Friday, January 29, 2010

Roasted Cabbage: Mon Petit Chou

Can I tell you a little secret?  I love cabbage.  I know, I know.  Poor cabbage has an image problem.  People think cabbage is stinky, bland, boring, cheap.  It's the working-class, hardy, reliable veg that gets overshadowed by its fancy, ritzy neighbors in the produce section.  The leeks, the beets, the fennel, the white asparagus -- they all seem so much more glamorous than the sturdy cabbage. 

But cabbage has so much to offer!  A small, fresh cabbage is surprisingly sweet.  And they keep for days on end in the crisper drawer, which means they are like a little gift near the end of the week, when you've already burned through those frou-frou veggies that couldn't take another day in the fridge.  (Cabbage will wait for you.)  And as long as you don't boil cabbage to death, it is a real pleasure to eat.  And if all that didn't convince you, consider this:  "mon petit chou" is a French term of endearment.  It means "my little cabbage."  And we can all agree that the French know a thing or two about food, love, and life, can we not?  I rest my case.

I love green cabbage braised in cream, red cabbage shredded and tossed in a lemon-pepper dressing, and even a homemade coleslaw with curried mayo, nuts, and dried cranberries.  But all those cabbage preparations have been overshadowed by my new favorite recipe:  Roasted Cabbage with Lemon.  You may already know of my intense love of all roasted veggies.  And yet I had never thought of roasting cabbage until I saw it in the January issue of Martha Stewart Living.  I tried it immediately and we've had it once a week ever since.  I even ate about 3/4s of a small, roasted cabbage as my entire dinner the other night.  (Although, to be fair, that was because the French Vegetable Stew I made to go with the cabbage was completely awful.  So while the French may know a thing or two about food, perhaps I do not.)

This recipe takes advantage of cabbage's natural sweetness, as some of the sugar carmelizes as it roasts and browns.  Then the lemon squeezed over it complements the sweetness perfectly.  Even better, this recipe is as easy as it comes.  Perfect even for the beginners out there. 

So pick yourself up a petit chou this week and get ready to fall in love.

Source:  adapted from Martha Stewart Living, Jan. 2010 issue
  • 1 small, green cabbage
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lemon
  1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Remove any loose, dirty or bruised outer leaves from your cabbage.  Trim the stem and then cut the cabbage in half.  Then cut each half into four wedges, trying to preserve a bit of core on each wedge, to help hold them together. 
  3. Arrange wedges on a rimmed baking sheet.  Brush the wedges generously with olive oil on all sides.  (Martha called for just 1/2 tsp. of oil, but I easily use a full tablespoon or so.  Also, if you don't have a brush, just lightly pat them with oil -- I even let my 2 yr. old do that recently and they turned out fine.)  Sprinkle generously with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.
  4. Roast for about 10-15 mins. and then carefully flip.  Roast for another 10-15 mins.  (I like mine to get some good color, so I go pretty long.  But do check every now and again!)
  5. Squeeze the lemon over the cabbage and serve. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Super Bowl Chili: To Soup or Not to Soup

In general, I avoid recipes that rely on canned soups. I try to adhere to the Michael Pollan rule of only eating "real food," not "edible foodlike substances."  And canned soups fall squarely into the "foodlike substances" category.  They have lots of salt, high fructose corn syrup, and other unpronounceable ingredients that I don't like eating or serving. Oh, I have one or two old, food-splattered recipes in my collection that call for canned soups, and I do cherish those recipes because of the history associated with them. But they are definitely the exception, not the rule.

I bring this up because my husband has a favorite canned-soup meal from childhood: his mom's Super Bowl Chili. It relies on canned tomato soup to give the chili body. I've made the chili many times, from my mother-in-law's recipe. And it rocks. Lots of chili flavor, but still mild enough for my kids to love. With a few tweaks (I altered the beef-to-bean ratio in favor of beans, e.g.), it quickly became our house chili. This is the stuff football gamewatches are made of.

