Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Story and Chinese Food

I’m a big fan of the idea of a dinner with a movie theme. Somehow, I rarely get something like that together, but now that it’s Christmas vacation, the time and the opportunity presented themselves. This is a laid-back dinner for a laid-back Christmas movie, one of my favorites. I wanted a fairly quick and easy meal, and I wanted to watch A Christmas Story. Even though the Bumpus’ dogs hadn’t stolen my turkey, and I wouldn’t be having a Peking duck smiling at me while Chinese waiters sang “Fa Ra Ra Ra Ra,” it still seemed appropriate to serve a spicy chicken stir fry while watching Ralphie pine for a Red Ryder B B gun (with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time).

The secret to stir fry is much like the secret to a serene holiday season: prepare as much ahead of time as possible. Do I succeed in this? With stir fries, usually. I cook the rice, marinate the chicken, prepare the sauce, and chop everything else before even thinking about heating the wok. My holiday preparations are a completely different story. (Exhibit A: fewer than usual posts this month.) Oh well, as I always say, next year will be different.

Of course when I made this, I let the hot peppers, ginger and garlic go a little too long all alone, and the resulting acrid fumes made us cough all through dinner. I also made this soupier than I would have liked, so perhaps it should have less chicken broth or more corn starch in the sauce. It tasted good like this, and I served it in bowls to contain the sauciness better. It was hot and spicy and holding the bowl close on a cold night while watching A Christmas Story was nice and cozy and just right somehow.

So light your leg lamp and fire up your wok (or a large frying pan) and cook up a spicy chicken stir fry for a pre-Christmas celebration. Just don’t stick your tongue to any flag poles for old time’s sake. And if you do, please don’t bother the fire department. A simple glass of warm water poured over the offending area will solve the problem. Am I speaking from experience? I’ll never admit it. Oh, yeah, and don’t shoot your eye out.

Spicy Chicken Stir Fry Recipe
This is based on Sichuan or Kung Pao chicken dishes in Chinese restaurants. If you cannot find whole water chestnuts, sliced ones will be fine. Serve with hot cooked rice and a pot of tea.

½ cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup Shaoxing wine (or sake)
2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (or rice vinegar)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
1 bunch (about 8 medium) green onions
1 large (or 2 small) red bell pepper
1 (8-ounce) can whole water chestnuts
3 tablespoons canola oil or peanut oil, divided
1 ½ tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 ½ tablespoon minced garlic (about 5-7 cloves)
4-6 dried chile peppers
½ cup cashews

1. Combine the chicken broth, honey, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Chinese black vinegar, cornstarch and sesame oil in a small bowl. Whisk well to combine.

2. Place the chicken in a medium bowl. Remove ¼ cup of the broth mixture and pour it onto the chicken. Stir well to coat the chicken. Set aside to marinate for 20-30 minutes. (If the chicken will be standing longer than that, refrigerate it until ready to use.)

3. Cut off the roots of the green onions and thinly slice the white and light green part. Set aside. Cut the dark green tops into 1-inch lengths. Set aside separately. Cut the bell pepper into approximately 1-inch squares. Halve the water chestnuts (quarter the larger ones).

4. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat until it appears to shimmer. Add the ginger, garlic and dried chiles. Stir fry (ie, cook while stirring constantly) 30 seconds. These ingredients can produce acrid fumes when heated like this, so avoid inhaling those fumes if possible.
5. Remove the chicken from the marinade with a slotted spoon, and place in the wok. Discard the marinade. Stir fry the chicken 4-5 minutes or until cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pan and place in a clean bowl.
6. Add the bell peppers and white and light green parts of the onions. Stir fry 2 minutes. Add the water chestnuts and stir fry another minute.

7. Return the chicken to the pan and add the sauce. Bring to a boil and cook until the sauce has thickened slightly. Turn off the heat and stir in the green onion tops and cashews. Serve with hot cooked rice.

