Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Do Over: Glazed Lemon Poppy-Seed Cake

I tried the Lemon Poppy-seed cake from a few weeks ago again, to see if I could get it less dry. So, I reduced the timer to 25 minutes and tested it with a toothpick. It came out clean, so I took out the pan. I realized very quickly that the center was undercooked. Oops. I'm guessing that the huge amount of butter in the batter makes the toothpick test deceptive. Still, the outer ring was moist just as I wanted. So, the previous dryness was definitely an issue with baking time. A little more than this time, a little less than the first try.

Still tasted great, though.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Spiced Rice With Currants and Cashews

The last of the Chopping Block class recipes. I love cashews. Love, love, love them. So this looks like it'd be awesome, right? Turns out I don't like soggy, mushy cashews. Shocking, I know. The rest of the flavors were pretty good, though, so next time, I'll hold the cashews until right before serving and then stir them in.


2 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
6 whole cardamom pods
3 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chopped cashews
1/3 cup raisins

Rinse rice under cold running water until water is clear. In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat add ghee. Add cumin, cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon. Stir and cook 1 minute. Add rice, water, salt, cashews, and raisins. Cover completely and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and-cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes, without stirring. Garnish with cilantro or fresh mint.

Dal Soup

Things are starting to get a little out of order here, but this was from the Chopping Block class. I think this soup has potential, but as prepared in class, it was pretty bland. At very least, it needs some salt. As soups are wont to do, it did get better after a day or two in the frig.


2/3 cup picked-over split skinned mung dal or toovar dal

Wash dal in several changes of water until water runs clear and drain well in a sieve. Cook dal at a bare simmer in 6 cups water in a heavy soup pot until dal is soft and cooked through, 40 minutes. Whisk until the dal is creamy.

2 tablespoons ghee
1 1/2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons ginger, minced
1 fresh hot red chili such as serrano or Thai, seeded and halved lengthwise
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
5 cups vegetable stock
2 cups canned tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons tamarind concentrate
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

In a heavy pot over medium high heat add the ghee. When hot, but not smoking, add mustard seeds, ginger and red chili, stirring, until seeds begin to pop. Add remaining ingredients including dal and whisk to break up the dal. Bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook uncovered for about 10-15 minutes. Season with salt and garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Meal - Indian

This past weekend was our celebration of our friend BJ's birthday. For her dinner, I figured I'd give her options without the pressure of having to come up with a menu herself. Plus, I figured this would be a fun way to challenge myself a little bit. So I sent her the following note:

B.J. -
As the Birthday honoree, you have options for your dinner on Friday re: preferences.

Let me know what you'd like and I'll whip up a menu within those guidelines...

Which region/cuisine: Italian, Indian, Latin/Mexican
What meat: Chicken, Beef, Lamb, None
What style desert: Cake, Custard

She wrote back:

Indian chicken w/ custard sounds great.

The other challenge was that this was for a Friday evening, so the more pre-work I could do, the better. I came up with:

Butter Chicken
Red Lentil Dal
Saag Paneer
Rice Pudding
Served with Naan and Paratha

After this plan was set, I came across a mention of Kumail Nanjiani's show Unpronounceable, which seemed really interesting. A theme night emerged - Pakistani stand-up/monologist followed by an Indian meal. We went to the Lakeshore Theater for the 8:00 show and then scooted up to our place for dinner. So my minimal cooking time went to zero. No problem. Every one of these worked really well as make-ahead. I just heated up the breads (bought frozen at Patel Bros.) in the oven and frying pan, nuked the Chicken, Dal and Spinach (Saag) and we were good to go.

Comments on the individual recipes follows. In general, I was happy with every dish, but I found I think this was the fabled case of the flavors overpowering each other. They were all good and B.J. liked them, but there was something missing from having a clear win. For example, the Dal was mind-blowing when I first made it. At dinner, it was tasty but not to the same degree. In eating it on its on as leftovers, back to mind-blowing.

So, I learned a practical lesson in balancing a menu. I think the spices just ended up colliding into each other. In a case like this where all the dishes are served at the same time, I need to pick one to "star" and then find milder, but flavorful, complements.

Butter Chicken

This was another recipe from the Internet. While this tasted good, it was almost more Italian to me than Indian. I'd had this before when our old neighbor Fuzail made some and shared. He accidently used vanilla yogurt instead of plain and was concerned that it was sweet. Honestly, I could taste a little of the vanilla, but it was still great. Mine was not nearly as smooth as his was. One cheat I used was ~4 cups of tomato puree instead of 4 chopped large tomatos. In trying to smooth out the gravy, I ended up adding more than a cup of cream (instead of 1 table spoon). I don't understand the reference to "beaten cream," since there isn't any reference to that. There might be a step missing from the recipe. So, tasty and recommended, but not what I was expecting.

Bengali Red Lentil Dal

Oh wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

A while back, I bought a honkin' big bag of red lentils (masoor dal). Then I never got around to cooking them. Mainly because I was thinking that I was going to have to soak them overnight. I don't plan meals that well in advance unless it's a big deal. So, thanks to the oft-mentioned Chopping Block class, I realized that was very unlikely to be true.

Sure enough. I poked around on the web and found this recipe for Bengali Red Lentil Dal. There are a TON of recipes for Indian food out there, I presume because of a) the large number of expatriots wanting a taste of home and b) the general spread of Indian culture into the Western mainstream. The only thing I care about is that I benefit.

