Sunday, October 12, 2014

Paella

Across the world, there are many practical rice/meat/seafood dishes.  In South America there is arroz con pollo. In Italy, Risotto (when we were in Venice, we ate risotto with LOTS of seafood!).  In South Asia, Biryani, usually served with chicken or lamb. In New Orleans, it's Jambalaya which has its roots in the Spanish dish, Paella, and is what we enjoyed devoured at A.’s house last week.

If you search the dictionary, the definition of Paella is: pa·el·la / päˈāyä / pəˈelə.  Noun. A Spanish dish of rice, saffron, chicken, seafood, etc., cooked and served in a large shallow pan.   Like what you see right up there...a little to the left.

Mouth-watering, right? 

Paella is a wonderful combination of rice, herbs, meat, seafood that is so incredibly satisfying and generally enjoyed by anyone who consumes it.  Because it is easy to make in large quantities, it’s a favorite to serve at large dinner parties.  I remember once when M. served it to her students at a holiday gathering and I recall thinking, what a fast, fancy and fabulous meal to serve to a group of students who, no doubt, are simply ecstatic about being dished a home cooked dinner, let alone paella!

Well, let me just tell you, we were just as ecstatic.  A.’s version did not include shrimp or mussels, but we didn’t miss the crustaceans because the chicken thighs and chorizo sausage executed beautifully.  One signature ingredient in any paella dish is saffron and its vibrant, golden hue is what makes the dish glow.  Many recipes call to prepare the dish in a paella pan, but any wide, shallow sauté pan with a lid will do (according to Martha who knows about these things).   

Here’s a little $260 number from a major cooking retailer:
It's a nice pan, but I agree with Martha.
 

Let’s talk about saffron for a minute…. Saffron is an expensive and frugally used spice, but what it does to food is totally transformative.  The gilded threads come from the stigma of the saffron (violet) crocus, a flower that thrives in hot, dry Mediterranean climates.  The strength of the spice depends on how the flower is harvested and the parts of the plant included when the spice is produced.  

Typically, only three threads are hand-picked from each flower and 7500 flowers are needed to produce one pound of saffron! Wikipedia says that “saffron's aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet.”  In addition to being used extensively in Spanish, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, it is also used as a fabric dye….a very expensive fabric dye. 
 
I won't be using saffron to tie-dye any tee shirts, but you can listen to Donovan sing about saffron here!

Paella
From: www.tastingtable.com
Fire and Rice

INGREDIENTS
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
2 links Spanish chorizo, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
1 medium Spanish onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium tomatoes, grated using a box grater
2 teaspoons hot smoked paprika
1 large pinch Spanish saffron threads, crumbled
2 cups paella rice
Salt, to taste
6 cups low-sodium chicken stock

For serving:
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 lemons cut into wedges (optional)

DIRECTIONS
Season the chicken with salt and allow it to come to room temperature. Brush a hot pan with some olive oil. Place the chicken skin-side-down in the hot pan and cover.  Cook until the chicken is golden brown and almost cooked through, about 12 to 15 minutes.  Transfer the chicken to a sheet tray and set aside.

Place a 15-inch paella pan on the stove. Once the pan is hot, add the chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chorizo starts to brown and the fat has rendered, about 10 minutes. Remove the chorizo using tongs or a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl. Add the onions to the pan and cook, stirring often until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. If the pan seems dry, add the remaining olive oil. Add the tomatoes and cook until the liquid has reduced and the vegetables have completely softened and melded together, about 12 minutes. Add chorizo back to the pan with the paprika and saffron and cook until fragrant, about a minute.

Add the rice and season with salt. Cook for 1 minute with the chorizo mixture. Add the stock, stir to combine and bring to a rapid boil. Bury the chicken thighs skin-side-up in the rice and cook, making sure not to stir from this point on, until the rice is tender but still al dente and the chicken is cooked through, about 20 to 25 minutes.  To serve, sprinkle parsley over the paella and serve with lemon wedges.

A. served the paella with crusty bread and roasted root vegetables.  It’s always my turn to bring wine when we have dinner at her house and, not knowing we were having paella, I contributed a ruby-red Spanish Rioja.  Kismet.   

While eating dessert (A. let us sample the apple biscuits she made for her co-workers), we watched a bit of The Voice…our guilty pleasure.

