Friday, December 30, 2011

Tiny Pizzas (Lilliputian Food Part 1)

I've had this strange fascination with tiny food (as in miniature versions of normal food) ever since I read an article about creating a counterpart to sliders by using little teeny weenies and making your own teeny buns for miniature hot dogs.  Although I don't like those little weiners (I think they're called Lil Smokies) I liked the idea.  After further research I learned that I could make tiny tacos, reubens, pizzas, and other Lilliputian foods that are perfect finger food for parties.  Someday I want to throw a party where all the food is miniaturized - I think that would be hilarious.

Do you have a New Years or football party in your near future?  I've never understood why so many people serve chili or regular pizza slices for football parties -messy, drippy food precariously transported from plate to mouth by a person whose eyes are glued to a TV screen.  I think the whole tradition must have been started by a carpet cleaning company.  In contrast, tiny food is securely transported with two fingers and whap! Into the mouth in its entirety.  Perfect, not to mention cute as the dickens. 

I thought I would start my erratic and occasional series on Lilliputian Food with tiny pizzas because everybody likes pizza and they're incredibly easy to make.

Although this recipe calls for using a store-bought crust, you could certainly use a refrigerated crust or make your own.  Just be sure to partially bake it first.  If you decide to use a store-bought crust, buy the thinnest one you can find so the tiny pizzas look right proportionally and the crust gets crisp.  I use sun-dried tomato pesto in place of pizza sauce because I like the additional boost of flavor but either one will work fine. The reason to chop the cheeses if they're in long shreds is because they're hard to drape on the tiny pizzas and make a mess.  Smaller pieces are much easier to handle.

You'll need a 2-inch round cookie cutter, which is easy to find at any kitchen gadget store or Bed, Bath and Beyond.  I bought a set of various sizes a while back and they come in handy.

Watch the pizzas closely because they bake fast - a minute or two will make a big difference once the cheese starts to melt because they're small and temperature is high.

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Tiny Pizzas
Makes about 32 mini pizzas

2 large store-bought pre-baked thin crust pizza shells
Small jar of pizza sauce or sun-dried tomato pesto
Small package shredded pizza cheese blend – chopped in small pieces
Grated or shredded parmesan cheese – chopped into small pieces if needed
Pepperoni - optional
Pitted black or green olives – sliced in half lengthwise
Fresh basil – smallest whole leaves

Preheat the oven to 450d.

Cut rounds from pizza crust using a 2-inch round cutter, avoiding the thick crust edge. 

Top the pizza rounds with sauce and cover with pizza cheese blend. Top with pepperoni and an olive half.  As you can see, I made some with pepperoni and some without.  Choices, choices.

Place on a baking sheet and bake in the middle of the oven until the cheese is melted and just starting to brown, approximately 8 minutes. (Watch closely so the cheese doesn’t get too dark.)

Remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with parmesan. Place a very small basil leaf on each and plate for serving.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Chicken Noodle Soup - The Ultimate Comfort Food

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How to be a Soup Fairy
It might seem odd to post a recipe for chicken noodle soup at the holidays.  But here's my reasoning - you're probably going to have some time off over the next few weeks, right?  Why would you want to spend some of it making soup?  Because it's a really good bet that a friend or family member is going to come down with a bad cold or flu in the next month or two.  Just think how happy they'd be if you were able to whip out a container of homemade chicken soup as a get-well present.  You'd get big-time gold stars for thoughtfulness (not to mention think-aheadfulness).  I was planning to make this soup for blog purposes a week ago when I saw a Facebook post by my friend Kathy that said she had a lousy cold and felt like "caca".  It would have been even better if I could have brought her soup immediately but I was able to stop over the following day (after I actually MADE said soup) and she was very grateful.

Making homemade soup does take some time, but you can spread it out over two days (recommended) and it doesn't take more than an hour or two each day.  Plus, if you have various family members hanging around the house you can enlist their aid and it makes a fun project to do together.  Really!  Your house smells wonderful and you feel like you're doing something to help someone else - very appropriate at the holidays.

The big secret to this recipe is the noodles.  Don't buy dried noodles, buy frozen egg noodles because they're just like homemade.  They make a homemade soup seem even more homemade.  Kathy later asked me "did you even make the NOODLES?"  I had to confess.

Day one you cook the chicken, which creates the broth.  You let the broth cool in the refrigerator overnight so you can skim off the fat the next day.  Day two is all about chopping ingredients and dumping everything into the broth to cook. 

