Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Homemade Applesauce

This recipe is based on my neighbor Rachel's recipe for applesauce. I also got to make use of my shiny new Hannukkah present, the classic tome, Joy of Cooking - which I surprisingly had not owned till now! I used it to get an idea of how much water to put and what other various flavorings I could put.

In the end, I decided to stick with simple cinnamon-flavored applesauce. This made an excellent topping for my latkes last week. And the leftovers made an excellent midnight snack :) The best part of it all is that it's completely unsweetened - because it doesn't need any extra sugar! The particular apple types are sweet enough to not require the addition of any sugar or sweetener.

Homemade Applesauce

4 Fuji apples, peeled and coarsely diced (1-inch chunks are fine, but size doesn't matter here)
4 Gala apples, peeled & diced
4 Golden Delicious apples, peeled & diced
1/2 cup water
1-2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 cinnamon sticks

1. Put apples, water, cinnamon and cinnamon sticks in a pot. Mix well. Cook over medium heat, covered, for about 30-40 minutes or until the apples are soft and mushy.

2. Remove the cinnamon sticks and mash the apples.

Serves 12.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Perfecting Potato Latkes (with Sweet Potato variation)

I know I haven't posted any recipes in a while, but I've been busy with Hannukkah and perfecting my recipe for latkes (as well as going to a whole bunch of Hannukkah parties). In return for the lack of posting, I will offer you a much more detailed exploration of my "Latke Experiments" in search of the perfect latke...

I tried three major variations on the classic latke recipe, never having made latkes before in my life. The first one was my mother's recipe, which yielded latkes that were decent, but not full of enough flavor:

Attempt #1 at latkes

My neighbor, Yehudit, happened to have a bunch of unused fresh dill which she donated to my cause in return for a share in the good eats. My mother's original recipe contained parsley, but I figured I'd swap it for dill since I could lay my hands on fresh herbs. This turned out to be a very welcome flavor - but it wasn't enough.

The texture of these first attempt latkes wasn't that great. Notice how they are shredded in the picture. Most "authentic" recipes for potato latkes call for grating or shredding the potatoes and onion, in an attempt to mimic the hand grating that was always done in centuries past. Being a sucker for authenticity, I tried this and was underwhelmed - the onion flavor didn't permeate the pancake. So I decided to throw authenticity out the window and switched to the blade of my food processor to make quick work of pureeing the potatoes and onions.

The pureed mixture gave a much more even flavor distribution. I was also able to produce a fluffier texture by adding a teaspon of baking powder. Finally, I added some chopped scallions to accent the onion flavor. I ended up playing around with the flour amount and decided that increasing it from the original 2 tbsp that I started with to 3 tbsp was a better idea. This helped the pureed mixture absorb more moisture (good for frying - see below), which the shredded mixture did not do as well.

The other major part of creating a delicious latke is the frying itself. Seems straightforward, doesn't it? Well, it's not. There are several major concerns when frying latkes: 1) oil splatter and 2) uneven cooking, 3) greasy latkes. By my fourth (and last) batch of latkes, I was able to solve all three of these problems.

There's a right way and a wrong way to fry a latke...

My first batch had the problem of uneven cooking - the outside browned very quickly and the inside was still not perfectly cooked. This was because I had the heat on high, in an attempt to hasten the process. Bad idea. Lower the heat to medium-high or medium. Trust me - when recipes say its 2-5 minutes per side of latke, they actually mean it! I tried to speed it up and the results were not good.

My second batch had the problem of greasiness - the latkes came out way too oily and floppy. They also took way longer to cook than I expected. These were solved by careful monitoring of the oil temperature.

The ideal oil temperature for frying a latke, in my opinion, is 375 - the same temperature I use in the second frying stage of a french fry (come to think of it, another experiment I might have liked to try would be the 2-stage frying like one would do with french fries, just to see if it works with latkes too. Then again, that's deep frying and this is pan frying, so maybe not...). It is really important that you not put the latke batter in the pan until the oil comes up to temperature (it really is worthwhile to invest in an oil/candy thermometer).

The reason (as per Alton Brown's explanation on frying) is because when the oil is hot enough, the batter will exude steam from its insides. This escaping steam pressure repels the oil and prevents it from entering the crevasses. As long as there is steam escaping, there is not oil entering - and the inside of the latke actually cooks by steaming! Putting the batter in at too low a temperature will cause the steam to evaporate long before optimum browning temperature is reached, which means the final browned latke will be greasy. It will also extend your cooking time by making it take longer to reach the optimum browning temperature. Adding more oil after every 2 batches ensures that the temperature doesn't get too high.

