Eyeballing It

I am not posting any recipes tonight — but there is a good reason for that.  One aspect of my culinary journey is the ongoing effort to reduce my dependency, not on foreign oil, but on other people’s recipes.  There are countless thousands of awesome recipes out there in innumerable books and all over the internet, and I hope to make every single one of them someday as time permits.  But as I develop as a cook there is an inescapable urge to do something original, something uniquely my own.  I realize that at this stage of my culinary development there is little likelihood that I will break new ground that hasn’t already been trod by a thousand others before me, but the adventure is in figuring it out on my own without the benefit of their maps.  Over time I expect to blaze some new trails of my own.

So with that in mind I decided it would be fun to just eyeball a few dishes and put them together on the same plate.  None of these are profound or complex, but the value of the exercise is in learning how to just select a range of ingredients, apply some basic cooking techniques and flavor principles, and see what happens.  The menu tonight consisted of red snapper, sweet potatoes and arugula as the main ingredients.  Here’s what came out.

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For the snapper, I seasoned it simply with kosher salt, white pepper and dried thyme, then gave it a low broil until it was cooked through.  The sauce is a horseradish aioli (of sorts), made with roughly equal parts homemade mayo and sour cream, with a couple teaspoons of prepared horseradish mixed in and a squirt of lemon juice.  I found the fish to be surprisingly meaty, and the sauce could have used a bit more horseradish, but overall we (meaning me and Laura) were pleased with the result.

The salad is simply a pile of baby arugula sprinkled with some dried cranberries and drizzled with some fig balsamic vinegar.  I chose this for a couple reasons.  First, I wanted some greens on the plate and decided against sautéed kale or spinach because the sweet potatoes were going to be another pan-fried dish on the same plate.  And second, the balsamic added a welcome acid element to the plate and paired beautifully with the tangy sweet-tart cranberries.  Again, we were happy with this dish.

The sweet potatoes, however, were my personal favorite tonight.  They were peeled and bias-cut into 1/2″ thick slabs, lightly seasoned with salt, and pan-fried low and slow in some whole butter, covered with a lid to get some steam action.  Sprinkle some brown sugar on both sides and let a rich glaze develop.  I finished by stirring some heavy cream into the pan drippings for a delicious creamy sauce, but actually they didn’t need it because the result was already a little slice of nirvana.

That’s what happened when I just decided to free-form it.  No recipes, just winging it with a few simple ingredients and techniques, and most importantly having fun as I did it.  I can think of no better reason to cook (leaving aside the whole essential bodily sustenance thing).  Anyway, I have every confidence that my readers will have no trouble recreating these dishes successfully with the details listed above, after which you will undoubtedly munch them down with a big happy grin on your face.  Until our next adventure together:  Eat well, my friends!

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Maple-Soy Glazed Salmon

Tonight we’re doing one of my favorite easy Asian menus, because when I’m trying to whip dinner together quickly, especially after work on a weeknight, time is not my friend. These three recipes do not take a huge time investment to pull together — all of it should come together in under an hour — but the result is well worth your effort. The three dishes are: maple-soy glazed salmon, asparagus-shiitake stir-fry (possibly my favorite recipe from culinary school), and my own personal version of fried rice. Each of these recipes is scaled for 4 servings. I’ll give you the ingredient lists first, but then we’ll be working all three dishes together to get them done together. Just a note – you shouldn’t need salt for any of these dishes because the soy sauce and oyster sauce provide plenty of that already.

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For the salmon:

  • 4 salmon filets, 6-8 ounces each
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp chili sauce or sriracha (optional)

For the asparagus-shiitake stir-fry:

  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 4 oz. shiitake mushrooms
  • ½ cup oyster sauce
  • Chili flakes (optional)

And finally, for the fried rice:

  • 1 tbsp. clarified butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tbsp. whole butter
  • 4 cups cooked rice
  • 3-4 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 bunch chopped scallions (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 tbsp. agave nectar
  • Black pepper

For your prep work, start by cooking the rice according to instructions, which will vary based on the kind you use. I prefer jasmine rice for this dish, which takes about 20 minutes to simmer, so you’ll want to get that on first. You might consider cooking the rice in chicken stock instead of water for extra richness. You will also need to get some water boiling for the asparagus. While the rice is cooking, mix all of your sauce ingredients for the salmon and let the filets marinate in it. Wash the mushrooms, cut off the stems and slice the caps into ¼” strips. Blanch the asparagus in the boiling water for about 1 minute, then shock in ice water. Cut the cooled asparagus at an angle into 1” pieces.

