Thursday, April 28, 2011

Weekend wake-up call

Despite popular opinion, Vindaloo does rise at an hour early enough to eat breakfast, or some meal that might approximate breakfast.  In fact, Vindaloo really enjoys cooking breakfast on the weekends when she can be more relaxed and not have to rush out the door to her next great adventure.  Which is usually right around the corner.

Furthermore, when Vindaloo cooks and eats a relaxed breakfast, she likes to serve something with a bit of a kick.  She has a particular penchant for poached eggs prepared in perky, piquant, peppery and peculiar sauces, preferrably with pimientos.  English majors, please don't fail to notice my attempts at alliteration!  Last fall, after her near-yearly pilgrimage to Albuquerque, she made and ingested Huevos Rancheros Christmas for several weeks on end (which is eggs with red and green chile sauce--and if you want the recipe, please write).  But lately, Vindaloo has been on a bit of an egg and spicy tomato sauce binge.  Lucky for her, her husband also likes spicy foods, so following are three egg recipes for you to try. 

Eggs Poached in Sauce Tomatish is not only spicy, but perfumed with smoky paprika.  It is entirely yummy and make sure you have lots of good, crusty bread or pita bread for the sauce.  Shakshuka is an Israeli variation on Tomatish, but with Middle Eastern spices.  It smells fabulous when it's cooking, but do try it if only for the lycopene boost, which apparently happens optimally when olive oil and tomatoes get all friendly and happy together in the pan.  And what more can be said about Eggs in Hell other than that they are devilishly good (oops!! sorry!!)?  Let me know if they don't just give your morning a jump start--and your tastebuds a proper kick in the proverbial pants.

Eggs Poached in Sauce Tomatish

Make this in individual ramekins or in a large skillet.  Great for a brunch gathering.

1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
1 cup sweet white onion, chopped finely or 1/2 cup onion, grated
8 oz. tomato paste
6 oz. water, plus extra for more thinning as necessary
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 eggs
goat or feta cheese and additional chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
warmed, crusty bread or pita bread

1.  Heat the oil in a skillet or heavy bottomed saucepan to medium high. 
2.  Cook onions, garlic, parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper briefly, then turn heat to low and saute until soft and translucent.  Do not overbrown. 
3.  Add paprika and stir, cooking for 1 minute.
4.  Add grated tomato, stir to blend.
5.  Turn heat up to medium and add tomato paste.  Stir and blend with other ingredients for 30 seconds.
6.  Add water and stir well.
7.  Add lemon juice and blend.
8.  Turn heat to med-high and bring to a boil, adding more water to reach desired consistency--your choice.  Sauce tomatish can be as thin as chicken broth to as thick as canned tomato sauce, or thicker.  
9.  When sauce is close to desired consistency, reduce heat to a simmer and crack eggs one by one into hot sauce. 
10. Poach, covered, until eggs are set.  For runny eggs, cook about 2 to 3 minutes.  Garnish with cheese and parsley, if desired.  Serve with warmed pita bread.  Serves 2.

For individual servings: You can ladle the hot sauce into greased gratin dishes and bake or broil until eggs are set.  Garnish with cheese and parsley if desired.

Shakshuka  Eggs Poached in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

2 Tbs. olive oil
2 to 3 Anaheim chiles or 1 to 2 jalapeƱos, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped (or substitute canned, roasted green chiles or pickled sliced jalapenos)
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 Tbs. paprika
1 15 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
Kosher salt, to taste
4 eggs
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
Warm pitas

1.  Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
2.  Add chiles and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, about 6 minutes.
3.  Add garlic, cumin, and paprika, and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft, about 2 more minutes.
4.  Put tomatoes and their liquid into a bowl and break up slightly hands.
5.  Add tomatoes to skillet along with 1/2 cup water, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
6.  Crack eggs over sauce.  Cover and cook until yolks are just set, about 5 minutes.
7.  Baste the whites of the eggs with tomato mixture, being careful not to disturb the yolk.
8.  Sprinkle shakshuka with feta and parsley.  Serve with warm pitas.  Serves 2.

Eggs in Hell

There are several versions of this dish.  This is my favorite.

2 Tbs. EVOO
1/2 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 jalapeƱo peppers or 1-2 serrano peppers, seeded and minced
1/2 tsp. crushed hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (you can use canned or jarred)
2 Tbs. cider vinegar
4 eggs
1/4 cup or more crumbled queso cotija, feta or goat cheese
chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Crusty bread for dipping

1.  Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until rippling.
2.  Add onion, garlic, peppers and crushed red pepper.  Cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
3.  Add the tomato sauce and the cider vinegar and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a simmer.
4.  Crack eggs and lower gently one-by-one into the tomato sauce.
5.  Cook until eggs are set.  For runny yolks, cook about 5-7 minutes.
6.  Remove from heat and cover generously with cheese.  Garnish with parsley.  Serve with warm, crusty bread.  Serves 2.

If these egg dishes don't wake you up, then you are either 1.) comatose, 2.) dead, or 3.) inert matter.  Please let me know what you think.  I eagerly await your reviews.

