Saturday, February 27, 2016

Roasted Carrots with Herbs

Last Year's Post: Baked Pumpkin Spice Granola
Two Years Ago:  Power Muffins

I think carrots are one of the most taken-for-granted vegetables you can find, and I would have included myself in that camp until recently.  I mean, raw carrots are everywhere, particularly those little cut-up mini carrots that show up in everyone's lunches.  And cooked carrots?  Meh.  My memories of cooked carrots include chunks of carrot cooked to death with potatoes and pot roast until everything tastes like carrots.  Or even worse, chunks of carrots that are boiled or steamed until mushy, then tossed with some heavy sweet and sticky sauce (the better to cover up the taste, probably).

And then I discovered the wonders of roasting vegetables, and particularly carrots.  As they roast the sugars are caramelized and intensified, so the result is a fork-tender and sweet vegetable without the cloying sweet sauce.  They're not only pretty, but truly delicious and of course very good for you.  I've come across a couple of roasted carrot recipes lately that add large amount of butter and one that even adds Brie cheese if you can imagine, but I think simpler is better - a little olive oil, salt, and fresh herbs.

Rainbow-colored carrots are the prettiest and they're becoming easier to find - I've seen them at upscale grocers, natural food stores and farmers markets.  Smaller carrots are more cute because you can leave them whole, but this technique works equally well for larger carrots that are cut up.

One of the biggest benefits to roasted carrots is that they taste equally good hot or at room temperature, so they're perfect for a buffet (think about a big platter of carrots next to your ham and scalloped potatoes at Easter).  They're also great as a side dish next to roast beef, chicken, pork or lamb - just throw them in the oven as the meat rests and gets carved.

Or, as we had them today, they're a great centerpiece for a vegetarian meal with winter greens, a few pieces of good cheese and some toasted nuts.  We had somewhat over-indulged at a weekend breakfast so this was the perfect balance for dinner.

Roasted Carrots with Herbs
Serves 4-6

2 lbs carrots (small to medium size is preferable)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp coarse salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as chives, thyme, parsley, or a mix

Wash and peel the carrots, leaving about ½” of green tops.  If small, leave whole, and if larger cut in half lengthwise and crosswise.

Heat oven to 450d.

In a large bowl, toss the carrots with oil, salt and half the herbs.  Spread in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Roast, shaking the pan once, about 25 minutes until the carrots are fork-tender.  Turn the oven to broil for a minute or two to brown the tops, watching closely so the carrots don’t burn.  Remove and sprinkle with the remaining herbs. 

Serve hot or at room temperature.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Chicken with Lemon Pomegranate Sauce and Pistachio Rice

Last Year's Post:  Spinach, Squash and Apple Salad

I've had pomegranates before, as well as pomegranate juice, but not pomegranate sauce.  When I encountered this recipe, I thought the sauce would be bright red, relatively thick and sweet-tart, much like pomegranate seeds.  The reality, however, is something quite different - the recipe uses pomegranate molasses (a new ingredient for me) and lemon juice without any sugar at all to create a very bright, puckery sauce that's more like a vinaigrette.  I was a little concerned that it might need a touch of honey when I tasted it on it's own, but it was perfect when paired with the chicken - a very bright and interesting balance of flavors.

Who doesn't need another chicken recipe?  This one is healthy but also somewhat exotic with Middle Eastern flavors of pomegranate, cardamom, pistachios and dried fruits to get you out of your chicken rut.  And it's very fast to make - around 30 minutes all told - so it works for a weekday meal.

You can find pomegranate molasses in some upscale grocers (I found mine at Whole Foods), natural food stores, and of course Middle Eastern markets.

The sauce would also make a be great with pork or shrimp, and I can even see it as a salad dressing (it might need a touch of honey as a dressing but that's up to you).

Chicken with Pomegranate Lemon Sauce and Pistachio Rice
Serves 4

For the Sauce:
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
½ teaspoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

For the Chicken:
2 large chicken breasts or 4 chicken cutlets
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the Rice:
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2/3 cup long-grain white rice
1 1/3 cups chicken broth
4 tablespoons pistachios nuts, toasted lightly and chopped
4 tablespoons golden raisins, currants, dried cranberries (or a combination)
4 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions
Salt and pepper

To make the sauce, whisk all ingredients together in a bowl to combine; set aside.

Next start the rice:  in a small heavy saucepan cook the onion with the turmeric and cardamom in the butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until the onion is softened.  Add the rice and cook, stirring, until coated with butter.  Add the broth, bring the liquid to a boil, cover, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.  Stir in the pistachios, dried fruit, green onions, and salt and pepper to taste.

While the rice is cooking, cook the chicken: cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally to form four cutlets (skip this step if you already have cutlets).  Salt and pepper both sides.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add the chicken and sauté for 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown and cooked through.

To serve, divide the rice between plates and top each with a chicken cutlet.  Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Pasta Arrabiata

Last Year's Post: Coconut-Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Pineapple Rice
Two Years Ago:  Sesame Seed Chicken Salad

Arrabbiata is a spicy sauce for pasta made from garlic, tomatoes, and red chili peppers cooked in olive oil.   The word "arrabbiata" literally means angry in Italian, which supposedly is a reference to the spiciness of the sauce.  If that's true, this recipe is more grumpy than angry - it's mildly to moderately spicy depending on how much crushed red pepper you add.  Additional depth of flavor comes from the paprika and optional pepperoncini without adding a lot of heat.  I just happened to have a jar of pepperoncini in my refrigerator (no idea why) so I added some, but didn't notice it in the finished dish so I listed it as optional.  I don't think it's worth buying an entire jar just for this recipe.

In addition to being spicy, Arrabbiata recipes often include black olives and capers to give it additional flavor and texture.  I particularly like the salty pop of the capers.

Because the sauce is relatively light, it's important to throw the cooked pasta into the pan with the sauce and toss it around for a couple of minutes.  This allows the sauce to evenly coat all of the pasta and infuse it with flavor.  I've heard Lidia Bastianich, one of the foremost Italian cooks in America, state that this step is so important that she wouldn't finish pasta any other way. I've discovered there's only one caution to this approach - add the cooked pasta to the sauce gradually unless you're very sure of your pasta-to-sauce ratio.  If you dump it all in at once and decide it was too much pasta for the amount of sauce, you're up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

This is a simple, fast healthy and light pasta dish that won't weigh you down but is perfect comfort food on a cold night.  And, it even qualifies for meatless Mondays.

Pasta Arrabbiata
Serves 4

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons drained capers, rinsed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
¼ - ½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes, depending on your preference
½ teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
2 tablespoons stemmed, seeded and minced pepperoncini (optional)
1 28-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes
1 pound hot cooked pasta
Grated Parmesan Reggiano

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the olives, capers, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, red pepper flakes, paprika, anchovy paste and pepperoncini and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and simmer until reduced slightly, about 20 minutes. Add 1-2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan to the sauce and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings.   

Friday, February 5, 2016

Vietnamese Shrimp Baguette

 Last Year's Post: Sea Bass in Papillote
Two Years Ago:   Raspberry Dark Chocolate Wonton Cups

If you like Vietnamese food you're sure to love this sandwich.  Similar to a Banh Mi (the famous pork-based Vietnamese sandwich - recipe here) this sandwich is served on a crisp and light baguette and includes several vegetables for crunch.  However, instead of meat in an Asian-type barbecue sauce, this sandwich has shrimp sauteed in an immensely flavorful and moderately spicy puree made from lemongrass, garlic, vinegar, serrano pepper, ginger and cilantro.  The result is lighter but punchier than the pork version, if that makes any sense.

Ever wondered how chefs make those beautiful carrots strips?  You can buy a peeler at Bed, Bath and Beyond (and I'm sure elsewhere) with serrated edges.  All you do is run it down the carrot for perfect strips every time.

And here's another interesting thing I learned along the way - the sushi chef at my local grocer informed me that the pink pickled ginger you can buy in jars is "the cheap stuff" and that sushi chefs use white pickled ginger (shown below on the upper left).  He sold me a small container of his secret stash.  Ask the next sushi chef you run across if you're interested, or you can find white pickled ginger in jars at some natural foods stores.

I find myself on the slippery slope of spiciness again.  Just how spicy is "moderately spicy"?  Enough so you notice some heat, but not enough to make your lips burn. And not enough to cover up the other flavors in the sandwich.  The original recipe that I adapted called for a bird's eye chile, which I couldn't find so I decided to substitute a serrano chile instead. Then I did a little research to figure out how they compare in heat.  I found this very handy chart that lists the heat level of pretty much every pepper you can think of, and was surprised to find that bird's eye chiles are quite a bit hotter than a serrano.  I think I'm glad I didn't find the bird's eye chile.

The sauce on the shrimp has bold flavors but the carrots, radishes, pickled ginger and cilantro all add flavor complexity and crunch as well.  The mayonnaise tones things down and adds creaminess, and of course there's that great crisp baguette.  All in all, I would call this one of the great sandwiches right up there with the Banh Mi.

printable recipe
Vietnamese Shrimp Baguettes
Makes 2 sandwiches
8 ounces peeled and deveined raw shrimp, tail shells removed
10 cilantro stems, divided
2 cloves garlic
1 serrano chile, stem cut off
2-3” lemongrass stalk
5-6 thin slices fresh ginger
1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
½ carrot, cut into thin matchsticks
2 tablespoons pickled ginger, chopped
1 green onion, thinly sliced
4 radishes, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 small baguettes

Chop the shrimp and set aside.

In a small food processor, combine 8 stems of cilantro, the garlic, chile with seeds, lemongrass, fresh ginger, fish sauce and rice vinegar and puree.  Toss the puree with the chopped shrimp.

Heat a nonstick frying pan over medium-high and add the oil, then add the shrimp mixture and cook, turning several times, for about 4 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through.

Split the baguettes and spread with mayonnaise.  Stuff with the shrimp and top with carrot, pickled ginger, green onion, radishes, and the leaves of the remaining 2 cilantro stems.