Makes 4 servings.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

The calendar may not admit that it’s winter yet, but it’s cold outside! First there was a blizzard with all its blowing and drifting (and a snow day even at the local universities), then came the cold. This morning it was -8 (Fahrenheit !) So, bitterly cold weather, lots of root vegetables from our CSA stashed in various places about the apartment…I’m thinking soup!

There seem to be a thousand ways with a thousand vegetables that all work for soup this time of year. (Heck, a bowl of hot water sounds pretty good if you’re cold enough.) I kept this one simple and featured carrots and parsnips, two great roots that taste great together. They even look a little alike, at least in shape and size, and their tastes are similar enough to suggest that they are related to each other, but different enough to make a soup of sufficiently complex flavor. Potatoes, celery and onions go along for the ride, and make it all work well without any backseat driving.

It doesn’t really matter how you cut the vegetables for this soup, because it is pureed in the end. Just remember that the smaller you cut the vegetables, the faster they cook. I like to use an immersion blender to puree the soup. I find it to be less messy than dirtying extra bowls, blenders or food processors. Of course, careless use of an immersion blender can result in a truly amazing splatter-fest, but I’ve been able to avoid such things.

I used fresh thyme and rosemary in this soup, because I still have a lot of fresh herbs that I rescued from the frost on the patio. I tied them in a little bouquet garni, and removed them from the soup before pureeing. You could use dried thyme (about 1 teaspoon) and dried rosemary (just a large pinch, crumbled) if that is more convenient, or add whatever herbs you like. There’s also a generous amount of black pepper in this recipe, which makes it nice and spicy, which I find even more comforting on a cold day. You can reduce the amount if you’d like it less peppery. The amount of salt in the recipe is approximate and based on the broth you use, or your personal taste (and health concerns). I use homemade, unsalted vegetable broth, so I have to add quite a bit of salt when I make soup.

I also give a range of cooking times in the recipe below. You want the vegetables to be quite soft so they’re easy to puree, and the amount of time it takes will depend on how large the pieces are. Also, I tend to forget to thaw broth ahead of time, and have to put it in the soup pot as a large, misshapen ice cube, and thawing time needs to be added to my cooking time. It all works out in the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a Friday night appointment with an electric blanket, a hot beverage and a good book. Stay warm, my friends!

Cream of Carrot and Parsnip Soup Recipe
This makes a huge pot of soup, but the recipe could probably be cut in half. I have also included instructions below for freezing the soup.

2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
½ pound (250g) chopped onion
½ pound (250g) chopped celery
1 pound (500g) chopped peeled carrot
1 pound (500g) chopped peeled parsnip
1 pound (500g) chopped peeled potato
½ cup (125ml) dry white wine, optional
1 ½ teaspoons (8ml)coarse (Kosher) salt
1 teaspoon (5ml) black pepper
6 cups (1.5 l) vegetable broth
about 10 sprigs fresh thyme
1 4-inch sprig rosemary
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
½ cup (125ml) half and half
chopped fresh parsley

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes.

2. Add the celery, carrot, parsnip and potato. (I tend to chop and add vegetables for soups like this as I go. If you are not a fast chopper, you may want to have all of the vegetables prepared before beginning the recipe.) Cook, stirring occasionally, 5-8 minutes, or until the vegetables are beginning to soften.

3. Pour in the wine. Reach down to the bottom of the pan with a spoon and scrape up any browned bits. Add the remaining teaspoon salt, pepper, and vegetable broth. Tie up the thyme and rosemary sprigs with a piece of kitchen twine. Add the thyme and rosemary bundle and the bay leaf and bring to a boil.

4. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until the vegetables are very soft.

5. Uncover, turn off the heat and remove the herb bundle and bay leaves. When the soup has stopped bubbling, puree it with an immersion blender until very smooth. Alternatively, puree the soup in batches with a blender or food processor. Whichever method you use, use caution, because the soup is very hot.