Monday, April 25, 2011

There's the rub

"...ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.."

My deepest thanks to The Bard, who provides the inspiration for today's post, and my liberally paraphrased excepts from Hamlet's soliloquy.

Today, my third (and hopefully not final) post for friends who cook and eat alone on this mortal coil.  Below are four more recipes you can quickly assemble and have on hand in your pantry so that you can put together an "outrageous fortune" of a meal, taking arms against your sea of cooking troubles, and by opposing, end them.  Applause!  Encore!  Show carried over!

These are dry rub recipes; i.e., dry spice and herb mixtures that you can use to season all manner of things, including vegetables, meats and fish.  I also have a secret technique: buy your meat fresh, season generously with your choice of rub and then wrap well and freeze until ready to cook.  You'll get deeply seasoned meat, ready to be grilled, roasted or broiled.  And away we go...

Jim Tabb's Barbecue Rub

    From Southern Living July 2005, courtesy of Jim Tabb.  Killer good on pork and also on chicken.  I like to cover an entire Boston butt pork roast, put it on my electric rotisserie, set it and forget it.  You'll  get a roast that is outstandingly tender and beautifully seasoned. 
1 1/4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup granulated garlic
1/4 cup paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground red pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon lemon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Combine all ingredients.  Store in an airtight container.  When ready to use, season pork or chicken generously and let stand for about 30 minutes before cooking.   Makes about 3 cups.

Elizabeth Karmel's Chicago Steakhouse Rub

2 Tbs. dry mustard
4 tsp. granulated garlic
4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
2 tsp. sweet smoked Spanish paprika
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. cayenne

Combine all ingredients and store airtight in a jar.  When ready to use, coat both sides of steak generously with rub; allow to stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes before grilling.  Makes about 1/2 cup.

Shirttail Cajun Cousin Chicken Wing Rub

This mixture is great on both chicken and pork, and it's an excellent rub to use on a whole chicken that you grill on a half-full can of beer (remember that technique?)

2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. curry powder
2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 tsp. cajun seasoning (such as Tony Chachere's or Zatarain's)  OR an equal amount of Penzey's BBQ 3000
1 tsp. salt, optional (if I use Penzey's seasoning, I use salt)
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Combine all ingredients well and store airtight.  If you're making chicken wings, they are even better if seasoned overnight.  I toss mine into a large (recycled) Ziploc bag and massage until everybody's happy.  Be generous with the seasoning.

My Friend David's Father's All-Purpose Rub

  Great on pork, chicken and fish...

1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs. ground ginger
2 Tbs. ground coriander
2 Tbs. onion powder
2 Tbs. garlic powder
2 Tbs. kosher salt
2 Tbs. cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients and store airtight.  Makes about 1 cup.  Sprinkle generously on fish, or rub well into meat.


I hope you'll enjoy using these dry rubs as much as I do.  What dreams may come!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taking time to cook means taking time to connect

As the banner reads for this blog, I love food and I love to cook.  I suppose that I was indoctrinated early: having large family dinners with my Polish grandmother meant lots of food, and at holiday time, days spent in preparation.  The longstanding family joke was that we wouldn't be halfway through the meal we were eating before my grandmother would say, "Now, what should we have for _____________ (insert breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, etc.)?"  My grandmother was always thinking about food and her life revolved around cooking for her family.  She pleased them well. 

In fact, her tireless efforts to please her family produced a lot of good-natured joking from my uncles.  One Easter dinner, while the family was passing a platter of my grandmother's legendary garlic-roasted leg of lamb with apricot sauce, she got up from the table to get something else to serve.  When she came back, bearing yet another bowl of something delicious to devour, my Uncle Phillip said, "Sit down and eat, Mama, or you'll be too tired to do the dishes later."  We all laughed, knowing that yet another enjoyable part of being together was gathering in the kitchen for clean-up while my grandmother relaxed, exhausted and happy, in her rocking chair in the breakfast nook nearby.

My grandmother was a wonderful intuitive cook, as I've mentioned in a previous post.  Her food was delicious, it was uncomplicated, and there was a lot of it.  She was very committed to feeding her family and she always did so out of great love.  I recall a time in my early 20's that I traveled by bus across New York State to northwestern Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents.  I mentioned to my grandmother in the ride from the bus terminal to their home that I was craving her baked custard.  The next day, at midday meal, there was the baked custard, sparkling like an opaque, satiny jewel, drenched in liquified caramelized sugar, waiting to be eaten.  I cannot recall a baked custard that has tasted so good as that one.

I have countless memories of my grandmother's cooking and just as many of the family gatherings, holidays and picnics we enjoyed, even long after the time that both of my grandparents were gone and it was up to their children to carry on the tradition of lovingly preparing food for family reunions.  So I learned well, and I saw how food was used and presented as an act of love and caring.  Family meals meant being together.  To this day, I am very conscious that preparing meals for those held close and dear in my heart is an act of love and caring modeled by my beautiful and very much missed grandmother.

