Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Jason and I had grilled oysters a few Friday nights ago. Yummm...we decided we'd do 3 dozen next time.

This shot is the result of the 1 dozen I polished off without a pause. Saltines, hot sauce, and lemon...and a few piping-hot off the grill, slurped right from the shell.

A Few Random Things...

I've been meaning to write for the past two nights, but both evenings have gotten by me, and before I know it, it's past 9 and I'm exhausted. So I do have two recipes to share, the Chopped Asian Salad with Miso Vinaigrette (just for you, Kristin!) and Whole-Wheat Pasta with Eggplant-Tomato sauce. But they're not coming tonight...just a few pictures (this one is Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps) until I get a chance to make my brain work fully!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

This Week

Monday - Chopped Asian salad with miso dressing
Tuesday - Pork chops, mashed cauliflower, sauteed spinach
Wednesday - Whole wheat pasta with eggplant-tomato sauce
Thursday - White chicken chili

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What We're Having

Low-carb meals again...

- Mexican Chicken Chili *UPDATE: the base of this chili was much too spicy to have as a soup. It was great as sauce, so I froze it (sans chicken) to have on hand the next time I make enchiladas. Maybe next time I will use milder peppers (apparently guajillos pack a serious punch!)
Monday - Asian-style bunless burgers, Heston Blumenthal's broccoli (p.s. try this broccoli immediately--it's amazing!)
Tuesday - Tomato-dill chicken soup, salad
Wednesday - Flank steak with chimichurri, spaghetti squash
Thursday - Grilled shrimp and zucchini skewers, grilled romaine with homemade ranch dressing

Monday, September 15, 2008

Just a Little Tangent

Allow me to step up on my soapbox. Or, more accurately, my salt box. You see, I think I know why a lot of people say their cooking just doesn't taste right. It's salt. Or, rather, a lack thereof. Our family friend Annette, an amazing chef, has always said that salt is the most underused spice in the American kitchen. (Yes, I said spice.) People are so afraid that salt will make food taste salty, but that's just not true. Salt makes food taste like food...like really delicious food. If you've ever eaten a meal with me, you know I love salt. Pickles, olives, salt & vinegar chips...but when I cook for anyone but myself, I use restraint...I don't subject people to my crazy love of tart and salty.

Still, I use more salt than the average person. Some people have watched me cook, noted my heavy hand with salt, and then commented that my food doesn't taste salty. They always wonder why. The answer: using salt is like turning up the volume on food's flavor. Unless you go majorly overboard, salt shouldn't be a flavor in and of itself.

Usually in the recipes I write, I don't give exact amounts of salt (or pepper), and it's because to learn to feel confident in the kitchen, you should get to know what the right amount of salt feels and tastes like. I say feels like, because I always (always!) use my fingers to distribute salt in a recipe. Kosher salt is the easiest to dispense by hand. It also evenly seasons things. It's the only salt I cook with. For salting things like French fries or popcorn, a fine-grain sea salt is my buddy.

There are all kinds of fancy salts...unrefined gray salt, smoked salt, pink salt, black salt, fleur de sel...which are all kind of like garnishes, in that they're not really for cooking, but for finishing dishes. This is a good resource for finding out more.

So, in conclusion, be bold with the salt. Use your fingers. Sprinkle it in the pan, taste, add some more, taste...and keep adding until it tastes amazing. Trust me, and trust yourself. You might be surprised to see how much you use, especially if you're not accustomed to using much salt at all. I promise you'll notice a difference.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Let Me Begin with the Beginning

Recently someone asked me if I've always been good in the kitchen. I had to admit: it wasn't until college that I really started looking at food as more than sustenance. Yes, there were favorite dishes when I was younger, and sure, some of my fondest memories of childhood involve food. But mostly because the food was cooked by someone I loved, or eaten with people I loved.

When I cooked for myself as a kid, I made pasta with butter and cheese, scrambled eggs, canned soup, "Chinese noodles" (a concoction of ramen noodles, but
ter, and soy sauce...high-brow, I know!), and occasionally, bagel bites.

When I left for college, my sweet freshman-year roommates and I decided to have what we called family dinners...and somehow I got voted to cook the first one. I called my mom asking what I could make that was delicious and easy. Her reply: chicken piccata. It was one of my favorites in high school, and mom claimed it was easy. I wrote her recipe down over the phone, rolled my sleeves up, and dived in.