This is a great recipe. I was strangely taken with the prospect of a new spice mix, panch phanon. This is a mix of "equal proportions of whole cumin, fenugreek, anise, mustard, "Indian black onion" seeds (kalunji)." It's my new favorite.

The only change I made to the recipe is that I held back on the peppers. 6 serranos seemed like an awful lot to me, so I put in, I'd guess, about 4 (~2/3's of the ones I'd chopped). I bet I could have gone with all of them.

Aloo Ghobi

This is one of the last of the Chopping Block class recipes. It was, actually, my favorite for eating, but due to the logistics of the class, it's the one I had no hand in the cooking. Jenni and my station partners were really good about keeping us updated on which step they were on, but it's not quite the same. I did get to practice my knife skills from the previous week and I am making progress on breaking my bad habits. It's a shame about the cooking part, because I have been curious about making Aloo Ghobi specifically since I saw the DVD extra of Bend It Like Beckham where the director makes it while her mother and aunt. But this recipe is a proven winner to me, so I'll be giving this one a shot myself, but in the meantime...

1 cauliflower, cut into flowerettes

1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
4 potatoes, large dice
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tomatoes, chopped or 1 1/2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons cilantro, rough chopped
Salt to taste

Heat a saute pan over medium low heat and add oil. Saute cumin seeds, ginger and garlic until tender. Add the potatoes, turmeric, chili powder and garam masala. Allow the spices to toast, about 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower and simmer covered for 15 minutes (add 1/2 cup of water if too dry). Finish by adding the chopped cilantro and season to taste with salt.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Aloo Paratha (Indian Griddle Fried Bread with Potato)

Yet another from the Chopping Block class. I was pretty excited to see this on the menu, since I saw this being made on some Food Channel show. Rachel Ray, maybe? Someone very much like her, I'm certain. One of those things where they go to various restaurants and show the behind the scenes. I think this was in Seattle or something.

We accidently used the spices from the Aloo Gobhi in here and it worked out pretty darned well. It could have used more salt in the filling and there could be some more experimentation with the other spices.

We didn't get a chance to make the dough ourselves, so I'll be doing that myself in the next week or so.

One thing to note in regards to the recipe, there is no way you'll get "thick" 10" discs out of this recipe. And you probably wouldn't want to - they'd be insanely large and thick. The instructor, Ariel, rolled them out very, very thin (not read-through, though) and that worked well.

ALOO PARATHA (Indian griddle fried bread with potato)

For the dough:
2 cups Indian whole wheat flour, chapatti flour
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ghee
3/4 cup warm water or more if needed

Mix the dry flours with the salt, sugar and ghee. Knead with water to make a soft pliable dough. Cover and rest for 30 minutes before using.

For the filling:
3 large russet potatoes, boiled, peeled and mashed
1 small onion, small dice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
1 tablespoon ground coriander
Salt to taste
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Mash the potatoes. Add rest of ingredients and mash again. Taste for seasoning.

To prepare the parathas: Divide the dough into 9 equal parts and roll a thick roti about 10" diameter. Place about 1/4 cup of the filling in the center. Gather the ends to the center to form 4 or 5 points. Overlap the ends so they do not leave an opening. Press gently, dust with dry flour, and proceed to roll 6" wide and 1/4 inch thick.

Frying the parathas: Heat a heavy griddle over medium heat and drizzle with oil. Place paratha on it and allow one side to become golden brown. Drizzle with more oil if needed and flip.

Cilantro and Sweet Tamarind Chutneys

From the Chopping Block class. As I mentioned, I don't think that I'll be buying jarred chutneys again. These were really easy. The tamarind one was outstanding (even better when warm) and I think you could pump up the cayenne on it to get a really amazing bite.


4 cups cilantro leaves washed and chopped (approximately 2 bunches) 1-2 green chilies (optional)
1 cup flaked coconut, unsweetened
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup warm water (as needed)

In a blender add all the ingredients to make a smooth paste. Add water slowly as needed to keep the blender running.


2 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
Pinch cayenne
Salt to taste
1 cup tamarind concentrate
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup raisins, prunes or dates
3/4 cup water

Heat a saute pan over medium heat and add ghee. Saute the cumin seeds and mustard seeds until they pop. Add the rest of the
ingredients. Bring to a boil and cook on low heat for 5 minutes. Cool slightly and puree. The consistency should be thick and
smooth. Taste for seasoning.

Vegetable Pakoras

These Pakoras were prepared as individual pieces, like tempura vegetables. The ones I've had before are more like bundles of shredded veggies. I'll have to look into that. This batter was particularly nice.


For the batter:
1 1/3 cups chickpea flour
2 teaspoons melted ghee
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
8 tablespoons cold water, as needed

Cauliflower flowerets, 1 1/2 half inches long and 1/2 inch square, half cooked
Zucchini, cut 1/4 inch thick Bell peppers (red, green or yellow), sliced 1/4 inch thick
Potato or sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/8 rounds
Spinach leaves
Eggplant, cut into rounds 1/4 inch thick
Under ripe banana, cut into 1/3 inch rounds
Oil for frying

* Combine the flour, melted ghee,lemon juice, spices, salt and baking powder in a bowl and mix well. Whisk in 5 tablespoons
of water slowly until batter is smooth and free of lumps. Slowly add 3 more tablespoons of water. Check the consistency, and
if needed add more water. The batter should be medium thickness, easily coating a wooden spoon. Whisk batter until smooth (a
food processor works great also)
* Cover and set aside for 10-15 minutes.
* Whisk batter again.
* Coat vegetables and fry in hot oil (355°) until golden brown.

