Friday, March 28, 2014

Classic Potato Gratin

Last Year's Post: French Chicken Salad
Two Years Ago:  Spring Risotto

Normally I try to publish healthy recipes, but I'll admit right up front that this is an exception in a big way.  Three cups of heavy cream?  I mean, really.  But it's one of those dishes that is so incredibly good, it's worthy of a special occasion like a birthday or holiday.  I wanted to post it because Easter and Mother's Day are coming up, and this is The Dish to accompany ham, roast pork, leg of lamb, or roast beef.  It's so good, it could easily steal the show from any one of those centerpiece dishes.

The first time I made this was for an Easter dinner.  The guests raved about it all during dinner, then followed the few remaining leftovers into the kitchen where they started picking pieces of potato out of the pan and eating them with their fingers.  It's that kind of a dish.  Just be prepared - once you serve it you'll get requests for it at every special occasion dinner thereafter.  Don't be tempted to substitute fat-free half and half or any other fat-and-calorie saving substitute for this one - it's the cream and cheese that provide the luscious richness.  Remember it's only for special occasions!  Think of it like any other favorite indulgence at a holiday.  Would you make low-calorie fat-free pecan pie for Thanksgiving?

Although you technically could slice the potatoes with a knife, it requires more dexterity and patience than I have to slice them all into perfect 1/8" slices.  Do yourself a favor and buy a mandoline, which is a manual slicer. It allows you to set the thickness you want, and slice it perfectly every time.  I bought mine ages ago (probably for this very recipe) and I think I bought the cheapest one I could find, which today costs about $25.  I was recently looking at mandolines on the Consumer Reports website and was surprised to find that they rated my cheap Japanese Benriner Mandoline Slicer as their top pick because it's sturdy, it works well, it's simple, and it stores flat.  You can find it here at Amazon; it's also available elsewhere online.   You can find stainless steel mandolines with fancy stands for up to $200, but why pay the money when the less expensive version works perfectly well?

Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Crate & Barrel and other stores also carry inexpensive mandolines if you need one right away.  Just be sure the model you choose has a knob to adjust thickness, and a hand guard to protect your fingers while slicing (that's the blue thing in the picture above).  Some models also have more than one blade for making different types of cuts.  After slicing the potatoes, this is a simple recipe.

Be sure to read the note at the end so you know what to watch for as the cream goes through different stages of cooking. The picture below shows you what butterfat looks like - they're the little yellow drops around the edge.  That's when you take it out.

Don't worry that the cheese on top browns early - it's supposed to be dark brown in spots but it doesn't end up burning so don't be tempted to cover the dish or turn the temperature down. Finally, the recipe calls for a 2 1/2 - 3 quart baking dish; big and shallow is better than narrow and deep so you can spread out the cheese topping and have it get all lovely brown all over.

printable recipe
Classic Potato Gratin
Serves 6-8

2 lbs Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled
3 cups whipping or heavy cream
1 tsp coarse salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
¾ cup finely shredded Gruyere, Emmental, or Comte cheese

Preheat oven to 400d. 

Using a mandolin (recommended) or a very sharp knife, carefully cut the potatoes into 1/8-inch slices (no thicker).

Put the potatoes in a large heavy-based saucepan and add the cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic.  Cook the mixture over medium-high heat until the cream is boiling, stirring occasionally (very gently with a rubber spatula so you don’t break up the slices).

When the cream boils, pour the mixture into a 2 ½ - 3 quart baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.  Remove and discard the garlic cloves.  Shake the dish a bit to let the slices settle and then sprinkle the surface with the cheese.

