Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Butternut squash croquettes, Part II

The first time I posted these, I mentioned that the squash "meatballs" were a little wetter than you might be used to making meatballs or crabcakes. Then it occurred to me -- hey, maybe we don't really need the egg here. And vegans wouldn't want the egg. So I tried leaving out the egg. No problem. The squash is plenty moist. In fact, mashed squash would probably work just fine as a substitute for egg and oil in some recipes, as long as the egg wasn't needed for leavening in a baked good.

So, all you really you need:
about 3 cups of cooked squash cubes, preferably roasted. Mash it.
one-fourth of an onion, chopped fine, or a shallot, minced. I had leftover onion, so I used it. If you really hate onion (and you know who you are), leave it out. Maybe you would put in finely chopped celery? I dunno.
olive oil
other seasonings: I used paprika and a dash of cayenne pepper.
Crackers, smashed to crumbs. I will say it again: Use crackers that you like to eat. I used some fairly highly seasoned ones, because that's what I had, and am likely to always have. They are Trader Joe's "Bite Size Everything Crackers ( with garlic, onion, sesame, poppy and caraway seeds). If I were using a bland cracker, I would season the cracker crumbs, maybe more paprika, pepper, garlic powder.

If you have cooked the squash earlier and refrigerated it, put it in a bowl on the counter for 30 minutes or so, so it gets closer to room temperature. That's mostly for comfort, because you will be getting your hands in there.

Make the cracker crumbs. I think I forgot to say before that when you put the crackers in a zipper plastic bag, close it most but not all of the way and squish as much air out as you can before closing it and start rolling the crackers to make crumbs. Otherwise you will have a stupid pillow of air in your way. But I remember that I said an empty wine bottle works as well as a rolling pin, and it does! Just roll across the bag until you have a bag of cracker crumbs. You can re-use the bag and keep leftover crumbs. If you don't use crumbs a lot, keep them in the freezer.

Mash the squash. I still think a sturdy fork works best. I tried a potato masher, which kind of works, but I still had to get out my fork. Of course you could use a blender or food processor, but then you'd have something else to clean, wouldn't you?

Add the onion/shallot and stir with the fork. Make sure your hands are clean and get in there and smush it around some more. Start rolling into balls about 1-1/2 inch around. Meatball size, you know?

Pour some of the cracker crumbs into a bowl and roll the squash "meatballs" one at a time around in the crumbs. You might have to use one hand to roll them, or you might perfect the technique of rolling the bowl around until the squash croquette is coated. No big deal either way. (Another method is to drop them into the plastic bag of crumbs and shake until coated. Downside, however, is that you can't keep those crumbs until next time, as they are tainted now and might start growing nasty things. I'd rather wash a bowl -- it goes in the dishwasher anyway -- and be able to re-use the plastic bag. Your call. )

I ended up with 18 croquettes. You might get a few more or less. No big deal.

Heat about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet, preferably cast iron, and get it pretty hot. Add about half of the croquettes, one at a time, making sure there is plenty of room between them, because you will need to roll them around to brown all sides. But not yet. Let them brown for at least 30 seconds before you touch them. Then roll them 1/4 way, wait, and again. Until they are brown all around. Then do the next batch. (You might have to add more olive oil before adding the next batch -- I did. If you do, let the oil get hot before trying to cook in it.)

OK, that's it. I didn't even try to dress these up with a green and red vegetable and/or fruit because -- it's SQUASH. It is what it is. It's already good for you. The only fat is olive oil, and maybe whatever is in the crackers. And according to the label, that is 0 transfat and 0 saturated fat. Just some poly- and mono- saturated. 1 gram per serving of poly, 4 grams per serving of monosaturated fat. I used maybe 2 servings of crackers for all 18 croquettes, which would easily serve four people. Plus at the most 4 Tablespoons of olive oil, total, for all 18.

You could serve as an hors d'oeuvre, or with pasta, or with a salad. I kind of like them as a late-night snack. And I'll bet you've never thought of squash as a late-night snack before.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Butternut squash -- new tip

In a previous recipe for roasted squash seeds, I wrote that there was really only one way to get a squash ready for cooking, which was to cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. The implication is that you would then season and bake the squash halves and scoop the cooked squash out of the rind. For butternut squash, at least, there is an alternative, so I stand corrected!

Well, you do have to scoop out the seeds and the stringy slimy bits, but I was just watching a Jacques Pepin show on PBS during which he explained that even before you cut the butternut squash (which has a fairly thin rind compared to others) you can use a good peeler and peel the rind off -- but you have to make about three passes. The first one takes off the tan part, but you really want to peel off the lighter yellow part and get down to the bright orange part.

You still have to cut it up and take the seeds out, but this does let you have nice chunks of raw squash in case you want to do anything along those lines. I made soup with some (it's already in the freezer, sorry, forgot to take a picture) and roasted some. I may end up mashing the roasted pieces anyway, but the chunkiness does present other possibilities.

But even Jacques did say that the easiest thing to do with squash is to cut in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and bake it the way I did previously, with salt, pepper, and maybe a little butter or olive oil.

One other note: You really need to be careful chopping squash because it is both round and slippery. Not to mention sturdy, so a flimsy knife won't, if you will pardon the expression, cut it. Make sure your knife is sharp so you aren't trying to use too much force. It's very difficult to use the trick of cutting one slice off a side to give it a flat edge to sit on -- it really wants to roll, but because of its shape and tenacity, it's hard to carve off a lengthwise slice. Instead, cut it in half or thirds or fourths crosswise, which gives you the flat edge. Just turn the pieces up on end, flat side down. And do keep your fingers well out of the way! I put both hands on top of the knife and gently rock it through.

It just occurred to me that next time I buy a butternut squash, I could peel it, quarter it crosswise and seed it, and run it through the mandolin to make slices, like cottage fries. Could be interesting.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bay scallops gratin

(for two portions, obviously)

1 shallot (or half of a really big one. Could sub onions, leeks), chopped fine
1/2 pound bay scallops
about 1/3 of a can of diced tomatoes, drained
two good handfuls of crackers, crushed -- use crackers that you LIKE. I don't usually even have saltines in the house, but if you like them, OK. These were a savory snack cracker.
parmesan or peccorino cheese (or your choice)
leftover baby spinach from last night or any other leftover cooked green veg, if you wish.

