Sunday, July 31, 2011

Caprese Salad, Revisited

Two years ago I posted a recipe for Caprese salad, a cold salad made from tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. I always like to try new recipes and this version turned out so much better than the first, that I thought I’d share it with you.

Caprese salad is a wonderful cold side dish for hot summer days. It’s bright flavors make a nice change from traditional green salads. It’s at it’s best with fresh tomatoes ripe from the vine, but store-bought ones can be used nicely, as well. Although I use Roma tomatoes in this recipe, you can easily substitute cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, or any firm tomato from your garden.

Using fresh mozzarella cheese is vital for the success of this recipe. The blocks you find in the grocer’s refrigerator section aren’t going to cut it. Go to the deli counter and find the round balls of fresh mozzarella. They are tender and creamy, not hard and dry.

Equipment needed
Cutting board
Paring knife
Chef’s knife
Mixing bowls
Salad spinner
Fine-mesh strainer
Small saucepan
Rubber spatula
Measuring cups and spoons
Garlic press (optional)

8 Roma tomatoes (or 2 pints of cherry or grape tomatoes)
1 large clove garlic
1 Tbl balsamic vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese.
1/2 tsp sugar
3 Tbl dried basil (or 1 cup chopped fresh basil)
Ground black pepper

Core the tomatoes with a paring knife. Quarter lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Toss the tomatoes, sugar, and 1/4 tsp salt together in a mixing bowl, cover, and let stand for 30 minutes. This helps season the tomatoes, and draw out some of their excess liquid.

In the meantime, mince the garlic using a garlic press or chef’s knife. Cut the mozzarella into 1/2-inch chunks.

Transfer the tomatoes and any accumulated liquid to a salad spinner and spin to remove seeds and liquid. Return the tomatoes to the mixing bowl and pour the tomato liquid through a fine mesh strainer over a small saucepan to remove the seeds and reserve the liquid. You should have about 1/2 cup of extracted juice.

Add the vinegar and garlic to the saucepan with the tomato juice. Turn the heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 5-7 minutes.

Cool the tomato juice mixture to room temperature. Whisk in the extra-virgin olive oil. Add the tomato juice mixture to the mixing bowl with the tomatoes. Add the cheese and basil then toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 4 – 6 servings.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Food Joke Friday - Ordering Soft Drinks

A girl walks into a restaurant and asks the waiter, “How much is a soft drink?”

“One dollar,” the waiter replies.

“How much is a refill?” the girls asks.

“The first one is free,” the waiter says.

“Oh, good,” the girls says. “I’d like a refill, please.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Big, Chewy, Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

My friend and fellow food blogger Mark Hansen once told me he likes chewy cookies, not crunchy ones. Have I got a chocolate cookie for you, my friend. These cookies are big and totally tasty. Using melted butter, along with extra egg yolks, keeps these cookies rich and chewy. We use dark chocolate chips in this recipe, but you can use semi-sweet chocolate chips, white chocolate, or even butterscotch chips if you’d like to.

Equipment needed
Small saucepan
Measuring cups and spoons
Mixing bowls
Rimmed baking sheet
Parchment paper (optional)
Rubber spatula
Hand mixer or standing mixer (recommended)
Ice cream scoop
Cooking rack

2 sticks butter (16 Tbl)
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 additional egg yolks
1 Tbl vanilla extract
1 (12-ounce) bag dark chocolate chips (about 2 cups)


Melt the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally as it melts. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 325 °F with two racks set to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions.

Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. You can use cooking spray, instead, but I find the bottoms of the cookies aren’t as likely to overcook with parchment paper and clean up is easier.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, beat together the melted butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well blended. You can use either a hand mixer or a standing mixer. You can also a wooden spoon or stiff whisk, but it will take longer.

Beat in the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla until just combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beaters with a rubber spatula as needed.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture a little at a time until all is combined, about 30 to 40 seconds. Do not over mix. Mix in the chocolate chips until evenly incorporated.

