Monday, February 28, 2011

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

Pot au feline.  Just kidding. 
From Sunday's Facebook:
"We went to BJ's for some much-needed stuff. I looked at the price of food and became very grumpy. Now, I not only need to park my car in the driveway and stay home, but I'm going to have to stop eating. Worse than that, I'm going to have to stop cooking. I have never seen prices like this ever."

I thought I was going to get inspiration.  Instead, I got aggravation.

We are pretty good warehouse shoppers.  Gone are the days when we became starry-eyed over 5 pound bags of tortilla chips and a gallon jug of salsa.  I don't even like salsa.  Today, we go in and buy what we need, usually cleaning supplies, cat and dog food, paper goods.  We might stray occasionally and pick up a DVD or a new cookbook, but we're still pretty cautious about what we decide to buy.

When it comes to the food department, I like to walk in with an open mind.  I have ideas floating around in my head, and a nicely priced ingredient will help bring an idea to fruition.  Other things we pick up are standards, like butter, cream cheese, and kielbasa.  Prices are excellent and we know from experience they will be well used.

Since I had done an enormous amount of cooking the previous weekend - paella, pork loin and vegetables, peanut chicken stir fry - I knew this was going to be a light weekend in the kitchen.  (Those teriyaki chicken wings are already gone, by the way.  Now I'm really sorry I just made a small test batch.)  So I knew that this coming weekend, first weekend in March, I was going to need a few good dishes.  I already had one in mind, a Louisiana corn and crab bisque recipe that I had found by happy accident while researching whole fried okra.  I thought the timing was fortuitous, because the recipe calls for a pound of lump crabmeat, and BJ's carries the pound-size containers at a better price than I've seen anywhere else.  Everything else I could get at Publix, including the crab claws.  Dave the Fish Guy carries Jonah crab claws at a fairly decent price.

I sailed by the salmon, the tilapia and the catfish and headed straight to the crabmeat.  They had claw crabmeat at an okay price.  Same for the "special" crabmeat.  But the price for a pound of jumbo lump crabment, in BJ's was - are you sitting down? - almost $23.00 a pound.  And this was one dish where I could not get away by substituting with the "special."  I needed the lumps, damn it. 

Reality bites.  And the truth is, jumbo lump crabmeat is a luxury item that has now slipped out of my grasp.  I can still afford chicken, pork, and some fin fish, which is a lot better than many families during this financial depression (or should that be depression with a big "D"?)  So no corn and crab bisque ... maybe I can think of a way to adapt the recipe to replicate the wonderful clam bisque I used to order at Lundy's in Brooklyn.  Canned clams are still reasonable.

"You bought the brisket?  Smoke 'em if you got 'em."

Sadly, the price of beef is not reasonable, and has not been for a number of months.  I don't know which is worse, sticker shock at the meat counter or at the pump.  I did finally settle on a rather handsome piece of fresh brisket - over $4.00 a pound, even in BJ's! - and a Freirich corned beef brisket.  St. Patrick's Day is coming up, after all.  The fresh brisket is bound for the smoker, and that is really some good eats.  Sliced very thin, served over Texas garlic toast with some barbecue sauce from Sonny's.  Brisket is a quintessential Jewish cut of meat, and I know a lot of ways to cook it.  I always buy the flat cut (some people swear by the point) unless I can get a whole piece which includes both flat and point.  The flat cut has less fat, less waste, less shrinkage.  It also cuts a lot neater than the point.

Brisket is what we call pot roast ... my mother never used any other cut of meat for her pot roast, and when I started reading cookbooks and saw recipes for pot roast that involved rumps and bottom rounds, I was puzzled.  Brisket is pot roast and pot roast is brisket.  Bottom round, on the other hand, makes a fine beef stew. If you can find a well-priced piece of bottom round, or shoulder, cut them into cubes yourself and try them in this recipe

I am going to try to smoke that fresh brisket this coming weekend, and I'll take pictures if I do.  So good, you'll want to lick the monitor screen.  Really.

Cook like there's nobody watching, and eat like it's heaven on earth.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin ... Strudel?

