Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quick Lunch

Thursday means farmers' market day, which in turn means something reeeaaallly good for lunch. Today I bought this baguette thingie from the French baker: it's topped with bleu cheese, sliced pears, and walnuts. I ran it under the broiler for a minute while I chopped up some heirloom tomato and a little romaine for a side. My only regret was not having a glass of wine with it; but had I indulged, my afternoon would have been more nap, less gym. Self-discipline is its own reward. Or not.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Word to the Vegan Peeps

Some comedian or other has a shtick about vegans: it's cheap to have them over for dinner because all they can do is chew on the furniture. Oh ha ha. Not. Listen up, vegan-mockers: you've been eating vegan for years - you just haven't noticed. Truth is, you've undoubtedly mowed into many extremely tasty dishes without feeling compelled to shout, "Ah-HA! No butter! This sucks!"

For example: who wouldn't love this oh-by-the-way-it's vegan menu?

Coincidentally Vegan Dinner Party

Fresh bruschetta on toasted baguette slices
Olives with lemon zest and rosemary
Warm Marcona almonds with kosher salt

Arugula, peaches, and pan-toasted walnuts drizzled with honey vinaigrette (honey, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper)

Orecchiette with cannellini beans and arugula

Balsamic summer fruit with biscotti

Not so bad, huh? And it's easy, too:

Orecchiette with Cannellini Beans and Arugula
  • 1/2 lb. orecchiette pasta
  • 1 – 14 oz. can of cannellini beans
  • 1 lb. fresh arugula
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh rosemary
  • 2/3 cup vegetable broth, or white wine, or a combo
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pignoli (pine nuts)

Set the water to boil. Chop the garlic. Snip the rosemary (use kitchen shears – ways easier than chopping). Dump the beans into a colander, rinse, and drain.

When the water comes to a boil, throw in the pasta and cook until it’s tender, about 10 minutes +/-. Drain it and set it aside.

Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan or wok to high and pour in the olive oil. Add the garlic, turn the heat down to medium, and shake the pan for 45 seconds so the garlic gets just the teeniest bit golden and crisp. Add the beans and sauté for 5 or 6 minutes, until they start to brown up in spots. Throw in the rosemary and sauté for another minute or so. Add the arugula and 1/3 cup of the broth, cover the pan and let it steam down for about 3 minutes. When the arugula is bright green and tender, add the pasta and the other 1/3 cup of broth. Toss everything to combine it. Add more broth if you like.

Serve in bowls topped with the toasted pignoli.

If you're feeling ambitious, grind the pignoli to the consistency of grated Parmesan and see if you can fool your meat-eating buds.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Autumn Comfort Food. In July.

Cold weather calls for comfort food, and creamy polenta with rosemary-spiked mushrooms is just the thing. Perfect for summer in San Francisco, where yesterday's daytime high topped out at 53 degrees west of Twin Peaks. Invigorating!

Polenta and Mushrooms

This is a super-easy, one-pot meal in two steps: first cook the topping, then keep it warm under a foil tent while you cook the polenta. This dish will take less than 30 minutes, prep to plate.

  • 1 pound mushrooms (any kind), sliced
  • 1 small leek, tender bottom 6" only, sliced thin
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, snipped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Salt
Prep the mushrooms, leek, garlic, and rosemary. Heat the olive oil to medium-high in a saute pan or wok. Add the garlic and leeks and saute for about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute until they start to get soft. Add the butter and rosemary, sprinkle with a little salt, and continue to saute until the mushrooms just begin to get some nice golden-brown spots. (At this point I threw in some leftover grilled chicken breast. Why not?) Spoon the mushroom mixture into a bowl and cover it with a foil tent. Leave the oil and any leftover bits in the pan.

  • 1 cup quick-cooking polenta
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons half and half
  • 2 tablespoons shredded asiago (or other very sharp cheese)
Pour the broth and water into the (unwashed) pan. Bring it to a boil, then pour in the polenta in a stream, whisking the hell out of it the whole time. Lower the heat to medium-low, whisk in the half and half, and continue to whisk it until the polenta thickens (about 4 minutes, more or less). Whisk in the cheese.

