Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Food to the Rescue


In general, I think about food a lot. From what complicated recipe do I want to try this weekend, to what food and health trends would make good topics for a magazine article. All this thinking about food, and of course cooking it, tends to provide plenty of material for this blog.

In the past, I've had backlogs of recipes to post, but not now. Some reasons for that are summer travel and recipe development work for magazines that can't yet be shared with the world. But, one of the biggest reasons for the lack of blog material is that I've been really busy thinking about non-food related things lately. With presidential campaign mania and Wall Street insanity, how could I not be fretting about other things?

I've taken to spending my web-surfing time reading the New York Times - but the Politics and Opinion sections, rather than Dining & Wine. What the heck?! I've even been spending less times reading food blogs, and seeing all the numbers of unread posts on my feed reader going up each day makes me feel like I'll never catch up.

So, today I thought of a small, but possibly useful exercise to get food back on the brain. Here are the main things that have been consuming me lately and a corresponding food-related solution:

1) The national financial crisis - Cash is king so save money with budget-friendly meals like Smoky Lentils with Sweet Potatoes and Black-Eyed Pea Stew.

2) Splenda might be the antichrist (if a Sugar Association-funded study is to be believed) - Seriously, although actually food-related, this is not what I needed to see in the Times today. I love Splenda. Luuuuve it. It's not so hot for baking, but I've been dumping it in coffee, tea and oatmeal for years now. It can't be evil. But I am slightly more motivated to check out some of those supposedly more natural sweeteners I've heard about recently, like Sweet Leaf.

3) The Mediterranean diet is becoming obsolete in the Mediterranean - And according to the Times article, kids in Greece are eating mac n' cheese for dinner instead of grilled veggies and whole grain bread dripping with olive oil. Save one of the world's healthiest diets by serving Whole Wheat Spagetti with Swiss Chard, Red Onion and Pine Nuts.

4) Not doing enough blog care-taking - namely about keeping my recipe index up to date. It's so easy to do but I'm behind. You remember the recipe search feature, right? You can plug in a key work and/or search by course. Mike built it for me, and it's awesome! Solution: by the time you read this, it will be totally up to the minute!

4) And finally, The Big One - Who will win the smackdown on November 4 (you're registered, right?)? Will the next president fix health care, the economy and the housing market? Will moose replace turkey as the game meat of choice for a cherished American holiday? To remedy these fears, I won't wait till the holiday to support the Thanksgiving bird. I can make Turkey Lasagna with Eggplant and Spinach (seen above) or my Favorite Smoky Turkey Chili. And I'll be sure to enjoy them with a nice cold Sam Adams, one of favorite domestic beers, to dull my senses to the constant election media coverage.

So, are any other foodies out there finding it hard to focus lately? Has CNN replaced the food network as your must-see TV? And, like me, do you often turn to old favorites instead of trying new recipes when life gets crazy?

Monday, September 15, 2008

More Fig Recipes!

Since fig season is in full swing, I'm directing you to a story I wrote for National Public Radio online (npr.org), for their Kitchen Window Column. It's no secret that I LOVE fresh figs, so I was very happy to do a bit of research and write about them.

Of course, there are 3 brand new recipes that you'll only find on NPR, so head over for:
  • Fig and Chicken Kebabs with Rosemary
  • Fig and Wheatberry Salad
  • Fig Clafouti
All three are really simple, so they're a cinch to make, and the flavor of your fresh figs is the major focus. The kebabs are actually a take off on the nectarine kebabs I posted a few weeks ago, so try out this new variation. The clafouti is a really easy, yet prettily French, homestyle dessert you can make and eat anytime of day. It's often done with cherries or plums, but figs are a great new twist.

I also did a fun podcast to go along with the story, which you can download here.

What have you been doing with fresh figs this year? Leave a comment and let me know!


Monday, September 08, 2008

Quick Refrigerator Fig Jam

After I posted my last entry on Vietnamese Chicken and Cabbage Salad, I realized I did two cabbage recipes in a row. It's odd because the salad and the Cabbage-Radish Slaw are probably the only two cabbage recipes on the blog, if memory serves me.