This is one of the chief motivations underlying why I take time to cook.  The emotional rewards for preparing food are so reinforcingly pleasant that I want to cook as often as possible.  I want to recreate the experiences I have enjoyed all of my life.  And when guests are in my home, I want to treat them as though they were my family, and to allow them to experience, if for just a short time, what it means to be part of a loving circle of warmth and welcome.  I want both their bodies and their spirits to be nourished.

I realize that some of you reading this blog will not have enjoyed the kinds of experiences with food and family that I have been privileged with.  I realize, too, that some of you have had not only indifferent, unpleasant experiences, but perhaps even upsetting or traumatic experiences at family meal times.  I further realize that some of you may not even like to cook, but you do like to eat good food.  I would ask you to consider that allowing yourself to have a fresh experience with food preparation might help you activate your "reset button."  If you are not ready to cook for yourself, I encourage you to find a friend or friends who do like to cook and make it a point to spend time with them in their kitchens and as a guest at their table. 

Be bold, invite yourself.  Tell your friends you want to have a meal with them.  Tell them that it would be really meaningful to you to spend time with them in this way.  Create a surrogate family of friends that will nourish and care for you in the way that you would have wanted your own family to do.  And if you are ready to provide a more intensive level of caring for yourself, read Daniel Halpern's "How to Eat Alone" and get into the habit of honoring yourself, perhaps in just a small, purposeful way.  You don't have to roast yourself a leg of lamb to do this.  You can celebrate with crackers and cheese on a paper plate if you wish.  The point is to be intentional, purposeful, and mindful about how you nourish yourself and allow yourself to be nourished and cared for by others.

Peter Kaminsky, in his forthcoming book Culinary Intelligence, states that although he regards cooking as one of life's great pleasures, it is viewed by many as an onerous chore.  "Any recipe that takes more than 30 minutes implies that you are being robbed of time to watch television/friend new people on Facebook/do yoga" (Food and Wine, March 2011, p 65).  Without climbing on my soapbox of "and this is what is fundamentally wrong with our society," I want to encourage you to really think about the priorities that we set that interfere with our ability to not only nourish and sustain ourselves in healthy, life-affirming ways, but also how those same priorities disallow intimacy, presence, and authenticity in our relationships with others.  For me, food and sharing food with others is the primary vehicle that drives my desire to connect with my loved ones on a very deep and meaningful level.  Few things please me more than to look at a gathering of friends or family across the table, knowing that I have yet another memory to cherish.  I think to myself, "Now, this is real."  I always feel intensely grateful for these opportunities, whether they take place in my home, or in the homes of my friends and family.

I plan to continue to take time to cook, to connect, to nourish, to sustain.  Can you imagine what our world would look like if we all made a committment to do this as often as possible?  I hope you will continue to cook, to connect, to nourish and to sustain.  Do this for yourself first.  Then pay it forward.

May your tastebuds (and your spirit) dance.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A bowl of comfort

There is nothing quite like April 15th to strike fear in the hearts of the self-employed and to induce a state of existential anxiety unlike any experienced before (unless you still recall the previous April 15th).  I wanted nothing more than comfort.  Writing a check with that many digits has a way of reducing me to a toothless, whimpering sub-human being...and I wanted to be soothed.  I also felt very much like a peasant, dependent on the land (read: pantry) and my ability to forage (read: find viable ingredients in the refrigerator) for sustenance.

Polenta has always been my first love when I look for comfort in the form of food.  Soft, creamy, buttery, gently granular (if you like your polenta coarsely ground), blanketed with an almost obscene quantity of freshly grated Parmesan, Piava, Romano or Asiago, and sometimes prepared with heavy cream for extra richness, I will dream about polenta on the astral plane long after I've lost my ability to sit up and take nourishment or to make coherent and logical sense.

So on this particular night, it was rich, creamy, buttery polenta.  And with the polenta was a mushroom ragout, rich with olive oil and fragrant with garlic, tomatoes and herbs.  And plenty of grated Piava cheese.  And to drink, the lovely, bright, raspberry-jammy and gloriously hibiscus blossom-hued Chateau St. Michelle Nellie's Garden Dry Rose 2007 (Columbia Valley, WA).  Silky, soft, and full of fruit, it was a great mid-spring wine to sip on the patio and then to provide inspiration for dinner.

Was I comforted?  Between the creamy polenta, the earthy, rich mushroom ragout and the refreshingly dry rose, you betcha.

Mushroom Ragout with Creamy Polenta

1/4 cup EVOO
1 lb. mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped fine
4 large Roma tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped with their juice (or use 1 cup canned San Marzano tomatoes with juice)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tsp. dried basil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry red wine (or substitute sweet vermouth)
Creamy Polenta (recipe follows)
good quality virgin olive oil, for finishing
plenty of freshly grated cheese (such as Piava, Parmesan, Romano or Asiago)
freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

1.  Heat olive oil in a 4 quart pot over medium high heat until rippling.
2.  Add mushrooms and brown all over, stirring occasionally.
3.  Add onion and garlic, stirring frequently, until coated well with olive oil, being careful not to brown garlic, reducing heat if necessary.
4.  Add tomatoes and their juice, oregano, marjoram and basil.  Stir well and add salt and pepper to taste. 
5.  Bring to boiling, add red wine and return to boil, then reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes while you prepare polenta.  Volume of the ragout should reduce by half and sauce should thicken.