And finally, the problem of oil splatter. Frying with oil can be very dangerous if you have very wet food. Drops of water in oil will cause the oil to pop and splatter everywhere, including your skin. The solution to this is to get rid of as much water as possible before frying! This leads to the extra step of draining the onions and potatoes. I also picked up a tip from the Kosher Blog's Potato Latke Master Recipe to wash the potatoes to get rid of excess starch, a tip I have also used in the past for making mashed potatoes.

All in all, I cooked 4 batches of latkes, learning something new from each one. By the end, I could say I knew how to make great latkes my way. So while there are plenty of recipes claiming to have the perfect latke recipe, I can tell you that my recipe is one of the few I definitely plan on making the same way twice.

Golden brown, crisp and delicious

Potato Latkes

6 Russet potatoes (these work better than Idaho)
1 large onion
2 eggs
3 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1-2 tsp. lemon juice
Salt & pepper
~5 scallions, chopped
~1-2 tsp. dried parsley (optional)
~5 sprigs fresh dill, chopped (optional)
Canola oil, for frying

1. Fit a food processor with the rotating blade. Peel onion and puree it. Transfer onion puree to a colander or mesh strainer in a sink or over a bowl, but do not wash out the food processor bowl.

2. Puree potatoes by pulsing the processor a few times. You may need to work in smaller batches of potatoes to get an even puree. Transfer these to the strainer as well and mix with your hands a bit.

3. Rinse the puree mixture a little with water and allow to stand for a few seconds to drain. Using a tea towel, or your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can from the puree mixture. If using your hands, be sure to cup your hands around it tightly to avoid the mixture seeping through. Place the squeezed mixture into a work bowl.

4. Add lemon juice to the mixture. Beat the eggs, and add them, along with the flour, baking soda, scallions, and herbs. Add salt (I can't tell you how much exactly beyond "a heavy pinch" - do this with care though, since this can make the difference between a good and a bad latke) and ground black pepper to taste. Mix very well until thoroughly combined.

5. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan or skillet. Oil should come up about 1/3 to 1/2 the desired height of the latke - probably about 1/2 cup, but eyeball it - you don't just want to coat the bottom of the pan, you want about twice that amount. Wait until the oil temperature reaches 375 degrees.

6. Using a wooden spoon, scoop heaping spoonfuls of batter mixture into the hot oil. Press with a spatula to flatten and form into the shape you like. Put in no more than 4 or 5 latkes into the pan at a time.

7. Fry until one side is golden brown, then flip and repeat. Each side should take between 2-5 minutes.

8. Transfer to a paper-towel lined cooling rack, baking sheet or plate when both sides are done. Finish cooking the entire batch before putting in more batter. Every 2 batches, add more oil to get back to the amount you originally had. Before putting in a new batch, always wait for the oil temperature to come back up - that's very important!

Serve with applesauce (store-bought or homemade) and/or sour cream.

Makes 15-20 latkes.

Sweet potato variation

Sweet Potato Latkes

Follow above recipe, except substitute 2 or 3 sweet potatoes for regular potatoes. You may want to add a little cinnamon or nutmeg too to bring out the sweet potato flavor.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chicken Cacciatore

So, this week I had my first experience with FreshDirect. I figured out early what I was making, so I ordered the appropriate produce, and I must say, I am very impressed with the quality of vegetables they gave me. It definitely seems cheaper to shop there for some things if you know what you need in advance. The downside that I learned the hard way is that they don't always pack things securely - for example, yogurt that can explode all over the box and all the products in the box (ew). They were pretty understanding though and gave me a refund for the ruined items. But it beats going to the supermarket where the produce quality is sometimes okay, and sometimes awful (and the farmer's market can get expensive sometimes...).

I came up with this recipe for chicken cacciatore last year. It was one of my first "original" recipes - I basically spent a bit of time researching dozens of different chicken cacciatore recipes and tried to assemble in my mind what I thought was common between all of them. In the end, I was able to put together a nice array of flavors that were what I think this classic Italian dish should taste like (mind you, without ever having tasted it myself before!).

I think generally people like to put olives in chicken cacciatore, but I personally am not a big fan of the taste of olives, so I left them out. You can add them if you see fit - green is probably better than black.

The addition of the couscous came out of not having an extra side dish to serve with this, so I took a page out of my mother's cookbook and built-in the side dish to the chicken (my mom makes potatoes underneath chicken). It came out well - just be careful if you reheat this dish on a hot plate or something not to burn the couscous on bottom.

I used a red onion this time instead of regular for more color.

Chicken Cacciatore

1 red pepper, sliced
2 green peppers, sliced
1 onion, sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 whole chicken, in 1/8ths, or whatever parts you prefer
Olive oil
Crushed tomatoes
1 tomato diced
1 tomato sliced
1 package mushrooms, sliced
1-2 bay leaves
Salt & pepper
Israeli couscous, optional

1. Season chicken. Brown chicken skin-side down in olive oil over medium-high heat. Transfer to a plate.

2. In same pan/oil, cook onions, garlic, mushrooms over medium heat until the onions are soft and the mushrooms have a nice brown color.

3. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Add crushed tomatoes and diced tomato, peppers and the bay leaf. Season the sauce too. Simmer together, covered, until sauce comes together and peppers are more or less cooked, but not too soft (about 5-10 minutes).

4. If using Israeli couscous, toast it in a skillet until they start to brown, making sure to mix constantly to ensure even heat distribution.

5. In a baking dish (sprayed with Pam), optionally dump couscous on the bottom. You can either layer some sauce above that, then place chicken, then more sauce, or just do the chicken then all the sauce - it will seep down and cook and flavor the couscous. Bake, covered, in a preheated oven at 350, for 30-40 minutes or until done (for this it's best to use a meat thermometer if possible; cooking time could vary depending on how cooked the chicken was when you browned it).

Monday, December 8, 2008

Beta Recipe: Butternut Squash Risotto with Sundried Tomatoes

So, I haven't made risotto in a long time, and I wanted to try my hand at a non-dairy risotto. I saw a nice looking butternut squash at the farmer's market on Friday and decided that would make a nice complement to the risotto. I also found some pear cider from the same stand that I got the really good apple cider from the other week. I'd never had pear cider, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I looked at a whole bunch of basic risotto recipes on Recipezaar and a couple of my cookbooks and settled on an amalgam of them all. Some interesting things I picked up from my research was the idea to use sun-dried tomatoes, as well as an unexpected ingredient - vanilla.

A lot of recipes with butternut squash seemed to combine it with sage - I wanted to use a fresh herb, but I just used sage last week in my soup, so I decided to try something different - fresh thyme. It turns out that this might not have been a good idea - maybe everyone said to use sage for a good reason. The thyme was okay, but it gave the dish a floral taste which I was not looking for.

As you can see from the picture, the dish came out beautiful with a great risotto texture. But the flavor was a little off. It was a little too sweet and fruity - I guess I hadn't realized that the squash itself would lend considerable sweetness that didn't need to be supplemented. I picked up on this as I was finishing the dish and decided to add a few dashes of lime juice to make it a little more tart. That helped, but not enough. I think the pear cider ended up being a bad idea and was unnecessary.

One interesting thing was the cooking method I used for the squash. I started boiling it in the stock, but it kept the broth from heating up a bit and I was in a big rush. So I removed the squash and roasted it in the oven till it started caramelizing which definitely helped the texture and flavor there.

I think the flavor ante in this dish can definitely be boosted. Here's how I would improve the recipe next time: I'd add more tomatoes and shallots, swap the thyme for sage, swap the pear cider for an extra cup of broth, and maybe try adding some different savory spices (turmeric, my "Moroccan wonder spice," comes to mind). I'd also consider leaving out the vanilla, but I'm not sure yet if that helped or hurt.

One note about the squash disassembly method: I took that from the Sister Cooks' blog - it was useful, having had to chop a squash the harder was before.

Here's the recipe as I originally made it, though in my notebook I wrote it down with some of these modifications already in there. Please feel free to improve on it and let me know what you come up with!

A lovely looking risotto, but it could've used more flavor

Butternut Squash Risotto with Sundried Tomatoes

2 cups arborio rice
6 sundried tomatoes, rinsed well and chopped
3 shallots, diced
1 butternut squash, cut to 3/4 inch cubes
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup pear cider
1 cup white wine
several sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp olive oil
1-2 tsp lime juice
1 tsp vanilla
salt & pepper

1. Microwave squash for 2 minutes. Separate the bulb from the rest of the squash; peel the rest and cube it. Extract the seeds from the bulb and save for later.

2. Place squash into a pot with chicken broth and pear cider over medium heat. Add salt to taste.

3. Saute shallots in oil in a skillet over medium heat. When they begin to brown, add rice and saute until most of the grains are coated with oil.

4. Remove the squash from the broth and place on a greased baking sheet. Roast squash in an oven preheated to 475 unti the squash begins to brown (this should end up coinciding roughly with finishing the risotto).

5. Pour in half a cup of the squash-flavored broth into the skillet with the rice. Lower heat to medium-low. Stir constantly until rice absorbs the liquid (you should not see and liquid when you scrape the bottom of the pan with a spoon). Repeat this process until you have finished off the broth (this will take about 20-25 minutes of constant attention - be careful not to let it burn!)

6. Pour in wine half a cup at a time, similar to above process.

7. Add in vanilla and stir. Add fresh thyme leaves, lime juice, salt & pepper to taste.

8. Transfer to serving dish or aluminum tin, and add tomatoes and roasted squash and mix well.

Serves 10-12.
4 WW points.