I happen to have individual size ceramic gratin dishes (four inches across), but you could use one slightly larger one or a small casserole dish. If you were lucky enough to buy scallops with the shells, the (clean) shells can be your baking dish, or so I'm told.

Preheat oven to 350.
In a skillet, sweat the shallot. Add the tomatoes to thoroughly heat. Salt and pepper, and any other seasoning you feel like. I kept this pretty simple.

If you haven't already, put the crackers in a zipper plastic bag and go medieval on them. I like to use a rolling pin or an empty wine bottle.

Grate or sliver the cheese.

Turn off the heat and toss in the scallops, just to introduce them to everybody.

Put the spinach or whatever in the gratin dishes or small casserole. Spoon in the scallop mixture. put a handful of crumbs on each. Put the cheese on top. Into the oven they go.

Time will depend on the size of the dishes, but watch 'em. The scallops cook really fast, so by the time the cheese and crumbs have browned as much as you want (note that parmesan doesn't really melt, but it does turn brown and crispy; don't let it burn), they're done.

I garnished with a wee bit of basil, which tastes great stirred in with the tomato.

I also added, at the last minute, a dash of smoked paprika.

The little baskets came with the gratin dishes. Aren't they cute? They also are good insulation, because the dishes will be hot! In fact, you could let them sit long enough to eat a salad and the scallops will still be hot.

You could start by frying a piece or two of bacon and and adding the shallots and tomatoes to that. I am trying to be good. But that would taste great!

Bay scallops

So one of the things I love about living on the East Coast is the seafood. Especially when I get to shop during the day on Fridays. Today, I had many choices. I love sea scallops, although they were $12.99 a pound. I usually buy them for less. Bay scallops, the little 'uns, were $5.99 a pound, but still wild-caught, so I decided to go for them.

This is not the "new frugality." This is the old frugality.

Even $5.99 a pound sounds like a lot, until you remember that there is no fat, no skin and no bone. Purest protein. A quarter of a pound of bay scallops really is enough for one serving, especially if you make it with:

--A sliced beet or two (from before, remember?)
--spinach, preferably tender baby leaves
--a shallot (or half of a big one, which is what I used)

While you are getting the water boiling for the pasta, (salt the water) chop the shallot. Also wash the spinach. Mine came in a bag that said "triple washed." I washed it anyway -- it's only as good as the last person who washed it.

Slice the beet and put it on a plate. Add the spinach. Douse them with vinegar (I used balsamic, but anything would really do) and sprinkle a leetle bit of sugar and salt on 'em. They will marinate while other things cook, and that's a good thing.

Much as I love my cast-iron skillet, I hauled out my stainless steel skillet for this, although, truthfully, the cast-iron one has enough age on it (seasoning) to handle this. But they say use non-reactive, so I did.

When the water is boiling, put in the pasta. I'm assuming you are working with dried pasta, which takes a while. If you have made fresh pasta, wait a while because fresh pasta cooks in a couple of minutes. I would wait until the pasta is almost done before cooking the scallops, so they don't overcook.

Heat the skillet on medium with about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chopped shallot.

When the shallot is translucent and maybe even starting to brown a little, add the bay scallops. Salt and pepper, paprika. Stir. Oh, I added a sliced golden beet, which turned kind of bright reddish orange, on one side of the skillet. Didn't want to falsely colorize the scallops. Add maybe a splash of white wine. They will cook in literally two minutes. (Sea scallops would take four or so.) Turn the heat off.

When the pasta is done, drain and put the pasta on top of the spinach. Then put the scallops/shallots on top of that.

Eat. I ate all the scallops and most of the beet and some of the spinach and pasta, and I have leftovers to start with tomorrow.

I had actually grated some parmesan and decided I didn't want it. What is happening to me? Choosing not to add cheese? This was really good without it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Oyster stew with leeks

It's cold. It's oyster season. It's time for oyster stew. Lots of ways to make it. Here's what I did:

2-3 leeks
2 small potatoes or a big one, cut in pieces and microwaved for 3 minutes. Or you might have some leftover baked or boiled potatoes. Good deal for you.
1 pint oysters
2 T butter
1 T olive oil
3 T flour
Milk, about 1 cup
salt, pepper
paprika (GOOD paprika, not old dead stuff that has no flavor. Taste it. Really.)
cayenne pepper
up to 1 cup of chicken stock (or water, or you could use more milk)
whole wheat bread for toasting, or oyster crackers or .... your call
cutting board and knife
1 big saucepan
a fork
a spoon
a stick blender if you have one, but it is optional

