Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Stainless Steel Cookware

Today, there is a plethora of cookware available and with so many pots and pans to choose from, how do you know what to buy? Aluminum core, copper core, stainless steel, glass, waterless, cast iron.....the choices are endless.

Everyone probably has their favorite, but I love my stainless steel cookware. It's easy to use and easy to clean, with minimal fuss. I bought a set of All-Clad probably 8-10 years ago, and though it was a bit of an investment, I will have them for the rest of my life. And since I plan to eat for the rest of my life, they will most certainly be used!

One thing I would caution against is getting any "non-stick" cookware. If you haven't heard, there is quite a lot to worry about with the stuff giving off toxic gasses, teflon breaking off and ending up in the food, etc. It's not good. I bought a non-stick pan that is "green", made without these toxic substances, but I honestly don't care for it. The stainless steel pans have the advantage of being able to brown food, and this browning adds a lot of flavor to your food. Non-stick cannot do that for you. You really can't deglaze a non-stick pan. If you think you "need" a non-stick pan to cook omelettes, that's not so. Provided you get the pan hot enough before adding the eggs, the stainless will not stick. I promise! Check out this link for information on making sure your pan is hot enough. See, I told you.

There are many brands out there offering stainless steel. Prices fluctuate wildly, depending on the company, how it was constructed, what other metals (such as aluminum or copper) are sandwiched in between the stainless for better heat conducting. Your budget and cooking experience will dictate what's best for you. For deals on almost anything, try, or and search for stainless steel cookware.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flavor Profile: Herbs (Part Deux)

In July, I posted about my favorite summer herbs, and many of you made the potato and green bean medley that was featured. I am thrilled you liked it, too.  Thank you to everyone for your feedback!

Sage leaves
Now that it's Fall, other favorite herbs of mine appear in many of this season's dishes, such as sage and rosemary, both offering bold flavor to the dishes to which they are added.

Sage grows as a bushy plant and is evergreen in warm climates. Its strongly aromatic leaves are a soft gray-green color are are especially lovely grown in your herb garden or container. Sage is particularly good with fatty meats and cheese, fish, pasta, rice and in vinegars. Sage can be used fresh or found as a finely ground powder.

You can fry sage leaves very briefly in olive oil and add the crispy leaves as a pretty garnish on top of soups and pasta dishes such as ravioli filled with butternut squash or pumpkin, and then drizzle the flavored oil that results from the frying on top of those dishes for an excellent flavor enhancer.  You'll find this technique in the following recipe.

This is one of my favorite soups. I made it once as a first course for Thanksgiving and dinner guests that night still remember it, years later! I have made it many times since because it is simply fantastic.

Winter Squash Soup with Sage

2 Tbsp. olive oil
18 small fresh sage leaves
2.5-3 pounds winter squash (this can be anything you wish. Try a combination of Butternut, Kabocha, Red Kuri, Buttercup, or Acorn)
2 unpeeled onions, cut in half
6 cloves unpeeled garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage leaves
3/4 tsp. fresh or 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper
3 ounces (1/2 cup) 1/2 inch cubes fontina cheese

Pour oil into a 6-8 inch frying pan and place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add whole sage leaves (make sure they are dry, else oil will spatter everywhere) and stir until they turn a dark green, about 45 seconds to 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, lift out leaves and drain on paper towels, set aside. Reserve the oil.
Rinse squash, slice in half and scoop out seeds. Discard seeds. Brush cut surfaces of squash and onion with reserved oil. Place squash and onions cut side down in a baking pan and slip garlic underneath the squash. Bake in a 375F oven until vegetables are soft when pressed (45-60 minutes). Reserve pan juices. Scoop flesh from squash skins and discard. Peel garlic, peel and chop onions.
In a 3-4 quart pan, combine squash, garlic, onions, parsley, chopped sage, and thyme. Mash squash mixture with a potato masher and stir in reserved pan juices and the water or stock.  Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, to blend flavors, about 25 minutes. Season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Stir any remaining sage cooking oil into soup. Distribute cheese equally among 6 bowls, and ladle soup into bowls. Nice with a dollop of creme fraiche on top (but optional). Do search out Fontina cheese (Hint: Trader Joe's). It has a nutty flavor that works very nicely with the other ingredients in the soup.

