Monday, June 22, 2015

Using-up Greens: Israeli Couscous With Chicken and Greens

For those of you who live in New England and have gardens or subscribe to a Farm Share, this time of the year is all about greens. MOUNDS and MOUNDS of greens.  Salad greens, bitter greens, kale, swiss chard, and so on.  It comes fast and it comes in plentiful.  I usually plant three 4-packs of lettuce seedlings each year and they all mature at once and threaten to bolt to flower.  Truth be told, I usually end-up giving half away to friends.  However, I'm always looking for recipes for the other half.

This recipe is a good one for those hardier greens that can stand-up to a little cooking like swiss chard, spinach, or kale.  I happened to make it with escarole, a slightly bitter green leaf lettuce in the endive family.  As I've mentioned in the past, it's really popular in soup around here.  However, some nice mature spinach or swiss chard would stand-in nicely.

The bulk of this dish is Israeli Couscous, sometimes called Pearl Couscous.  It's very different from the regular couscous that you're probably used to.  It's basically small toasted pearls of pasta, a little larger than tapioca pearls, and it cooks-up smaller than a baby pea.  Most grocery stores stock it, but if you have trouble finding it, you might try Orzo or Ancini de Pepe.

Israeli Couscous With Chicken and Escarole (or Greens)

Note: I'm going to cross a line here and say that it's okay to use powdered chicken bouillon here.  *GASP*  I know...  This is one of those rare occasions where the salty yellow-colored stuff actually does your dish justice.  However, I've made it with homemade stock and it works just as nicely, if not a little stickier from the natural gelatin.

2-3 large handfuls of greens, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups Israeli Couscous
2 1/4 cups chicken stock
1/2 onion, finely minced
2 medium carrots, sliced thinly
1 medium boneless skinless chicken breast, cubed
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste


1) In a large saute pan that has a lid, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat.  Add cubed chicken and saute until the chicken begins to brown a bit.

2) Add more oil if needed along with the carrots, onions, and a small pinch of salt.  Saute until the vegetables begin to soften.

3) Add the couscous and a more oil if needed.  Stir constantly, sauteing until the couscous is lightly toasted.  It can begin to brown a little, but do not burn it.

4) Quickly add all of the chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, reduce to low, cover, and let simmer about 10-12 minutes.

5) In the last 2-3 minutes of cooking when the liquid is almost gone, add all the greens and cover the pan so they will wilt.  Once they've wilted a bit, stir them into the couscous.  If things start sticking, add a little water to loosen it up.

6) Taste and adjust the seasoning.  Serve immediately.  A good sprinkle of good Parmesan cheese on top of each dish wouldn't hurt.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Easy Weeknight Fish Tacos

A couple of weeks ago, my wife found a recipe online for fish tacos with a mango salsa and asked if I'd make them.  I made mental note of it and pushed it aside, knowing I didn't really need a recipe to turn-out a good fish taco.  Plus, I think it had a couple of odd ingredients I don't normally keep in the house.

Fast-forward to this week when I happened to pick-up a big bag of frozen Tilapia.  My wife went down to the chest freezer for some bread and came back up saying, "Hey, I noticed a lot of fish in there.  Can you make fish tacos for dinner?"  I thought about it, realized I had most of the ingredients, and agreed.  Thus was born this recipe, which we've had two times this week because it's light, refreshing, and rediculously easy to make.

Fish Tacos With Peach Salsa
(Serves 2.  Recipe can be doubled)

Note: I used tilapia because it's cheap and was available to me.  Any mild white fish will work well and probably a few darker ones too.  Use what you like, but you'll have to adjust the cooking time and method to suit the thickness of your fish.  Tilapia is very thin.

2 small Tilapia Fillets
Cajun Seasoning, such as Emeril's Essence
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons cooking oil
sugar to taste
1/2 small tomato, seeded
1 peach, peeled and stone removed
1 teaspoon very finely minced shallot or mild onion
1 lime
1-2 sprigs of parsley or cilantro (optional)
1/2 cup shredded cheddar or jack cheese
1/2 cup shredded lettuce
4 taco-sized tortillas or hard taco shells (corn or flour)

1) Dice the tomato and peach and place in a bowl with the minced shallot.  Add the juice of the lime, and a teaspoon of chopped cilantro or parsley if using.  Stir to combine and taste.   Add salt, pepper, and sugar a little at a time and taste until you like the flavor.  This is personal preference.  Set the salsa aside to marinate.

2) Dry the fish with paper towels.  Sprinkle one side generously with Cajun seasoning and salt (if your seasoning is salt-free).

3) Heat oil in a heavy-bottom saute pan on medium-high.  Place the fish seasoning-side down in the hot oil and allow to cook until dark brown on the bottom and the edges start to crisp.  Don't move the fish around.

4) Once the bottom is crisp, gently flip the fish with a spatula and use your fingers or a fork to guide it so that it doesn't splash the oil.  Continue to cook the other side.  If the other side begins to darken before the interior is done, reduce the heat to low and cover the pan to trap steam.  Slide a knife or fork into the center of the fish to check for doneness.

5) Remove the cooked fish to a cutting board and cut into slices or chunks. It will probably break apart.  Divide among the taco shells.  Top each with salsa (draining-off as much of the liquid as you can), cheese, and lettuce.  Serve.



Monday, June 23, 2014

Baked Beans...Finally!

I have a confession to make.  I can turn-out a Thanksgiving feast for 30 people, bake complex desserts and even dabble in candy-making with great success.  However, I can't for the life of me cook dried beans.