First, let me say that I often make this with onions and celery, but I happened to have leeks, which I love anyway. And no celery today. The leeks kind of do double duty.
Second, let me say that oyster stew is really good if you make it with whole milk or even some or all cream. I don't keep either on hand and rarely buy either. I figure skim milk + butter + olive oil = whole milk, at least. And then for thick, creamy texture, I have the potatoes. We'll get to that.
Clean and chop the leeks. (See earlier recipes; ok, short version: cut off the roots and the green leaves and just cut the white parts in half and spread the layers open so you can rinse really well under the faucet.)
Put the oil and butter in the big saucepan over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the leeks. Salt and pepper. Cook them slowly until tender -- the fat should barely be making a sound, so you might have to turn down the heat. This should take at least 5 minutes, maybe more.
When the leeks are soft but not browning, add the flour and stir well with the fork or spoon and keep cooking for a couple of minutes. Yes, this is a roux. If you have turned the heat down, you might need to turn it back up, but really only to medium.
Start adding the milk very slowly -- 1/8 cup at a time -- while stirring. You should see it thickening (because of the roux) before you add the next round. Keep stirring. When all the milk is added, cook until the mixture is thickish and bubbly.
If you don't have a stick blender and don't want to haul out your blender, just mash and bash the potatoes with a fork. Otherwise, you can hit 'em with the stick now, or later.
Add the potatoes to the soup. If you haven't hit 'em with the stick, do it now, but be careful, as you are working with hot soup! Ditto if you want to pour into a blender. Don't pulverize everything, but the mushed potatoes will make the soup thicker and "creamier" tasting.
If you didn't have oysters, you could stop now, season, maybe add some broth, and have a pretty darned good potato-leek soup.
Add the liquid from the oysters, but don't add the oysters yet.
If you think you need more liquid, and you probably will, add up to a cup of chicken broth or stock. Or water. Or more milk. I like my oyster stew pretty thick, but I used nearly a cup of broth.
Add paprika and cayenne pepper and adjust salt and pepper to taste. I use at least a teaspoon of paprika and two shakes of cayenne pepper, but this is your soup.
If you are making toast, this is the time to turn on the toaster if you haven't already. We're just a couple of minutes away from serving.
Make sure the soup is just barely simmering and add the oysters. They only need a couple of minutes to cook, and it depends on how big they are. They are done when the edges are "ruffled." I fished a couple out so I hope you can see in the picture. (OK, and so I could eat them.) You don't need to cook them long, and shouldn't, because they will get tough.
Confession: I fished out all the oysters for my serving and have a serving of potato-leek soup, sans oysters, for tomorrow. Didn't want to take a chance that the oysters would get tough and bitter. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Waste not, waist not

You may have noticed that most (all?) of these recipes so far have been one-dish dinners, at least by the time they get assembled. Yeah, I had to use a separate saucepan to boil the eggs or make the couscous or pasta, for example. But mostly, it all goes together, rather than a hunk of meat in one pan and a little pan of veggies cooking separately.

That's only partly because I'm lazy and don't want to wash a bunch of pans if I can avoid it.

It's partly because I'm trying to plan most of my dinners by thinking first about the vegetables and then about the protein. For one thing, I eat more vegetables that way! And when you think about it, there is a lot more variety in vegetables than in protein. You've got your beef, pork, chicken, lamb, fish, eggs, cheese and vegetable proteins such as soybeans. But the list of vegetables goes on and on and on, literally from asparagus to zucchini. It's fun to pick out "what looks good today" at the supermarket and plan the meal around that.

Also, cooking for one or two portions makes it less practical to make, say, a roast beef or even a roast chicken. Not that I don't do that occasionally, but there are all those leftovers to deal with. I try to be creative there, and I do use my freezer, but I seem to waste less food if I cook fresh.

I'm also wasting a lot less produce this way. I used to have to throw out a lot of produce that I thought looked good at the time but didn't quite get around to cooking in time. By focusing on the veggies, I use them in time.

And I do tend to keep some key proteins around, like smoked salmon, prosciutto, sausage (freezes well, and can be thawed one link at a time as needed), eggs, cheese. Although I haven't used any yet, I also have a few cans and pantry pouches of things like chicken, salmon and tuna. Those are for emergencies! A lot of the proteins I do buy are easy to get in one or two portions, such as a filet of fish or a half-pound of scallops or a couple of chicken breasts, or to divide into portions at home such as the sausage links. And they are also easy to cook in my modified stir-fry method.

And of course the pantry is full of grain products, from wild rice to pasta to couscous to quinoa (KEEN-wah -- we'll get to it some day). And whole-grain toast is a favorite of mine. There's usually a loaf of whole-grain bread on the counter and another in the freezer.

I'm also lucky to now have a superb grocery store right around the corner from my office and another one right on the way home from work, so it is easy to stop and grab one or two ingredients that I've just realized I need for my next creation. I like to buy things like fish and seafood the day I'm going to use them, or at most the night before.

OK, and here's the fun part: Without actually trying -- other than by cooking this way -- I have lost 7 pounds! It's the veggies.

I've often seen the tip that you should pretend to divide your plate in half, and half of it should be filled with veggies (and fruit), one quarter with grains and one quarter with protein. With a lot of these meals, that's just kind of the way it worked out, or at least, over time, that's how it divides up.

The other thing I've noticed is that because I am taking pictures of everything, I am very conscious of wanting the plate to be colorful. Something red or orange, or both. Something green.
Maybe something yellow. Anyway, at least not all beige or white or brown. I made an exception for the squash croquettes because, well, they are squash, already a veggie. Well, having a more colorful plate pretty much guarantees a more nutritional plate, right? (No, sprinkles on vanilla ice cream do not count.) So whip out your digital camera instead of keeping a food diary. Watch, someone will steal this idea and make a fortune. Just remember, you read it here first.

Can you Beet this?

So easy. So good. Two recipes for the price of one if you buy beets with the tops on.

In fact, if you buy beets with the tops on, you have actually purchased three vegetables. We'll bake the beet root, which is good for slicing/cubing for another day. We'll strip the leafy parts off the stems and cook like kale or other greens. And the stems, or ribs, get chopped like celery and cooked pretty much like it, too.

The only real issue is keeping the beet juice from staining anything that you don't want stained. Glass, glazed porcelain and stainless steel are good bets. Your best dish towels, not so much. Your clothing -- well, wear the same kind of thing you would paint a bookshelf in, and you'll be fine. Or wear a good apron. I have gotten away with wooden cutting boards when I washed them IMMEDIATELY before the beet juice had a chance to make itself at home. Just be warned.

Speaking of which, if you don't habitually eat beets, you may be surprised on your next trip(s) to the bathroom. Do not panic. Do not call 911. It's the beets.

1) Beet green salad with Italian sausage (or you could use bacon -- I happened to have one link of Italian sausage left in the fridge).

