Friday, January 25, 2013

Super Bowls for the Super Bowl

As Super Bowl Sunday XLVII makes its approach, all talk turns to the highly anticipated football spectacle.  Even those who avoid the entire preceding season will embrace the excuse this February 3rd to gather with friends in a cozy living room to view the most-watched broadcast and delve into a buffet of fun foods.

Personally, I am not a football fan.  The viewers’ Neanderthal behavior displayed by supposedly grown men, even touted shamelessly in public restaurants that display weekly games on numerous flat screen monitors throughout their establishment, is a mentality that I simply cannot relate to, nor can my husband, thankfully.  Oh, but wait, did someone say food?  Well, now, that’s different.  If food is involved, I am a willing participant of the Super Bowl gathering.

Whether hosting a living room full of barbarians in your own home or a guest to your brother-in-law’s home because he has the 85-inch television, keep in mind that the food is supposed to be fun.  Once again, juvenile mentality yields finger food.  But hey, finger food is fun, it’s easy and there’s a lot less dishware to clean up!   Oversized platters piled with spicy Buffalo chicken wings, nachos smothered in melted cheddar jack cheese and quesadillas are all popular fare for a Super Bowl spread.  Piping bowls of chili are also delved into with reckless abandon.  The most coveted game time snack is the humble dip.  Bowls of various styles of dips and plenty of chips will keep fans happy through the duration.

Get into the team spirit by selecting dishware and paper napkins in the teams’ colors.  This year that includes purple, black and gold for the Baltimore Ravens and red for the San Francisco 49ers.  

Cold dips can be made in advance, requiring no cooking.  Just mix and go, it doesn’t get easier than that.  Hot dips can be prepared in advance in the baking dish, stored in the refrigerator and then cooked at the last minute.  Serve a combination of both varieties, and try to select a few different styles.

As an added culinary bonus this year, celebrate the location of the Super Bowl’s hosting city of New Orleans by incorporating some Cajun munchies to the tasty lineup.  This can be as simple as frying up slices of Andouille sausage, sticking toothpicks into them and putting them out with a bowl of honey mustard dipping sauce.  A bowl of Cajun-spiced nuts would be perfect as well.  Swap out the chili this year in favor of bowls of seafood gumbo, or serve fried shrimp Po Boy sandwiches instead of the same old ham and American cheese hero.  Mix up some Hurricane cocktails and offer Abita craft beers from Louisiana – I recommend their Turbo Dog and Purple Haze brews.

Here are a few simple recipes to kick off your Super Bowl Sunday.  Most of these are served in bowls, but as an added bonus I give you my recipe for southwestern quesadillas.

4 avocados, pitted and peeled
2 tomatoes, seeded and cut into eighths
½ onion, coarsely chopped
4 cans of diced green chilies
¼ cup lime juice
1 ½ teaspoons salt

Okay, pay attention, this is really difficult: place all ingredients into a large food processor bowl and process until combined.  Pour into a serving bowl and serve with corn chips or tortilla chips.

Black Bean Dip
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
2/3 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons hot sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Once again, place all ingredients into a large food processor bowl and process until smooth.  Pour into a serving bowl, top with a thick layer of sour cream, leaving a 1-inch border of the dip visible around the edge, and serve with tortilla chips.

Cajun-Seasoned Crab and Spinach Dip
12 ounces crabmeat
16-ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed and well drained of liquid
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2/3 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon Cajun Seasoning
1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese or Swiss cheese

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Combine the crab, spinach, mayonnaise, sour cream and Cajun seasoning in a baking dish (a 1 ½ quart Corning dish works well).  Top with the cheese and place in the oven for about 25 minutes or until heated through and the cheese is melted.  Serve with crackers.

Blue Cheese Dip
2 cups sour cream
2 cups crumbled blue cheese (packed)
1 cup cream cheese, softened to room temperature
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon hot sauce

Place all ingredients in a food processor bowl until smooth.  Pour into a serving bowl.  Serve as an accompanying dipper for Buffalo wings and celery sticks.

