September 24, 2007
Bang-Bang! Chicken!

bangbang.jpgAs mentioned in the previous post, I've been on the look out for easy recipes that will appeal to both children and adults lately. This one has not been tested on the toddler yet for the simple reason that so far he is resistant to the lure of peanut butter. I'm pretty sure that - like his chocolate aversion, which disappeared recently - it will go away in time and he'll gobble PBJs like any other red-blooded (half) American child. In addition, I just thought the version I saw Tana Ramsey preparing on TV looked healthy and reasonably flavourful. I bought some peanut butter and, as one does, started browsing the web for recipes.

The first thing I noticed is that this is a popular dish in the UK. The second thing I noticed is that the only site dedicated to Chinese food that had a recipe called for sesame paste, not peanut butter. But by now I was committed (I'd bought the darn stuff after all) and anyway I had a taste for peanut butter. It happens sometimes. If I had some saltine crackers I know I could finish the jar in a sitting. But I digress.

So I had the chicken, the peanut butter and a variety of recipes. I took the things I liked best from each of the recipes, add a few touches of my own and came up with a really delicious dinner. The Critic praised the flavours and the healthiness factors but thought the sauce was a bit thick. I noticed in the TV version I saw that the same was true, and so I suspect this may be just the way it's supposed to be. Anyway, that's what I told him. We both were surprised how much we enjoyed the salad part of the dish as neither of us is a fan of grated carrot. Soaking it in rice vinegar seemed to take away the woody dry aspect that carrot salads so often have.

Bang Bang Chicken (serves 4)

After discussing the thick sauce issue with the Critic, I toyed with the idea of making this for Barrett and the Redhead, using spring roll wrappers to bring it all together in a neater package. As they are not meat eaters, I planned on using tofu in theirs. But alas it appears that the Redhead is no fan of cucumber and I think its light flavour and watery crunch are essential to the dish. So that experiment will have to wait. It's still delicious as described below.

4 chicken breasts
2 cups chicken stock (from cubes or paste is fine as it's just for poaching)
lump of ginger about the size of a thumb

1 cucumber
2-3 carrots
6-8 spring onions
2 Tbs rice wine vinegar

4 handfuls of soft buttery lettuce

2 heaping tablespoons of peanut butter
1 Tbs sesame oil
1 Tbs (or to taste) hot pepper oil
1 Tbs vegetable oil (in my case, sunflower)

Garnish: 4-6 tsp sesame seeds

Bring the stock to a light boil. In the meantime, peel the garlic, cut it in a few big chunks, smash them with a mallet and add them to the broth. Add the chicken breasts and simmer for 15 minutes or so, or until cooked through. Remove them from the broth with a slotted spoon and reserve. Keep the broth for some other soup project.

While the chicken is cooking, wash, peel and grate the carrots. Shred the white part of the spring onions in thin slivers. Cut the cucumber in thin matchsticks. Toss the vegetables with the rice wine vinegar and reserve.

Next, prepare the sauce. In a double boiler, or a heavy bottomed pan over a low flame, mix all the ingredients. Once the peanut butter has melted and the sauce is smooth, taste. You may want to add a little more sesame oil or hot oil. Or if some of the recipes are to be believed, you may find a little sugar will complement the hot oil. It's up to you: I kept it relatively simple and it was delicious.

To assemble the salad, simply divide the lettuce onto four plates and top with the vegetables. Smash the chicken breasts with a mallet (some claim this is where the "bang-bang" comes from) and pull them apart into bite-sized morsels. Divide them among the plates and drizzle (or plop) sauce over each of the chicken pieces. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 10:32 AM | Comments (5)
September 21, 2007
Two Tasty Dressings

broccolisauce.jpgI haven't had much time for writing lately, as some of you have have noticed. What with a toddler and a tiddler and no daycare, the days just seem to fly by before I get a chance to pull out the camera and take a shot or write it up. One of the problems is that we fell into the (perhaps bad) habit of feeding the toddler separately from the adults. When the Critic was coming home from work at nine p.m. most nights, this was inevitable. But now that he's around more, I'm going to shift our dinner hour a bit earlier and the toddler's a bit later so that we can all eat together. This will mean more time for me (yay!) and hopefully more child-friendly and easy recipes for the blog. In the meantime, I thought I'd share couple of easy tasty vegetable sauces I came up with recently: Sesame and Soy for a warm broccoli salad, and a roast garlic dressing for grilled summer vegetables.