I used:
leaves and ribs from 6 beets. Well, I saved half of the ribs for later.
2 eggs (saved about half of one for later)
1 link of Italian sausage (or you could use maybe 3-4 strips of bacon)
about half a cup of chopped onion leftover from a previous chopping venture; you could use shallots, leeks, whatever
salt, pepper, a little dill seed -- whatever you like
vinegar: I used about 1 T of balsamic and at the end, a little splash of pear-infused white vinegar
a smattering of squash seeds that I still had kicking around
1 clementine (yep, still have some)

You could also add just about any other veggie: mushroom; bell pepper; carrot. You could even put in snow peas or fresh young green beans. But it is easy to overdo and end up with too much!

If you want hard-boiled egg(s) in your salad, it's a good idea to do them first or at least start them first. Put the eggs in the water and bring to a boil. When they are boiling, turn the heat off and cover. Wait a few minutes; they will keep cooking but won't get overcooked. Then peel when you get a chance, usually when other things are cooking. You will probably want to drain out the still hot water and run them under cold water.

You will want a big pot for this so that the beet tops will fit in later. I used my cast-iron Dutch oven. A stock pot would also work. If you don't have a big pot, you might have to work in batches.

Heat the pan and add about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil.

Squeeze the sausage out of the casing into the pan. Add the chopped onion. Let them cook on medium until the sausage is brown. Meanwhile:

If the beets are muddy, rinse them off. Cut the tops off the beets, leaving about 1/4 to 1/2 inch to keep the beets from bleeding too much. We'll deal with cooking the root parts later.

Cut the green leafy part from the "stem" part, put in a colander or sieve and rinse well. Tear up into pieces to make them easier to eat later, maybe about half the size of your hand. They will wilt down when cooked, though, so they don't have to be teensy.

Chop the stems like celery, in pieces about 1/2 to 3/4 inch long. Add them to the sausage and onion.

If you are adding other veggies, this would be when.
Add salt, pepper, any other seasoning.
If the sausage isn't producing much fat, you might need to add a little more oil, especially if you are cooking a lot more veggies.

While that cooks, you should have just enough time to peel and slice the eggs and take apart the clementine.

When the beet ribs, etc., are hot and tender (taste one!) without being soggy, throw in the leafy parts and toss to make sure they get some of the fat/butter/oil. Add some vinegar. The greens take only a minute or two -- just check to see how they are doing. You don't want them soggy, just wilted a little. I often turn the heat off, stick a lid on and let the pan's heat take care of the greens, but then, I use cast iron, and it holds heat really well. Taste one of the beet greens. You might need to add a pinch of sugar or otherwise adjust the seasonings.

Plate up. This is where I added just a dash of the pear-infused vinegar. You could add a salad dressing if you are into that, but the oil and vinegar have actually already turned into a vinaigrette, you know.

Other options:
You can chop an apple. Or throw in some raisins or dried cranberries, or some grapes or orange slices. The sky's the limit! Croutons? Why not? Slivered almonds? Smoke 'em if you've got 'em. Leftover chicken or ham? Yum. Cheese? Double-yum. Gorgonzola? Oh, man.

The point is that the beet greens need to be cooked a little to tenderize them; after that, you're making a salad-bar salad, so anything goes. Anything you like, that is.

2) Beets, themselves. OK, this is soooo hard.
Scrub off any dirt. Cut off any stringy, rooty things. Don't peel the beets. If you are fussy, you can do that after they are cooked. Me, I don't bother.

Put the beets in a Pyrex or glazed porcelain baking/casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover tightly. If the dish doesn't have its own cover, make one with aluminum foil and pinch it down around the dish so it is pretty well sealed. Bake (you don't have to preheat, but it doesn't hurt) at 350 until a fork goes in easily. (You can poke the fork right through the foil.) This will depend partly on how many beets you are cooking but mostly on how big they are. The more you poke, the more beet juice will run out, so I wouldn't even start jabbing until 45 minutes unless I had baby beets (smaller than a ping-pong ball).

When they are done, you can just let 'em cool and refrigerate, if you like beets plain, which I do. Or, you can slice or cube them, move them to another dish that has a lid (not plastic unless you don't mind the staining and definitely not the dish that is hot from being in the oven, unless you know it won't crack from the temperature difference), add a splash of vinegar (I like raspberry vinegar for this) and a scant sprinkle of sugar if you wish. Toss or stir or shake. Eat. Or put in the fridge.

These are a great, colorful addition to a salad, but it is best to add them at the last minute so the color doesn't spread too much.

Or you could make borscht. (Maybe tomorrow.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rockin' sweet potato with Italian sausage

As pictured, this is made with the dried cranberry variation and the Italian sausage variation (see below) because it is what I had on hand. This is obviously a very versatile dish, in that many substitutions are possible. You mostly need:
A sweet potato
Some member of the onion family
Candied ginger (although I'm sure you could use other forms of ginger; I always have candied ginger.)
Some form of dried fruit, preferably of a contrasting color
salt, pepper and any other seasoning of your preference

and, as a meal, some form of pork product. Or not. Maybe a different protein? You might have to cook, and serve, it separately. Pork likes sweet potatoes, and vice versa.Chicken or fish might be a little weird, but I promise to experiment. If you are a vegetarian, don't quote me on this, but I think sweet potatoes and just about any grain, such as couscous, work as a complete protein, but you might have to throw in some sunflower seeds or something. Check your copy of "Diet for a Small Planet." I gave mine away.

The narrative:
I've outgrown candied sweet potatoes, especially the kind with marshmallows on top. But I've developed a sweet-and-sour-and-spicy version that I can make a meal of. And it's really, really quick. Rachel Ray, watch out.

This recipe serves two as a side dish, one as a meal, two as a meal with couscous.
Equipment: skillet or sauté pan with lid (or foil), potato peeler, utility knife, cutting board, measuring cups and spoons (or your hand). You can eyeball this one and do it to your own appetite and taste buds.