By the way, this recipe makes a LOT of soup - about four quarts.  The good news is that you'll have plenty for yourself as well as others.  But be aware that if you try to make it in a standard Dutch oven you might run into problems.  You need a real soup pot.

Do you like my pot?  I love nice shiny pots. If you don't have one, borrow one from a friend or make half a recipe in a Dutch oven. Or buy one and use it often.

This recipe includes an optional small amount of cream and parmesan.  They really add to the flavor but you can leave them out if you're being careful about calories.  My rationale is that the cream makes the soup more slidey for sore throats (technical term).

If you're watching your sodium intake, know that you can buy chicken base in a low sodium version.  I'm not sure if the same is true about chicken bouillon cubes.  As a general rule of thumb I always try to use low sodium products whenever available and then salt to taste at the table.  You'll end up using less sodium that way.  Not familiar with chicken base?  Here's what it looks like.

You'll find it, along with beef base and sometimes turkey or pork base, in the spice aisle of most grocers (near the bouillon cubes).  I like these products better than bouillon cubes because they seem fresher with more depth of flavor and have less sodium.

I think I had Campbells Chicken Noodle Soup pretty much every single school day when I was in 3rd grade - brought to school in a Barbie lunch pail with a peanut butter sandwich.  It took me a while to recover enough to think about chicken noodle soup again (kind of like when I came down with the flu immediately after having a shrimp dinner, but different).  This recipe will be a revelation for those of you whose soup normally comes out of a can.

Happy Holidays to all!!!!!!

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Chicken Noodle Soup
Makes approximately 4 quarts

Step 1:
4 bay leaves
3 chicken bouillon cubes or 3-4 tsp chicken base (preferably low sodium)
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 tsp lemon pepper seasoning
3 cloves garlic, minced
One 2.5-3 lb fryer chicken, cut up
1.5 tsp Italian seasoning
3.5 quarts water
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Step 2:
2 cups sliced carrots
2 cups sliced celery with leafy green tops
12 oz package homestyle frozen egg noodles
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/3 cup cooking sherry
1-2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
¾ cup heavy cream (optional but good)
¾ cup grated parmesan (optional but good)
Additional fresh parsley for garnish

For step one, add all the ingredients to a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer approximately 35 to 45 minutes until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. Remove and discard the bay leaves and onion. You should have approximately 3 quarts of stock. When the chicken is cool, discard the skin and bones and shred or chop the meat into bite-sized pieces. Refrigerate the stock and the chicken separately overnight.

For step two, skim the fat from the surface of the stock and bring back to a boil. Add the carrots and celery and cook for 5 to ten minutes. Add the egg noodles and cook according to package directions. When the noodles are done, add the chicken, mushrooms, parsley, sherry and rosemary. Add the cream and parmesan, if using. Cook for another 2 minutes until heated through. Adjust salt and pepper if needed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cuban Paella

Are you planning a get-together in the next few weeks?  Paella is a great choice for entertaining because it's impressive, it's delicious, it makes a lot, and it's easy - you just keep sticking stuff in the pan until it's all done.  The Lawyer and I served paella for a New Year's Eve party last year, and our friends Ron and Susie served it when they had us over for dinner a few weeks ago.  (Ron and Susie recently drove from Minnesota to California by way of Florida. Go figure.)

There are as many variations of paella as there are towns and regions in Spain, Central and South America but they all have a few ingredients in common.  Paella (pronounced pie-ay-uh) starts with arborio rice and a number of spices including saffron.  Most paellas also contain some type(s) of shellfish with shrimp being the most common, but I've seen paella recipes that also contain mussels, clams and even lobster tails.  Paellas often include chorizo, a spicy Spanish sausage (more about chorizo further on), and some paellas contain chicken.  This is a Cuban Paella version that contains shrimp, chicken and chorizo.  The spice paste also includes lime juice and a splash of rum. 

Basically paella is a great one pot meal and you can change the ingredients to suit your taste. For example, I'm not fond of mussels (they taste like ball bearings coated in rubber bands) so you won't see them here.

Lets talk about a couple of the classic paella ingredients.  First, the rice - it's important to use arborio rice for paella rather than a different rice variety.  Why?  Because arborio rice has a high starch content which gives creaminess to the sauce and it also retains a firm center when cooked which gives it a nice chewy texture.  Arborio also is the classic rice of choice for risottos in addition to paellas.

