Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pasta with Sausage, Tomato Sauce and Basil

I was visiting my parents in Chicago for Christmas and decided to take on the task of making spaghetti one night for dinner. While cooking, my aunt was not too far away watching carefully what I was doing (she said she was trying to get some cooking lessons without having to pay for a class), and as I was going about my usual method of cooking by adding a dash of this and a pinch of that, she would occasionally ask questions to take note of what was going on. My mom was also wandering around interjecting here and there with questions such as, "Are you going to use a whole onion?" or "Are you sure that's enough sauce?" At one point during the process my aunt asked something along the lines of "Is this how you normally do it?"

It was at this point that I realized the answer was no. In fact, I think it's rare that I make a meat sauce exactly the same way as I did it before. Sometimes there's diced onions, shallots or garlic, or there might just be a palmful of garlic powder if that's all I have on hand. Sometimes I use ground beef, sometimes it's sausage (hot or mild), or sometimes even ground turkey. And I must also admit that sometimes I use some random store bought jar as a "starter sauce" upon which I build the flavors instead of starting from scratch with a can of tomatoes. And the herbs and seasonings are all based on a whim! However, there are a couple of things that I will pretty much always add if readily available - red wine and balsamic vinegar. The wine adds a nice depth to the sauce and the vinegar brightens it up a bit while also adding a little sweetness.

Ingredients:
  • olive oil
  • 1 large shallot, diced
  • 1 lb sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 cup (or so) of dry red wine (two/three buck chuck will do)
  • balsamic vinegar
  • 28 oz can chunky tomato sauce
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 tbsp dried basil
  • grated Parmesan cheese
  • whole wheat spaghetti
  • fresh basil for garnish
Procedure:
  1. Sweat the shallots in a little bit of olive oil and season with a little salt and pepper.
  2. Add the sausage and break up with your cooking utensil.
  3. After the meat has browned, deglaze the pan with a few swirls of wine from the bottle and let reduce by about half.
  4. At this point you can add in a few swirls around the pan of the balsamic vinegar, along with the tomato sauce, garlic powder, dried basil, salt, and pepper. 
  5. Let simmer for at least 15-20 minutes (ideally of course), and taste and adjust the seasoning.
  6. Once the sauce is to your liking, add the freshly cooked pasta (per instructions on the box) straight to sauce and combine.
  7. Mix in as much or as little cheese as you desire and garnish with fresh basil. (Feel free to chop it - I left the leaves whole just for the pictures.)
  8. Devour.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Scrambled Eggs and Patience

I feel that many of us today are so wrapped up in the notion that you can "get [fill in the blank] quick" that we sometimes forget how to slow down and lose sight of how things should be done. Your "fill in the blank" could be anything from rich to thin to famous, such as by becoming the next D-list reality TV "star." Although the lottery does help a lucky few become millionaires overnight, you could just as easily buy tickets your entire life without winning a dime... Earlier I saw a commercial for a pill that if taken twice a day touts to make you lose weight in just a few short weeks... Oh! And let's not forget about our good friends from the cast of The Jersey Shore. Are they entertaining (at times)? Undoubtedly. Would you want to behave like them and have it broadcast to the entire world in order to become a household name? I'll let you answer that one...

Will the quick and dirty method yield some sort of results? I'd posit yes. But do they lead to the best possible outcomes? No.

All of this is to say that on occasion it is best that you take your time with the task at hand. It all comes down to a good character trait called patience. I learned it as a child during fishing trips with my grandmother (I also conquered my aversion to worms and learned how to bait a hook, among other things). We would rise early in the morning (because that's when the fish were biting), head to the pond/lake/whatever body of water we could find, and cast our rods into the quiet, serene abyss. And then we would wait. Wait until we saw the float bob up and down signaling a nibble down below (this part alone could take an hour to happen). Yet still we would wait once we saw any sign of activity. My grandmother taught me that if you were too anxious you would lose the fish and have to start waiting all over again. The trick, I learned, is to wait until the scaly scoundrel swallowed the hook and tries to swim away. It's at this point when the bobber would disappear from the surface of the water, and you knew at that point it all came down to reeling that sucker in! Here still it is imperative to take your time because that fish will do everything it can to wiggle its way loose from the hook. At this step in the process it's all about the alternating combination of reeling and pulling your prize all the way up to shore until finally, success! And then the next thing you know, you're putting more bait on the hook, casting your rod, and back to waiting again...


Can you cook eggs in about 30 seconds if you wanted to? Sure. The result? A tough, rubbery, blob. The key to perfectly light, creamy, and fluffy scrambled eggs is (in case you haven't already guessed it) patience (and time). Whisk your eggs, salt, pepper, a splash of milk or cream, and maybe a little parsley together per standard protocol. Add a little bit of butter to a skillet over a medium-low flame and pour in your eggs. If they start to coagulate as soon as you pour them in then the pan is too hot and you should turn your flame down. Here you want to continuously stir the eggs (a wooden spoon is good for this) as they slowly cook. Depending on the size of the batch you're making, this could take upwards of 10 or 15 minutes. (Say what?) No, I'm not joking. It may sound a little extreme just for some eggs, but trust me on this one because you'll end up with the creamiest eggs you've ever had in your life.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Couscous with Goat Cheese and Vegetables

...and steak! But the highlight here really is the couscous.