One smallish sweet potato, 6 to 8 ounces (about 5 inches long)

half of a small onion, diced or chopped, about 3 ounces. You know what? Let's call that a handful.

a handful -- about 1/4 cup -- crystallized ginger in small pieces, about pea-sized -- if the kind you get are in bigger chunks, take a knife or scissors to them. If you are having trouble with them being sticky, dip the knife/scissors in really cold water from time to time. This is a small enough quantity that it probably won't be an issue.

a handful -- 1/4 to 1/3 cup -- dried tart cherries, Montmorency preferred OR dried cranberries
Pantry note: I always keep some dried cherries/cranberries and some ginger in the house. They are good in many, many things. I am not a big fan of raisins, but they would work in a pinch.

1/2 teaspoon salt (or to your taste; if making with other ingredients such as sausage, wait and taste when they are all together)

1/2 cup water or so, depending on your pan

a dash or two or three of cayenne pepper (again, check if making with sausage or other spicy food)

three dashes of smoked paprika if you have it; I've made this without it and it is still fine

a splash (about 1 teaspoon) of balsamic vinegar (optional but encouraged)

1 or 2 tablespoons, or less, of your favorite cooking oil -- I use olive oil for this. You may be able to omit if you use the bacon or sausage option below. As pictured, I used sausage and about 1 teaspoon of oil.
The process:

If you are using bacon or sausage, get it going first. That will let it brown before you add any liquid -- no one likes boiled bacon -- and also will help you gauge how much fat is being extracted from the pork product and therefore how much oil you need or don't need to add. You can toss some or all of that meat fat and put in olive oil instead if these things are a concern.

Slice the onion and start to sweat it in the oil, adding a couple of sprinkles of the salt. Peel the sweet potato and slice into "chips" about 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick, like cottage fries. (Hint: slice a thin piece off the side first so the potato won't roll on the board while you slice the rest.)

Add the sweet potato slices to the pan in a single layer and add the water, not to cover the slices but to at least cover the bottom of the pan so you are braising, not sautéing! Give the potato a sprinkle of salt, add the cayenne and paprika and bring to a strong simmer. Add the ginger, cherries or whatever, give 'em a stir, then lower to a gentle simmer and cover with the lid or foil.
In 10-15 minutes, check for doneness: When a table fork just pierces the slices, add the splash of balsamic vinegar and bring back to a strong simmer. When the sweet potatoes are fork tender, you are done. It shouldn't take more than about 15 minutes from the time you put the sweet potatoes in. Keep an eye on the liquid -- it should simmer but if it evaporates, or the dried fruit soaks up too much of the liquid, you might need to add some water or something (wine?) to keep things from burning. You might even need to stir, but probably not.

That's it.
If you don't have or can't find dried tart cherries, or don't like them, substitute dried cranberries. I'm sure dried apricots would also taste good, but they wouldn't provide the contrast in color, and I like that.

Shallots or leeks instead of onion.

Lemon juice or cider vinegar instead of balsamic. Or even Worcester sauce, if that's what you have. Or white wine.

Tabasco sauce instead of the cayenne pepper (and if making with sausage, careful) If you don't want it too hot, just use black pepper instead of cayenne pepper. If you like it hot, use black pepper AND cayenne pepper. Knock yourself out.

Optional additions:
a quarter cup of toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds might be nice
if you like green bell pepper, a quarter cup or so chopped up and sweated with the onions might please you and would certainly look pretty. Me, I'm not a huge fan.

If you can take the cholesterol hit, you can sizzle up a slice or two of bacon, take it out to drain and crumble later, and use the bacon fat as part or all of the fat to sweat the onions. Crumble the bacon back in at the end. I've done it, and it's mighty tasty. And I don't feel too bad about it if I'm eating this as a meal! Or squeeze the innards out of a link of Italian sausage, which is what I did here.

Other suggestions:
I like this by itself or over couscous. You might like it over rice. Couscous is easier to make, especially in a small quantity. See below. (Someday I will have to figure out how to do links to the archives.)

This reheats well in the microwave, if you happen to have leftovers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Squash croquettes

This is, in my opinion, the "killer app" for squash, and for that matter, eggplant or even (sigh) zucchini.

As I said before, the basic way to cook (winter) squash is to split it, scoop out the seeds and make a great snack from the seeds. See below. Even if you don't think you like squash, you should try making the toasted squash seeds.

Then you have to deal with the squash itself. OK, so bake it, cut side up, having sprinkled it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and maybe some smoked paprika. (My version -- whatever spice you want is fine with me, but I personally would avoid any of the pumpkin pie versions, such as cinnamon. Because of what comes later.) There are lots of ways to eat cooked squash. This is my way.

When the squash is really really done, take it out and let it cool a bit. I'm not talking "fork tender" here, I'm talking, well, squishy squash. Spoon it out of the shell, which should be easy. If it isn't easy, put it back in the oven or stick it in the microwave for a minute or three. We're going for pulp here. You should be able to scrape it out of its skin and mush it with a fork into something like mashed potatoes.

The inspiration for this was an eggplant "meatball" I had in Italy. I think they called it something like a papillote. Anyway ...

Chop a scallion or some onion, depending on how much squash you have. I used about a third of an onion, minced very fine. Beat one egg and add. Add the squashed squash, and add some salt and pepper if you think you need to. Add paprika and some cayenne, if you wish. I did.

Roll into balls. They will seem wet, compared with typical meatballs. Not to worry.

Put a handful of crackers (about six saltines or the equivalent -- I used about 10 bite-sized Gorganzola crackers from Trader Joe's, because I had them) into a zipper bag. Squash them (ha-ha!). I like using a rolling pin, but you can do whatever lets out your aggression and creates crumbs. If you have a big squash, you might need to squish more crackers. You might even need more onion and egg. I was going with a medium sized squash.

Put the crumbs into a bowl and, one at a time, toss the squash balls in the crumbs. Use the bowl to roll them around. That is, put one croquette in the bowl and don't touch the croquette, move the bowl itself in a circular motion. You may be amazed how well this works at coating them evenly without getting the coating too thick -- better than trying to coat the squash balls by hand by rolling them in the bowl. Just roll the bowl around and let Nature do its job. As you finish each one, put it on a plate or board to keep handy. You could chill at this point, but these are too good to delay. We're almost done, anyway.

