Friday, December 17, 2010

Inspiration and Improvisation

The ability to improvise and construct a dish or meal from limited ingredients comes in handy in real life. I do it all the time. It's a skill you must have and must continue to foster. There is currently a show on the Food Network called Chopped. They give four competing chefs a basket of unlikely ingredients and challenge them to compose a tasty dish with them. There are three rounds making antipasti, a main dish and a dessert. After each round, prepared in a very limited time frame, one of the chefs is Chopped and leaves the show. Chefs do not normally cook this way. They Plan. They get ingredients they need, lay out the basic materials and all the while they are thinking about the basic dish. THEN they see if inspiration hits them. Sometimes it’s pretty inane and silly, and sometimes the creative use of the different ingredients can be inspirational. In fact it is even more important that they be inspirational, since much of our culinary lives revolve around fishing around in the freezer for things to feed a hungry family or just ourselves. We can use all the inspiration we can get.

In today’s blog I want to apply some possibly inspirational elements to dishes to change how they taste, and how they appear. I will use a fig jam to create a sauce for simple grilled pork; an interesting way to cook sea bass, a great smoked salmon and crepe antipasti, fettuccini with pesto and scallops, a frittata and more. Take a nice deep cleansing breath and follow your inspiration.

Roasted Pork with Fig Sauce
This is great served with mashed potatoes and some sautéed green beans on the side.
2 pound pork shoulder roast
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Fine grain salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoon of butter
1 cup of chopped onions
1 cup of fig jam or preserves
3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1/3 cup of chicken stock

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Season the pork well with salt and pepper. Heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. When hot add the oil and brown the pork roast on all sides (about 2 minutes per side). Remove from heat and place in a roasting pan on a wire rack. Roast in the oven to an internal temperature of 150 degrees. Remove and let the meat rest for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a medium sauté pan until melted. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Add the fig jam to the pan and cook for 2 minutes, until heated well. Add the vinegar, stock and sugar to the same pan. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Slice the pork and place on a platter. Spoon fig sauce around pork and pour sauce over and around the pork. Serve.

Roasted Sea Bass Filets with Wild mushrooms.
Use any thick white meat fishes for this dish. Striped bass, rockfish, or halibut make a good substitute if sea bass is not available.

Fish Sauce
8 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled, trimmed, and chopped
1 rib celery, trimmed and chopped
2 bay leaves
1 cup chardonnay or other white wine
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 oz. chanterelles, porcini or mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed, and quartered. (Unless you are an experienced mushroom hunter, buy the mushrooms from the Farmer’s Market or grocery store).

Preheat oven to 350°.Heat 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed medium roasting pan on top of stove over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, and sprigs of parsley and cook, stirring often, until just softened, 3–5 minutes. Add wine and tomato paste and cook, scraping browned bits stuck to bottom of pan, until alcohol evaporates, about 2 minutes. Whisk flour and 2 cups water together in a bowl until smooth, then stir into pan and bring to a boil. Transfer pan to oven and roast until liquid has reduced by about half, 25–30 minutes.

Strain liquid through a large sieve into a medium bowl, pressing on solids with back of spoon (you should have about 1 cup liquid). Discard solids. Put the liquid into jar of blender. With motor running, gradually add 2 tbsp. of the olive oil through hole in top of blender lid, puréeing until sauce is emulsified. Transfer sauce to a small saucepan, season to taste with salt and pepper, and keep warm over lowest heat.

Lightly chop or slice the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and saute over medium heat in two tablespoons of good olive oil and a tablespoon of butter until done. Set aside and keep warm.
Marinate fish for 15 minutes in a bit of olive oil, dried oregano and black pepper. Grill fish until just opaque. Plate with the tomato wine sauce and a spoonful of mushrooms on top. Garnish with some chopped parsley. Serve with a lemon wedge.

Crepes with smoked salmon, citrus marmalade and cream cheese
Crepes are always a great go-to dish. They are easy to make and are really good with a wide variety of savory or sweet fillings. I make my crepes with only a bit of sugar to provide a hint of sweetness that doesn’t overpower the fillings. I have filled these with a spiced cream cheese with chives, smoked salmon and a dollop of lemon mostarda. The crepes can be made ahead and stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer. Be sure to put a sheet of paper towel between the crepes to keep them from sticking together. The beauty of crepes is that they can be served hot or cold, sauced or not.

Spiced Cream cheese
8 ounces of cream cheese softened at room temperature.
3 Tablespoons of chopped fresh chives.
1/8 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper.
½ teaspoon of seasoning salt or sea salt.

Mix cream cheese and seasonings together (use a bit of milk to thin if necessary).
Set aside in the refrigerator until you assemble the crepes.

Purchase 4-8 ounces of good quality smoked salmon or lox.

