Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Quick Weeknight Meal: Eggs over Greens

A funny thing happened shortly after we had our first child.  Eggs for Dinner went into weekly rotation.  I'm not just talking about Breakfast for Dinner either.  Eggs are a quick and easy protein and more flexible than just about any meat you can put on your plate.  They're also incredibly cheap.

There are dozens of ways to do dinner eggs.  There's Eggs in Purgatory (simmered in tomato sauce), Eggs over Asparagus, Fritatta, Filled Omelettes, Eggs Benedict, Eggs en Cocotte...the list goes on and on.  But one of my favorites is Eggs over Greens.  In particular, I like to poach or fry them so that the yolk is thick and creamy but still runny and place them over a salad or bed of greens dressed with a vinegary dressing.  When you break into the egg yolk, it runs onto the greens and becomes part of the dressing.

I won't bother with a recipe here, but I will make some recommendations:
  • Try this brilliant way to make poached eggs.  Almost no strings, guaranteed!  There's a video here.  If you're as excited about this as me, watch Kenji do 18 eggs at once using the same method.
  • Make your own Italian Salad Dressing with this recipe.  I recently discovered that you can add a few tablespoons of sour cream to it and make a Creamy Italian Dressing.  Also, it doesn't separate as easily.
  • Try my recipe for Dressing Made from Your Favorite Jam
  • Add some interesting grated cheese to your salad
  • Serve with a side of Cheesy Toast
  • Experiment with different greens.  I like to add a handful of baby spinach or arugula.  Chopped pickled veggies also make a great addition.
  • If you're feeling like you need a little more protein, add a scoop of plain solid white albacore tuna or some boneless skinless sardines packed in oil (which actually taste milder and sweeter than tuna).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Quick Weeknight Grain Bowls

Here in New England, we're heading into that season where vegetables are more plentiful and I tend to over-buy them at the grocery store and farm stands because they look so good.  Then, I get them home and I'm never sure what to do with them, aside from my usual assortment of recipes.  I know I want to eat lighter fare and I want weeknight meals to be fast so I can spend more time enjoying the extended daylight, but sometimes, recipes elude me.

One thing I've been a fan of lately is a grain bowl.  Frankly, grain bowls are (or were?) something of a fad in more urban landscapes, but they're not something I've really seen in my neck of the woods.  My general understanding of them is that they involve a bowl of one or more whole grains piled high with all kinds of healthy-looking things so that they're crunchy, savory, sweet, name it, all at once.  They can be served warm, room-temperature, or even as a refrigerated salad.

This is a version I've been making recently.  It came about partly as a need to use-up some rye berries from a local farm that had been languishing in the back of the pantry, but it'll work just fine with any sturdy grain that cooks in the same amount of time as brown rice.

Brown Rice and Wheat Berry Grain Bowls

Note: This is really more of a method than a recipe.  Feel free to vary the grains or add-ins to your liking.  Just make sure the grains all take about the same time to cook or you'll need to cook them separately.  Grains may be cooked in a regular pan, but will take about 40-45 minutes.

1 cup brown rice, preferably short-grain like "sushi rice"
1/2 cup wheat or rye berries
chicken bullion (optional)
1/2 cup frozen baby peas
various finely chopped raw, blanched, cooked, or pickled vegetables
finely chopped or flaked protein (chicken, fish, etc.)
cooking oil
2 tablespoons of butter (optional - use olive oil if serving cold)
balsamic salad dressing

  1. Rinse the grains and place in the bottom of a pressure cooker.  Add at least 3 cups of water and dissolve bullion in water if using.  Add 1 tablespoon of oil to control foaming.
  2. Cover pressure cooker and bring up to high pressure.  Cook 20 minutes at high pressure.
  3. Quick release the pressure (using cool running water or a quick-release button on your pot).  Strain the grains using a pasta strainer and return them to the pot.  Add butter and peas.  Stir and place the cover back on the pot so peas will warm through and butter melts.
  4. Once the butter has melted and the peas have warmed through, remove grain mixture to a bowl and add vegetables and meats.  Fold gently and add dressing to taste.  If you'll be serving the dish cold, you may need to add more dressing prior to serving as it tends to soak-in and mellow-out.
Pictured Above: short-grained brown rice, rye berries, peas, leftover chicken, English cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and pickled carrots.  Dressed with D.E. Vine Honey Balsamic Dressing.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Fun with Slicing Cheeses