But still, I hated cranking open those cans of processed soup and feeding it to my kids. So when winter weather finally hit San Diego last month, I decided to make Super Bowl Chili -- but with organic, canned tomato sauce standing in for the soups.  Guess what?  Still awesome.  And now served without the side of guilt.  I'll leave it to you to decide which route to go: to soup or not to soup.  But you know where I stand.

By the way . . . I just hosted a potluck party for a large group of friends.  I made this Super Bowl Chili and a batch of "Kicked-Up Chili" from Emeril Lagasse's Potluck cookbook.  I had been itching to try Emeril's chili for a while, as it included a long list of fun ingredients such as two bottles of dark beer, cinnamon, and a square of unsweetened chocolate.  I was envisioning a chili with mole-like flavors.  Guess what?  It was fine.  Certainly nothing wrong with it.  But just . . . meh.  And the good, old, ultra-easy Super Bowl Chili?  Rave reviews, as always.  This is definitely a case where simpler was more satisfying. 


Serves:  8-10
Time:  10 mins. prep., 1 hour mostly unattended cooking time

  • 2 lb. ground beef
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 TBSP chili powder
  • 2 x 15 oz. cans tomato sauce
  • 2 x 4 oz. cans chopped green chiles
  • 1 x 16 oz. jar salsa (mild to hot, your choice)
  • 2 cans kidney beans
  • 2 cans pinto beans
  • Toppings of choice:  chopped onion, cheddar cheese, sour cream, cilantro
  1. Brown the beef with the onion and some of the chili powder.  Drain off some of the fat. 
  2. Stir in the rest of the chili powder.  Add all other ingredients including liquid in cans of beans.  Simmer at least one hour, stirring with some regularity, to make sure chili doesn't start to stick to the bottom and burn. 
Serving notes:  Chili is always awesome with baked potatoes on the side.  And by the way, no, a microwaved potato doesn't really cut it. To get that steakhouse-quality crispy skin, you need to bake it at high heat, directly on the oven rack.  Try 450 degrees for about an hour.

When we don't have Russet potatoes in the house, we serve Super Bowl Chili with tortilla chips, corn bread, French bread, saltines, roasted new potatoes, etc.  Lots of folks like to serve chili on a bed of rice, too.  (And, apparently, if you're from Cincinnati, you like it over spaghetti.)
If you've got leftovers, try filling baked potato skins, topping with lots of cheddar, and broiling.  Serve with sour cream for dunking.  Also, chili freezes beautifully.  And, once, my pizza-obsessed, pizza-making husband put together a cornmeal crust and spread the leftover chili on top, smothered in cheddar.  So yum!


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Assembling Dinner: Salads

So, last week we talked about quick, assembly-only "food on bread" dinners  -- basically, sandwiches and quesadillas.  This week, in the second half of January's installment in our year-long Learn to Cook series, we're going to talk salad days.  I eat a lot of salad, often at lunch.  But I love a "big salad" (a la Elaine) for dinner, especially on warm days or on days when I've had a bigger-than-usual lunch.  But best of all, salad is an assembly-only meal that is light, refreshing, nutritious, and satisfying.  So it's perfect for the new cook.

The difference between a ho-hum salad and a memorable, craving-inducing salad really comes down to the dressing.  So let's establish this straight away:  bottled dressings simply aren't as good as homemade ones.  If you have nice, tender greens and interesting, flavorful mix-ins, don't drown them in a thick, sugary, bottled dressing.  What's the point?  Instead, highlight them with a simple vinaigrette or, my personal favorite, a lemon-oil dressing (see below). 

So, let's build a better salad.

Step #1:  Choose your greens.
I like baby greens for almost every salad.  The only exception is when I want a lot of crunch, to stand up to heavy mix-ins.  Then, I go for romaine. If you have access to super-fresh greens from a farmer's market, that is the way to go.  But those bagged, grocery store mixes are a good runner-up. 

Once you gently wash your greens, spin them dry in a salad spinner.  You don't want water-logged greens, so dry them well.  Put them into a big bowl, so that you'll be able to toss them well.  Then, I like to salt and pepper my greens, rather than putting salt into the dressings. 