Using a medium ice cream scoop (about 1/3 cup), scoop rounded balls of dough onto the two parchment lined baking sheets, 2 1/2 inches apart. Bake until the edges are golden and the centers are soft and puffy, about 20 minutes. Rotate and switch the baking sheets, from one rack to the other, halfway through, to ensure even baking.

Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes. The cookies may not look done to you. Take them out, anyway. They’ll continue cooking and firm up on the baking sheet as they cool.

Serve warm or transfer to a wire cooling rack and let cool completely.

Makes 16 to 20 large cookies.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Roasted Bell Peppers, the Easy Way

There’s no reason to pay for a jar of roasted bell peppers when you can make them easily and affordably at home. All it takes is a good baking sheet, your broiler, and a bit of attention. Cutting the peppers and removing the seeds before roasting makes it easier to remove the skin, and lets you avoid rinsing them. Washing them removes much of the flavor, not just the skin.

Equipment Needed
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Rimmed baking sheet
Aluminum foil
Mixing bowls
Plastic wrap

4 sweet bell peppers, red or green
Extra-virgin olive oil


Cut 1/4 inch from the top and bottom of each pepper and gently remove the stem from the lobe.

Lay the pepper on it’s side, and cut through one side the pepper, horizontally, rolling it as you cut, to remove the seeds and ribs in one fell swoop. Cut the pepper strips as needed to get them to lay flat.

Adjust the oven rack so that it is 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches from the boiler element. Head the broiler (500 °F) for 5 minutes. If your oven rack is more than 3 1/2 inches from the broiler, set an upside down rimmed baking sheet on it to raise the level.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Arrange the pieces of sweet pepper on the baking sheet, skin side up. Flatten them as needed. Cook under the broiler until the skin is spotty brown and puffed up, about 9 minutes. Rotate the sheet halfway through cooking to ensure even browning.

Transfer the hot peppers to a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let them steam for at least 10 minutes or longer if they need to cool more so they can be easily handled. Peel and discard the skin from each piece.

The peppers can be stored in an airtight container for use in other recipes, but can also be served as an appetizer. Slice the peppers into strips, drizzle a little olive oil over them, and season with salt to taste.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How to Make Garlic Croutons

I used to think of croutons and just dried bread squares. Let's face it. That's what they are. Most of the time the croutons I’d get in restaurants were okay, but once in a while I’d come across things that would be best used in slingshots to kill small rodents. Yes, they were that hard. Freshly made, however, croutons can be a revelation, adding a wonderful crunch and additional flavor to green salads and are a must for a good Caesar salad.

Croutons are simple to make at home. The results are well worth it, too. Certainly they’re better than the flavorless cubed formations you normally find in the supermarket. Baguettes are the classic choice for making croutons, but almost any type of bread will do. I like using homemade wheat bread. Leftover stale bread works great, too.

Equipment needed
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Garlic press (optional)
Serrated slicing knife
Mixing bowls
Rubber spatula (optional)
Rimmed baking sheet

2 large cloves garlic
1/2 loaf of sliced bread
3 Tbl olive oil
1/4 tsp salt

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 °F.

Peel and mince the garlic cloves using a garlic press of chef’s knife. Using a serrated slicing knife, cut the bread slices into 1/2-inch thick strips, then cut each strip into 1/2-inch cubes. You should end up with about 4 cups of bread cubes.

Whisk the olive oil, minced garlic, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add the bread cubes and toss with your hands or a rubber spatula until completely coated. Spread the bread evenly onto a rimmed baking sheet. Bake on the center rack until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Allow the croutons to cool before serving.

Makes 4 cups of croutons.

Once made, croutons can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week, although I prefer eating them the day they are made.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Power of Bacon

Want to get a man to salivate? Say, “bacon.” It works on women, too. The only people this doesn’t work on is die hard vegetarians. Oh, Jews and Muslims aren’t going drool like a mad labradoodle, either. They don’t eat piggies. Mormons do, though. So does just about everyone else.

