Wednesday, November 25, 2009

paella magic

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What an amazing creation a paella is. It is party food to the max, especially when the making of it is also a joint effort. There’s something for everyone; seafood, chicken, chorizo, rice. But it’s so much more than just a sum of the ingredients. When so many layers of flavor are combined, how could you not end up with a masterpiece. It is absolutely nothing less than art. Stunning colors, patterns, flavors, textures.

Having only participating in the making of it once, I do not feel qualified to leave you with an exact recipe. However, I’ll summarize the process and show you what we ended up on the evening of paella magic.

Here’s the key as I see it. Take every opportunity that you have to add flavor. Frankly, it’s not different than any other time you’re cooking something at home. It seems obvious, but if you think about it, sometimes you probably throw together a meal without wisely using the chances you have to add flavor. For example, if you are boiling pasta for a quick meal, salt the water heavily. It should be as salty as sea water. How much better even a simple pasta meal tastes if the water is salted.

If you do paella correctly, there are numerous flavor points; some that like to take front stage, like the chorizo, and others that don’t mind being background notes, like the calamari. Altogether it sings a Spanish love song.

Paella points:
1. Start with a sofrito, a sauté and reduction of onion, garlic, tomato, red peppers, and cured ham (Serrano). This time around Alex provided roasted tomatoes and peppers – flavor addition #1. Roasted vegetables add a depth of flavor that doesn’t exist with raw ones. You can make this in a separate pan to speed up the process. We used a cast iron – yet another opportunity to add flavor. (#2)
2. Darkly brown chicken in olive oil. Use a home grown free-range chicken (flavor addition #3).
3. Sauté chorizo (this Spanish sausage needs no flavor booster in my book) in the same pan once the chicken is fully browned. Browning this first extracts the pork fat and paprika into the pan making it absorbable for the other ingredients.
4. Lightly sauté 1 lb. shrimp (in their shells – flav add #4 – shells add flavor to the liquid for when the rice is cooking).
5. Sauté one lb. of fresh calamari bodies and tentacles. (from Monahans = #5)
6. Add the sofrito to the growing paella mix.
7. Pre-bloom saffron in warm water. (#6) Yes, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, but for a paella pan that feeds 16, you’ll need quite a bit – maybe 4 tbsp in 2 cups of warm water. Getting the saffron soaked first lets it impart its flavor before it’s added to the party pan.
8. Soften seafood bullion in the water that you’ll need to cover the rice. (#7)
9. Taste the liquid here. You should have a splendid balance of spice from the saffron, bullion, chorizo; sweetness from the seafood; & heady depth from the sofrito. Tasting the liquid before you add the rice ensures that the rice will have good flavor. This is your opportunity to make any changes you’ll need.
10. Use paella rice, a close relative of Arborio, or risotto rice (#8). This starchy rice adds a texture that compliments the other ingredients.
11. Sprinkle with frozen peas, to add color and texture. (#9)
12. Add fresh mussels (#10) into the pan, lips up. Just watch for them to open, as if asking for a Spanish kiss.

finger friendly caesar

I had a need for a finger friendly salad a few nights ago, so I turned to my friend, the romaine lettuce. My kids call pieces of romaine the crunchy guys. They’ll eat the darker and more bitter stuff because I tend to serve it more often, but oh how they love the mild romaine. It’s like the iceberg lettuce of my childhood. We often have a bag of hearts in the fridge. They so easily become the base of a salad, a clean canvas ready to stand up to any combination of flavors. Stripped down to the crunchier core, they’ll last a week or so in the fridge in a bag.

Before I turn to my simple dressed up Caesar, I want to mention another romaine favorite in my house. Most recently I found a whole head that looked fresh at the market, so I took it home, and sliced it directly in half lengthwise through the core.

For the dressing, I sautéed one julienned red pepper, and one thinly sliced red onion in olive oil and generous kosher salt, until both were softened and gently browned on the edges. When they were done, I shut off the heat and splashed a bit of sherry vinegar into the pan, then scraped up the yummy bits from the bottom of the pan as the liquid was cooling down.

