Thursday, August 25, 2011

Something Fishy's Going On In the Kitchen!

With summer's end not so far on the horizon, I decided to enjoy some seafood salads this week.  When all thoughts typically are on weekends spent on the shorelines, shellfish especially is so satisfying in the summer months when combined with the season's fresh vegetable bounty in a chilled main dish salad.  In the northeast the classic lobster roll is a favorite, lobster and celery combined with a dressing of mayonnaise, lemon juice and a little cayenne pepper, served with fresh lettuce on a roll.  Accompany that with a salad of grilled summer vegetables, some gourmet potato chips and a cold beer or freshly squeezed lemonade and you've got a perfect beach day lunch.  That's my plan for this weekend, although with an impending hurricane fast approaching it's looking more and more like it will be a huddle at home with the family and some movies kind of lunch instead.  Ah well, can't control the weather, but we can still always eat very well!

Last night I purchased some shrimp from the fishmonger, and made a refreshing Asian salad.  I simply boiled them with some spaghetti.  Once drained, while they cooled, I cut up some cucumber, carrots and scallions, and made a dressing with peanut oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and chili-garlic sauce.  When all the ingredients were combined and introduced to our palates, the flavors were the perfect marriage.  Substantial enough to serve alone, all we needed was a good craft brew to wash it down, and some fresh mango to close the meal.

The third purchase I made from my fish market friends was a pound of crab.  Tonight, I'm making a main dish salad once again, this time a crab and potato salad which I have finally perfected.  Potato salad, seafood, fresh farm stand veggies, what could be more summery than that?


1 pound cooked crab meat
2 pounds red new potatoes, quartered, boiled until tender, drained and cooled
1/4 pound green beans or sugar snap peas, blanched, drained, cooled
4 stalks celery, sliced crosswise
1 bunch scallions, sliced crosswise
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

In a large bowl combine the crab, potatoes, green beans or sugar snap peas, scallions and tomatoes.  For the dressing, in a smaller bowl, combine remaining ingredients.  Add the dressing to the crab mixture and stir to coat.  Serves 2-3.

Once again, this is dinner.  Add a pint glass of beer, cut up some watermelon, and this concludes another summer seafood salad meal.

This all went very quickly and easily.  The secret was to buy lobster meat which had already been cooked, same with the crab meat; only the shrimp had to be peeled and boiled.  In one pot, one after the other, I boiled the shrimp, the spaghetti, the potatoes and the green beans.  While all of this boil for less toil and less trouble was going on, I chopped any vegetables that needed to be chopped for all three salads.  While the cooked ingredients cooled I whipped up the three dressings.  So for today and for this weekend, much of the work is done, leaving more time for other pursuits ... such as locating flashlights, radios, batteries, and all of that fun stuff we'll need for a weekend of high winds, no power and enough rain fall to create our very own surf right here in our backyard.  Hey, at least if the power does indeed go out, we do have plenty charcoal on deck to grill up all those meats in our freezer.  Until then, we'll enjoy some seafood sensations and summer flavors as we watch the tide rise ... surf's up!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Harvest In a Pot

So tonight I wanted to make a ratatouille, which is basically a ragu of summer vegetables which originated in the Provencal region of France.  The basic recipe is comprised of eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, all simmered with olive oil.  I've made this dish countless times since I first learned to cook.  Mom used to present it often at the table, so like all good French mothers she handed it over.  And like any good French daughter and new fiancee, I conjured up the dish on a seemingly ancient gas range in the first home Brian and I ever shared.  I presented the plate of this colorful concoction to him, with a nice baguette.  The response: that's really good, but is that all there is for dinner?  Where's the meat??  I do like to try to have one meatless dinner a week, but apparently this dish was not going to pass muster on such evenings unless I tweaked the recipe, a lot.  Ratatouille is certainly a prefect side dish for any Mediterranean meal, but I really love it as a main dish.

First, here is my version of the original recipe, sans meat, followed by a couple of creative ways I came up with to bulk up the meal:


4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
2 onions, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium eggplant, cut into large cubes
3 zucchini, thickly sliced
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, coarsely chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped

Heat the olive oil in a 7-quart dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion and saute until translucent.  Add the garlic, saute for another minute.  Add the eggplant, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant starts to brown.  Add all remaining ingredients and stir to combine.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour.  For a saucier texture, use a lid.

From there, some ideas for serving that I've come up with include:
- adding a can of chick peas and a cup of pitted kalamata olives to the pot, then serving over a bed of couscous
- placing a broiled portobello mushroom cap on top of a bed of wilted spinach and then ladeling the ratatouille over top.

This is a recipe that just screams to be played with, and is friendly on the ingredients.  Try adding whatever you have on hand, and substitute.  If you don't have a green pepper but you have a red one, no problem.  Want to try using white eggplant instead?  Go ahead.  Try using only half of the zucchini and substitute the other half with yellow squash.  It's all good, get creative.  The ratatouille police will not storm your kitchen and cart you away in handcuffs, I promise!  Although they may come knocking at your door with their plates held out.