In case you’ve been living at a vegan commune, bacon is cured pig meat. It is highly salted, either by brine or dry pack, and usually smoked. It can be made from several cuts of meat, but mostly from the side and back cuts, except in America. Here in the US, it is almost entirely made from pork belly. Outside of the US this would be known as steaky, fatty, or American style bacon.

While other countries* use bacon, I think America has raised it to a national obsession. It’s become America’s meat. It’s cooked and cured differently in different countries, but here in America bacon is almost always smoked. The Virginia House-Wife,  published in 1824 and thought to be one of the earliest American cookbooks, mentions nothing about unsmoked bacon. Historical evidence seems to suggest that bacon making was one of the few cooking tasks that wasn’t gender specific. Either sex could be makin’ bacon.

Bacon can be cooked any number of ways: smoked, boiled, fried, grilled, even microwaved. It is wonderful enough to eat by itself, and versatile enough to be used as a flavoring agent for other dishes. It’s highly addictive nature is probably due to the large number of umami (savory) factors in it, giving it a high flavor profile.

In spite of America’s bacon mania, there’s one thing most American’s have quit doing, using bacon fat. Like most animal fats, pig fat liquefies, becoming bacon drippings when heated. If the meat is uncured, it becomes lard when cooled.  From cured meat, such as bacon, it becomes rendered bacon fat.

I recommend saving your bacon fat.  This may seem strange in today’s hyper-health conscious world, but don’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Rendered bacon fat is very flavorful and can be used for a variety of cooking purposes. In Southern cooing, rendered bacon fat is used as a base for cooking and as an all-purpose flavoring. You’ll find it in everything from gravy to cornbread to salad dressing. If I don’t have any bacon on hand, I’ll use it to add flavor to split pea soup and other dishes, instead of the regular oils or butters used to cook them.

The idea isn’t super healthy, I admit, but it does save some money and adds interest to cooking. It appeals to the frugal side of me. My mother didn’t do it much, but my grandmother and great-grandmother did. You just didn’t waste anything in those days. It was too hard to get in the first place.

Rendering bacon fat is easy. Next time you cook bacon, just pour off the accumulated fat, run it through a fine mesh strainer, and let it cool. You can store it in the refrigerator in an airtight container for several weeks, or several months in the the freezer.

*What American’s think of as Canadian bacon is actually back bacon, smoked or unsmoked bacon cut from boneless eye of pork loin

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mexican Rice Recipe

Coming up with side dishes for taco night can be tough, even if you include a salad. A favorite of mine has always been Mexican rice. I fooled around with quick ways of making this dish for years, but they were always sub-standard. This recipe, modified for my panty from an America’s Test Kitchen recipe, is the bomb. It uses a trick I first learned by watching Rick Bayless, cooking the rice in the oven.

Equipment Needed
Measuring cups and spoons
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Garlic press (optional)
Food processor or blender
Dutch oven or large saucepan
Long handled spoon

2 cups white rice
1 can diced tomatoes, 15 oz. can
1 yellow onion
4 cloves garlic
3 tsp chili powder
1/3 cup canola oil
2 cups chicken broth
1 Tbl tomato paste
3 Tbl dried parsley
2 tsp lime juice

Place the rice in a strainer and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Open the canned tomatoes and drain them, reserving the juices. Peel and quarter the onion. Peel and mince the garlic. Set each aside.

Put an oven rack into the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 °F.

Add the onion and tomatoes to the blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Add back only enough of the reserved juice to make exactly 2 cups. Remove extra and either discard or save for use in something else.

Heat 1/3 cup of oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the rice and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. The rice will start to become lightly golden. Stir in the garlic and chili powder. Cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Stir in the tomato mixture, broth, tomato paste, and 1 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and bake until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Stir once halfway through cooking.

Remove from the oven and fluff the rice with a fork. Mix in the lime juice and dried parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 6 servings.

You can add additional chili power or a few dashes of Tabasco sauce if you want more heat.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Black Bean Soup

I really like black beans. Because of that, we've got a lot of canned black beans in our food storage, and I mean lots. Enough that I’m not sure we’re going to eat them all before the expiration date. Consequently, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to make them. Why not a black bean soup?

