Monday, April 6, 2009

25 Random Food Facts About Me

  1. Unless it's cooked in sauce for a long time, as in baked macaroni and cheese or lasagna, I don't like dried pasta. Fresh pasta, like in ravioli and tortellini, is fine but not exciting.
  2. I don't mind at all being completely out of meat or even cheese, but if I'm out of any of the ingredients to make my famous brownies, I feel a little off.
  3. I love marshmallows, even plain out of the bag.
  4. I put a splash of vinegar in nearly every meat dish I make. I guess it might be my grandmother's Panamanian influence.
  5. My favorite cooking smell is onions frying slowly in butter. I think it's way better than the smell of bacon (which I also like).
  6. I probably eat red meat once or twice a week on average, and when I do, it's usually a very small quantity, like one slice of beef tenderloin or half a burger. This has nothing to do with a desire to be healthy or a dislike of meat; I just don't want it more often than that.
  7. I love sweet and salty things together. I almost never eat meat or chicken without some sort of fruity accompaniment, like chutney or jam.
  8. I love all kinds of seafood, but lately my stomach doesn't. I seem to be able to eat crab and bivalves, at least in small amounts, and canned tuna, but fresh fish doesn't work well. I'm really, really hoping this is a temporary thing.
  9. I love to bake. The best things I bake are the aforementioned brownies and my lemon bars, but my favorite thing to bake is cupcakes with buttercream frosting. I love experimenting with different flavors of cake and frosting.
  10. I don't own a stand or hand mixer, but my whisk gets a whole heck of a workout.
  11. I love reading cooking blogs, but I never try any of the recipes on them. Ever. Although I bookmark hundreds of them just in case I change my mind.
  12. One exception to that rule is when I have a specific dish in mind, Google it, and find a promising-looking recipe on a cooking blog. So I guess what I should have said is that I never make a recipe because I see it on a blog.
  13. My staple meal is an egg and cheese sandwich on toast with some sort of fruit on the side. I most often eat it for dinner.
  14. I like cereal, but only as a snack.
  15. I have the amazing ability to spend half an hour at Whole Foods and spend less than $30.
  16. I love living alone, but I wish I had more people to cook for.
  17. My favorite food in the world is spanakopita. My parents and I used to go out for Greek food a lot when I was really little, so it's comfort food. My mom taught me to make it, and now I can knock one out in less than half an hour, including messing with all the phyllo dough.
  18. My favorite vegetables are spinach, green beans, eggplant and broccoli. I'm supposed to avoid all of them for health reasons. I sort of mostly do, but man, I miss eggplant parmigiana.
  19. I can only think of a few foods I truly dislike, other than pasta, which I'm just not into. Raw celery, canteloupe, honeydew, beef liver, gorgonzola cheese and olives are the only ones I can think of. Although I'll eat canteloupe and honeydew, I like olives fine if I only eat one or two, and gorgonzola is okay if there's just a little of it mixed with other stuff.
  20. The best dessert I've ever had is the rice pudding at the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh. It's super-creamy (undoubtedly catastrophically bad for me), and they serve it with whipped cream and blackberries.
  21. I can't stomach any discernable fat on meat. I don't care how delicious it's supposed to be; if the fat's not rendered, I will cut a wide swath around it to avoid getting even a tiny bit of it in my mouth. But I'm fine with burgers and hot dogs, because the fat is mixed in.
  22. I could easily eat a nectarine every day of my life and never get sick of them. I wish they were in season more than a few weeks a year.
  23. I love every kind of capsicum, from pepperoncini to wax peppers to peppadews. Generally, the "greener-tasting" the better, but I do love habanero jam.
  24. I love both lemon and ice water, but not together.
  25. My alcohol preferences in brief: non-yeasty beer; red wine; Bombay gin in the summer; whiskey in the winter. And everything in small quantities.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chicken with Raisins, Olives and Red Wine

This is probably weird, but I do a lot of meal planning in the wee hours of the morning when I can't sleep. I have so many restrictions on what to cook that it drives me a little nuts. I need food that won't upset my stomach (a good trick in itself), and I'm moving in less than two months, so I need to clear out the freezer and fridge, and as much of the pantry as I can manage.

