Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Torteelia Encrusted Tenders

"Thank you for calling the Legislative Cafeteria. No one is able to answer your call..."

One of the peculiar pleasures of being a state employee who works in the Downtown State Government Complex is lunching at the Legislative Cafeteria. It's not great cuisine, but it's reasonably priced and convenient. Also, you never know who you might see or what you might overhear.

Even if I bring lunch or live large and go to a real restaurant, I sometimes can't resist calling the information line just to hear what's on the menu -- which is, with rare exception, the exact same thing week after week.

My favorite item -- to hear, definitely not to eat -- is a standard Tuesday special, which the uber-serious speaker carefully and emphatically pronounces as "Torteelia Encrusted Tilapia." On a slow or especially stressful day, there's just nothing so guaranteed to make me laugh. Especially on speaker phone.

So tonight, in affectionate tribute, I made Torteelia Encrusted Tenders. It's hardly a recipe, and there's little chance of rubbing elbows with legislators or reporters in my kitchen, but it does make for a quick and easy weeknight dinner.

Whether you make this or not, on some future Tuesday after 11 a.m., call 919-715-4806 to hear about the fish o' the day. Crank up the speaker phone and enjoy.

1 pkg. boneless, skinless chicken tenders
chile-lime seasoning (such as Tajin)
salt, pepper
1/3 cup Newman's Own Light Lime Vinaigrette
hot sauce, to taste
leftover favorite tortilla chips, crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Season chicken tenders with salt, pepper and chile-lime seasoning; place in small bowl. Pour lime vinaigrette and hot sauce over chicken tenders and stir to coat. Let sit at least 10 minutes (if longer, refrigerate).

Thoroughly crush tortilla chips in bag. Drop tenders into bag, two at a time. Scrunch the bag top and shake well to coat; repeat until done.

Arrange tenders on cookie cooling rack (or similar) coated with vegetable oil spray. Place over rimmed sheet pan of catch excess crumbles and bake 30 minutes or until done and crispy.

Optional dipping sauce:  Mix 2-3 tbsp. light sour cream or Greek yogurt with an equal amount of your favorite salsa, stir well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Diana Kennedy: Revolutionista

"There really is nothing like experience
in the kitchen," said Diana Kennedy.

Not long after a small but appreciative crowd listened to her describe the 14 years of research and testing that went into her new book, Diana Kennedy took her seat behind a signing desk at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

"What can I say? Two hundred people came to my last reading," she said this afternoon with an accepting shrug as fans lined up to sample some of her recipes from Oaxaca, An Infinite Gastronomy, which were prepared by Foster's Market. "I'm not Rachel Ray."

And that, to paraphrase another over-exposed media mogul cum cook, is a good thing. Admired globally for her ardent support of Mexican culture and cuisine, Kennedy is as much a revolutionary as those who claimed Mexico as their home long before the petite UK native landed there as a bride in 1957. Indeed, her call to culinary arms is as potent today as the forebears whose bold break from Spain inspired bicentennial celebrations earlier this month.

While her books are highly praised by critics and she's earned the prestigious IACP Lifetime Achievement Award -- not to menton the equivalent of knighthood from her beloved Mexico -- Kennedy does not enjoy the instant name recongition and mega-sales of other culinary giants. Even her own publisher feels the need to define her as "the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine." Perhaps that's a necessity in this time when foodies gain fame for cartoonish personas, clingy on-air-wear and mass-marketed product lines that target harried home cooks.

Fellow cookbook author Sara Foster of Foster's Market
was first in line with several Kennedy titles.
Still, while "Master Chef" Rick Bayless rules the contemporary Mexican food scene, Kennedy's been at this since he was a niño de pañales. Influential and fiesty, she name-drops in a way few can: She has shared with the Officio de la Presidente that its failure to adequately support and market indigenous chiles is "disgraceful."

The no-nonsense women who live buy-local-eat-local lifestyles not by fashionable choice but necessity are the heroes of Kennedy's universe. She described how she camped in their villages, literally with her own cot and sleeping bag, to watch and listen as they shared the secrets of their cazuelas and how they used locally-grown ingredients.

"I'm really getting on in years and I've been around kitchens so long," the octogenarian said when asked how she later recreates these treasures. "I don't carry measuring spoons. There is nothing like experience in the kitchen."

Kennedy described Oaxaca, a handsomely illustrated 6-pound tome, as "very much an anthropological book."

"It is important in this day of marginalization to give credit to cooks who are surviving on the ingredients around them," she said, noting that Oaxaca's diverse microclimates produce varieties of chiles, corn and other delicacies found no where else in the world. "Writing this book taught me a great deal about how people live and why we need to know where our food comes from."

So appalled by a question about genetically-modified salmon that she merely flicked her hand in response, Kennedy urged those gathered to "take a stand" against jumbo tomatillos that have found their way into American grocery stores and to not buy dried chiles unless they clearly state their source.

"Do not buy chiles de arbol without stems," she warned. "They are from China. There also is garlic imported into Mexico from Peru! I find it quite disgraceful that our government does not put a stop to this."

Despite a tempermental laptop that would not project the enticing travelogue of photos from her book, Kennedy carried her audience on a vivid roadtrip that focused on Oaxaca's essential trinity of corn, chiles and cacao. She did not linger on particular recipes, instead plainly advising fans to buy the $50 book -- and a few others, while they were at it.

"There's a reason really good cookbooks are expensive," she said, ticking off how "first you cook your book, then you eat it, then you fight for years with your editors over foolish things like photo credits," which she insisted were published with each image instead of an easily overlooked list at the end.

