Sunday, August 21, 2011

You've Been Chopped

After a couple of simply lovely days here on the east coast, we were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm Friday around sundown. I turned off all the lights, opened all the blinds and watched the pyrotechnics - red wine at the ready - well away from any electrical appliances. But with the light show and canon reports came hot & steamy weather that has pressed down us ever since.
As most of you know, I'm a California boy. I consider 45% relative humidity as redlining it. I start losing alarming amounts of water weight at anything over fifty percent. Rapidly. And embarrassingly. On the un-air-conditioned NYC subway platforms I look like the proverbial cat that fell into a well and is none too happy about it. Therefore, my Saturday shopping was simply out of the question; I would have to make do with whatever was in the cupboards. So I decided to make a game out of it, my own version of the Food Network's "Chopped". I did have some frozen chicken legs and thighs to act as a starting point. The test would be to come up with something besides the predictable and predictably boring grilled meat.
So get a load of this.
Balsamic & Dried Fruit Glaze - by Blog O. Food
  • ¾ cup dried mixed fruit, roughly chopped*
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • 1 Tbsp raw cane sugar
  • 1 tsp Ancho chili powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground allspice
  • ⅛ tsp ground white pepper
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Mix thoroughly, reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered - stirring occasionally - for 30 minutes, or until the cooking liquid has reduced to a thick syrup.
Meanwhile, rinse and thoroughly dry the chicken, season liberally with salt and pepper, then brown on both sides (3-4 minutes per side) in a little olive oil in a large sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid, over medium-high heat. Once the poultry has some good color, turn heat up to high and add some Marsala wine, between half and a full cup. Just enough to come up about a quarter of the way on the chicken pieces. Bring to a boil. Cover the pan with the lid, and place in a 375°F pre-heated oven. Roast for about 20 minutes. Just long enough to cook the chicken through.
As an accompaniment, I toyed with rice, beans, noodles, even some grits in the larder before spying orzo behind some dried chilies. Perfect for standing up to, and soaking up juices and sauce. Just follow the cooking directions on the package. Arrange cooked chicken atop a big mound of stuff, and spoon the glaze and syrup artfully over everything. The money shot will take care of itself.
Seeing as their was only one contestant in my Chopped challenge, I had a 50/50 chance of walking away with the crown, but the whole exercise coulda blown up in my face as well. I'm happy to report it did not. You try this dish, and I guarantee you'll win top honors with your own judging panel at home.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food
*Dried apricots, cranberries, golden raisins, cherries, and blueberries.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Smoky Red Lentil Soup

 "Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup?" ~ Miss Manners
Soup in August? Yeah well, we've had two despicably dreary weekend days. Low, slate-gray clouds, a relentless downpour, and heaps & heaps of self-pity. I needed some cheering up, something to take my mind off my pitiful sorrows.
Smoky Red Lentil Soup - A Blog O. Food original
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp sweet curry
  • ¼ tsp white pepper
  • 2 cups red lentils, rinsed
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 3 red peppers, roasted, skins peeled
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 6 strips apple wood bacon, fried crisp
Pre-heat oven to 450°F. Bring up the temperature of the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and sweat until translucent, add the garlic and cook for 1 minute to release its oils. Add the celery and carrot and cook uncovered until most of the moisture has cooked off and the vegetables begin to soften.
Add the tomato paste and spices, stir to combine and cook for about 5-7 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the lentils and chicken stock, and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cover the Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until lentils are soft.
Meanwhile, coat red peppers in olive oil and place on a baking sheet in the hot oven. Rotate and turn the peppers frequently until charred all over. Remove peppers from the oven and let rest in a mixing bowl covered with a moist towel.
After removing the stems, seeds, and charred skin of the cooled peppers, purée in a food processor, along with the lentil soup. Purée in batches if necessary. Return the smooth soup to the pot, stir in the cream and adjust the seasoning for salt. Keep covered and warm over a low heat until ready for serving.
To serve, ladle soup into bowls, gently mound a few pieces of chopped bacon in the center of the bowl, and offer up toasted baguette slices on the side.
I have to admit that every time I make a creamed soup I covet greatly Williams-Sonoma's immersion blender, and I am just about one more disappointment away from some serious impulse spending, but really a food processor works perfectly adequately.
And what about the soup? I wanted rich smoky flavor, and I got just that. All the paprika and roasted peppers made sure of it. The curry rounded out all the other elements. Bacon needs no justification, least ways, not in these pages.
Curled up on the couch watching bad TV and slurping warm, hearty soup on a crummy weekend. Sometimes, only the guilty pleasures will get you through the rough spots.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Monday, August 8, 2011

