The resourceful cook

Jeremy once told me that I was the most resourceful cook he knows. This is because I never start a meal plan for the week by deciding what I want to make, then writing down ingredients. Instead, I go to the pantry, freezer or fridge, see what random left overs or items we have, then plan our meals around that. Because most of what I cook is done without recipes, this works for me. And that’s the beauty of learning techniques versus recipes. If you know how to make a basic cream sauce, or the components of a risotto or the technique of braising meats, then you don’t need recipes. What I find to be most important is the concept of ratio. So if you know that a basic risotto calls for 1 part rice to 4 parts liquid, then you’re fine, and you can experiment to your hearts’ content without worrying about if the rice is going to dry up or if it’s going to be too soupy.

So this past week we had some kind of random things sitting around. First off, my sage plant has exploded this fall, so I wanted to use some fresh sage. I also had a huge bag of pistachios left over from camping and a half of a container of Parmesan….some of you know where this is going already: pesto! Pistachio-Sage pesto. Because, once again, if you know the basic components of pesto (basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil) you can swap each of those ingredients out for something similar (sage, Parmesan, pistachios, olive oil). I also had a huge FIVE POUND bag of quinoa that I got at Costco the other day, as well as a side of salmon that I had cut down into fillets and frozen. Finally there was a random butternut squash that I had picked up at a farm and sort of neglected.

fall dinner

I wanted to experiment with the idea of quinoa risotto. Normally risotto is made with Arborio rice, a super short-grain rice that cooks almost like a pasta. It’s cooked slowly, adding small amounts of liquid, which are then absorbed before adding more, and of course – stirring the entire time. Quinoa is also a grain and is …. not “short” but small, let’s say. I wasn’t sure if it would cream up like Arborio, which slowly releases its starch as it cooks, creating its own creamy sauce when combined with water, broth, wine, etc. But I figured it was worth a try.

The whole meal came together like this:

Step 1: fall dinner squash
Pre-head the oven to 375 F. Peel and cut the butternut squash into 1/2″ thick slices, brush with olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme, then lay out on a baking sheet and roast while putting together the rest of the meal. I only used about 1/4 of the squash (I made the rest of it into soup – resourceful!)

Step 2: 
Make the pesto by combining 1/4 cup of pistachios (shelled) with a palm full of Parmesan, a hearty bunch of sage (chopped), the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse the ingredients while drizzing olive oil through the top until a nice thick paste forms.

Step 3:
Make the risotto. Start with a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Add a few cloves of minced garlic and half of an onion, diced small; cook until soft. Add one cup of diced mushrooms and a

fall dinner quinoalittle lemon zest and saute until soft. Add in one cup of quinoa (or Arborio rice) and toast the quinoa until it starts to brown. Pour in half a cup of chicken broth and use this to deglaze the pan, and stir until it is absorbed. Continue to add half a cup of broth at a time, stirring until absorbed until you’ve reached the consistency you want. You’ll likely use less liquid than you would with a true risotto. I used about two cups of broth to one cup of quinoa. It will take about 15-20 minutes to get the quinoa cooked through. You know when quinoa is cooked because the grain sort of pops open. It’s impossible to describe, but immediately obvious when it happens. When the risotto is close to being done, within the last few minutes, add the juice of half a lemon and a large spoonful of the pesto and stir in.

Step 4:
About 10 minutes before the risotto is done, coat some salmon fillets with your pesto and put on a baking sheet in the oven with your squash. Bake the salmon for 10 minutes of until it flakes easily with a fork.

Step 5:
Serve it up! Top the risotto with a little more Parmesan and top your salmon with a bit more pesto. Your squash should be a little crispy on the outside and cooked through on the inside from roasting. Serve with a lemon wedge to brighten up the salmon and risotto.
fall dinner plate

Step 6:
Enjoy. And use these steps to make something completely different – based on whatever you have on hand.

fall dinner fork

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Pantry Raid IV: better bulgur

Bulgur sounds gross, and I get that. But it’s really not. Bulgur is parboiled cracked wheat berries. It’s a super whole grain with a wonderful nutty taste. It also has a great texture that I can only describe as “toothsome.” It isn’t hard, but even after being soaked, it has tooth –  like very good al dente pasta. Just one cup of bulgur has over 25 grams of fiber and over 17 grams of protein. And incidentally, I had a huge bag of it in my cabinet that I needed to start working on getting rid of.

