Friday, February 24, 2012

The Joy of Roasting

When I was growing up (in the 50's and 60's...OMG that was a long time ago!) "cooking" usually referred to food that was braised, sautéed, steamed, or broiled. Except for the occasional holiday turkey or well marbled slab of meat, not too many foods were cooked with dry heat, A.K.A. roasted. Lately, however, it seems, everyone is talking about roasting things other than meats....especially veggies. I tried roasting broccoli for the first time a couple of years ago and was astounded at the interesting and unusually complex favors that the dry heat imparted. The little browned, nay, burned, bits at the ends of the flowerettes are intense, caramelized, crunchy and really delicious! Roasted asparagus or cauliflower are, to me, much more interesting than the boring steamed versions. (To roast any veggie, arrange in a single layer in a shallow pan, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 475 degrees or so until it's cooked to your liking.) The thing about roasting foods is that it gets rid of much of the water, an undesirable result if you're roasting a slab of lean meat, but lovely in a vegetable, since it intensifies the favors. (Of course, if you hate the veggie in question, that may not be a good thing!!!)

Tomatoes are one of the most waterlogged vegetables out there, so roasting is a particularly nice way to prepare them. Below I've combined my new favorite way of cooking tomatoes with one of my all time favorite foods, pasta, to create a Roasted Tomato Sauce. The caramelized onions and the basil are flavorful garnishes, though the pasta with just the sauce is also great.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Serves: 2

1 to 1-1/2 pints grape tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 large or 2 medium onions
salt & pepper, to taste
6 oz. penne, or other short cut pasta
fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
Parmegiano or Romano cheese, optional

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with garlic, salt and pepper and roast, tossing occasionally, until tomatoes wilt and begin to brown, probably 15 minutes or so. While the tomatoes are roasting, thinly slice the onions and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper in another shallow baking pan. When the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven and set the pan aside. Turn on the broiler, broil the onions 4 inches from the element and allow them to brown, tossing them every few minutes until all of them are soft and some of them are very brown, nearly burned. Just before the onions are done, put the tomatoes back into the oven on the lower rack for a minute or so just to warm them. Meanwhile, cook pasta and drain well, reserving about a half cup of the starchy pasta cooking liquid. Using blender, puree about 1/3 of the roasted tomatoes until they are almost completely smooth. If necessary, add some pasta cooking water a few tablespoons at a time to make the desired sauce consistency (you probably won't use it all). Toss the puréed tomatoes with the cooked pasta to coat everything with the sauce, divide into individual plates, top with the remaining roasted tomatoes, broiled onions and torn basil leaves and serve.

Notes & Pointers:
Parmegiano or Romano cheese is optional, but I prefer the delicate taste of the roasted tomatoes without it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Quick Meal Sometimes Takes All Day!

I define a "quick meal" as one which cooks quickly start to finish, or, alternatively, one which has only a little hands-on time and spends the next hour(s) merrily cooking away with little or no attention on the part of the cook. A slow cooker takes care of the second option. While I don't have a countertop slow cooker, my oven does have a slow cook setting (which I found out about inadvertently when one of our cats accidentally turned it on). Osso Buco is a particularly flavorful and delicious slow cooked meal. While it is ideal for an elegant dinner party, it's also easy enough for an everyday meal. It's made with the cross cut (usually) veal shanks, a cut which includes a large marrow filled bone in the center.

The hands-on part of the dish requires simply browning the veal shanks well in a combination of butter and olive oil. While that is working, carrot, celery and onions are diced, then added to the pot for a quick sauté. Then everything is covered with white wine, chicken broth and diced tomatoes. It is at this point that the cook's work is done, for the entire thing goes into the slow cooker for the next few hours while the cook gets to decide what to wear for the dinner party, visit with guests, have a glass of wine, whatever. It is also very forgiving as it can cook for three hours or even four or five, only getting more succulent with the passage of time.

Right before you serve the Osso Buco, prepare the gremolata garnish. All that's left to do is cut up some crusty bread and toss a salad. Outstanding!