"Really, it's a better deal than fiction," she said matter-of-factly. "When you consider the cost of a good cookbook over the, oh, 30 or so years it gives you pleasure, it's actually very cheap."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Creamy Pesto

We have been so consumed with household matters lately that we've barely paused to consume anything of interest. We've eaten, of course; but, after spending the better part of the past two weeks purging our attic of unnecessaries -- and converting a former "junk" room into a welcoming guest bedroom -- we've been too pooped to feel inspired in the kitchen.

Thankfully, Tim took a much needed break Sunday afternoon to visit the State Farmer's Market. We've ignored this year-round resource lately in favor of the many local markets that have mushroomed in our area. Too busy to visit our regular vendors on Saturday, he went downtown expecting to return with nothing but the basics. Instead, he brought home deep green Asian long beans, heavy Cherokee Purple tomatoes, several varieties of tender eggplant, and a big bag of fragrant basil leaves.

Basil may not sound like a big deal, but our once-endless supply was yanked a few weeks ago after wilting in record-breaking summer heat. It provided the perfect excuse to make one of the simplest, practically no-measure recipes in our repertoire: Creamy pesto, a concoction that turns low-fat cottage cheese into a deceptively rich sauce.

This is not for pesto purists, who may consider it a culinary catastrophe. We truly don't measure when we make this family favorite, which is highly tweakable based on what's in your pantry. Don't have pine nuts? Try walnuts. Tastes too green? Try some lemon zest and/or squeeze of juice. If you like it hot, add some chili flakes.

This is one of those sauces easily assembled by eyeball and taste, so be bold. It takes less time to prepare than to cook the pasta. Be sure to save some pasta water to finish sauce; keep a little on the side in case you have leftovers as a splash will help with reheating. If you wind up with more sauce than you need for the pasta, save the extra to smear on grilled or roasted salmon or chicken, or add to ground meat for awesome burgers.

Add your favorite pasta to salted boiling water. Cook as directed, omitting oil or butter.

Toast about 1/4 cup pine nuts in a dry pan until fragrant and just starting to brown. Set aside to cool.

Chunk a thick, 2-inch piece of aged paremesean, preferrably Reggiano, and add it to workbowl. Pulse until well chopped but not powdery. Set aside.

Drop one large clove of garlic, a good pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper in workbowl of food processor; whirl until coarsely chopped.

Rinse and pat dry a large bunch of basil (about 2-3 cups, loosely packed); reserve leaves and set aside. Do the same with about half as much flat-leaf parsley. Add to workbowl and chop coarsely. Slowly drizzle in olive oil while running until puree is loose and shiny.

Add about 1 cup of lowfat cottage cheese (such a Light & Lively) and parmesean (reserve some for garnish) to workbowl and pulse to blend. Add pine nuts (again, reserve a few for garnish), and pulse until desired consistency. We like ours to have texture, but you can let it rip for a really smooth consistency.

Drain pasta, reserving at least 1 cup of pasta water. Return drained pasta to pot and stir in creamy pesto. Add pasta water as needed to blend well. Pour into serving bowl and garnish with reserved pine nuts and cheese.

If you make this after a long weekend of household chores, take an Alleve for dessert and go to bed early.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A different burger for Labor Day dinner

We all labored mightily this weekend to clear our cluttered home of things we don't need -- including all sorts of strange must-keeps from the last purge, like at least a dozen unused, still-wrapped VHS cassettes. Tim's car is loaded with donatables and our jumbo garbage bin is too full to close. We'll actually have to ask a neighbor who was away for the holiday if we can stash more trash in his.

We feel fairly righteous about our accomplishments, and tickled to have located old family photos and other forgotten treasures. Among my weekend discoveries is, I'm pretty sure, a new understanding of where one's rotator cuff is located. Still, I can lift my arms enough to repeatedly open formerly jam-packed cupboards and closets to admire their orderly glow.

Our satisfaction is tempered, though, by the thought of next weekend's task of tackling the attic, which Tim said would likely qualify us for an episode of "Hoaders."

Despite dealing with this or running errands all weekend, we managed today to work in a bit of the traditional: the US Open blared in the background and requisite food breaks featured "angus" hot dogs for lunch and burgers for dinner. I wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary with the burgers and opted for a Thai-inspired blend that delivered savory success. We slammed them before I thought to take a photo but, colorfully flecked with carrot and cilantro and topped with buttery avocado slices, trust me, they looked as good as they tasted.

The meat we used was simply labeled "ground beef" by a local organic provider, Rare Earth Farms of Raleigh. If you want a juicy burger, choose at least 10-15 percent fat. Remember, a lot of it drips out while cooking, and what remains is flavor.

We served this with delicious Cauliflower and Potato Salad from Guilty Kitchen. I lost track of the garlic and shallots and they became rather well carmelized -- which is to say, just this side of burned. I didn't have more and decided to use them anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they added a nice chewy bite, almost like bacon bits but all veggie.

1 small carrot, shredded
1/4 cup red onion, shredded
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1 1/2 tbsp chunky peanut butter (such as Jif)
hot sauce, to taste
salt and pepper
1 lb ground beef
1/2 ripe avocado, sliced
split buns, lightly grilled
mayonnaise, *mustard

Gather first seven ingredients in mixing bowl; mash or stir well to combine. Add beef and blend with a light hand. Chill about 10-15 minutes.

Form into 3-4 hamburgers. Grill to desired doneness.

Lightly grill buns; dress with mayo, mustard and avocado slices.

*Graham is in a Dijon phase (Grey Poupon, mais oui ); we used a drizzle of Gulden's Honey Mustard.