Extra Crunchy Sweet & Spicy Almonds
½ cup honey
1 tablespoons orange juice
1 pound whole unsalted almonds
½ cup turbinado sugar (raw sugar)
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder (more if you really love heat!)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
1 tablespoon sea salt crystals

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  In a medium saucepan over low heat, warm the honey and the orange juice until the honey is thin and the two ingredients are combined.  Remove from heat.  Add the chili powder and salt, combine.  Add the almonds and toss to coat each nut.  Add the sugar and toss once again until the almonds have been coated with the mixture.  Spread the nuts in a single layer over a nonstick baking sheet.  Place in the oven for about 20 minutes, tossing the nuts once halfway through cooking time.  Remove from the oven and sprinkle with an additional tablespoon each of turbinado sugar and sea salt crystals.  Stir to combine and to loosen the nuts, as they will start to clump together as they cool.  Stir every few minutes until they have thoroughly cooled, then transfer them to a serving bowl.

1 package large size flour tortillas
1 pound chorizo sausage, chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
2 cans diced green chilies
1 pound Cheddar-Monterey Jack cheese
Sour cream
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced crosswise

In a skillet, fry the chorizo sausage over medium-high heat until cooked.  Add the red pepper and sautee for another two minutes.  Remove from heat.  In a clean skillet (I like cast iron for this one), place one tortilla.  Arrange some of the cheese on the tortilla, and then top with some of the sausage, pepper and chilies.  Cover with another tortilla.  Cook over medium-high heat until the underside starts to brown and the cheese starts to melt.  Carefully turn the quesadilla over and cook the other side.  Once the cheese is melted, slide the quesadilla from the skillet onto a cutting board.  Using a large, sharp knife cut the quesadilla into six wedges, just as you would a pizza.  With the help of a spatula, transfer the pieces to a serving plate, top each with a tiny dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of scallions and serve at once.

Of course, a Super Bowl party really doesn’t seem complete with a good, hearty chili.  Here’s my chili recipe, which can be made in advance and reheated just before the game starts.  Remember my trick for all entertaining scenarios: enjoy your own party by making a few offerings yourself and buying some high quality already prepared items as well.  For example, nothing beats homemade dips and chilies, but you can buy delicious cooked wings at many supermarket deli sections, just heat them up and serve with my blue cheese dip.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Bird In the Oven

One of the easiest ways to produce a winter meal is to simply have the oven do all of the work.  With just twenty minutes of prep time and then relaxing with a glass of wine as you catch up on Facebook commentary and emails, or watch an episode of your favorite show that you recorded, dinner is ready to be served an hour or two later.  The star of such a meal is the humble chicken, succulently juicy with a golden-brown skin that rivals that of summer sun-worshippers on the beach.  Roasted chicken is old-fashioned comfort food, reminiscent for some of Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house in days of yore, conjuring up Norman Rockwell’s family dinner images.

Admittedly, basic roast chicken can get boring very quickly.  When some people hear roast chicken, they envision a bland-looking bird seasoned with salt and pepper and perhaps basted with stock and melted butter.  This equates to a blank canvas highlighted with a couple of dabs of white paint as it sits on an artist’s easel.  That canvas is screaming for more; more colors, more strokes, more depth, more creativity.  Similarly, tasters of the aforementioned bird are clamoring for more flavors, textures and even colors.

The interior cavity of the chicken is a perfect little steam pot when the fowl is roasting away in a 450-degree oven.  When preparing the bird for its date with the oven, stuff it with flavor-boosting ingredients such as a quartered lemon or orange, a handful of peeled whole garlic cloves and bundles of fresh herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary or a combination.  As the juices of the chicken begin to release during the cooking process, these ingredients will steam and self-baste the interior of the bird with their flavors.  Once stuffed, tie the ends of the drumsticks tightly together to narrow the opening, thus holding that steam action inside the bird.

At the top of the breasts, one can carefully slip a finger or two under the skin of each breast, loosening it to create a pocket in between the skin and the meat.  Once the two pockets have been formed over the entire top of the chicken, you can now stuff more flavor enhancers underneath the skin.  Fresh sage leaves, basil leaves or rosemary sprigs are commonly used.  Another nice trick is to enlist the help of a pastry bag and pipe pesto into those pockets, gently pressing down on the bulge to evenly distribute the pesto throughout the pockets.