I simultaneously heated up a grill pan. I’ve got a Le Creuset that can go on top of my range, but you could also open up your panini machine flat (if it does that), and use it as well. Of course, in the summer, I’ve used my Weber propane, if I already have it on for something else. Using a pastry brush, gently coat the cut sides of the romaine head with olive oil. Grill the lettuce on the heated pan, cut side down, about only 2 minutes on high. Remove from the heat when there are grill marks on the lettuce. This is such a great trick. It looks impressive and different, but more importantly it gives the lettuce multiple taste dimensions. Parts of the romaine have wilted slightly and others will remain crisp.

Pour the warm dressing from the pan over the top of the grilled romaine heads.
This is wonderful enough just as is, but again I’ll urge you to think creatively about your pantry here. Add a handful of toasted pine nuts to the top, perhaps bacon, or shaved pecorino. I know what you should do; add all three if you have them around.

Back to the Caesar. When you buy a bag of romaine hearts, the darker softer (and more vitamin rich) leaves have been removed. You are left with the inner leaves that are quite sturdy. They can be used as small edible plates to hold a number of different salad toppings. This night I chose to go with the standard Caesar flavors.

Finger Caesar
1. Separate the leaves of a romaine heart and spread them into a single layer onto the plate you intend to serve the salad.
2. Sprinkle croutons (see recipe for puff pastry croutons below), shaved parmagiano, and crumbled bacon evenly onto each leaf.
3. Drizzle with your favorite Caesar dressing. (I’ll include my fav in a later post)

Puff pastry croutons
1. Defrost puff pastry overnight in the fridge or on the kitchen counter for two hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
3. Lightly dust the counter with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll out the pastry dough until it is about twice the original size.
4. Generously sprinkle with finely grated parmagiano cheese. Use the rolling pin to gently push the cheese into the dough.
5. Use a pizza cutter to cut puff pastry dough into 1/2 inch squares. Unbaked squares will come off the counter with a pastry bench scraper or a thin spatula.
6. Bake squares about 5-7 minutes, but do not rely on a timer. Depending on how defrosted your puff pastry is, it could be faster or longer. Remove them from the oven when they are medium brown.
7. These are best enjoyed within a couple hours of baking. Use them for salads or soup, or just right off the pan.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

the Grange kitchen

I've read varying reviews online about Grange, a new locavore restaurant in Ann Arbor, some good, some not so. Despite some of the less than positive comments, my husband and I went last night. We were looking for quick bar food before going to see the Berlin Philharmonic over at Hill Auditorium.

And I'm here to say, yum, yum, and more yum.

please excuse the iPhone poor picture quality

*Spicy fried chickpeas (above)
crispy and delicious enough to be loved by a garbanzo bean hater.

*Potatoes, Fried in Duck fat, with roasted garlic mayo.
WOW. Not exactly figure friendly, but so amazingly good, I can still taste them 24 hours later.

So in addition to the above fried goodness, I ordered a fried egg sandwich was deliciously decadent. Only slightly less artery clogging than my husband's bar burger - which was also done very well - also topped with a farm fresh egg.

I think we'll have to return soon so that we can taste the less death-defying meals.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

on the road to vanilla extract

Vanilla extract. Store bought is good enough. Penzey's is even better, but it's so darn expensive. Why not try making your own? I understand it sounds a little ridiculous at first. You might not want to take the time. You might be thinking you have better things to do, and sure, maybe you do. But at least when you're done, you have something to show for it. Let yourself adjust to the idea. Okay, was that enough time? Are you with me now?

This recipe is easy enough to make a gallon at a time. You might not want a whole gallon, but when I'm baking a lot, I sure do go through those 11$ bottles pretty fast. Plus, little homemade-labeled bottles would make such cute little Christmas gifts!

One note on purchasing vanilla beans: If this is truly cost effective, you sure can't buy vanilla beans from the supermarket for 9$ a pop. I bought mine in bulk from Vanilla Products USA.

Some recipes online call for adding sugar, but it's not really necessary if you're using it as extract instead of a vanilla liquor - which would be another great project.

Vanilla extract

  • Sterilize pint sized Ball jars.
  • Split fresh vanilla beans 3/4 of the length of the vanilla bean with a sharp knife.
  • Place 4-6 beans split side down into jars.
  • Fill each with vodka. No need for the super fancy stuff. I used Smirnoff, even though I'd typically drink Grey Goose or Belvidere.
  • Seal jars. Place in a spot out of sunlight. Aggitate every few days, or whenever you think about it.
  • Use after six or eight weeks.