Bulgar, like quinoa, is a great base for salads. This bugar salad recipe came from Everyday Food, and it’s really light and delicious and keeps well. Make it at the beginning of the week, measure it out into individual containers and then grab them for a healthy lunch on the go. This recipe makes a lot – like most grains, just one cup, once cooked, makes a huge amount of food and because it is high in fiber and protein, you don’t need to eat much to get full. I made this salad for dinner with a yummy marinated salmon and still had enough left over for lunch several days that week. This salad also incorporates chick peas (or Garbanzo beans – whichever name you prefer). Chick peas are also full of protein, so you really can’t go wrong here. Leave out the feta for a (still delicious) Vegan side dish.

Bulgur and Chick Pea Salad

bulgar with salmon close

Ingredients

  • 1 cup bulgur
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 can (15.5 ounces) chickpeas
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest and 2 tablespoons juice
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh dill
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta (2 ounces)
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, combine bulgur with boiling water. Cover and let stand 20 minutes; drain and return to bowl. Rinse and drain chickpeas, then add to bowl with lemon zest and juice, olive oil, dill, and feta; season with salt and pepper.

For the salmon, I combined a little olive oil, a dash of white wine vinegar, the juice of half of a lemon, some dill, salt and pepper and put the salmon into some tin foil, made a pouch, poured the marinade over the salmon, wrapped it up really good and baked at 375 for about 15 minutes. It was perfect together and it would be a crime to eat this meal without a glass of good Chardonnay. So don’t let the name throw you off, replace that pasta side dish with a healthier bulgur alternative.

If you eat this without a glass of Chardonnay, you are committing a crime against food.

If you eat this without a glass of Chardonnay, you are committing a crime against food.

The possibilities here are endless – Greek bulgar salad with grilled chicken, feta, cucumbers, tomatoes and kalamata olives; bulgar and lentil salad with grapefruit vinaigrette, breakfast bulgar with maple syrup and baked apples . . . OK, I’m starting to sound like a bulgur growing Bubba from Forrest Gump. You get the picture.

Foodie Friday Freestyle

We usually stay in on Friday nights. We are exciting like that. But one of my favorite things to do on Friday nights is “freestyle” a few small plates with things we have around the house. It’s like iron chef or chopped or something. You can only use things you have in your basket….three to five courses….except without someone berating the hell out of whatever you come up with. So, if it pleases the judge panel….

1. Smoked salmon with fresh dilled cream cheese on pita crackers.

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2. Baked turnip “chips”

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3. Balsamic glazed chicken thighs with quinoa and roasted Okinawa purple sweet potatoes.

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For the record, always cook with chicken thighs. Chicken breasts dry out more easily, are inconsistent in thickness (which makes them hard to cook) and don’t have as much flavor as dark meat. You know when you have delicious Mongolian BBQ and you think “I can never make chicken taste like this at home”? That’s because it’s chicken thighs. Oh, they are also usually cheaper.

Usually my Friday freestyle foods aren’t recipes. I just make it up as I go along. I likely won’t make another dish exactly like any of them again since they are usually about an unusual combination of things I have at that moment. But it’s exciting and different. Unlike our average Friday nights.

A Little Dab Will Do Ya

Julia Child noted in Mastering the Art of French Cooking that “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking, yet there is  nothing secret or mysterious about making them.” This is so absolutely true. A good sauce can elevate an ordinary meal to something spectacular and while a Hollandaise or Bechamel may sound French and scary, there’s really nothing to it. And most basic sauces are made with things you probably already have on hand: butter, eggs, flour, some stock or broth. And once you learn to make some basic sauces, and you’ve mastered their techniques, you can start to expand, making your own: adding some herbs, cheese, or anything else that sounds good.

A good French sauce usually starts with cream or butter. Two things that I usually stay away from, but as Julia herself said “Everything in moderation… including moderation.” The thing about good sauces is that you don’t need much of them. In fact, a very good sauce will do its job in just a dab or two. So indulge away. Julia would.

Served over salmon - a perfect, buttery complement.

Hollandaise served over salmon – a perfect, buttery complement.

Hollandaise with Dill

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 4 egg yolks (fresh and local, if possible)
  • 1 Tb lemon juice
  • 1/2 C. unsalted butter, melted, but not hot
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/8 C. chopped, fresh dill

Method:

  1. Vigorously whisk the egg yolks and lemon juice together in a stainless steel bowl and until the mixture is thickened and doubled in volume.
  2. Place the bowl over a saucepan containing barely simmering water (or use a double boiler,) the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Continue to whisk rapidly. Be careful not to let the eggs get too hot or they will scramble.
  3. Slowly drizzle in the melted butter and continue to whisk until the sauce is thickened and doubled in volume.
  4. Remove from heat, whisk in salt and dill. Cover and place in a warm spot until ready to use. If the sauce sits for awhile and gets too thick, whisk in a few drops of warm water before serving.

