Saturday, April 24, 2010

Russets Vs. Reds: The Battle of the Spuds

So, here it is. I am including this recipe because I have had so many requests for it. I came by it over a very long and tedious process, but I am so happy with the results!
It all began many moons ago. I decided to try my hand at homemade au gratin potatoes. I LOVE au gratin potatoes, and, in accordance with my life motto, Everything must be better homemade! How could that little bag of powdery cheese, some dried potatoes, milk and butter taste better what was created at home?
I began trying different things. I put peeled, chopped russet potatoes, thinly sliced onions, minced garlic, whole milk, sour cream and plops of butter in a pan and baked it. After a very long time in the oven, it emerged. Good, but not what I wanted. Plus, I had to keep testing to see if the potatoes were done. Sometimes when I made it the potatoes were done, other times there were still some crunchy ones left.
I tried a cheese sauce, similar to the one I now use, but in the oven I still was left with potatoes that were not done, or, if they were done, it was an incredibly long, undetermined cooking time.
Another very disturbing factor was that I could not easily adjust the recipe. I am always cooking for a different amount of people and definitely do not like not being able to change amounts and cooking time with pretty standard results.

I had a huge fiasco one Easter. I had made my potatoes and they never finished cooking. They were way too crunchy, just gross, and I was mortified because everyone took one or two bites and left them on their plate. I wanted to apologize profusely, but I had just read that you are supposed to pretty much pretend like all the food tastes the way you want it to. I mean who wants someone to apologize all through the meal? It sounds like you are fishing for a compliment or something. And where do you draw the line? "I'm sorry, the rolls are not perfectly round and all the same size." "I'm sorry, this isn't as hot as I wanted it." "I'm sorry it took so long." "I'm sorry you don't like rice." "I'm sorry the cake is a little taller on one side." On and on and on...So I tried really hard not to do it. I just sat there and ate quietly, hoping for the meal to be over.
Then, I stumbled across this technique. I precooked the potatoes, made the sauce, assembled the two and popped them in the oven. This creamy, dreamy potato cheese ensemble is wonderful. The red potatoes retain their shape perfectly, and the sauce is surprisingly cheesy and oh so gooey. If you have cooked ham, dice it and throw it in with some broccoli and you have yourself a one meal deal! It can be done ahead of time and refrigerated, which makes it great for crowds or special occasions, and your potatoes are never, ever crunchy!

Au Gratin Potatoes

3 lbs red potatoes
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups whole milk
1 cup chicken stock or broth
1 cup grated sharp white Cheddar
2 cups plus 1 cup grated sharp yellow Cheddar
salt and pepper to taste

Peel potatoes and chop them into 1/2 inch pieces. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the potatoes, reduce the heat to medium low, and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes until done. Drain potatoes place in a 9x12 baking dish.
Preheat oven to 375.
Meanwhile, heat a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Raise the heat a bit and whisk in the flour and cayenne pepper. Whisk until the roux bubbles up, then cook for 1 minute more. Whisk in the milk and stock and raise the heat a bit higher to bring the sauce to a quick boil. Once it bubbles, drop the heat back down to a simmer and cook until sauce thickens, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the white Cheddar and 2 cups of the yellow Cheddar to the thickened sauce and stir to melt it, a minute or so. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce over potatoes and top with remaining cheese.
Place in oven to melt cheese and rewarm potatoes.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Little Trees

Asparagus is a funny vegetable. Some people love it, some people hate it. In my opinion, the people who hate it have been exposed to an overcooked, possibly overgrown, bitter-tasting stalk. This is not the asparagus I know. But that has not always been the case.
I was exposed to few vegetables as a child. We had canned green beans and corn, frozen mixed vegetables (a mix that included the loathed Lima bean) and an iceberg salad garnished the table on occasion. I may have met asparagus during those years, but I do not remember the encounter.
As a young adult I began experimenting with different vegetables. I loved the thrill I got when I loaded up those flimsy plastic bags in the produce aisle with beautiful red lettuces, waxy cucumbers, even glossy, deep purple eggplant found its way to my home. I tried many different things, just to try the flavors. Asparagus was one of those. I tried it, and left it. I am sure I overcooked it, and I remember deciding the bitter, earthly flavored vegetable was not for me. I tried it with hollandaise and a creamy white sauce, but I still couldn't get past the stringy stalk and soft tip.
About two years ago, I decided I would try it again. Actually, someone deposited a large sum into my care and I needed to do something with it before it went to waste. I made a cream of asparagus soup that I had just spotted in one of my magazines, and of course, that was a big hit. It tasted nothing of asparagus. I decided I would give it one more go, so I wrapped a few stalks in bacon and roasted them in the oven with some olive oil and salt and pepper. They were still very crunchy, and we actually ate them without too much difficulty. Shortly after, I roasted them again with tomatoes, again, they were consumed quite quickly.
Asparagus now graces our table quite frequently when it is in season. Recently, I have found a new twist I enjoy. I was reading in one of my favorite cooking magazine and they had an appetizer that consisted of thinly shaved asparagus, tossed with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, perched atop crostini and ricotta. It looked beautiful, a lovely spring starter that would be different than the usual fare. Sadly, ricotta is not a favorite, especially with my father, so I decided to adapt it a bit. I was entertaining some friends and my family was also coming for dinner, and I wasn't sure about my company's stand on ricotta, so I opted for cream cheese. As I shaved the asparagus, I thought perhaps I should toss it with the olive oil and salt and pepper first, then put it on top of the crostini. As I drizzled in the olive oil, I spied a lemon on the counter. Some sort of synapses occurred in my brain and I zested the lemon and tossed it and a squeeze of juice with the asparagus.