Day one

Jewelry Party Tassies

Looking for a simple fall dessert recipe? Give this one a try.

Pecan Tassies

based on a recipe from

traditional southern tassie crust
  1. Beat 1 cup butter with 1- 8 oz package of cream cheese
  2. Slowly add 2 1/2 cups AP flour to the mixer. Beat at low speed until incorporated.
  3. Split dough into 48 pieces. Place in mini muffin tins. Chill for one hour and up to one day.
only one of many tassie fillings - you can get very creative here
  1. Combine the following in a mixer: 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, 2 large eggs, 2 tbsp butter, melted, 1 tbsp vanilla extract, 1/8 tsp salt. Whisk until homogenous.
Cinnamon Maple Glaze:
  1. Whisk together a slurry of 2 cups confectioner's sugar, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 real maple syrup (don't try to use Aunt Jemima). Add 2-3 tablespoons of water, depending on desired consistency. Whisk until there are no sugar clumps.
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Using a thumb or the back of a tablespoon, press an indentation into each dough ball, making a well large enough to hold the filling.
  3. Divide 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans into the empty unbaked tassie shells.
  4. Gently pour or spoon batter into shells, trying not to come up over the edge of the crust.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes or until filling is set.
  6. Cool in pans on rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pans. Let cool another 20 minutes.
  7. Dust with confectioner's sugar.
  8. Drizzle cinnamon-maple glaze over the top using a fork or whisk.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jeff's food thoughts of the day

My brother-in-law is a soup aficionado. Loves to eat it and loves to cook it. Apparently in his earlier bachelor years before I knew him, he made a lot of soups and is now getting back into the swing of things. We've recently had a few chats about soup making and the other day he left a voicemail on my cell phone entitled "My food thoughts for the day".

1. "Starting a soup with a roux is a great way to add flavor and texture."

After the base of veggies, also known as a mirepoix or sofrito, have sauteed in the fat of your choice, add a couple tablespoons or so of flour. Let this cook until the flour has turned a light caramel colored brown. Then add your liquid and continue with the recipe.

Raw dry flour should not be added directly to a simmering soup. If you do this, you will probably get very unappetizing clumps of flour floating on top of the soup. The heat from the soup liquid makes the flour molecules bind to themselves instead of moving evenly throughout the soup. Starting with fat, as in a roux, allows the flour molecules to be surrounded by fat molecules, so that they are more easily incorporated into the liquid.

If you find yourself with a soup that's not as thick as you'd like, either make a roux on the side and add it to the simmering soup. Or make a slurry of equal parts flour and cold water in a separate bowl. Stir until homogenized and add this paste to the cooking soup.

2. "You have got to season things to make them taste good."

It's such a simple, yet essential concept. In order for food to taste good, the levels of salt and pepper need to be balanced properly. The only way to tell this is to taste, taste, and then taste again. Especially in a cooking preparation like a soup which has many layers and dimensions, it's important to season each level that you add. And then taste. Even if you are a strict recipe follower, salt and pepper amounts are subjective, and you shouldn't feel locked into someone else's taste preferences. There's nothing more disappointing to me then going to a nice restaurant that thinks so highly of themselves that there is no salt on the table; only to find yourself needing to amp up the flavor.

The need for salt in a human diet goes way beyond your food tasting good. Each cell in your body requires a proper balance of salts in order for healthy metabolic functioning. Our physiology is dependent on sodium.

I'm not advocating over-salting food just for the sake of your cells. But it's interesting to note the connection between our human need and craving for salt and the perception that food tastes "better" when it's properly seasoned. It's as if the salt is a catalyst unlocking the dimensional flavors of even the most bland foods.