Bake until the top is deep golden brown, the cream has thickened, and the potatoes are extremely tender when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes.  Don’t worry if the dish looks too liquidy at this point; it will set up as it cools a bit.  Before serving, let the potatoes cool until they’re very warm but not hot (at least 15 minutes) or serve at room temperature.
Note:  If you cook the potatoes too long, the cream will separate and the butterfat will start to break out.  Watch for this as the potatoes go through distinct stages of cooking; first you’ll see lots of mad bubbling of cream, which makes you think “this can’t possibly be right, it’s swimming in cream”.  Next, the amplitude of the bubbling decreases, but the frequency stays high because the cream is getting thicker; the top of the gratin also starts to brown.  The last phase is small bubbles, thick cream, and just the first few drops of yellow butterfat appearing around the edges of the pan.  Take the dish out of the oven the moment you see any butterfat.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lentil Salad with Bacon and Walnuts

Last Year's Post: Asian Roast Pork with Broccoli Slaw and Pasta
Two Years Ago:  Rustic Egg Tart

I never used to like lentils, probably because they looked suspiciously like the split peas in split pea soup which is an unfortunate muddy brown-green color and (in turn) looks a lot like baby food. Amazing how long the food traumas of our youth can stick with us past all rational thought, isn't it?  Once I realized that there are different types of lentils and they aren't all muddy-colored I decided to try them.  Happily, I discovered that they taste great as well as being good for you.  I then embarked on a lentil discovery mission that at one point involving five different types of lentils sitting in my pantry.  Even I admit that's probably overkill.  I discovered that big lentils end up mushy and muddy-colored, and red and yellow lentils end up mushy also although their color is better.  Small green or black lentils retain their shape when cooked and have a very pleasant firm texture while being tender at the same time.

So having come full circle, I now use the small French green lentils called "Lentils du Puy". You can find them in some natural food stores like Whole Foods and high-end grocery stores.  They may also be labeled as "French lentils" in the bulk aisle - just be sure they're dark green and small.

I was recently watching an "America's Test Kitchen" episode on lentil salads (which inspired me to make this recipe), and they confirmed that Lentils du Puy are the best because they hold their shape when cooked and have the best flavor.  They also demonstrated a very interesting technique for brining and oven-baking the lentils, which I'd never heard of.  Apparently brining the uncooked lentils helps make the skin more flexible so they don't burst, and oven-cooking is more gentle and again helps the lentils cook evenly to a creamy tenderness without bursting.  (If you're not familiar with America's Test Kitchen, they try as many as hundreds of variations of a recipe to develop the perfect technique.  They're even more obsessive than I am.)  Anyway, of course I had to try it.

The lentils didn't burst, but it took a long time to soak them and then bake in the oven. I found it took a full 70 minutes of baking before they were tender, which in my opinion isn't worth it.  I've simmered French lentils before without any issues so I decided to compromise for this recipe by calling for brining (which can be done in advance) and then simmering on the stovetop for just 20 minutes, as most other recipes call for.

The reason why I like lentil salads is because they're so versatile and good for you. You can serve them for lunch or dinner, at room temperature or warm or cold, and you can vary the ingredients to suit your taste.  I added cooked egg and avocado in addition to the bacon and walnuts with a little bell pepper for color, but you can add whatever you like.  For example, your favorite cheese could substitute for the egg or avocado.  Even with the tender lentils, the texture of the salad is surprisingly crunchy and very satisfying with the addition of the peppers, bacon and walnuts and the avocado (or cheese) adds creaminess.

For some reason this recipe seems very French to me, probably because of the French lentils and walnuts.  I can just see it served for a light spring or summer dinner with a bottle of very dry Rose wine and some warm crusty bread.

printable recipe
Lentil Salad with Bacon and Walnuts
Serves 4

1 cup French green lentils (lentils du Puy), uncooked
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bay leaf
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 minced shallot
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
Juice of half a lemon
1 avocado
3 hard-boiled eggs, cut into eighths
1 cup (loosely packed) baby spinach, chopped
3 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
2/3 cup red bell pepper (or assorted colors), finely chopped

In a medium bowl, combine the lentils and 1 teaspoon salt.  Cover with 4 cups warm water and let stand for one hour.  Drain well.  (Drained lentils can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before cooking.)

