Saturday, June 23, 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

Good cooks are consistent and the only way to be consistent is to practice. Emerson is noted for speaking to consistency. Often misquoted as "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds", when he actually said, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin...etc." but he finished that thought quite succinctly by saying: "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." But for the ambitious cook, once he is consistent with one dish, he can move on to perfecting another. In the kitchen, there is never a time with nothing to do.

Over the past couple of months, I've been making the same pizza over and over. It's a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to have a repertoire of meals one can whip up with full confidence that the finished product will be a success. In addition, when there is 'nothing' on hand but a tomato and some cheese, how nice it is to be able to produce something other than a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich!

How much more impressive, too. Now I'll grant you, it does help to have a ball of dough tucked away in the freezer. But that's part of keeping a well stocked kitchen pantry.

The pizza dough I've been using is the "light as air"pizza dough courtesy of King Arthur Flour. This is a nice quantity that mixes up easily for one large or two smaller pies, freezes well, and produces a light, tender crust with just the right bite of chewiness. To freeze the dough: after the first rise, I divide the dough into two balls, wrap in plastic wrap and then place in a plastic freezer bag.

The topping is simply vine-ripened tomato, sliced and allowed to drain on a plate; really good quality olive oil; freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and either thinly sliced or grated mozzarella cheese. I vary the herbs. If using fresh basil, it's added after the pie comes out of the oven. Dried herbs should be added prior to the pie going into the oven. I've been using either a nice dried Italian herb mix from Penzey's or dried Mexican oregano.

I've found that flattening the dough out with my hands is preferable to rolling it out with a rolling pin, but either method does the job. Use only a light dusting of flour on the rolling surface, you don't want to incorporate more flour into the dough, just use enough to keep it from sticking. Letting the dough rest a bit during the stretching makes it much easier to handle, too.

I bake the pie on a pizza stone which is set on the lowest rack in the oven. The secret to a crisp crust is to have a very hot stone in a very hot oven. Preheating the oven at 500°F for a good 45 minutes to an hour is desirable. When ready to add the toppings, first spread a light coating of olive oil over the dough to act as a barrier, to prevent the liquid from the tomatoes making the crust soggy. Then I spread a light layer of grated Parmesan cheese to act as another seal. Same principle as making quiche. The cheese is always the first layer before the other ingredients, protecting the crust from liquid.

I quickly blot any extra liquid from the sliced tomatoes before adding them to the pie and then top the tomatoes with the grated or sliced mozzarella cheese and if using dried herbs sprinkle liberally over the top. The pizza is ready to be transferred onto the pizza stone. I use a wooden peel but a rimless cookie sheet will work. The alternative is to bake the pie on a baking sheet. Heating the sheet first will produce a crispier crust than putting the pie onto a cold sheet. Lower the oven temp to 450° and give it a good 12 - 15 minutes and then start keeping your eye on it. With my oven, the pizza is usually ready in under 20 minutes.

I realize not everyone likes pizza as simply prepared as those above. These are my favorites. The simple, fresh, sweet taste of garden ripe tomatoes, enhanced with a good dark, cold pressed fruity olive oil, blanketed with a rich layer of opulent full milk cheeses acting as a perfect foil for a combination of vibrant herbs. Mouth-wateringly satisfying. Do experiment with other topping combinations, make it a few times, develop confidence and consistency. It's a great item to master.

Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Succulent, Savory, Simple
With a few select ingredients, fresh from the market and not long from the South Florida farm fields, an impressive lunch for friends came together with just a few easy steps. Individual eggplant and tomato gratin with mint, kalamata olives and feta cheese accompanied by a crisp green salad turned out to be a hit with my recent luncheon guests.

Gratins ready for the oven

This dish can be assembled in a full size oval gratin dish, to serve family style. The dish should be shallow to allow the gratin to crisp nicely. A deep dish pie plate would work, too. The prep has three main steps: preparing the eggplant, cooking the onions and garlic and assembling the gratin (layering all the components).

For the eggplant: 2 lb eggplant; 2 1/2 Tbs olive oil; 1/2 tsp coarse salt.
For the onions: 2 Tbs olive oil; 2 medium onions, thinly sliced; 2 cloves garlic, minced.

For the assembly: 3 or 4 ripe red tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/4 inch slices; 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint; 1 cup of crumbled feta cheese; 1/3 cup pitted and quartered kalamata olives; coarse salt; freshly ground black pepper to taste; 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil; 1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs, tossed with 1 tsp olive oil; 1/3 cup chopped toasted pine nuts (optional).

Cut and cook the eggplant: Trim the ends from the eggplant and, using a vegetable peeler, peel off 1/2 inch strips of skin along the length of the eggplant every 1/2 inch or so (or leave it unpeeled, if you like). Cut the eggplant crosswise into 3/8 inch slices and cut the widest slices in half. Heat the oven to 450°F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly brush the parchment with olive oil. Arrange the eggplant slices in one layer on the parchment, brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt. Roast until the slices are lightly browned and somewhat shrunken, 20 - 25min. Let cool. Reduce oven to 375°F.

Cook the onions: While the eggplant is roasting, heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently until limp and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to med low once they start to brown. Add the garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes until soft and fragrant. Spread the onions and garlic evenly in the bottom of a well oiled 2 qt shallow gratin dish or individual dishes, as pictured. Let cool.

Assembly: Put the tomato slices on a shallow plate to drain for a few minutes and then discard the collected juices. Sprinkle 1 Tbs of the mint over the onions. Starting at one end of the baking dish, lay a row of slightly overlapping tomato slices across the width of the dish; sprinkle with some of the mint and some of the feta. Next, lay a row of eggplant slices against the tomato slices (overlapping the first row by two-thirds). Sprinkle again with mint and feta. Repeat with alternating rows of tomato and eggplant slices, seasoning each as you go and occasionally pushing the rows back. Tuck the quartered kalamata olives randomly between tomato and eggplant slices. When the dish is full, sprinkle the vegetables with about 1/2 tsp salt and any remaining mint and feta. Season lightly with freshly ground pepper and drizzle with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil. Thoroughly combine the breadcrumbs and pine nuts (if using) with 1 tsp olive oil and sprinkle mixture over the gratin. Cook until well-browned all over and the juices have bubbled for a while and reduced considerably, 60 - 70 minutes. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Fresh breadcrumbs made from rye bread.

I used one eggplant, two onions, and three tomatoes for the 3 servings shown above. That would also fill a 10" gratin dish. The recipe is easily expanded to accommodate larger portions. This is a very forgiving assembly. Don't skimp on the feta, salt as you go along and use good olive oil to bring out the best flavor. Fresh breadcrumbs give the dish an over the top finish.

Till next time. . . keep on cooking.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Purple Jasmine Rice
This colorful sticky rice from Thailand, with its rich taste and aesthetic appeal is used primarily for feasts and celebrations. Grown by the Phakao Cooperative, "using traditional methods, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been replaced with organic fertilizers and natural plant extracts to produce a premium, quality, environmentally friendly rice."

The purple rice is mixed with naturally perfumed White Jasmine rice to give it an ideal texture while retaining its vibrant purple color and sweet flavor. The rice is quick cooking, using a ratio of 1 1/2 times the amount of water to rice. Simply bring the rinsed rice and water to a boil, stir, cover and lower heat to a simmer until all liquid has been absorbed. Using a pot with a glass cover certainly facilitates cooking rice.

While the rice was simmering away, I sautéed half a diced sweet onion; 3 small yellow squash, sliced; 1 sliced jalepeño, seeds removed, in a little olive oil. I gave those veggies a head start and as the squash approached crisp/tender, added 3 radishes, cut into wedges; and 3 sliced green onions,white and lower portions of the green part only. Meanwhile, I defrosted a cup of shelled edamame and tossed those in after the radishes and green onions. Off heat, I tossed the entire sauté with 2 TBS of tamari, freshly ground pepper and sprinkled on a bit of freshly minced cilantro. The rice was ready and so was I.

Almost any vegetable combination will work for a quick dish like this. Start the aromatics first, then add the items that require more cooking, leaving the delicate items for last. Season it to taste with a tahini dressing, peanut sauce, oil and sherry vinegar, the possibilities are endless. A dash or two of tamari, with a whisper of toasted sesame oil is another fine finish.

Light luncheon rice bowl - quick and easy.

Check out purple jasmine rice along with red quinoa and other organic grains to add variety to mealtime.

Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Simple Fare

With a little imagination, the old comfort food stand-by, macaroni and cheese, takes on a whole new profile. Arborio rice, the short grain rice commonly used to make risotto, cooks up quickly in a pot of salted water, much like cooking pasta. Years ago, when I first started cooking Chinese food, I found cooking brown rice, with this same method,to be easy and fool-proof.

This little side dish or main meal, depending on your proclivity, calls for garden ripe tomatoes, minced garlic, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella. Simple, delicate in flavor, quick and easy to prepare. I used the less expensive cow's milk fresh mozzarella packed in water for this dish. Using the pricier buffalo milk mozzarella is fine, but not necessary. I prefer to save the buffalo milk variety for Caprese salad or other straight from the container application. The cow's milk cheese is great for mixing with pasta or rice and perfect for topping a pizza. And remember, the buffalo milk mozzarella is not only twice as high in fat content but close to three times as expensive!

Italian Rice Tossed with Tomatoes and Fresh Mozzarella

2 cups Italian short-grain rice
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic minced, more if desired (I desired)
1/4 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves, minced (use chiffonade technique)
1/2 tsp salt, freshly ground black pepper
1 TBS balsamic vinegar
2 - 3 large ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
2 egg-size pieces fresh mozzarella, cubed
Bring a pot of filtered or spring water to a boil, add salt and then add the rice a little at a time, bring back to boil and stir once, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until it is al dente. 15 - 18 minutes. The rice will be slightly chewy, light and delicate.

As the rice cooks, heat 2 TBS of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and the basil. After a couple of minutes, mix in the salt, pepper, vinegar and tomatoes. Gently turn the tomatoes once or twice in the flavored oil to warm them. Don't let the tomatoes cook down. This isn't a sauce, just flavored tomatoes.
Drain the rice in a colander, leaving it a bit wet. Turn it into a serving bowl and immediately sprinkle in the cubes of cheese, a few at a time, stirring with each addition so they don't clump together. Then gently mix in the tomato mixture from the skillet, taste for salt and pepper and serve.
recipe adapted from The Outlaw Cook
This is a mild, delicate dish. Don't expect overwhelming spiciness. It's intended to highlight the soft, moist, texture of the melting fresh cheese against the sweetly acidic taste of perfectly ripe tomatoes gently kissed with the basil, garlic and balsamic vinegar. The rice adds a slightly chewy counterpoint, tying the dish together for a simple main dish or fantastic side dish. With summer here, fresh from the garden meals, allowing the produce to be the star, guarantees some great meals!
Till next time . . . keep on cooking.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Summer Salads

Salad #1

It's only the beginning of June, yet the air here in Orlando is already beginning to take on that heavy, wet sauna-like feel, much like the sensation you get if you hold your head too close to the sink as you drain a pot of pasta. The time of year when running the oven for hours at a time can only be termed masochistic.

On the other hand, with produce stands brim full of lovely local selections, why not eat more food in its uncooked state? That's right, RAW. While the Raw Food Movement is certainly gaining momentum among many divergent groups, I'm not suggesting we forsake favorites that require some form of cooking to achieve their appeal, but that we make raw food the center attraction at more meals.

Salad #2

Fresh fruit smoothies for breakfast, salads for lunch, a glass of freshly extracted carrot juice for mid-afternoon break, and instead of accompanying the evening serving of animal protein with a starch: potatoes, rice, pasta, etc., serve a couple of raw veggies along with cooked ones. Take advantage of the fabulous flavors of fresh produce, get your 9 servings of fruit and veggies a day, increase your energy level, boost your health, and as an offshoot, perhaps shed a few pounds.

Salad #3

One of the things I like best about putting together a salad is—no recipe needed. No exact amounts crucial to the outcome. No precise ingredient needed to achieve success. Experiment. Use what's freshest, use what's on hand. Aim for a variety of nicely diced or sliced vegetables in an array of colors, a mix of textures, some soft, some crunchy. Add some bite with vinegar or lemon juice, some heat with fresh chilies or ground spices. A generous drizzle of your very best extra virgin olive oil adds an eye-appealing sheen and a must have luscious mouth-feel along with a depth of flavor that complements the crisp, fresh vegetables.

I often add a little something sweet. Raisins or some cut up fruit: orange segments, mango pieces, diced peaches, pineapple tidbits, sliced apple. Pumpkin seeds or nuts are a great addition to salads. Lightly toasting them in a dry skillet adds a wonderful layer of flavor, as well as packing in more nutrition. Walnuts, pecans, pine nuts are just a few suggestions.

Adding a bit of cheese includes some protein and calcium. Here's the bean and corn salad shown above with a little diced Monterrey-jack cheese with jalepeño. An added layer of zing! But feta or chèvre or sharp cheddar would be just as good. The bean and corn salad is sprinkled with Adobo seasoning giving it a Southwest touch. (I noticed that the Adobo seasoning in the supermarket, and I checked several brands, listed salt as the first ingredient. Avoid these. I purchase my spices and seasonings from Penzey's and the Adobo seasoning I use is made up of onion, garlic , black pepper, Mexican oregano, cumin and cayenne pepper. No salt. I add my own to taste.)

Salad #3 with Cheese

Salad combinations are only limited by our imaginations. Starting out conservatively is good. But with each successive salad, be a little more adventurous. Try different vinegars, various oils, for instance, if you have walnuts in the salad, try a drizzle of walnut oil. If you have fresh raspberries on hand, add a few to the salad and use raspberry flavored vinegar in the vinaigrette. The addition of different types of cheese gives the same old salad a different taste and look.

Tips: Use the freshest ingredients. Limp, tired, old veggies are not salad prospects. Buy small, young, firm veggies. Young vegetables are sweet and tender, the bigger they grow, the better off they are in a cooked dish. Keep fresh herbs ready to use. Grow some pots on the patio, especially basil and thyme. Buy parsley and cilantro regularly at the farm stands or market. Wash and spin them when you bring them home, then stand them in a glass of water and cover with a small plastic bag or plastic wrap then store in the fridge. They stand up well using this method and are crisp, clean and ready for mincing when you reach for them. Add a variety of olives to your pantry along with some interesting peppers. Roasted red peppers, pepperocini, pickled jalepeños, kalamata and niçoise olives, and pitted pimento stuffed Spanish olives.

Build a salad around a can of beans, that you rinse and drain. White beans as well as black and pinto beans make a great addition to diced vegetables. See the sautéed corn and black bean salad above. Open a can of tuna, drain and add it to a mixed greens salad with some sliced celery and onion (salad #2). Oil and vinegar replace the standard mayo and it's still called tuna salad. Tastier and healthier.

Enjoy the harvest, make life in the kitchen easy and fast without sacrificing flavor or nutrition. Make fresh, raw vegetables a regular part of each menu plan. They're great!

Until next time. . .keep on dicing!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why Eat Organic ?

Mike Adams at NewsTarget.Com covers the latest in medical / health news, and entertains us regularly with CounterThink Cartoons. Check it out. . . great food for thought.

We each need to take personal responsibility for our health. The combination of technological breakthroughs, "better living through chemistry", coupled with product demand by an ever increasing population, we're living too long and being way too fertile, has resulted in the food industry being forced to find ways to meet the demand for food while faced with fulfilling stock holders' profit expectations. As a result, our grocery shelves are filled with colorful packages of 'stuff'. One quick read through the list of ingredients on any given package makes it very difficult to even call it foodstuff.

Eating whole foods, particularly organic whole foods, gives our bodies the best ammunition to do its job and do it well—maintaining a strong immune system and giving cellular regeneration the best chance of producing new healthy cells in each organ.

Some of Spring's Bounty

Fresh butter lettuce embraces a lively little salad of red bliss potatoes, hard boiled egg, celery, vidalia onions, and edamame. The dressing is a combination of equal parts Silver Palette Organic Wasabi mayo and regular mayonnaise. Quick, easy, tasty and healthy.



May reading was a major indulgence in popular fiction. But lots of fun reads!

Stuart Woods . . . . . . . . . . Fresh Disasters

Laura Lippman . . . . . . . . . . What The Dead Know

Every Secret Thing

Anne Perry . . . . . . . . . .We Shall Not Sleep

David Baldacci . . . . . . . . .Simple Genius

David Liss . . . . . . . . . A Conspiracy of Paper

James Grippando . . . . . . . . . Lying With Strangers

Till next time . . . Keep on Cooking.