Friday, May 29, 2009

Take Out Roast Chicken Made Good

All right, all right, I'll admit it...sometimes I just don't feel like cooking and sometimes I just don't feel like going out either. And these days the problem is magnified; Significant Eater is taking some night classes and I really don't like cooking just for myself - I enjoy cooking for others, because it 's fun for me to make others happy with my cooking. As it should be for you...otherwise, well, you really shouldn't be doing it, but that's another story.

So every once in a while, when I'm in the no cooking, no going out mode, I'll stop at the local deli, even though I always vow not to stop at the local deli because it really isn't that good. Actually, the local deli sucks. It's glatt kosher, and why is it that glatt kosher places generally suck? They don't have to; they just do. Sigh. However, this place does have a roast chicken special, where for $11, you get a whole roasted chicken and a pound of a side, which can be okay if you stick to the cole slaw or barley or something along those lines. The chicken doesn't look half bad, either...

The biggest problem with the chicken is that it's usually cooked to shit. Now, if you get there around lunchtime, you can get them to pull something off the rotisserie while it actually still has some juice in it, otherwise it tastes like its been through the deflavorizer. If you get one of those, just do what I did the other day, and that's make a big batch of chicken salad. I got to make Significant Eater a nice sandwich and packed it for her to take to school. And guess what? It made both of us happy, which is the point of cooking!

Chicken Salad

1 lb. roasted/poached chicken - diced or shredded if you really have time
1/4 cup diced sweet onion or a few sliced scallions to taste
1/4 cup diced celery
1/4 cup diced red pepper, pimento or 2 hot cherry peppers, seeded and minced
2 T capers, minced
2 T minced parsely
2 tsp minced thyme
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 T red or white wine vinegar
1/4 cup mayo
2 T olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste

Mix it all up well. Taste it - adjust seasonings, add more vinegar, mayo, whatever to taste.

You can make your chicken salad 100 different ways...sometimes I lean more Italian, and use only olive oil, no mayo. Sometimes I add a tablespoon or two of Dijon mustard. You can substitute strained yogurt for the mayo. It can be Cambodian, Phillipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, and on and on. You can add sunflower seeds (god no). Pretend you're a Californian and add grapes. Whatever, the recipe above is a good all-around starter to play really can't go wrong.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Barbecuing In Manhattan - Well, How About Grilling?

Barbecuing, or at least the definition of barbecue that I use, is cooking food with low heat and wood smoke for a long time - low and slow, as they say. As a matter of fact, the National Barbecue Association says the following:

Many people think good barbecue is from the sauce you put on the meat – wrong! Real barbecue is meat that is cooked with indirect heat and smoke (USDA Definition). Not boiled in water or cooked on your normal backyard grill that uses direct heat. They also say nothing about sauce...three essential elements of barbecue are: Good meat, the process of slow cooking at a low temperature, and the fuel used for heat and flavor.

Probably the reason you don't hear about home barbecuing in Manhattan is that it takes not only time, but the ability to produce wood smoke for hours and hours, which generally aggravates at least a few neighbors. There are all sorts of Fire Department rules about charcoal as well, making the whole subject of barbecue a little troubling - though I do have a friend or two who happen to have backyard spaces, where some ninja barbecuing takes place.

Enter the grill, and that cousin of barbecuing, grilling. Since it's a much shorter process, there's less time to aggravate the neighbors. Electric grills are actually legal in Manhattan - so even though cooking on an electric grill is akin to cooking on a grill pan on a stove, if you've got an outdoor space and a grill, well at least you can pretend. You can even get some smoke flavor going too, but that's for another conversation. So on Monday, when some friends invited us up to their terrace for a "barbecue," we of course jumped at the opportunity, since I miss grilling.

Since I'm the "chef," I get to do most of the cooking on the grill. And seriously, what's not to like about grilling when the view looks like this...this is looking uptown from high up on the lower east side...and even though it was a bit hazy, the view is still awesome...

Since it was Memorial Day, and since it was a last minute idea, we didn't make anything fancy. I wanted to go grab some steaks at my butcher Jeffrey, in the Essex St. Market, but the market was closed. So I was resigned to shopping at our local grocery, where I picked up hot dogs, ground turkey and chicken breasts, (all kosher, at least), and all which can be grilled quickly. While the dogs and the chicken were tasty, the turkey burgers were not - the Empire turkey is ground to such a paste that burgers made from it have the texture of, well, lousy ground turkey. Really, it's a must to avoid.

We grilled corn and asparagus, made macaroni salad and coleslaw, snacked on guacamole, salsa and chips, drank beer and rose wine, and finished with homemade sorbets and banana chocolate chip bread...all delicious and not bad for an impromptu "barbecue" high up on the 18th floor!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Missing Winter...Already?