Now we’re ready to begin the real cooking. Let’s get the rice going first. In a large skillet, heat the clarified butter and scramble the beaten eggs until lightly cooked. Pull them to the outer edges of the skillet, melt the whole butter in the center, then add the scallions followed by the cooked rice. Stir to mix all the ingredients so far, and then stir in the soy sauce and sauté the rice for a few minutes. Stir in the agave nectar, which helps balance some of the salt from the soy sauce, along with a few turns from your pepper grinder. Cover and reduce heat to the lowest setting to hold warm.

Next, heat a non-stick skillet over a medium flame and add the salmon filets with the skin side up. While these are cooking for about 3-4 minutes on this side, heat another large skillet (or if you have one, a wok) over medium-high heat and add the vegetable and sesame oils. The sesame provides the flavor punch but has too low a smoke point for stir-fry, so the vegetable oil helps to raise the heat tolerance to a workable level. Sauté the garlic in the oil briefly just to infuse the flavor, then add the asparagus. Stir-fry for about a minute, then add the mushrooms and cook for about two minutes more. Pay careful attention to your salmon while you stir-fry, since you will probably need to flip it at this point. You should see the marinade begin to form a nice thick glaze on the fish. After turning, took it another 3-4 minutes with the skin side down while you finish the vegetable dish.

Lastly, returning to your stir-fry, reduce the heat to low, stir in the oyster sauce and the chili flakes, and mix to coat the vegetables. Let it cook for a minute or two to blend the flavors. By now your salmon should be getting very close to finished, and we’re ready to plate. I like to garnish with some sesame seeds and/or fresh cilantro. Whatever your preference, munch it down with a big happy grin on your face. I hope you enjoy this menu as much as we do. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Pork Medallions with Roasted Garlic Sauce

Sticking with the recent French emphasis (since I have lots of demi in my freezer to work with now), I decided to go with some pork tenderloin medallions and a roasted garlic sauce.  This takes a little more time just because of the need to roast the garlic, which takes a solid hour or more, but once that’s done the rest is gravy (no pun intended).  The medallions are seasoned simply and given a quick pan sear, followed by finishing in a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes.

Here is your ingredient list to make enough garlic sauce for 4 servings:

  • 2 tbsp. minced shallot
  • 1 tbsp. clarified butter
  • 1 oz. sherry wine
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 head roasted garlic
  • 1 cup demi-glace

In a small pan, sauté the shallot in the butter just until it starts to caramelize lightly, then add the sherry and herbs.  Allow this to reduce a bit, and then squeeze the roasted garlic head into the saucepan.  You will want to avoid getting any of the husk in there if possible, but if it does, no worries because we’ll strain the sauce later.  Add the demi and let it simmer gently for a few minutes to blend the flavors and reduce slightly.  After straining you’re ready to serve, but if the sauce is too thick you may need to press it through.

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We served ours tonight with a side of rosti mashed potatoes and asparagus Maltaise.  The medallions were tender and juicy, and the sauce was rich and yummy.  We munched it down with a big happy grin on our faces.  I hope you will too when you try this.  Until then:  Eat well, my friends!

 

Poached Cod with Red Pepper Cream Sauce

The need for physical sustenance provided yet another convenient excuse for me to get into the kitchen.  I was feeling poached fish tonight, so I went with cod fillets in a court bouillon, which is an aromatic, mildly acidic poaching liquid that adds a subtle but distinctly pleasant flavor to the fish.  From there I decided to wing it and create a sauce of my own to top it, which turned out to be a roasted red pepper cream sauce.

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For the court bouillon, here’s what you will need:

  • 2 quarts water
  • 3 oz. white wine vinegar
  • 1 oz. lemon juice
  • 12 oz. mirepoix
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Parsley stems (about a 1 inch bunch)
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed black peppercorns

Throw it all in a pot, bring it to a boil and then back it down to a simmer for about 30-45 minutes until the flavors are fully developed.  Don’t be afraid to taste-test it — you’ll be able to tell when it’s ready.  Strain your liquid into a deep skillet and you can immediately begin poaching your fish fillets at about 180° until cooked through.  However, before you throw in the fish, reserve 1/2 cup of the court bouillon to make your roasted red pepper cream sauce.  Here are the ingredients for that:

  • 1/2 cup court bouillon
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • Kosher Salt
  • White Pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • 1 small roasted red pepper, skinned, seeded and finely diced

In a small non-stick saucepan, reduce the court bouillon down to one ounce.  Add the heavy cream and season to taste with salt, white pepper and nutmeg.  Stir in the red pepper and reduce the mixture until thick enough to coat a spoon.  Serve that over the poached cod and munch it down with a big happy grin on your face.  We had ours with oven roasted fingerling potatoes and lemon-pepper steamed broccoli.  A good time was had by all.  Until next time:  Eat well, my friends!