This recipe for black bean soup is easy to make, and pretty tasty. It relies on chiles to kick the flavor up a bit, so try not skimp thinking it will be too hot. Fortunately, it doesn’t use too many. If you want to make this a vegetarian dish, substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock.

Equipment Needed
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Garlic press (optional)
Measuring cups and spoons
Dutch Oven or large sauce pot
Blender or food processor

1 yellow onion, chopped
1 jalapeno chile, seeds removed, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 15 oz. cans black beans
1 Tbl canola oil
2 tsp chili powder
1/8 to 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
4 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
2 Tbl fresh lime juice
Parsley or cilantroMa to garnish
Salt as needed

Drain and rinse the black beans in a colander. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large sauce pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, jalepeno, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Cook about 5 minutes, or until softened. Stir in the chili powder and cayenne pepper. Cook for one minute more to bloom the spices. Stir in the beans, broth, water, and 1/2 tsp salt. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Process three cups of the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth. (Be careful, it’s hot.)  Return the pureed soup to the pot. My preference is to use a hand blender and process until mostly smooth. Add up to 1/2 cup more of water, if you think it’s too thick. Return to a simmer.

Remove from the heat. Add the lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro.

You can also garnish with sour cream, minced red onion and/or diced avocado, if you’d like.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cauliflower – Brussel Sprout Gratin

My kids love brussel sprouts and cauliflower. It’s my wife’s fault. I take no claim to such strange behavior. I like them, but not enough to go crazy over them. Because I tend to dote on my little mutants, though, I cook brussel sprouts and cauliflower from time to time.

A few weeks ago, I found myself with a small head of cauliflower and about a pound of brussel sprouts that needed to be used. Not enough of either one for a proper dish, but combined … well, I just might have something. What about a vegetable gratin? I think the results were tasty, and my family certainly enjoyed them enough that there weren’t any leftovers.

This dish uses frozen brussel sprouts because I can’t often get fresh ones at my local grocer. If you use fresh ones, par-boil them before using in the recipe.

Equipment Needed
Cutting board
Small saucepanFood processor or blender
Dutch oven or other large pot
12-inch SkilletWhisk
Glass baking dish
Garlic press (optional)
Rasp grater or micro-plane
Paring knife
1 small head cauliflower
1 pound frozen brussel sprouts
1/2 yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
4 Tbl butter
4 slices quality sandwich bread
1 Tbl all-purpose flour
1 cup plain yoghurt
1/2 cup milk
1 /2 tsp dried thyme
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch cayenne pepper
Salt and ground black pepper

Remove the leaves and core of the cauliflower and cut into florets the same size as the brussel sprouts to promote even cooking, about 1-inch pieces. Peel and mince the onion. Peel and mince the garlic. Grate the cheese with a small rasp grater or micro-plane. Remove the brussel sprouts from the freezer and set aside. Par boil them if using fresh ones.

Placing a cooking rack in the center position, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

For the Crumb Topping
You can use already made bread crumbs if you want, but making them fresh isn’t hard and give great results.

Melt 2 Tbl butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Put the bread slices into a food processor, along with the melted butter 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp ground black pepper. Pulse about times to create bread crumbs and combine. Set aside.

For the Vegetables
Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large cooking pot or Dutch oven. Add 1 Tbl salt. Add the caulflower florets to the water and boil until most tender, about 4 minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process, and let drain fully.

For the sauce
Melt the remaining 2 Tbl butter in a 12 inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook an addition 30 seconds until fragrant. Stir in the flour to coat. Whisk in the yoghurt and milk and bring the whole to a boil. Add 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, thyme, nutmeg, cayenne, 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp ground black pepper. Remove from the heat.

Gently stir the cauliflower and brussel sprouts into the yoghurt mixture. Transfer to a 9 x 9 inch, or other medium sized baking dish. Spring the top evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan and the bread crumb mixture. Bake until golden brown with the sauce bubbling around the edges, about 12 minutes.

Makes 6 servings.