Creamy Polenta:  Polenta usually comes in a package with directions for preparation.  That's a good starting place.  In general, the ratio of water to polenta is 3 to 1.  Add plenty of butter and salt to the water.  Be sure to pour the dry polenta in a steady stream into the boiling water, stirring well to break up lumps (I will often use a large whisk).  I like to increase the water to polenta ratio to 4 to 1 for a creamier consistency (sometimes substituting up to 1 cup of heavy cream or half and half for the 4th cup of water), stir a few times and then reduce the heat to very low, cover and let it sit because I'm lazy.  I stir a few times while I'm doing other things and then serve with plenty of grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper.  I also prefer coarsely ground polenta for its texture in most cases, but when I want comfort, I choose the finer grain.

To serve ragout and polenta, place a generous amount of polenta in a large soup plate.  Cover with plenty of mushroom ragout, drizzle with the olive oil of your choice and generously top with freshly grated cheese and chopped parsley.  Makes enough for 2 with leftovers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thank you for your patience

Well, it seems that Vindaloo must have a little tussel every year with the beloved IRS before life can achieve some kind of equilibrium.  So after this week's painful come-uppance with taxes (only death remains a mystery now), Vindaloo returns to her writing about all things food and wine with her dignity (barely) intact and her checkbook freshly pillaged.

And so, Dear Readers, I must thank you for your patience.  Because when the IRS talks, people listen.  And this kind of listening took me away from things much more pleasant--like writing and cooking.  I must also thank my husband for his patience, because his wife sometimes takes more time than most to decide what she would like to cook and eat for dinner (my husband having wisely left these decisions in my hands months ago), and is rather like a tempermental artiste (read: stubborn mule) about these matters.  On one particular coolish evening, when leaving the patio and gardens would have symbolically meant the end of happy hour, Vindaloo pounced upon the notion of fresh garbanzo beans with pancetta and aromatic vegetables over pasta.  With lots of Asiago cheese.  And rich with extra virgin olive oil.  And so, Vindaloo poured herself another glass of wine to let that notion frolic about a bit and to herald the virgin spring with a toast to all things verdant and flowering.  Let's just say it was a fairly long-winded toast.

Fresh garbanzo beans are a revelation.  They come in a fuzzy, green, little pod, usually only one bean to a pod and cost only pennies.  I found mine at Fiesta Market, a great food store for anything off the beaten path.  They have a wonderful firm texture when lightly steamed (don't overcook!!) and taste like the lovechild of fresh spring peas and edamame.  Unfortunately, they are only available during a short time in the spring.  Also unfortunately, by the time I remembered that they were waiting (patiently) for me in the refrigerator, it was approaching 7 o'clock in the evening, and the little darlings still needed to be shelled.  Which is not difficult, just tedious.  And that is where my husband's virtues shine.  Because he patiently waited for me to shell the garbanzos, and then patiently waited for dinner to evolve.  And then he kindly and sweetly told me how delicious it was.  And it was!

On this particular evening, I opened a bottle of Rosemount Show Reserve GSM 2005 (Australia), a Rhone-style red that is full of blackberry, vanilla and cherry and plenty of earthy properties.  This wine is a bit untidy and volatile, in that it seems like the components could become unraveled or combative at any given moment.  Think about the 1944 movie "Lifeboat" with Talullah Bankhead and Hume Cronyn: a bunch of strangers thrown together out of the mutual need for survival, and all goes smashingly well until the intruder arrives and then they all gradually turn on each other.  Yep, that's what I thought of when I drank this wine.  But, having said that, it is at this moment a very good glass of grape juice (thank you to one of my great wine guys at Spec's for the recommendation)  and it harmonized beautifully with the main course, which I served with a simple salad of bitter and sweet greens, radishes and flake salt, and dressed with a very pungent EVOO and fresh lemon juice.

I hope you'll give this a whirl sometime soon...

Fresh Garbanzo Beans, Pancetta and Aromatic Vegetables over Capellini

1/2 lb. fresh, shelled garbanzo beans (approx. 1 cup when shelled)
2 Tbs. EVOO

4 oz. pancetta, cut into 1/2" dice
2 shallots, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 lb. cooked capellini (or other long pasta, kept warm)
Extra EVOO for drizzling
Asiago cheese for sprinkling generously
Freshly chopped flat leaf parsley for garnish