Most people know that you can try interesting cheeses if you visit a cheesemonger or if your local grocery store has a well-stocked cheese counter.  But most people don't usually think of the deli counter as a great place to experience and enjoy different cheeses.  And that's a shame, because you can often try a slice for free or get just a few slices at a time to take home and experiment with.

Every so often, I get on a sliced cheese kick.  I'll pick-up a half-pound of this or that when I'm buying deli meat to add a little pizazz to sandwiches, tuna melts, pannini's, or more often than not, just to snack on after work with a handful of Ritz crackers.

So what kinds of things can you get at the deli that are more interesting than plain old American?  Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Provolone - This cheese is usually available in either mild or picante (sharp).  A quality mild one has a gentle nutty flavor and the same kind of chewiness as firm mozzarella.  Its sharper sibling isn't sharp like a cheddar, but definitely has a more distinctive flavor.  Provolone is delicious sliced thick and will melt without getting stringy, making it a great topper for toasted Italian sandwiches, Italian subs, or chicken or eggplant parmesan.  If you happen to have a real Italian deli near you, you may find aged Provolone, which is extra-picante and firm enough to be grated over pasta like Parmesan.
  • Cheddar - I like to buy cheddar at the deli (Cabot makes a great slicing cheddar) because you can get thin bread-sized slices that are kind of brittle and break easily.  I'll sometimes just munch on a slice (it almost melts on your tongue) or put it on crackers, but it tastes great on a nice roast beef sandwich.  It adds a salty, strong cheesy goodness that really compliments the meat.
  • Smoked Gouda - I was first introduced to Smoked Gouda cheese by way of Panera Bread's Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich (which almost deserves a post of its own).  It's the consistency of provolone with a firmer chew, the color of cheddar, and the smoked version has a mild and pleasant smokey background flavor.  It pairs really well with any sandwich containing mayonnaise or a mayo-like sauce.  It's also a great snacking cheese and works well on a fried egg sandwich.
  • Muenster - This cheese is hard to describe.  It's a little like provolone, but softer and creamier like American or Colby Jack.  It has a slightly picante flavor and an interesting orange halo around the edges from being heavily dusted with annatto, a nutty orange spice that's often used to add color to cheese.  It's great on most sandwiches, but it's my favorite as a snacking cheese.  Children often like it and you can call it "monster cheese" to appeal to to their sense of whimsy.
  • Pepper Jack - This is essentially a Jack cheese, a softer milder cheddar-like cheese, which has had hot pepper seeds added to it.  When sliced thinly for sandwiches, it adds just a little heat without overpowering the sandwich.  It's great on grilled meats like burgers and chicken breasts.
  • Harvati - This cheese is extra-soft and creamy, almost lacy and is usually found in rectangular blocks.  You'll want to buy it from a deli that is willing to slice it carefully and lay a piece of paper between every 1 or 2 slices and fan it out, as the slices will literally melt back into each other before you can get it home.  It's a real treat on almost any cold deli sandwich.
So head on over to your favorite store and have the delicatessen slice-up a few slices of some interesting cheeses for you!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Slow Cooker Tips and Tricks

I've had a few friends post lately that they're dusting-off their slow cookers and they're either
looking for recipes or dissatisfied with the outcome of the first recipes they've tried.  Since I've been around the block a few times with my own slow cooker, I thought I'd do a post with some do's and don't's based on hard food science and personal experience (and a whole lot of trial and error).

Tip #1 - Choose the Right Cooker
You'd think all slow cookers are created the same, but that's not the case.  The original Crockpot brand cooker your mother had was probably a simple heating element underneath a permanently fixed ceramic crock with a dial that had three settings: Low, High, and Off.  Also, it was probably no larger than 5 quarts.