Heat a skillet (you know I love my cast-iron skillet for this) and add some oil. Let your conscience be your guide, but I would use at least 2 tablespoons for this.

When the oil is hot, put in the squashballs, oops, sorry, croquettes.. They will brown quickly, so be there to keep rolling them around every couple of minutes to brown them evenly.

That's it. You could make pasta or something to go with this, but you could serve them as hors 'd'oervres, too. They taste kind of like crabcakes without the crab, which, at some places, is what crabcakes taste like. These are better than that.

Obviously, because the inspiration was eggplant, you could make croquettes like this with cooked eggplant, or (I really hate to say this) even zucchini. And, yes, you could add or substitute any herbs or spices you like.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Toasted squash seeds

Yes, yes, we will get to the actual squash later. There are lots of ways to cook squash. OK, mostly three ways. Bake, grill, saute. Oh, wait, four ways. Microwave. But there is only ONE way to get the squash ready to cook. (I am talking about winter squash here, not, shudder, zucchini. You are not likely to ever find a zucchini recipe on this blog, unless of course I find one that is soooo good ...)

You have to cut it open, usually by cutting it in half, carefully, with your biggest knife, and scoop out the seeds and the gross slimy stringy parts that are attached to the seeds. The gross slimy stringy parts will dry up overnight and you can pick them off more easily. Or you can go ahead right away and roast the seeds and the gross slimy stringy parts will turn crunchy and you can pick them off very easily -- or eat them. Crunchy, they are no longer gross. Kinda good, even.

Put the oven on 350. You could go higher if you are in a hurry, but that would mean you'd really have to watch them. Get out a cast iron skillet or a baking pan -- or, in my case, the cast-iron lid to my Dutch oven that also serves as a griddle. You want something with at least a little bit of a lip to keep the seeds (and the oil you will be adding) from sliding off. You want something big enough that the seeds will only be in one layer. If I were toasting seeds from more than one squash, I would use what is called a jelly roll pan, which is a cookie sheet with a lip around all four sides.

Put in about two teaspoons of olive oil, enough to coat the pan liberally. The oil is there partly for flavor but also to help convey the heat to the seeds and get the seasonings (later) to stick to them, while keeping the seeds from sticking to the pan. You could skip it or cut back, but I'd be careful.
Put in the seeds and whatever slime is still attached to them, stir them around a bit, add salt and pepper and put in the oven.

After 5 minutes, stir.

After another 5 minutes, stir again and pluck out one to taste. Wait! Don't just pop it in your mouth, unless you like a burnt mouth. Let it cool for half a minute. Nope, probably not done yet. But you could weigh your options here and decide if you wanted to add more salt or pepper or garlic powder or paprika or even cayenne. I stuck with the salt and pepper. Note that if you DO want to add more seasonings, it is best to do it while they are hot. But of course you don't want things like paprika and garlic to burn, so you could wait until the last minute when you finally take them out of the oven.
Give 'em another 5 minutes, probably, but peek once in a while. Mine took about 15 minutes total, but it probably depends. If you had let them dry overnight, for example, it would take less time. Also, the cast iron pan takes longer to heat up than, say, an aluminum cooking pan, but then it distributes the heat so nicely afterward.

They are done when they are toasty looking and crunchy but not blackened, unless you are one of those people who likes burnt popcorn. I have nothing to say to you. Look at the picture.
This also works with pumpkin seeds, obviously, because that's really just a kind of squash. It's especially fun to "harvest" the seeds when you are making a jack o'lantern.

And, yes, you can be baking the squash at the same time. Put the cut halves in an ovenproof dish, cut side up, drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper. The squash itself will take longer than the seeds, depending on how big the squash is. Maybe even an hour. But you can munch on the seeds while you are waiting for the main course.
The squash I cooked produced maybe a cup of seeds. I ate half of them before I took this picture. What can I say? They are that good.
You can store them in a zip-lock bag -- oh, who are we kidding? I have no idea how to store them, as the issue has never come up.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Eggplant and leek pasta sauce, or Pat finally conquers eggplant

I knew that eventually I would come to terms with eggplant. It has been a long journey.
I have eaten wonderful dishes with eggplant, especially Thai, Chinese and Italian. But every time I have tried to cook eggplant, it was nasty. Nasty with a capital N.
You must understand that eggplant was not part of my heritage. I don't think that my parents or grandparents ever cooked it, or even grew it in their gardens.
I read. I watched TV shows. I thought I was doing it right. It still tasted nasty. I knew it didn’t have to.
It finally clicked. Here’s how.
First: At the store (thank you Alton Brown) pick out an eggplant that feels at least reasonably heavy for its size. I picked up a few that felt like piñatas. I'm pretty sure they would have tasted nasty no matter what I did. Probably where I went wrong before.
Second: Prep. I know I did this before and it didn't work, but this time it did. Peel the eggplant, slice it, put the slices in a colander or sieve and salt them. I have a wonderful sieve that fits over the sink. But I could have used a colander that fits over a bowl, as long as it wasn't touching the bottom. Give it an hour or so. The idea is to let some of the moisture in the eggplant seep out so it can absorb other things, like olive oil and flavor.
I couldn't help myself. I tasted a sliver of the raw eggplant even before salting it. It tasted like the inner rind of a watermelon -- you know, the part that you don't eat. I was not hopeful. But I gave it the hour. I accepted the idea that this process would help change the flavor.
Then put the slices on a grill or, if it is January like it is now, on your broiler pan and drizzle with copious amounts of olive oil. Let 'em brown. In my broiler, it took 10 minutes on one side, 3 minutes on the second side. That's the photo at at the top.
You can actually stop now and refrigerate, which is what I did. I also tasted the eggplant at this point and decided that, while it tasted completely different from the raw product, it still didn't taste great. And by now, the texture is soft and kind of uninteresting. So at this point, I was thinking, gee, I could put olive oil on bread and put it under the broiler and it would be better than this. Just so you know. Still not a big fan of eggplant. But wait.
The transformation: Put water on to boil for pasta, adding salt, of course. Clean and chop one leek. (See below, I'm not going into that again.) Sauté in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add about half a can of diced tomatoes. (See below for saving the other half, and for that matter, why I use canned tomatoes in January. Short answer: because it is January.) Chop up about six of the slices of eggplant, or about a cup, and add that to the skillet. Smush a clove of garlic, mince it and toss it in. Let that all simmer while you cook some pasta -- you may have to turn the skillet on low, depending on how long it takes the pasta to cook. Drain the pasta, pour the sauce over it. Grab a fork.
I amazed myself by not even adding grated parmesan to this. I mean, you could, and as you know, I usually would, and I even had it ready. I just didn't feel the need. Somehow, the leeks and tomatoes and garlic interacted with the eggplant to make it taste really good. I was amazed. I even repeated the experiment to make sure it wasn't a fluke. It tasted good again.
Also, this reheated really well, even in the truly lame microwave at work.
OK, I showed off for the photo with the Strascinati pasta. But if it looks like flower petals ... and by the way, it’s delicious.

