Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Friends don't let friends make bad bok choy

Forgive me, friends, for we have ruined perfectly good, farm-fresh bok choy. It is my hope to save you from similar disaster.

Usually, we trim and slice bok choy, tossing the crunchier bits first in the wok and adding the leafy greens for just the last minute. A little oil, a little garlic, maybe a splash of white balsamic vinegar and some salt, and it's done.

It's possible that a braise would work, but not the one we tried. Simmered in a little vegetable stock with a sprinkle of Asian spice, it had good flavor but quickly turned to mush-- or, as Tim put it, "like snot."

I concede the dogs liked it, and especially liked the stock dribbled on their kibble, but it did not redeem the failure. Also, we only let them eat a few pieces for fear of a fiberific experience.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Savor the End of Summer with Basil Jelly

 Even hundreds of miles away in Ohio, my mother-in-law could sense the shift.

"Grandma just called to ask if Dad is planting pansies this weekend," Graham said on Saturday as we both watch Tim bag faded summer annuals and tuck in cheerful yellow pansies. "How did she know that?'

Because as much as I hate to admit it, it's time. Despite a miserably hot and humid summer, I try each year to turn a blind eye to the onset of fall. While the Twittersphere seems full of people happily making chili, talking about football and even hauling out cardigans, the appearance of my leggy basil plant launched me into anticipatory mourning for leafless trees and the horror of winter tomatoes.

Tim gently suggested that it might be time to put the basil out of its misery. Even the once plush sage plant that has been its faithful neighbor has given up and become bug feed.

I freeze pureed basil evey year to make winter pesto and pump up soups and rice, but I felt like I needed one more fresh use before bidding it farewell.

I've been in a canning frenzy lately, so I started to wonder if you could make basil jelly much in the tradition of mint jelly. There is considerable variation of the theme available online, but since we had already agreed to hack the poor thing to bits I wanted to be sure I got it right on the first try.

I have no shame in admitting that I relied on the Sure-Jell insert, which is sort of like Jelly-Making for Dummies, but it's never steered me wrong. I wanted to tweak it in some original way, however, and opted to trade some of the infusion water with a sweet reisling. Though its color is pale, I decided against enhancing it with food coloring. One taste and you'll know just how lushly green it is.

2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp. smallest, intact leaves from the bunch
3 1/2 cups water
1 cup reisling
1 pkg. Sure-Jell
5 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. butter (optional)

Prepare canning jars and lids. I've got the timing down pretty well and know when to pull jars from the water to fill with hot jelly. If you're not sure (or don't want to be rushed), line up jars upside-down on a clean dish towel; top with another fresh towel, sweater-style, to help them stay warm. Keep lid on water-bath canner to retain heat or maintain on low heat setting.

Wash and pat dry basil leaves, separating smallest ones for later use. Chop finely or, better yet, toss in food processor and buzz. Scrape pulversized puree into non-reactive pot. Pour 1 cup reisling into work bowl and pulse to incorporate any basil liquid and remaining puree. Pour into same pot, along with water.

Warm over medium-high heat then add box of pectin, stirring well to combine. You can add a little butter to reduce foam; I usually do but I'm not sure it makes much difference. Stirring often, bring to a full rolling boil.

Add sugar all at once. Stir with gusto until it all melts, then occassionally as it starts to boil. When it hits the boiling stage that can't be stirred back down, watch the clock for one full minute then remove from heat.

If there is an accumulation of foam -- more accurately called scum -- be sure to remove it, especially if you plan to give these as gifts. No one wants goo in their jelly and it's especially noticeable in light-colored jellies. I use a large metal skimmer that allows the good stuff to dribble back into the pot.

Scatter a few reserved basil leaves in each prepared jar and quickly fill with hot jelly. Wipe rims clean with a warm, damp cloth, then add lids and bands. Carefully place in water bath, bring to a boil and process about 5 minutes. Turn off heat, remove lid and let the jars sit for a few minutes to settle. Then carefully remove and place on a steady rack or heatproof surface where they can stay undisturbed until fully cool.

If you did it right you will be rewarded with pale clear jelly the shade of peridot -- if perdiot had tiny basil leaves in it, of course -- and a symphony of pings as the jars complete the sealing process. While Sure-Jell says the batch will produce 4 cups of jelly, this bountiful brew actually filled three half-pint and nine 4-ounce jars. Good thing, as my boasting has led friends and family to ask that it be included in their holiday gift assortment.

If you plan to make jam or jelly more than once, and I heartily recommend that you do, invest in a canning set that includes a jar funnel, magnet-tipped lid wand and a jar lifter. It's not much more expensive than a big bottle of aloe and way cheaper than a visit to the emergency room.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Onion Jam with Balsamic Cherries

My love of jam is not limited by the jewel tones of plump fruit enrobed in sweet syrup. One of my favorites, in fact, is Stonewall Kitchen's savory Roasted Garlic Onion Jam. While I doubt he ever tasted it, each time I indulge I find myself thinking of my dad, who could eat a raw onion like an apple and considered garlic salt the ideal seasoning.

