Jan 272013

Quack corn

Poor popcorn: once known as a healthy, super-easy treat, it has now been hijacked by the likes of microwave-food-companies who would really like you to forget that making said treat at home is really easy and inexpensive so that they can milk you for lots of money for an inferior product. And lets not even mention what movie theaters have done to this humble grain. It’s time to take it back!

Lucky for us, it’s still really simple. Forget all of those companies out there who are trying to sell you popcorn-making gadgets. They don’t have simplicity in mind: they are only trying to separate you from your hard-earned cash. All you need is a pot with a lid and a stove.

And popcorn kernels, of course.

But do you really need me to tell you how to shake some kernels in a pan and pop? Of course not. I am here to offer some inspiration, however! So, let’s begin.

Let’s focus first on the grain. The better-quality kernels you can buy the better your popcorn will be. My personal favorite is crimson popping corn. The only drawback with this variety (and other darkly-colored types) is that since the grain is darker, the finished product can look burned when it most certainly is not.

Crimson popcorn, about to meet duck-fat

Now, let’s discuss the medium. Butter has a long and storied history with popcorn, and for good reason. But let’s get off the beaten path and look towards other fine cooking fats. Olive oil can lend a subtle taste, which is fine, but if you want something a bit more exotic, seek out our feathered friends. Duck fat reigns supreme in the land of rendered cooking fats. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but like so many of my ideas in the kitchen, this one was inspired by the owner of Rancho Gordo, my favorite new-world-foods purveyor.

I had thought about doing this for a long time and finally had the opportunity when Mr. and Mrs. Cheeseburger In Glacial Ice came to visit. Heather shares my passion for all things yummy, and though her husband can sometimes need to be cajoled into food-adventure-territory, he’s often game for it (and at any rate, he would have been over-ruled this time), so I decided that the time of the Quack Corn had come. Now, I could just tell you that it was a resounding success, but I think that this paints a better picture: Mr. and Mrs. Cheesburger moved into a new house shortly thereafter and I sent them a house-warming gift that included some popping corn. Mr. Cheeseburger, seeing another parcel in with the popcorn and unable to contain his hopes and dreams, asked “Is that duck fat???”

I rest my case.

Duck-fat popcorn!

Click for the recipe →

Jan 062013

Chicken tortilla soup

Names are funny things.

Take this soup, for instance: tortilla soup. I think that ostensibly, this type of soup is usually served with strips of fried corn tortillas or (in a pinch) bits of tortilla chips… or something. I’m not really sure. To me, this is tortilla soup, though nary a flat-bread has ever graced it, as far as I know.

And really, that’s fine with me. I’m normally kind of stickler for those sorts of things: I like to know what things are called and how to use names and terms properly, because they mean something. In this case, though? Whatevs. See, this is my grandmother’s recipe, and far be it from me to go changing the title. She was a wise old bird, so I figure that she knew what she was talking about.

And really, once you throw on a goodly hand-full of cilantro, squeeze on plenty of lime, stir in half a bit of an avocado, and take a bite of this, who cares what it’s called? You may find that after all, the only truly appropriate name is get-in-my-face soup, and isn’t that the only name that matters?

Chicken tortilla soup

Click for the recipe →

Jan 042013

I have been bursting-at-the-seams excited about something happening in my kitchen this week.

Something so scintillating, it has propelled my kitchen into a place of magic.

It is a magic elixir.

It is duck-stock. (What, you want a recipe? Couldn’t be simpler. Take everything from the duck that you didn’t eat — backbone, neck, all other bones, gizzards, skin, rendered fat, everything — put it in a pot, cover with water, simmer 4-24 hours, cool slightly, strain it, skim off fat and save it, reduce the stock if desired, and store it.)

Made from the remnants of Christmas dinner, this precious liquid also gave me something else: duck-fat.

Shiver of excitement (Yes, I stole that line from Alton Brown. He summed it up perfectly.)

These two substances have led me to the question: what to do with them?