(Not So) Secret Ingredient

I have to give hat tips to the New York Times and the Food Network for the wonderfulness of this dish. Coinciding with my search for the perfect taco in California, posted a delicious looking entry that could very well win top honors. So when I returned to NYC, I gathered all the ingredients from Trader Joe's and drew up battle plans. The second nod goes out to The Food Porn Network. Unless the Rachel Maddow show is on, it's always at low volume in the background. I think I was updating my Facebook status for the umpteenth time one day when I overheard someone mention cocoa powder. For once, my short-term memory served me flawlessly, because when I racked my brain for a new recipe for the portion of pork loin leftover after the Times' tacos, a light bulb went on, and the rest as they say is... Well see for yourself.
Braised Mexican Pork - a Blog O. Food recipe
  • 1½ lb pork loin roast
  • 2 Tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 medium white onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground Ancho chili pepper
  • 1 tsp ground Chipotle chili pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
  • Chicken stock, enough to cover pork loin half way
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper
By now, my loyal minions, you should have all mastered the rudiments of braising. If not, shame on you! But I'm here to help.
Sear the pork loin on both sides in a little cooking oil (bacon fat for us shameless Mexicans) in a large heavy sauté pan or Dutch oven, anything with a tight-fitting lid. Don't fuss with the cut of meat. Place it in the hot oil, then leave it alone. Allow it to develop some good color.
Remove the pork from the pan, reduce your heat slightly and sweat your onions, stirring occasionally. At the point where they're gonna start caramelizing, add the garlic and cook for one more minute, just until the garlic is fragrant.
Here's where the alchemy begins. Bump up the heat again, add the tomatoes, spices and cocoa, and let everything cook quite through - seven to eight minutes I'd say - before adding any cooking liquid. Stir the contents of the pan, but don't worry if the bottom of the pan starts to get sticky and brown. That's where the magic lies.
Jack the heat up to high and add the chicken stock. Use a wooden spoon to loosen up all the fond (the brown stuff) on the bottom of the pan. You're releasing intense flavors by doing so. Nestle the pork in the center of the broth and vegetables, reduce the heat to it's absolute lowest*, cover and simmer for hours.
Two hours in, I flipped the meat over, gave everything a gentle shake, covered and simmered for another couple hours. By the end, the meat needed little in the way of persuasion to fall apart of its own accord. Just for kicks, I cracked the lid on the pan to let the sauce reduce a bit.
I had some extra red bell peppers lying about, taking up space. I tortured them over an open flame until the entire outter skin was charred black. Adding insult to injury, I smothered them in a brown paper bag for 10 minutes so that their 3rd degree burns would peel right off, leaving nothing but sweet, tender flesh for me to eat with my pork. I'm a monster, I know.
You have to be a little careful with Mexican spices and  hard experience is really the only teacher when it comes to combinations and proportions. I can caution you that Chipotle chili has an INTENSE smoky flavor, with the ability to overpower just about anything it's added to, so take care there. With the fieriness of the Ancho powder, some tempering influence was called for. Hence the cocoa powder. It was just the counterbalancing force I was looking for, and elevated my chili sauce to new heights. Characteristically, I was the first to compliment the chef. Now it's your turn!
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food
*Most gas ranges cannot achieve real simmering temperatures without the flame going out. I use the low-tech method of creating a sort of halo with a piece of aluminum foil wadded into a strand and curved into a circle. I put it between the heat and the sauté pan, That elevates the food away from the heat, thus reducing the temperature. It's failsafe.