Monday, November 30, 2015

Halloween Pork Stew

This year, Halloween happened to fall on a Saturday and both sets of Grandparents wanted to come over to go trick-or-treating with the little one.  I was trying to figure out what to serve for dinner that wouldn't interfere with our candy-acquiring activities and I happened across an interesting recipe a few weeks before that I had been wanting to try.  It fit the bill and turned out absolutely amazing.

The recipe is based on a "Pork and Pumpkin Stew" recipe from Williams-Sonoma.  It requires a well-stocked spice cabinet, but is totally worth it.  I've modified it slightly to use butternut squash, which is much easier to find year-round and easier to peel since it has no bumps in the skin.  I also substituted a few ingredients that were clearly there to encourage sales of obscure Williams-Sonoma products (like 2 tablespoons of chicken demi-glace).

I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.  I've made it twice, now.

Halloween Pork Stew

Note: This recipe would clearly work best with a fatty cut of pork such as boneless pork butt or shoulder, which gets soft without drying out.  However, I had lean pork loin on-hand and it worked just fine.

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound peeled, diced butternut squash or pumpkin
1 yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chicken stock
1 (9oz) can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar  

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon corn starch 

3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat oven to 325 degrees F.

2) In a small bowl, mix the spices (ginger, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, cloves, pepper flakes) and corn starch.  Set aside.

3) In a large heavy oven-safe dutch oven, heat the oil and brown the chunks of pork.  Remove the pork to a plate to rest.

4) Add onion to the pan and more oil if needed.  Sauté over medium heat until the onion begins to soften.  Add garlic, tomato paste, and spice mixture.  Sauté until the spices bloom and begin to smell but do not burn them.  Add the chicken stock and use a wooden spoon to scrape-up any bits on the bottom of the pan.

5) Add the tomatoes, squash, pork, and vinegar to the pan.  Stir well.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

6) Cover, bring to a boil, and transfer to the oven.  Cook until the pork and squash is fork-tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

This is best served in a shallow bowl over white rice or with nice crusty bread or toast.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Leftover Turkey Chili

So your Dad and your Aunt Edna are the only ones who eat dark meat at Thanksgiving.  I think we can all sympathize with that (even if we don't all have an Aunt Edna...I don't).  That's why turkey breeders in the U.S. breed birds with massive breasts.  Most of us reach for the white meat (and then thoroughly cover it in a pool of gravy...amiright?).

So what are you supposed to do with all that leftover drumstick and thigh meat?  A 20-pound bird can sometimes yield as much as a 2 to 3 pounds of it and it's usually much darker than dark chicken meat.  For years, I tucked it into the freezer.  I might use a couple pieces here and there in a turkey stew, but my wife usually finds them and picks them out.  Eventually, I'd have a block of unrecognizable freezer-burned brown meat and into the garbage it would go.  What a waste.

Enter my recipe for Turkey or Chicken Chili.  It's a loose interpretation of a recipe from Cook's Illustrated magazine for beef chili made from ground beef.  One day, I discovered that you could swap out the ground meat for chunks of dark meat turkey and by the time it was done stewing-down in tomatoes, it'd taste like rich pulled pork or beef.  A real bonus is that it can be done in the slow cooker.

Leftover Dark Meat Turkey Chili

Notes: The amount and kind of meat is flexible here.  If all you have is a pound and 3/4, that's fine.  If it's over 2 pounds, that's fine, too.  Turkey works well, as does chicken, or even chunks of uncooked pork butt or pork shoulder (you can pull it out, shred it, then put it back in at the end).  You can also mix dark and white meat.

This recipe makes a mild, tomato-flavored chili.  If you like it spicier, double-up on the pepper flakes and cayenne.

2 Pounds Cooked Dark Turkey Meat
2 (15-oz) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 (28-oz) cans crushed tomatoes
2 medium onions, chopped coarsely
1 red bell pepper
6 medium cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1) In a small bowl, mix the spices (chili powder, cumin, pepper flakes, oregano, cayenne, salt).  Set aside.

2) In a sauté pan, sweat the onions and pepper in oil over medium heat until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and spices.  Stir well (it'll look like a brown mess), allowing the oil and heat to release the flavors in the spices.  Remove from heat before it burns.

3) Place the meat, beans, vegetable and spice mixture, and tomatoes into a 6-quart slow cooker.  Stir well.  Cook on low 6 to 8 hours until mixture is well cooked and darkens in color.  If it is not thickening and you like a thicker chili, remove the cover during the last hour or two.

4) Serve in bowls with classic chili toppings such as a dollup of sour cream, shredded cheese, or chopped scallions.

Stove-Top Method:

1) For step #2 above, use a heavy-bottom dutch oven instead of a saute pan.