I got these eggs from a little farm stand down the street and the dill came through my co-op from Vaughan Farms in Virginia Beach. When you’re dealing with so few ingredients and with such an intensified flavor, you’d do well to use the best, freshest ingredients you can get. Again, Julie backs me up when she says “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”

What are your favorite sauces? Or your favorite indulgences?

 

Try, try again

One of my favorite cooking traditions is on the weekends when Jeremy and I get up and make breakfast together, side by side at the stove – him frying bacon and me scrambling eggs. But this past weekend he was out of town and to console myself, and to keep from eating obscene amounts of bacon, I decided to get a little inventive with breakfast. I had dropped by Trader Joe’s late last week after dropping Jeremy off at the airport and scored (among many, many other things) some great smoked salmon and a bag of ripe avocados. Somewhere in the back of my mind a light bulb flickered: salmon and avocado crepes. OK, so I don’t exactly bake, and making crepes feels like baking – there is flour sifting involved. So I made some pancake mix work for my purposes and here’s what I came up with:

I used the pancake mix, with a little more almond milk than it called for and a plop (yes, a plop is a technical cooking measurement) of Greek yogurt, lemon zest and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. I poured that into a non-stick skillet very thinly and swirled the pan to cover the bottom, flipping after only a minute or so. Then I smeared a cream cheese/herbed goat cheese mixture on the crepe, laid out some smoked salmon and avocado slices, then rolled up and topped with another plop of yogurt.

Verdict? Meh. Yeah, I admit, they look amazing. You would easily pay $12-15 for this plate at a restaurant, and maybe if I had I would have thought more highly of them, but something about the mouth feel of so many “creamy” things wasn’t doing it for me. Salmon, avocados, creamy cheese and the soft cake was all just a little too much. I was hoping the yogurt would tang it up a little, but it was too little, too late. Probably plenty of people would love this, if that flavor profile works for you, but it just doesn’t for me.

But I refused to be defeated. When Jeremy came back I decided to reinvent this dish into dinner and I knew exactly how to solve the problem. The answer was in the yogurt and the lemon all along. Instead of making crepes, I opted for two big pieces of naan. Then I made a tzatziki sauce with greek yogurt, cucumbers, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt, pepper and dill. I toasted the naan, rubbed in some olive oil, covered with a layer of tzatziki, then topped that with a mashed avocado mixed with salt, pepper and a squirt of lemon juice. Then I quick “cured” the salmon by laying it flat on a plate topped with cucumbers and dill, then squeezed an entire lemon over top of it all and let it sit while I put the salad together. Then I put the salmon, cucumbers and dill on top of the avocado and voila – perfection.

The problem with the first dish was the similarity of textures and, to a degree, taste. This dish solves that problem by adding in the crunch of the cucumbers, the tanginess of the yogurt and the bright, fresh flavor that the lemon gives to everything.

Redemption: it’s what’s for dinner.

So the lesson is: if at first your recipe is gross, try try again. Seriously. Every chef or cook who has ever invented a recipe has taken it through various tests and many of those tests are bound to fail. You can’t get it right the first time, every time. Although sometimes you do, and it’s amazing, but those times are rare.

Do you have a unique recipe that you created? If so, share it with me! Post it in a comment and maybe I’ll give it a try on the blog! 

Salmon: not just a horrible beach-house color

I try my hardest to eat salmon every week. Not because it’s my favorite fish, or because I think the Alaskan fishing industry needs my patronage (even though they do – do you hear me, Alaska? You NEED me!), but because it is super super super good for your brain. Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so we are all always looking for ways to prevent it. Recently, the link between omega-3 fatty acids and Alzheimer’s prevention has become clear. According to the Rush University Medical Center, people who eat fish one or more times a week are approximately 60 percent less likely to experience Alzheimer’s disease than those who rarely eat fish. The important thing about fish here being the omega-3’s, which salmon has a particularly high amount of. And omega-3’s in fish are of a particular kind called DHA and EPA, which appear to have the strongest health benefits. So what is it exactly that omega-3’s in fish oil are doing that are so beneficial besides making you smell like fish all the time? What, you don’t think of that as a benefit? Trust me, if you ever want to get out of a conversation, or need to rid yourself of a “close talker,” or are trying to attract stray cats, or just generally need the public to leave you alone, fish oil is a HUGE benefit. But in addition to that, these fatty acids reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is one of those things that can lead to myriad diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, blood clots, stroke, dementia (Alzheimer’s), arthritis and much more. Another interesting potential benefit of omega-3’s? They may help fight depression. Although the studies are mixed, it is clear that in countries with higher levels of omega-3 in the typical diet have lower levels of depression. Eat fish; be happy.