Plate the polenta and top it with the mushrooms. In a concession to summer, we added a salad; sauteed greens are an excellent side in fall or winter.

And for anyone keeping track, this was day four of five planned meals. Success!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

No-Carb Noodle Night Nixed

No-Carb Noodle Night was postponed due to a lack of no-carb noodles. I subbed in Korean vermicelli (yam noodles) instead. Turns out no-carb shirataki noodles are harder to come by locally than I anticipated.

Here in the Bay area, Asian supermarkets are everywhere. So when I planned to prepare a dish with shirataki noodles, I assumed (yeah, yeah, I know) that I could roll in to my local market and roll out with the appropriate noodles.


Even so, no trip to Pacific Supermarket is wasted. It's always an adventure, especially if you're looking for a specific product. If the item is where you think it should be (and it usually is), no problem. But sometimes products are in oddball places, and you have to ask for help.

Pacific Grocery is huge, and cheap, and almost entirely devoid of employees. There are two fish guys (they have several huge tanks of live fish), one bun guy, and one cashier - in a store the size of a large Safeway. None of these folks speak a lot of English, and I don't speak anything else, so any sort of Q & A (for example "Do you carry shirataki noodles?") tends to be equal parts hilarious and unproductive.

After I prowled the coolers and frozen food bins for 15 minutes with no shirataki noodles to be found, I knew I'd have to ask. Both the fish guys, when asked about noodles, shook their heads and and serenely ignored me. The bun guy was AWOL. Luckily, I found the cashier at her register (this is far less common than one might anticipate).

"Excuse me, do you carry shirataki noodles?" I asked her.
"Noodles?" she asked.
"Noodles," I confirmed.
"Noodles," she said, pointing at the noodle aisle.
"I need shirataki noodles," I elaborated. "The kind with no carbs."
"Noodles," she reiterated, jerking her head at the aisle.
"Shirataki noodles?" I asked, one palm upraised.

A thin crease appeared between her brows.

"ALL noodles," she said pointedly, snapping open her newspaper.

Duly chastised, I settled for Korean Vermicelli, a clear noodle made from yams. The cashier consented to take my $1.19, and I was on my way.

It should be noted that the astonishingly unhelpful staff at Pacific Grocery is near-legendary in these parts. Infuriated reviews of all races, creeds and colors are a testament to PG's utter indifference to their customers. On the other hand, $1.19 for a 2 pound bag of noodles makes up for a lot of indifference.

As to the shirataki noodles, stay tuned. After dinner, I found an online resource: I put in my order; I'll report on the results when FedEx delivers the goods.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Toasted Garbanzos. Who Knew?

Day Two of the Great Plan-Ahead Meal Week was a success: lamb steaks with a nice side of tomatoes and feta tossed with pan-toasted garbanzos.

Garbanzos (known to the east-coasters as chick peas) are innocuous legumes, usually tossed into salads or pasta for some fiber, or made into hummus, or left in the can in the pantry gathering dust for say, 12 years. So I was intrigued to see a recipe to dress them up a bit.

Drain and rinse a can of garbanzos and pat them dry with paper towels. Heat a skillet to medium high, add a tablespoon of olive oil, and toss in the garbanzos. Saute them (or "toast," whatevs) about 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until they're crispy. Stir in half a cup of chopped tomatoes, a handful of snipped cilantro, and the juice from half a lemon. Salt generously, dust with feta, and grind some pepper on top. Amazing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Planned Dinners: One Down, Four to Go.

The tabbouleh salad with grilled chicken was great last night. We quaffed a summery dry rose and munched pita chips with cilantro-jalapeno hummus and tried to pretend it wasn't 53 degrees and foggy outside. San Francisco is a such a treat in July.

Tabbouleh and Grilled Chicken Salad

This recipe involves more prep than in most of my recipes simply because it has more ingredients than I usually use. But since you can do some or all of the prep ahead of time - in fact, tabbouleh tastes better if you make it up early in the day (or the night before) and let the flavors blend in the fridge - you don't have to get all stressed about doing everything all at once.

