoction they might make their way into. Fruit has many delicious applications, but sometimes when you add fruits to cakes or other fluffy creations, their natural sweetness gets lost. Pears, especially, have a kind of grainy texture that makes them less flexible sometimes than their genetic relative, the apple. This limits my choices.

So how could I eat the pear in a dessert-like fashion, while still preserving its pear-ness as much as possible? And capitalizing on its strengths without calling attention to its challenges? By poaching it of course! In red wine of course! Which would make it sweet and melty and rich and pear-y all at the same time (of course)!

This "recipe" is something of a conglomeration from many pears-poached-in-red-wine recipes I have read over the years. It is absurdly easy to do and has pretty elegant results. It can be done way ahead of time, as allowing the poached pears to hang out in their juices for a few days only renders them more delicious when the time comes to enjoy them.

Poached pears love their red wine sauce. They also love caramel, dark chocolate, and vanilla ice cream. Combine at your leisure.

Pears Poached in Red Wine
serves 1-2 -- or however many pears you buy (increasing wine-and-sugar accordingly); takes 1 hr or up to 2 days

2 pears, peeled, halved and cored (carefully)
2 cups red wine
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split (optional)
ice cream, for serving
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine wine, sugar, and vanilla bean over medium heat. You want to choose your pan based on how your pears will fit. The pears should be submerged (almost submerged is fine too) in the liquid. Bring liquid to a boil and drop in your pears. Reduce to a simmer and cook pears until soft, about 40 minutes. Spoon liquid over any exposed parts and flip halfway through if necessary.
  2. When done, remove pears from sauce and increase heat slightly. Boil until wine sauce has reduced to a syrupy consistency. If you like, store the pears in their liquid in an airtight container in your fridge for up to 3 days before serving. Flavors will intensify.
  3. Serve warm or at room temperature with red wine sauce, vanilla ice cream, and a really intense brownie if you have one. Suh-weet!

Cream Biscuits

5 ingredients. 4 biscuits. 3 minutes. 2 hands. 1 easy bleeping recipe.

You don't have to be fussy with the temperature of your butter. You don't have to worry about over handing your dough. You don't need a rolling pin. You don't need any patience at all.

All you need is a handful of ingredients and a biscuit cutter. You also need to be comfortable with adding more or less cream than the exact amount given, because taking into account the humidity of the day, the type of flour you've bought, and how you measured it, you may need a (slightly) different cuppage. Also, this recipe is seriously adaptable. Add cheese, herbs, whatever you're craving.

The good people of America's Test Kitchen are GENIUSES, I tell you. Why don't you subscribe to (or better yet, the magazine) yet? They never let you down. Seriously.

Cream Biscuits
adapted from ATK; makes 4-5 biscuits; ready in 20 minutes or less

1 cup flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
  1. Preheat oven to 425º. Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt (and any add-ins) in a medium bowl. Add 1/2 cup of the heavy cream and stir, adding more until you achieve a cohesive dough.
  2. Turn out onto a lightly-floured countertop and knead until smooth, about 30 seconds. Press into a circle (about 6-inches in diameter) and cut out with a biscuit cutter (or other sharp-sided utensil). You can recombine, press, and cut out more biscuits if your dough allows, but try not to do this too many times.
  3. Throw in the oven and bake until tops and bottoms are golden brown, 12-15 minutes. Serve warm.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wednesdays With Abby: Warm Cabbage and Quinoa with Walnut Pesto

Well, it's Wednesday again and you know what that means: no roommate to cook for. I need a one-serving meal with minimal dishes and a similar amount of effort.

If my record reveals anything, it's that grain salads are my go-to meal these days. I can't help it, especially with quinoa. It cooks in less than 10 minutes and it's a complete protein! Plus the box calls it an "ancient grain." Doesn't that make my dinner sound epic?

Meanwhile, there's withering lettuce and parsley in my fridge--sad remnants of my CSA and farmer's market glory days, now over. Somewhere in my memory, I remembered a pesto made of these very ingredients. (Google helped a little.) I decided to bulk up the nutritional content of my pesto by bringing walnut oil and walnuts to the party, simultaneously adding depth to the mixture and flood my system with Omega-3s and antioxidants. No small feat for an average Wednesday evening.

So if you don't go for the whole cabbage/quinoa thing, at least make the pesto. It's pretty good tossed with pasta or salads, spread on sandwiches, and whatever else one does with normal pesto.