I looked in the freezer the other night for some ice cream that I knew wasn't there, but I was craving it, so I looked anyway. I saw that I had some chicken breasts in there that I needed to use up, so I pulled one out and put in in the fridge to thaw. Then, last night, when I couldn't sleep, the gears started turning. What should I do to make the chicken interesting? Well, I had an onion I was pretty sure was about to go bad, so I should use that. And I had a glug of red wine, maybe half a cup, that I wasn't sure I was going to drink. Okay, chicken, onions, red wine. Raisins? I always have golden raisins around. Then I got the idea that olives would taste really good with that combination of flavors, but I didn't have any olives. (I ended up buying six oil-cured olives at the Whole Foods olive bar this afternoon for under $1.)

Then I realized I had a bowl of chicken soup in the fridge that I'd thrown together the other day when I wasn't feeling well. It was nothing but chicken broth out of a carton, frozen peas and egg noodles. I decided I could probably pour all of that into my chicken dish too, and use up an extra leftover in the process.

So I went about fixing the dinner. Normally I would butterfly and pan-sear the chicken, but I was feeling too lazy, so I set the oven to 375 while I worked on the sauce. One corner of the onion had started to get moldy, but I cut that out and the rest looked and smelled beautiful, so I sliced it thinly and started cooking it down over medium heat in some olive oil. I stirred the onion constantly so that it didn't burn.

While the onion was getting nice and brown, I seasoned the chicken breast lightly with salt, pepper, cumin, smoked paprika, Mexican oregano and ground ancho pepper, and I popped it in the oven. I ended up cooking it for 12 minutes on one side and 5 on the other.

Back to the sauce. When the onions were brown pretty much all over, I added a tablespoon or two of white wine vinegar and stirred the onions around to deglaze the pan. (Do NOT inhale the vinegar while it's deglazing, or you'll be sorry.) Then I threw in the half-cup or so of red wine and a small handful of golden raisins, maybe 40 or so. Next I chopped my six olives into approximately raisin-sized pieces and threw those in. Then I added the chicken broth from the soup (maybe 3/4 cup), turned the heat up to medium-high, and waited for the sauce to reduce.

When it started to thicken, I gave it a taste. It tasted a little too bitter and definitely salty enough. I added a teaspoon or so of sugar, a splash of lemon juice, and a small sprinkle of garlic powder. That did the trick. I dumped in the egg noodles and peas from the soup, then chopped the chicken breast into biggish chunks and tossed those in too.

It sounds so weird, but it was so delicious. I'm excited that I saved half and get to eat it tomorrow.

Who knows what my barely-conscious mind will come up with tonight.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Top Cheffing It at Home

I'm moving in three months, so I'm in full-on cleaning-out-the-kitchen mode. I've always hated moving food. It's heavy, much of it is perishable, and I never feel like dealing with my old food when it's time to unpack in my new place. But when moving day comes along, it's move it or throw it out, and I'm ashamed to say how much I've thrown out during past moves. This situation is more dire, since my choices are going to be putting it in storage for seven months or taking it on a ten-hour drive on what's sure to be a roasting day. (Which reminds me that I need to get my car a/c fixed before May.)

So how do I use up random odds and ends of food? What am I going to do with, say, a can of fried onions, which I've only ever used for green bean casserole? Well, I could go out and buy cream of mushroom soup and frozen green beans, I guess. Or I could use them as topping for a baked macaroni and cheese, since I have two cans of evaporated milk and a box of elbow macaroni to use up. Or I could crush them, mix them with bread crumbs and herbs (also in the pantry), and use them as a coating for the chicken breasts I have in the freezer. There are a lot of options.