Now lets talk about chorizo.  Chorizo is a spicy sausage common to Mexican and Spanish cuisines.  But there's a hitch - there are two distinctly different varieties of chorizo.  Spanish chorizo is a hard (cured) sausage that is long and thin, similar to pepperoni.  It comes with a paper casing that needs to be removed before slicing. It's moderately spicy but can also be purchased in the "caliente" version (hot) if you can find it.  Spanish chorizo can be found in the deli department of upscale grocers or in gourmet stores.

Mexican Chorizo is a soft uncooked sausage that typically comes in a tube or "chub" as it's known in the food industry (did you know I used to work for Pillsbury?).  It's raw and must be cooked before eating.  You crumble it as it cooks, very similar to Italian sausage. Mexican chorizo can be found in the meat department of most grocers.  You don't use Mexican chorizo for paella but it'll be featured in a future blog post for chorizo quiche with roasted pepper sauce.

OK, now lets talk about spices.  Paella isn't paella without the distinctive taste of saffron.  Yes, saffron is expensive but you only use a tiny bit.  This recipe also includes your choice of Spanish or Hungarian paprika.  Spanish paprika has a smoky flavor which I love while Hungarian is more mild (unless you buy the hot version).  If you want to use hot Hungarian paprika I would suggest using it half and half with regular paprika the first time you make it to make sure the paella doesn't get to spicy for your taste. 

Speaking of spices, do you date yours?  I don't mean as in taking them to the movies, I mean sticking a little label on them showing the month and year you bought them.  If you don't, how do you know how fresh they are?  General rule of thumb is that the shelf life of ground spices and herbs is 6 months, and whole spices can be kept for 12 months.  I always check the spices I need for a recipe to see if I've exceeded the shelf life.  If it's only a month or two over I generally sniff the spice to see if it still has a strong aroma.  If not, or if it's longer than a month or two over the limit, toss the bottle and buy new.  And it doesn't work to use twice as much of an older spice, trust me.  Two times nothing still equals nothing.  That's why I always buy the smallest jar available of any spice, even if I use it frequently.

I highly recommend buying spices from Penzeys ( because they have the greatest variety and best prices.  You want paprika?  Great, they have four different kinds.  And don't even start on chili powders.  They have stores around the country (including 2 miles from my house, luckily) and they also do mail order if you don't happen to live near one.

You have a choice of artichokes or green beans in the recipe.  I made it this time with fresh green beans and really liked the fact that they stayed crisp and provided a textural contrast to the other ingredients.

Note that the chicken should marinate up to 16 hours for maximum flavor but you can skip that step if you only start reading the recipe an hour before you want to eat.

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Cuban Paella
Serves 8

Cuban Spice Paste:
¼ cup Spanish or Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons rum (optional)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil

2.5 lbs chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into approximate 1.5” chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 ounces Spanish chorizo, wrapping removed and thinly sliced
2 cups Arborio rice
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon saffron
2 tablespoons capers, drained
½ cup fire-roasted red bell peppers, cut into strips
16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined but tails left on
2 cups frozen artichoke hearts or two cups green beans, fresh or frozen, cut into 2” pieces

In a medium bowl or ziptop bag, combine paprika, garlic, lime juice, optional rum, salt, pepper, oregano, cumin and olive oil to make a paste. Toss in the chicken thigh chunks and coat well. Refrigerate, turning occasionally, for up to 16 hours or proceed with the recipe if in a hurry.

Preheat the oven to 350d. Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken, leaving excess marinade in the bowl to add later. Brown on each side for 3-5 minutes per side, then remove. Cook the other half of the chicken in the same way and remove from the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the chorizo. Saute, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes and remove from the pan. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until soft (about 5 minutes). Add the rice and cook, stirring, until well coated with the onion mixture. Pour in the stock, tomatoes, saffron, and any remaining marinade. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the capers, cover and transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and scatter the surface of the rice with the fire-roasted pepper, chorizo, shrimp, and artichokes or green beans.

Gently pat the ingredients into the top layer of rice, cover and bake for 10 additional minutes or until the rice is tender, the liquid is absorbed and the shrimp are opaque and pink. Stir together before serving.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Roasted Tomato Tart with Goat Cheese and Black Olives

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Remember those tomatoes you roasted last summer?  This recipe is a great way to showcase them, not to mention that it makes a delicious light dinner with a salad and some crusty bread.  It's a good counter-balance to all those heavy dinners that are so prevalent at this time of the year, and it also makes great leftovers for lunch the next day.  If you didn't quite get around to roasting tomatoes last summer, it's OK because the recipe contains instructions for starting with fresh tomatoes.  They'll still taste great because roasting brings out all the flavors and sugars even in grocery store tomatoes.