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Vegetarian Night (or not)

Recently some of my lawyer friends prevailed upon me to go vegetarian for my next post, so, being a magnanimous fellow by nature, I happily obliged.  After all, the beauty of a vegetarian dish is that you can always have big honkin’ steak as a side… right?

Okay, no steak tonight.  We’re doing risotto instead, with asparagus, leeks and lemon zest as the main flavor components.

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Here’s your ingredient list:

  • 4 tbsp. whole butter (divided into two equal portions)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 leeks (whites/light green portions only)
  • 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh-cracked black pepper
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups vegetable stock
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano, grated

Start by cutting the leeks into quarters lengthwise and washing them carefully — otherwise you will probably get an unpleasant gritty surprise later.  Then cut the leeks across the grain into small pieces.  Next, blanch the asparagus in boiling water for about 1 minute, then shock it in ice water to prevent overcooking and set that beautiful bright green color.  Cut the asparagus diagonally into 1/2″ pieces.  In a separate pot, heat the vegetable stock to a simmer.

In a large skillet, melt 2 tbsp. of the butter and sweat the garlic, leeks, carrot and pepper together.  Season with a pinch of salt.  Add the remaining butter with the olive oil and the Arborio rice, and stir to completely coat the rice with fat.  Add the wine and stir until thoroughly incorporated.  Add the stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring each time until absorbed before adding more.  When all the stock has been added, throw in the lemon zest, a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of cracked pepper.  Next fold in the asparagus and parmigiano, and mix them in thoroughly.  That’s it, you’re done.  Plate it up, garnish with some more shaved parmigiano, and munch it down with a big happy vegetarian grin on your face.

But because I and my friends are committed, doctrinaire carnivores, I simply couldn’t stop there.  We decided to make a minor variation to the dish more in keeping with our non-vegetarian dietary practices.  Sauté some shrimp in olive oil and garlic, season with some kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, and voila, the dish is reborn with a new sense of purpose.

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There you have it, my humble answer to the call of the vegetarians.  I hope it tastes as good when you make it as it did for us.  Until next time:  Eat well, my friends!

 

Patience Rewarded — Again!

In my last post involving actual food I described the joys of making homemade demi-glace because of the range of classic derivative sauces it opens up for the home cook.  Last time was Bordelaise, and tonight was Poivrade, a brightly acidic sauce featuring an infusion of extra mirepoix, fresh herbs and cracked peppercorns.

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Here’s a short recipe that will make some extra to freeze for a future dinner:

  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 6 oz. mirepoix, small dice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 3 parsley stems
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups demi-glace
  • 12 black peppercorns, crushed
  • 2 tbsp. whole butter

Sweat the mirepoix in the oil until tender.  Add the herbs, vinegar and wine, and reduce the mixture by at least half — two-thirds might be preferable for a tighter finished sauce.  Add the demi-glace and simmer 30 minutes.  Add the peppercorns and simmer another 5 minutes.  Strain the sauce and swirl in the butter.

We enjoyed ours over some filets mignons with a side of perfectly cooked garlic potatoes Anna and sautéed Brussels sprouts tossed with bacon.  As you can imagine, we munched it down with a big happy grin on our faces, and I hope you will too.  Until then:  Eat well, my friends!

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Culinary Idiosyncrasies

“Give two cooks the same ingredients and the same recipe; it is fascinating to observe how, like handwriting, their results differ. After you cook a dish repeatedly, you begin to understand it. Then you can reinvent it a bit and make it yours. A written recipe can be useful, but sometimes the notes scribbled in the margin are the key to a superlative rendition. Each new version may inspire improvisation based on fresh understanding. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as all that, but such exciting minor epiphanies keep cooking lively.”

— David Tanis, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys