Monday, December 31, 2012

Mushrooms as a bed for chicken

Winter is here alright. I know, you're thinking, "you're in California. How bad can it be?" Well, it's cold for us, ok? It got down to 34 degrees last night and there was frost on everything this morning. This kind of weather is perfect for a meal that makes us toasty warm. Chicken on a bed of mushrooms.

Oh, I hated mushrooms as a kid. All slimy and rubbery and moldy. Ick! I’m even still repulsed to this day when I go out into the yard and unearth the weird and wacky specimens that are freely popping up in my lawn. I have to wear gloves – I can’t seem to touch them with my bare hands.

My taste for mushrooms waxes and wanes. Sometimes I like them, other times I don’t. I guess it’s kind of a love/hate relationship, but this is the time of year when I want them.  Their chewy texture and meaty taste adds heartiness to otherwise bland dishes. Their woodsy nature makes them pair especially well with herbs. It’s as if you were going out into the forest. There is something so earthy about mushrooms that makes them ideal to appreciate in the winter.

So I was craving a dish with mushrooms and began searching the archives (i.e., cookbooks). I hadn’t looked in my Silver Palate cookbook in a while and was delighted when lo and behold I found “Chicken with Mushrooms”. How perfect to use mushrooms to boost the flavor of chicken. It is easy to make, although the soaking of the dried mushrooms calls for a 2 hour time span, I don’t know that you can’t achieve this in 30-60 minutes. If you have time, you can certainly go with 2 hours. I went with 1.

If you do an internet search for Silver Palate Chicken with Mushrooms recipe, you’ll find quite a number of sites featuring it. Clearly a popular and much-loved dish over the years. People are in love with it.  You can make this dish with some degree of certainty that it will be one you go to over and over again.

Chicken on a bed of mushrooms

1/2 cup chicken broth
2/3 ounce dried wild mushrooms, thoroughly rinsed under running water,and drained (such as cepes, morels, etc, all one kind or a mix)
1/3 lb fresh cultivated mushroom, wiped clean with damp paper towel (button)
3 1/3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup finely-chopped shallot (or 3 green onions, finely-chopped, plus 1 T minced garlic)
2/3 to taste salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup medium port wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves

a few tsp. chopped fresh parsley

In a small saucepan, bring broth to a boil; pour over the wild mushrooms in a small bowl and let stand for about 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thinly slice cleaned mushroom caps, discarding stems.
In a skillet over medium to medium-to-low heat, melt butter and gently saute shallots or onion/garlic mixture for about 5 minutes (do not brown).
Drain liquid from wild mushrooms and reserve.
Finely chop the wild mushrooms and add them and the fresh mushrooms to the skillet with the shallots (or onion/garlic mixture) and saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 7- 10 minutes.
Add the reserved mushroom liquid, Port, and cream to the skillet and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until slightly thickened.
Pour mushroom mixture into a shallow baking dish and arrange chicken breast halves in a single layer on top of the mushrooms.
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil.
Bake in the middle level of the oven for about 25- 30 minutes, until chicken is done.

Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.
Serves 4.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Travel through Cooking

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, born April 1, 1755

Many people dream of travelling to distant, exotic lands they’ve never been before. But the reality is that most of us won’t get the chance to visit all the places that intrigue us. Instead, we will have to be content to simply read about them or watch travelogues about them. But I believe that one way we can transport ourselves to these exotic places is by cooking their foods.

Eating the cuisine of different countries teaches us something about its inhabitants: their choice of spices and seasonings, their cooking methods, even what foods are available to them. Food traditions speak volumes about people. We can get a glimpse into their lives by seeing how they took what the land and sea offered them and what they did with those things.

We have only to search out ethnic cookbooks to bring ourselves that much closer to them. We are so fortunate to live in a time when cookbooks can be found on just about any ethnicity. I find looking through them to be a lot of fun. Researching foods from a particular area of the world and then searching for the ingredients in markets and specialty shops can be a unique experience. And, the cuisine of others can be inspirational when we need ideas for new things to cook. I mean, how many of us make the same 10 things over and over again?

What a boon to live in a time where a Midwesterner, for instance, can Google “palak paneer” and, in a few clicks, learn how to make a dish from Northern India. Yet, ever since Fanny Farmer set the standard for recipe writing in her cookbook, recipes reduce food to a simple listing of nutrients. While recipes let you make a culture’s food, they don’t offer much illumination on the culture from which that food comes, certainly not as much as the food itself. Recipes usually aren’t created to illuminate culture. They’re just step-by-step directions.

The ideal thing would be to find an ethnic cookbook that includes stories of the people that inhabit this place from which you are cooking, what their traditions are, what the weather is like, what unique cooking vessels they might have and why. Preferably this cookbook will also have lovely pictures, of people, the landscape, and the markets, of course. You will be more deeply immersed in their lives and have a better understanding of who these people are when you cook from these.

I find doing this enlightening, because I believe that cooking only from the area in which we grew up feeds isolationism, something a lot of Americans suffer from. I realize it seems a bit simplistic, but I believe that we cannot increase our global understanding and tolerance for different cultures when we simply stick to eating hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken fried steak. How can we not feel somewhat Frenchified when we create a souffle or make Coq au Vin, or feel transported to India when we whip up a Tikka Masala with all its spicy complexities?  How can we not eat these dishes and appreciate their uniqueness, their differences from what we are accustomed to, and not feel even a small connection to the people of these distant lands?

I’ve always believed that everyone should travel outside of one’s country at least once in their lives. It changes you. It opens your mind and offers you a different perspective. It makes you appreciate what you have at home. While we may never get to India, or France, or wherever we dream of going, we can get a little closer through our kitchens.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why you should make your own dog cookies

By now you know I’m an avid label reader. I’ve gotta know what’s in everything I’m considering buying, and that includes dog treats. I’m often repulsed by what I see on dog treat labels. Not surprisingly, a great deal of unhealthy stuff like sugar, flour, colors/dyes, and preservatives can be found there, not to mention “mystery meat” which I’d rather not think of.

You might think I’m nuts for making dog treats for my dog, but here’s why I think you should make your own every once in a while:

·        Healthier – since most dog treats on the market contain questionable ingredients at best, those you make at home will consist of human grade foods that you yourself would eat. I’ve often wondered why humans would feed their pets things that are labeled “not fit for human consumption”. If a thing’s got weird ingredients that YOU wouldn’t eat, why should your pet be eating them? Even if you agree with me and feed your pup one of the “better” treats out there – like from the health food store - many of these treats still contain grains. I really don’t believe that dogs should be eating grains, and that includes wheat, whole wheat, oat flour and the like. See below for more on that.

·    Cheaper – let’s say you are trying to do right by your dog and you buy the healthy, gourmet dog treats from a specialty store, they are likely to be fairly pricey. Sometimes over $4.00/box. If you make them yourself, you can save a good amount of money using things from your pantry.

·      It’s easy – whipping up some dog cookies at home is like making a batch of cookies for yourself or your family. Hey, your dog is family, too! All you need to do is make a dog-appropriate batter, roll it out, use cookie cutters to make shapes (only if you want to), put it on a cookie tray and bake it.

·       Your dog will love them. S/he will also love that you made them. S/he will also love the anticipation of them as they bake. Just like you do as you wait for your chocolate chip cookies.

Store bought dog treats most often contain carbohydrates, which are usually the first ingredient. The reason for this is because they are cheap to use. So what are carbohydrates? They are foods composed of starches, sugar and/or fiber. Carbohydrates are the most common source of energy found in food as most carbs are broken down into glucose (a specific type of sugar). Some common examples are:

- table sugar
- honey
- fruit
- milk
- grains
- vegetables

Proteins and fats are the other two main sources of energy. Proteins do not break down into glucose (sugar). What’s important to remember is that dogs are carnivores...meat eaters. They have very little dietary requirement for carbohydrates. They do require high quality protein from a meat source. There should never be such a thing as a vegetarian dog. This is completely against Nature. Just because you are a vegetarian doesn’t mean your dog should be. Dogs need meat to thrive!

Most dog treat recipes contain some type of flour. Flour is made from grain, usually wheat, but not always. You’ll see whole wheat flour, rice flour, brown rice flour, corn meal, corn flour, oat flour, spelt flour...just to name a few. Some of these flours are gluten free, and some are not. Flour is used to keep dog cookies together. The problem is that flour of any type is made from grain and grains are not a good source of carbohydrates for dogs.

Flour is considered a high glycemic index food. That means it has the ability to spike your dog's blood sugar very high, very quickly, just like in humans. That will put a huge burden on your dog's pancreas over time. In nature, dogs don't eat anything made from flour. Flour is a processed end result of processing grain, something humans do (and probably shouldn’t, but that’s a story for another day).

Many dog treats also contain sugar. This is a serious no, no !!! Just like in humans, with their ever-increasing consumption of carbs, diabetes in our companion animals is also on the rise. Look no further than the carbohydrate content of the foods they are consuming. Diabetes is rampant in cats as well. How crazy is that? Cats are obligate carnivores! They have no dietary requirement for carbohydrates at all.

When making dog treats, or buying dog biscuits at the store, choose a carbohydrate source that is low glycemic. That means it will not raise your dog's blood sugar level too high, or too fast. For this, sweet potatoes and flax meal make excellent choices. Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins and minerals and are high in fiber. Although sweet potatoes might be higher in natural sugars, the high fiber content regulates the effect of the natural sugars. This keeps blood sugar at a consistent lower level. Flax seed meal supplies fiber, lignans (antioxidant and phyto-estrogen) to fight abnormal cell growth, and alpha-linolenic acid, a plant version of Omega 3 fatty acids. 
Gluten Free Dog Biscuit Recipe

- 1 Lb ground meat ( lamb, beef, chicken, turkey ) Lamb and beef tend to be higher in fat. Chicken and turkey might be a better choice for an overweight dog.
- 1 large sweet potato ( cooked and mashed )
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder ( not garlic salt )or one large clove pressed
- 4 tbsp. ground flax seed meal

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mixing up very well.
Very lightly, grease a cookie sheet with olive oil. Dump ingredients on cookie sheet and spread evenly and flatly to the sides of pan. This should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Bake for one hour at 350 degrees.

Remove pan from oven and use your cookie cutter at this time, if you want. If you don't have a cookie cutter, just score the cookie dough with a knife or pizza cutter, into squares. Put back into the oven and bake for another hour at 250 degrees.

This will dry the treats out. Keep an eye on your oven. The time could be more or less, depending on how hot your oven runs. The treats should be fairly dry and a little crispy, but not burned.

Allow to cool completely. While you’re waiting, I suggest cuddling with your pooch.

Happy Baking!

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