I piled it on a bit of bread to see how it tasted. Wonderful. The tangy lemon was so sassy with the cool cream cheese. The asparagus added just another layer of textures to the mix in its own special way. This appetizer is one that you and your friends will remember. It is surprisingly good. Even those who are not fans of asparagus will be pleasantly surprised. An added bonus: The vinaigrette is great on steamed asparagus, or tossed with pasta, rotisserie chicken and asparagus tips!

Asparagus salad on crostini

1 baguette
6 oz cream cheese
2 lbs. asparagus

1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper

Slice baguette into 1/2 inch pieces and bake at 350 until crunchy, turning once. Meanwhile, whisk the vinaigrette together in a non reactive bowl. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Wash the asparagus and shave the stalks with a vegetable peeler (reserve the tips for another use). Toss with vinaigrette and set aside. When toasts have cooled, spread them with cream cheese and top with asparagus salad.
Makes about 30.

Monday, April 5, 2010

This sauce (Caramel Sauce)

I was debating about what to write for the month of April. I was thinking about the wonderful produce that is beginning to fill the aisles of my favorite grocery stores. A thought kept popping into my mind that I just couldn't dismiss. I have to tell you about this sauce.
A few years ago I was working in the banquet department of a very French restaurant. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had. I had the privilege of being around good food all day long, trying new things, watching the chefs at work-I loved it! (Honestly, I took the job because I was hoping I would end up in the kitchen) I believe we had a very talented chef there, his version of many sauces and dishes were some of the best I have ever had. Anyway, one day we made bananas foster and I tried the sauce. It was amazing! I asked him what it was and he told me the THREE ingredients. It was unbelievably simple! Soon after I found myself attempting the sauce to show my husband. It was amazing. I made it for my whole family! The only complaint we could even scrape up was that on ice cream the sauce hardened a bit, which is understandable from a candy standpoint.
I adjusted and tried again. Of course each time we had no problem finishing it off, I just wanted to perfect the consistency. Finally, when making a syrup recipe, I applied a similar principle for boiling and it turned out perfectly.

Now, what I like to do with this recipe is to take some fruit, namely, nectarines, and cut them into slices. Dip the slices in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon, and fry them in butter until a nice little crust forms. Place four or five nectarines over a scoop of ice cream and add the syrup. Garnish with some freshly grated nutmeg and you are in for a real treat!

Caramel Sauce

1/2 cup of butter (1 stick) cut into pieces
1/3 cup apple juice
1 cup brown sugar

2 nectarines, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons cinnamon
2 Tablespoons butter (for frying)
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Combine ingredients in a saucepan over medium low heat, stirring occasionally until melted. Increase heat to high and boil for two minutes.
In the meantime, melt 1 Tablespoon of butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Combine granulated sugar and cinnamon. Dredge half the nectarine pieces and saute for about 2 minutes per side, until a nice, dark brown crust forms. Set aside and repeat with remaining pieces.
Place one scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl, top with nectarines and sauce. Enjoy!
Serves 4-6.

Variations: This sauce is also great with sliced bananas and ice cream, or like traditional bananas foster with crepes and bananas.
You could also grill the nectarines for a summertime treat!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Take in-Kung Pao Chicken

Panda Express is one of my husband's favorite 'fast food' places. I am usually not in the mood for it so if I suggest it or take it to him as a surprise he is always ecstatic. We always order Orange Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken. We rarely stray.
A few months ago I noticed that the Orange Sauce from Panda Express was available to purchase at Costco. Heaven on earth. Around the same time I saw a recipe in one of Martha Stewart's magazines for a light version of Kung Pao Chicken. I vowed to make it.

Of course, time passed and it was in the back of my mind but I just didn't get around to making it.
Then, that fateful night. I was going to make teriyaki chicken (my version) when I decided to make Kung Pao chicken. I looked up the recipe on the Internet and found Panda Express Kung Pao Chicken. I was so excited! I quickly jotted the recipe down and got started.
You begin by marinading the chicken in an egg and cornstarch mixture, which ends up making a coating on the chicken that is very similar to what you would find on meat at a Chinese take out restaurant. Then you combine your spices, and stir fry the meat with the spices. It is really simple and absolutely delicious!
Let me know if you like it.

Kung Pao Chicken

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1/3 cup water
2-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided use
12 whole dry chili peppers (smaller than 3 inches; if longer, cut in half)
1/3 cup diced green onion, white part only, in 1/2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground garlic
2 teaspoons crushed red chili pepper
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1/2 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 ounces dry roasted peanuts
2 zucchini, sliced into 1/2 inch slices and quartered

» Marinade:
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 egg
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Combine marinade ingredients. Add chicken; refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Combine vinegar, soy sauce and water; set aside.
Heat wok on high heat 10 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons oil and heat well. Remove chicken from marinade and add to wok. Stir-fry quickly, for about 60 seconds. Remove chicken and drain well.
Add the chili peppers to the pan and stir-fry until they darken. If the wok becomes too dry, add 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil.
Add green onions, ginger, garlic and crushed red chili pepper and zucchini to pan. Stir-fry for about 5 seconds. Return chicken to wok; stir soy sauce/vinegar mixture and add; stir until sauce boils, then add cornstarch mix to thicken.
Add sesame oil and peanuts.
Stir and fold until ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Serves 3.

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