The surface needs some flavor now as well.  Rub the entire surface with a little extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle the bird generously with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper.  Sprigs of rosemary or thyme can be tucked under each wing, finely chopped herbs and/or finely grated lemon zest or orange zest may be sprinkled over the chicken.  Lastly, a splash of white wine and some chicken stock poured into the pan will be helpful for basting the chicken occasionally during the roasting process. 

One must-have in the kitchen when creating a roast chicken dinner is an extra large roasting pan.  The pan doesn’t need a rack or any other fancy accessories; just a basic stainless steel roasting pan from a reputable brand to ensure durability will do.  The extra-large size of the pan is to accommodate the rest of the meal; I did say let the oven do most of the work, didn’t I?

Once the chicken has been set in the center of the pan and sufficiently stuffed, rubbed and sprinkled, fill in the pan around the chicken with some vegetables.  Root vegetables are ideal because they can take the heat to roast in roughly the same amount of time as the chicken.  Carrots, parsnips, beets, fennel, turnips and rutabagas all work.  Butternut squash can also work when cut into larger chunks, or if added to the pan halfway through the chicken’s roasting time.  Add potatoes to the pan in addition to the vegetables, and then drizzle it all with extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  The entire pan is then covered with foil and relegated into a 450-degree oven.  Halfway through cooking time, remove the foil, stir the vegetables and continue to roast uncovered.

A three to four pound chicken will be cooked in roughly an hour to 90 minutes.  Larger specimens will take longer.  The other must-have for roasting any large bird or meat is a meat thermometer.  There are several styles available, and after going through three or four digital ones, my favorite is now a basic variation with a non-electronic dial.  When the thermometer probe is pierced into the thickest, meatiest part of the thigh, the temperature should read 180 for chicken when it is ready to eat.

All you will need to accompany this meal is perhaps a basic salad and some crusty bread.  I will often prepare a dinner like this in the morning, so that when the afternoon rolls around I need only to preheat the oven and slip the foil-covered pan from the refrigerator into the oven; dinner never feels so effortless on other nights.  Seasoning combinations and vegetable and starch selections are boundless.  Use up any odds and ends you find in your pantry and refrigerator.  One of my favorite recipes comes from an old Williams-Sonoma cookbook, for rosemary seasoned chicken that roasts with cubes potatoes.  Another hit is a recipe from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa), in which the chicken roasts with large homemade fresh bread croutons.  The bread toasts and also soaks up the flavorful juices.  I’ve come up with a perfect recipe for a one-pan roast chicken dinner to share with you below.

Herb Roasted Chicken

1 7-pound chicken
1 lemon, quartered lengthwise
2 sprigs plus 8 leaves fresh sage
2 sprigs fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Fresh cracked black pepper
2 fennel bulbs, each cut into eighths
1 bag baby-cut carrots
1 container baby Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes, quartered
2 large onions, peeled, cut into eighths lengthwise
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup white wine

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Remove the bag of giblets and neck from the inside of the chicken and either discard or set aside for use in making stock.  Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and set in a large roasting pan.  Place the lemon quarters, garlic cloves and sage sprigs inside the chicken cavity.   Loosen the skin on top of the chicken and slip 4 sage leaves under the skin on each breast.  Rub the chicken with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt, pepper and rosemary.  Mix and arrange the fennel, carrots, potatoes and onions around the chicken, filling the roasting pan.  Add the wine and stock, pouring evenly around the pan.  Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.  Cover with foil and roast for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil, gently stir the vegetables and return to the oven for another 45 minutes.  Begin checking the bird’s temperature every few minutes until the thigh reads 180-degrees; then remove from the oven and allow the chicken to sit for fifteen minutes before carving.

The best part about a whole roasted chicken can be the magic that you create with leftover meat.  Cut up any remaining chicken after dinner and use it in Chicken Corn Chowder, chicken pot pie, chicken tacos, chicken salad sandwiches and more.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ladles of Comfort

Winter is underway, which means that the temperatures are dropping to the tune of 'How Low Can You Go?' and snow is falling and winds gusts are calling.  It is that time of year once again, a time for hibernating within the warmth of home theaters and cozy media rooms, and for dining on heavier and heartier fare without guilt because the extra pounds can be concealed under bulky sweaters for the duration.

