Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Zucchini Nut Bread

We all have them. 

That favorite family or personal go-to recipe that that we don’t really need a recipe to make but consulting it is like clutching a security blanket.  For me, it’s my Grandmom’s Meatballs, a Butternut Squash Soup recipe that I clipped out of the Philadelphia Inquirer 25 years ago and a Zucchini Nut Bread recipe from one of Sister’s first cookbooks, the Country Fair Cookbook.  I asked for custody of the treasure several times, but she has refused. 

Several swashbuckler-like attempts to commandeer the book have also failed.    

Anyway, originally published in 1975, all recipes in this book are Blue Ribbon Winners from State or Country fairs around the United States.  I grew up in Philadelphia and we didn’t have Country Fairs –unless you count the bake sales at Saint Francis Xavier – so there are no local entries.
 
At least that I remember.
 
And, as you just read, I don't have the book to consult.

I have tweaked this recipe over the years introducing some brown sugar, whole wheat flour, shredded carrots and sometimes eliminating the walnuts, like I did this time.  I think my modifications have made the bread better, but do make it both ways and you be the judge!  Either way, it is a very moist bread and if you wrap it tightly with foil and refrigerate overnight, the flavors will mellow and each slice will be like a little piece of baked bliss. 

So pick up some zucchini, collect your spices, grab your grater and bread pan and prepare to have your home smell like the best, most calming bakery you ever meandered into.  This bread is great slathered with cream cheese  or butter and paired with a freshly brewed cup of tea.

The following recipe is as published; my changes are in parentheses.

Zucchini Nut Bread
From: Country Fair Cookbook

Ingredients
3 cups sifted flour (I use 2 cups of all-purpose white flour and 1 cup of wheat flour)
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar (I use 1 ½ cups of granulated sugar and ½ cup of brown sugar)
1 cup of cooking oil (I use canola oil)
1 Tablespoon of vanilla
2 cups of unpeeled, grated zucchini squash (I also use ½ cup of grated carrots)
½ cup chopped walnuts

Directions
Preheat oven at 350 degrees.  Sift together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and baking powder.  Set aside.  In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs well.  Gradually add the sugar and oil, mixing well.  Add the vanilla and dry ingredients; blend well.  Stir in zucchini and nuts.  Pour the mixture into two prepared bread pans and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Chicken Pot Pie

We finally seem to be enjoying the fabulous fall weather and all the smells and chores that come along.  I love seeing the bright autumn leaves fall to the ground always appreciating that Mother Nature’s eye for color is the most magnificent and refined (sorry Martha, she has even you beat).   I also don’t mind raking the leaves either….it gives me a great sense of satisfaction to see a glorious multi-colored mound, sometimes two feet high, at the curb ready for the Borough’s industrial strength shop-vac  to come gather them up.  Of course, the prize for all that raking and collecting is the wonderful organic mulch we enjoy in the spring! 
I might feel differently about leave raking if I had to bag the twirling beauties.

Regardless, even when the kids in the ‘hood romp in my well-ordered yet temporary suburban knoll, the crisp air, the earthy smells, and the runway of crispy leaves remind me to delight in the wonder of season and take it all in. I love to people watch in the fall, all bundled up in their newly resurrected woolen favorites….I like to try to spot the hand-knitted pieces!

Autumn is also when we begin to enjoy heartier dishes, baked in the oven, aromatic and served piping hot.  Sometimes it’s hard to wait for the dish to cool and congeal before diving in!  Take Chicken Pot Pie, for instance.  That a look at this stunner that C. served last Wednesday!

Pot pies have deep roots (the Romans served them with live birds that flew out when cut!), but it was the Brits who perfected meat pies.  The west-ward bound English settlers brought the recipes with them to the new land and we still enjoy varieties in the States today.

