Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chicken Pot Pie in half the time? Yes, please!

I’ve always dreamed of making a real, honest-to-goodness chicken pot pie with no shortcuts – mainly, no store-bought pastry.
    But I’ve hesitated when considering the possible time involved to make a chicken pot pie entirely from scratch.
    That’s why, when I saw an article in a recent special Cook’s Illustrated publication titled “Chicken Pot Pie in half the time,” you can bet I gave it a look.
    The article promised the Chicken Pot Pie with Savory Crumble Topping (click for the recipe) recipe would not only take less time to make than a traditional chicken pot pie, there would be no sacrifice in flavor.
    The final result was absolutely delicious, and just as I dreamed good homemade chicken pot pie should be. There was definitely no sacrifice in flavor, and the savory crumble topping is actually a tasty step up from a usual chicken pot pie crust.
    However, it did still take a full two hours and 15 minutes of solid work to make on my own.
    If that means it takes nearly five hours to make chicken pot pie with a full homemade crust, count me very glad to have found this “shortcut” version that uses a crumble topping instead.
    I found this chicken pot pie to be best on the day it was made. It will serve four people easily.
    The recipe I linked to above is on a blog, but it is nearly the same as the one I used from the Cook’s Illustrated magazine – note the few differences below, which are in bold.
    Chicken thighs and store-bought low-sodium chicken broth are brought to a simmer. The thighs are simmered until they are cooked through (about eight minutes), then are transferred to a bowl. The broth is poured through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl or measuring cup and set aside (ie., don’t pour it down the sink!!!)
    The topping is made by combining flour, baking powder, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Cubes of butter are sprinkled in, and the butter incorporated into the flour with fingers until it resembles cornmeal. Grated parmesan cheese, then heavy cream are stirred in until combined.
   Curiously, the recipe doesn’t say to scatter the dough by ½ inch pieces onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, and it should. After the dough is made, the recipe says simply to place it on the baking sheet. That’s wrong! You don’t want one giant blob of dough being baked – you want small pieces.
    In the same Dutch oven in which the chicken was cooked, onion, carrots and celery are cooked in oil. The chicken is shredded into bite-size pieces in the bowl it is in, and the veggies are added.
    The mushrooms are then cooked in the same Dutch oven, then soy sauce and tomatoes are added and cooked more until the liquid has evaporated and mushrooms have browned. The mushrooms are transferred to the bowl with the chicken and veggies.
    Butter is melted in the pot, then flour, the reserved chicken broth and whole milk are whisked together and simmered. Be sure to let the mixture come to a full simmer, then whisk it constantly for about one minute at the simmering stage until it thickens slightly.
    Lemon juice and parsley are added to the sauce, then the chicken and vegetable mixture are added to the pot.
    The mixture is poured into a 13x9 inch glass baking dish, and the crumble topping is scattered over evenly.
    Bake until the filling is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ham is used instead of ground beef
in twist on the ol' meatloaf

It’s a bit of a holy grail of cooking: How to take the ubiquitous, easy-to-make comfort food of meatloaf and make it into something refreshing and new.
     I’m always on the lookout for new twists on the ol’ meatloaf, and found it recently in an issue of Saveur magazine.
     The recipe’s name isn’t different or exciting – Ham Loaf (click for the recipe) – but the result is. However, the recipe's result is not so much different from regular meatloaf that you will disturb the meat-and-potatoes eater in your family when you serve it to him or her.
    The major difference between this recipe and meat loaf is, of, course, that ham is used as opposed to ground beef.
    Ground allspice, ginger and cloves are used in the recipe for flavour. It sounds unusual, but after one bite you’ll know it was meant to be.
    Some of the usual suspects included in most meatloaf recipes are here, though. A glaze is made from mustard, dark brown sugar and apple cider vinegar and is drizzled on the loaf before and after baking.
    The recipe says to start with finely-chopped cured ham. Knowing I would not have the patience to finely chop ham, I threw a few hunks of it in the food processor and let it do the work.
    The chopped ham, breadcrumbs, buttermilk, Dijon mustard, ground sage, curry powder (I used mild), allspice, ginger, lightly-beaten eggs, minced yellow onion, and salt and pepper are mixed together. The meat mixture is transferred to a parchment paper-lined loaf pan.
    More Dijon mustard, dark brown sugar and apple cider vinegar (sometimes called cider vinegar) are heated in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves.
    Half of the resulting glaze is poured over the ham loaf, and the loaf is cooked.
    The loaf is left to cool for 10 minutes, then is removed from the pan. The remaining glaze is drizzled over it before serving.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The secret to good Swiss chard: Cooking it

