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!

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