The duck-fat query is the easier question to answer: anything. It’s one of the finest cooking fats in the world and can beat up bacon-fat and take its lunch-money any day of the week. Its flavor is unsurpassed and the smell… oh my, the smell. If you’ve never had the pleasure, please, let me know, and I’ll invite you over next time I’m cooking with it. I’m always looking for an excuse to pop up some pop-corn in duck-fat. Yes, you read that right.

Shiver of excitement

But what to do with the stock? Being totally flummoxed, I asked Facebook and immediately got nothing-short-of-inspiring answers from my friends Heather and Adri: risotto.

I’m just gonna let that sink in for a minute.

Ok, are you better now? Because I certainly felt as though I had been taken by a case of the vapors when I first heard their suggestion. However, I think I’m going to wait until the spring to make it because I can think of nothing better than fresh in-season asparagus to go into the risotto with my favorite fowl.

So what to do in the meantime?

I thought about putting it in a soup: something simple that would really let the stock shine. Perhaps a cream-less potato-leek soup? That certainly sounds amazing! But what could I do if I wanted to expand beyond soup?

Duck pot-pies! Poach up some duck in the duck stock and then use it to make the gravy that goes in the pie — glorious, yes? And we all know that the crust is easy to make (if you have the right recipe that calls for some vodka), but really good fat makes for really good pastry…

You see where I’m going with this, right? It’s only logical:

Duck-fat pie-crust! YESSSSS!

I did a bit of research, and of course, I’m not the first one to think of this (Exhibit A | Exhibit B). It turns out that duck fat is excellent in pastry, producing a wonderfully flaky and flavorful crust. Which means…

It’s on like Donkey Kong.

I simply can’t wait to do this. You know you’ll be hearing from me when I get an opportunity to get into the kitchen and go bananas!

Dec 092012

Turkey soup!

If you’re like me, when you’re cleaning up after Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey carcass (with plenty of bits of meat still clinging to the bones) starts to look a lot like opportunity. I am loathe to ever throw away any animal bones: you can make too many delectable things with them (well, really, I’ve only ever made stock with the bones, but you can make so many things with the stock that it totally counts).

I’m also well-known for not thinking that turkey sandwiches are the bee’s knees. Given left-over turkey, there are several other things that I’d rather make with it, and one of them is soup! I have such a proclivity to it and The Hubs has such a proclivity for the sandwiches that we have always ended up in turkey-turf-wars about how the leftovers are going to be used. Not being possessed of two ovens but still needing to make several sides while the sacrificial bird is cooking, we grill our turkey so the birds we buy have to be relatively small so that it can fit on our Weber — hence, there’s not enough turkey to go around for both of our needs and strife ensues. This year, I avoided marital turkey-drama by buying two birds. I was so proud of myself for coming up with a solution to the problem, but then I went and shot myself in the foot by discovering turkey pot-pies, creating yet another need for large amounts of turkey. What’s a cook to do? And don’t you dare suggest I buy yet another bird: it’s not that it’s madness, it that there isn’t enough room in our cooler to brine three of them!

So, without any further adieu, I present a recipe for turkey soup, which is something my family has been making ever since I was a wee one. Like most soups, the ingredient list is more of a suggestion than a rule. It’s also slow-cooker friendly, which we found to be very welcome this year, since, well, y’know how on Thanksgiving Friday you don’t want to cook at all? Well, I kinda screwed that one up big-time by experimenting with the pot-pies, so come Saturday we really super-mega didn’t want to cook, but luckily I had slow-cookered up a big batch of this the night before. Victory, “turkey soup” is thy name.