For the tabbouleh:

  • 3/4 cup bulgur (or a prefab box of tabbouleh mix, if you can't find plain bulgur)
  • 1 cup chopped tomato
  • 1 cup chopped cucumber
  • 3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup chopped mint
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

For the chicken:

  • 1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
  • 1 tablespoon Montreal steak seasoning

First, the chicken. Put all the ingredients in a ziplock bag and squash it around so the chicken is coated. Let it marinate for at least an hour and up to 24 hours. (You can also make up a bunch of these bags o' chicken and freeze them in marinade so they're ready to roll at some later date.)

When you're ready, grill the chicken breasts over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes on each side, depending on how thick they are. Pull them off the grill, cover them in foil, and let them sit for about 10 minutes.

Next, the tabbouleh. Pour the bulgur into a medium bowl and pour a cup of boiling water over it. Stir it up, cover it, and put it to one side for half an hour or so until it absorbs all the water.

Meanwhile, prep all your veggies and garlic and herbs and throw them all in one big bowl. Toss them with the lemon oil and cumin.

When the bulgur is ready, stir it into the veggie mixture. Add the olive oil and feta cheese and mix gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

When you're ready to serve, thinly slice the chicken and place it on top of a mound of tabbouleh.

This stuff keeps well in the fridge for up to a week, unless your teenager mows it all in a single sitting. One way to avoid this behavior is to point out to the child that the dish is extremely healthy: Divided into three servings, it's about 300 calories per plate, with 28g protein, 25g carbs, 9g fat, and 6g fiber.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mystery Spinach Update. Plus! Planning Ahead

It was pointed out to me (by the Man, my best friend and harshest editor) that I left everyone hanging after the Mystery Spinach post.

"Look, you don't want anyone else actually cooking that godawful crap and thinking it's their fault it sucks," he pointed out helpfully. "You owe your five and a half readers that much, at least."

Point taken.

Mystery Spinach - which turned out to be some sort of green greatly favored in Asian cooking, but not as a stand-alone vegetable - was, in fact, godawful. It had the muddy nastiness of beets (I hate beets) and grassy undertones of... grass. Despite my best efforts (garlic and chicken broth and olive oil, and even butter and salt) it remained assertively ghastly.

I apologize to anyone who let my gastronomic optimism ruin their dinner, too.

Planning Ahead. No, Really.

Moving along, I'm trying something kooky this week: planning ahead. My stock-in-trade has always been keeping staples on hand, buying whatever fresh stuff looks good at the market, and pulling something together at random when I start getting hungry. I'm pretty sure this isn't the way Julia Child did it.

Further, my half-hearted pursuit of magazine articles - I have written magazine articles, so I have a pretty good idea of how much effort and expertise goes into them, ha ha - informs me that I should be Planning a Month of Easy Meals for Pennies a Serving!!!!

In the spirit of compromise, I've planned five dinners for this week (listed below). Now all that remains is whether or not I manage to stick to the plan. I will remind you that wagering is unseemly, and illegal in some states and provinces.

Five Dinners
  • Tabbouleh and Grilled Chicken Salad
  • Lamb Steaks with Tomato-Feta Salad
  • No-Carb Noodle Bowl with Grilled Cod
  • Polenta with Shiitakes and Leeks
  • Frozen Pizza That Doesn't Suck
Stay tuned for results of this planny madness.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Shrimp, Meet Rosemary.

Here's a simple recipe that yields complex, delectable results, in a hurry, for not much money. It's also low-carb and high protein, with a good dose of fiber to boot. What more do you want for a Sunday night?

Panko-Rosemary Shrimp with Cannelli Beans and Arugula
  • 1 lb shrimp, shelled, tails off
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, snipped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/3 cup panko crumbs (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white wine (or broth)
  • 1 can cannelli (white kidney) beans
  • 4 cups fresh arugula
First, the prep: Chop the garlic, snip the rosemary, and set them aside. Peel and rinse the shrimp and drain on a paper towel. Rinse and drain the beans in a colander. Heat the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with foil and wipe it with a thin film of olive oil (or hit it with cooking spray).

Next, measure 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a bowl. Add the rosemary, one tablespoon of the chopped garlic, and the shrimp. Grind a little sea salt and black pepper over the top. (If you want, you can do this part ahead of time and let the shrimp marinate in the fridge until you're ready to start cooking).