I LOVE goat cheese. It may very well be my favorite of all the cheeses. Others definitely have their uses, but goat cheese reigns supreme in my book. As good as it is on its own, I decided it was time to incorporate this beautiful ingredient into other dishes. Enter the couscous. I think this is the first time I've ever made it at home and have gladly discovered that it is mind-numbingly easy to do. Just bring the cooking liquid to a boil, add the couscous, and let it sit for a few minutes. I used chicken stock instead of water to add a little extra oomph. Because of the ease of this meal, it's easy to prepare after a long day in the office, but it's also fancy enough to make for more special occasions if you're so inclined.


Ingredients:
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 1/2 cups couscous 
  • 1 seedless cucumber (diced)
  • 2 plum tomatoes (diced)
  • 1 small red onion (diced)
  • 4 oz package of goat cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper


Procedure:
Bring the chicken stock to a boil. Stir in the couscous, turn off the burner, cover, and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Fluff it with a fork after the wait time. Add the diced vegetables, drizzle with olive oil, crumble in the goat cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Mix it together and give it a taste to see if you need to adjust the seasoning.


For the steak I just seasoned with a little salt and pepper and and sauteed it in a pan to a nice medium. A glass of red wine along with a meal never hurt anyone. Plus, it helps to relieve the stresses from the workday.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies - Food Blogger Cookie Swap


There's nothing better than a good chocolate chip cookie, but no one wants to eat the same old chocolate chip cookie all the time. I've always had a love of coconut - as a kid I would sometimes eat it right out of the bag if my mom had some laying around in the house. I'm also a big fan of Mounds candy, so I thought adding coconut to the chocolate chip cookie would be a no-brainer.


Original Recipe Ingredients (yields about 15 cookies):
  • 1/2 cup of shortening
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup semi sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup bitter sweet chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut
Procedure: Beat together sugar and shortening. Add egg and vanilla. Incorporate dry ingredients. Mix in chocolate chips and coconut. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 11-13 minutes.


A few weeks ago I stumbled across some mention of The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap...

SOLD!

I didn't need to know anything more before deciding to participate. It's run by the lovely ladies from Love and Olive Oil and The Little Kitchen. The concept is simple and amazing - send three different bloggers a dozen cookies each, and you'll get three dozen cookies sent to you in return. So far I've gotten delicious packages from Kid Eats and Raevyn's Nest (I'm still missing one box unfortunately...). In making my own cookies to send, I may or may not have waited until the night before the shipment deadline to buy ingredients and bake my cookies. One thing I've learned is that my new local grocery store in Astoria doesn't have the same foods as the one near my old apartment in Williamsburg. Exhibit A: It didn't have the bittersweet chocolate chips I was looking for. Exhibit B: I substituted the sweetened coconut for unsweetened coconut. These are concessions I was okay with making. Another change I made was to use butter instead of vegetable shortening. In the middle of making the cookies, I realized that I didn't buy enough chocolate chips! So unfortunately the resulting cookies didn't have as much chocolatey goodness as they should have, but the result is still tasty.


Modified Recipe Ingredients (yields about 4 dozen cookie):
  • 3 sticks of butter
  • 2 1/4 cups of brown sugar
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups of all purpose flour
  • 3 pinches of salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp of baking soda
  • 2 cups semi sweet chocolate chips
  • 2 cups of sweetened coconut
Procedure: Beat together sugar and butter. Add egg and vanilla. Incorporate dry ingredients. Mix in chocolate chips and coconut. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 11-13 minutes (the cooking time depends on whether you want a soft and chewy or a crispier cookie).


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Simple Roasted Chicken


A perfectly roasted piece of chicken is one of the most delicious things in the world to me. It doesn't have to be fancy at all (much like this post), and the beauty of nature can be allowed to shine through. Here I took a whole chicken and quartered it (you can opt to let the grocery store do this for you if you don't want to practice your butchering skills) and seasoned it with just some salt and pepper. Preheat your oven to about 375 degrees. Place an oven-safe skillet on the burner and add a small layer of a neutral (i.e. vegetable or canola) oil. Here, it is VERY important that the pan/oil are very hot. You don't want them to burn, but if they're not hot then you won't get the nicely browned skin that you want because the chicken will just sort of steam. (I don't think you'd want steamed chicken, would you?) Place the pieces skin side down until nicely browned. Then flip over and finish in the oven until cooked through (about 20 minutes or so). The white and dark meat may finish at different times, so that is just something to keep in mind. Be sure to keep this recipe/technique in your back pocket whenever you want to make an easy main course. Feel free to spice it up a little bit by adding your favorite seasonings.