There are a gazillion recipes for Chicken Pot Pie.  The one I share below is from an old and well-loved cookbook of C.’s.  I also have a favorite that uses phyllo dough for the crust but the filling is very similar.  C. used Trader Joes pie pastry crust….it’s made with real butter, not some butter charlatan. Making pie crust is a precise skill, so with options like TJ’s or Pillsbury available, why bother with homemade! 

Chicken Pot Pie

3 cups of cooked chicken
3 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup of sliced onions
1/3 thinly sliced green pepper, seeds and membranes removed
3 Tablespoons flour
1 ½ cup chicken stock
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
3 Tablespoons white wine
½ cup frozen peas
Minced chives and parsley
2 pre-made pie crusts

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces.  Melt the butter and sauté the onions (also celery if desired). Placed the sliced peppers on top and cook slowly for 5 minutes.  Stir in the flour gradually.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chicken stock, the egg yolks, the peas and the chicken.  Stir over a low heat just long enough for the sauce to thicken.  Add the white wine. 

Place the chicken mixture in bottom pie crust. Pour hot liquid mixture over and sprinkle with the chives and parsley. Cover with top crust, seal edges, and cut away excess dough. Make several small slits in the top to allow steam to escape.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown and filling is bubbly. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

I am a week behind in my posts but this past week it was my turn to cook and I made Shrimp Scampi with gluten-free pasta…that’s all I’m going to say about that little episode.  In a redemptive maneuver, I made Zucchini Bread and I'll share that recipe with everyone. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Paella

Across the world, there are many practical rice/meat/seafood dishes.  In South America there is arroz con pollo. In Italy, Risotto (when we were in Venice, we ate risotto with LOTS of seafood!).  In South Asia, Biryani, usually served with chicken or lamb. In New Orleans, it's Jambalaya which has its roots in the Spanish dish, Paella, and is what we enjoyed devoured at A.’s house last week.

If you search the dictionary, the definition of Paella is: pa·el·la / päˈāyä / pəˈelə.  Noun. A Spanish dish of rice, saffron, chicken, seafood, etc., cooked and served in a large shallow pan.   Like what you see right up there...a little to the left.

Mouth-watering, right? 

Paella is a wonderful combination of rice, herbs, meat, seafood that is so incredibly satisfying and generally enjoyed by anyone who consumes it.  Because it is easy to make in large quantities, it’s a favorite to serve at large dinner parties.  I remember once when M. served it to her students at a holiday gathering and I recall thinking, what a fast, fancy and fabulous meal to serve to a group of students who, no doubt, are simply ecstatic about being dished a home cooked dinner, let alone paella!

Well, let me just tell you, we were just as ecstatic.  A.’s version did not include shrimp or mussels, but we didn’t miss the crustaceans because the chicken thighs and chorizo sausage executed beautifully.  One signature ingredient in any paella dish is saffron and its vibrant, golden hue is what makes the dish glow.  Many recipes call to prepare the dish in a paella pan, but any wide, shallow sauté pan with a lid will do (according to Martha who knows about these things).   

Here’s a little $260 number from a major cooking retailer:
It's a nice pan, but I agree with Martha.
 

Let’s talk about saffron for a minute…. Saffron is an expensive and frugally used spice, but what it does to food is totally transformative.  The gilded threads come from the stigma of the saffron (violet) crocus, a flower that thrives in hot, dry Mediterranean climates.  The strength of the spice depends on how the flower is harvested and the parts of the plant included when the spice is produced.  

Typically, only three threads are hand-picked from each flower and 7500 flowers are needed to produce one pound of saffron! Wikipedia says that “saffron's aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet.”  In addition to being used extensively in Spanish, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, it is also used as a fabric dye….a very expensive fabric dye. 
 
I won't be using saffron to tie-dye any tee shirts, but you can listen to Donovan sing about saffron here!