Use any combination of vegetables you like. Keep warm in a
250° oven if necessary.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chicharrones De Pollo

I have to say, this month's issue (September) of Gourmet is absolutely amazing. It's like a mini Latin cookbook. I usually flip through each issue, tabbing the recipes that look like winners. I average around 5 or so each time, though the May issue was a clear winner with 10 or so. This time, wow. Just about everything looks great.

I gave these chicken nuggets a shot as I wanted something comfort foodish that Channing would like while pushing a flavor envelope a bit for him. Also, in the Indian class, I realized that it had been years since I had fried anything and I'd never been very good at breading anything.

The only adjustments I made to the recipe was that I used white rum instead of dark and chicken breast instead of thighs. In the case of the rum, I was working with what I could get. It looks like half or more of our liquor is gone. I got rid of a lot when we moved, but I'm certain I kept the party staples. It's either buried in the storeroom (though I looked) or the workers going through the punch list have helped themselves. Grrrr. So, I had to borrow the rum from the neighbors. The breast substitution was because I just don't like dark meat, period.

The result? Awesome. They have a great, great flavor. I thought that you wouldn't be able to taste the marinade, but it was just perfect. The lime really comes through even after the frying.

I did have to practice a few times on the frying. I think the heat may have been a bit too high, as I was pulling them out based on color at about 4 minutes (a touch over 1/2 the recommended time). The chicken was thoroughly cooked, so that was okay, but there's an adjustment needed.

Breading went well, overall, though I have to look up the two-handed method. I ended up with a lot of the flour mixture built up on my fingers. I also realized just now that I forgot and skipped the step of patting dry the chicken before breading. Oops.

Still, this one's getting a repeat performance. BTW - Chicharrones are apparently usually seasoned fried pork rinds. Yuck. I'm inferring that the flavors are the carry-over from the original.

I'd link to the recipe on, but apparently not all of the recipes are up yet. So, in all of it's copyright flaunting glory, is the recipe. The recent redesign of epicurious absolutely stinks. It's a great on-line resource, but man alive it's slow. I think the direct links to recipes work pretty well, but for cruising through the site, well, you've been warned.


These irresistible nuggets, a specialty of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, are here made with boneless chicken
instead of the usual chicken-on-the-bone.

1/4 cup amber or dark rum

1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 lb skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
About 2 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon paprika
ACCOMPANIMENTS: lime wedges; hot sauce

* Stir together rum, lime juice, soy sauce, and sugar in a shallow bowl until sugar has dissolved. Add chicken and stir to coat. Marinate at room temperature 25 minutes.
* While chicken finishes marinating, heat 1 inch oil in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
* Meanwhile, whisk together flour, paprika, and 112 teaspoon salt in a shallow bowl. Drain chicken and pat dry. Dredge in flour, shaking off excess, then transfer to a plate.
* Fry chicken in 3 batches, turning occasionally, until deep golden brown and cooked through, 6 to 7 minutes per batch. (If chicken darkens too quickly, reduce heat.) Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Indian Vegetarian Cooking Class

Last night was my second class at The Chopping Block, this time for More Indian Vegetarian Cooking. This was my first hands-on class for a menu (versus the knife skills the previous evening). Jenni joined me, which was great.

The menu:
Vegetable Pakoras
Cilantro Chutney
Sweet Tamarind Chutney
Aloo Paratha (Potato filled fried griddle bread)
Aloo Gobhi (Potato and Cauliflower)
Dal Soup
Spiced Rice with Currants and Cashews

I will post the recipes individually.

Honestly, I really didn't learn much here. It was a lot of fun for the social aspect, but from a skills and education perspective, there wasn't a lot of content. In part, this may be because that Indian food is really not that technically complicated - just a TON of prep. But I would have liked more discussion of, I guess, how the spices were working together or something.

I think the chutneys were the most interesting overall. They were certainly the easiest, but that also made me realize that there is no reason to ever buy jarred chutneys again.

The dough for the Paratha was made for us ahead of time, which was a shame. I would have liked to try that (and will). I think the timing would have worked out fine.

I think, overall, the flavors were a little bland. The Dal Soup and the Paratha were the two most noticable culprits. The Paratha filling may have only needed some more salt. The Dal needed some general kick to it, maybe more ginger. They may have dialed down the spice for the Midwestern palate.

The logistics of the class were interesting. There were four prep and cooking stations with four students each. So, it wasn't quite fully hands on - we had to make a deliberate effort within our team to switch off on tasks so that each person got a chance to try working with everything. Also, the ingredients layout was a bit confusing. The piles weren't labelled, so we had to keep going back to the recipes to figure out which was which. Even with that, we ended up using the wrong plate of spices with the Paratha. Since the spice combos were largely the same for each, it didn't make much of a difference. Basically, we ended up with tumeric in the potato filling.

I think, in general, I might be better off with the more skills-oriented courses, rather than the menu-focused ones.

Of course, I did buy more stuff. Our newest acquisitions are a fancy cheese knife and wire cheese slicer to replace those that have broken in the last year. They're very, very functional and well designed.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Knife Skills Class

I took my first ever cooking class tonight at The Chopping Block in Lincoln Square. As I guess I should have expected, there were no incredible revelations, but a lot of good information on technique and knife care. We worked through a variety of vegetables: celery, zucchini, carrots, green peppers, jalepenos and onion. We got to practice with several different styles of blades and representatives of each style by Global, Friedr. Dick and Chroma (Porsche design). I started out liking the Friedr Dick best, but I think that might have been because the weight reminded me of my Chicago Cutlery. But ultimately, I gravitated to the Global 8" chef knife as my all-over favorite.