1.  Cook pasta according to package directions and keep warm in a serving dish.
2.  Steam garbanzo beans in the microwave in about 1/4 cup water for 1 minute.  Stir and test for texture.  If too firm and mealy, steam only 30 seconds more.  Overcooking will harden them and make them very unpleasant.  Drain and set aside.
3.  Heat the EVOO on medium-high heat in a saute pan.  Add pancetta, shallots and garlic.  Stir frequently and saute briefly (about 2 minutes).
4.  Add thyme, crushed red pepper and salt.  Stir to blend.
5.  Add red wine and simmer until sauce is reduced by about one half.  Remove from heat.
6.  Stir in steamed garbanzo beans.
7.  Drizzle warm pasta generously with EVOO.
8.  Pour sauce over pasta.
9.  Sprinkle generously with Asiago cheese.
10. Garnish with chopped parsley.  Serves two.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wine therapy

I went to see my wine therapist--er, I mean, my wine guy the other day.  I gotta recommend him, he's never let me down.  He always seems to have some good suggestions and has really helped me to think about wine in a different way.  He's confronted me on some of my thinking distortions about wine, about how I jump to conclusions based on what the label looks like, about how I'm ready to settle for something less than I deserve rather than holding out for the wine that's really right for me.

My wine guy encourages me to be honest with myself about what I want in a wine.  Since I've been visiting him for regular sessions, I can see a real change in my approach toward wine.  I feel like he's changed my mind about taking risks with new wines I haven't had the courage to try before, and taught me not to be so fearful when making decisions about wine on my own.  Now I listen to my inner voice when it says, "It's time for a great glass of wine."  He's taught me to trust the natural skills I have and build new ones.  I think he's really helping me to be more confident about wine.  I think he could help you too.

I know some of you would say that wine therapy just isn't for you, and that you can work out your problems with wine on your own, or with the help of your friends and family.  Or you might say that you're afraid to change your mind about wine, afraid you'll be disappointed again once you extend yourself--afraid of the unknown and confused by all the jargon.  I used to feel like you do, but now there's hope. 

Go on, take that first step.  Ask for help.  Don't be afraid to be honest about your secret fears and longings about wine.  The fear that your friends will think you're a wine snob if you bring something to Monday night Bunco other than that sweet red.  Or the paralyzing anxiety that you'll be discovered drinking white Zindfandel locked in your bathroom late at night while your family thinks you're just taking a bath.  Or the crippling trauma of not knowing the difference between a pinot noir and a pinot gris, a Prosecco from a port.  I'm sure you'll find that your wine guy, when you find the right one, will be kind, patient, accepting, understanding and non-judgmental.  And isn't that we all just really want?  A healing, corrective experience with wine?  A better quality of life with better quality wine?

Think of how much better you'll feel and how much easier it will be to live with yourself.  Wine therapy has changed my life.  And it can change yours too.  Don't waste another minute.  Do it today!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Creating excitement at dinner without high anxiety

Cooking for one and eating alone doesn't have to be pedestrian and boring.  On the other hand, making a great dinner for yourself, even planning to have a guest at dinner, doesn't have to be stressful because you don't know what to cook (or because you've run out of Xanax).  In a previous post, I gave you several recipes that could change your cooking and eating habits from dull and predictable to "company's coming--and it's me!"  Today's post will offer several more ideas for versatile condiments that you can keep on hand for a great meal in almost no time at all.  Imagine relaxing with a glass of wine while your next great dinner is just moments away.  Imagine having a guest for dinner and relaxing in the same way.  Imagine the lovely sound of that cork as it leaves the bottle.  Imagine having an enjoyable conversation while you confidently prepare an outstanding meal.  Sound impossible?  Not!

I always have a batch of Madhur Jaffrey's Lemon Chutney in my fridge, first, because I cook and eat a lot of Indian food and second, because this chutney is spectacularly bright and intense with other foods (like grilled chicken or even pork tenderloin), but can be tempered with mayonnaise to become a velvety sauce for broiled fish.  Find the recipe (entitled "Lemon Chutney" in the post) and technique here.  I think after you taste the chutney by itself, with its perfect balance of tang, heat and sweetness, you'll want to make it frequently because, like me, you'll find a million uses for it (like making a marinade out of it for chicken, pork or firm-fleshed fish with more lemon juice and the oil of your choice).  It's really easy to make, and also makes a great hostess gift!

Another great condiment to have around--one that you can prepare ahead and have ready to go in your freezer--is a recipe I am unabashadly stealing from Aaron McCargo, the TV chef on Big Daddy's House, one of the cooking shows that airs early on Sunday mornings.  Now, Vindaloo thinks it's time for a little confession.  The first confession is that after 8 years, Vindaloo is now watching TV again.  Just a teensy, little bit.  I won't go into the details now, but let's just say that marriage changes everything and leave it at that.  Vindaloo is very devoted to her local gym (because, as I said, marriage changes everything) and she is there doing her cardio workout at least 5 days out of 7.  But the biggest motivator for Vindaloo--the one that will get her out of the house and into the gym on weekends?  That would be Vindaloo's second confession:  she loves watching the Food Network during her workout.  I know what you are thinking: "Isn't watching cooking shows while you're trying to work out at the gym counterproductive?"  And my reply is "Are you kidding???"  Not only does Vindoloo get her workout done with no complaining, no boredom and faster than you can say "hor d'oeuvres," she does it with a vengeance!  And she comes home with lots of new cooking ideas, which make it necessary to maintain the gym membership.  It's a vicious cycle.  Marriage changes everything.