Warm Broccoli Salad

This was my attempt to get the Critic to eat his greens. It didn't work, but I still thought it was tasty. Next time I a bit of garlic and ginger to see if that piques his interest better!

Steam one head of broccoli, washed and cut in florets. In a medium bowl, stir two tablespoons soy sauce with one tablespoon of sesame oil, one tablespoon of hot pepper oil and two teaspoons of rice wine vinegar. When the broccoli is tender, toss it in the sauce and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Grilled summer vegetables salad with roasted garlic dressing

I made this last night for Barrett and his lovely wife, the Redhead, who are visiting us in Paris. (YAY!) Having a couple of vegetarians visit makes for a culinary challenge when you have a very meat eating spouse. With a creamy porcini risotto, this got rave reviews from everyone. The vegetable quantitities were just what I happened to have on hand and didn't forget to use - adapt the quantities to your own taste.

1 1/2 zucchini (about a pound)
1 aubergine
1/2 red onion
2 tomatoes

For the sauce:
garlic, one clove reserved
a few sprigs of thyme
salt, pepper
2 Tbs lemon juice
4-6 Tbs olive oil
a little butter

To roast the garlic, slice off the top of the head just far enough down so that most of the cloves of garlic are exposed. Place the head on a sheet of tin foil and dot with a pat of butter, drizzle with a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and top with a sprig of thyme. You will only need two cloves of garlic for the sauce, but the rest of the head is lovely squeezed onto a slice of buttered bread and sprinkled with a bit of sea salt. (I wish I had roasted two, in fact, as it was a great appetizer and you can store the leftovers in the fridge for a few days.) Pull up the sides of the tin foil and crumple closed, leaving a bit of space above the head of garlic. Bake in a medium oven (340F/170C) for an hour roughly - you will smell when it's done and the cloves will be soft.

In the meantime, wash and slice the eggplant and zucchini in thick rounds. Leave the half onion intact. Crush one small clove of garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil and brush this on the vegetables. Grill them on a barbecue until soft and tender. As they cool, prepare the dressing in the bottom of a big salad bowl: squeeze two plump cloves of garlic into the bowl and sprinkle them generously with salt. With the back of a small spoon, mash the cloves to a paste. Using the spoon or a small whisk, beat in the lemon juice and a generous pinch of pepper. Slowly add the olive oil, beating all the while to create an emulsion. Taste it for salt and pepper - I found it needed quite a lot of both to bring out the garlic flavour properly. Finally, cut the zucchini and eggplant in bite-sized pieces, slice the tomatoes in wedges and the onions in strips. Toss them in the bowl with the dressing and serve warm.

Variations: you could add basil or thyme (but not both) if you want to give it a herbal feel. I originally intended to use grilled peppers, but forgot them in the fridge in the end. I don't think I would have included the tomatoes if the peppers were in the salad, though, as I find their flavours tend to clash a bit.

However, I think the original recipe as it stands above was absolutely delicious. The Critic, who is no fan of aubergine or courgettes, ate a large portion and gave it a big thumbs up.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:25 AM | Comments (1)
September 14, 2007
As English as Nettle Pudding and Hedgehog

The Daily Mail has a piece today about Britain's stone age diet. You might think it was pretty much the same as todays diet, but perhaps with fewer crisps and no Violet Crumble, but you'd be wrong.

In fact, nettle pudding - a mix of barley, nettles, sorrel, dandelion greens, and chives mixed with water - was yesterday declared the oldest recipe in Britain. By whom? You might well ask, as I did, but you won't get an answer from the Daily Mail who neglected to source the honor.

Of course Stone-Age Brits didn't survive entirely on vegetarian fare. No, the mighty hunters of the Sceptered Isle also feasted on the most dangerous game - that's right, they ate hedeghog. OK, maybe not the most dangerous game, but you could get a really nasty little nip from one of those vicious things. Apparently, my ancestors feasted on this wild game by roasting it simply in a grass wrap.

You can find recipes not only for nettle pudding and for roast hedgehog, but also for Roman-era garum (great if you like rotting fish bits), barley bread, meat pudding, and a good looking smoky fish stew in the article here.

I'd suggest that in the interest of avoiding any unfortunate incidents, pet shops all around Britain ban the sale of hedgehogs for the next few days...

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:02 AM | Comments (6)
Lemon and Pine Nut Pasta

Since we discovered whole wheat pasta, we're always looking for new ways to dress the stuff. I mean, tomatoes are a New World fruit, so the Italians didn't even have tomatoes until nearly 1500, so what were they eating with their noodles beforehand?