2) For step #3 Pour remaining ingredients into the dutch oven.  Cover, bring to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer and simmer 4 hours.  Uncover, stir, and simmer 3-4 more hours until mixture darkens and thickens.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Cast Iron "Chicken Fryer"

Recently, my wife and I were perusing our favorite Antique and Primitive store when I happened upon a uniquely shaped cast iron pan hanging on the wall.  It was about 10 inches across but 3 inches deep, far deeper than your average frying pan but much too shallow to be considered a dutch oven or a soup pot.  It had a side handle like a frying pan and was in excellent, ready-to-cook condition.

I picked it up, turned it over, and was surprised to see that it was a Wagner piece and that it was marked only $25.  Wagner's are not exactly rare, but they are sought-after because they're quite old and not manufactured anymore, usually very smooth (as opposed to the bumpy finish found on most newer cast iron), and a bit on the thinner side, making them a little bit lighter.  This particular one was a unique shape that I hadn't seen before and I wasn't sure what it was called.

As much as I wanted to buy it, I really have no room to store additional pans, so I put it down and walked away.  About a month later, we were back at the same store and it was still there.  That time, I couldn't resist any longer and I snatched it up.  I brought it home, gave it a good scrubbing, oiled it up, and sauteed some veggies in it.

Come to find out, it's not a particularly unique piece.  It's called a "Chicken Fryer" and I imagine they're more plentiful in the south where they fry-up a lot more chicken than we New Englanders do.  It is rather old, possibly cast in the 1940's.  The markings on the bottom are from post-1920.

Old cast iron pieces are a really good find and a great addition to your cooking arsenal.  They're often well-seasoned (even if they usually need a good scrubbing and a light re-seasoning), as smooth as some non-stick cookware, and cheap (often, cheaper than new pieces).  You can also find unique shapes and sizes that aren't manufactured today.

But most of all, cast iron isn't nearly as fussy as people make it out to be.  In fact, cast iron is almost easier to take care of than Teflon.  Once it's well-seasoned, there's really very little you can do to destroy it (short of dropping it on concrete and splitting it).  Here's a great post about the myths and maintenance of cast iron pans.  Ignore all the stuff about salt rubs, no-dish-soap, and so on.

Here are a few tips I've learned over the years by actually working with my cast iron:

  • Buy old, if you can find it.  New pans from Lodge (one of the only manufacturers left in the US) aren't polished as well after casting and they have a textured surface that takes a lot of time and use to get reasonably smooth.  They also have a "pre-seasoning" treatment that, in my opinion, only makes them harder to season properly.  Older pans tend to already have this work done for you.
  • Look for pans that don't have big crusty build-up.  This is a mark of a not well-cared-for pan.  While it is possible to remove it, you'll be making a lot of extra work for yourself and you'll basically have to get it down to bare metal and start seasoning from scratch.  I've been known to do this for only really unique pieces (one of which, I'll show you in a future post).  A little rust is okay, as long as it's not pitted.
  • When you get an old pan home, scrub it good with soapy water and a scouring pad.  If there's significant rust, don't hesitate to use a steel wool pad (like Brillo) to get the rust off.  Once the pan is clean, dry it well with paper towels or an old cotton cloth.  Lightly rub a very thin layer of oil on the inside of the pan and heat it on medium-high heat.  As the pan heats-up, burnish/polish the oil into the pan with a wad of paper towels.  Once it looks shiny like a polished pair of shoes, turn the heat off, let it cool, give it one last wipe with a fresh paper towel to remove excess oil, and you can store it.
  • If the bottom of your pan needs a little extra seasoning as well or you have a brand-new pan, coat it with a thin layer of oil as described above.  Instead of putting it on the stove, put it upside-down on the middle rack in a 350 degree oven with a sheet pan below it to catch any drips.  Open windows, turn on fans, and unplug the smoke detectors.  Heat until it begins to smoke and turn the oven off.  Let it cool enough to remove it with heavy pot holders.  Rub with a clean paper towel.  Repeat as needed until well-seasoned.
  • Once you have a good seasoning, don't hesitate to use a blue Scotch Brite scrubbing sponge and regular dish soap to loosen food.  The blue pads are the non-abrasive ones made for Teflon, so they'll be gentle on your seasoning.  You can also use a nylon pan scraper or the edge of a nylon spatula for stubborn spots.
  • Never leave your pan wet and try not to let starchy food dry on it (it leaves a film that's difficult to get off).  Wash right after dinner as described above, oil gently, heat the pan, and burnish in the oil.  It's now ready to store.  If you don't have time to heat it, you can oil it and store as-is, but I've found that the oil just sits on top and if you don't use your pan often enough, it goes rancid and you just have to scrub it off and re-oil.
  • Avoid cooking sprays.  They have extra ingredients that do not make a good seasoning coating.  Try to use regular oils and butter in your cooking.
  • Let your cooking do the hard work of seasoning your pan for you.  I've never found anything that seasons a pan better than cooking roast chicken, bacon, or oiled oven-roasted potatoes.

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.