Nothing warms better than the aroma of a homemade soup simmering on the stove.  While a basic creamy asparagus soup or potato soup really only holds up as a first course, the heartiest soups can stand up as a meal.   A meal's balanced requisite protein, vegetable and carb sources are all offered in that one pot of winter goodness.

All soups begin with a stock as the liquid source.  If spending a Sunday afternoon at home with the family, consider making an extra large pot of stock for use in future soups.  The stock can be divided and frozen for easy retrieval when the cravings for soup abound.  A stock is simply water with added vegetables such as celery, garlic cloves, onions and carrots, seasonings such as sprigs of fresh herbs, whole peppercorns and sea salt, and a protein such as a turkey carcass, chicken wings or shrimp shells.  If you don't happen to have homemade stock available, a good quality stock from the supermarket can work just fine in a pinch.  Read the labels and be sure to choose one that lists only the same basic natural ingredients that you would use at home.  I like Kitchen Basics, but there are a few others.  When using store-bought stock, add salt sparingly to your soup recipe.

Once you have your stock, plan the remaining ingredients.  Stick to a theme or ethnicity and select ingredients accordingly.  Plan for vegetables, meat and carbs in the soup.  Carbs can be pasta, rice, potatoes, corn or beans.  Some vegetables need to simmer longer, such as carrots, while others, such as spinach or escarole, can be stirred in at the last minute until wilted.  Many soups begin by sautéing onions, garlic or shallots in olive oil or butter before adding the stock and remaining ingredients.

Whether preparing a soup or chowder, little is needed to accompany this one dish entree.  A simple green salad and an interesting bread, such as garlic toasts or cheesy rolls or Italian bakery bread studded with olives and rosemary are all you need.  Sorry, Atkins worshippers, soup demands bread with dinner like peanut butter demands jelly.

Try the recipes for my Mediterranean Roasted Eggplant Soup and Chicken corn chowder Here are three more recipes to try, starting with a first-course soup.  Once you make them and experience the big rewards from minimal labor, you'll abandon the mass-produced packaged soups in the cans.  So stock up on stock, and with a quick trip through the express lane of your supermarket you'll heat things up on those blustery days ahead.

Pot of Gold Potato Leek Soup

2 leeks, thoroughly rinsed to remove sand, chopped
4 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons butter
4-5 cups chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
4 teaspoon snipped fresh chives
butter for garnish

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a stock pot over medium heat.  Add the leeks and saute for about five minutes.  Stir in the potatoes.  Add 4 cups of the stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender.  Transfer the mixture to a blender container and puree until thick and smooth.  Return the soup to the pot and warm through, gradually adding more stock only if the soup is too thick and seasoning to taste with the salt and pepper.  Ladle into four bowls, top each serving with generous pat of butter and a teaspoon of the chives.  Makes four first-course servings.

Italian Wedding Soup
¾ pound ground beef
1/3 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 large egg
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock
½ cup acini pepe pasta
2 small heads escarole, coarsely torn

Combine beef, 1/3 cup of the cheese, breadcrumbs, egg, garlic, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl until thoroughly blended.  Lightly oil your hands with olive oil, then roll the meat mixture, a tablespoon at a time, into small meatballs. 

In a large stockpot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and sauté for a minute.  Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a low boil and add meatballs.  Allow to cook for approximately ten minutes, then reduce heat to a simmer.  Add pasta and escarole and simmer for another five minutes until the pasta is cooked and the escarole is wilted.  When serving, sprinkle the top of each serving with additional grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and serve with warmed crusty Italian bread or focaccia on the side.  Makes four main-dish servings.

Five Bean Soup with Ham
1 onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, sliced crosswise
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
8 cups vegetable broth
½ of 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can black-eyed peas, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can dark kidney beans, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can light red kidney beans, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 pound fully cooked ham steak, diced
Freshly cracked black pepper

In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, sauté onion for about five minutes.  Add all remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for about one hour.   Makes 6 main-dish servings.