Place the lentils in a large saucepan over medium-high heat with 2 cups of water, the chicken broth, bay leaf, and ½ teaspoon of salt.   Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes.  Taste to be sure the lentils are properly cooked.  Drain well.

While the lentils are cooking, combine the olive oil and sherry vinegar with ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl, whisking to blend.  Add the shallots and thyme. 

Place the lemon juice in a medium bowl. Cut the avocado in half and remove the pit.  Using a small knife, score each half in a diamond pattern all the way down to (but not through) the shell.  Use a large spoon to scoop the flesh from the avocado shell into the bowl with the lemon juice.   Toss gently to coat the avocado pieces with juice so they won’t discolor.

When the lentils are still somewhat warm, place them in the bowl with the vinaigrette and toss to combine.  Add the spinach, bell pepper and avocado and toss again.

Serve topped with eggs, bacon and walnuts.  May be served warm, room temperature, or cold.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Filipino Chicken Adobo

Last Year's Post: Egg Gratin
Two years Ago:  Swordfish en Papillote

If you ever find yourself in a state of peace and clarity with the world such that it makes you nervous, as in things are going too well so something bad must be about to happen, I can fix that for you.  Just start pondering the word "adobo" and your mind will get so twisted up, it will forget how much fun it was having.  Really, what is adobo?  Isn't it some sort of Mexican spice mix?  But apparently the same word is used for Hawaiian and Filipino meat-based dishes with vinegar that have absolutely nothing to do with the Mexican spice mix, or do they? And what about canned chipotles in adobo? See, you just forgot about peace and clarity, didn't you?

As with all conundrums, a little Google search reveals the answers to the universe.  In this case, blame it all on the Spanish.  The word adobo means "marinade, sauce or seasoning" and originally was a Spanish food preservation method that involved submerging raw meat into a vinegar-based sauce.  As the Spanish traveled around the world, so did the term. In Mexico and Puerto Rico it came to mean a salt-based seasoning mix in addition to the tomato-based sauce used to stew jalapenos (chipotles).  In Hawaii and the Philippines  the Spaniards encountered an indigenous cooking process that involved stewing with vinegar that reminded them of their own process so they called it adobo too, even though it's really not the same.

Confused yet?

Let's just say I've tried Hawaiian Chicken Adobo and love the taste although I can see how it might be a bit too vinegary for some people, so I was very interested to try this variation from Luzon (the largest island in the Philippines) where pretty much everything contains coconut in some form.  Adobo is so popular that it's the national dish of the Philippines, and chicken is one of the most popular versions. This recipe is adapted from America's Test Kitchen where the liner notes state that the coconut milk tempers the acidity of the vinegar and the saltiness of the soy sauce, bringing the dish into balance.

A note about boneless skinless chicken thighs - I've noticed considerable size differences from one brand to another.  If your chicken thighs are large, cut them in half to make them easier to work with (and serve), and cut down the number of thighs in the recipe to 6 rather than 8.

Some adobo recipes call for adding the garlic cloves whole, which doesn't make sense to me.  Who wants to eat a whole garlic clove?  Others call for crushing but not mincing or grating the garlic, so I made sure I really crushed the dickens out of it before adding it to the sauce.  By the way, don't worry about the amount of garlic (6 cloves) - the flavor is very subtle in the finished dish.

When I previously tried Hawaiian Chicken Adobo, it was very salty due to the soy sauce and a long marinating time.  For this recipe I used low-sodium soy sauce, and found it actually needed a touch of salt at the table to bring out the coconut, vinegar and garlic flavors a bit.  That's a good thing because you can add it to your taste.  I thought this was an excellent, easy, and unusual chicken dish and was happy to have tried the national dish of the Philippines.  Cooking is an adventure.

p.s. Next time I think I'll add some toasted unsweetened coconut as a garnish in addition to the green onions to heighten the coconut taste and for some toasty crunch.

printable recipe
Filipino Chicken Adobo
Serves 4

8 boneless skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk (unsweetened)
¾ cup cider vinegar
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 green onions, sliced thin
Hot cooked rice

Combine chicken thighs and soy sauce in a bowl, then cover and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the marinade and place in a large saucepan.  Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl with the soy sauce (except the green onions and rice) and stir to combine, then add the sauce to the pan with the chicken.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes uncovered.  Flip the chicken pieces and simmer for an addition 15 minutes, then remove the chicken from the pan.  Thicken the sauce over medium-high heat for approximately five minutes.