Today I was more concerned with things in the fridge than with things in the pantry. I have half a package of tortillas, which I bought to make quesadillas with because I needed to use up a package of reduced-fat 4-cheese Mexican blend (not recommended, by the way). I don't really like flour tortillas in most contexts, so I decided on another quesadilla, but I'd have to be creative. I had some "seaside cheddar" cheese from Whole Foods, which is sharp, nutty and a little bitter. I also had half an onion, the other half of which had made its way into a quick marinara sauce and a tofu stir-fry. I decided to slice a bit of onion very thinly and caramelize it in butter, which took almost half an hour, but hey, it's Sunday, and I'm in no rush. Then I warmed a tortilla in my cast iron skillet on medium-low, sprinkled it with grated cheddar, and added the caramelized onions.

I needed some sort of dipping sauce. I might have gone with a savory sour-cream-based topping if I'd had anything like that, but I didn't. I did, however, have half a jar of Seville orange marmalade. Its bittersweet, floral flavor seemed like it would go well with the cheese and onion, but it needed acid. With my canned goods I found a jar of tiny hot peppers in vinegar. I stirred some of the spicy vinegar in with a big spoonful of marmalade and warmed the combination in the microwave for a few seconds.

The crunchy tortilla, rich cheese and savory onions paired incredibly well with the bitter, sweet, acidic and spicy flavors of the dipping sauce. I would serve this dish to other people, if I had any other people around. But living alone and cooking only for myself gives me the freedom to try things without any pressure and to develop my skill at creating new combinations. And needing to use up the contents of my kitchen gives me a framework for my ideas, as well as motivating me to stay home and cook rather than grabbing a quick burger or bagel.

Definitely more fun than throwing all this food in boxes or trash bags.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pancake Education

I am a bit addicted to learning. I can't think of a way to say that that doesn't sound incredibly cheesy, but it's true. If I have a free day I most often spend it reading the New York Times, looking things up on Wikipedia and trolling food blogs, not so much for recipes as for new cooking ideas and solutions to cooking problems that have been plaguing me.

One thing that's been bugging me for ages is Mark Bittman's pancake recipe from How to Cook Everything, a book I once adored but found inconsistent as I explored it further. I've used this recipe for every batch of pancakes I've made for the past two years. Sometimes they come out glorious: fluffy, tender, cakey. Other times (most times, in fact), they're thin and sad, nothing but a vehicle for maple syrup.

Tonight I made myself pancakes for dinner. I'm moving in less than four months and I'm starting to get a little anxious about using up all the food I've stored up since I started law school, especially things that can't be stored without refrigeration. Like maple syrup. Honestly, I could have picked something to fix for dinner that would have used more things up, but pancakes sounded good.

And tonight they were transcendent. I think they owe their success to two things. First, I used whole milk, which I almost never have on hand but which I had bought to use in the Steelers cake I'm baking for the Super Bowl on Sunday. And second, after reading a pancake primer on Smitten Kitchen, I decided I had been cooking my pancakes for too short a time in too hot a pan. The same article mentioned the challenges of cooking pancakes in a skillet rather than on a griddle, and as I am similarly griddleless, I decided to ditch my usual two-per-batch method in favor of single-pancake cooking. So I had fewer, bigger pancakes. I don't know whether that made any difference, but it's easier in any case, so I'll probably stick to it.

I won't repeat the recipe, since I've linked to it above, but I will add a few notes. I always make a half batch of these pancakes, and of course I use one egg (which would translate to two eggs for a full batch). I note this because Bittman gives a range. I think whole milk is probably essential, though thinned yogurt would probably work. I'm not making these with skim milk anymore unless I mix it with half-and-half or something. I almost never have to add more than 3/4 cup of milk, but I will add extra if the batter is too thick to pour. Also, I don't think the recipe calls for enough salt. I used salted butter in the batter and added 1/4 tsp of salt (for a half recipe), but I think more salt would have been much better. Finally, I minimize dirty dishes by melting the butter in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave (25 seconds on 50% power in my microwave), then letting it cool while I measure the dry ingredients into a bowl. Then I whisk the egg into the cooled butter, note the resulting volume of liquid, and add 3/4 cup of milk to the same measuring cup. I whisk that all together, then add it into the dry ingredients.

I found that these were ready to flip when the tops looked like they wouldn't stick to my finger if I touched them. Not totally dry, but skinned over, like pudding when it sets. They were done cooking on the second side when they puffed up noticeably in the pan.