Paella
From: www.tastingtable.com
Fire and Rice

INGREDIENTS
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
2 links Spanish chorizo, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
1 medium Spanish onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium tomatoes, grated using a box grater
2 teaspoons hot smoked paprika
1 large pinch Spanish saffron threads, crumbled
2 cups paella rice
Salt, to taste
6 cups low-sodium chicken stock

For serving:
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 lemons cut into wedges (optional)

DIRECTIONS
Season the chicken with salt and allow it to come to room temperature. Brush a hot pan with some olive oil. Place the chicken skin-side-down in the hot pan and cover.  Cook until the chicken is golden brown and almost cooked through, about 12 to 15 minutes.  Transfer the chicken to a sheet tray and set aside.

Place a 15-inch paella pan on the stove. Once the pan is hot, add the chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chorizo starts to brown and the fat has rendered, about 10 minutes. Remove the chorizo using tongs or a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl. Add the onions to the pan and cook, stirring often until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. If the pan seems dry, add the remaining olive oil. Add the tomatoes and cook until the liquid has reduced and the vegetables have completely softened and melded together, about 12 minutes. Add chorizo back to the pan with the paprika and saffron and cook until fragrant, about a minute.

Add the rice and season with salt. Cook for 1 minute with the chorizo mixture. Add the stock, stir to combine and bring to a rapid boil. Bury the chicken thighs skin-side-up in the rice and cook, making sure not to stir from this point on, until the rice is tender but still al dente and the chicken is cooked through, about 20 to 25 minutes.  To serve, sprinkle parsley over the paella and serve with lemon wedges.

A. served the paella with crusty bread and roasted root vegetables.  It’s always my turn to bring wine when we have dinner at her house and, not knowing we were having paella, I contributed a ruby-red Spanish Rioja.  Kismet.   

While eating dessert (A. let us sample the apple biscuits she made for her co-workers), we watched a bit of The Voice…our guilty pleasure.

 
Photo of paella pan from williamssonoma.com and crocus plant from Wikipedia.com

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sautéed Scallops with Spaghetti Squash

I would normally begin a post written in Fall about how there’s a nip in the air and that it feels so natural to be enjoying our autumnal favorites…root vegetables, hearty soups, piping hot oatmeal, deep-dish pies, and, one of my favorites, zucchini bread.  However, as I pen this post, it’s been quite summer-like but that did not stop us from devouring a squash dish that M prepared last Wednesday night. 
 
She made Sautéed Scallops over Spaghetti Squash, a recipe courtesy of Martha. Spaghetti squash is a low-carb, low-calorie alternative to pasta, and, like butternut squash, the hard skin makes it a bit difficult to cut.  I am interested in keeping all my digits so when I make my favorite Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, I tend to buy pre-cut butternut squash.  

Spaghetti squash does not come in pre-cut chunks, although I have seen them sold pre-cut length wise.  So, when cooking a spaghetti squash you need to toughen up, choose your best large (and sharp) knife, approach the gourd with conviction, grab it lengthwise and slice the vegetable right in half straight down the middle!  

I felt very Julia-Child-like writing that.

In my head, I can hear her saying that very thing....in that proper voice of hers!

Once sliced in half, remove the seeds and save them.  You can toast them up and eat them for a snack, much like pumpkin seeds.  To cook a spaghetti once it is cut, drizzle on some olive oil, salt and pepper, place it cut side down on a baking dish and bake it for 35 minutes minutes in a 400 degree oven.  When the meat is tender, remove it from the shell with a fork — this is where the magic happens — and it will naturally shred into yummy strings, like spaghetti!  

Unlike the flavorful and distinctive butternut squash, spaghetti squash is a bit bland but you can gussy it up with almost any sauce you would serve on regular spaghetti…tomato, pesto, coconut curry, or Alfredo. I have seen some recipes that direct the cook to put the spaghetti back in the squash shell to serve.  