On this particular evening, I was recovering from the granddaddy of all colds so the idea of hot citrus to clear my sinuses appealed to me. We also tried a new type of pasta that is made not only from whole wheat flour but from flour from jerusalem artichokes, which you may know as sunchokes.

We'd picked up the pasta after a sailing trip from Annapolis. Our captain ran us in to harbor just ahead of the kind of storm that old men with white beards, pipes, and a wooden leg recount with "The sea was angry that day, my friends..."

We were off the water by the time the storm hit, but driving 40 miles in that rain was no pleasant thought, so we had pulled into a mall that housed a Whole Foods. While wasting time in the Whole Foods, we came across this particular pasta and decided it was worth a try. After we'd worn out our welcome we stood outside under an awning and watched sheets of water pelt the tarmac. "The parking lot was angry that day, my friend..."

Eventually, the angry parking lot got less angry, and we took our pasta home to sit in our cupboard until last night when I made this delicious lemony pasta with it. I used the same technique I'd used a few weeks ago with the goat cheese pasta, combining pasta water with cheese (in this case Parmesan) to make the bulk of the sauce. You'll like the lightness of the sauce and I'm sure it'll taste wonderful, even if you have to settle for plain old whole wheat or white flour pasta instead of our fancy half-jerusalem-artichoke noodles.

Lemon and pine nut pasta

zest and juice of two lemons
12 oz dried whole wheat or freaky jerusalem artichoke pasta
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced

In a dry skillet, toast pine nuts until they become fragrant and golden. Remove and set aside to cool.

Start a big pot of salted water boiling. When it boils, add the pasta and cook until tender. Reserve two cups of pasta water, drain pasta.

In the bottom of the same pot you used for boiling, over medium heat, add the oil and garlic. Sautee for about 3 minutes. Add the pasta, lemon juice, lemon zest, Parmesan, and pine nuts and reduce the heat. Add about a cup of pasta water to thin the cheese out and create a sauce.

Serve in a a bowl with lemon parsley garnish.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:17 AM | Comments (5)
September 11, 2007
Baltimore Peach Cake

I am informed by the latest issue of Urbanite (for Baltimore's Curious), that the peach cake is a Baltimore specialty. I've never seen a Baltimore specialty (other than Natty Bo) that didn't involve those crustaceans that are so deadly to me.

It seems that right now is the best time to make one of these cakes, which are basically glazed peach quarters on top of a sweet yeast dough. Why is now the best time for this cake? Because freestone peaches are the key to a great peach cake. By freestone peaches, I mean those peaches which are so ripe that the flesh around the stone in the center of the peach has pulled back, leaving it free and untethered in the center of the peach.

Having just come back from the Baltimore farmer's market, I happened to have a large basket full of peaches, many of which should be freestone, or at least very ripe. In the Urbanite article by Mary K. Zajac which you can read here, a recipe is given that originated from a Baltimore Gas and Electric 1984 book Treasured Recipes Honoring Maryland's 350th Anniversary. I have to say that watching my energy bill double over the last year has not made me particularly fond of BG&E, and some of the techniques described seemed a little generic, like the addition of apricot preserves as a glaze. Everyone uses apricot preserves as a glaze. It's not peculiar to Baltimore. And of the two pictures that accompany the article, the chopped peach cake from the BG&E recipe doesn't look nearly as appetizing as the one a smiling Sharon Hooper holds out covered in large, glorious quarter-peach hunks.

Ah, but in the article, Sharon Hooper of Hoehn's Bakery describes how they make peach cake.

...once it's rolled out, the dough is brushed with raspberry jam ("It adds color and keeps the peaches from sliding all over the place." Hooper explains.) and left to proof...

When the cake is removed from the oven, Hooper sprinkles it with more granulated sugar, and gives it a light wash of simple syrup to which a little orange pulp has been added. "And that's it." Hooper says with a grin. "There's nothing special about our peach cake."

Nothing special? Let's use the method Hooper describes. Raspberry, orange, and peach work very well together and it sounds to me like it'll make a very special dessert. I will rely on BG&E's recipe (as adapted and updated by Kerry Dunnington of the Urbanite) for the basic dough recipe, but the rest of our cake will be from Sharon Hooper's description.