Step #2:  Choose your mix-ins.
Unless I'm going for a particular genre (see below!), then I follow a basic formula when assembling a salad:  sweet + savory = one tasty salad.  The classic example here is a spinach salad with pears (sweet), walnuts (savory), and blue cheese (savory).  Another favorite of mine is beets (sweet), walnuts (savory), and crumbled goat cheese (savory).  (If you have a little fresh dill to put on that one, it's divine!) And when the tomato days hit in summer, try a mix of heirloom tomatoes with goat cheese and basil.  So yum.

To add some heft to a dinner salad, add a meat (savory).  Later on this year, when you're really cooking, you'll likely have lots of leftovers to choose from (grilled chicken, roasted turkey, etc.).  But for now, consider buying a roasted chicken from the grocery store.

Other interesting mix-in ideas:

Pomegranate seeds (I can buy the seeds by themselves at my farmer's market and at my grocery store)
Beets (I roast them, but, beginners, try canned!)
Citrus sections (clementines, grapefruits, oranges, etc.)
Dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, raisins)

Avocados (great mixed with the grapefuit sections!)
Meats  (leftover chicken, turkey, beef, or pork, or chicken from a grocery-store roasted chicken)
Salmon -- smoked or canned
Hard-boiled eggs
Roasted potatoes or other veggies
Blue cheese
Feta cheese
Goat cheese
Fresh mozzarella
Shavings of Pecorino Romano or Parmegiano Reggiano
Nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, pine nuts)

One other mix-in idea that I have to mention, but that steps outside of my usual sweet + savory formula, is the mixed-herb salad.  Chop a variety of fresh herbs -- basil, parsley, chives, tarragon, etc. -- and toss them with your greens.  So, so good.

One note: With the exception of the mixed herbs, don't add your mix-ins to your salad until AFTER you dress the greens.

Step #3:  Choose your dressing.
I have three basic dressings that I use for nearly every salad.  As noted above, I salt my greens directly, so you won't see "salt and pepper" on the ingredient lists for these dressings.  Feel free to add your salt and pepper to the dressings, instead, if you like.  Also, I mix all my dressings in a little glass jar with a tightly fitting, screwtop lid.  If you don't have a jar, you could whisk the dressings together in a small bowl.  (But find yourself a little jar!  Really, it's quicker and, if you have leftover dressing, you can store it right in the jar you mixed it in.)

Basic Vinaigrette (adapted from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home):  Finely chop some garlic until you have about 1 tsp.  Add 1 TBSP Dijon mustard, 2 TBSP red wine vinegar, and 1/2 c olive oil.  Shake it up.  Taste and add more acid (vinegar) or oil, as you like.  Store in fridge up to 2 weeks -- just shake to re-blend before using.  If garlic isn't your thing, try grating a bit of shallot or onion.  (I use more than 1 tsp. when I use a shallot.)  Also, if you are really pressed for time, just skip the garlic/shallot. It's still good.

Lemon-Oil Vinaigrette (adapted from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home): If vinegar is a little too much acid for you, try this more delicate lemon juice-based dressing.  Mince or grate some shallots until you have about 1 TBSP.  Add 2 tsp Dijon mustard, 2 TBSP freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 1/2 cup olive oil.  Shake until emulsified. Taste. 

Walnut-Oil Vinaigrette (from the back of a bottle of walnut oil!):  4 TBSP walnut oil, 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp Dijon.  Shake.  Serve with salads in which walnuts are a "savory" ingredient.  If the dressing tastes too strongly "nutty" to you, try it with half walnut oil and half canola oil.  I've also made this with hazelnut oil and it was great.  It's a nice change of pace from regular vinaigrettes. 

Add the dressing to your greens in small amounts -- start with just a TBSP or two.  Toss it gently with tongs.  Taste a leaf and add more dressing if needed.  Ideally, there should never be a pool of dressing at the bottom of your salad bowl.  The greens should just be glistening, lightly covered with dressing.