Monday, November 09, 2009

off to the airport

Family is visiting, about to take off to the airport, and you want to make a quick but filling lunch as a comforting goodbye. Here's one to try - who doesn't love the old fashioned combo of grilled cheese and tomato soup. For the grilled cheese I used a high quality muenster and a locally made "italian" bread, grilled with plenty of farm fresh butter.

quick tomato soup
  1. heat 2 tbsp e.v. olive oil in a sauce pan. saute one tbsp oregano and one tsp red pepper flakes until the spices are fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. (have also added finely diced onion and/or garlic at this point, but not today in the interest of time)
  2. add one large can, 28 oz, of crushed san marzano tomatoes.
  3. add one quart of chicken stock. bring to a boil.
  4. after this has simmered for 10 minutes, puree with an immersion blender for a more homogenous texture.
  5. add 1/2 cup grated parmesan reg.
  6. (optional) for added thickness, reduce the heat and add 1/2 cup half and half. don't bring to a full boil once you've added the cream.
  7. season with fresh ground pepper and salt to taste.

Especially when there are kids around, I love to cut the grilled cheese into strips, made perfect for dipping into the soup.

** be careful with the amount of red pepper flakes. add to taste. if you like things a little less spicy or if you are making this is for kids, don't add quite as much. a pinch would probably be sufficient.

Friday, November 06, 2009

rice bowls extraordinaire

We're finding ourselves tending toward the vegetarian lifestyle more and more these days. It's not that I emotionally object to the killing of animals for food. In fact, if they're raised sustainably, I think they probably live a better life than they would have otherwise. It's just that I'm often disappointed by the flavor and texture of meat, even if I spend the money on the organic stuff. When I have no idea for a meal and go to the fridge full of Tantre Farm veggies, my mind starts scheming about vegetarian.

In addition, with a family of six, I make a policy not to make six different meals. I firmly believe in not adapting the concept of an entire meal to one demanding child. Once you start that, it's all downhill. This is how generations of finicky adults are enabled. I do, however, sometimes make meals where different people can choose different toppings to the main dish. As much as I don't like to make special orders as a short order cook, I do realize that individuals have preferences for different flavor profiles.

Rice bowls are one of my favorite examples of this style of meal. I fill the rice cooker with good jasmine, basmati, or sushi rice, (have also used quinoa) and then proceed to prepare the toppings. Sometimes with a mexican bent; other times with an asian flare. This time around I was going for fall accents. Everyone gets the base of rice, then they can construct their own delicious bowl, with the intention that the adults get it all.
  1. diced fresh pumpkin. tossed with spanish olive oil, kosher salt, and penzey's chili powder. roasted at 400 degrees for 20 minutes until brown.
  2. fresh baby spinach.
  3. cabot's white cheddar. grated.
  4. fresh avacado. diced. tossed with lime juice to prevent browning.
  5. goya black beans. rinsed.
  6. baby leeks (could also use scallions or shallots). chopped, then sauteed in brown butter until crispy.
  7. drizzled chili oil. (heat 1 cup e.v. olive oil to a boil. shut off heat. add 2 tbsp red pepper flakes. let sit. use for this recipe and save the remainder for the next rice bowl night.)
The key to this is utilizing and accenting complimentary textures, so that you get different mouthfuls every time. As we're all eating, and groaning, and mmmm-ing, I'm wondering why anyone would add a dry grilled chicken breast to this perfect balance of plant goodness.

One note: Despite how awesome this vegetarian meal was, I will NEVER NEVER give up bacon or prosciutto. EVER.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies

I've had a request for a cookie recipe that is apparently addictive. Especially if it catches just in the right sugar craving, clothes swapping mood. And they're still good a week later, if there are any left...

Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies
  1. Cream two sticks butter with 3/4 cup granulated sugar and 1/4 cup brown sugar.
  2. Add 1 tbsp vanilla, 1 egg, and 3/4 cup pumpkin. Mix until incorporated.
  3. Combine of dry ingredients: 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt.
  4. Gradually add dry to wet ingredients.
  5. Add 2 cups ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  6. Bake on an ungreased for 8-10 minutes at 375 degrees.
  7. Cool on a rack until room temperature.
  8. Using a fork, drizzle zig-zags of maple glaze (recipe below).
  9. Eat them while they're dripping with wet glaze or for a more presentable cookie wait until the glaze dries.
Maple glaze
  1. Combine 1/2 cup real maple syrup with two cups confectioner's sugar until a paste is formed.
  2. Whisk in 1/4 cup water until the consistency of a thin glaze.