Baltimore Peach Cake
1 3/4 cups white flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup hot water
1 egg, room temperature
4 tablespoons raspberry jam
4-6 peaches, peeled, pitted, and quartered
canola or cooking spray
One orange
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup room temperature water

I use a less fussy dough making method than the one in the Urbanite. Follow the link above if you want to use the original method.

First, grease or spray a 9" cake pan, sides and bottom.

Combine all the dry ingredients together in a mixer bowl (that's the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast). Start the mixer on low, and add the softened butter. Beat together for two minutes or so. Add the egg while the mixer is running. Slowly add the water.

You'll have a very sticky dough. You may want to use the oil spray on your hands so you can work the dough a little. Press the dough into the bottom of the prepped cake pan. You'll need to stretch it out a bit and pinch closed and holes. You'll end up with a very thin dough.

Spread the raspberry jam on top of the cake in an even layer. Arrange the peach quarters in the pan on top of the cake, pressing lightly on each to dent the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise in a warm place for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Remove the plastic wrap and bake for 25 minutes.

When 15 minutes or so have passed, cut your orange n half and juice it into a small saucepan. Scrape some of the pulp out of the orange and into the pot, leaving any membrane or white pith behind.

Turn the heat on under the juice to medium. Add the sugar and 1/2 cup water. Stir well to dissolve the sugar into the water and make a simple syrup. Cook over medium heat to reduce for seven minutes or so.

Remove the cake from the oven. Brush and spoon the syrup mixture over the top of the cake while it is hot. You don't have to use up all the syrup, but make sure the entire top of th ecake is well coated with the syrup.

Let the cake cool for at least 30-45 minutes before serving. It's also very good refrigerated.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:46 PM | Comments (4)
And on today's episode of Barrett catches up...

...I learn that Neal Pollock writes a food blog over at Epicurious.

Honestly, if my friends continue to keep me in the dark about things like this, we're going to have to have some stern words.

I hear Apple may be releasing a phone soon, by the way.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:26 AM
September 5, 2007
The Best Catfish Makes Good Nuggets

So we've already established that the best eggplant is a free eggplant. So what do you think is the best possible catfish? That's right - free catfish! In this case, the catfish was a gift to us from my wife's parents, and had been caught earlier this summer on Lake Cumberland in Southern Kentucky not far from the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

We'd purchased some kale and I couldn't think of a better accompaniment to kale than some cornbread and the free best catfish we had sitting in our freezer. It took a while to thaw out and I ended up knocking a couple chunks of ice off of the filets to get them defrosted and ready for cooking, but one night I had catfish, cornmeal, and kale all ready to be cooked up.

Why did I choose nuggets? Catfish filets are fine, but I have a fondness for finger foods, and catfish nuggets are just fun. Also, I had pieces of fish of varying thickness and shape, including thick, fluffy chunks and thin lean filets. Trying to get the filets timed correctly so none were undercooked or overdone would have been difficult.

A pair of scissors assisted me in cutting up the catfish into 1" chunks. That was probably the most difficult of all the steps in this recipe. It's dead simple, quick, and good for getting fish into picky eaters who see healthy food as a conspiracy. There's a little oil, sure, but keep the oil hot and light and you'll end up with nuggets that aren't greasy at all.

I haven't tried these on kids, but I suspect they'd probably like them. There's crunch, there's flavor, there's salt and grease - who wouldn't like a batch of catfish nuggets?

Catfish nuggets
catfish filets, boneless, cut into 1" square chunks
cornmeal in a plastic bag - ziplock style, not grocery
enough milk to cover the chunked catfish
salt, pepper, cayenne pepper
2" light vegetable oil in a saucepan or skillet, plus additional oil for replacement

Not a lot of measurements there, eh? You can use this recipe to make as much catfish as you like or as you have, so I have not constrained the proportions. I'll tell you what I had and what I made.

We started with four catfish filets of varying sizes and shapes. I used about 1/2 cup of cornmeal. You don't need much, just enough to coat the chunks.

Soak the chunks of catfish in milk for at least ten minutes to get out any fishy taste. The fresher your catfish, the less you'll need to soak the chunks.

Pat the catfish dry and place half of it in a bag with a mix of cornmeal, pepper, and cayenne to taste. I used about 1/2 a teaspoon of pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne in my mix. Seal the plastic bag and shake to coat the catfish nuggets. Remove the catfish, add more cornmeal and seasonings if necessary and repeat with the second half of the catfish.

Heat the oil until a sprinkle of cornmeal in the oil sizzles.