Eggplant: We will see you again.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Strascinati with scallops

Strascinati tricolore with scallops, leeks and tomatoes
Here's a recipe that took longer to write (and maybe to read) than it did to make. For those of you who are experienced cooks, I apologize for the detail. I know you can skip it, though, and I am also writing for people who might not have, say, cleaned a leek before. And it would be very bad if they skipped that part!

A great friend gave me this pasta for Christmas: Strascinati tricolore. It's what you see in the bottom right corner of the picture. I have looked it up, and strascinati seems to mean "stretched pasta." I call it flower-petal pasta, because that is what it looks like to me. It also looks like someone's grandma made a bunch of noodle dough and rolled it out and then stretched pieces of it over her thumb to make these petals of pasta. And although I am sure they now have machines that do that, I'll bet that is how it started.

In addition, it is tricolore -- white, green and orange-red, which is cool because those are the colors of the flag of Italy. Just as if we had red-white-and -blue food, although other than blueberries, most people tend to avoid the blue food, which is just as well.
My friend also suggested that this pasta might be good with scallops. In fact, the very shape of it seemed to say, "I would like to be served with scallops." Round pasta, round protein -- works for me.

So, at the store I bought:
--Leeks (well, you only need one for this)
I had:
--Pasta (and you could use any kind, especially any kind that is in pieces rather than long strands. Lucky me, I had Strascinati)
--Olive oil and/or butter (I made this using only olive oil, as a New Year's resolution. It still tasted great. But as an aside, butter and scallops are really good together.)
--A fourth of a can of diced tomatoes. The "fresh" ones at the store didn't look -- or, more important, smell -- so great, as in not so tomato-y. I will always use canned tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes in lieu of "fresh" tomatoes that taste like -- what is that taste? plastic? packing peanuts?

(An aside about storage: For one or even two servings, I only would use part of a can, and the rest I would be sure to store in a glass container. You could use plastic if you have to, but you know how tomatoes stain some plastic storage containers, and I think they pick up some of the plastic molecules at the same time. I was lucky enough to score some old-fashioned glass "refrigerator" storage containers once at an antique/second-hand store . True, the lids don't seal on, so you can't carry them to work or put them in the freezer, but you CAN see what is in them, which I like. And they don't get stained and they don't let the food inside them absorb plastic. I'm just saying. You could re-use a pickle jar or something.)

--salt, pepper
--Smoked paprika (you don't have to have this, but you should. But it would be good with other herbs or spices, especially, I think, dill. Or basil. It would be a different dish, but it would be good. Scallops are pretty delicate, so I wouldn't use rosemary or something else strong like that But it's your supper, use what you want.)
--White wine. I will always have this on hand. If you don't, or don't want to, I guess you could use chicken broth or even water. It's just to deglaze the pan and make a little sauce. If I were using a non-wine substance, I might add a droplet or two of something acidic, like lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, to counteract the olive oil and/or butter.
--Water. I'm assuming we all have potable water. Wouldn't it be great if everyone did? See to see how you can help. This public service message brought to you by me.

OK, now to cook.
1. Boil water. Put water in a saucepan , add some salt. Trust me, this is the part that takes the longest.
1a. Optional. Open a bottle of white wine if you don't have some leftover.
2. Chop the root and the tough green part off the leek. Wait, don't throw things away yet. Inside the "top," there is still some tender green/white stuff that you can salvage if you strip off the tough leaves. Cut the leek in half lengthwise and wash thoroughly, fanning out the layers inside kind of like pages of a book to make sure you get any mud or sand out. The leeks I am getting now are pretty clean, but you never know. I put the unwanted parts in my compost. I think some people make soup. I tried that once but never ate all the soup, so compost it is. Chop the clean leeks into semi circles that are about 1/4 inch or so wide. Whatever. Don't get out a ruler or anything.
3. Put about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. For this, I use a stainless steel skillet because of what comes later, because I have one, but my well-seasoned cast-iron skillet would also work, because it can take brief periods of wine/acid. Turn heat to medium high.
4. Toss in the leeks.
5. Whenever that water is boiling, which it might be by now, throw in the pasta. I always make too much, but I think about a cup of dried pasta would be plenty for one person, as it swells. I can always think of something to do with leftover pasta.
6. Add some diced tomatoes maybe a quarter or a third of a can's worth, to the leeks. Use some of the tomato liquid, but not too much -- keep it for the next time, in that glass container.
7. Smash and mince a clove of garlic and add to the tomato-leek pan.
8. Check the pasta. No worries. If it is done, strain it and set aside. If not, wait until it is.
9. When the leek-tomato mixture is soft and hot but before it gets even close to crispy, pour it out of the skillet into a bowl. Do not rinse the skillet, but get all the liquid out that will actually pour out. Don't worry about a few droplets.
10. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil (or if you are being really decadent, butter) to the skillet. Yes, there are still remnants of leek and tomato and even a few droplets of juice in there. We want that.
11. Making sure the pan and the oil are nice and hot, put the scallops in. Put salt, pepper and paprika (or whatever herb/spice you are using) on the top. Let them sear on one side. (The remnant sugars from the leeks and tomatoes will actually help brown them. Some people actually put in table sugar to get the brown color. But it is easier, and healthier, to just let the natural sugars do the work.) If the scallops are little, searing might be a minute or even less. If they are really big, maybe three or four. You just have to look at them. Turn them and season the other side. When they are seared on both sides, take them out. Scallops don't need much cooking, and too much cooking makes them rubbery, so err on the side of undercooking. The "carryover" heat may finish what you started. That's one of the reasons to have the white wine, or whatever, ready before you start. Even the time it takes to open a bottle of wine may be just a little too long for the scallops.
12. Pour some white wine or whatever liquid you are using into the hot pan to deglaze. About a quarter to a half a cup. Let it reduce . Yes, you have just made a wine reduction.
13. Put the pasta into the skillet with the wine reduction. Toss it for 30 seconds or so.
14. Plate. Pasta, scallops, tomato/leek/garlic mixture. You can stir them together, or make a do-it-yourself plate, which is what I did for the picture.