I burned the butter on my first attempt, but otherwise it was pretty good—and shockingly easy. That did it...I was hooked. It was a slow road to my current obsession with all things edible, but that one dish, that feeling of accomplishment and the look of appreciation from my friends, well...that's all it took.

chicken, after searing

So, for someone who isn't 100% confident in the kitchen, I highly recommend this dish. I mean, what's not to love about lemon and butter? It's impressive and delicious, and couldn't be easier.

Chicken Piccata
serves 4
Sometimes I can't find chicken breast halves, so I just pound out two regular breasts to be super thin, and cut each one in half widthwise. It takes a little more pounding, but it's just fine.

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
Kosher salt
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons softened butter, divided
Additional all-purpose flour
Extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup chicken stock
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons capers, drained

Place chicken between 2 sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap. With a rolling pin, mallet, or even a bottle of wine (be careful!), lightly pound each breast half to about 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle chicken with salt. (Don't be sjy about it.) Thoroughly mix together 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon butter; set aside. On a plate or shallow baking pan, add additional flour, and coat each breast in flour; shake off excess.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers, add chicken in 1 layer. If the all 4 breasts don't fit, cook in 2 batches. Cook until chicken is golden brown and mostly cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate, and set aside.

In the same skillet over medium-high heat, add the stock, lemon juice, and butter-flour mixture, and whisk to get all the good brown bits (fond in fancy cook-speak) from the bottom of the pan. (If you want to sound impressive, tell someone you're deglazing the pan.) Simmer until the sauce is reduced and thickened, about 3 or 4 minutes. If it looks too thick, add a little more stock. Too thin? Keep simmering. Add capers and remaining butter, stir, and taste. Adjust seasoning.

With tongs, place each breast, one at a time, in the sauce to coat, then place on a platter. Pour remaining sauce over top. Serve with couscous or pasta to soak up extra sauce.

Like Making Lemons Out of Lemonade...

Usually I am a very confident cook. I don't claim to be an expert in the kitchen, but I'm comfortable there, and if something doesn't taste quite right, I'll add a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and generally it turns out well.

So I'm writing to admit a kitchen mishap: apparently, I can't poach eggs. Well, I bet I could if I practiced enough times, but my first try was a big fat disaster. Maybe the water wasn't hot enough, or maybe I just got overly confident, but my water was full of stringy whites that barely set up. I couldn't even salvage the yolks. Sigh.

My original intent was to serve the poached egg over a spring-greens salad with seared scallops and pancetta...so when the poaching didn't happen, I just made a vinaigrette with another egg yolk to maintain the creamy richness a poached egg would have added to the salad. It was very yummy, even though it wasn't my original plan...

Seared Scallop Salad
serves 2
12 medium scallops
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 to 6 thin slices pancetta
4 thick slices ciabatta bread
1 clove garlic
1 lemon, juiced (need about 2 tablespoons)
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 egg yolk
1 bag spring greens

Rinse scallops, and and pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat 2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add scallops and sear until golden and opaque, about 2 minutes per side, depending on size. Be careful not to overcook.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, cook the pancetta until crisp, then drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Break into smaller pieces, and set aside. Toast the bread, in a toaster oven, toaster, or 450-degree oven, until golden brown. While bread is still hot, rub each piece with the garlic clove, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with a touch of salt. Cut into bite-size pieces, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine lemon juice, Dijon, and egg yolk. Add a pinch of salt. Using a whisk, whisk in olive oil (about 1/4 cup) until the dressing comes together. Taste, and adjust seasoning. In a large, shallow bowl, toss the lettuce with some dressing (add a little bit to start, toss, and keep adding dressing until the greens are dressed to your liking). Add the pancetta and croutons, and toss again. Top with scallops, and serve.

Dinners for the Week

We're going low-carb for a few weeks...

- Roast chicken, broccoli, salad
Monday - Out for Rebecca's birthday
Tuesday - Asian chicken lettuce wraps
Wednesday - Taco salad
Thursday - Pork & veggie stir-fry

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Summer, How do I Love Thee...

Last summer, I had a delicious pasta dish at a restaurant in Winter Park called Luma. It had fresh house-made pasta, corn, dill, and maybe shrimp or crab, but I don’t recall exactly. It was the crisp pop of the corn against the silky fresh pasta that I remember the most. I’m not sure that corn with pasta is a pairing that is visited very often, but it is one of my favorites. I’ve done my own spin on that Luma pasta before…here’s the sequel.