*Extra Credit:  Take Your Salad On a World Tour

When you're ready to venture beyond the sweet/savory formula, pick your favorite type of ethnic food and try to construct a salad out of the basic flavors of that cuisine.  A few examples:

Japanese:  (adapted from Rachel Ray, 30-Minute Get Real Meals)  The real star here is the dressing, a ginger-soy vinaigrette:  juice of 1 lime, generous 1 tsp Dijon mustard,  1 TBSP tamari (or soy sauce), 1 tsp ginger (bottled or grated fresh).  This is fabulous just on plain baby spinach.  If you have warm grilled chicken or portabella mushrooms, and a few TBSP of toasted sesame seeds, add any or all of them.  (Warm chicken or mushrooms will wilt the spinach a bit, and it's delicious!  Also, toasted sesame seeds are available in the Asian foods aisle.)

Greek:  (adapted from Rachel Ray, 30-Minute Get Real Meals)  This is the classic greek salad:  chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta cheese.  No lettuce!  Dress with the juice of 1 lemon, a drop or two of hot sauce, 4 tsp olive oil and sea salt.  Want to take it up a notch?  Add red onion, kalamata olives, and/or a few peperoncini.  Top with chicken or maybe even grilled shrimp or sauteed scallops. If you want to serve it over greens, go with romaine.  Note:  wait til summer for this one!  The tomatoes are the main attraction here, and they won't be worth it until summer. 

Italian:  (adapted from Rachel Ray, 30-Minute Get Real Meals)  Everyone loves an antipasto salad at a pizzeria, right?  Well, it makes a great meal on its own, too.  Romaine lettuce, artichoke hearts, bottled roasted red bell peppers, peperoncini, kalamata (or other good quality olives), Genoa salami, provolone cheese, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes.  Dress greens with about 1 TBSP red wine vinegar and about 2 TBSP olive oil. Top with fresh basil.

Mexican:  When you are craving Mexican food, but don't want something heavy with meat and cheese, a taco salad is a great choice.  I often serve a small version of this salad with the quesadillas I discussed last week.  Romaine or even shredded iceberg,  black beans (or kidney or pinto), avocado, shredded Mexican-blend cheese, fresh cilantro, a little lime juice, and/or tomatoes.  Use your favorite salsa for dressing.  If you are ready for a little more cooking, serve with roasted corn added in.  As you can see from the photo, I have a bit of an obsession with the roasted corn . . .

Enjoy! Sorry there aren't more photos . . . it's been raining cats and dogs all week, so I haven't been a salad mood!


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Assembling Dinner: Food On Bread

Let's start at the very beginning.  A very good place to start.  When you read, you begin with A, B, C.  When you cook, you begin with . . .  "assembling dinners!"

(Sorry . . . The Sound of Music was on over Christmas and I can't get Maria out of my head!)

Welcome to the first installment of our "Learn to Cook" series.  Your New Year's Resolution to learn to cook begins with a true baby step this month, as all I'm asking you to do is to commit to assembling dinner a few times a week.  Break the habit of feeding yourself with fast food, take-out, pre-packaged meals, pizzas, and restaurants.  Instead, get used to nourishing yourself with a homemade dinner.  No need to worry, yet, about cooking up a dinner "from scratch."  This month, let's just get used to putting easy dinners together out of ready-to-go ingredients that you can keep in your pantry or fridge. 

In thinking about meals that can be assembled simply, I came up with two broad categories:  (1)  Dinner On Bread;  and (2)  Salads.  I'll give you a few recipes to try out this month, and a few other ideas for ways to change those recipes so that you have more variety.  Today, I'll post the Dinner On Bread ideas;  next week, I'll post the salads. 

By the way, these dinner ideas, although rudimentary, will still be useful after you've graduated to more complex recipes.  Life doesn't allow us to cook an involved main dish, separate side dish, and dessert every night of the week.  So it is a wonderful thing to have a few assembly-only dinners in your back pocket, ready to be whipped up at a moment's notice.  I plan an assembly-only dinner at least once a week, to give myself a little freedom.  Having the supplies ready for that "emergency dinner" allows me to avoid calling the pizza man just because we didn't get back into the house until 5:00 and the kids are both whining that they are starving. 