6. Taste the soup and add salt if needed. Stir in the half and half. Return to the heat and warm up if necessary. Serve garnished with chopped fresh parsley.

Makes at least 8 servings.

To freeze the soup, omit the half and half from the portion that you are freezing. Allow the soup to cool until it is easy to handle. Ladle it into a zip-top freezer bag or other freezer-safe container and freeze. When planning to serve, thaw the soup in the refrigerator (probably 12 to 24 hours). Heat through and add the half and half. Serve garnished with fresh parsley.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gingerbread Granola

It’s been said that we cannot live on bread alone. I suppose that must apply to gingerbread as well, although that is really a cake, and in some cases a cookie. Since cakes and cookies probably also do not qualify as something on which we could live alone (although it might be fun to die trying), I might have to find something healthier to load with gingerbread flavors.

I nominate granola for this task. While Harry is happy to eat cake and cookies (not to mention Pumpkin Pie) for breakfast, that doesn’t really work for me. But I can get a more wholesome gingerbread fix if I take my basic Granola recipe and adjust the sweeteners and spices to represent the flavors of old fashioned gingerbread.

This means replacing the honey and maple syrup with molasses and more brown sugar and adding plenty of ground ginger along with nutmeg and cloves with the cinnamon. I thought that among dried fruits raisins and dates went best with the ginger-molasses flavors (and I was able to get my hands on some really good, plump dates). Finally, I gilded the lily (or gingered it) with a little bit of finely minced crystallized ginger. This provides a pretty strong flavor and you can leave it out if it’s just too much, or if you cannot find it (it should be available in the Asian section of supermarkets, but I also found it, quite economically priced, among the dried fruits at the local bulk foods store).

When I first made this granola, I burned it a little, so I tried to adjust the recipe for an appropriate baking time. You might want to keep a close eye on it in the final 8 minutes or so of baking, and be sure to stir the granola occasionally while it’s in the oven. If nothing else, it needs to be redistributed so that there are no thin spots or corners that can easily burn.

This may not exactly satisfy your holiday season sweet tooth, but I think you can probably feel less guilty about eating it for breakfast with some milk or lightly-sweetened yogurt than you might about eating the heads off of all the gingerbread men in the house. You also probably cannot live on this stuff alone, but the oats, wheat germ, nuts and dried fruit certainly have a higher WFQ* than just about any batch of gingerbread.

Gingerbread Granola Recipe

4 cups rolled oats
1 cup chopped pecans
¼ cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ cup butter
¼ cup molasses
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped dates
¼ cup finely minced crystallized ginger (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 F
1. In a very large bowl, mix the oats, pecans, wheat germ, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the molasses and brown sugar. Cook, stirring until the brown sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Carefully pour over the oat mixture and together to coat well.

3. Spread mixture evenly in a large baking sheet coated with cooking spray or lined with a silicone baking mat. Bake at 325 F for about 25-30 minutes, stirring every 8-10 minutes. Check the granola frequently after about 25 minutes to make sure it is not burning.

4. Carefully transfer granola to a large bowl. Add the raisins, dates and crystallized ginger and stir to combine. Cool completely.

Makes about 7 cups.

*WFQ: Whole Food Quotient

Monday, December 7, 2009

Maple Walnut Vinaigrette

I'm not sure how maple syrup got into fall and winter foods and flavors, since it's made in the spring, but I'm not going to complain about it. It goes well with winter squash, apples, cranberries, pecans and walnuts, and baked goods, like quick breads and cakes. It's also great with mustard, cider vinegar and walnut oil in a vinaigrette for an early winter green salad.