This tart would also be good served for an easy brunch entree if you happen to be entertaining at this time of the year.  I like making it in a tart pan with a removeable bottom because it makes it easier to cut - I always have trouble getting the first piece out of a regular pie pan.  If you don't have a 9" tart pan you can use a pie pan instead.

Goat cheese gives the tart a mildly tangy flavor.  If you don't care for goat cheese you could certainly substitute any other cheese of your choice.  But if you haven't tasted goat cheese, give it a try.  The flavor is mild because it's mixed with mozzarella and it's a great complement to the olive, tomato, and fresh thyme flavors in the tart. 

I've really been trying to stretch myself when it comes to eating new foods, especially healthy foods.  I recently tried some brussel sprouts that The Lawyer's Sister #2 prepared for Thanksgiving and discovered that I really do like them when they're sliced and sauteed. My open-minded attitude still doesn't extend as far as raw oysters, however.  Slimy slippery disgusting little gray things.  Bleh.

Note that the recipe simply calls for a pie crust without mentioning the origin of said crust.  I knew I was on a slippery slope between the ardent pie-crust-makers on one side and the equally ardent pie-crust-in-a-box people on the other.  I didn't even want to get into that debate because you can't win.  It's sort of like discussing politics.  I still want to put my friend Ted (the Conservative) and my mom (the Liberal) in a closet and see who comes out alive.  I'm betting on mom.  She's little but she's feisty.

If you have roasted tomatoes in your freezer, pat yourself on the back and skip the first paragraph. 

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Roasted Tomato Tart with Goat Cheese and Black Olives
Serves 6-8

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 roma tomatoes, cored, halved lengthwise and seeded
Salt and pepper

1 pie crust

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup soft fresh plain goat cheese (about 4 ounces)
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
2 large eggs
¼ cup half and half
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ cup pitted kalamata or nicoise olives, halved
3 tblespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese

To Roast the Tomatoes:
Preheat the oven to 350d. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil; brush foil with 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Place the tomato halves, cut side up, on the baking sheet.  Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the tomatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast for 2 hours until shrunken and somewhat dried.  Cool tomatoes on the sheet.  (Can be prepared 1 day ahead.  Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.)

To Prepare the Tart
Transfer the pie crust to a 9 inch tart pan or pie pan, pressing pastry firmly onto the bottom and sides of the pan.  Fold overhang in and press, pushing the crust slightly above the pan.  Pierce the crust all over with a fork and place in the refrigerator to chill.

Preheat the oven to 375d.  Line the pastry with foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights.  Bake until the crust is set, about 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and beans and bake until the crust edges are golden, about 12 minutes longer.  Cool the crust 10 minutes and reduce the oven temperature to 350d.

Meanwhile, mash the mozzarella, goat cheese, and thyme together using a fork.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add eggs and half-and-half and stir until well blended.  Spread cheese filling evenly in the crust.  Arrange tomato halves (cut side up) and olive halves evenly over the filling.  Sprinkle parmesan cheese on the top.  Bake until the filling is puffed and set, about 35 minutes.  Cool 5 minutes.  Serve the tart warm.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wild Rice Salad

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I started laughing the other day when I was flipping through my recipes and realized I have somewhere around 10 different wild rice salad recipes, not to mention recipes for wild rice side dishes, waffles, soup and other items.  Then and there I decided to crown myself the Wild Rice Queen.  Apparently it stuck somewhere in my subconscious because during a three hour bout of carb-and-sugar induced Thanksgiving night insomnia I mentally composed this entire post, complete with visuals.  It made me happy but did nothing for the insomnia.  I even toyed briefly with trying to create the entire post and publish it the next day, but I didn't think I could do it justice that quickly.  Wild rice is too important.  :)  So, my apologies to those of you who had too many leftover turkey sandwiches that really could have used this recipe instead.  Print it out now, so you'll have it ready for other holiday leftovers yet to come.

Wild rice likes to grow in a cold environment, so the primary producers are Minnesota (domestically) and Canada (internationally). If you didn't grow up in the Great White North you might not be familiar with it. I think of it as the northern answer to grits.  Having always been somewhat skeptical about the virtue of grits (aka "white dirt"), I was assured by my new southern friend Charline that I would love her recipe for Tomato Cheese Grits.  OK Charline, back at ya.  You try mine and I'll try yours!