When the oven hits 400, add the panko crumbs to the shrimp mixture and toss to bread the shrimp (very lightly). Spread the breaded shrimp on the baking sheet and bake for 10 - 12 minutes, until the panko is crispy and a little golden.

While the shrimp are baking, put the last tablespoon of olive oil in a pot and heat it to medium. Add the rest of the garlic and saute for a minute or two until it starts to soften. Add the beans and wine,lower the heat and simmer for about 8 minutes. Add the arugula, cover the pot, and let it steam down for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir the wilted arugula into the beans.

Plate the beans and arugula alongside the shrimp, grind a little pepper on top, and chow down.

This recipe will feed three people (or two with leftovers). You could even stretch it to four servings if you add a salad and some bread. The whole dish comes in at about 470 calories per serving. I figured the per-plate cost at about $3 (with the shrimp on sale for $4.99/lb). Take that, economic downturn.

Make it Quick, Baby.

Make it Quick: Gnocchi with fresh tomatoes and Italian sausage, broccoli raab on the side.

This meal took 20 minutes from prep to plate. The shortcut this time is store-bought fresh bruschetta.
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage, hot or sweet
  • 1 16-ounce tub fresh bruschetta
  • 1 lb. vacuum-pack gnocchi
  • 1 head broccoli raab
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • A few leaves of fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • Grated cheese for sprinkling

First, set a pot of water to boil. While it's getting hot, peel and roughly chop your garlic and set it aside. Roughly slice the basil and set it aside, too. Dump the tub of bruschetta into a medium-size bowl and let it come up to room temperature.

Next, heat a skillet or wok to high. Split the sausage casings and squeeze the sausage meat into the skillet and poke at it with a spatula or wooden spoon until it crumbles. Cook until the fat releases and then drain. Return to the heat and brown it slightly. Remove it from the heat and stir it into the bruschetta. Add the fresh basil and toss to combine. Let it sit, covered, while you cook the gnocchi and raab.

By now your pot of water is boiling merrily. Drop in the gnocchi and cook until they rise to the top of the water, usually about 5 minutes +/-. One they rise, cook one more minute and then drain in a colander.

While the gnocchi are (is?) boiling, pour the olive oil into the still-sausage-y skillet. Add the garlic and saute for a minute or two over medium heat. Add the broccoli raab and chicken broth and turn the heat up to high. Let the raab steam down, stirring occasionally, until it's bright green and tender. Add the butter, let it melt, and toss to coat.

Top the gnocchi with the bruschetta-sausage mixture, plate broccoli raab alongside. Top with grated parm or asiago and fresh ground pepper.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mozzarella Throwdown

I just got back from summer vacation in New Jersey. The Italian food there is to DIE for, and I ate my own weight in it - including fresh mozzarella.

Here's the deal with fresh mozz: I simply cannot find the real deal in the Bay area. I've found many cheeses claiming to be fresh mozzarella, but they're in hermetically-sealed, commercially-branded packages with smeary purple "best by"dates stamped on them. Worst of all, most of them include vinegar as a primary ingredient. I can understand pickling your so-called mozzarella if you were, say, making a transoceanic voyage on a tallship. 400 years ago. But in the 21st century? What the hell.

So imagine my delight when I spied this tub of real fresh mozzarella at the Montclair, NJ Farmers' Market. There they were, creamy-white rondures of actual fresh mozz, packaged haphazardly in plastic wrap, bobbing happily in their ice water bath. Taken home and unwrapped, this mozz is so fresh it squirts a little fresh milk when you slice into it with a knife. Try to find that in North Beach.

There were other things at the market - I bought a jar of fresh raspberry preserves that made me weep with happiness, that I was subsequently unable to smuggle aboard the return flight, damn it - but the fresh mozz really exemplified what I miss about living in New Jersey, foodwise. (There are many other reasons to miss NJ, including but not limited to Cindy, Dave, Matt, Beth, Margo, Ocean Grove, Frank's Deli in Asbury Park, and Sausage Giambotta. Also: Torino North.)