So here's what you do:  Finely chop about 1 cup of fresh garlic cloves.  Put the chopped garlic in a small bowl and add about 1 cup of olive oil.  Season highly with salt and pepper.  Use this garlic and oil paste to season meat and fish, grilled vegetables, pasta, potatoes...the list goes on and on.  I watched Aaron McCargo rub a generous amount of this garlic and olive oil paste all over a large pork roast and started salivating immediately.  I could just imagine what his kitchen was going to smell like 45 minutes after he put that roast in the oven.  You can add other seasonings to this recipe as well, but this is the basic technique.  You can store it in your freezer for several weeks and just scoop out what you need with a spoon--it's the consistency of hard ice cream when frozen.  This recipe is a ridiculously simple concept, and a seriously necessary seasoning backbone.  For lack of a better name, I refer to this concoction as GOOPS, which is an acronym for garlic, olive oil, pepper and salt.  Thanks Big Daddy!! 

The next three suggestions for flavored oils (Chili Oil, Lemon Oil, Garlic Oil) are a springboard for your own inventiveness and creativity.  I'm going to get you started, and then you can make the next great flavored oil, sell it in high-end gourmet shops and make a million bucks.  Flavored oils are so simple to make and they add a lot of bang to what you're cooking.  I use them to saute vegetables and meats, to finish soups and stews, and to drizzle over pasta.  They're also great dipping oils for artisinal breads if you vary the ingredients slightly (recipe below). 

Here's the basic technique: heat one cup light olive oil in a sauce pan on medium-low heat.  Add to that whatever you wish to flavor your oil with: several whole, dried Thai peppers, or a heaping teaspoon of dried crushed pepper; the peel of a lemon (or orange); several cloves of garlic that have been peeled and crushed slightly.  Let the oil stay on the heat for about an hour, reducing heat if necessary.  What you want is a slow, gentle infusion, so no sizzling or bubbling.  Then let the oil cool and pour it (straining out ingredients if you wish), into a clean jar and cover tightly.  That's it.  Makes about one cup.  Please let me know about your future experiments--I'd like to try your ideas as well.

The last suggestion for a flavored oil is for those of you that like to dip hot, crusty bread into olive oil and herbs.   Here's how I like to do it:  Put 1 Tbs. dried minced garlic (I like Penzey's) in a small saucepan or saute pan and toast gently on low or medium-low heat.  This takes about five or ten minutes.  Then add 1 cup fruity or extra virgin olive oil and continue to heat gently.  Remove from heat after about 20 minutes.  Cool to warm room temperature and add your choice of dried herbs and spices; i.e., marjoram, oregano, rosemary, fennel, crushed red pepper, cracked black pepper, thyme, etc.  Of course, add a generous amount of salt.  Pour everything into a clean jar and store.  Makes about one cup. 

If you want a really knockout version of this dipping oil, use the same proceedure, but after infusing the toasted garlic and cooling the oil a bit, add some chopped fresh herbs with freshly cracked black pepper and some flake salt (such as Maldon sea salt).  This version is best served right away with bread.  Add a little good-quality red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar and you've got a great salad dressing.


I plan to send one more post about spice mixtures you can make yourself to have on hand in your pantry for making your cooking efforts less stressful and more enjoyable.  Look for it soon.  Meanwhile, Vindaloo is preparing for an al fresco gathering for friends who love wine and love to cook.  I'm looking forward to telling you all about it.  The mosquitos were not invited, but they always end up crashing the party in Texas springtime, so if any of you have suggestions for non-toxic mosquito repellant, please write!

May your tastebuds dance!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I want the frim-fram sauce...

Now, you know girls, we really got to eat
And you know we should eat right.
Five will get you ten
I'm gonna feed myself right tonight.

I don't want French fried potatoes,
Red ripe tomatoes,
I'm never satisfied.
I want the frim-fram sauce with the ausen fay
With chafafah on the side.

                                          ~Redd Evans lyrics (1945) adapted by Dianna Krall (1996)

Yeah, I know these lyrics were not really talking about food, but I had to mention them here because so many of my single girlfriends don't really spend a lot of time and energy cooking great meals for themselves.  Why?  They're too tired at the end of the workday and just want to settle down with a glass of wine and some microwave popcorn.  Vindaloo has been there and done that in a former fact, in many former lives...

One of my single friends made a plea to me recently that I do a blog post on quick, healthy and easy meals that she could put together in 20 to 25 minutes.  I thought that was a great request because I know that lots of people won't cook well for themselves when they live alone.  Mostly, it's a stand-at-the-kitchen-sink-and-eat kind of dining.  Or, it's a graze on anything you can find as you stand in front of the open fridge.  This, dear readers, is not healthy for mind, body, nor spirit!!