Osso Buco
Serves: 4

4 thick slices veal shank (about 8 to 12 oz. each)
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 carrot
1 onion
1 stalk celery
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1-14 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained, or 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded & diced
salt & pepper (to taste)
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley

In a stovetop safe crockpot insert or other large pot, heat the butter and oil over high heat until quite hot, but not smoking. Arrange the shanks in a single layer in the pot and allow them to brown well on all sides. (You will know when the bottom is brown when the meat easily releases from the pan. If it sticks, let it cook a few minutes more.) While the meat is browning, dice the carrot, celery and onion. Once the meat is well browned, remove it to a large plate and add the diced veggies to the pan. Sauté them quickly over high heat, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen all the browned bits of meat. When the veggies are tender, stir the wine, chicken stock and tomatoes into the pot, again scraping the bottom to be sure all the browned bits make it into the sauce. Return the shanks (along with any juices which have accumulated) to the pot in a single layer, nestling them into and under the veggies. At this point, the whole thing goes into the slow cooker for the next several hours. If you'll need to serve in only 3 hours or so, set the slow cooker to high. If you have more time, say 4 or 5 hours or even more, set the temp to low. Alternatively, this can be done in a conventional oven at 300 degrees for a couple of hours (if you use a conventional oven, place a piece of parchment paper over the pot before tightly covering with the lid. The extra thickness of the paper will ensure that the lid seals completely and the juices won't evaporate.) When cooked the meat should be falling off the bone. Taste the pan juices and adjust seasoning.

Just before serving, prepare the gremolata; mince together the lemon, garlic and parsley either with a blender, food processor or a sharp chef's knife. Using an extra large spatula or large slotted spoon, carefully transfer each shank to its own deep dinner plate. Spoon the veggies and sauce over and around the meat. Serve each portion of the veal with a spoonful or two of the gremolata sprinkled over the top.

Notes & Pointers:
This is one of those dishes which should really be seasoned right at the end, as there's no way to predict how much the juices will cook down by the end of the cook time. Though classically made with veal shanks, beef shanks can be substituted, but cooking time should be extended by about 25% to allow for the coarser texture of the beef. When serving, provide your guests with demitasse spoons for retrieving the delicious marrow in the center of the bones. This gelatinous morsel is prized for its flavor. While this dish needs no stirring during the slow cook process, you might want to check once to see if you need to add more stock, especially if your slow cook lid isn't particularly well sealed or if you leave it for the longest cook times.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Leftover Makeover

Often by Thursday or Friday night, I find myself with an assortment of leftovers from several different meals, none of which is enough for a dinner. Fortunately, my husband actually likes leftovers. Occasionally we'll have a tasting menu, with half a dozen tiny plates arrayed before us, each holding a couple of tablespoons of something, none of which "go" together. Sometimes, however, I prefer to repackage the same foods in a new form to relieve the boredom of the leftovers. Omelettes fit the bill exactly. You can put practically anything into an omelette, cheeses, meats, veggies, starches, and end up with something new and (hopefully) improved. Here's this week's Thursday night inventory of leftovers:

Few broccoli flowerettes (leftover from our Super Bowl crudités platter)
About 3/4 of a red bell pepper (ditto)
A couple of cups of plain ziti (from a choose-your-own-sauce dinner)
Some broiled onions (from the same dinner)

Here's the process: I diced and quickly sautéed the pepper and broccoli with some olive oil in an oven safe skillet until tender and beginning to brown. I chopped the onions into smaller bits with my chef's knife, so they would distribute more evenly through the eggs and added them to the pan after the rest of the veggies had cooked. I cut the ziti in half (again, so they would combine better) and stirred them in just before adding the beaten eggs, salt and pepper. (I usually use 4 eggs per person for a dinner, but discard 3 of the yolks. I find that the one remaining yolk is enough to make the eggs still taste like eggs, but substantially reduces the fat and cholesterol in the dish. However, use whole eggs or egg whites if that is your preference.) Once the eggs are added, I transfer the skillet to the oven and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until my instant read thermometer reads 160 degrees and everything is lovely and browned. Serve directly from the skillet, or loosen the bottom with a wide metal spatula and carefully invert onto a platter for serving.