Today's high-end cookers are upwards of 7 quarts and made of all kinds of materials.  Many have fancy computerized controls and timers, probe thermometers, removable pots (for easier cleaning), and non-ceramic ones often have "browning" settings or can convert to a fast-cooking electric stew pot.

My recommendations are middle-of-the-road.  You want a cooker that heats evenly since you're after a "low and slow" cooking method.  This means you should look for a ceramic crock, not a metal insert.  A timer with an automatic "keep warm" setting is nice since you probably want to be away from the house as it cooks and having it slow-down the cooking before you arrive home is usually a must with today's work schedules.  You won't usually find a browning setting on a ceramic model (ceramic will crack if heated fast), so that usually knocks that feature out of the running, but it's a reasonable price to pay for more even cooking.  I'd rather have a pot that does one job well rather than multiple jobs in a mediocre fashion.  Here's how I chose my favorite cooker.

Tip #2 - Choose the Right Recipes
We've all seen those quick 1-minute "dump, stir, cook, voila!" videos that float all over social media.  It looks so quick and easy and the results are usually gorgeous and look delicious.  Ever tried to make those recipes?  They usually end-up as a muddy-colored, dull-flavored mess on a plate.  They're also usually not as easy as they look because they leave out footage of all the chopping and prep work.

In order to understand what recipes work best, you need to understand what a slow cooker is designed for.  Slow cookers were designed to mimic the behavior of bean pots and dutch ovens, which sit over low heat or in a low oven (200 degrees or so) for long periods of time (4 to 8 hours).  Many foods don't stand-up well to that long of a cooking time like lean meats (fish, chicken breast, lean beef, pork tenderloin and loin, etc.).  Contrary to popular belief, they will dry out even if submerged in a flavorful liquid.  If you're going to cook lean meat in a slow cooker, be sure your recipe makes a nice gravy or sauce to re-moisten the meat at the table.

Slow cookers are best at braising and the best cuts of meat for slow braising have fat, marbling, or protective skin coatings.  Things like chuck roasts, pork butt (aka "Boston Butt), pork shoulder, chuck stew meat, whole chickens, chicken or turkey thighs and legs, and so on.  They contain natural fat, collagen, and connective tissue that will break-down and improve in texture and flavor with a long, low, slow cooking.  Hearty soups, stews, and chili are other excellent candidates.

Tip #3 - Maximize Flavor
One thing about long slow cooking is that all of the flavors in the dish will muddle together into a uniform, kind of flat taste.  It'll be savory, but lack dimension and one strong ingredient, like onions or garlic, may take-over the dish.  You can work around this in a variety of ways.

First of all, season your dish well upfront.  Use plenty of salt and pepper.  Add flavorful liquids like chicken stock or wine instead of water.  And make sure you include aromatic vegetables (celery, onion, carrot, garlic) and herbs and spices.  Depending on what you're making, you may want to use sacrificial aromatic veggies that will be removed or puree'd into a sauce and add fresh veggies close to the end of cooking to be eaten whole.

Second of all, adjust seasonings or make a sauce towards the end of cooking.  You may want to pour off the liquid, strain it, and make a simple gravy on the stove.  You may want to puree the softened vegetables into a sauce and add some cream.  Or maybe it needs a tablespoon of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon.  It may also need more salt and pepper or fresh herbs.

Thirdly, consider browning meat in a skillet before cooking.  Contrary to popular belief, browning does not "seal in juices," but it does create flavor, texture, and color.  If your schedule doesn't permit browning in the morning, meat can be browned the night before and all other ingredients measured and prepped and then stored in the fridge overnight.  In the morning, it becomes a dump-and-stir operation.