Make the crepes
1-2 cups of all purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoon of sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1-2 cups half and half or cream
3 tablespoons melted butter

Mix the flour, eggs, cream or half and half, salt, and sugar together to make a thick creamy batter. This is not pancake batter and should be the consistency of thick cream and should readily pour out of a measuring cup. Add the melted butter and whisk together. Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes to a half hour before cooking.

Cook the crepes in a good heavy non-stick pan. Add some melted butter to the pan and then a ¼ cup of batter. Rotate the pan to evenly spread the batter over the bottom and pour of the excess. Bake the crepe for about a minute until it is golden and then flip over to cook the other side for 30-45 seconds. Place the crepe on a plate and top with a paper towel. Continue to make crepes until the batter is gone.

Assemble the crepes.
Spread a tablespoon of the seasoned cream cheese on the crepe, drizzle with a little lemon mostarda, and then lay in a slice or two of the smoked salmon. Roll the crepe up and slice in into bite sized pieces and place them on a serving platter. Sprinkle the platter with a light sprinkle of chopped chives and chopped parsley.

Lemon mostarda
I make this condiment specifically for use with fish in antipasti. It pairs well with salmon, smoked trout, baccalà and can also be used as an added element to grilled, roasted or other fish preparations.

Two cups of water
1 1/2 cups of sugar
Rind from 5 lemons, peeled with a vegetable peeler and sliced into fine julienne
Juice from the five lemons
Two tablespoons of yellow or black mustard seeds, toasted and crushed
3-4 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (to taste)

Bring water and sugar to a rolling boil and boil for 10 minutes
Add grated lemon peel and juice and return to a boil.
Allow to cook at a simmer for 20 minutes or until it reaches 225 degrees on a candy thermometer.
Toast mustard seeds in a dry frying pan until they start to pop
Grind in a mortar or spice mill to a coarse texture
Add to fruit mixture
Taste and add 3-4 tablespoons (or more) vinegar (This is my preferred option)
Simmer for 30 minutes
Ladle into washed canning jars (1/4 pint)
Seal and process for 5 minutes in boiling water bath
Remove from the water bath to a rack and allow to cool.

Crostini with apple mostarda and sausage cheese mixture
I have used a beer bread for this crostini. The recipe for beer bread can be found in the Sept 15th 2009 blog entry “Beer Bread and Fish Stew”. Add garlic powder, onion powder, grated Parmesan cheese and a good pinch of dried pepper flakes to the bread mix before you add the beer and mix it. Slices of sourdough bread or other crispy breads can be grilled and used as well.
Make a loaf of beer bread and allow to cool overnight.
½ pound of Italian sausage
½ cup parmesan or Pecorino cheese
1 cup of grated jack cheese

Make the sausage mixture:
Saute ½ pound of Italian sausage and break into small crumbles
In a bowl, mix the cooked sausage with ½ cup Parmigiano cheese and 1 Cup of grated jack cheese or equivalent. Mix thoroughly and cheese will melt into the sausage. Set aside.

Slice beer bread into 1/2 inch or thinner slices and then crosswise in half. Brush with a mixture of olive oil and crushed garlic. Place on baking sheet in 325 degree F oven and allow to crisp slightly. Or if you have a stovetop grill pan, grill the slices.

Spread a slice of the crostini with apple mostarda.
Top with the sausage/cheese mixture.
Place a small amount of apple mostarda on top.
Place on a baking sheet and heat in 350o F oven until sausage and cheese are hot.
Serve immediately.

Apple mostarda
This can be made with just apples, the mustard seeds and the sugar syrup, but I prefer to add some vinegar to make the preserves sweet and sour.

Three cups of water
2 cups of sugar
Four Granny Smith apples, grated
Three tablespoons of yellow mustard seeds
3-4 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (optional)

Bring water and sugar to a rolling boil and boil for 10 minutes.
Add grated apples and return to a boil.
Toast mustard seeds in a dry frying pan until they start to pop.
Grind in a mortar or spice mill to a coarse texture.
Add to apples and sugar.
Taste and add 3-4 tablespoons vinegar (This is my preferred option).
Simmer for 30 minutes to thicken.
Set aside overnight to steep.
Reheat, and bottle in sterilized jars, seal and process for 5 minutes in boiling water.
Remove from the water bath to a rack.
Allow to cool.

Artichoke, salami and cheese frittata
Frittatas are great for the Eight Bites diet. They can be made using leftovers from the fridge, are easy to make and provide high nutritional value in the form of protein. Use a good non-stick pan to cook the frittata so it comes out of the oven and out of the pan easily. This one uses “off the shelf ingredients to make a quick dinner. It can easily feed two to four and is great served the next day.