Today is Sunday, and I am looking forward to a trip to BJ's Warehouse.  Talk about inspiration!

Friday night, I charged into Publix with a list.  I wanted to whip up a small batch of Mark's Teriyaki Chicken Wings for the Birthday Blog Post, so I needed wings ... here's a lesson to you.  Never shop with a list.  Along that road lies serious disappointment.  The wing pickings were sad, and after seeking inspiration in the freezer section and among the organic offerings, I settled on a plain old package of drumettes.  Well, I'm sure they'll look better after I marinate them in that heavenly mixture of soy sauce and other good things, but until then, they are just plain uninspiring. 

But along with the voices in my head singing "Auntie Griselda" over and over and over again - don't you hate earworms? - I heard the whisper of fillo leaves as they embraced a cooked fruit filling composed of apples, pears, peaches, maybe some dried cranberries, sugar and fragrant sweet spices like cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg.

And Then Along Came Strudel ...

If I was the produce manager at Publix, I would hate having me as a customer.  Watching me pick out fruit would be tantamount to being forced to watch the last half hour of "2001: A Space Odyssey" with my eyelids taped open.  I make faces at the display.  I pick up each and every piece of fruit I am considering buying and examine it carefully.  I sniff it suspiciously, like one of my Yorkies being offered a Girl Scout shortbread cookie for the first time.  I judge the weight by holding it in my hand.  I gently press the exterior to try to gauge ripeness.  I sneer at the sign that proclaims "tree-ripened fruit."  And then I repeat this process for every piece of fruit, rejecting 95% of the examinees.  But I always place everything back ever-so-neatly, except when I am at the tomato table checking out the green tomatoes.  Green tomatoes don't stay green very long if they are placed too close to ripe red tomatoes.  You can't make decent fried green tomatoes if even the slightest tinge of pink is showing!  So I surreptitiously move the greenies as far away from the reds as I can without getting tossed from the store and trespassed by local law enforcement.

During the Thanksgiving season I find myself inexorably drawn to pies.  Somehow pies seem the proper dessert to serve during this holiday. When I came across the original recipe on the Food Network site several years ago, I was intrigued by the combination of apple and pear, and the concept of precooking the fruit.  As you can see, this recipe started out as a double crust pie. Except I don't care for double crust pies, so I switched to a streussel topping.  And then I hadn't bought enough apples and pears.  Delving into my pantry (so large it merits it's own zip code) I grabbed a can of peaches, drained them, added them to the fruit mix, and a star was born.  Except I don't really jump for joy over fruit pies, and neither do my boys.  We love key lime and lemon meringue and coconut custard and pecan and yes, pumpkin, and some other pies involving secret rites with cream cheese, Cool Whip and pudding, but fruit pies?  Not so much.  For some reason, the combination of cooked fruit in a pie shell just doesn't work.  Once it sits for a while, even the flakiest pie crust becomes soggy, heavy, and unappetizing.

Stop, in the Name of Lard!  Don't you know that the annoyingly-named town of Stepford ... pardon me, I mean, Celebration, Florida ... is the site of the annual Great American Pie Festival?  Indeed it is, and like the Superbowl, it is much more enjoyable to watch it on TV from the comfort of your living room.  Celebration, an artificial construct carved out of the western edge of Kissimmee, is just a short drive from my home in a much saner neighborhood, but we have only ventured there for the pie festival on one occasion.  It was too hot and too crowded, with too many people scarfing down their weight in pie while trying to scope out the location of the Food Network cameras.

I suppose the purpose of this pie-poking post is to focus on the filling rather than the crust.  As I said, the cooked fruit filling came out darn near divine.  And I always use a quality frozen pie crust (bet you didn't see that one coming.)  But they did not make beautiful music together, and so I tucked the recipe away until late this past week, while considering that I hadn't done any homemade desserts since my cookie-baking frenzy over the holidays. 

Somehow that translated into a yen for homemade strudel, so now I find myself inspired to combine my fillo-folding technique, perfected in the early eighties in a tiny kitchen in Central Islip, New York, with my Florida-era fruit-filling recipe. 