Lastly, bloom your spices and sweat your vegetables.  Place the aromatics (onions, celery, etc) and any dry spices into a bowl, coat with a little oil, and microwave until the vegetables begin to soften.  This does two things.  First, it cooks some of the sulfuric bite out of the onions and brings out the sweetness.  Without pre-cooking, onions can take over a pot of soup and make it acrid and inedible.  Secondly, it blooms the spices.  Most spices in your cabinet are oil soluble, meaning their flavor carries best in oil, not water.  Cooking them for a short time in oil brings out their best flavor.

Tip #4 - No Peeking!
Slow cookers cook best when a small head of steam builds-up inside the pot, which creates slightly increased pressure (similar to a pressure cooker, but not nearly as powerful).  Every time you open the pot, you're releasing that steam and it has to build-up again, which will add to the cooking time.  Open the pot as infrequently as possible.

Tip #5 - Size Your Recipe or Pot Correctly
Slow cookers are designed to work best when the pot is half to 2/3 full.  This is because the pot needs area for a head of steam to build-up and help with the cooking.  If you overfill the pot, there won't be enough extra room.  If you under-fill the pot, it'll take too long to recover when the lid is opened.  Also less of the food will be in contact with the heated sides of the pot.  You also may lose the cooking water and scorch the bottom of your meal.  If you're going to be cooking for 2 people on a regular basis and want to make smaller recipes, consider buying a smaller cooker or having two sizes.

Tip #6 - Spray the Crock
I have a cooker with a dark-colored crock and every time I'd cook something, I'd end up with "ring around the crock," a white haze that lines-up with water line of the cooked food that was impossible to scrub off, even when soaked in vinegar.  I believe this is a mineral residue, from hard water, chicken bones, etc.  If you spray your crock with cooking spray prior to adding the food, this will never happen.  Even if you're doing a soup that's all liquid, still spray the pot.  Your scrubbing arm will thank you later.

Tip #7 - The Amount of Liquid Matters
Slow cookers actually don't need a lot of water to cook.  An inch or so is plenty for large cuts of meat.  One of my favorite recipes is a chicken cooked in a slow cooker where you add the chicken dry, season it, place a few veggies around it, then start cooking.  The chicken releases just enough juice to do the cooking and makes a really concentrated flavorful gravy for serving with it.

Here are a few of my Favorite Recipes that work in a Slow Cooker:

Here are some great Slow Cooker Resources:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Weeknight Dinner: Roasted Pork Tenderloin

Pork Tenderloin served over Israeli Couscous
Pork tenderloin can be a fantastic weeknight meal.  Toss it into a zip-top bag with some oil and seasoning as little as a half-hour before you cook it and it comes out great.  Let it marinate overnight and it'll taste even better.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Before we get to the recipes, we need to address a couple of elephants in the room.

Loin vs. Tenderloin
First of all, let's not confuse pork tenderlin" with "pork loin."  Both are delicious cuts recipes for one can be adapted to the other, but they are quite different.  Pork loin is a long tubular cut of meat about 4 to 6 inches in diameter.  A whole loin is over two feet long, but most butchers cut it into shorter roasts that look like small logs.  It is often sold with a cap of fat left on top and tied with butcher's twine.

Tenderloin is a much smaller piece of meat.  It's usually no more than 2 inches in diameter and less than a foot long.  One end is fat and it tapers down to a point.  It's extremely lean and naturally tender because it sits under neat the loin up against the rib cage, so it does very little work when the animal walks.  On a cow, the tenderloin is sold as fillet, the most expensive cut.  On a pig, it's usually cheaper than bacon, making it a great bargain.  On a chicken, it's the cut that becomes chicken fingers.

Pink is Okay
Let's get this out of the way upfront.  If you want to make excellent, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin, you need to get over your fear of eating slightly pink pork.  If you want to cook it until completely white, you can do it, but it won't be nearly as good and you're much more likely to end-up with dry meat.  There's a very fine line between well-done and dry with this cut and I don't think I've ever nailed it, myself.

Cooking pork to well-done was born in the 1960's and 70's from fear of the parasite "trichinosis."  However, even the CDC's own website says, "Successful trichinae control programs by the U.S. pork industry have nearly eliminated the disease in domestic swine raised in confinement..."  So, if you're going to buy your pork from a commercial source, it's pretty safe to eat your pork cooked to medium, which is just right for this cut, in my opinion.