I know, I know, you probably all think I'm crazy. But once the temps start approaching 90° F, I start getting cranky (well, crankier). And then add in the humidity, and all hell breaks loose.

Anyone who hasn't lived in New York City for a whole summer can't really say it's not that bad. Because it is. Take a really hot day, add in really high humidity, and try standing on a subway platform for about 10 minutes while every other friggin' train but the one you want goes by - twice. For instance, the platform at 1st - 2nd Avenue and Houston Streets. Where the V train sits at the end of its run, waiting to return back to Queens...all the while spitting out noxious, hot fumes from its barely functioning air conditioning system. Counting the minutes while wondering how much of the $100 worth of Whole Foods stuff you've got in your reusable cloth bag will spoil by the time you get home.

I mean, I love the summer for all the great fruit and vegetables we get at the markets. I love the minimal clothing on so many beautiful people...though some people should really be covering up, don't you think? I like the free concerts in Central Park and all over the city. I enjoy the occasional bike ride around Central Park (A friend of mine has bicycles - you don't think I'm crazy enough to rent one, do you?). I like the awesome thunderstorms and watching the lightning from our 15th floor window, as the storms roll in from the west.

So, if we could have summer without the heat and humidity, I'd be all for it. And since we can't, while I'm waiting for that damn subway home from Whole Foods, I'll just dream about cooler days to come...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Totally Mex - My First Mole

Mexican food isn't something I cook too often, even though Significant Eater and I really like to eat it. It's certainly not easy to find great Mexican food in a restaurant here in NYC. Sure, there's Rosa Mexicano and Zarela's, but they've been around forever in restaurant years, and the food has seen better days. They don't offer much, to my taste, for the price/value experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are some very good taquerias where you can grab a taco al pastor or a fish taco for $3 or $4; for instance, Pinche Taqueria on Mott St. (with a 2nd location on Lafayette) does a nice job. There are taco trucks and the Red Hook Ball Fields, where the aroma of grilled corn and freshly made tortillas fills the air; there are seƱoras strolling about the streets (in midtown!) with carts filled with homemade tamales for $1, as well as tiny counters tucked into the backs of bodegas on Avenue B and 10th Avenue as well. (Don't tell the DOH, please). These are where you're getting the best bite for the buck, imo.

And then there's cooking at home. I mean, that's what I do, isn't it? And I do it a lot...just not a lot of Mexican - though maybe it's time for a change. First, I went out and bought "us" a tortilla press for about $20. I figure if I can bake some decent breads, why shouldn't our tortillas be home made too? And since it's a basic staple of the cuisine, why not start there? So now I'm making tortillas, and even the first tortillas I made at home were light years beyond the ones in the plastic packages sold in the dairy section of my supermarket. Once the dough is mixed, it's baked on a griddle - it takes all of about 2 minutes and they look like this:

If you notice they're puffing up, that's all good, 'cause when they're made right, that's what they do. And the griddle that's being used comes in handy for roasting tomatoes and garlic and chiles and onions too...

Of course, no one can exist on tortillas and salsa, can they? And, since we were having a little dinner party with a few neighbors, I figured as long as I was playing with Mexican, I might as well stick my neck out and go for it - so two of the dishes I tried were mole coloradito (red Oaxacan mole) and pork carnitas. Coloradito is one of the Seven Moles of Oaxaca; Oaxaca, interestingly enough, is known as the Land of the Seven Moles. Let me say this about moles: they have a lot of ingredients. Coloradito, the simplest of the moles, has about 15 ingredients, including 2 types of chiles (ancho and guajillo), sesame seeds, roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, onions, day-old bread, plantain, cloves, cinnamon, oregano, allspice, Mexican chocolate, chicken stock, etc. Yikes.

I started off by poaching a dozen chicken thighs, along with various other chicken parts. When the thighs were almost cooked through, they were removed and the remaining parts were left to simmer for hours to make a tasty stock. As that was going on, the mole was prepared - starting with the roasting of the dried chiles on that griddle above, and causing Significant Eater, the cat and me to cough and sneeze as the apartment filled with the smoke from the roasting chiles. The mole is best started a day or two before using - that allows the flavors to mellow and get to know each other; it's finished by simmering the thighs in the sauce thinned with some stock. We all thought the brick-red mole was delicious, and check out the color:

I also wanted to try carnitas; the recipes I culled from various sources were all pretty easy. 4 pounds or so of pork shoulder, cut into cubes and braised in water seasoned with oregano, onions, garlic, orange rind, and a few other tasties.

When the pork was tender, I shredded it a bit with two forks and let it and let the braising liquid reduce; then the pork is left to fry in its own fat till nice and brown and crispy...and it's delicious served on the warm corn tortillas.