When I was a kid, I hated Swiss chard.
    Like, really hated it.
     My parents grew it in their garden, and often threw it raw into salads.
   I hated the bitter taste, the texture, and the grit that just didn’t seem to want to wash off the leaves.
   But recently, while we were on vacation, my husband’s aunt served us cooked Swiss chard.
    After not having it for about 25 years, I gave it a taste.
    I was so relieved – I liked it! Gone was the bitter taste that I remember from my childhood.
    I soon realized, especially after reading a recipe that used Swiss chard, that mature leaves taste bitter unless they are cooked. (Young leaves can be served raw).
    This must have been the cause of my childhood Swiss chard hatred – it was served raw to my delicate tastebuds.
    With this mystery solved, I picked up a beautiful bunch of Swiss chard at a farmer’s market recently and set out to cook it using the recipe I had found.
    We tossed the chard, tomatoes and feta with linguine, and it was a winning dish.
    But my husband and I agreed that the cooked chard on its own would have been absolutely delicious, too – we sampled some bites of the chard by itself. I would not hesitate to serve it as a side dish.
    It had a terrific salty taste, aided by the garlic and kosher salt with which it was cooked.  
    And it was a breeze to make.
    Know that Swiss chard is like spinach: When its leaves are cooked, they wilt to a mere shadow of their former raw selves. I bought a huge bunch at the farmer’s market and found it weighed just one pound! I adjusted the recipe amounts accordingly.
    The recipe I linked to is for a basic Sautéed Swiss Chard recipe, with several variations listed below it. This time around, we made the version with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Feta, the last one on the list.
    Swiss chard is washed to remove grit. The stems are cut off, and each leaf is cut in half lengthwise by slicing down the center rib. The halved leaves are stacked and cut in half again crosswise.
    Olive oil is heated in a skillet. In batches, the Swiss chard is piled into the pan, and turned and tossed gently until the leaves begin to wilt and turn glossy. A new batch of leaves is added as the previous batch wilts and makes room for more.
    When all the chard is wilted, finely-chopped garlic and some kosher salt is sprinkled in and tossed well. The heat is lowered, and the chard covered and cooked for a few minutes. The lid is removed, then a pinch of red pepper flakes is added. The chard is cooked for a couple more minutes so that much of the liquid evaporates (my husband found this took just one minute more).
    Sun-dried tomato halves are drained and cut into thin strips, and are tossed with crumbled feta cheese and chopped fresh thyme.
    The cooked chard and the sun-dried tomato mixture are tossed together. Serve immediately.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tomato and gin get together,
not in a cocktail, but in a soup

I’ve only heard of tomatoes getting together with alcohol in two ways: A Bloody Mary cocktail (tomato juice + vodka), or a Caesar cocktail (Clamato juice + vodka – apparently this drink is Canadian thing).
   So when I saw the recipe titled Tomato-Gin Soup (click for the recipe), my curiosity was peaked. 
   I clipped it out a few years ago from Gourmet magazine and filed it away in my to-do recipes pile.
   When I came home from the farmer’s market last week with a bag of gorgeous ripe tomatoes, I knew it was time to take the recipe for a test drive.
   It was OUTSTANDING, as I told my personal Facebook pals. My husband and I agreed it could stand up as a starter soup in a good restaurant.
   The soup was a perfectly creamy consistency, with a lovely tomato taste. Cream, a key ingredient, seemed to add a bit of a cheese flavor, which was absolutely welcome.
   It was quite easy to make. The recipe I linked to above is on a blog, but is exactly the same as the one I used from Gourmet magazine.
   In a large soup pot, chopped onion is cooked in butter, then halved tomatoes, a chopped russet potato, tomato paste, bay leaves, chicken or vegetable broth (I used store-bought chicken broth), and salt and pepper are added. The mixture is brought to a boil, then simmered briskly for 30 minutes.
   The bay leaves are discarded, then the soup is puréed. The recipe says to do this in a couple of batches in a blender, but my husband used a hand-held immersion blender.
   The soup is strained through a fine-mesh sieve. Since my husband used a handheld blender and the soup was still in the pot in which it was made, he strained it into another large soup pot (with my help – I held onto the sieve handle so it wouldn’t tip up).
   Cream (or milk or half-and-half) is stirred into the soup, along with gin, nutmeg (I used ¼ tsp dried nutmeg as opposed to the ¾ tsp grated listed in the recipe), and salt. The soup is simmered gently for 10 minutes.
   More cream is beaten with an electric mixer until it holds soft peaks.
   To serve, the soup is ladled into bowls and a dollop of whipped cream is put on top. The cream will spread out on the soup.         