My technique did need adjustment - I grip the knife handle too far back and I don't follow through on my slice. I also balance the top of the blade with my forefinger, so I need to get a full grip and rotate my hand almost 90 degrees toward my body. I guess I thought I was getting better control of the direction of the cut, but a) that's not really true and b) it explains why my hand gets sore faster. This is going to take a lot of practice to change my habits. I think I might buy a bunch of veggies a couple of times and just practice while listening to the radio a few times.

I had started doing the "claw" in the last week or two, having noticed it on Top Chef, so I was on the right track in preserving my fingers. I just need to practice that some more as well.

Also, I've been taking very poor care of my knives. My sharpening tools and technique needed work and I've put them in the dishwasher a LOT. Handwash and air dry them is apparently the way to go.

I did just buy a new wood cutting board this weekend and the care instructions on it match with what they were recommending. Again, no dishwasher - a dilute bleach and water solution (1 tbl bleach to 1/2 gal water) followed by hot soapy water. So, I'm off to a good start with that.

I got out of there pretty cheap. I have a good number of knives, even if they are Chicago Cutlery. As a lower quality, they dull more quickly, apparently. But I figure I need to improve my sharpening and knife skills before I upgrade my meager collection. They're good enough for now. I ended up buying a MicroSharp Universal sharpener and the Food Lover's Companion - essentially, a food dictionary. It retails for only $16.95 ($11.53 at Amazon) and is already an interesting read. I think I'll start asking for Globals for Christmas.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Comments Issues?

I've heard there may be issues with the Comments function with this blog. I've tested all three posting methods and they seem to work correctly. If you have issues, please drop me an email and let me know so I can get it sorted out.

Veal Rolls Stuffed with Spinach and Gruyere

This recipe was the foundation of the meal. I'm not sure what it was the appealled so strongly to me when I saw it in Gourmet. It may have been the presentation, but possibly it was just my love of all things spinach and cheese. Of course, the fact that it was a clear win for serving to Channing didn't hurt.

I honestly don't know if I've ever cooked veal in my life. My mom was one of those that dropped it when she read the first reports in the 70's or 80's about the ranch practices. So, there's a little bit of guilt. Obviuosly, not enough.

You would be really suprised at how hard it is to find veal in Chicago. Heck, I was suprised to find that my local Jewel didn't even have a butcher on site. I think I'd heard that they were being phased out as a cost measure, but hadn't ever seen it implemented. Edgewater Produce has a meat counter, but no veal either. So I had to go to Whole Foods. Not really a bad move, I just wish I'd thought of it more than 120 minutes before serving. I've consistantly found their meat department very helpful. I do want to give the Paulina Meat Market more of my business, but they don't have parking and I was in a time crunch.

These went over great, though I think that I may have overdone them a bit. I think also that the warning about keeping the cheese away from the edges of the veal cutlets before rolling them was dead-on. Making the sauce was complicated a bit with the chunks of cooked cheese that had slipped out.

In flipping through the Food Lover's Dictionary, I found that this was actually a roulade, a stuffed meat roll.

Steamed Fingerling Potatoes in White Wine

I've never worked with fingerling potatoes before, much less steamed potatoes, so this was two new things to try. This recipe was also from the August issue of Gourmet, though not paired with the veal. I learned 2 things about fingerlings: 1) you have to peel them. There are too many little spud things (whatever they're called) and you can't just scrub them off. 2) they're really hard to peel. The curves and crannies are a lot like ginger. So, they all ended up about 1/2 peeled. This worked out great. Steaming seemed to work well, too.

Broiled Asaparagus

I used to hate asparagus. Absolutely despise it. We used to have canned when I was a kid in the '70's and I never touched it again. Until sometime in the '90's, a friend cooked me dinner and served steamed asparagus. Not wanting to be an ungracious guest, I showed no sign of having an issue with it and dug in. Well, I was kind of busted because I was totally blown away. It wasn't slimy at all! And had a good flavor and a nice crunch to it.

So, the vegetable quickly became a favorite. I had it grilled at the Pepper Lounge here in Chicago and added that variation to the toolbox. In lieu of grilling, the broiler works well, too.

This almost doesn't count as a recipe either. These guys lose heat very quickly, so make this as the absolute last thing before you serve the meal.

Broiled Asparagus
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed (i.e. snap off the tough part of the stalk)
1/2 bottle vinaigrette
3/4 cup Gorgonzola crumbles

Marinate the asparagus in the vinaigrette in a flat pan (like a lasagna pan) for at least an hour in the refrigerator.

10-15 minutes before serving, heat broiler (to High if you have settings). At 5 minutes until service, place stalks on the broiler pan, drizzling remaining vinaigrette over the vegatable. Set pan 3 inches from the flame (again, if adjustment is available). Broil for 5 minutes, remove from broiler, top with crumbled Gorgonzola and serve immediately.

This is my first use of the new stove's broiler for an older recipe and I'm quite happy with it. I set the pan at the second rack level from the flame, about 3", as the first one (1"?) seemed really, really close. They came out just perfect and could have even had another minute or two to get a bit of char.