Along with the tortillas, mole and carnitas, I made guacamole, roasted tomato salsa, salsa verde cruda (raw green tomatillo sauce) and a creamy avocado salsa. Neighbors brought shrimp tamales, a multi-layered bean dip, roasted poblano crema, and lots and lots of beer and we made micheladas too. Micheladas are wonderfully refreshing and a great way to drink that beer. Recipes are here...they're great in the summer and you really ought to try them.

So who needs mediocre Mexican restaurants when food this good can be prepared at home?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Happy World Cocktail Day

Yes, folks, raise a glass - today is World Cocktail Day, the culmination, as it were, of World Cocktail Week.

It's a bit early for me to be having that cocktail, and I prefer to wait for Significant Eater since I don't really like to drink alone - well, unless I have to.

So, what'll it be? An Aviation perhaps, with that great funky sweet and sour hit of Maraschino and lemon? Maybe a nice, tart Daiquiri or Margarita, all limey and tropical? How about the bitter side and my favorite, Campari. A good Negroni is one of the world's great cocktails, with lots of permutations depending on what gin and/or vermouth you're using. I like Beefeater or Plymouth for my gin, and Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth for my, well, sweet vermouth.

My recipe for a good Negroni goes something like this. Take a double old-fashioned glass and fill it with ice. Add equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth, Campari. Perhaps a few drops of orange bitters. Garnish with a good hunk of orange peel. If you want to fancy it up, stir it up in a mixing glass with lots of cracked ice and strain into chilled cocktail glasses - go crazy and ignite the orange peel in front of everyone - if you can...

I digress. If you want something with brown spirits, how about a Manhattan? I've talked about those before. Or a Mint Julep? If I had mint growing in my backyard, I'd be thinking about that. Sazeracs are good, aren't they? The list goes on and on.

But, after giving it some thought, I think SE and I will be raising our glasses with that classic of classics, the Martini. But taking the Martini one step further - into a drink called the Fitty-Fitty, which we first sampled at NYC's Pegu Club. It's just like it sounds; 50 - 50 or half gin, half dry vermouth. Tanqueray, Plymouth or Beefeater all work. Please have something at least as good as Noilly Prat for your dry vermouth (it's makes up half your drink), and if it's more than a month or two old, or out of the refrigerator for a while, throw it out because it will just ruin your drink. Buy some Dolin or Vya and see what they do for a cocktail. A dash or two of orange bitters (I actually like 3 or 4) makes it sing. Stir, stir, stir some more over lots of cracked ice and then strain into an icy cocktail glass. Lemon twist is the garnish for the 50-50, but a Martini can take an olive instead, if you like.

Happy World Cocktail Day!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Spring Greens...and Purples...and Reds...and

Just a day or two ago, the Union Square green market was ablaze - not only with green, but with flowers like the lilacs and the purple tipped asparagus above, as well as any number of young, tender spring vegetables that are always an inspiration to me as a cook. Let's take another look at that asparagus...and radishes...and ramps...

And here's what I like to do with them. First of all, as little as possible - remember, these are delicate young vegetables, and they don't need a whole heck of a lot to make them delicious. One of my inspirations for preparing vegetables has been the restaurants Lupa and Otto. At each of these wonderful places, there are usually any number of vegetable antipasti, some prepared just like I've done the asparagus and radishes. First off, notice I've trimmed the asparagus (to about a 6" length) and peeled the bottom 2". Cooking school will do that to you. Then, slice the vegetables very thinly (if you slice the asparagus on an acute diagonal, it will look very cool). Next, toss the vegetables with a bit of kosher salt about an hour before they'll be served - this serves to draw out some of the water and partially "cooks" the vegetable as well.

When ready to serve, blot the vegetable dry - you'll be surprised at how much water has leeched out, and that water tastes like, well, salt water. Then, give them a toss with some good extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper - taste and make sure they're good. Sometimes, I'll top the salads with a bit of shaved pecorino or shaved parmesan; others just a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt for contrast. Maybe a bit of be the judge. This is what I ended up with the other day...crudi of asparagus and radishes.

For the ramps, I decided to do a little riff on a favorite pasta, spaghetti aglio e olio e peperoncino, or spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and hot chili pepper, substituting the ramps for the garlic. So, once the heavily salted water is rolling and you've added the pasta, saute the thinly sliced ramps in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, adding a 1/2 teaspoon of chili pepper flakes or to taste.

When the pasta is almost al dente, toss it in the pan with the ramps and oil - save a good cup of the pasta cooking water, though. I never drain pasta by dumping it into a colander; instead, I remove long pasta with tongs directly into the saucepan and if I'm cooking penne or some similar shape, I remove the pasta with a Chinese bamboo strainer right into the pan.