As I mentioned in my last post, Jason being out of town gives me an excuse to eat the bad stuff he doesn’t like, such as creamy pasta sauces, fatty steaks, and stinky foods like olives and anchovies. Yeah, yeah, he probably keeps my arteries clean simply by not liking butter and cheese, but I can’t help that I love the bad stuff!

So in a compromise, I decided to fill my pasta dish with lots of veggies…and toss it all in goat cheese, melting it on the stove so it was creamy and lush. (I didn't make a huge effort to get a pretty picture—it just looked too tasty!) If you’re watching calories or you just don’t do goat cheese, this would be perfectly delicious without it. A lovely ode to the last days of summer.

Ode to Summer Pasta

serves 2
The intent of this dish is to showcase the veggies; the pasta is kind of a backdrop. If you want more carbs or just a bigger portion, increase the pasta to 1/2 pound.

2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 medium zucchini, cut into matchstick-size pieces
1/3 pound angel hair or thin spaghetti
1 good-size ear of corn, kernels cut off and reserved
1/2 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 container crumbled goat cheese
Scant 1/4 cup pasta cooking water or chicken stock
8 to 10 leaves fresh basil, torn or chopped

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat (closer to medium). Add the onions, a pinch of salt, and a little pepper, and toss to combine. When onions begin to soften, add zucchini. Add a little bit of chicken stock or more oil if the skillet looks dry. At this point, drop the pasta, and everything should finish up about the same time. When zucchini just starts to soften, add corn kernels, and toss everything frequently until veggies are soft. Add tomatoes, and continue to cook, stirring, until tomatoes are wilted. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed. Reduce heat to low.

Drain pasta, reserving some water if using, and add pasta to the skillet. Toss with the veggies, and add the reserved cooking water or chicken stock a bit at a time, and toss until everything is combined. Let sit for 30 seconds to allow the cheese to melt, and then thoroughly stir or toss to coat everything with the cheese. Add more water or stock, if needed. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, add basil, and serve.

Gone, Baby, Gone

Woe is me. I am single for the week. Jason has been gone since last week, actually, and I’ve become a lazy cook. Somehow when I’m just cooking for me, I’m a little less enthusiastic about jumping in the kitchen and firing up the stove. I miss sharing a meal with my guy at the end of the day…food, to me, is much more than sustenance. It’s a way to share my love and a way to reconnect with friends and family. Call me a sap, I don’t care. Food is part of me.

The one good thing about being solo for meals is that I can branch out and eat all the stuff that I love and Jason won’t touch. These things include olives, creamy sauces, marbled steaks, tofu, and cheese. Bless his soul, the boy won’t eat cheese. {Except in various processed versions like queso dip, pizza, cheez-its, and the like.} Jason’s eating preferences {aside from the aversion to tofu} probably keep me from having coronary artery disease at the tender age of 26. I mean, really…I am the girl who would sneak pats of butter and eat them—plain!—when I was young. I love the bad, greasy, creamy, cheesy, buttery stuff. Love it.

Anyway…I don’t have recipes to share, per se, but I do have some pictures of a few of my solo meals. First, a lovely, perfectly rare-medium-rare ribeye {pictured above}, marbled and oh-so tender. I have to have acid with fatty steaks for balance, so I just sliced an Alabama tomato, paired it with some baby greens, and doused it all in lemon juice and olive oil. And lots of salt.

Next, a meal Jason surely would have loved…I’ll make it again, J, promise! Craving something totally unfancy, I fried a corn tortilla to golden-crisp perfection, topped it with lettuce, spicy refried beans and ground beef that I cooked with cumin, chili powder, garlic, and salt. I took a cue from the nachos on Last Night's Dinner and made a cheese sauce with Monterey Jack and Cheddar. Oh, and I added some sour cream {but that came after the picture}. Yum!

More to come…

Monday, September 1, 2008

Hey, Nie Auction winners!!

Note to auction winners, please donate directly to the Nielson fund. (nieniefund@gmail.com is the email attached to the acct)


Nie Nie Auction Winners

A big congratulations to Roxanne, Lindsey, Debbie, Stacy, Shawnee, and "Anonymous*" who all bid generously for a copy of Culinary Confessions of the PTA Divas! We originally had 5 to give, but since 6 people were generous, we wanted to spread the love even farther. Please donate to the Nielson PayPal fund and forward me the receipt.

With all six bids, our total raised for Christian and Nie is $145! Hooray! I'm so touched, and I can't wait to see how much the grand total is.

*Anonymous, please send contact info asap!