Serve the chicken and sauce over hot cooked rice and garnish with green onions.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sausage Rolls with Mustard Cheese Dipping Sauce

Last Year's Post: Hibachi Shrimp (or Chicken or Beef or Lobster)
Two Years Ago:  Spinach Salad with Spicy Orange Dressing

Sausage rolls are a popular snack food in England, the original home of pub food.  They're all meaty/savory on the inside and crispy on the outside.  Served with a warm mustard cheese sauce, they just scream for a good craft beer.  You could make it a meal by adding some cut-up raw vegetables and soft pretzels (like we did) to dip in the sauce along with the sausage rolls - sort of like the beer version of fondue.  Or, serve these at your next party and watch them disappear - your beer-loving friends will go crazy.  Definitely double the recipe for a party.

The best part is that they're incredibly easy to make.  Make sure you buy pre-cooked sausages so you don't have to worry about whether they're cooked through or not, plus they're less greasy. Italian sausages are particularly good because they have a nice amount of spice that balances the cheese sauce, but use any flavor that appeals to you. I would think sun-dried tomato, garlic, or spinach varieties would also be good. Cut the puff pastry strips the same width as your sausage pieces so you can see the sausages when they're rolled up.  If the pastry looks a little too wide after you're done rolling, just trim it with a knife or kitchen scissors.  And finally, the cayenne pepper gives the cheese sauce a nice little kick but if you don't like spice just leave it out and the sauce will still be great.

Besides being easy to make, the other advantage for a party is that you can make them in advance and keep them refrigerated and covered with plastic wrap on their baking sheet.  All you have to do when the party starts is just bake them and make the cheese sauce (or make that in advance too, and simply reheat).

Dip, pop in mouth, sip beer, repeat.

printable recipe
Sausage Rolls with Mustard Cheese Dipping Sauce
Makes 16 appetizer rolls

Note:  raw vegetables and soft pretzels are also an excellent addition to serve with the cheese sauce.

For the sausage rolls:
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
All-purpose flour
4 pre-cooked chicken or turkey sausages (such as Aidells), Italian style or your favorite flavor
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper

For the cheese mustard dipping sauce:
¼ cup amber or dark beer
¼ cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
3 ½ ounces Cheddar cheese, grated (1 ½ cups)

Roll the puff pastry out on a floured surface to a rectangle of about 12” x 14”.  Place the shorter side closest to you, then trim the edges so they’re straight and cut the pastry in half crosswise into two equal pieces. Cut each piece into six long strips for a total of twelve strips and season with a little salt and pepper.  Brush the bottom edge of each strip with a little beaten egg and reserve the remaining egg for later.

Cut each sausage into three equal pieces.  Place a sausage piece on the top of a strip (away from the beaten egg) and roll up to enclose (the pastry should overlap somewhat).  Place seam side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Repeat with the remaining sausages and pastry strips.  Put the sausage rolls in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes to harden.

Preheat the oven to 400d.

After 20 minutes remove the sausage rolls from the refrigerator and score the tops twice with a sharp knife.  Brush each roll all over with the rest of the beaten egg (taking care not to get the egg on the edges or on the sausage or this may prevent puffing in the oven).  Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until golden-brown and puffed.  Remove and let cool for 5 minutes or so before serving.

While the sausage rolls are baking, combine all sauce ingredients except the cheese in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Gradually whisk in the cheese, continuing to cook until smooth and all the cheese is melted – about 5 minutes.

Serve the warm sausage rolls with warm cheese sauce on the side.