Our CSA, which offers a bi-weekly winter share of storage vegetables, also keeps their growing season going with greenhouses (or possibly with magic and miracles). That was how I got fresh spinach in December that was grown just a few miles away. I could have cooked it or blanched and frozen it, but it seemed most appropriate to celebrate its freshness with one last thumbing of my nose at the (rapidly) approaching winter, and eat it fresh in a salad. I could have gone with a Greek style salad with red onions and feta cheese, but I'm still buying some fantastic locally grown apples (most recently some sweet-tart-crisp Arabella apples that, to me, tasted as good as the local-favorite Honeycrisp). Thinly sliced apples atop a green salad with a maple-walnut vinaigrette are a seasonal must-have for me. Add some dried cranberries, blue cheese and walnuts (or pecans, which is what I happened to have), and it's instantly festive as well as delicious.

I'm not a huge fan of blue cheese, but I like the way it cuts through and contrasts with the sweetness and crunch of this salad and dressing. You could use something else with a bit of a sharp bite, like Parmesan, feta or goat cheese. You could also use whatever salad greens you happen to have. This vinaigrette is also good in other applications, like salads made with grains, such as wheat berries, rice or barley (I hope to post one of these soon). I bet it would also be good drizzled over roasted vegetables. It's sweet and nutty, and just right for the season, even if the syrup was tapped, boiled and bottled way back in the spring.

Maple Walnut Vinaigrette Recipe

Based on a recipe in Cooking Light magazine

It's a good idea to taste a salad dressing before serving. Just dredge a leaf of your salad greens in it and taste, then adjust seasonings as needed.

2 tablespoons (30 ml) cider vinegar
2 tablespoons (30 ml) maple syrup
1 teaspoon (5 ml) Dijon mustard
pinch salt, or to taste
pinch pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons (30 ml) walnut oil

1. Combine vinegar, maple syrup, mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk to combine.

2. Add the walnut oil and whisk until very well blended. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Dressing can be stored for at least a week in the refrigerator. Whisk or shake well in a sealed container to combine a separated dressing.

Makes about 1/3 cup or enough for 4 servings of the salad below.

Spinach Salad with Apples and Maple Walnut Vinaigrette Recipe
You can use whatever greens, dried fruit, or cheese you like in this salad.

1 recipe Maple Walnut Vinaigrette
6 cups torn fresh spinach
1 medium apple, thinly sliced and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup blue cheese
1/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts (or pecans)

1. Divide the spinach evenly among four salad plates. Evenly distribute the sliced apple, dried cranberries, blue cheese and walnuts and arrange them over the spinach on each plate. Drizzle about 1/4 of the dressing over each salad.

Makes 4 servings.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bounty Busters: Winter Vegetable Galette

Oh, those winter vegetables. Stodgy, vitamin-packed, built to last. And abundant as winter darkness. I enjoy all their flavors (okay, so I’m still working on my relationship with beets), admire their ability to remain edible after weeks (yes, weeks) in the refrigerator, and love the challenge of trying to use them all in different ways.

I like roots, tubers, squash and brassicas roasted, stewed, souped, with pasta, with grains, in salads, and, as I did recently, shredded and baked in a pie. I love this recipe for a butternut squash and feta cheese pie with a phyllo crust from Cooking Light magazine (although I use melted butter in place of the nonstick cooking spray), and thought I could do something similar with more vegetables. I also wanted to change some of the flavors to better compliment the vegetables I chose, so I used cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, and lots of grainy mustard.

This is a great recipe for using up odds and ends, or veggies that haven’t inspired you, or stuff that you’re just getting tired of because there’s just so darn much of it. (I haven’t reached that stage quite yet.) I ended up using a carrot, a piece of a small butternut squash, a chunk of leftover turnip, and a parsnip. Parsnips are the ones that look like albino carrots or weird icicles from a Tim Burton film. They’re super sweet and taste like a carrot gone overboard, with a little bit of a parsley tang. Since the carrots, parsnip and squash are so sweet, I liked the zing of the turnip to contrast with them and give the dish a bit more pep. You could use whatever autumn and winter vegetables you like, but I would recommend a mix of sweet and sharp. If it’s just sweet, you might as well be making pumpkin pie.