If I didn't have luscious sea scallops, I think this would work with many other fish, keeping in mind that I would cook the fish according to its needs, separately from the pasta, and combine them really at the moment of eating or maybe just before.

You may have noticed that, oddly enough for me, I did not even sprinkle this with parmesan or any cheese. You could, but it doesn't need it. Tossing the pasta briefly in the pan with sauce made from the wine and what the French call "fond," which is all those bits left in the bottom of the pan from the leeks, tomatoes, garlic and scallops, was really enough even for me. And I know that some French cooks would have poured in some cream to make a really rich (and delicious, no doubt) sauce. I just didn't feel the need, nor do I keep cream on hand, maybe for that reason!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mac 'n' cheese 'n' eggs pantry supper
OK, this is not exciting, but it is what I had to work with. Coming home after Christmas, I intentionally did not have a lot of fresh food in the house. (And we won't talk about what happened to the rest of the spinach and arugula, okay? At least I have a compost bin. The clementines have, amazingly, survived in the fridge, so I still have to come up with more for them. Later.)
So I made mac 'n' cheese with eggs. Fortunately, the milk was still good, but I do always keep some of that shelf-stable milk in the pantry, so I could have used that. And eggs, especially in the fridge, are good keepers.
I had:
--dried pasta (this happens to be a whole-wheat macaroni. It is smaller than “normal” elbow macaroni. It works. It actually tastes good, not like cardboard that has been in the basement for a while. You may notice that I have for years tried various whole-wheat pastas. They are getting better. )
--cheese (what kind? how much? Answer: Whatever you have. I grated the "butt " ends of some pecorino that were in the fridge. Probably a couple of ounces, but grated, it looked like 3/4 of a cup or so. Grated. Lots of air.)
--V-8 juice (or anything healthy. Not an ingredient, it's a supplement. See below. If you have veggies, fine.)
--seasonings: Salt, pepper, dry mustard, paprika
--crackers, preferably leftover from a party. Six or so big ones, 12 little 'uns. I would not buy crackers just to make this. I would put leftover crackers in a plastic bag in the freezer to use for something like this later. If I had no crackers, I wouldn't cry.

Set the oven to 350.

Boil water, with salt.

Add dried macaroni.

When it is done, drain and set aside.

Put the crackers in a baggie and smash the living daylights out of them. Crumbs is what we are going for here. Aah, that felt good.

Melt 2 T butter in the same pan, medium heat. Stir in 2T flour. Use a wire whisk and be sure it is well combined, which means, get the corners. Add some milk. I can't tell you how much-- but a little at a time, keep stirring. At first you may think it is lumpy. Do not give up. Keep stirring with the whisk. As it thickens, add more milk, a little at a time, up to a couple of cups total. At some point, it may look like you have added too much milk. Don't panic. As it simmers, it will thicken. This is what my grandmother and mother called a white sauce. It is what Julia Child called a Béchamel. Yes, you have just made a Béchamel sauce. See how easy?

When the white sauce is thick, turn off the heat and add some grated cheese, a little at a time, so the sauce itself melts the cheese. Now it is what Julia called a Sauce Mornay. We call it cheese sauce. See how easy? The trick is to grate the cheese and let it melt in the hot Béchamel. If you try to melt huge hunks of cheese over high heat, well, I guess everyone has to do that once. I think it may be how Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber. Learn from the past.

Now, put the macaroni or other pasta into an ovenproof dish (you might want to butter or oil it) and pour the Sauce Mornay over it. Add the seasonings. Maybe stir a bit.

Now, here's the fun part. Break an egg into a saucer or cup. Take a spoon and push the mac 'n' cheese aside a little and pour the egg in. Repeat, for however many eggs you want.

Sprinkle the top with cracker crumbs and dot with a little butter. (optional)

Bake until the eggs are the way you like 'em. I like them pretty darn cooked, but with part of the yolk still soft and still orange, not yellow.

(This is an alternative to adding sliced hard-boiled eggs to a casserole, which also works but then you can't get the soft yolk.)

V-8 juice. Because there are no veggies here, consume with a glass of vegetable or fruit juice. If you have frozen peas and want to, add them to the mac ‘n’ cheese before baking. I, stunningly, was out of frozen peas.

Yes, I could have added yet another ingredient from my pantry, such as dried beef or (gasp) canned chicken, tuna or (double-gasp) Spam, but I really wasn't that hungry. But if I was snowed in, I just might. If my freezer had contained frozen peas, I wouldn't have hesitated to add them, except that as you add more ingredients, you produce, by volume, more leftovers.


About Me

My photo
This is me enjoying a limoncello in Rome on the last night of our trip to Italy. Funny thing is, I don't really like limoncello that much, but thought it would be great in a dessert. And wouldn't you know, The Barefoot Contessa just did a great fruit salad with limoncello. So now I can't. Oh, well.