Wild rice is actually not a rice, but the seed of a grass that grows in shallow lakes.  High in protein, lysine and fiber, low in fat and gluten-free, wild rice is the Cadillac of rices, which is one reason why you won't find it very often on restaurant menus.  Even when you do find a dish listed as wild rice, it will often be a mixture of white and brown rice with some wild rice added in.  One of the reasons that wild rice is more expensive than white or brown rice is because it's more difficult to grow and harvest.  Traditional Native American harvesting is done from a canoe using a long stick to bend the grasses down and shake the seeds into the canoe.  Not exactly high volume.  The wild rice produced in Canada tends to be harvested commercially and therefore is less expensive, but I can't tell any difference in taste or texture so that's the version I buy (it's really not that expensive).  If you happen across small boxes labeled "instant" wild rice, I wouldn't recommend buying them.  It might seem less expensive but that's only because the box contains a small amount.  And the pre-cooking and drying that are required to make it instant means the grains are softer and mushier when re-cooked.  Wild rice is definitely not supposed to be soft and mushy.

To enjoy a 100% wild rice dish is a unique taste experience - earthy, nutty, very flavorful and chewy.  Wild rice makes a great winter salad for those reasons compared to the light and delicate lettuce salads of summer.  The rice makes a great palate for virtually any kind of leftover meat - smoked or roasted turkey, pork, chicken, beef, or even duck and pheasant. Of course, you don't need to wait for leftover meat - you could always buy a rotisserie chicken or a thick piece of smoked turkey at the deli. We recently purchased a smoked pheasant from a local grower and I'm already dreaming of a smoked pheasant, wild rice and fresh cherry salad.  Yum!  Besides a wide variety of meats, wild rice goes very well with a wide variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.  Looking over my recipes I noticed certain similarities so for the first time in my blogger life I'm going to give you what I call a master recipe with variations.  (See what insomnia can do to you?)

But first we need to talk about cooking wild rice, which is slightly different than cooking white or brown rice.  Wild rice recipes will invariably give you a set time to cook, which is misleading.  In my experience that hardness of wild rice can vary from producer to producer or from year to year.  My advice is to cook for a shorter amount of time than recommended and then start checking.  I saw a visual a few years ago that led me to conclude I had probably been over-cooking my wild rice, so I thought I'd re-create it here.  First you need to rinse your rice (remember it hasn't been as processed as white or brown rice).

Here's what uncooked rice looks like.

Here's what properly cooked rice looks like - the grains are swollen and most have started to split.

Here's what overcooked rice looks like - most of the grains are split wide open and starting to curl.

My source recipe called for cooking the rice for 60 minutes.  I started checking after 45 minutes and concluded the rice was properly cooked at 55 minutes.  The visual of overcooked rice was taken at 70 minutes.  Most of the time it will take 55-60 minutes for properly cooked rice, but I've had it take as long as 70 minutes and as little as 50 minutes.

Most recipes will call for cooking wild rice in water, but I usually use low-sodium chicken broth for added flavor.  Don't expect that all the liquid will be absorbed, you'll just strain it after cooking instead.  Note that the wild rice can be prepared in advance and refrigerated, so this would be a quick salad to toss together after work.

Ok, so now that you have the rice cooked, here are two concepts for a master recipe.

            Elements Common to Both:
            wild rice
            meat - turkey, pork, chicken, beef, duck, pheasant
            chopped spinach or arugula
            toasted nuts - walnuts, pecans or almonds

                              - plus -

             V1:  Fruity                                                     
             fruity vinaigrette                                            
             fresh fruit - grapes, cherries, oranges, blueberries, etc.
             crumbled fresh cheese - blue, goat, etc.         

                              - or -

              V2: Vegetable-y
              mustard and garlic vinaigrette
              fresh vegetables - sugar snap peas, red pepper, etc.
              avocado chunks or crumbled cheese

I'll go into more detailed instructions and measurements in the recipe(s) below.  Yikes!  This is a long post.  I told The Lawyer I had to get it out of my head so I could get some sleep.  There was way too much content on my mental clipboard.  :-)

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Wild Rice Salad
Serves 4-5

Master Recipe Ingredients:
2 cups water or low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup uncooked wild rice
3 cups cooked turkey, chicken, pork, beef, duck or pheasant, cut into bite-sized cubes
2 cups chopped spinach or arugula
½ cup toasted pecans or walnuts (coarsely chopped) or toasted slivered almonds