I used a White Wine with Gorgonzola dressing from Whole Foods, which worked really nicely.

Glazed Lemon Poppy-Seed Cake

I found this cake in the May issue of Gourmet. This was as easy to prepare as the recipe says. The only caution I would give is to watch the cooking time. I went up right to the edge of the 20 minutes and it was a little dry. But, man, tasty.

Menu - Veal Rolls, Fingerling Potatoes, Asparagus and Lemon Poppyseed Cake

I saw the veal recipe in Gourmet and built the meal around that. In selecting sides and deserts, I was going for a cuisine neutral - i.e. no dish immediately identifiable as Italian, Indian, etc. and trying to keep it somewhat light. Due to poor planning on my part, I wasn't able to get to the store until 3:30 for a 7:00 meal. By the time I got home, it was 4:00. This entire meal took 2 hours to prep and cook. There was a little more final cooking once the salads were served (the veal and the asparagus), but that was at the last minute, so that they wouldn't get cold. Comments on the individual recipes are (or, rather, will be) in their entries.

Field Greens with White Wine Gorgonzola Vinaigrette
Veal Rolls Stuffed with Spinach and Gruyere
Steamed Fingerling Potatoes in White Wine
Broiled Asparagus
Lemon Poppyseed Cake

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tortilla Soup

Tomorrow's a big cooking day - 3 new courses, plus desert and maybe another run at the hollandaise. But in the interest of keeping the content going, I'm sharing this recipe. It's somewhat outside the specific mission of documentation, but it does represent a clear success. I serve this at least once a year at our Holiday party. It can be made vegetarian by using vegetable broth instead of chicken stock. I don't like it as much that way, but it's still totally amazing. My comments are in italics within the body of the recipe.

One year, I accidently grabbed the cayenne pepper instead of the chili powder. Holy Christ. I had to make two more batches with no pepper at all in order to dilute the soup enough that I wouldn't kill anyone. Not only did it turn out well, that's when I realized that this is actually a very easy recipe once you practice it.

Tortilla Soup
I found this recipe in the Houston Chronicle back in 1990 or so.

This tortilla soup was served at the economic summit working dinner for leaders at Bayou Bend last week. The recipe is from chef Dean Fearing's cookbook The Mansion on Turtle Creek Cookbook. I just checked - this book is apparently still in print after 20 years. I have to get this. It is the same soup served at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, formerly the Remington.

3 tablespoons corn oil 4 corn tortillas, coursely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh epazote (see note) or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup fresh onion puree
2 cups froms tomato puree (Canned is fine)
1 tablespoon cumin powder
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 bay leaves
4 tablespoons canned tomato puree
2 quarts chicken stock
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
1 cooked chicken breast cut into strips (I make 3 or 4 and shred, rather than slice, them.)
1 avocado, peeled, seeded and cubed (I pass on this. I think it messes with the flavor - yanking it away from the rich corn, chicken and cumin tastes. On the other hand, I serve it with sour cream, which it could be argued has the same result. Your milage may vary.)
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
3 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips and crisply fried. (This just has purist pain-in-the-ass written all over it for me. Buy restaurant style chips instead, those locally produced ones if you can.)

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the chopped tortillas and garlic and epazote over medium heat until tortillas are soft. Add onion and fresh tomatoe puree bring to boil. Add cumin, chili powder, bay leaves, canned tomotato puree and stock. Bring to a boil again, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste and cook, stirring frequently, 30 minutes. Skim fat from surface if necessary. Strain and pour into warm soup bowls. Garnish each bowl with an equal portion of chicken breast, avacado, shredded cheese and crisp tortilla strips. Serve immediately. Serves 8 to 10. I don't strain it (though I remove the bay leaves). Also, people really enjoy mixing the stuff themselves. I often do the first one and set it by the "mix-ins" as an example. I serve sour cream as one of the options.

Notes: Epazote is a Mexican weedlike herb. Occasionally it is available at Fiesta markets and other Mexican food specialty shops. Soup may be made a day ahead and gently reheated before serving. Needless to say, I almost never find fresh epazote here in Chicago - maybe sometimes at Whole Foods. However, I prefer it, since cilantro as a fairly strong, distinctive taste and smell. What I often do is buy dried epazote (readily available with the Mexican bagged spices, usually in the produce section ), soak it in water for a few hours and double the amount (from 1 -> 2+ tablespoons) to compensate for the loss of flavor in drying.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Gnocchi with Chicken in Vodka Florentine Sauce

Okay, this doesn't really count as cooking. It's more heating and assembling pre-made ingredients. But it's tasty and a heck of a lot classier/more impressive than a frozen pizza. We had a friend coming over for dinner and I needed to use the leftover chicken breasts from the Cordon Bleu. There was not enough chicken to base a full meal around and I didn't have a lot of time anyway.

Oh, and despite having a B. Fine Arts in Photography, I am not a food photographer. The result is actually a very attractive pink and green. The big beige thing to the left is a hunk of Tuscan bread with the fava bean bruschetta.

My new thing last night was learning to use the broiler in our new gas Jenn-Air. This one is a little different than those in other stoves I've used; the broiling unit is on the top of the main oven compartment, rather than the shallow drawer below. The upside is that you can adjust the rack if you want to play with the distance of food from the flames. What I can't figure out is, in turning on the broiler, the digital panel asks for a heat level. I played with every button on the panel, but couldn't figure out how to change it. Of course, being a guy, I can't look at the manual. Fortunately, the default is High, which is what I wanted anyway.