Enough alliteration for now, let's bake a strudel! 

My Friday night trip to Publix yielded, in addition to those sad wings, 6 lovely Golden Delicious apples, 3 ruddy Red Anjou pears, 2 fragrant fresh peaches, a rather handsome lemon, and a box of frozen fillo (filo, phyllo) dough. FROZEN FILLO DOUGH? Come on, I don't make my own pie crust, you weren't really expecting me to start stretching my own strudel dough! 

Besides, learning how to work with fillo is a valuable technique to accomplish.  Think baklava.  Think spanokopita and triconas.  Think marinated chicken breasts, topped with mushroom duxelles, wrapped in layers of fillo brushed with butter and baked till golden.

"If you learn a recipe, you can cook the recipe. If you learn the technique, you can cook anything." - Michael Symon

The recipe for Apple, Pear and Peach Strudel can be found, as can all my recipes, over at the Inspiration Nation Recipe site which can be reached by clicking this link.  Each recipe there corresponds by posting date to the blog post over here.

Cook like there's nobody watching, and eat like it's heaven on earth.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, dear Mark - and thanks for the memories, the forty years of friendship, and oh yeah, your recipe for teriyaki chicken wings ...

I had just typed a wonderful ode to the State University of New York at New Paltz, and the beginning of my friendship with the birthday boy, when my computer took an odd path, blacked out for two seconds, and wiped the whole thing out, despite the fact that Blogger saves a draft as you go ... I am really bummed.  I had evoked great images of planes over Kennedy Airport, my chubby little body shlepping up Mount Mohonk, the ax murderer, the first joint I was ever offered ... all gone.  According to my horoscope, my lucky time of day was 7 AM, which came and went and took some of my best writing with it.  Damn, spit, and dirty socks!

So without further ado, let me jump ahead to my first day in Freshman English, known as Lit and Comp I.  My professor was Anthony "Tony" Robinson, a not-so-famous author (think Donald Sutherland's Professor Dave Jennings from "Animal House") whose father, Henry Morton Robinson, was a famous author.  That class was notable for several events, not the least of which was my spilling an entire cup of hot chocolate over my copy of Seven Centuries of Verse, Professor Robinson's rather ribald interpretation of Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan", and the fledgling beginnings of friendships that would last a lifetime.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

One of the students I met in that class was Mark Fendrick.  He, like me, was just 17 years old, unable to go to the many bars and taverns lining the streets of our college town (legal drinking age was 18 in those days.)  He had been raised in Brooklyn, more specifically in Flatbush, not all that far from where I had lived before my family emigrated to Long Island just eight years ago.  He loved Star Trek and music and good food.  We were both "LHS" graduates - his was Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, mine was Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst.  We had both participated in Government in Action 1970, held at my high school, during the semester prior to graduation, and may have actually met then ... we certainly passed each other in the halls.  We were both Jewish, and the oldest sibling in our respective families.

A fast friendship was formed, along with others in that class - my hallmate, and later roommate, Kathy Pieplow, Barbara Chlanda, and Sandy Osherofsky, my companion on my trip down off of Mount Mohonk.  We had earned the dubious distinction of being the last two freshman to return from that fateful foray in the Shawangunk Mountains, holding up 998 other tired freshman and a fleet of school buses.

I am certain I cannot reduce the fabric of our lives into one blog post, and I won't even try.  Here is the Reader's Digest version though:  from that very first class, Mark became enamored of Sandy.  She saw him early on as a friend, and dated different students, but as he told me, he was going to wait for her.  And he did, and she did, and they did get married the month after college graduation.  I was their maid of honor.

June 30, 1974

One other thing Mark and I had in common was our love of cooking.  After we got off the food plan at college, we started cooking for ourselves, limited only by a complete lack of cooking equipment.  I had a hot plate with two settings - on and off.  Plus an old teflon frying pan and one small enamel pot that my mother had provided.  But I had discovered the joy of cooking for others, and my college friends didn't seem to mind that I was making do with ground beef, a can of green beans, and ketchup.