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Nov 282009

Ok, seriously – does anyone actually cook the day after Thanksgiving??? Who isn’t sick of the inside of their kitchen by then? And aren’t the contents of your refrigerator quick to take away any reason for one to turn on the stove (except to reheat leftovers, of course)?
Well, I’ll admit it: I wasn’t as kitchen-adverse this Friday as I have been in the past.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to actually cook anything for lunch. The last thing I wanted was a plain turkey sandwich – I was craving something healthy (no surprise there, given the gluttony that took place the day before) and even though my Thanksgiving table is laden with far more veg than most (without having to resort to green bean casserole! Boo-yah!), I didn’t want to just nosh on leftovers. I’m all about re-inventing last night’s food whenever I get a chance, and when I spied the unused greens in my fridge that didn’t quite get turned into a salad with poached pears, candied nuts, gorgonzola, and homemade balsamic vinaigrette, I had my inspiration.

I scooped the spinach into a bowl, tore off chunks of turkey breast, added some leftover roasted butternut squash, topped it off with some juicy pomegranate seeds and toasted pecans, and finished it with a drizzle of shallot-cacao nib vinaigrette that had graced the roasted squash the night before.

Chances are you don’t have those exact ingredients on hand the day after Thanksgiving unless you stole my menu, but no worry, there are plenty of ways to make your own. Try using homemade cranberry sauce instead of pomegranate seeds or perhaps some roasted Brussels sprouts or cauliflower instead of the squash. The point is that you’re only limited by your imagination. Unless you’re like me and you’ve already transformed your turkey leftovers into a steaming pot of delicious soup, chances are you still have plenty of food on hand with which to make your own creation. So go nuts and go fix yourself a salad while you’re waiting for me to get to the really good stuff: the Thanksgiving menu, plenty of food porn, and bread that flowed continually from the oven!

Who would eat a turkey sandwich when this beautiful and delicious gem was an option?
Nikon D50
Nov 072009

By now, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m very much a make-your-own-ingredients sort of cook. It’s not hard to notice that one of my very favorite homemade ingredients to have on hand is chicken stock – it’s extremely versatile and oh-so-flavorful. A lot of cooks, though, haven’t been properly introduced to the joys and benefits of real chicken stock and so they continue to take a shortcut or two, buying insipid broth in aseptic packaging, not fully realizing what they’re missing. So, in this entry, I’m going to try to rectify that.

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Aug 282009

Ain’t life grand when you have the luxury of throwing a pizza in the oven on a Friday night? And isn’t it even better when that pizza is homemade? We definitely hold by that line in our house.

Kneading the dough
Nikon D50

I’ve always eschewed the line “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pizza” (quit rolling your eyes, I know that comes as no surprise whatsoever if you’ve even spent two minutes reading this blog) and I take great joy in making every component for my pizza that I can. Really, it’s the only way you know you’re going to get a good one.

A fresh harvest of basil from the garden
Nikon D50

I love to use pesto as a base for pizza, especially in the summer. Few things give me more pleasure than shearing my basil plants (Fred has recovered from his confined-to-a-pot days and is loving all the room he has to stretch his roots, for those of you who had met him when he wasn’t looking so hot), bringing the green stuff inside, and pulling the leaves off the stems. It fills the kitchen with a wonderful aroma!

Whole unpeeled garlic cloves toast on the stove
Nikon D50

The only problem with fresh pesto is that it’s really easy to overdo it on the garlic, especially if you’re like me and habitually triple – at a minimum – the amount of the tasty stuff called for in a recipe. Luckily, I ran across a technique with which you toast the unpeeled garlic cloves on the stove to mellow out that bite it’s known for. It works like a charm and I no longer have to work about whether or not I’m going to OD on garlic. You just have to make sure to toast up enough so that you have extra to put on top of the pizza!

It's done!!!
Nikon D50

The only thing left to do is to load it up with other high-quality ingredients. Once you’ve done all of this, you’ll have created a pizza night to remember!

It's done!!!
Nikon D50

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Mar 152009

I’ve really been grappling with what to call this particular recipe. In fact, my indecision has been so crippling that it’s prevented me from posting this dish for close to two months. For all intents and purposes this is a chicken salad, but the last thing I want you to think of when you hear the title is mayo-and-egg-laden typical chicken salad because this bears about as much resemblance to the American picnic classic as, well, a nice Cabernet to Boone’s Farm.