Notes & Pointers
In this case, the peppers and onions were very flavorful, so I wanted them to be the predominant taste. If my fridge was harboring veggies that were more bland (like spinach, eggplant or peas), I might add some crumbled feta, grated extra sharp cheddar or even a sprinkle of Romano or Parmegianno cheese (all of which I always have in my freezer) to liven it up. If I had leftover rice or potatoes, I would use that instead of pasta (if I have no leftover starch, I quickly microwave a potato or two until barely done, dice and sauté in the pan until brown before adding the remaining veggies). Leftover herbs would add a ton of flavor, either mixed into the beaten eggs or sprinkled over top of the cooked dish. Bits of bacon, ham, sausage, chicken or other meats would be lovely additions. Pretty much anything Mom tells me that her mother used to make Omelettes with leftover spaghetti including the tomato sauce....I haven't tried that yet, but one of these days I will....I'll keep you posted!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Look! Up On the Table....It's a Side Dish! It's a Meal! It's RISOTTO!

I love having recipes which are adaptable to changing needs....that can be molded to fit the requirements of the day or the moment, or varied according to seasonal ingredients or to whatever leftovers are threatening to go south in my fridge. Risotto is a prime example of such a recipe. At its most basic, it is a hearty, delicious, comforting and elegant side dish. But the real beauty of this easy workhorse recipe is that it can morph into a main course with only a few variations. The basic recipe can be made with any kind of flavorful stock, chicken, beef, veggie, seafood or even plain water if you have no stock handy. The cheese that finishes the dish can be Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, Grana Padano, or even a combination.

Various meats or seafoods can be added to enrich the rice as can many different kinds of vegetables. Some of my favorite variations are listed below the recipe, in the Notes & Pointers section but these are only the beginning! Let your creativity soar. If you have any other leftover cooked vegetables or meats, stir them will be delicious!

Don't be intimidated by the thought that the rice must be attended each and every minute. All told it should take about 20 to 30 minutes to cook the rice to the al dente stage (still with a tiny bite in the center of the grains) but you don't have to be a slave to the occasional stir every 3 or 4 minutes when you add another half cup or so of stock will do the trick. The additions should be fully cooked before being stirred into the risotto during the last minute or two of cooking, just to heat through. All you need to complete the meal is a crisp green salad.

Serves: 4 to 6 (or more, depending on the additions)

1 small onion, minced
1/4 cup butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 cups arborio rice
5 or more cups hot beef, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese

Over medium-low heat, sauté onion in butter or oil until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice to the pan and sauté for an additional few minutes or until the rice looks opaque around the edges. Keep the stock hot in another saucepan and add it to the rice a half cup at a time, stirring every few minutes over medium-low heat. Wait until each half cup of stock is completely absorbed by the rice before adding more. Stir frequently until the rice is just barely cooked. If you run out of stock before the rice is cooked, it’s OK to add a bit of plain water at the end. When the rice is cooked, stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese and serve immediately.

Notes & Pointers:
The frequent stirring makes the rice very creamy. Traditionally risotto is made with arborio rice which is a short grain, very starchy rice, but regular long grain rice seems to work fine in a pinch; just don’t use converted rice which has had most of the starch removed.

For one delicious variation, prepare roasted vegetables as follows before you start the risotto:

2 lbs. of the following in any combination: red & green peppers, zucchini, yellow squash,
    eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, red onion, all cut into 1 inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
2 Tbs. olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste

Toss all vegetables with olive oil and garlic. Roast vegetables in a single layer in a baking pan (in batches if necessary) at 425° for 35 to 40 minutes until cooked and beginning to caramelize. Prepare risotto as usual, then stir roasted veggies in a few minutes before rice is cooked. Taste for seasoning…you may want to add a bit more cheese.

Another option is to add bits of cooked ham along with some green peas (frozen peas are just fine). Sautéed shrimp is another way to go. Or add the grated rind and juice of one or two lemons (to taste) just before rice is cooked for a lovely Lemon Risotto.