That's right.  Those little suckers, cheaper than chips at a little over a buck a pound and more nutritious than just about anything, stump me every...darned...time.  I've read most of what there is to read on the subject and no matter what I do, they either explode into mush or turn out crunchy in the center after cooking all day long.  Salt, don't salt.  Add a pinch of baking soda.  Pre-soak, or toss them in dry.  Pressure cooker, slow cooker, stove-top.  Doesn't matter...I miss the boat every time.

This is a tragedy, really, because I love me a big 'ole pot of Boston-style baked beans with a summer picnic and opening a can of Bush's or B&M just doesn't satisfy me.  However, I'm pleased to announce that I've finally cracked the code.  This recipe has proven to work for me three times now as I fine-tuned the flavors and I'm happy enough to publish it.

So without further ado...

Boston-Style Baked Beans in the Slow Cooker

1lb dried beans (see head note)
3 cups water
1/4 cup real maple syrup
3 strips bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 cup Bottled BBQ Sauce
1/2 onion, sliced (about 1 cup)

Choosing Beans - My family has traditionally made these with Navy beans, a small white bean.  Sometimes, they're labeled "small white beans".  However, I've also used pink/light-brown pinto beans and canellini beans with great success.  If you like a larger bean, go with it.  You can even mix them.

The Secret - The secret to perfect baked beans for me turned out to be the "quick soak" method described below.  For some reason I can't explain, an overnight soak just doesn't work for me.  Perhaps it's my water or perhaps I'm not using enough water.  I also have had better luck with beans from the Whole Foods bulk bin than supermarket bagged beans.  I suspect it has to do with the age of the beans.  For whatever reason, the quick soak method levels the playing field and it comes out great.

1) Sort through the beans, picking-out any rocks, sticks, or any bean that doesn't look good.  Place into a saucepan with enough water to cover by 1-2 inches.

2) Bring beans to a boil.  Boil exactly 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour.  This is called the "quick soak" method.

3) Drain and rinse the beans.  Add them to your slow cooker.

4) Add the remaining ingredients except for the water to the slow cooker.

5) Add enough water so that it stands 1 to 2 inches above the the beans.

6) Cook covered on low 8 to 12 hours.  Beans should be tender and should have absorbed most of the water, leaving the remaining liquid syrupy.  If all water disappears during cooking, add water a cup at a time.

Note: This can be done on high instead of low heat, though in my experience the results aren't the same.  It will likely still take at least 6+ hours to cook and the beans are more likely to split.  Also, the sauce won't get quite as syrupy as if you'd done them on low.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Taking The Internet With a Grain Of Salt

As a trained scientist (of sorts) and someone who spends a great deal of time reading and writing about food, I get frustrated when I see things on Facebook and other social media that are half-truths, junk science, and just generally bad information.  People are so quick to forward stuff on when they see something they haven't heard of before that sounds reasonable that they forget to stop and ask themselves, "Does this really make sense?  Maybe I should look this up to see if it's true before I forward it on to my friends?"

The thing about the Internet is that it's more or less a completely open publishing platform.  Anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone and an Internet connection can set-up a free blog and zoom!  You have yourself a web page.  After all, that's how I got started.  I think most people have the best of intentions...they really believe the information they're putting out there.  However, they sometimes leave scientific backing in the dust at the expense of spreading their beliefs.

Recently, I happened upon a web page with a video bearing an accusatory headline such as, "Look what happens when you mix Coke with milk!  You'll never drink Coke Again!"  The embedded video depicted a guy pouring a little milk into a fresh bottle of Coca Cola soda.  He let it sit for a period of time and when he came back, the milk and most of the brown color had settled to the bottom and solidified, leaving a clear brownish liquid on top.  It wasn't said, but the implication was obviously, "Ewww...look what this stuff does to milk.  Imagine what it's probably doing to your body."

Folks, this is what I like to call, "Appealing to the Ick Factor."  There's absolutely no scientific background to support that conclusion, but the creator of the web page dumped that video on there, added a few carefully worded sentences to lead you where they wanted you to go, and let you take it the rest of the way.

To prove my point, let me show you a video I found on Youtube.



Around the 1:50 mark, you'll notice he adds vinegar to the milk and the milk solids begin to separate out from the whey.  Those milk solids become the ricotta cheese.  Sound familiar?  That's because it is.

It's no secret that Coca Cola is extremely acidic.  When you mix milk and soda, the same thing happens as with cheesemaking.  The milk solids separate from the liquid and float to the bottom of the bottle.  Because Coke also contains lots of caramel coloring and other ingredients, those too mix with the solids, making the cheese at the bottom brown and leaving the whey brownish as well (and probably incredibly sweet from all the sugar that's also there).  That's right.  The demo showed a guy making "Coke Cheese."  It's probably not very tasty.

Now I'm not saying soda is exactly a health food.  It's certainly not and we can talk at length about empty calories and limiting sugar and sodium intake and High-Fructose Corn Syrup and a whole host of other health concerns when it comes to soda consumption.  But mixing two liquids together and getting a chemical reaction doesn't allow us to draw the conclusion that either of the two liquids is inherently poisonous.  If you believe that, then put down that mozzarella stick right now!

What I'm saying is think before you share.  There are a lot of reputable sources on the internet that are only a Google search away.  There are even entire sites dedicated to proving and disproving common myths and forwarded internet claims like snopes.com and truthorfiction.com.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Using-Up What You Put-up

Last spring, I canned a jar of pickled garlic scapes.  They're a little too garlicky for my tastes eating straight-up, but I've found they add a nice mild garlicky vinegary crunch to sautéed dishes like this frittata we had for dinner tonight.


They almost taste like green beans with a whole lot more flavor.