San Francisco has a lot going for it, but any place where I can't find real fresh mozzarella EVER, and getting my hands on broccoli raab (which is grown in California, hello) is a major challenge, and when I do find it it's like, $3.50 a bunch... well, the Golden Gate Bridge can suck it. I'll take the Pulaski Skyway.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Yams have been drenched in gooey syrupy marshmallowy crap in so many loathsome Thanksgiving casseroles that many of us suffer near-catastrophic blood sugar spikes just thinking about them. Swoon no more, fellow yam doubters. Your grill is here to save a much-maligned tuber.

You'll need one yam (about 3" in diameter by 6" long) per person, some olive oil, and Montreal steak seasoning. Scrub but don't peel the yams. Slice them into 1/4" rounds and put them into a bowl with 1/8 cup of water; sprinkle with salt. Microwave on high heat for 5 minutes. Stir gently and nuke for another 5 minutes. Meanwhile heat the grill to high.

Drain the yams and spread them on a platter in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil (about 1 tablespoon per 3 yams) and sprinkle with steak seasoning. Turn them over a couple of times so both sides are oiled and seasoned.

Grill the yams directly on the grill grate over high heat, about 4-5 minutes per side. (You can certainly skip the microwave altogether and grill the yams from the start, but you'll need a much lower heat and a much longer cook time or you'll get yams that are scorched outside and solid wood inside. Just sayin'.)

Serve with malt vinegar, or ketchup, or both. Awesome.

Seasonal note: this recipe works just as well under a broiler and makes a great side for any autumn feast - including Thanksgiving. Your guests (and glucose level) will thank you.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mushroom Risotto is a Cakewalk

Mushroom risotto looks very fancy and tastes amazing and takes about 15 minutes. And yes, I cheat.

Here's the deal. Risotto is a great food and can be loads of fun to play around with when you have time. But when you want to get dinner on the table quickly, take a shortcut. If I did this risotto from scratch it would require broth and butter and olive oil and onions and cream and herbs and cheese lots and lots of stirring and adding liquid a bit at a time until it's absorbed and blah blah blah. It's Monday, for god's sake. I will not be doing that.

Instead, I use Trader Joe's Mushroom Ristotto, which quite frankly would suck if it were eaten prepared as directed, unaugmented. But as a base, it's great. Cook it with white wine instead of water, top it with fresh mushrooms sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, and you have a keeper.

For two servings you'll need about:
  • 1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms (I used shiitakes)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, snipped
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Heat the oil in a saute pan. While it comes up to heat, slice the mushrooms, then throw them in the pan. Sprinkle with salt. Add the garlic and rosemary and saute over high heat until the mushrooms give up their juices and turn golden brown (about 7 - 9 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside in a dish; cover it with foil.

Prepare the risotto mix as directed (use white wine, or broth if you prefer, instead of the water called for). Spoon the prepared risotto onto plates and top with your mushroom mixture. Toss a scant handful of grated parm on top and add a grind of fresh pepper. Serve it with a green salad.

Niiiiiice. And easy.

Photos by the Man.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Best Grilled Chicken, Ever.

Take one whole chicken, butterfly it, marinate it overnight, and cook it long and slow on the grill (about 20 - 25 minutes per side). Hack it into pieces and serve. Result: Awesomeness on a plate.

The Man is the author of this super chicken, which varies slightly every time he cooks it. In this house we're very much about using whatever is on hand, which means that the marinade is practically guaranteed to have different ingredients each time it's pulled together. The base ingredients are oil, vinegar (or citrus juice), soy sauce, and whatever else strikes the fancy: rosemary, cilantro, peppers, fish sauce, mustard, Worcestershire sauce... whatever.

Here are rule of thumb proportions:
  • 1/4 cup acidic (e.g., citrus juice, vinegar, or wine)
  • 1/2 cup oil (olive is my favorite, but sesame or nut oils are good, too)
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons flavor punch (e.g. soy sauce, Worcestershire, mustard, chili sauce)
  • 2 -3 cloves chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon fresh herbs (whatever's on hand)
Of course you can always use prepared marinade; I like Trader Joe's Soyaki and Lawry's Mesquite Lime (with a little extra lime juice and some chopped fresh garlic). Another quick marinade is any kind of oil-and-vinegar-based salad dressing - excellent when griling asparagus or other veggies.