 - plus -

Fruity Version:
¼ cup champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1.5 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons fresh orange rind
¼ teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
¼ cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh fruit (halved grapes, blueberries, halved pitted cherries, etc.)
1/2 cup crumbled blue or goat cheese

- or –

Vegetable-y Version:
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 green onions, sliced
½ red pepper, diced
2 oz sugar snap peas, cut into 1” pieces
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into chunks (or ½ cup crumbled blue cheese)

Rinse and drain the wild rice.  Bring water or broth to boil in a medium saucepan.  Add the wild rice; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 45 minutes.  Check to determine if grains are swollen and most are split.  If not, check again every ten minutes until done (typically 55-60 minutes total).  Remove from heat, drain, and set aside to cool. (May be prepared up to two days in advance.  Keep covered and refrigerated.)

To prepare the vinaigrette, combine the first 8 ingredients from the fruit version or the first 7 ingredients from the vegetable version in a food processor or shake in a jar.

Combine the cooled wild rice, meat, spinach or arugula and (version1) fruits or (version 2) vegetables (not the crumbled cheese, avocado or toasted nuts) in a large bowl.  Add the vinaigrette and toss well.  Serve topped with toasted nuts and avocado or crumbled cheese.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chicken Chow Mein

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It might sound dorky but I've loved chicken chow mein since I was a little kid.  It was the first "exotic" food we ever had as take-out.  I liked the little white boxes with metal handles but what really sold me was the transluscent paper bag of crunchy noodles.  Chow mein is not chow mein without the crunchy noodles.  I now realize that most takeout chow mein is green goo with little bits of diced meat on the top so I was happy to find a healthy and updated version a few years ago.  In this recipe, the flavors are vibrant and the overall texture is very crunchy from crisp-tender celery, onions, and water chestnuts. Did I mention the shiitake mushrooms? Gourmet chow mein, indeed.

It might seem odd to post a chow mein recipe during the holidays but you can't eat cookies and fruitcake every day for the next month, right?  Do your body a favor and give it something healthy to eat every once in a while.  Six ounces of chicken for four servings doesn't sound like much, but chow mein has lots of vegetables too.  I think you'll be surprised at really how much chicken there is per serving when you're done - much more than in the takeout versions. 

If you haven't made many stir fries from scratch you might not be familiar with oyster sauce and dark sesame oil.  Both are readily available in the Asian section of your grocery store and give the sauce wonderful flavor so don't be tempted to leave them out.  Just be aware that sesame oil comes in two varieties - regular which is pale in color like other oils, and toasted which is dark in color.  The flavors are completely different.  The toasted variety may or may not say "toasted" on the label, so the most reliable way to know is simply to look at the color.

Left to right in the photo above you see oyster sauce, regular sesame oil, and toasted sesame oil.  Oyster sauce is very thick and dark with a mild flavor that I can't describe, you just have to try it. (But it doesn't taste like oysters.)  Regular sesame oil also has a mild flavor and is so pale it almost looks clear in the little glass bowl above.  Toasted sesame oil is much stronger with a rich nutty aroma and flavor, and it's always used sparingly in recipes for that reason.  If  I come across a recipe that specifies sesame oil but not the specific variety, I make a decision regarding which they intended based on the amount called for - toasted sesame oil is rarely specified in amounts greater than a teaspoon or two.  If you're intimidated by the unfamiliar ingredients, don't be.  They come together in a very tasty sauce and you would never guess the specific ingredients.

Like all stir fries, once you start cooking everything goes fast and you can't stop, so prep all your ingredients in advance.  The whole recipe takes maybe a half hour to prepare from start to finish with most of the time spent slicing ingredients, so this could be a great weeknight meal.

Chicken Chow Mein

serves 4

Note: prep all ingredients in advance – cooking goes really fast once you start.

½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 T. oyster sauce
1 T. dark soy sauce, plus more for the table
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, about 6 ounces, cut into thin 2” long strips
1 teaspoon dark (toasted) Asian sesame oil
2 T. peanut oil
1 heaping tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
3 cloves of garlic, minced
4 scallions, white and green minced, divided
black pepper
½ medium yellow onion, thin sliced
2 stalks of celery, thin sliced on the diagonal
10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thin sliced
1/3 cup thin sliced canned water chestnuts
6 ounce bag of chow mein (rice) noodles
6 ounces fresh bean sprouts

Whisk together the chicken broth, oyster sauce, soy sauce, cornstarch, and sugar in a small bowl and set aside. Season the chicken with the dark sesame oil, salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. Heat the two tablespoons of peanut oil until hot, then add the ginger, garlic and one minced scallion and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the chicken and stir fry until lightly browned, about 90 seconds. Add the onion, celery and mushrooms and stir fry until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the water chestnuts and spread the ingredients to the outside of the pan to make a well in the center. Pour the chicken broth mixture into the well, bring to a boil, and stir to coat all ingredients. Remove from the heat and season generously with black pepper.