So for lack of inspiration (I guess I used all my inspiration on actually developing the recipe) I have dubbed it Not Yer Mama’s Chicken Salad. Like I said, you won’t find mayo or relish or eggs here. Rather, you’ll find a tangy, refreshing, and light mustard and kalamata olive dressing over marinated chicken, complemented by texture provided by napa cabbage and radicchio. Stuff it in a warm pita, serve it atop a bed of lettuce and wild rice, put it aside pita chips as a dip, or, possibly best of all, serve it in between two slices of homemade olive-rosemary bread. Whatever you choose, prepare to take your taste buds on a adventure!

Spilling out of the pita, begging to be eaten
Nikon D50

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May 192008

If you’ve yet to foray into the world of Indian cuisine, chicken tikka masala is a good guide for first-timers. There are many aspects of it that are familiar and comfortable to a Western palate (like chicken and rice) but with a decidedly Eastern bent. And by Eastern bent, I mean wonderfully aromatic and fragrant rice, and a richly spiced, yet not spicy, warm sauce for the chicken. It’s a small wonder that this is the most popular Indian dish in the world, even if it’s not, well, strictly authentic Indian.

A handwritten recipe
Nikon D50

Another fantastic thing about chicken tikka masala is that it requires no special equipment. It would be nice to have a tandoor, but a broiler make an acceptable stand-in. Now if only I could find a good tandoor substitute when making naan… But that’s another story of a less successful foray. For now, stick with the chicken tikka masala and really start using some spices in your cooking!

Chicken tikka masala served atop fragrant basmati rice
Nikon D50

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Feb 242008

I’ve been waiting to post this recipe for quite some time.

You see, you might call this dish Highly Significant.

It’s so significant that I often find myself asking if Cory and I would have gotten married if it were not for this recipe.

It’s one of the first things we ever cooked together, and from the point that we starting smooshing up those tomatoes with our hands, it was painfully apparent that we were meant to be.

Delicious chicken cacciatore
Nikon D50

We still cook up a batch of chicken cacciatore every time we’re together. I thought it was criminal that he didn’t have a copy of the recipe or The Joy of Cooking, so when he moved into his current apartment I bought him a copy the newly released 75th anniversary edition as a housewarming gift. Before I bought it for him I made sure that the recipe hadn’t gotten the axe and was included in that version, but when we brought it home and we inspected it more closely we found that it calls for diced canned tomatoes, not whole tomatoes that you crush with your hands. On that alone, I’ve basically panned the whole edition. It’s not worth buying! Find the 1997 edition! That older recipe helped Cory and I find love, and I who am I to deny anyone else that opportunity by recommending an inferior tome?

Delicious chicken cacciatore
Nikon D50

I’m going to admit upfront: my version of the classic Italian chicken is so not traditional. Every recipe I’ve ever seen and everyone else who’s ever served it to me – including places in Italy – call for chicken parts, not chicken breasts, but when I was first learning to cook I had no clue what the heck a chicken part was. Even if I had been savvy enough, I simply didn’t have the equipment to cut up a chicken and then cook it. So maybe it’s for the best that I’ve bastardized it. I still think it’s delicious, and it has the health benefits of being all-white meat.

Not everything about this recipe is 100% positive though. There is something about chicken cacciatore that makes living alone an especially bitter pill to swallow. This dish is so obviously meant to be cooked with people and then shared with people. That alone explains two of my behaviors: I always call Cory when I’m starting to crush up those tomatoes with my hands and tell him that I wish he was there with me, and whenever I’m cooking for a group people for the first time, this is the recipe I pull out. It’s just too good to not share with others. It’s not just the end result that’s important, it’s the whole process – from the first time you throw the onions and herbs in the pan and the fragrance makes everyone exclaim with delight to the times when the pan is in a long simmer and you can just sit around and enjoy the company of your companions to the first bite of that warm, earthy, wine-herbs-and-tomato chickeny goodness. Nothing says “I care” like chicken cacciatore.

Delicious chicken cacciatore
Nikon D50

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