 
Photo of paella pan from williamssonoma.com and crocus plant from Wikipedia.com

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sautéed Scallops with Spaghetti Squash

I would normally begin a post written in Fall about how there’s a nip in the air and that it feels so natural to be enjoying our autumnal favorites…root vegetables, hearty soups, piping hot oatmeal, deep-dish pies, and, one of my favorites, zucchini bread.  However, as I pen this post, it’s been quite summer-like but that did not stop us from devouring a squash dish that M prepared last Wednesday night. 
 
She made Sautéed Scallops over Spaghetti Squash, a recipe courtesy of Martha. Spaghetti squash is a low-carb, low-calorie alternative to pasta, and, like butternut squash, the hard skin makes it a bit difficult to cut.  I am interested in keeping all my digits so when I make my favorite Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, I tend to buy pre-cut butternut squash.  

Spaghetti squash does not come in pre-cut chunks, although I have seen them sold pre-cut length wise.  So, when cooking a spaghetti squash you need to toughen up, choose your best large (and sharp) knife, approach the gourd with conviction, grab it lengthwise and slice the vegetable right in half straight down the middle!  

I felt very Julia-Child-like writing that.

In my head, I can hear her saying that very thing....in that proper voice of hers!

Once sliced in half, remove the seeds and save them.  You can toast them up and eat them for a snack, much like pumpkin seeds.  To cook a spaghetti once it is cut, drizzle on some olive oil, salt and pepper, place it cut side down on a baking dish and bake it for 35 minutes minutes in a 400 degree oven.  When the meat is tender, remove it from the shell with a fork — this is where the magic happens — and it will naturally shred into yummy strings, like spaghetti!  

Unlike the flavorful and distinctive butternut squash, spaghetti squash is a bit bland but you can gussy it up with almost any sauce you would serve on regular spaghetti…tomato, pesto, coconut curry, or Alfredo. I have seen some recipes that direct the cook to put the spaghetti back in the squash shell to serve.  

Sautéed Scallops over Spaghetti Squash

INGREDIENTS
Two 1-pound spaghetti squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for baking pan
4 leeks, white and light-green parts only, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
10 large sea scallops, muscles removed, sliced in half
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1 bunch minced chives

DIRECTIONS
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place squash, cut-sides down, on an oiled baking pan. Cook until easily pierced with a knife tip, about 45 minutes. Using a fork, separate the flesh into strands, and transfer to a bowl; cover.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Cook leeks and shallots, stirring, until crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Place flour in a small bowl; dredge scallops. Return pan to heat; add remaining tablespoon oil. Cook half of scallops until golden, about 3 minutes per side. Season with salt and pepper. Cook remaining scallops.

Increase heat to medium high; add wine or 3/4 cup water. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up any brown bits on bottom of pan. Cook until liquid has reduced by half. Slowly whisk in the butter until sauce begins to thicken, about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper.

Divide the squash and the leek mixture among four dinner plates; top with scallops. Drizzle with sauce, and garnish with chives. M served this dish with a sautéed chard salad.

This dish is tasty indeed.  Honestly, I had to remind myself that I was eating a healthy vegetable, not a carbohydrate and, as a bonus, no heavy feeling in my stomach afterwards.... so common after a delicious and satisfying dish of pasta! We also had a very special bottle of red wine (courtesy of Mr. C.) a delicious salad of greens, pears and walnuts and, for dessert, plum torte squares.

I don’t often talk about our personal adventures but I would like to comment that our little group is more than just weekly dinner companions.  We have grown into accidental siblings who comfort and lift each other when we are down, provide sage counsel when a problem seems insurmountable, celebrate our collective and individual joys and — this is important — redirect our focus when someone veers a bit off course.  I am privileged to have these special women in my life.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Chicken with Figs, Wine & Honey

Figs are in the house.

Or at least they were.

It appears to be the tail-end of fig season.  Considering this, when it was my turn to cook last week, I seized an opportunity to make something with these aubergine lovelies.  Figs are native to Western Asia and have been cultivated since early (really ancient) times.  As a matter of fact, it was the fig leaf that Adam and Eve clad themselves with after eating the forbidden fruit.  

Now, I don’t have the need to don the fig leaf as a fashion accessory, but I do adore the the pulpy, fleshy texture of the fruit and I look for any excuse to cook with them.

The fig tree grows best and rewards us with the most luscious fruit when grown in dryer, warmer climates where it can bask in the sun all day, like the Mediterranean.  A striking, deciduous tree, the fig commonly grows to about 20 feet but can grow up to 50 feet.  Their leaves are big, bright and green (which explains the biblical choice) and their muscular and meandering branches spread wider than tall. 