Our bodies do not naturally produce omega-3’s – we must consume them through our diets. And while you can do this through a supplement, why wouldn’t you just do it through delicious food? Enter: salmon. Enter: my long speech about the right kind of salmon to buy at the fish counter. If you would like to skip this wild vs. farmed fish debate, skip to the last sentence of this paragraph. At just about any fish counter of any grocery store you will see 2-3 different varieties of Salmon. Some will say “wild caught” some will say “farmed” some will even say “organic”, but here are a few differences: farmed fish are raised in feedlots and at feedlots fish are doused with antibiotics and exposed to more concentrated pesticides than their wild kin. Additionally, farmed salmon are given a salmon-colored dye in their feed, without which, their flesh would be an unappetizing grey color. And regarding the all-important omega3’s? FDA statistics on the nutritional content (protein and fat-ratios) of farm versus wild salmon show that the fat content of farmed salmon is excessively high–30-35% by weight, wild salmon have a 20% higher protein content and a 20% lower fat content than farm-raised salmon, farm-raised fish contain much higher amounts of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats than wild fish. IE – the opposite of what omega-3’s do for you. In studies by the FDA wild fish were not only much lower in overall fat content, but also were found to have 33% more omega-3 fatty acids than their farm-raised counterparts. Omega-3s accounted for 29% of the fats in wild coho versus 19% of the fats in cultivated coho. Bottom line: buy wild-caught fish.

I’m so sorry. Here are some pictures of food.


This was one of those recipes that came to me during this thing that happens in my mind where whatever fresh produce I picked up at the farmers market that week inserts itself into some recipe I’ve been drooling over on Pinterest. In this case, it was a tomato pasta recipe from Martha Stewart. But because I had zucchini and squash on hand and because I needed my weekly salmon, I mixed it up a little. I pan sauteed two small tomatoes, a small squash and small zucchini in olive oil with a teaspoon of minced garlic and some Italian seasoning. In the meantime, I rubbed the salmon down with lemon infused olive oil, salt, pepper and a little garlic. I heated some oil in a pan and laid several slices of lemon down into the oil, then placed the salmon on top, covered with a lid and let cook over medium-high heat while the pasta was boiling (about 8 minutes, or until it can be flaked with a fork). I have started using this Ronzini brand “Garden Delights” vegetable spaghetti – it is much more palatable to me than whole wheat pasta and still better for you than regular pasta, but you can use any kind you’d like. (Disclaimer: I did not get paid to promote Ronzini brand “Garden Delights” vegetable spaghetti, but I totally would if they offered. That goes for you too, Pacific Salmon Fishers of America, Sunkist lemon farms, and the people who make the ridiculously expensive lemon infused olive oil I use. )

I saved about a half a cup of the pasta water and made a sauce from the vegetables with some additional olive oil, Parmesan cheese, some freshly chopped basil from my garden, and a bit of the starchy pasta water, then mixed the pasta into it and topped with the salmon, a sprinkle of cheese and basil and a squirt of fresh lemon juice.

feed your brain!

And before you go off thinking I’m Martha Stewart, or Barefoot Contessa or something (although I think we can all agree that Jeffrey would just ADORE this meal), let me quickly correct you. I’m more like Julia Child’s slow second cousin. If Julia was forever dropping chickens or spilling this or that in some hilariously charming way, all the while making the most delicious French food you’ve ever seen, I am the slow second cousin who is nearly cutting off a finger or giving herself third degree burns while she tries to make toast. Case in point:

I need adult supervision.

I don’t know how well it comes through in that picture – but my middle finger has a pretty significant burn/blister right under the knuckle. This is because, as it turns out, metal skillets that have just come out of 400 degree ovens are HOT! This is my primary mistake in the kitchen – forgetting that things are hot and grabbing them with my bare hands. Also, over-salting things. So, Food Network, if you are looking for a new cooking show that appeals to those S&M loving, 50 Shades of Grey reading freaks, I am your girl. Get in line behind Ronzini and those stinky fishermen.