How to Cook It
I'm going to give you a recipe, but here are a few of tips and tricks that you can use whenever cooking a pork tenderloin:
  • Don't buy it pre-marinated.  Why?  The ingredients list should be reason enough.  You can't pronounce half of the ingredients and it's incredibly easy to toss together your own simple marinade.  Also, this is not a cut of eat that needs a lot of flavor added to it.  It tastes pretty good on its own with salt and pepper. 
  • Marinate a minimum of 30 minutes up to overnight in a simple vinaigrette or just herbs and oil with salt and pepper.  That's it.  it's really that simple.
  • Treat this cut like you would a steak.  Sear it on all sides, either on a grill or in an oven-safe pan, and then finish it in the oven or on a cooler side of the grill.  If you need to, remove it from the heat after searing and allow the pan or grill to cool down before finishing.
  • Use a meat thermometer.  As I mentioned above, there's literally a difference of less than 5 minutes of cooking between done and overdone.  A meat thermometer will help you nail your target consistently every time.
  • Cook until 5 to 10 degrees less than your final temperature (135 degrees) and let rest with a loose piece of foil on top.  It will coast another 10 degrees on the counter for a final temp of about 145.  A simple instant read thermometer should be in every kitchen (like this one).  If you want absolute insurance, get a remote probe thermometer that you can keep in the meat and it'll beep when it's done.
  • Serve it with a simple starch and vegetable.  Mashed potatoes are great here, giving you the same "meat and potatoes" comfort feeling as roast beef or pot roast.
  • Tenderloins are usually sold as a two-pack in a cryo-vac package.  They're often swimming in a slippery pink juice that is basically dissolved meat proteins.  I like to open up the pack when I get it home, drain the juice, pat the loins dry, then wrap them separately in plastic wrap and put them in the freezer.  When I'm ready to make one, I pop it in the microwave for a few minutes on medium power to defrost it.  You can also defrost it in the fridge overnight or all day.
And now, the recipe:

Roasted Pork Tenderloin With Garlic, Herbs, and Sundried Tomatoes

Note: The herbs, garlic and tomatoes in this recipe are just made for swapping-out.  I've done garlic and rosemary.  You could use some citrus zest and juice.  You could even tip in some spicy-hot things from your pantry.  The sky is the limit.  Just keep the oil since it helps carry the flavor (many seasonings are oil-soluble) and the salt and pepper.

1 pork tenderloin
1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried Italian Seasoning (herbs only, no salt)
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
10 sundried tomatoes (approximately)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1) Add everything but the tenderloin to a gallon zip-top bag.  Close the bag and mix the ingredients up.

2) Open the bag and add the tenderloin.  Re-close the bag, removing as much air as possible.  Squish the ingredients around in the bag to coat the meat.  Allow to marinate on the counter up to 45 minutes or place in a shallow pan in the refrigerator (to prevent leakage) and marinate up to 24 hours.

3) When ready to cook, heat the oven to 325 degrees.  Heat an oven-safe pan (cast iron works great) on the stove top on medium-high heat.  Using tongs, remove the meat from the bag, leaving most of the oil and seasonings behind.  Place in hot pan and brown evenly on all sides.

4) Once meat is browned, remove pan from the burner.  Allow sizzling to calm a bit and add the remaining contents of the bag to the pan.  Using tongs, place the tomatoes on top of the pork to keep them from burning in the bottom of the pan.

5) If using a probe thermometer, place the probe into the meat, trying to get the tip of the probe in the center of the meat towards the thicker end.  Place the pan in the pre-heated oven and roast until the center of the meat reaches 135 degrees.

6) Remove the meat from the oven, cover loosely with a piece of foil, and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  Slice thinly with a sharp knife and serve with a starch and vegetable of your choice.  Center of the thickest part should be just slightly pink and very juicy.