And it's not as if we had a glut of cabbage and needed to find ways to use it. The back to back cabbage recipes were pure coincidence. But, I will admit that all this cabbage noshing has given me a greater appreciation for the vegetable. Try cooking it just like you would any hearty green, like kale or collards. I mixed some extra cabbage with some extra kale, blanched them, then sauteed the whole lot with garlic, soy sauce and fish sauce -- really tasty!

So, after that long introduction, I wanted to make sure to post a recipe that's totally unrelated to cabbage cuisine. I've done traditional canning before, which resulted in some delicious fig preserves, about two years ago. I almost did it again this year, but then I decided to make my life a lot simpler and go for quick and easy gratification.

Finding this recipe that Mark Bittman wrote for the New York Times a few years ago, got me motivated. That and a sale on figs at my supermarket. All you do is chop up your figs, add a little sugar and let the figs' own pectin work in your favor. The only difference between this quick jam and traditional preserves is that this one is fast to make, and should be consumed within about a week. One pound of figs will make about one and a half cups of jam. It's also a lot easier to get your hands on a pound of figs than on the four pounds or more you'd need to make the canning process worth it.

This makes a chunky jam that's great on bread or scones. You could also stir in some toasted nuts and serve it with cheese; add sauteed onions cooked with some red wine to create a sort of chutney for roasted pork or chicken; or spread it on a toasted prosciutto sandwich. Or eat it all by itself. If you've never made jam or preserves, this is the can't-possibly-be-easier method for you!

Quick Refrigerator Fig Jam
Adapted from Mark Bittman's recipe in The New York Times

Bittman gives a few good suggestions and variations in his story, plus recipes for other summer fruit, so give it a read. I used a mixture of Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Calimyrna figs for my jam. Use a single variety or any combination you want. While I hate to cook a perfect fig, jam is an ideal way to use fruit that may have been left on the tree too long, or not long enough.

Update: You can scale up this recipe easily. I made a version with all Calimyrna figs, which needed a longer cooking time to account for their firmer skin. If the pot gets too dry, add small amounts of water, and try covering the pot for a little while to soften the fruit.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 pound fresh figs, stemmed and chopped into sixths or eighths
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (optional)
1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a small or medium saucepan (figs should come one to two inches up side of the pan). Bring to a simmer over low to medium-low heat. Stir often, until figs begin releasing juice, in order to avoid sticking on the bottom of the pan.

Adjust heat to maintain a simmer, using higher heat if fruit is very liquidy. Cook, stirring frequently, until jam is thickened, but still juicy, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool, transfer to jars or airtight containers, and refrigerate. Jam will thicken further as it chills. Keeps refrigerated at least one week.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Vietnamese Chicken and Cabbage Salad

This is it. A totally healthy, refreshing and easy end-of-the-summer meal.

Here's why: It's a crisp, clean and substantial salad; it involves one of those sweet-spicy-umami dressings that are a trademark of Vietnamese cooking; and it involves one super-simple cooking step (poaching some chicken), and a little chopping. And, technically, you could make it even easier by using purchased rotisserie chicken, or cooking yours ahead of time.

Whenever we want something different like this, one of our favorite sources of inspiration is a Williams Sonoma Southeast Asian cookbook. Sometimes we simplify the recipes or substitute for hard-to-find ingredients, but this one was pretty much good to go as is. You can't really ask for anything simpler than a big plate of crunchy salad to dig into with your chopsticks. Credit goes to Mike for picking it and doing all the cooking. I poured the sake--also a very important job.

Vietnamese Chicken and Cabbage Salad
Adapted from Williams Sonoma Savoring Southeast Asia by Joyce Jue

Most Serrano chiles aren't very hot, so we used the seeds and all. If you can get Thai chiles (or bird's eye chiles) and like heat, use those; jalapenos work too. You can chop an extra chile and pass at the table for the real heat lovers.

Serves 2 as a main course with leftovers (may be doubled)

For dressing:
2 Serrano chiles, minced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3 Tbs. lime juice
2 Tbs. fish sauce

For salad:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, poached and chopped
1/2 head cabbage, thinly sliced
1 carrot, shredded
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, julienned
3 Tbs. fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup peanuts, chopped

To make the dressing, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until sugar dissolves.

In a large bowl, combine chicken, cabbage, carrot, mint and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper (you shouldn't need more than a pinch of salt). Add about two-thirds of the dressing and toss. Add additional dressing as needed. Transfer salad to plates, sprinkle with peanuts and serve.