Recipe courtesy of Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Rosemary is another one of those fantastic fall herbs. Its narrow, spiky leaves perfume the air with an unmistakable piney scent. At this time of year, and occasionally in the spring, too, lovely little blue flowers nestle among the sharply pointed leaves. It's easy to grow and mine has turned into a five foot tall bush, affording me access to it all year round.

Rosemary is great with all kinds of meats and vegetables. Lamb, turkey, chicken, beef, pork all benefit from rosemary's fragrant addition. It's particularly good on the grill alongside the meats so that as it gets grilled itself, it can impart a subtle flavor to the meat. Finely chopped and added to salt and pepper, it can encrust meat before roasting. The herb is also fantastic in all sorts of soups and stews.

With such rainy weather today, it was meant to be "Soup Night" tonight, and on the menu was Italian Lentil Soup with Tomatoes.

Lentil Soup with Tomatoes

1 cup dried green or brown lentils
1-2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 strips bacon, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely diced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 can (14 oz.) chopped plum tomatoes
8 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the bacon and cook for about 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the celery, carrots, rosemary, bay leaves and lentils. Toss over the heat for 1 minute until thoroughly coated in oil. Pour in the tomatoes and stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, half cover the pan, and simmer for about 1 hour or until the lentils are perfectly tender. Remove the bay leaves and rosemary stem (all that will remain is the stem, the leaves will have fallen off during cooking, leave those in the soup). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Apple Season is here!

It's October, and so that means apples are at their peak right now in many parts of the country. Apple butter, apple juice, apple cider, apple pie, and caramel apples, it's all good! And of course, my absolute favorite combo since I was a kid: a fresh, crunchy apple paired with a really good white Cheddar (or aged Gouda): yum.

If you're in the Southern California area, there are some fun places to go to enjoy fresh picked apples, and some orchards will even let you pick your own, for a fee, of course. I can recommend a few.

Just east of Los Angeles, I recommend the town of Oak Glen. There is a great place up there called Riley's at Los Rios Rancho. I was there for the first time last year around this time. I loved it and hope to make it back this year to check out a few places we didn't get to. The Los Rios Rancho has a great store, of course selling all things apple, as well as a big lawn in front where you can have a picnic and enjoy a slice of apple pie fresh from their bakery...

Isn't this beautiful?
It's a great place to spend a few hours. They have an apple press where you can make your own... well as lovely nature trails you can walk along, admiring the beauty of this mountain town and the fall foliage...

...a lovely display of pumpkins for sale...

...just a great place! Here is their website. You can see what apples they have available right now. Other places to visit up there (also listed as the city of Yucaipa): Law's Cider Mill & Ranch (I hear they have awesome caramel apples), Moms Country Orchards, Parrish Pioneer Ranch, & Willowbrook Apple Farm.

If you're nearer San Diego, you can head to Julian. They're also famous for their apples and the little town offers a few nice B&Bs to stay overnight, as well as shops and restaurants (and bakeries serving fresh apple pie). Check out their website for a listing of spots to get/buy/pick apples.

Around the Central Coast, Jack Creek Farms is a cute place to go. Next time I'm up there, I want to check out a few new places: Blue Sky Farm, SLO Creek Farms, or even the Ballard Apple Farm in Solvang on the way home.

Here's a nifty website if you want to read more about apples.

Now, for an outstanding Apple Tart recipe, you must try this one. Fresh apple slices sit above a cream cheese filling inside a cookie crust. It's best eaten the same day it's made, so invite some friends over and eat it up at one sitting.