Let's get all of you frustrated foodies taken care of and headed in the right direction today.  Let's talk about what you can have on hand in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to make your meals more interesting, more healthful and more satisfying.  It's really very simple and comes down to one basic concept: condiments and other flavoring ingredients that are prepared and ready to go.

OK, so you have mayo, catsup, mustard, maybe some steak sauce, worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and maybe something wild like Tiger Sauce or Pick-a-Peppa sauce.  That's great, but let's expand your reperatoire by making some condiments that you can have on hand that will blow the grocery store variety out of the water.  You can invest a mere afternoon's time and have a mind-boggling array of new food options available to you.  If you don't have a food processor, buddy up with a friend who does and do these little projects together.

First let's talk about pesto.  My favorite, hands down, will always be made from sweet Genovese basil, plenty of pignoli nuts, a wonderfully fruity olive oil and the best Parmesan cheese I can afford.  It is fabulous on fresh homemade pasta, stirred into arborio rice, or atop a bowl of minestrone or pasta fagioli.  I've also brushed basil pesto on cooked meats, on bruschetta, and it makes a fabulous pizza with proscuitto or pancetta and oven-roasted tomatoes. I'm going to assume that we've all tasted basil pesto.  And if we haven't made ourselves, someone else has, or we bought a jar of it somewhere near the deli section and have been disappointed. 

But there are several wonderful pestos out there, each with a different flavor profile.  I'm going to give you four different pesto recipes--plus an olivada recipe--that can be frozen and ready to use in plenty of new ways.  Some suggestions: dilute pesto with a little citrus juice or vinegar and make a marinade for fish, chicken, pork, beef, etc.  Smear as is on fish, chicken, pork before grilling or broiling.  Put a heaping spoonful in a bowl of soup or stew.  Use it to finish sauteed or grilled veggies.  These pestos will be made without cheese so that you can freeze them, use them as you need them and you can add cheese later to vary the richness and intensity.

Cilantro Pesto  
     I know many people who can't stand fresh cilantro.  Chopping it finely and suspending it in oil changes things miraculously.  It becomes a different thing entirely...

4 large cloves garlic
2 fresh jalapenos, seeded and stemmed
1 cup slivered blanched almonds
2 large bunches of cilantro, stem ends trimmed and washed well
1 cup (or more) of fruity olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Place garlic cloves and jalapeno in workbowl of food processor and chop finely.  Add almonds and pulse until chopped finely, then add cilantro, including stems, and process until a rough paste forms.  Drizzle in olive oil through feed tube of processor while the motor is running.  The finished pesto should be the consistency of mayonnaise.  Add more olive oil if necessary.  Season to taste with plenty of salt and pepper.   Store airtight in freezer until ready to use.  Will keep for several months.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

How I use this pesto:  Grill boneless chicken breasts then place in a baking pan.  Spread generously with some thawed pesto.  Crumble queso fresco or lay slices of queso quesadilla on top of the pesto and chicken.  Broil until cheese is bubbly.

Or, spread a mild fish fillet such as basa, tilapia or halibut with a generous amount of thawed pesto.  Bake or broil until fish is done. 

Parsley Pesto

4 large cloves garlic
1 cup walnuts or hazelnuts
2 large bunches of Italian flat-leaf parsley, stem ends trimmed and washed well
1 cup (or more) fruity olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Place garlic cloves in workbowl of food processor and chop finely.  Add walnuts or hazelnuts and pulse until finely chopped, then add parsley, including stems and process until a rough paste forms.  Drizzle in olive oil through feed tube while processor is running.  The finished pesto should be the consistency of mayonnaise.   Add more olive oil if necessary.  Season to taste with plenty of salt and pepper.   Store airtight in freezer until ready to use.  Will keep for several months.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

How I use this pesto:  Stir into hearty soup for an extra hit of flavor.  Wonderful on toasted garlic bread with lots of Parmesan, Fontina or Romano.  Great with whole wheat pasta, spicy Italian sausage, chick peas, and lots of good-quality grated cheese.

Or make your own version of chimichurri sauce by thawing about 1/2 cup pesto and adding 1 Tbs. finely chopped onion, 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar and the juice of half a lime.  Blend well and serve alongside grilled steaks.  This sauce is also wonderful as a marinade, and it is delicious on vegetables.

Spinach Pesto

4 large cloves garlic
1 cup walnuts or pinenuts
1 pound baby spinach leaves, washed and dried (or substitute and equivalent amount of frozen, chopped
      spinach which has been thawed and most of the water pressed out)
1 cup (or more) fruity olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Place garlic cloves in workbowl of food processor and chop finely.  Add walnuts or pinenuts and pulse until finely chopped, then add spinach and process until a rough paste forms.  Drizzle in olive oil through feed tube while processor is running.  The finished pesto should be the consistency of mayonnaise.   Add more olive oil if necessary.  Season to taste with plenty of salt and pepper.   Store airtight in freezer until ready to use.  Will keep for several months.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

How I use this pesto:  Spinach pesto is wonderful on foccacia with lots of melted cheese.  It's great in minestrone and pasta fagioli.  It gives lentil soup a bright, fresh flavor.  It's great with pasta, bacon or pancetta and lots of cheese. 