Mark and I were self-taught cooks.  We read recipes, tasted new dishes, and experimented freely.  Nothing has changed except our access to more exotic ingredients and much better cooking equipment.  We started out cooking for our respective spouses and friends, and as time went on we cooked for our kids ... and in Mark's case, his grandkids.

This is a recipe I remember Mark preparing, circa 1975, in the one bedroom apartment he and Sandy shared on Avenue S in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn.  It was so good, and so easy, I snagged the recipe and then years later, included it as one of my submissions to a cookbook put together by the Sisterhood of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee.  I am probably going to have to add photos of the finished dish sometime later this weekend, but if you check over here (don't forget to click on this link) you will find the recipe.

Mark and Sandy with daughter Iris; Mark and Sandy with grandson Sean ... or is it Lukas?

Left to right:  my husband Rob; Kathy's husband, Alan; Sandy Osherofsky Fendrick;
Kathy Pieplow Westrich; me; Mark Fendrick. 

Did I mention that Kathy and Alan owned a deli and did catering for about 30 years?  I've got some wonderful recipes from Kathy ... but that's another blog post.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You can't always get what you want, You can't always get what you want, But if you try sometimes you might find, You get what you need: Your Cheatin' Chicken Soup

Breakfast:  What I had was black coffee and a Drake's cherry pie.

But what I wanted was a cafe au lait and a paper bag of hot beignets from Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.

Check out the prices.  Glorious!  These pictures were taken last month when we were on the road to Dallas.  We were able to spend two nights in New Orleans, one on the trip out, the second on the trip back.  A stop at Cafe Du Monde was obligatory, and I'm glad it was.  Never mind that it was below freezing and the wind blowing off the water was the stuff that nightmares are made of for people who have lived in Florida the past 19 years.  Cafe Du Monde was worth every shiver.

Back to the present: the day sort of went downhill from there.  Nothing tragic, just ... tedious.  I did not have time to knit one stitch and I ate too many crunchy Cheetos.  I did slog through paperwork and prepared for a trial, but the paperwork and the Cheetos left me unbearably tired and perhaps even a little cranky.

So I decided I needed some chicken soup.  That may seem utterly ridiculous considering the amount of cooking I did over the past few days, but ... the truth is, I can't eat much of anything that I cook.  If I am lucky, I can taste a bite or two, but that's it.  If I try to eat more than that, I suffer.  It took me four hours to eat that Drake's cherry pie, and I can't finish more than half of one of the three beignets that Cafe Du Monde puts in that little brown paper bag with all that powdered sugar. 

I have better luck with soup, although I have to be wary of soups that are very thick or contain big delicious honking chunks of meat or vegetables.  Which is why I came up with this quick and dirty recipe for a really delicious, relatively easy to swallow, double comfort bowl of chicken soup.  The recipe and pictures can be found by clicking on this link, and I promise to someday tell the story of how it is a food blogger can't eat what she cooks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Grits, Greens, and Grumblings about Bagels: Southern Boiled Dinner 2/22/11

The inspiration for this recipe came from my mother’s preparation of corned beef and cabbage, and Paula Deen's recipe for collard greens.  I am calling it Inspiration Nation Southern Boiled Dinner, and rest assured there is neither corned beef nor collards involved.

Corned beef and cabbage was one of those dishes I always thought of as part of Jewish cuisine.  Later on, I learned that different cultures claimed it as their own, notably the Irish and New Englanders.  There is probably some crossover there, but I’m neither a food historian nor a food anthropologist, nor do I play one on TV.  My mother’s preparation was utter simplicity, and always delicious.  She cooked a corned beef brisket in a large pot of water, bringing it to a boil and then lowering the heat for a long simmer.  When the beef was done, she took it out to rest before slicing, and added wedges of crisp green cabbage, and large peeled and halved potatoes to the cooking liquid, boiling them till beyond done.  While my younger brother and father chowed down on thick slices of corned beef, my mother and I based our feast on the cabbage and potatoes and lots of French’s yellow mustard.  The cabbage was wonderfully limp and the potatoes were mealy perfection, and both were thoroughly infused with the flavor imparted to the cooking liquid by the corned beef brisket.  Later on, I was exposed to the heresy of cooking the vegetables in fresh water, thus avoiding the salt and fats from the meat.  Potatoes are pretty good no matter how they are prepared, but plain boiled cabbage is a tasteless mass of unattractive vegetation.  One might just as well chew on algae fresh out of the ocean.  I stuck to my guns and ate the good stuff.  My blood pressure stayed low while my cholesterol made a graceful upward sweep into numbers that caused my doctor to consider early retirement.  Anyway, it wasn’t the corned beef, it was genetics.