Apple Tart

Preheat your oven to 400F.

cream together:
1/2 cup softened butter (1 stick)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup flour
Form into a ball. Press the crust into a 9" tart pan with a removable bottom (or a cake pan) with your fingers, coming up the sides of your pan. Prick the bottom with a fork. Bake blind for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the following:

1 egg
8 oz. cream cheese (allow to come to room temp)
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup sugar
Whisk (or use mixer) until very smooth.

2 apples, sliced thinly, leave skins on
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Toss the above together.
Set aside for later: a handful of sliced almonds (or small walnut pieces) for on top.

When crust is done, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Spread cream cheese mixture into crust. Arrange apples on top in nice rings. Scatter nuts over apples.
Bake 35-40 minutes in 400F oven. Cool in pan. Then slice and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Flavor Profile: Marinades

Marinating food is a great way to add flavor. If you were to compare a chicken breast, for instance, that just had some BBQ sauce slathered on it and a chicken breast that had been allowed to sit in a marinade all day, you would no doubt like the marinated one better. But marinating takes time and some advanced planning.

I will usually create the marinade the night before I want to use it. Either that evening or the following morning I will put the marinade in with the meat, usually in a large ziplock bag, and let them get to know each other all day in the fridge. In the evening when I come home, I take it out and toss out the marinade and put the meat on the grill. You don't ever want to use that marinade. The only exception is when you marinade veggies. You can take the marinade and cook it down, reducing it to a more syrupy consistency and serve that alongside the vegetables, but you don't want to take any chances with the marinade that's been marinating meat. That you want to throw out.

I recently posted a Peanut Sauce that I just adore. It is truly the best peanut sauce I've ever had. It goes along with Chicken Satay and in that post I mentioned the marinade for the chicken. This is the recipe. We had it a few nights ago for dinner.

Chicken Satay

1 Tbsp. light brown sugar
1 Tbsp. curry powder
2 Tbsp. crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
crushed dried red chili peppers
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into long strips each about 1/2 inch wide

Combine all the ingredients in a shallow dish. Add the chicken pieces and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight for a more intense flavor.

Thread the chicken pieces on bamboo skewers, weaving skewers in and out of meat lengthwise to create a serpentine design. Preheat your grill or broiler and turn skewers several times while basting about 6-8 minutes. Sprinkle with lime zest or chopped fresh cilantro and the peanut sauce. Delicious.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

I love cookies. They are without question my favorite treat. Small and compact, they are a great way to have a little something sweet, provided you don't eat a dozen at one sitting! Cakes, ice cream, and pies don't do for me what a good cookie will do. I just love them.

One of my favorites is the oatmeal cookie, and particularly at this time of year I get in the mood to bake them. I really love this recipe; it's not the traditional "oatmeal raisin" variety. I think this one's better, mainly because of the great combination of oats, chocolate and pecans. I think it's especially because of the pecans that I crave them in the fall. Also, rainy weather puts me in the mood to bake - I don't know what it is. Good thing it doesn't rain around here too often!

I made a batch of these tonight after dinner. Here's my ensemble of ingredients.

You'll love these if you like cookies that are slightly chewy on the inside, yet crisp on the outside. YUMMY! What's important is waiting those 2 minutes after taking them out of the oven to crisp up a bit so that they are just perfect!

Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Ground oats
1 cup regular oats (I grind them briefly in the food processor for a finer texture)
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup softened butter
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
(mini chips will disperse better but regular sized ones will give you more chocolate!)

Preheat oven to 350F.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and the next 4 ingredients (through salt), stirring with a whisk; set aside.
Place sugars and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add vanilla and egg; beat until blended. Gradually add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips. Drop dough by tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper or Silpat. Bake at 350F for 12-14 minutes or until edges of cookies are lightly browned. Cool on pans 2 minutes. Remove cookies from pans; cool on wire racks. Yield: 3 dozen.

I usually don't bake them all at once else I would eat them all at once. So I take out enough batter for a batch of 6-8 cookies and freeze the remaining dough, taking out just enough for when I want to bake just a few more.

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