Though easily found, and delicious on everything from crackers to grilled burgers with melty blue cheese, I cringe at paying $7.95 per jar of jam. Each time I scrape out the last bits, I think to myself, "I could make this." Well, I finally did. And if I say so myself, it's pretty damn good.

I hunted online for an onion jam recipe that looked reasonably similar but didn't find anything. This version struck me as a solid base, however. I tweaked it by adding both black cherry balsamic vinegar and dried cherries, as well as the piney punch of fresh rosemary. It grows in abundance by our sunny sidewalk, making visits to our mailbox an enjoyably fragrant experience.

1 large head garlic, roasted
2 tsp. olive oil, divided
8 cups Vidalia onion, diced
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 tbsp. fresh rosemary, minced, plus a 4-inch stalk, whole
salt, pepper
1 3/4 cups natural-style apple juice
3/4 cup apple cider
1/2 cup black cherry balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup dried cherries, coarsely chopped
4 cups sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 pkg. dry pectin (such as Sure-Jell)

Trim point from head of garlic to reveal flat surface with moist white cloves. Place atop a sheet of foil and drizzle with 1 tsp. olive oil. Seal and roast in 375 degree oven about 40 minutes or until tender. Unfurl foil wrap to cool, then squeeze to release soft cloves.

Pour 1/2 cup cherry balsamic into a microwave-safe cup. Add chopped cherries, cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 45 seconds. Set aside.

Using a large pot with a heavy bottom, saute onion and fresh minced garlic in remaining 1 tsp. olive oil over medium heat. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, add minced rosemary and one intact bushy stem; stir well and cover for about 5 minutes. Uncover, stir again and roasted garlic. Simmer another 5 minutes or until onions are soft and translucent.

Increase heat to medium high. Add apple juice and cider vinegar, cherry balsamic and dried cherries; simmer about 5 minutes more. Add 1/4 cup sugar and package of dry pectin; stir to ensure both are well incorporated. Bring to a boil and let bubble 3-4 minutes.

Add remaining sugars and boil hard, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until "jammy." Test by placing spoonful on plate tucked into the freezer for a minute or two. If still runny and loose, give it a few more minutes.

When ready, pluck out rosemary stem and set aside. Skim any foam then ladle jam into hot, sterilized jars with fresh lids. Process in water bath about 10 minutes, then allow to cool fully.

My first batch made six delicious half pints but I waited several  nervous days to for it to fully "set up." Not sure what I did differently, but the second try yielded seven half pints that were firm when cool.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Chicken Enchiladas: From Sandra Gutierrez's Southern-Latino Table to mine

A few years ago, I spent a tortured afternoon trying to dazzle my husband by making a linzer torte for his birthday. My optimism dimmed as the dough got increasingly messy and melty, and I was downright angry by the time I gave up on creating its classic lattice lid. While he dutifully ate it, I decided that day that there are some things that just aren't worth making at home. At least by me in my home.

Things that fall in this category often aren't terribly complex, but I don't lose sleep over investing my trust, my dollars and the ease of not messing my kitchen to those who have a demonstrated knack for making things I like to have brought to me on a plate I don't have to wash.

Chicken enchiladas used to fall into this category. I never imagined them to be especially difficult to prepare -- and now that I've done it, I can vouch that it's really pretty simple. Perhaps I was intimidated by all that cheese -- which, really, isn't that much per enchilada. It could have been any number of excuses, but they're all blown now that I made and we all thoroughly enjoyed Sandra Gutierrez's Chicken Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce from her new book, The New Southern-Latino Table (University of North Carolina Press).

I was fortunate to be among a group of bloggers invited to preview and write about her new book as part of the “Southern-Latino Dinner Party.” While I made dinner, others made appetizers and desserts. You can find all of the special event recipes – today, next Monday and Sept. 26 – at http://sandraskitchenstudio.com/ and http://uncpressblog.com/.

The ingredients for these tasty enchiladas are easy to gather and the recipe is simple to follow. My only quibble is that, when a recipe starts by telling me to preheat my oven, I think it's reasonable to assume that dinner is soon to follow. In fact, long after the oven was cranked and ready, I was still simmering tomatillos and hadn't rolled a single chicken-filled tortilla.

In the interest of time, I opted for a few shortcuts, such as zapping the tomatillo sauce with my immersion blender instead of waiting for it to cool and pouring it into a standard blender. Next time I'll even make this ahead. I also used a reliably tasty roasted chicken from my neighborhood market, which yielded the needed six cups of shredded chicken.