Sautéed Scallops over Spaghetti Squash

INGREDIENTS
Two 1-pound spaghetti squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for baking pan
4 leeks, white and light-green parts only, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
10 large sea scallops, muscles removed, sliced in half
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1 bunch minced chives

DIRECTIONS
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place squash, cut-sides down, on an oiled baking pan. Cook until easily pierced with a knife tip, about 45 minutes. Using a fork, separate the flesh into strands, and transfer to a bowl; cover.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Cook leeks and shallots, stirring, until crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Place flour in a small bowl; dredge scallops. Return pan to heat; add remaining tablespoon oil. Cook half of scallops until golden, about 3 minutes per side. Season with salt and pepper. Cook remaining scallops.

Increase heat to medium high; add wine or 3/4 cup water. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up any brown bits on bottom of pan. Cook until liquid has reduced by half. Slowly whisk in the butter until sauce begins to thicken, about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper.

Divide the squash and the leek mixture among four dinner plates; top with scallops. Drizzle with sauce, and garnish with chives. M served this dish with a sautéed chard salad.

This dish is tasty indeed.  Honestly, I had to remind myself that I was eating a healthy vegetable, not a carbohydrate and, as a bonus, no heavy feeling in my stomach afterwards.... so common after a delicious and satisfying dish of pasta! We also had a very special bottle of red wine (courtesy of Mr. C.) a delicious salad of greens, pears and walnuts and, for dessert, plum torte squares.

I don’t often talk about our personal adventures but I would like to comment that our little group is more than just weekly dinner companions.  We have grown into accidental siblings who comfort and lift each other when we are down, provide sage counsel when a problem seems insurmountable, celebrate our collective and individual joys and — this is important — redirect our focus when someone veers a bit off course.  I am privileged to have these special women in my life.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Chicken with Figs, Wine & Honey

Figs are in the house.

Or at least they were.

It appears to be the tail-end of fig season.  Considering this, when it was my turn to cook last week, I seized an opportunity to make something with these aubergine lovelies.  Figs are native to Western Asia and have been cultivated since early (really ancient) times.  As a matter of fact, it was the fig leaf that Adam and Eve clad themselves with after eating the forbidden fruit.  

Now, I don’t have the need to don the fig leaf as a fashion accessory, but I do adore the the pulpy, fleshy texture of the fruit and I look for any excuse to cook with them.

The fig tree grows best and rewards us with the most luscious fruit when grown in dryer, warmer climates where it can bask in the sun all day, like the Mediterranean.  A striking, deciduous tree, the fig commonly grows to about 20 feet but can grow up to 50 feet.  Their leaves are big, bright and green (which explains the biblical choice) and their muscular and meandering branches spread wider than tall. 

So, after procuring two containers of figs at 320 Produce, I consulted my favorite cookbook, the Internet, and this little jewel of a recipe appeared:
Yum.  Yum.  And more yum.

And that, my dear readers, is how I met this Wednesday night dinner idea.

Chicken with Figs, Wine & Honey
Adapted from: www.food52.com 

3 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of lemon or regular thyme, roughly chopped
3 chicken breast, pounded to 1/4" thickness
15 kalamata figs, sliced in half (dried is fine if you can't find fresh)
1 ¼ cup light red wine
3 teaspoons honey
A squeeze of lemon

Heat half the olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle a pinch of salt, pepper and thyme on both sides of the chicken breast.  Sauté the chicken 4-5 minutes on each side until cooked through and is nice and golden. Place the chicken on a plate to rest while you prepare the figs.

In the same sauté pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Place the figs in the pan, cut side down. Sauté for 3-4 minutes, turning the figs occasionally, until slightly golden.  Don't overcook...they will get mushy. Carefully add the red wine, as well as pinches of salt and black pepper, honey and lemon. Quickly cook for 2-3 minutes until the red wine reduces into a loose syrup (you may need to encourage thickening with a slab of butter).  Spoon the figs and red wine reduction over the chicken and serve immediately.

This recipe is delicious reminded me a little of Chicken Marabella...a staple of the 80's from the very popular cookbook, The Silver Palate.

I served with roasted pine nut and parsley cous-cous.  We had birthday cake for dessert to celebrate M's (Singers) special day and a lovely bottle of red wine.  There were also presents.  Lots of presents.