It also makes a wonderful appetizer on toasted slices of french bread that have been brushed with garlic and olive oil.  Put soft goat cheese (such as chevre, brie or gouda) or fontina on top of spinach, add slices of roasted red pepper and broil until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Basil Pesto

4 large cloves garlic
1 cup pinenuts
4 cups cleaned basil leaves (I also use the tender parts of the stems because they have a lot of flavor)
1 cup (or more) fruity olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Place garlic cloves in workbowl of food processor and chop finely.  Add pinenuts and pulse until finely chopped, then add basil, including stems and process until a rough paste forms.  Drizzle in olive oil through feed tube while processor is running.  The finished pesto should be the consistency of mayonnaise.   Add more olive oil if necessary.  Season to taste with plenty of salt and pepper.   Store airtight in freezer until ready to use.  Will keep for several months.  Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

How I use this pesto:  I thaw out what I need for pasta, adding lots of cheese before serving.  I spread it on garlic toasts with finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes.  I use it to season fish and chicken before broiling. 

This pesto is also especially good on a firm white fish (such as halibut) cooked en papillote.  Take a piece of parchment paper and brush with olive oil or butter.  Place fish on paper and spread generously with pesto.  Shave good-quality Parmesan or Asiago cheese on top and add several slices of roasted red pepper.  Drizzle with 2 Tbs. dry white wine.  Fold up edges of paper to form a packet, stapling if necessary.  Bake at 375 for 12 to 17 minutes, depending on thickness of fish.


2 large cloves garlic
1 can pitted black olives, drained
1 small jar pimento-stuffed green olives, drained
1 small jar pitted kalamata olives, drained
1 cup (or more) fruity olive oil
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put garlic cloves in workbowl of food processor and chop finely.  Add black olives, green olives and kalamata olives and process until you have a rough paste.  Drizzle in 1 cup olive oil with motor running.  You should have a mixture the consistency of thick mayonnaise.  Add more olive oil if neccesary.  Season generously with fresh black pepper.  Store airtight in freezer until ready to use.  Keeps for several months.  Makes about 2 cups.

How I use the olivada:  Great on fish and chicken.  Wonderful on garlic toasts.  Enriches spaghetti sauce (especially store-bought).  Enriches hearty soups.  Extra bonus points for those who like to impress:  If you make your own bread, roll out the dough to a 9 x 12 inch rectangle, spread generously with thawed olivada and sprinkle with good-quality grated cheese.  Roll up dough into loaf and seal seams.  Let rise (this might take a little longer than usual) and then bake per your recipe directions.  Heaven!

May your tastebuds continue to dance, good people.  Stay in touch.  More fabulous single-lifestyle cooking ideas to come...

Friday, April 1, 2011

How to eat alone

I have friends who cook and eat alone.  Some of them say that they do not enjoy it, either because it's too much trouble for just themselves, or because their work schedules interfere and they are too tired to cook.  Eating alone can be lonely.  Cooking for yourself can feel bothersome, even overwhelming.  I want to help with that and am currently working on posts that will provide recipes and suggestions for simple, satisfying meals that involve just a little preparation and planning.  I'm hoping to inspire those of you who love food but dread cooking for yourself to not only feel better about how you choose to eat when you eat alone, but to add some new components to your cooking repertoire.

In preparation for the future posts I'm planning to publish, I want to help lay some psychological groundwork that might be helpful in order to take good care of yourself with food.  Perhaps it will help you to see cooking and eating in a different way.  I first encountered this poem by 20th century American poet Daniel Halpern during a long (but intensely creative) period of solitary living.  It not only validated my need to take care of myself by cooking wonderful meals for just one person, it celebrated solitude and the wholeness of being just one.  To all of you who cook and eat alone, I admire your spirit and your fortitude.

How to Eat Alone

While it's still light out
set the table for one:
a red linen tablecloth,
one white plate, a bowl
for the salad
and the proper silverware.
Take out a three-pound leg of lamb,
rub it with salt, pepper and cumin,
then push in two cloves
of garlic splinters.
Place it in a 325-degree oven
and set the timer for an hour.
Put freshly cut vegetables
into a pot with some herbs
and the crudest olive oil
you can find.
Heat on a low flame.
Clean the salad.
Be sure the dressing is made
with fresh dill, mustard
and the juice of hard lemons.

Open a bottle of good late harvest zinfandel
and let it breathe on the table.
Pour yourself a glass
of cold California chardonnay
and go to your study and read.
As the story unfolds
you will smell the lamb
and the vegetables.
This is the best part of the evening:
the food cooking, the armchair,
the book and bright flavor
of the chilled wine.
When the timer goes off
toss the salad
and prepare the vegetables
and the lamb.  Bring them out
to the table.  Light the candles
and pour the red wine
into your glass.
Before you begin to eat,
raise your glass in honor
of yourself.
The company is the best you'll ever have.