I made a pastry with a combination of all purpose flour and whole wheat pastry flour. You could use any kind of pastry you like, including a store-bought pie crust, or even phyllo dough or puff pastry. You also don’t have to make this into a pair of free-form galettes, but could probably put it in a pie or tart pan or make it into individual pasty-like turnovers. You would most likely need to adjust the baking time. You also do not have to cover the whole pie filling with the crust as I did. I think it might be more visually appealing to allow some of the filling to be exposed in the center.

Since I made two pies with this recipe, I wrapped one up and froze it to eat later. This worked very well, and I’ve included freezing and reheating instructions in the recipe below. Since it the leftover pie did freeze so well, I now see this recipe as a way of preserving the bounty of the late fall and early winter. Perhaps I wouldn’t be in the mood to munch on winter vegetables in, say, April, but I’m thinking a reheated pie might taste mighty fine on a busy day in the middle January.

Whole Wheat Pastry Recipe

1 ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2/3 cup ice water, or more as needed

1. Combine all purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour and salt in a large bowl. Sift together or stir well with a whisk to combine.

2. Add butter pieces and cut into the mixture using a pastry blender, knives or your hands, until mixture is crumbly and no chunks of flour-coated butter are larger than peas.

3. Add ½ cup ice water. Gently work the water into the flour and butter mixture until most of the flour is moistened and the dough holds together when squeezed. Add more water 1 tablespoon at a time if necessary. Try not to overwork the dough, and do not knead it.

4. When the dough has come together, divide it in half (I weigh it to get an accurate split). Form each half into a ball, then flatten in to a smooth disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and chill until ready to use. Dough is best when chilled at least 15 minutes. Dough can be made at least a day ahead. Dough can also be frozen if well-wrapped in a freezer bag. Thaw thoroughly in refrigerator before using.

Makes 2 crusts approximately 10 ounces each.

Winter Vegetable Galettes with Cheddar, Mustard and Caramelized Onions

4 cups peeled shredded fall and winter vegetables, such as winter squash, parsnips, carrots, rutabagas, turnips celeriac, sweet potatoes, etc.
¼ cup bulgur wheat
¾ teaspoon salt, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ pound yellow onions (about 2 medium), peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
3 ounces shredded sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons coarse-grained mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 recipe Whole Wheat Pastry (or pastry of your choice)
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water (egg wash), optional

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Combine the shredded vegetables, bulgur, ½ teaspoon salt and pepper in a large bowl. Let stand 30 minutes.

2. To make the caramelized onions, heat the olive oil in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Add the onions and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook over medium heat until sizzling and beginning to turn translucent, stirring occasionally.

3. Cover the onions and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook 15 to 20 minutes or until very brown and soft. If the onions are browning too quickly, reduce the heat further. Remove the lid and continue to cook if there is a lot of liquid. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. Add the cheese, mustard, garlic and caramelized onions to the shredded vegetable mixture and mix well.

5. Roll out one disk (1/2 recipe) of the pastry dough into a 12 inch circle. Transfer the dough to one side of a large baking sheet. Place ½ of the vegetable mixture in the center of the dough circle. Pull of the edges of the dough and fold over the filling. Try not to stretch the dough. The dough does not need to completely cover the filling. Repeat with the second half of the dough and the remaining filling in the remaining space on the baking sheet. Brush both galettes with egg wash if desired.

6. Bake at 375 F 40-45 minutes or until the crust is crisp and lightly browned. Let stand 10 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.

Makes 2 pies for a total of 6-8 main dish or 10-12 side dish servings.

The baked pies can also be frozen. Wrap in aluminum foil and freeze in a zip-top freezer bag. Thaw completely in the refrigerator. Unwrap and bake in a preheated 375 F oven on a baking sheet about 20 minutes or until crust is crisp and filling is heated through.