Carefully introduce some of the catfish to the hot oil and fry until it is golden brown and delicious, about two minutes. Don't crowd the pieces of catfish - leave a 1/2 inch at least between nuggets.

Flip the nuggets if necessary to make sure both sides get cooked well. Try one to make sure the fish is cooked through. If it isn't, give them more time until they are cooked through.

Remove the fish to a paper towel and blot briefly to remove excess oil. Salt the fish to taste immediately. Keep warm and finish the other batches of catfish.

Serve with greens and cornbread.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:27 AM | Comments (3)
September 3, 2007
Keen on Quinoa

rawquinoa2.jpgThe Critic does not like nubbly stuff. You would think that with his love of spicy food, couscous would be at the top of his list of favourite foods, but no. It's nubbly. And so quinoa, also, is rarely on the menu here in our flat. I've tried reasoning with him (it's delicious! it's innocuous as rice! you like rice!) but to no avail. I've been on something of a clean-out-the-freezer-and-cupboards kick lately and so decided, stubbornly, to give the box of quinoa I found behind my rare collection of unlabelled dried peppers one last try. I don't think I convinced the Critic; though I used flavours guaranteed to pique his interest, nothing could overcome the texture aversion. But in the meantime, I found a recipe to love. To heck with him, I'm making it for myself next time.

In my attempt to woo the Critic to the joys of quinoa, I reproduced Deborah Madison's Quinoa Salad with Mangos and Curry Dressing, using Madhur Jaffrey's own curry powder. You can use store-bought curry powder if you like, and I'm sure it will still be tasty. But Jaffrey's powder is jazzier and gives it a more interesting flavour. It only takes about two minutes to whizz a spice jar of the stuff and it will keep for months in your spice rack. Just don't put it in an old oregano jar whose label refused to come off. I guarantee that at some point you'll end up with a truly funky bolognaise sauce. Trust me, I know.

Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Powder (from Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible)

2 Tbs whole coriander seeds
1 Tbs whole cumin seeds
2 tsp whole peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
5-6 whole cloves
3 dried hot red chillies, crumbled
1 tsp whole fenugreek
1 tsp ground turmeric

Toast the the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, mustard seeds, cloves and chillies over a medium high flame in a heavy bottomed frying pan. Stir until the spices start to smell slightly roasted and have just barely started to brown. Add the fenugreek and turmeric and stir for ten seconds. Put the spices in a clean coffee grinder or other spice grinder and grind as finely as possible. (I use the small canister for my stick blender.) Store in a cool dark place, preferably correctly labelled.

Quinoa Salad with Mangoes and Curry Dressing (from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) serves 4

1 1/3 cups quinoa
2 mangoes
3 scallions, including an inch of the greens, thinly sliced (I substituted two plump shallots, finely chopped)
1 jalepeno pepper, finely chopped
1/3 cup almonds, toasted

For the curry vinaigrette:

1 garlic clove, pressed
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbs crème fraîche
2 heaping tsp curry powder
juice of half a small lemon
5 Tbs sunflower seed oil
2 Tbs finely chopped cilantro/fresh coriander

Bring three cups of water to the boil and add a half a teaspoon of salt. Stir in the quinoa, lower the heat, cover and simmer until the grains are tender, about 12-15 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the vinaigrette. In a large bowl, mix together the garlic, salt, crème fraîche and curry powder. Stir in the lemon juice and then slowly whisk in the oil. Sprinkle the coriander over the vinagrette and set aside while you make the rest of the salad.

Slice the mangoes in bite sized chunks. The easiest way to do this is to slice lengthwise through the flat center, as close to the stone as you can get. Score the half that does not have the stone in square shapes, going through to the skin but not cutting through it. Cut off the resulting cubes from the skin. Cut the second half away from the pit and repeat. If your mangoes are good and ripe it will be a messy but tasty job. Try not to snitch too many of the mango bits for yourself as they really are delicious in the salad. If there is any juice, pour it in the vinaigrette bowl.

When the quinoa is done, drain it if necessary - theoretically the grains will have absorbed all the water. Toss the quinoa, onion, mango chunks and jalepeno in the vinaigrette. Sprinkle the almond slices over the top and serve warm.

It really is a delicious dish - slightly spicy and exotic with the mango and curry flavours, but with a good satisfyingly nutty base. I found that the flavours were even nicer when I finished the remains the next day at lunch. However, if you are making it in advance, add the almonds only at the last minute as otherwise they will lose their crunchiness.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 6:28 AM | Comments (5)
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