So, after procuring two containers of figs at 320 Produce, I consulted my favorite cookbook, the Internet, and this little jewel of a recipe appeared:
Yum.  Yum.  And more yum.

And that, my dear readers, is how I met this Wednesday night dinner idea.

Chicken with Figs, Wine & Honey
Adapted from: www.food52.com 

3 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of lemon or regular thyme, roughly chopped
3 chicken breast, pounded to 1/4" thickness
15 kalamata figs, sliced in half (dried is fine if you can't find fresh)
1 ¼ cup light red wine
3 teaspoons honey
A squeeze of lemon

Heat half the olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle a pinch of salt, pepper and thyme on both sides of the chicken breast.  Sauté the chicken 4-5 minutes on each side until cooked through and is nice and golden. Place the chicken on a plate to rest while you prepare the figs.

In the same sauté pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Place the figs in the pan, cut side down. Sauté for 3-4 minutes, turning the figs occasionally, until slightly golden.  Don't overcook...they will get mushy. Carefully add the red wine, as well as pinches of salt and black pepper, honey and lemon. Quickly cook for 2-3 minutes until the red wine reduces into a loose syrup (you may need to encourage thickening with a slab of butter).  Spoon the figs and red wine reduction over the chicken and serve immediately.

This recipe is delicious reminded me a little of Chicken Marabella...a staple of the 80's from the very popular cookbook, The Silver Palate.

I served with roasted pine nut and parsley cous-cous.  We had birthday cake for dessert to celebrate M's (Singers) special day and a lovely bottle of red wine.  There were also presents.  Lots of presents.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Backyard Brick Oven Pizza

So several weeks ago I went to a Tie-Dyed Festival at the local Community Arts Center.  We, of course, tie-dyed shirts, were serenaded by local musicians, and enjoyed our favorite foods and spirits.

It was a grand time.

One of the food offerings that day was pizza made in the Center’s incredible new cob oven.  

What’s that I hear, perhaps a question?  A cob oven?  
A cob oven is an outdoor oven made with clay, sand, and straw.  Cob construction is an ancient, natural building method, used since prehistoric times and made popular recently by the sustainability movement.  More commonly referred to as adobe, this environmentally conscience oven can bake pizza and bread, roast vegetables and meats and anything else you can bake in a conventional oven.   The pizza you see right up there was baked in that cob oven.  

The construction is basic starting with a stone, concrete or brick base and then packing several thick layers of clay on top to form a clay dome.  This process can take several weeks because the layers of clay need to dry thoroughly prior to use.

As you have read before, I am half Italian.  My grandmother’s family owed and operated an outdoor oven and they would bake freshly-made bread dough for the other villagers.  Below are photos of Sulmona, Italy, my ancestral home in the Abruzzo region, that my cousin took while visiting recently.  I have looked at these photos a thousand times and imagined my dear grandparents walking through that piazza and shopping in the open-air market. Look at those stunning mountains!  I will visit one day!


But if a homemade cob oven or a trip to Italy to bake in the village oven is not in your future, there is way to bake pizza outside that may be sitting right in your back yard….the barbecue grill!  

It's quite simple really....place a well-seasoned pizza stone on the grate and fire up the grill. Cut a piece of parchment paper a bit smaller than the pizza stone.  Rub a bit of olive oil on the parchment paper, place the dough on top of the paper then build your pizza as usual.  Place a pizza paddle under the parchment paper and slide the parchment-bottomed pizza dough onto the pizza stone.  In  about 5 minutes minutes, you will have a wonderful, brick-ovenesque pizza!  

We have pizza often at C’s house (Architect) and below is her basic pizza dough recipe.

Pizza Dough
Preheat the grill to at least 550 degrees.

1 1/2 cup warm water
1 rounded teaspoon of rapid rise yeast
1 rounded teaspoon of sugar

Mix the water yeast and sugar together and wait for it to bubble, then let is rest for a few minutes.  

1 teaspoon of salt
1 Tablespoon of olive oil
3 cups of all purpose flour

Add the salt and olive oil and slowly add the four until the mixture starts to bind.  Turn the mixture out of the bowl and knead; add more flour until the dough is not sticky and springs back when poked. Cover with a clean towel and let rest for an hour.  

After an hour or so, turn the dough out onto a clean, dry surface using lots of flour sprinkled on it so the dough does not stick.  Cut into snowball-size pieces.  Work and roll the dough into a circle or rectangle.  Brush on some olive oil and other favorite toppings and cook as instructed above, about 3-5 minutes.   My favorite toppings are caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms.  For a sweet and savory pizza, I top with fig jam, pine nuts, goat cheese and sautéed sage leaves.  This dough recipe should make about three medium pizzas.