I used this to broil the chicken breast, rather than take the extra time to go out to the porch and grill them. It seemed a waste to fire up the whole Weber for only two breasts and it is really, really hot outside these days. In addition to the time savings, I think that the flavor and texture of broiled chicken is better for this semi-creamy sauce. The crispiness and smokey taste of grilled chicken works better for oil-based or marinara-type sauces.

I broiled the breast for five minutes per side, about 3 inches from the broiler flame. I then diced the chicken, which worked out fine, but my friend Joe suggested that shredding it would work even better, as there would be more texture to pick up sauce.

I plan to take the leap and my own gnocchi soon, but the packaged stuff is quite good. Here's something interesting: Gia Russa make a whole wheat gnocchi (which has sweet potato in it), but if you look the nutritional information is actually less healthy than the regular counter part. For example, the Dietary Fiber is about half. Why would you bother? Also, I've been taught that you're supposed to boil gnocchi in small batches. Maybe this brand stinks or I'm using an extra wide mouthed pot, but I've done it both ways several times and I can't tell a lick of difference.

Brands that I used are noted in the ingredients, but obviously not required. Instructions are in sequence for prep and cooking of all ingredients.

Gnocchi with Chicken in Vodka Florentine Sauce

Serves 2 (heartily)

1 16 oz pkg gnocchi (Gia Russa)
1 jar Vodka Sauce (Bertolli)
1 10 oz pkg frozen spinach (Jewel house brand)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Grated Parmesan (for topping)
Ground black pepper (for topping)

Start the water (with dash of olive oil and salt) for the pasta on high flame. Place chicken 3" under broiler flame. Thaw spinach in microwave. Pour vodka sauce into saucepan on high flame - reduce to a simmer and cover when sauce begins boiling. Turn chicken at 5 minutes. Squeeze water from spinach and set aside. Remove chicken after another 5 minutes (10 total). Shred chicken and set aside. When water hits a boil, open gnocci package and spoon the pasta into water.

Note: unlike other pastas of similar sizes, gnocchi splashes when it hits the water. You do NOT want to just dump it in as you would rotini or the like, as you will burn your hand. Use your slotted spoon.

Stir spinach into vodka sauce and re-cover. As gnocchi float to the top of the water (~2 minutes), spoon them out into a colindar to drain. Once all gnocci is done, take the pasta pot off the flame, discard water and pour gnocchi into empty pot. Stir in sauce and shredded chicken. Serve into bowls, top with parmesan and pepper to taste.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Chicago Area Cooking Classes

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune's cooking section, Good Eats, published an exhaustive directory of all of the local options for cooking instruction. I'm taking two next week from The Chopping Block, Knife Skills and Indian Vegetarian Cooking. These will be my first formal, hands-on instruction ever.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Recipes Added

Now that my on-line friend Johanna has given me the heads up that she'll be reading, I realize that referencing books for recipes may not be terribly helpful for anyone else looking at this blog. I just verified that my installation of Acrobat has an OCR and export feature, so scanning the recipes in the recipes that are not available on-line (i.e. through is pretty easy. I'm going to update the few earlier posts and do this going forward. At least until the copyright police come after me.

Bruschettas and Crostini

I completely forgot that I made these last weekend. I'm working on my Masters in Literature at Northwestern University and am now in the thesis stage. A bunch of us have started getting together to help navigate the murky adminstrative waters and motivate each other, since we no longer have the weekly class structure. These meetings have a somehow developed a dinner party component, which is fine by me. We rotate locations and the lovely Jenni Higgs was the host this past weekend. Her menu was predominantly Italian, so I went with that for making starters.

I found two recipes for bruschettas in Cucina Rustica. One based on fava beans and fennel, the other on zucchini. In addition, I made crostini, rather than just slicing up bread. Man, goodness all around. The two are a great pairing in colors, textures and flavors. The fava is lightly savory, the zucchini, lightly sweet.

Sad confession: according to the note in the endpaper, my father and step-mother gave me this book in 1993. I don't think I've ever made anything from it before. Big, big mistake. This is a great cookbook. The instructions are very clear and easly to follow with a wide variety of selections. The volume I have is out of print, but it's available through Amazon Marketplace resellers for as low as $1.48 as of today. There also appears to be a new edition.

I wasn't able to find fava beans at the Jewel, but I called Channing for his web connection and he was able to find that butter beans are an acceptable substitute. Also, in looking at the recipes today, I realized that I accidently put sun-dried tomatoes that should have been on the zucchini on the fava instead. I actually think it works better that way. The tomatoes add some color and that makes for better presentation. The zing of flavor is also a better fit with the savory bean mixture. The zucchini has a great smoothness that I think would be comprimised by the tomatoes.

Bruschetta al Maccit
Grilled Bread with Fava Bean Puree Serves
4 to 6 as a luncheon dish, or 10 to 12 as an appetizer

Maccu is an ancient Sicilian soul food made of dried fava beans and wild fennel. If you are lucky (as we are in Los Angeles) to find a hillside carpeted with wild fennel, a delicious edible plant, pick some of the feathery tops to chop up and add to the recipe. The tops of the wild plant are more pungent than those of the domesticated bulb fennel that is widely available.