1 Cup of sliced marinated artichoke hearts
½ cup diced salami
¾ C mixed grated cheese (Parmesan, provolone, and Asiago)
3-4 beaten eggs with ½ cup milk
1 Tbs butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Put 1 Tbs butter in an ovenproof, non-stick skillet over medium heat.
After the butter melts, add the artichokes and salami.
Add the egg mixture and cook for about a minute until it starts to set.
Lift the edges of the eggs to allow the uncooked eggs to flow underneath.
Sprinkle the cheese on the top of the eggs.
Remove from the stove and place the skillet in the oven.
Allow to cook for 10-12 minutes or until the top is firm.
Serve it warm or allow it to cool to room temperature.
Can be warmed in the oven the next day for brunch.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Farmer's Market

One of the most difficult things about living alone is cooking for one. Packaging of food in the markets is based upon purchasing larger volumes. Buy two and get one free; buy the family pack, or buy the large loaf of bread. It seems like nothing is packaged with the person who has had weight loss surgery in mind. So you have to buy two and get one free, or buy the big family pack of meat and split it up. These deals do save you money, but you must then figure out what to do with the extra food until you can get around to eating it. Recently the supermarket was having a big sale on high quality steaks, (New York cuts) very tender but you had to buy six of them. So I bought a pack and brought them home. Each steak was about 12-14 ounces so I sectioned each one into three or four pieces, wrapped each pieces in plastic wrap, and then put them in a freezer bag. I could take one out of the freezer and allow it to defrost for dinner and I had a tender 3-4 ounce serving. I grilled them quickly to rare in a grill. Dinner was served. Out of that package of steaks, I got 18 meals of high quality protein for approximately $10.

Yesterday I wanted some country style pork ribs, and a family package of four ribs was on sale for $7. So I bought a package. Last night I placed them in a roasting pan, seasoned them with salt and pepper and baked them at 350 degrees for about an hour. I then coated the meat with Hoisin sauce and let them finish. I had about a ½ of one rib for dinner and then put the others in a package for later. I will make a pork burrito with some of the meat for breakfast this morning. The rest will be in reserve for another time soon.

So why is this entry called Farmer’s Market? Here in Santa Rosa, California, there is a large organic foods Farmer’s Market at the Veteran’s Building on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Wednesday market has fewer vendors but is still a pleasant place to go. The Saturday market is a lot bigger with quite a few more vendors and therefore more possibilities. The folks in the booths are helpful, friendly and while the produce is not cheap it is of good quality and provides seasonally available fruits and vegetables. Right now peppers, citrus, potatoes and apples are dominating the stands. But you will still also find wonderful greens to braise, or unusual carrots.

Going to the market is really an experience in possibilities. I always make at least two circuits around the market. I don’t but anything on the first pass, just looking to see what is available. Then more slowly, I work my way around the market again. This time looking for those interesting possibilities. I may buy some mushrooms for dinner, or some citrus to make marmalade. Thinking ahead a few days, I might buy some interesting greens to cook and chop, then saute with garlic and olive oil and use to top a garlic-infused crostini, warm from the grill. Put a sprinkle of good Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on the top and serve with a glass of nice white wine. While it is not specifically designed to be a part of the Eight Bites diet, it is very tasty and a way of getting more vegetables into your diet. So go ahead and make some and enjoy it as an antipasti before you eat the protein portion of your meal.

Last Saturday at the market I was shopping with a friend, and found some great oranges, Granny Smith apples and some sweet peppers. I had to hold off on the wild mushrooms, but did order some wonderful butter from an artisan dairy in Petaluma. I also looked at some Muscovy duck breasts. Just thinking about a possible dinner party with grilled duck breast, peppers agrodolce, and apple Tarte Tatin.

At one stand, they were selling smoked olive oil. I spent a few minutes talking with the couple who owned the process and we talked about how we use olive oil and how these flavored ones might provide a different taste. They asked me to develop a recipe or two for them using their oils and I said I would. Before I walked away, they gave me a package containing small bottles of each of their three oils for me to experiment with. I will use the oranges to make some orange marmalade including some with vinegar and red pepper flakes to make it a bit more interesting. I also have some fig jam frozen and will use the Granny Smith apples and some raisins to make some jars of chutney.

So if you have a Farmer’s Market in your town, by all means go and see what is available. The vegetables and fruits are generally fresher and they are often organically raised. So wander around, talk to the vendors. They love to talk about their products and often about using them in your own kitchen. While the market might not provide the meat products we require as part of Eight Bites, they do provide a wonderful gathering of folks with a common outlook. That is the preparation of interesting food with good nutritional characteristics, seasonally and sustainable raised. Support them with your purchases or at least with your presence. Drink an espresso from the stand, buy some bread (even though you can’t eat much of it), and shake their hands. Enjoy the morning adventure and remember that having had bariatric surgery has given you a new life and good health. So celebrate it. Find some interesting foods and use them, even if it requires you to cook just for yourself, and you still have to purchase meats in those big packages.