Fast forward forty years and I’m living in the undiscovered country, at least as far as food is concerned.  It is true that Florida is the most “northern” of the southern states, but that does not change the fact of regional food differences.  Without going into my eternal harangue about not being able to get a real New York bagel or a decent slice of pizza in the entire state of Florida, I do have a few comments to make regarding southern food and ingredients.  Like what is the big deal about grits?  Why don’t the 7-Elevens in Florida carry buttered rolls?  Are crawfish really miniature lobsters?  Why can’t I find any bluefish?

Incidentally, my favorite description of grits comes from a novel written by Susan Isaacs called “Compromising Positions.”  In one scene, the heroine, Judith Singer, is admonishing her BFF, Nancy Miller, about replacing her wine intake with something substantial.  “Grits,” she tells her southern-born friend, “you could eat grits.”  To which Nancy replies, “grits taste like ground-up horsesh*t.”  Since my move south almost twenty years ago, I have tried grits and can report with a straight face and complete sincerity that Nancy Miller was absolutely correct.

One southern favorite that I have come to love is greens.  Collard greens and turnip greens are both delicious, and I like them prepared the old-fashioned way - boiled within an inch of their lives in the cooking liquid from ham hocks or smoked turkey wings.  My other southern favorite is real barbecue, prepared over wood, low and slow.  Almost makes up for the bagels and pizza. 

It all comes down to technique.  The same technique - cooking the meat in liquid, in effect harnessing the essence of the meat, and sharing that flavor with vegetables and starches to make an extremely tasty dish - is responsible for delectable corned beef and cabbage, Jewish chicken soup, and southern collard greens.  And it works really well in this southern boiled dinner which relies on pork rather than beef as it's main ingredient.

For this dish, rather than start with just water, which would have worked perfectly well, I mostly followed the recipe I use for collard greens, adding a whole lot of flavor to the "pot likker."  The meat is a beautiful smoked pork shoulder, also called a pork butt, more reasonably priced than a corned beef brisket, and with a lot less shrinkage.  Instead of cabbage I use fresh brussel sprouts and the big mealy potatoes of my youth are substituted by tiny new potatoes.  When I can get them, I like to use a bag with mixed colors - white, yellow, purple and red skin.  It all comes together for a beautiful dish.  The recipe can be found here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Eating Out - Reminiscence and a Restaurant Review

I grew up in a time and place when mothers did not work outside the home.  When I came home from school, "Another World" was on the television and milk and cookies were on the kitchen counter.  Every school night, I was served a three course meal by my mother, who despite her inner demons was a fabulous home cook.  She did not own a cookbook, nor did she write anything down.  Her best dishes were those wonderful Jewish recipes that all started with three or six large chopped onions sauteed in corn oil or margarine, like brisket, kasha varnishkes, and stuffed cabbage.  We also ate a lot of steak, baked or broiled chicken, and soup.  Ah, the soup!  I still do not know how she wrenched all that glorious flavor from supermarket chickens, and I admit I have to cheat to achieve that quintessentially Jewish, golden perfection by using chicken broth instead of water in which to cook the chicken and soup vegetables.  My other favorites were her Italian dishes.  Red sauce ruled, and her meat sauce recipe, which had been given to her by an Italian neighbor in the late forties, was so good, I could eat it with a large spoon and skip the spaghetti.