Beta Recipe: Cornflake Chicken with Corn Sauce

I came up with this chicken recipe a couple of months ago when (as usual) my pantry was not well-stocked enough and all I really had on had were some onions and a can of corn. I made it and I liked it but I put way too much consomme mix in, and it just dominated the sauce. So, this was primarily another shot at the recipe with the seasonings mellowed out a little bit.

The sauce was not bad, but it could have used a little more flavor from something else, and definitely some more color besides just the yellow of the corn.

The biggest problem I had with the chicken this time though was the texture. Just like the last time I made it, the coating was mushy, and I'm not sure it was flavorful enough. The cornflake crumb mush just slopped off the chicken with the corn sauce, which was extremely unsatisfying. I found myself eating this mass of cornflake globs with the corn sauce...the taste wasn't too bad, but it wasn't the kind of thing I'd be prepared to served to a large crowd.

Here's what I would change: I would add another vegetable to the sauce, possible diced tomatoes, as well as maybe a green bell pepper (or even jalapeno possibly). I kind of want it to be more of a salsa than a sauce, and maybe give the dish a little more of a Mexican flair.

I would also definitely change the primary cooking method of the chicken. Baking it covered just plain didn't work. Baking it uncovered without the sauce first might be a step in the right direction. Another step might be to bake it uncovered on a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet, to allow both sides of the chicken to crisp up. But really, my gut feeling tells me this chicken is meant to be sautéed. A preliminary experiment with frying the leftovers definitely yielded better taste, but it was too late to see the effect it would have on the texture since it was already cooked. I'm pretty confident though that frying the chicken first will crisp it up nice and golden brown, and then cooking it with the sauce might be the right way to do this.

So, try this beta recipe at your own risk, or even better, improve it and let me know how you fixed it up!

This could've used a crisper texture and more color...

Cornflake Chicken with Corn Sauce

For chicken:
4 chicken breasts
1 Tbsp fat-free mayo (such as Smart Beat)
2 Tbsp mustard or prepared mustard sauce (I used SanJ tamari mustard sauce or a chipotle mustard)
1 Tbsp paprika
2 tsp. Billybee honey garlic spice (or just use garlic powder and a little bit of honey)
1 cup corn flake crumbs

For sauce:
2 tsp. olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (11 oz.) can of corn
2 tsp marjoram
2 tsp coriander
1 cup white wine
1 Tbsp. chicken consomme mix (such as Osem brand)
Salt & pepper to taste

1. Mix mayo, mustard, paprika and honey garlic spice together in a small bowl, and lay corn flake crumbs out on a plate. Dip chicken breasts in mayo-mustard sauce till well-coated, then coat in corn flake crumbs. Set the chicken breasts aside in a dish.

2. Saute sliced onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.

3. Deglaze the pan with white wine, then add corn, marjoram, coriander, chicken soup mix, salt & pepper. You might need to add a little bit of water too if there is not enough liquid in the pan - but no more than half a cup. Cover and let simmer over medium heat until most of the liquid has reduced.

4. Spoon corn sauce over chicken, cover and bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes or until done.

Serves 4.
7 WW points.

New Feature on The Kosher Chef: Beta Recipes

So, this week I have a double header for you. I've got two recipes to share. The problem is, I'm not happy with either of them! But as an inventive chef, I would be remiss in my duty if I did not share them with you. So, I've come up with a new idea for my blog: "beta" recipes. That means I am going to share with you not only my successful recipes - but also my failures. I find it really useful to learn from my (and other people's) culinary experiments that simply just fall flat.

It's interesting how certain technologies these days have pretty much redefined the word "beta" to mean "we're just experimenting and if you don't like it it's not our fault" - it used to be that a beta release of software was just a scaled back version of the full thing with a bunch of bugs, and not really production-level quality. These days though, I see almost everything marked as "beta" when it really is production-level.

So, I am going to take a page from the tech sector and warn you that when I choose to mark a recipe "beta" it means I'm not quite happy with the flavor, consistency, texture or appearance. For example, it might taste good, but the texture might be a little weird. Or, it could be exactly what I had in mind, except in reality the flavors just didn't come together the way I'd hoped. I'll always try to describe in the comments preceding the recipe what I liked and what I didn't like, and how I think I am going to play with the recipe in the future.

Of course, being a perfectionist with my food, I won't just let a beta recipe languish forever. I plan to try it again and again until I get it just right. And when I do, you can definitely expect me to post a "recipe redux" with my improvements!

With those reservations pointed out, you can try making the recipe as posted, and you might really like the taste of it, which is great! I'm quite aware that what doesn't appeal to me might be amazing to some people. Or, what I'd really hope for is that you can see my comments on where I think the recipe failed, and take it and make it your own way, with your own flair and flavor to see if you can improve the recipe. I'd love to encourage this kind of culinary creativity. All I ask though is that if you do improve on my recipe - let me know! Post a comment on the blog and tell me how you made my recipe so much better - I'd love to learn from you, my readers!

Keep on cooking!