And there you have it, delicious brick-ovenesque pizza, right in your own back yard.





Here's the shirt I made at the Festival.  I always wondered how to make tie-dye swirls....now I know!  Love this shirt!!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Apricot Pistachio Squares

In my Yogurt Marinated Chicken Kebobs with Aleppo Pepper post, I told you about a delicious and simply gorgeous dessert that Foodie made for that evening.  She follows the blog called, smittenkitchen and one visit to the blog, you will see why it is widely followed and read.  The post with this recipe has, as of this writing, 161 comments, one hundred and sixty one!!  The recipes are unique, the stories and the writing are entertaining (I chuckled a few times) and the photos are quite beautiful.  Kind of like the blog my blog wants to be when it’s no longer a kid (it’s only four years old).

Maybe I need to go the BlogHer Conference next year for inspiration.

Anyway, about a year ago, I made an apricot pistachio cake from one of my favorite food bloggers, Molly Wizenberg.  So when Foodie unveiled her Apricot Pistachio Tart (not yet cut into squares), I gasped not only because her creation was quite fetching visually, but I was also curious to taste a kissing-cousin version of my earlier confection that earned a “who is responsible for this cake” comment from a guest.  I was initially afraid to fess-up but then he uttered the words “it’s delicious.”

I adore pistachios and pairing them with apricots merely doubles the contentment.  The tender and tart apricots complement the green, silky crunchiness of the pistachios so nicely.  And I can’t overstate enough how pretty this tart is — really, it is simply gorgeous.  If you are looking for an elegant and “wow” dessert that will absolutely delight guests at your next dinner party, make this!

Pistachios are native to western Asia but a variety is grown in California that have been modified to enhance the esthetic qualities of the nut…leave it to us to ditch exotic charm for appearance! Legend is that lovers would meet beneath pistachio trees on dreamy, moonlit nights and if they heard the ripening nut shells crack open, it symbolized good fortune for their future. Pistachios can improve blood cholesterol levels and some believe they are an aphrodisiac….perhaps handy while standing under the tree! 

The basics of this recipe would work well with many other fruit/nut combinations.  I love almonds — almost as much as I love pistachios — and an almond pear version would be a delightful way to greet the crisp fall weather.  

Apricot Pistachio Squares

Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold is fine

Filling
3/4 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
Few pinches of sea salt
6 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold is fine
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, 2 teaspoons brandy or another flavoring of your choice
1 pound firm-ripe apricots

To finish
Powdered sugar or 1/4 cup apricot jam

Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Cut two 12-inch lengths of parchment paper and trim each to fit the 8-inch width of an 8×8-inch square baking pan. Press it into the bottom and sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, perpendicular to the first sheet.

Make the crust: Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks, and add it to the bowl, then run the machine until the mixture forms large clumps — it might take 30 seconds to 1 minute for it to come together. Transfer the dough clumps to your prepared baking pan and press it evenly across the bottom and 1/4-inch up the sides. Bake for 15 minutes, until very pale golden. For the sake of speed, transfer to a cooling rack in your freezer for 10 to 15 minutes while you prepare the filing.

Make the filling: In your food processor bowl, grind your pistachios, sugar, flour and salt together until the nuts are powdery. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the machine. Run the machine until no buttery bits are visible. Add any flavorings and egg, blending until just combined.

Spread filling over mostly cooled crust. Cut apricots in half and remove pits. From here, you have a few decoration options: you can place the apricot halves in facedown or up all over the pistachio base.  You can also cut the apricots into strips and slide each cut half onto a spatula and place the fanned fruit  in patterns on top of the cake.   KOPO note:  When I baked my pistachio cake, I placed the halved apricots right on top of the batter and the apricots sunk into the baked cake; when sliced, they revealed themselves, like the little sleuths they were just hiding in that cake! 

Bake the bars for 60 minutes, or until they are golden and a toothpick inserted into the pistachio portion comes out batter-free. This might take up to 10 minutes longer depending on the juiciness of your apricots. Let cool completely in pan; you can hasten this along in the fridge.

To finish, you can make a shiny glaze for your tart by warming the jam in a small saucepan until it thins, and brushing this mixture over the top of the cooled tart. Or, you can keep it rustic with just a dusting of powdered sugar.  Cut the chilled bars into squares.