On the weekends, her kitchen was closed.  There were usually leftovers to pick at, tuna fish salad always made up and kept in a recycled Cool Whip container and eating out at least one big meal.  But "kitchen closed" was a hard and fast rule, because, as I only realized years later, she had put in five days of hard work and a good part of that was in the kitchen.

I cannot remember the names of all the restaurants we ate at.  Some were one-shot deals, a place my father had heard of during the week and was determined to try.  The others, though, were the backbone of our family's social life.  At the top of that list was Lundy's.  Most people remember where they had their first kiss; I remember where I had my first taste of lobster.  Then there was Cooky's, a local chain, Linck's Log Cabin, Al Steiner's on Chestnut Street in Cedarhurst, the Famous, a Ratner's knock-off on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, and any number of Italian restaurants.  Thinking back, Italian food was probably my father's favorite food, but he would happily drive all over Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island to enjoy Greek food in Astoria, a Swedish smorgasbord in Riverhead, and the ethereal popovers at Patricia Murphy's Candlelight Restaurant.

Over the years it became more difficult to find restaurants that serve "real" Italian food, where red sauce rules and meatballs are the size of your head.  That sort of southern Italian cooking got a bad rap as northern Italian chefs made their mark with dishes favoring lighter ingredients.  If someone wanted old-fashioned lasagna, or eggplant parmesan, or sweet Italian sausages and peppers, or an awesome baked ziti, they were going to have to whip it up at home.  Which is what I do, and I have a couple of recipes to share with you that are so good, you may find yourself humming "That's Amore!" as you sop up the last of the red sauce with real garlic bread.

More recently there has been a resurgence of southern Italian themed restaurant chains where everything is served family-style and the tablecloth is inevitably stained with red sauce.  Two that immediately come to mind are Buca di Beppo and Maggiano's Little Italy.  Neither one compares with Tarantino's in its heyday at the Oak Street location, but they are both pretty good, with Maggiano's edging out Buca's on food and service.

It was to Maggiano's Little Italy at Pointe Orlando that my husband, son and I headed to for a birthday celebration.  We were able to make a 6:00 PM reservation on a Sunday evening.  It's in a touristy area, but parking is available for a small fee.

And now, my version of a restaurant review:

Large portions.  Very good service.

Bread, evoo, balsamic.  Bread fantastic!

Calamari – fried, delish, very good tomato sauce.

Lobster Ravioli in a cream sauce with more lobster – pronounced “very good” – ate the whole thing.

Lobster carbonara over pasta – loved it.

Shrimp parmesan – 8 nice big shrimp, but would have liked more sauce and more cheese.  Served with side of orzo pasta with baby spinach.  Tasty, but I would have liked it better with angel hair pasta and more of the tomato sauce.  Come to think of it, that is how Tarantino's does it.

Cr̬me brulee Рsmooth, rich vanilla, thin crisp brittle crust.

Special dessert – like a s’mores tiramisu – a thin graham crust, a firm chocolate ganache layer, and two inches of light but rich Italian meringue, torched a touch, and served with sweeps of caramel around the edges of the graham cracker crust.  Decadent.

Maggiano's is known for it's family style service, but there needs to be four diners minimum for that, and we are a family of three.  My husband suggested getting Woody dressed in his taekwando uniform so he could be our fourth, but Cory and Woody had had a spat during the day, so the suggestion was vetoed.

Maggiano's Little Italy, Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive, Orlando, Florida.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Inspiration Nation: Developing a Recipe for Peanut Chicken Stir Fry

I’m sure there are recipes out there for peanut chicken stir fry, but I couldn’t find any that satisfied my mental taste buds.  I searched the internet for a bit, and then turned to my personal collection of cookbooks.  The only recipe that came close was for pork chops with peanut sauce.  But I could see that if I worked with those ingredients to create the marinade and sauce, and used standard stir fry techniques, I might have a winner.