Place approximately one cup of chow mein noodles on each plate, then top with the chow mein mixture, bean sprouts, and remaining green onions.  Serve with additional soy sauce, if desired.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Essential Foodie Gifts Under $20

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Thinking about holiday gifts?  I was cooking something with lemon zest the other day and thought about how much I like my microplane zester, so it occurred to me to do a blog post about favorite kitchen tools that are beyond the basic measuring cups and spoons but not so exotic that you only use them once or twice a year (like olive pitters and blow torches). To make it a little more interesting I decided they had to be under $20.  I enlisted the help of my foodie friends Ted and Brad to come up with the following list and did a couple of recon visits to my local kitchenware store as well as Bed, Bath and Beyond to make sure they fit the $$ limit.

Each of these would be a nice gift for your favorite foodie if you know they don't currently own said item.  They would also be a good hostess gift or (better yet) a nice gift for yourself.  I always like the gifts I give myself because I never have to take them back.  :-)  I was having lunch with my friends Michelle and Jessica the other day and Jessica mentioned that she had made a salmon recipe.  Michelle commented that she would never make a salmon recipe because she didn't like salmon, although she's never actually tasted salmon.  We went on to discuss another recipe and I asked her if she has a food processor.  She wasn't sure but thought she might have a hand crank one ("hand crank food processor"?  I mean, really.)  Anyway, I think I need to take Michelle on a little shopping trip so she can pick up a few items.

So in no particular order, here we go.

Kitchen Scale
There are many recipes that call for one or more ingredients by weight rather than volume because it's more precise.  For example, how many tomatoes equal two pounds?  Depends on the size of the tomatoes, of course.  Without a scale you're just guessing.  What to look for:  a small, simple scale that's easy to store.  I've seen scales with an attached bowl, for example, that I wouldn't recommend.  The size and shape of your food won't always work in that particular bowl and it's bulkier to store.  The scale that I show above will zero out the weight of whatever empty bowl you put on it, so it just weighs the ingredients.  You can use whatever bowl works best.  Slick!

Citrus Juicer
I love citrus, particularly lemon, and use a lot in cooking.  I think I've tried pretty much every juicer there is.  Years ago I had one of those brightly-colored hinged gadgets where you put a half a lemon inside and squeeze it together.  It basically turns the lemon inside-out.  I didn't like it because it didn't work very well, you had to have different sizes for different-sized citrus, and it required a lot of hand strength.  Then I bought the simple juicer shown above and used it for years.  You hold the juicer in your weaker hand (the left hand for us righties) and the fruit in your other hand.  Stick the pointy end into the fruit and work it around while you squeeze with your strong hand.  Works great, it's simple, and easy to store.  The only drawback is that you need a bowl to catch the juice, and either a strainer on top of the bowl or a spoon to fish out the seeds.

This little beauty solves the bowl and seed issues.  You just jam the cut fruit down on the top and use the cutting board as your counter-pressure.  It comes apart easily and goes in the dishwasher.  I've also seen hard plastic versions of this same concept which have the advantage of being able to see the amount of juice in the bowl.  I would recommend either this juicer or the simple wooden one above but not the hinged variety.

Meat Thermometer

First and foremost, you need a meat thermometer for food safety but it also ensures you don't overcook your beautiful roast or turkey and turn it into cardboard.  Last year I asked The Brother how he knows when his turkey is done since he doesn't have a meat thermometer, and he replied "we guess".  Oh boy.  I was over at my foodie friend Brad's house a few weeks ago for Gourmet Club and noticed that he used not one, but TWO meat thermometers to check a rolled stuffed pork roast to ensure he didn't accidentally hit the stuffing instead of the meat.  Good idea.  Ted takes his thermometer on road trips to his daughter's house.  Another good idea.  Get a good quality thermometer and don't leave it in the meat when you put it back in the oven or the plastic face will melt.  Trust me.