One of my favorite assembly-only dinners is soup-and-sandwich night.  I usually have a few servings of homemade soup in my freezer, but for now, serve a soup you've brought home from a grocery store or restaurant.  But let's make your sandwich feel more luxurious than the brown-bag special of turkey on whole wheat.  One ground rule:  For every sandwich, start with good bread.  (I buy at least one nice loaf of bread each week, cut it into halves or thirds, wrap in foil and a freezer bag, and freeze.  Then you just defrost -- at room temp or in a 350 degree oven -- as much as you need for your sandwich or to have with dinner.  No waste.)  Here are some sandwich ideas, starting with the simplest and moving up in complexity:

Italian Paninis
Start with Italian bread, focaccia, or ciabatta, sliced not too thick.   Layer Genoa salami, provolone, and some jarred, roasted, red bell peppers in between two slices of bread.  Press it together.  Heat a bit of olive oil in a frying pan.  Place your sandwich in the pan and press it down a bit with a spatula while the bread browns.  Flip it over to toast the second side.  Alternative ideas to mix and match:  fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, fresh basil leaves, pepperoni, arugula, prosciutto, olives.  Note:  If you don't have an ingredient that contains some moisture (like the peppers), I'd drizzle a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the inside of the top piece of bread.  Serve with Italian wedding, a cream of vegetable, or minestrone soup.

Grown-Up Grilled Cheeses

Whenever I stayed home sick from school as a child, my grandma would make me Campbell's Tomato Soup and a grilled, American-cheese sandwich.  The ultimate childhood comfort food.  That version still provides a nostaligc satisfaction, but sometimes you want to raise the bar a bit.  Here's how (adapted from Cheap. Fast. Good., Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross). 

Start with nice white or whole wheat bread -- I like French bread.  Spread one slice of bread with a little mayo and the other with a little Dijon mustard. Layer three slices of cheese on one piece of bread.  I like a mix of Cheddar and Swiss, but go with what pleases you. Melt some butter in a frying pan and add the cheese-topped bread.  Cover the pan and cook until the bread turns golden.  Now layer on some slices of avocado, bacon, and/or tomato and top with the other piece of bread.  Press it together and flip it over.  Cook until that side is golden, pressing every now and again with your spatula.  Go classic and serve this with tomato soup, of course.  But it's also awesome with just about any vegetable-based soup.  (BTW, the soup pictured above is Molly Wizenberg's Tomato Soup with Two Fennels, from her A Homemade Life book.  The recipe is on another blog here.)

Vary this one by switching up the types of cheese, omitting the avocado, tomato, and/or bacon, adding already-cooked chicken or turkey, changing the type of bread, adding some salad greens, etc., etc.  Another awesome and unique variation is to use Brie and layer on prosciutto, thinly sliced pears, and arugula.  Drizzle the inside of one piece of bread with balsamic vinegar, for that one.  (I haven't tried it, but I'd bet that sliced apples, Black Forest ham, and a nice Parmigiano-Reggiano or Comte would also be awesome.)

Monte Cristos

The classic Parisian ham-and-cheese sandwich goes well with both vegetable soups and mixed green salads.  Start with a sturdy, sandwich-style bread.  (Nothing too airy, as it has to hold up after being dipped in egg.) Spread some mayo on one slice of bread and some Dijon on the other.  Layer some ham and Swiss on one slice of bread and top with the other.  Beat an egg in a shallow, wide bowl.  Melt some butter in a frying pan.  Dip the entire sandwich into the egg (first one side, then the other) and then place it into the pan.  Cook until golden brown and then flip to do the other side.  Traditionally, Monte Cristos are served with raspberry jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar -- but we skip the sweet additions. 

Varation:  For a Southwestern Monte Cristo, skip the mustard and mayo and smear some salsa (or hot pepper jelly or taco, enchilada, or chili sauce) on one piece of bread.  Use pepper jack cheese instead of Swiss.  Beat a dash of hot sauce into the egg.  Goes great with black bean soup or a bean-based tortilla soup. (Adapted from Rachel Ray's 365:  No Repeats.)