Substituting chicken for the pork was the easy part.  I had an idea for the sauce, based on the ingredients Terry was able to share with me:  peanut butter, honey, teriyaki sauce.  She thought that the marinade her son used included the peanut butter, but she also mentioned that it took a while to incorporate the marinade ingredients because the peanut butter was thick.  I’ve prepared the pork chop recipe in the past, and I was certain the technique used – adding the peanut butter after the marinade had been drained from the chicken and heated to boil – would produce a smooth and tasty sauce to coat the chicken and the pasta. 

I chose a 2 pound bag of frozen chicken breasts, because the price was right.  There were no sales on chicken yesterday, and even my favorite standby, boneless and skinless chicken thighs, were prohibitively priced.  I picked up a small piece of fresh ginger in the produce section – small, because ginger tends to weigh heavy, and the per pound price is higher than most other produce items.  The same is true of red bell peppers, by the way.  They are much more expensive than the green, and seemed to have more seeds and internal membrane which cause them to weigh heavy.  My market almost always carries a bag of mixed bell peppers at a reasonable price. They are marketed as “salad peppers”, and are usually smaller and more misshapen than those on the regular display.  There are always a few green peppers in the bag, along with sweeter color peppers such as red or yellow.  I used two of the green peppers in yesterday’s Inspiration Nation Paella, and will use the two little red peppers in today’s stir fry.

I dithered over whether or not to include some kind of stir fry vegetable with the chicken.  I already knew I wanted the red bell pepper and onion.  I thought about pineapple, but decided that was too much like the sweet and sour chicken I’d gotten for lunch at Panda Express this past week, and besides, my son is no fan of pineapple.  When I first walked into Publix yesterday, I caught a glimpse of display of small vegetable bags for sale – really excellent price, just one dollar for a bag of fresh broccoli or cauliflower, or some other combination.  The bag of stir fry vegetables I chose included snow peas, thin strips of carrot, broccoli florets and shreds, and red cabbage.

While this looks like a complicated process, remember that once I work it out, it will be committed to paper and saved for all eternity, or until my hard drive crashes.  Developing or even tweaking recipes is not something I started out doing when I first taught myself to cook some forty years ago.  Back then, I was satisfied to follow a printed recipe and hope it came out tasty.  And really, if you enjoy cooking for friends and family, that’s all you need to do - to start, that is.  Because once you get hooked on cooking you will begin to experiment.  Trust me, resistance is futile.
(Admittedly cheesy Star Trek reference.  Mea culpa.)

After mixing the marinade ingredients and dipping in a pinkie to taste (this is before adding to the chicken, peeps!!) I was inspired to dump it out and start from scratch, but instead started tinkering with amounts.  Got it where I liked it, sort of, and added it to the chicken, and shoved it into the fridge for a couple or more hours.  Will it work?  Will my first bite meet the lofty aspirations of my mental taste buds?  Right now, your guess is as good as mine.
These are the ingredients for the marinade, and yes, that is a bottle of 151 rum.  Now the picture below shows the best way to get the most flavor from fresh ginger root.  Just peel the ginger with a paring knife and start grating.  No hard bits or stringy pieces in your sauce.  Incidentally, I have seen Rachael Ray use the rasp grater for large cloves of garlic, and having tried it myself, recommend this to you when the recipe calls for the garlic to be finely chopped or minced.
Folks, tonight is TV heaven - the NBA All Stars Game starts at 8:00 PM EST on TNT, and I plan on rooting, at the top of my lungs, for the Eastern Conference.  At 9:00 PM, Food Network is showing the final episode of Worst Cooks in America.  I wish Chef Anne Burrell had asked Joshie, the crazy lawyer from Brooklyn, to turn in his apron last week, but instead we said goodbye to Carlos, in my opinion, the much better candidate.  So tonight's cookoff is between Georg (female) and Joshie.  I'm telling you, Georg better win!  Because I'm still ticked off that Ming Tsai is not the newest Iron Chef, and I need Food Network to redeem itself.

Although we are heading out tonight for Cory's birthday dinner, I will be preparing the chicken peanut stir fry later on so that the chicken does not over-marinate overnight.  When I get ready to serve it tomorrow, I'll prepare the pasta and reheat the saucy chicken in the microwave. 