And the final incarnation of my ratatouille, the one which is presently simmering on the stove, the aromas permeating the whole house, is one which gets a big thumbs-up from Brian, one which your carnivorous other half will heartily indulge in:


Use the above recipe, plus eight chicken drumsticks.  First, sprinkle the drumsticks with salt and pepper. Place in the heated olive oil and brown all sides of the chicken.  Remove chicken and set aside.  Proceed to follow the above recipe, starting with sauteeing the onions.  When adding the last ingredients, also add the chicken.  Stir so that the chicken doesn't all just sit on top.  Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for an hour.  (serves 3-4)

While I have not yet tried it, I'm willing to bet that browning some Italian sausage instead of the chicken would be fantastic also.  Either way, I recommend serving the ratatouille with some good bread or rolls.

Ratatouille is an excellent way to help utilize all those end-of summer vegetables harvested from your garden.  I only plant herbs in my garden, as we have too many hungry furry guests in my area to have any produce thrive.  For tonight's dinner, I visited my local farm stand and purchased all of the necessary vegetables, all grown locally, very fresh, colorful and flavorful.  The herbs I gathered from my own crop.  While I was at the farm stand, I also found some luscious locally grown blackberries to pick on later this evening.  The rest of tonight's repast: an arugula salad with homemade lemon-olive oil dressing, herbed rolls, and a bottle of peach wine from a Long Island winery.  As I always say, summer is the time to relish in fresh produce, and a good time to help support your local growers as well.  So here is yet another way to incorporate some of those gorgeous garden gems into your next meal.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dinner: Starring...

When making plans for a dinner menu, so many people make the mistake of taking on too much by planning on an entire menu of complex courses.  With everyone so busy today with jobs and household responsibilities, to tackle a meal of three to five outlandish and time-consuming courses is no way to de-stress after a hectic day.  If you decide on your next day of freedom from work to spend much of it in the kitchen cooking up a culinary magazine worthy spread so you can feel like a chef-star, have a blast.  When it comes to preparing the weekday family meal, however, I find the more realistic, and less frantic pulling out hair approach, is to put some effort into one course which will stand out as the star of the meal, and keep the remaining courses simpler.  Tonight's dinner  was a prime example of this tactic.  I made simple oven-baked lemon and oregano chicken, which is nothing more complicated than combining equal parts of lemon juice and olive oil, basting meaty chicken pieces, such as thighs and breasts, with the mixture, sprinkling generously with salt, pepper and oregano and baking at 350 degrees for an hour.  What could be easier?  By reserving some of the lemon-olive oil mixture and repeatedly brushing more onto the chicken periodically throughout the baking time, the flavor really shines.  The focal point of tonight's dinner, however, is the accompanying hearty salad, which was a colorful panzanella featuring some of the best summer bounty from the farm stand.  This was where some work came in, but you can pretty much get through it while the chicken is partaking in its sauna treatment in the oven.  Since the salad comprises a vegetable and a carb, it's substantial enough to serve alongside the chicken, add a bottle of wine, and that's a perfect summer meal.

Panzanella is basically a bread salad which originated in Florence, Italy.  Traditionally it was a way of using up the day-old Italian bread.  In its original incarnation, it was simply cubed bread and chopped onions.  Admittedly that doesn't sound so appealing to me.  The dish was later transformed to incorporate tomatoes with the bread, and this is the basic formula which stuck over the years, thankfully.  If you wanted to make the most basic panzanella, it should include bread, tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar.  Panzanella is a way to use up what you have on hand, and modern day recipes incorporate just about everything in your garden.  You can add cucumbers, bell peppers, chilled cooked eggplant cubes would be nice, even olives, fresh basil, capers and cheese are often used.  As long as you have your bread, tomatoes and vinaigrette, the rest is up to you.  Use what you like and what you have on hand that needs to get used up.


3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 loaf of Italian bread, cut into medium-sized cubes
1 pint of ripe cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 yellow pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, sliced into half-inch slices
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh basil, julienned
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced

In a large skillet, heat three tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat.  Add the bread cubes, sprinkle generously with salt.  Sautee until the bread browns slightly and is lightly toasted.  Set aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, onion, basil and olives.  For the dressing, in another bowl whisk together remaining ingredients.  Add the dressing to the vegetables, toss to combine.  When ready to serve, add the bread cubes and toss to combine. Serves 3-4.

There's something satiating about biting into a freshly-make crouton of bread that is laced with olive oil and garlic and vinegar.  The vibrant ripe tomatoes and other brilliantly-toned summer produce make panzanella a gorgeous palette for your palate.  And it's a perfect way to make the most of the summer garden fare your local farm stand has to offer.