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mom's garden tomatoes make
for excellent raw pasta sauce

My mother recently gave me a bag filled with tomatoes from her garden.
   Holding the lovely prize in my hands, I knew exactly what I was going to make with it. I wanted to try a recipe for a raw tomato sauce for pasta I’d seen earlier in the summer. I remember it looking fresh and simple, the perfect vehicle for Mom’s tomatoes.
   I went home and dug out the recipe for Fusilli with Raw Tomato Sauce (click for the recipe) and took it for a whirl, and it worked very well.
   The garden tomatoes were a good start for the excellent final result, but it was helped along by basil from our herb garden and top-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The recipe calls for plum tomatoes, but my Mom’s were the common garden variety, and they worked well.
   Although the sauce doesn’t need any cooking, it is nicely warmed as it is tossed with freshly-boiled pasta and left to sit 15 minutes at room temperature. This helps to infuse the pasta with the flavors of the sauce and warm the sauce as well. The recipe doesn’t say to cover the pasta while it is sitting for this 15-minute period, but I did to help keep in the heat.
   Although the recipe is very easy to make, the sauce does need to sit for an hour at room temperature for the flavors to develop, so it takes a little extra time.
   The recipe directs to halve the tomatoes, discard the pulp and cut the flesh into ¾” pieces. I took this to mean trimming the top and bottom of the tomatoes, cutting them in half and scraping out the seeds before chopping.
   Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar are whisked together. The chopped tomatoes are added and squeezed to slightly bruise them and release their juices. Fresh basil, salt and pepper are stirred in. The bowl is covered and left for one hour at room temperature to marinate the tomatoes.
   Dry fusilli (I used Catelli Smart) is boiled, drained and returned to the pot. The tomato mixture is poured over and stirred evenly to incorporate into the pasta.
   The pasta is left to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The time of fresh corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini changes my attitude about September

Recently on my personal Facebook account I posted how I used to hate the beginning of September as a kid, because it meant school, a.k.a. “the 10-month prison sentence,” was beginning again.
   A couple of my Facebook pals replied that they were surprised anyone could hate the beginning of September – they used to love, and still love today, the prospect of a new school year starting.
   The whole point of making the post was to eventually say I don’t hate the beginning of September anymore. Mostly because I’m long past my school years, I don’t think about school starting anymore – I think of it as the start of the beautiful season of fall, which means I can get back to making warm soup again. And, early September is the time for the best fresh corn, tomatoes, certain varieties of cucumbers and zucchini.
   Which brings me to today’s featured recipes for a side dish and a salad that make wonderful use of corn, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Couscous with Corn and Blue Cheese (click for the recipe) struck me as an unusual-looking recipe, combining, just as the title suggests, corn, couscous and blue cheese.
   The combination intrigued me and the recipe looked easy to make, so I gave it a try. It was terrific.
   My husband rightly observed that the blue cheese flavor seemed to spread out in the entire salad, but in a delicate, non-obtrusive and welcome way. This may have been helped by the fact I took the time to sort of mush the pieces of crumbled blue cheese into the salad, which the recipe doesn’t say to do.
   Butter is melted in a four-quart saucepan, and chopped fresh thyme is added and cooked until fragrant. Fresh corn kernels, sliced scallions (also known as green onions or spring onions), and salt are added and cooked briefly. Couscous is added, along with a cup of boiling water and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
   The mixture is removed from the heat, covered, and left to stand for five minutes. The couscous and corn is fluffed with a fork, and the crumbled blue cheese is stirred in.
   Serve hot or at room temperature.

Melon, Tomato & Onion Salad with Goat Cheese (click for the recipe) is a refreshing combination of melon, sweet onion, tomatoes, cucumbers, goat cheese and basil.
   It can be a meal in itself, or a side dish, which is the way I preferred it, alongside the grilled chicken we ate with it.
   The recipe says it makes eight servings. I disagree with that – I’d say it’s more like four to six side-salad servings and two to three main-dish servings.
   I halved the recipe ingredients, and found it yielded two nicely-sized side salads.
   To be more accurate, I halved everything except the melon. I used the entire melon, as is called for in the “eight serving” version, because I didn’t want to use any of the rind, only the very soft part of the melon.
   The rings of thinly-sliced sweet onion are placed in a medium bowl, and cold water and ice cubes are added, a measure intended to reduce the sharp bite of the raw onions. The onions sit in water for 20 minutes before being drained and patted dry.
   A melon (I used honeydew) is cut, the seeds are scooped out, and the rind removed. The melon halves are sliced crosswise into 1/8th-inch slices. I didn’t worry at all how the slices looked, just as long as they were slim.
   On individual plates or a large platter, layers of melon and sliced tomato are overlapped, then cucumber slices tucked between those layers.
   The salad(s) are sprinkled with salt and pepper, topped with crumbled goat cheese and the onion rings, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and topped with thinly-sliced fresh basil.