Source:  Adapted from Cheap. Fast. Good., Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross.
Time:  5 mins. prep, 7 mins. baking

We have quesadillas more than I care to admit.  My kids love them. We eat them for lunch, dinner, snack, etc. To make an entire meal out of it, I serve it with roasted corn, Billy's version of guacamole (avocado, mayo, Greek yogurt, lime, salt, and garlic powder pureed), and sometimes a little salad of shredded lettuce and tomatoes with salsa on top.
  • 1 large, flour tortilla per person
  • 2-4 TBSP per person canned refried beans (regular or black bean) OR canned whole kidney, pinto, or black beans, mashed with the back of a fork 
  • 2-4 TBSP per person shredded Mexican-blend cheese
  • Optional add-ins:  frozen corn (defrosted); salsa; guacamole; cumin (sprinkle in a pinch in your beans); already-cooked chicken, turkey, beef or pork; steamed, pureed sweet potato or butternut squash (a way to sneak in a veg for my kids)
  • Optional toppings:  salsa, sour cream, guacamole
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Spray a baking sheet with Pam. (NOTE:  If just serving yourself, it's not worth turning on the oven!  Just heat your quesadilla in a frying pan, like the grilled sandwiches above.)
  2.  Lay out a tortilla on a work surface.  Spread beans on half.  Sprinkle cheese on top.  Layer in any other items you want (meat, corn, etc.).  If you want a little salsa or guacamole inside, smear some on the empty side of the tortilla.
  3. Fold the tortillas in half and place on baking sheet.  (You can fit three on one large tray.)  Bake for about 7 mins., until the tortillas are crisp and the cheese has melted.  Cut each quesadilla into three wedges, using a pizza cutter. 

Have fun "assembling" in your kitchen this month!  Experienced cooks out there, let us know your go-to "assembly-only" dinners.  New cooks, let us know how you're doing!


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

So You Say You Want A Resolution

"Learn to cook -- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!"

--Julia Child

Happy New Year, friends! 

A lot of people joke that they wish I could "teach them how to cook."  I get this all the time, and it always confuses me.  What could I teach anybody?? I have zero cooking knowledge that can't be gleaned from a few cookbooks and a lot of practice.  Despite having an Italian grandma who was a great cook and a Scottish grandma who is a great baker, I did not grow up in the kitchen, learning how to make tantalizing meatballs and buttery shortbread while sitting on my grandmas' counters.  The idea of cooking didn't even occur to me until college and I didn't become passionate about using organic, local, seasonal produce until after motherhood.  So I say this based on personal experience:  as long as you are interested, you can learn to cook and can enjoy every step of the process.

So make "learn to cook" your resolution for 2010.  Avoid the typical (and usually empty) resolution to lose weight and go with "learn to cook" instead.  Cooking -- being comfortable in your kitchen, being confident that you can pull together a delicious, nourishing meal -- is a lifetime skill.  Even better, cooking for yourself (and spouse, kids, friends) is that rare experience that is equal parts good-for-you and pampering.  Which sounds healthier:  fried chicken fingers with a sugary dipping sauce from the local chain restaurant or a salad of baby greens with walnuts, goat cheese, and pomegranate seeds, topped with a juicy grilled chicken breast?  Even better, which sounds more decadent and pleasurable?  See what I mean?   When you can simultaneously indulge your desire for pleasure and do the thing that is best for your health, life is very good indeed.  Cooking for yourself gives you that luxurious, wholly satisfying experience.

So, your resolution is to learn to cook.  Now here's your plan:  During the second week of each month, I'll publish a "Learn to Cook" post aimed at helping you take baby steps towards your goal of being comfortable and confident in your kitchen.  We'll start off in January with just "assembling dinner" and then move onto pasta tosses, one-pot meals, and vegetables.  By the end of the year, you'll be making risotto, soup, and your own pizza.  Really.  I promise. 

So tune in every month and get ready to spend some time your kitchen this year.


P.S.  In case you are wondering:  my resolution is to blog every single week.  Oh, and to get more sleep.  And since it is now past midnight, I predict that my first and second resolutions will be in constant conflict with each other . . .