Straight Edge Stirrer

Brad calls this a "flat bottom stirrer" but somehow that sounded somewhat provocative to me so I call it a straight edge stirrer.  Whatever, it's used to scrape the bottom of the pan to release meat bits and incorporate them into an ensuing sauce.  I also use it to scramble eggs and other pan scraping/stirring tasks.

Citrus Zester
This could be my all-time favorite gadget.  Microplane had the brilliant idea to create a kitchen version of what is essentially a carpenter's rasp, and it works like magic to zest citrus.  The holes are small and their edges are sharp, resulting in fast, effortless and perfect zest without any of the bitter white pith.  Microplane also makes different sizes for grating cheeses, etc. and the cover of each states what they should be used to grate. They are simply the best. 

Meat Tenderizer/Pounder

Meat tenderizers are used to pound meat or poultry to make them an even thickness for cooking and to tenderize the meat.  The one I show above is not the most common variety.  The most common variety looks a lot like a two-headed hammer with one flat side and one side with jagged teeth.  I had one of those once, and tried the jagged teeth side on chicken breasts that were covered with plastic wrap (you always cover the meat with plastic before pounding).  The teeth tore up both the plastic and the chicken, resulting in a mess.  I decided I needed a pounder without teeth and with as large a pounding surface as I could find for efficiency.  Hence the version above.  I call it "The Whammer".


You'll find this particular gadget in the Asian section of your kitchen store near the woks.  It will be called a spider, although I think it actually looks more like a spider web.  You can also find all-stainless versions in the kitchen utensil aisle, in which case it will be called a skimmer.  (Don't ask.)  In either event, this is your go-to tool for taking things out of liquid.  For example, I saw a chef on Food TV use this exact item to take blanched beans out of boiling water and put them into ice water.  I drop tomatoes into boiling water for a few seconds to make them easier to peel and use my spider to take them out one at a time.  It's also perfect for taking meat out of a wok so you can cook the vegetables and then put the meat back in.  You get the idea.  What to look for - a rounded (bowl-shaped) mesh head rather than a flat head so it cups the food you're scooping.  Think tomatoes.

I hope these gave you some holiday gift ideas!  If you have any questions or other favorite gadgets that you would add, drop me a comment below.  Back to recipes next week!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

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Weekend breakfasts are a great time to sip on a big cup of coffee and make something special for your family, especially when it turns cold outside.  These pumpkin pancakes are one of my favorites for several reasons - the pumpkin makes them rich and moist while the spices perfume your entire house.  Everything about them says that it's fall and the leaves are blowing off the trees and it's time to get the sweaters out of the closet.  If you take the time to mix the dry ingredients the night before, all you do in the morning is mix in the wet ingredients just like you were using a packaged mix (except it tastes much better!).
Tip of the day - freeze any leftover pancakes in a single layer on a cooling rack in the freezer until frozen solid, then pile them into a large ziplock bag.  They won't stick together so you can take out as many as you want at a time.

Mike the Wonder Dog was particularly fond of pancakes.  The major mistake that we made early on was to feed him leftovers of people food so he was attracted to our table by the smells.  With those little dinky dogs (I call them "snack dogs" because they're usually the size of a sub sandwich) that's not a problem, but when your dog is taller than the table it can be problematic.  Mike was an Irish Wolfhound.  For those of you not familiar with the breed, it's the largest dog breed in the world.  Mikey weighed 160 pounds and measured 8 feet from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail.  I'll dig up a picture and post it soon.  Mike (or as we occasionally called him, "Young Frankenstein") has been gone now for over eight years but we'll certainly never forget him and some of his exploits.  More some other time!

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes
Makes approximately 14-15 pancakes

Note: the dry ingredients (flour through salt) may be mixed the night before, then proceed with the rest of the recipe in the morning.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1-1/2 cups milk
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar

Maple syrup and toasted chopped pecans (optional garnish)

Combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and salt) in a medium bowl, whisking to mix well. Add the brown sugar and mix again. In a large bowl, mix together the milk, pumpkin, egg, oil and vinegar. Add the dry ingredients to the large bowl and stir just enough to combine.

Cook on a preheated (350d) griddle or lightly oiled frying pan on medium-high heat. Note that the pancakes may take slightly longer to cook than normal due to the moistness of the pumpkin puree – watch for the bubbles to burst on the top of the pancakes, then they’re ready to flip (approximately 4 minutes per side).

Serve with pure maple syrup and toasted pecans (optional).