Regrettably, I did make one tweak that I would recommend against. We're weenies when it comes to chiles, but the otherwise mild flavors of this dish can stand up to the four serranos and one jalapeno Sandra includes. We cut back and the result, while delicious, lacked zip. Be bold and trust her list.

While you're at it, have a few extra tortillas on hand, too. I measured my filling to make sure it made a dozen enchiladas but actually would up with three bonus rolls. I baked them in a small dish with sauce and cheese, then popped them in the freezer to enjoy another day.

We barely made it through the full batch before I retrieved the frozen ones. Trust me, you won't be able to resist them, either.

I made another of Sandra's recipes, Green Mango Salad with Pepitas, to serve with the enchiladas but unfortunately cannot quote the recipe. It's an even tastier version of what she made when I first met her at a class last summer and blogged about it here. If the enchiladas did not provide sufficient temptation to get her book, this beautiful salad should seal the deal.

Chicken Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce
From The New Southern-Latino Table by Sandra Gutierrez

The tender chicken in this casserole is wrapped in delicate corn tortillas and baked under a bubbly and vibrant sauce flavored with cilantro and chiles. Monterey Jack cheese blankets the enchiladas, adding a mellow counterpoint to the spicy chiles. A perfect main dish for a party, it's served with a variety of colorful, refreshing garnishes. The recipe is easy to multiply, freezes beautifully so you can prepare it ahead of time, and, once baked, keeps warm for a good while, making it an ideal addition to any buffet table. A favorite of children and adults alike, this is one of the most requested recipes by my cooking students.

20 tomatillos, husks removed
2 cups chopped white onion
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 cup water
4 serrano chiles, seeded and roughly chopped (leave seeds for more heat)
1 jalapeño, seeded and roughly chopped (leave seeds for more heat)
2 cups chopped cilantro (leaves and tender stems), packed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

12 warm corn tortillas
6 cups cooked and shredded chicken (dark and white meat)
2 1/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Garnishes (optional)
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 cup seeded and finely chopped plum tomatoes
3/4 cup finely chopped cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped serrano chiles (with seeds)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a 13x9x2 baking dish. In a large Dutch oven, combine the tomatillos, onion, garlic, water, chiles, and jalapeños; bring to a simmer and cook until the tomatillos have popped, about 15 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Working in batches, transfer the tomatillo mixture and cilantro to a blender (or food processor) and blend until smooth; season sauce with salt and pepper. Return the sauce to the pan and simmer, uncovered, until it has thickened, about 20 minutes.

Place 1/2 cup of the tomatillo sauce in the bottom of the baking dish. Working with 1 tortilla at a time, dip the tortillas into the warm sauce in the pan. Place 1/2 cup of the chicken on the tortillas, roll them up, and place them seam side down, snuggly together, in the baking dish. Cover with the remaining tomatillo sauce; sprinkle with the cheese. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese has melted. Serve hot, with garnishes.

Yield: 6 servings

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Are you up to the challenge? $5 says you are

Slow down. You move to fast. And you spend too much money; on food, that is.

Slow Food USA is making a big impact this month trying to convince Americans that delicious and nutritious meals -- not to mention ones that are simple to prepare and make creative use of pantry staples -- can be put on the tables for $5 or less. Talk about a happy meal.

Think it can be't be done? There are a lot of major media outlets and food bloggers who would beg to disagree. Time magazine launched its health-minded coverage on Sept. 9, though some commenters grumbled that canned chickpeas really aren't a "slow food" while others described the suggested sandwich recipe as appealing as "cardboard."

Cooks have been more supportive on Food52, the online food community run by the New York Times' Amanda Hesser and her culinary partner, Merrill Stubbs. Its recent post features popular recipes submitted by some of its most popular bloggers, who share recipes and tips on every imaginable food topic. It even features Foodpickle, which offers timely assistance from knowledgeable cooks decicated to getting like-minded (but not necessarily experienced) home cooks out of a, well, pickle.

I found the recipe I wanted to try there. Temptingly titled "World's Easiest Falafel and Tzatiki," it includes just one tricky step. The technique is called Pre-Planning, a challenge for even those who enjoy daily cooking. The requisite dried gazbanzo beans require an overnight (or at least eight hour) soak to plump with absorbed liquid.

Since part of the goal is to keep costs down and use what's on hand, I made a few minor tweaks to the recipe. I substituted fragrant Middle Eastern za'atar seasoning for the cumin and parsley for the cilantro, and added a few tablespoons of bean water to puree the mix to a smooth paste. I also added some extra cucumber and tomato, which I served in thin, sandwich friendly slices.

Graham was initially excited about lunch because the cooking method is reminiscent of making latkes. He gamely tried one but soon remembered that he simply does not like falafel. Fine with me; there's enough left over for Tim and I to enjoy leftovers for work lunches.

Whether you make this or something else, consider taking the Slow Food USA challenge and make a delicious home-cooked meal on Sept. 17. For just $5, what have you got to lose?