1 16-ounce can fava beans
1 fennel bulb
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Salt to taste
6 thick slices good-quality country bread or 12 thin slices baguette or other thin loaf
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled

Drain the fava beans and place in a bowl. Carefully remove the dark outer skin of each bean. Do not be concerned if the beans break up. Set aside the shelled beans. Carefully wash the fennel and discard any woody outer layers. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise, then thinly slice crosswise.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onion. Cook the onion over low heat until it begins to wilt. Add the sliced fennel. Continue cooking the onion and fennel together until they are both very tender, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook until it gives off its characteristic aroma. If using wild fennel tops, add them at this stage. Add the fava beans and 1/4 cup water. Cook all ingredients together over low heat at least 15 minutes, or until the beans are soft and the flavors blend. Add salt to taste and remove from the heat. In a food processor with a steel blade or in a blender, briefly process the bean mixture to a coarse puree.

Grill or lightly toast the bread slices. Rub with garlic cloves, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve the Maccu warm or at room temperature mounded in the center of a platter and surrounded with small Crostini (see below).

La Place, Viana and Evan Kleiman. Cucina Rustica. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, p. 44.

Bruschetta con Zucchine Sfrante
Bruschetta Topped with Zucchini Puree and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Serves 4 to 6

In this dish, the zucchini is cooked with onion and herbs until it completely falls apart and becomes a rough puree. Then the puree is spooned onto well-toasted sturdy bread and topped with thin slices of sun-dried tomato.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 medium zucchini, washed, ends removed, and coarsely sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
6-8 fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 thick slices good-quality Italian bread
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled
Extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained, cut into strips

Gently heat the olive oil in a small saute pan. Add the onion and saute until soft and translucent. Add the zucchini, garlic, and herbs. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until zucchini falls apart completely. Add salt and pepper to taste. Grill or lightly toast the bread slices. Rub each with the garlic cloves and drizzle with olive oil. Spread
the rough zucchini puree on the grilled bread. Garnish with the sun-dired tomatoes.

La Place, Viana and Evan Kleiman. Cucina Rustica. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, p. 41.

Appetizer Croutons
Serves 8 to 10

We often serve Crostini instead of bruschetta at large gatherings or cock­tail parties. Crostini are smaller, less filling, and more delicate. Either use a baguette-type loaf that has a small diameter, or cut bread slices in halves or, if necessary, in quarters.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 loaf good-quality baguette or other thin loaf, cut into thin slices
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or left whole
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Italian parsley (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the garlic and parsley, and gently cook over low heat until the garlic releases its aroma. Add the slices of bread and fry until golden on one side, then turn each piece and fry the other side. Alternatively, brush both sides of bread with olive oil, lay slices on a cookie sheet, and place in a preheated 400F oven.

If desired, sprinkle parsley over the bread slices. Back until bread turns golden. Remove from oven and lightly rub the whole peeled garlic close on one side of each bread slice. Crostini can be made in advance and served at room temperature.

La Place, Viana and Evan Kleiman. Cucina Rustica. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, p. 45.

Open Faced Chicken Cordon Bleu

I found this in the May issue of Gourmet in their 10-Minute Meals section: Open Faced Chicken Cordon Bleu

While it doesn't clock in at the 15 minutes the recipe claims, it is pretty fast.

Overall, pretty tasty, but edging on the bland side. I suspect that, in large part, this was because I did not get the cutlets down to 1/4" thick. The Jewel chicken breast is insanely thick as it is, so I was happy to get them down to a consistent 1/2".

When sauteeing, I saw that the bottom was getting to the golden brown described in the recipe, but the top was nowhere near done. I flipped them to cook them through, rather than overcook (or burn) the bottom, which worked fairly well.

But I suspect that the sheer volume of the chicken overwhelmed the taste of the ham and cheese.

The spinach and Gruyère are going to make an encore appearance this weekend when I try out some grilled veal roll-ups for which they are the filling.

Blueberry Orange Muffins

I used to make fantastic muffins. Absolutely rocking. But something happened when I moved to Chicago. They fall apart all the time. It's really annoying. So, I decided to give it another shot. I used to use Pioneer Baking Mix (I think), which wasn't available in Chicago, so I used to think that it was an issue with using the Pioneer recipe with Bisquik or whatever. Adjustments there didn't work and I eventually gave up.

This time, I figured I'd work from scratch. I picked a recipe from P.J. Gray and Stanley Hunter's Bear Cookin': The Original Guide to Bear Comfort Foods. One of these guys (P.J., I think) is a friend of a friend whom I met at a small brunch. He made several of the recipes and they were really, really good. So, I eagerly bought a copy of the book from him.

Guess what? Same stupid result. They taste pretty good, but they fall apart instantly.

I suspect that it was the egg issue I referred to in the Hollandaise sauce post. Age and size. Size, in particular, as I'm guessing that there wasn't enough protein binding the cake together.

The orange in the recipe is a cup of orange juice. I can't taste it at all. So, I'm figuring swapping that out for concentrate or adding a teaspoon or two of orange extract to taste would help give it the citrus taste I was expecting.

I also realized this morning that I didn't cook them long enough. I went by color and not by testing. So, I got a mouthful of raw dough. Ugh.

This is a good recipe, I think, I just need to work on my execution and make some tweaks for flavor.


Never thought you were much of a baker? Prove yourself wrong with this easy muffin recipe. "When blueberries are in season, I like to bake these often," Stanley confesses. "Now my friends can't wait for blue blueberry season. I wonder why?"