Toss it up really well and when it's just about cooked perfectly, turn off the heat and add a nice handful of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (and I hope you're not using that stuff in a can, or your pasta can never rise above the level of meh) along with a couple of tablespoons of minced parsley. If it's too "tight," add some of the pasta water. You don't really want it saucy, just dressed. Remember, the dish is about the pasta, everything else is a condiment. And here's what we ended up with...a delicious green market dinner.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Over the past year or so, Significant Eater has developed a significant aversion to bananas. Yes, bananas; that wondrous fruit readily available the year round, at a reasonable price. No matter where you are, I'm sure bananas are around...they're grown in over 100 countries, travel well, and people just like 'em. Well, most people.

Back when Significant Eater trained for and ran and completed the 2004 NYC marathon, she devoured bananas, and many runners and other endurance athletes find bananas a quick, easily digestible source of energy. There have been studies about that...and if I felt like it, I'd google it and post a link, but...

Anyway, Significant Eater is once again an athlete-in-training. Yes, that's right, she's registered for and planning to run the 2009 NYC Marathon, and I am once again her designated nutrition coach. But if you think she's back into eating bananas, you'd be wrong. So what's a coach to do?

Well, for one, I am (as might have been pointed out before) a professionally schooled cook. And in order to complete my schooling, I did have to take an intensive program in Pastry and Baking. My teacher for those classes was the one and only Nick Malgieri - the head of the Pastry & Baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education, formerly Peter Kump's Cooking School.
Nick is a great teacher, a wonderful baker and just an all-around good guy (though he did knock my grade down a bit for having too much buttercream in between the layers of a chocolate cake I baked for an exam). That didn't matter a bit; one of the go-to books in my baking arsenal has always been...

Now, getting back to bananas, and getting Significant Eater to eat them, that's the goal. And really, what's a better way to start than with what is in my mind a classic; the hippie-ish 60's and 70's delicacy - banana bread? There must be hundreds of recipes for banana bread. With nuts or without? Perhaps raisins or some other dried fruit? What about chocolate chips or something decadent like that?

Well, it just so happens that Nick's book has one of the simplest, no-brainer recipes for banana bread that I've tried (confession - I've been making banana bread since way before SE's aversion to the fruit appeared). Works every time - it's tried and true. But, and here's where the problem started...I decided to go "off-the-menu" as they say, and dragged this out instead...

Don't get me wrong - this is a great book too. It's just that the banana bread that I baked from it was a bit of a disaster...I'm sure it was partly my fault, but suffice to say that I'll be returning to Nick's guidance when I have some more ripe bananas in the house.

Anyway, to start, you should gather all the ingredients together - that way, you'll know BEFORE you start that you can complete the recipe - which you've of course read through and through. Haven't you?

Baking, as stated many times before, is a bit more of a science than "cooking." Not getting into that debate right now, but in general it's good to follow a recipe and measure stuff when baking - especially for novices and semi-novices like me. In the picture above, you can see some whole-wheat flour, which isn't called for in the recipe - but I like to sub about 1/2 cup of the whole wheat flour in for the plain white flour (makes me feel virtuous); that's about as much riffing as I do. It's also good to know if your oven is properly calibrated - invest $10 in an oven thermometer to find out - if it's off, you can adjust accordingly.

Banana bread is from the "quick bread" family of baking. In general, that means the wet ingredients are mixed together, flour and nuts/dried fruit/chocalate/etc. are added and stirred just to combine thoroughly, the batter is dumped into a pan (or muffin cups) and the baking is commenced. Easy. The rise comes from eggs, baking powder and/or baking soda and the heat of the oven - no yeast.

And even though the bread I baked the other day was a semi-disaster (okay, it got stuck to the pan and practically fell apart when I went to put it on a cooling rack), it was still quite serviceable - and delicious...

Trust me - with a little practice, you'll be turning out banana breads that can even be served for dessert- topped with ice cream, what could be bad? I like it toasted and topped with peanut butter for breakfast, and Significant Eater doesn't even know how many bananas she's eaten!


1 cup raisins
1 1/4 c (6 1/4 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 c (2 1/2 oz.) whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
6 T butter, softened
2/3 c sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c (8 oz.) mashed ripe bananas

Preheat your oven to 375. Butter and flour an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 3/4 loaf pan.

Toss raisins with a tablespoon of the flour...this keeps them from settling to the bottom of the batter.

Sift together the dry ingredients.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time till well combined. Scrape the bowl a few times when mixing. Add the bananas and vanilla - mix more. Scrape again.

Fold in flour mixture, then raisins. Combine thoroughly but don't overmix.

Pour and scrape the batter into the pan. Bake for 45 - 55 minutes, till done - check doneness with a skewer or thin knife by inserting into bread - it should come out clean.

Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then remove to a rack and let cool - for at least 2 hours works.