The recipe for the chicken peanut stir fry can be found here.  If you do try it, please consider returning to comment.  The feedback will be greatly appreciated.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Today is my son's birthday

My little angel is 24 years old, and a head taller than me.  He eats like Adam Richman during a Man v. Food marathon, and in my son's world, Man always wins.  Since I love to cook, it's fortunate that he loves to eat. 

Today is also a birthday of another sort - it is the birth day of a new blog.  The idea came to me after months of posting cooking updates on my Facebook page, with very positive feedback.  This blog will allow me to concentrate my food-focused efforts in one easy-to-access location, without interruption from the free form fun of Facebook. 

If you know me, or you are a Facebook friend, you already know my routine.  I shop and cook on the weekend, and I cook BIG.  Several different dishes for variety, and enough to last us the week.  During the week our schedules are crazy, so having prepared food ready to be reheated in the microwave is the closest I can come to a hot, home-cooked meal.  I've had no complaints.

What you probably don't know is that I usually shop without a list.  Instead, I head into my favorite supermarket and look for inspiration.  Admittedly I am not good about keeping up with printed ads and the last time I used a coupon I was shopping at Waldbaum's in Howard Beach.  But I am still a really good shopper, checking prices, unit prices, ingredients, weights and stuff like that.

So today, I headed into Publix with a vague idea of wanting to recreate a peanut chicken dish I'd enjoyed at an office potluck the week before.  We started to do office potlucks once a month, to celebrate any birthdays during that month.  I brought a stuffed pepper dish and tortellini with broccoli, mac and cheese style.  My friend Terry brought that awesome peanut chicken stir fry that her son Chase had whipped up, from memory, as his recipes were all in storage.  Terry knew that peanut butter, teriyaki sauce, and honey were involved, so I looked through some of my recipes, found something similar, and walked into the market with a very short list committed to memory.  I knew I had most of the stuff at home.

I started up the aisles, following a path as deeply ingrained in my brain as the words to the Pledge of Allegiance:  head to the right and peruse the BOGOs.  Cruise past the deli, check out the bakery, and head straight into the big times:  the meat department.  Here is where the rubber meets the road, because if I start to hyperventilate when I see the price, I'm not buying it.  In case you haven't shopped lately, beef is a sticker shock item.  If my late mother ever saw the price for brisket, a tough cut of meat that needs to be cooked a good two hours, she would die all over again.  I can't tell you the last time I bought beef that wasn't ground.  But at the end of my travels, based on what was reasonably available, I settled on three dishes:  that peanut chicken stir fry, which I plan to serve with angel hair pasta; a smoked pork shoulder, to be served with brussel sprouts, tiny potatoes, tiny onions, and a small rutabaga; and a paella that is, as I write this, bringing a tear to my husband's eye.

I'm not going to kid you, paella is a pricey dish.  Although chicken and rice are basic to the recipe, so are shrimp and clams and mussels, and seafood is not a cheap buy.  But today, Dave the Fish Guy had clams at a sale price, large white shrimp, peeled and deveined, at a sale price, and - this was the kicker - ROCK SHRIMP, SHELL OFF, ON SALE.  If you've never tasted rock shrimp, you are missing a treat.  The best shrimp creole I ever made was with rock shrimp ... but that's another recipe.  Problem is, rock shrimp is not readily available outside of Brevard County, and since I don't work there anymore, I have to await their rare appearance at my fish counter.  A little word of advice:  don't ever try to shell these little morsels on your own.  While the lobster-like texture and taste are worth it, your hands are going to look like they took a short, painful trip through the meat-grinder.  Check them out - rock shrimp are to the left, regular white shrimp on the right.

The nice thing about paella is that you can tweak the ingredients to fit your budget.  You don't need to use all the same seafood I used today; if something different is on sale, use it.  Or not.  Increase the chicken, decrease the shrimp. Use a different type of smoked sausage, or cubed cooked ham, or leftover cubed pork, instead of the chorizo.  Experiment.  Enjoy.

The recipe for Inspiration Nation Paella can be found here.