Warm Cabbage and Quinoa Salad with Walnut Pesto
serves 1; takes about 30 minutes; totally stolen (and bastardized) from various sources

For the pesto:
1 small head (or 1/2 large head) romaine lettuce
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 clove garlic
3-4 Tbsp walnut oil (olive oil will sub fine)
1/4 cup walnut halves
splash lemon juice
salt and pepper

For the salad:
1 cup finely sliced or chopped cabbage
1 rib celery, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 cup cooked quinoa
1 Tbsp thin sliced red onions or scallions
feta, goat, or other cheese
  1. Place lettuce, parsley and garlic in food processor and pulse until broken down. Add oil a little at a time until it reaches a thin consistency (you may not need it all). Now add splash of lemon juice, salt, pepper, and walnuts. Process until smooth and uniform, about 30 seconds. Season to taste and/or add oil to reach desired consistency. Store extra, covered, in the refrigerator.
  2. First, put your quinoa on to cook. Second, film a small skillet with olive oil and set over medium heat. When pan is hot, toss in cabbage and celery, and season with salt and pepper. Toss just 1 minute or so, until cabbage is warm but still crisp. Add vinegar and stir to coat, cooking another 30 seconds.
  3. Drain cooked quinoa and toss in a bowl. Add cabbage, onions, cheese, and 2 good spoonfuls of pesto. Toss and eat.

Not-So-Crispy Cereal Treats

It was just one of those days.

Rainy and cold and (it is Boston, after all) windy. My body had decided to cease functioning altogether, presumably in protest to my withholding sleep. Learning new skills on the overnight shift at work is great. Trying to defy all circadian logic and get myself to sleep during Boston's sparse daylight hours is not. There are few things more frustrating than being impossibly cranky and exhausted but unable to sleep. Just ask my husband.

Then there was the fact that I had neglected my book club book and was about to enter into our first ever meeting without even completing our first assignment. Nice. Oh, did I mention the dentist? How many crowns did you say? How many kilos of Valrhona could that amount of money buy? How many trips to Italy? How many Vespas?

To top it all off, when I arrived home at the end of a long day--soggy and pooped and seriously debating whether or not I need a full jaw of teeth--I was startled to pass a mirror and find Rod Blagojevich looking back at me. Thank you, humidity, for inflating my untrimmed bangs to disgraced gubernatorial proportions.

All I wanted, all I wanted was some junk food. Something innocent and delicious and completely frivolous. Like Rice Krispy treats. Ghost-shaped marshmallows in the cupboard? Check. Puffed rice cereal? Eh, sort of. I learned the hard way, people, that Kashi 7 Grain Puffed Cereal does NOT a crispy treat make. It's soggy and chewy and every bite is a disappointment. Just goes to show you: you can make healthy food taste good, but you can't make good junk food taste healthy.

Nevertheless, I wanted to record the proportions for a successful downsized batch of Krispie treats, should I ever find myself in possession of the elf-graced blue box sometime soon. Maybe you've got some now.

Marshmallow Cereal Treats
2 cups cereal
1 cup mini marshmallows
1 Tbsp butter

Melt mallow and butter. Stir in cereal. Wait.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Omelette Roll

The concept of an omelette roll first crossed my palette at a ladies brunch, the potluck type held by church groups and junior leagues South-wide, where each contributing member is secretly desperate for their contribution to be the star of the show. Great care is taken to make it appear both lovely and effortless. One arrives fully prepared to share (or theatrically withhold) her recipe. Chatter surrounds the dish. Plates clutched expectantly. Ladies making audible noises of delight while eating. Dismay expressed when it is gone. Wistful desires for a second helping. Eagerness for it to be recreated in the future.

The omelette roll--brought forth at just such a Bible study gathering some years ago--had this precise effect. It is essentially a great mess of eggs and cream, beaten and baked to firmness, then wound up like a jelly roll cake and sliced just as pleasantly. The whole idea is perfect for a bake-and-take occasion, because it is a pretty low-maintenance dish that serves a crowd: no eggs to order; no messy skillet; no gummy casserole.
And the beauty of it is, you can fill it with just about anything you like. Sometimes on the weekends, I want a breakfast to sit down to, to eat slowly with a fork. I need to break out of my regular rut of scrambled whites on a piece of toast, swallowed almost without chewing as I race out the door to work at 4:45. I want to slow down and have a real adult morning.

This is the perfect little dish. It can serve 1 or 2, can be breakfast lunch or dinner, and can be stuffed with whatever manner of items you have in your fridge--anything you would throw in an omelette or frittata on the stovetop.
Omelette Roll
serves 1-2; takes about 20-25 minutes

1 oz cream cheese, soft
3 Tbsp milk
1/2 Tbsp flour
3 eggs
salt & pepper
1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 cup shredded cheese (of your choice)
toppings to sprinkle (for me, this time, it was chopped tomatoes and scallions)
  1. Preheat oven to 375º. Line a small rectangular baking sheet (I used 6x9, which worked well, but would be the upper end of size you want) with parchment or foil and spray or grease well.
  2. Whisk together cream cheese, milk, and flour until smooth. Add eggs and beat well, then pour into prepared pan. Bake for about 15 minutes, until eggs are puffed and set (jiggle the pan--you don't want the eggs to shake). Keep oven on.
  3. Remove from oven and pull paper/foil out of the pan. Working quickly, spread with mustard, sprinkle most of cheese and add toppings. Roll from one short side, ending with seam down, and reposition so roll is in center of paper/foil. Top with remaining cheese and return to oven for another 3-5 minutes, until cheese is melty.