1 cup quick rolled oats
1 cup orange juice
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs, beaten
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 to 4 cups fresh blueberries


1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix oats and orange juice; blend in oil and eggs and set aside. In another bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Add oat mixture and mix lightly. Fold in blueberries. Spoon batter into paper-lined muffin pans, filling 2/3 full. Combine topping ingredients and sprinkle over batter. Bake for approximately 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned.

Gray, PJ and Stanley Hunter. Bear Cookin’: the Original Guide to Bear Comfort Foods. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003, p. 34.

Hollandaise Sauce

I suck at sauces. And as a result, I tend to avoid recipes that call for them. Also, I love Eggs Benedict. So, I threw myself into the breech and gave it a try. I have several recipes in various cookbooks, but I went with the one in Jame's Peterson's The Essentials of Cooking.

The result? Not so good. My third and final try for the day was not thick enough and ended up separating a bit. It tasted okay, though. Will definitely have to try this a few more times to get it right.

The recipe called for sloped side sauce pan, which I didn't have, but Peterson seemed to make a good case. While whisking, you don't want sauce trapped in the corner of the pan where you can't get at it. Made sense, so I used a braiser as it seemed deep enough and not too wide (like an omelette pan might be). That was pretty workable.

I had clarified butter already (Indian ghee), so I went that route.

The first two tries, the egg started scrambling before the froth went down as described. The third time, I think I overcompensated and pulled it off the flame too fast. I think the mixutre didn't thicken or emulsify enough as a result.

I ended up putting about 5 times the amount of lemon juice the recipe called for, just to get it to taste like the sauce I'd had before.

It was also kind of gritty. That may have been undissolved salt, though now that I think about it... I ran it through the blender and that semed to help.

I suspect that part of my problems was that I was using old (but not rotten, of course) eggs. They were kind of small, too. I used to use Jumbo size eggs for everything because, well, more is better, right? But I read somewhere that recipes are actually geared to regular sized eggs and combining that with the other pearl of wisdom I picked up that "baking is chemistry," i.e. proportions need to be exact for it to work, I switched. I think I'm switching back. More on that later.

Next time around, I'm also going to only use one yolk, as two or three makes a LOT of sauce.

And I'm going to cut back on the butter. I think that "bulk" is what made me have to add such an insane amount of lemon juice.


Hollandaise is a light, airy sauce made by whisking butter and lemon into an emulsion of egg yolks and water. The principles for making hollandaise (and its derivatives, such as bearnaise sauce) are almost the same as for mayonnaise, except that the egg yolk emulsion for a hollandaise is hot, and butter is used rather than oil. A classic hollandaise sauce is made with clarified butter, but whole butter can also be used for a thinner consistency. Clarified butter produces a very thick sauce, almost the consistency of a mayonnaise, because it contains no water. Use clarified butter when the sauce must be thick enough to coat foods like oysters that are to be gratineed, or to top eggs Benedict, or when the sauce is to be served on top of a steak. Whole butter contains water and so makes a thinner hollandaise. Whole butter can be added as melted butter or whisked into the sauce in chunks, as though you were making a beurre blanc. Use whole-butter hol­landaise to sauce seafood and other dishes that are too delicate for a thick sauce.

To make a hollandaise, first make an emulsion of eggyolks and water (professional chefs sometimes call this emulsion a sabayon) by beating the egg yolks and water together until frothy, then beating the mixture over heat until barely stiff. Whisk in melted or clarified butter in a constant thin stream (or whisk in chunks of whole butter) until it's all been absorbed by the yolks and the sauce is thick. Once all of the butter has been added, flavor the sauce: A small amount of lemon juice is used to finish a hollandaise, and a strained infusion of tarragon, cracked pepper, shallots, and vinegar flavors a bearnaise, the most famous hollandaise variation.

Hollandaise Sauce

1. Combine 1 tablespoon cold water per egg yolk in a sauce pan with sloping sides (sometimes called a Windsor pan) or in a metal mixing bowl off the heat.

2. Whisk the egg yolks rapidly until frothy, about 45 seconds.

3. Place the pan or bowl over medium heat and continue to whisk rapidly. As you're whisking, the egg yolks will increase in volume. As soon as they start to lose volume slightly and you see streaks on the bottom of the pan, take the pan off the heat.

4. Whisk for about 20 seconds more to cool the pan and keep the yolks from curdling. Whisk in clarified butter or whole butter, melted or in chunks.

5. Add lemon juice to taste­ - about 1 teaspoon for a 4-yolk hollandaise - and season with salt and white pepper.

Peterson, James. Essentials of Cooking. New York: Artisan, 1999, p. 44.

Warm Potato Salad with Bacon

Made this for a barbeque this past weekend. Damn. This is really, really good and really easy.

From the July issue of Gourmet: Warm Potato Salad with Bacon

When I was at the store, I was thinking of another recipe and I picked up Yukon Gold potatoes. I probably would have done that anyway, though. So, if you do that, the result is yellow instead of the white shown in the picture here. Also, I did not peel the potatoes. I actually never do that anymore.

Also, I used Oscar Mayer thick-cut bacon just for the hartiness. I don' t think that I have cooked bacon in years and was probably no good at it then. So, I burned the first batch pretty hard. As Special Agent Dale Cooper would have said, "Carbonized."

I don't understand why the potatos are chopped after boiling, rather than before. It did make it a bit more difficult when boiling, as the different sizes were odne at different times. Next time, I'll definitely cut into chunks first, like I do for mashed. Another issue was that I didn't make the pieces small enough, so the larger chunks didn't get as much seasoning as I would have liked.