Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Julia Child's Tian de Courgette au Riz, simplified

This summer was our first summer in the city house- the first summer I did not have a garden. I must say I was ok not having to worry about watering, weeding and pests, but I really missed being able to step out into the backyard to grab some fresh veggies or herbs to create a lovely summer dish. Homegrown Iowa tomatoes- I might have missed them the most, but I really missed the abundance of zucchini that most midwest gardeners find themselves trying to use up or give away. This summer, every time I found a zucchini recipe that I wanted to make, I had to buy them. Silliness.....

Also in the city house I have a little book nook all to myself- a comfy chair near big sunny windows and shelves filled from floor to ceiling with hundreds of cookbooks. I spent a lot of time over the cold and snowy months in that room reacquainting myself with books that had been packed away for the few years we lived at the lake. Cookbooks written by celebrity chefs, local church groups and the classics- The Joy of Cooking, Better Homes and Gardens, and of course, Julia's masterpiece, The Art of French Cooking. Within these beloved books I find loads of memories and an abundance of inspiration, especially with Julia Child's recipes. Don't worry- I am not going to revive the Julie and Julia experience- I'm not THAT crazy nor can I afford to buy many of those ingredients, but I do plan on making some of the recipes that best suit me, my tastes, and my budget.

Which brings me back to the zucchini. When I first came across this recipe I fully expected to have people throwing zucchini at me left and right by the time summer got here. Imagine my disappointment when that was not the case! Being in the city, however, means I have access to some of the best farmers markets in the country, like our Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, which is legendary, to smaller markets in nearly all of the suburbs, and many awesome HUGE grocery stores with every type of produce imaginable. I had to buy it, but that's ok. I really wanted to make this dish, Tian de Courgette au Riz. In spite of it's pretentious-sounding name, it's actually quite a humble little casserole. Simple ingredients and familiar flavors were something that really appealed to me. Julia's technique, however, was not. It was time to reinvent the wheel for sure. I've been cooking rice for decades, and making all kinds of dishes that start with uncooked rice and transform in the oven to something tender and fluffy- I knew I'd be able to figure this one out as well.

Julia almost certainly stood at her elevated kitchen counter and shredded that zucchini by hand, but I wasn't about to go that route, not with a perfectly good food processor on my counter. Shredding the zucchini took just a few minutes, and the rest of the dish is a snap. We'll go through how I made it, and then we'll look at Julia's original, and very meticulous, version for fun. For example, Julia spent a considerable amount of time prepping the zucchini even after shredding. She shreds, salts, squeezes, tastes, saves the spent juice, sautes, parboils, thicken, folds and finally, bakes. While her technique is masterful and creates this incredibly delicious dish, it's a lot of steps, too many for busy cooks these days. The biggest change is not salting and draining the zucchini. Besides the mess, the juice the zucchini gives off will help cook the rice without adding a lot of extra liquid- it just seems silly to drain off liquid just to add it back, am I right?

The Modern Zucchini and Rice Gratin

2 lb zucchini
1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup half and half
1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 2 quart casserole dish generously and set aside.

Wash the zucchini and trim the ends. Shred the zucchini into a large bowl and set aside.

In a large skillet (I used a wok- seriously, and it worked fabulously) melt 2 tablespoons butter. When butter is foaming and hot, add the minced onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium low heat until softened and just beginning to brown, stirring occasionally. Add the minced garlic and cook another minute.

Add the rice to the skillet and cook for a minute or two until the grains turn bright white. Remove from heat. Stir in the half and half, the thyme, the zucchini and half the Parmesan cheese. Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mixture into buttered casserole dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake one hour.

Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Remove the foil, drizzle with a couple tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake, uncovered, until the top is browned and the rice is tender, about 15-20 more minutes.

This dish is a lovely summer side dish and is perfect for a light vegetarian lunch option. It has all the richness of Julia's classic recipe with a lot fewer steps. Just for fun, let's take a look at the original recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of  French Cooking, Volume II.

Tian de Courgette au Riz

2 1/2 lb zucchini
1/2 cup plain, raw, untreated white rice
1 cup minced onions
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced
2 tablespoons flour
about 2 1/2 cups warm liquid- zucchini juices plus milk, heated in a pan (watch closely so this doesn't curdle)
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (reserve 2 tb for later)
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
heavily buttered 6 to 8 cup flameproof baking and serving dish, about 1 1/2 inches deep

Shave the stem and tip off each zucchini, scrub the vegetable thoroughly but not harshly with a brush under cold running water to remove any clinging sand or dirt. If vegetables are large, halve or quarter them.If seeds are large and at all tough, and surrounding flesh is coarse rather than moist and crisp, which is more often the case with yellow squashes and striped green cocozelles than with zucchini, cut out and discard the cores.

Rub the squash against the coarse side of a grater, and place grated flesh in a colander set over a bowl. For each pound (2 cups) of grated squash, toss with 1 teaspoon of salt, mixing thoroughly. Let the squash drain 3 or 4 minutes, or until you are ready to proceed.

Just before cooking, squeeze a handful dry and taste. If by chance the squash is too salty, rinse in a large bowl of cold water, taste again; rinse and drain again if necessary. Then squeeze gently by handfuls, letting juices run back into bowl. Dry on paper towels. Zucchini will not be fluffy; it is still dampish, but the excess liquid is out. The pale green, slightly saline juice drained and squeezed out of the zucchini has a certain faint flavor that can find its uses in vegetable soups, canned soups, or vegetable sauces.

White the shredded zucchini is draining, drop the rice into boiling salted water, bring rapidly back to the boil, and boil exactly 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

In a large frying pan, cook the onions slowly in the oil for 8 to 10 minutes until tender and translucent. Raise heat slightly and stir several minutes until very lightly browned. Stir in the grated zucchini and garlic. Toss and turn for 5 to 6 minutes until zucchini is almost tender.

Sprinkle in the flour, stir over moderate heat for two minutes and remove from heat. Gradually stir in the 2 1/2 cups warm liquid. Make sure the flour is well blended and smooth. Return over moderately high heat and bring to the simmer, stirring. Remove from heat again, stir in the blanched rice and all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Taste very carefully for seasoning. Turn into buttered baking dish. Strew remaining cheese on top, and dribble the olive oil over the cheese.

About a half hour before serving, bring to simmer on top of stove (you can skip this step if your baking dish isn't flameproof), then set in the upper third of a preheated 425 degree oven until tian is bubbling and top has browned nicely. The rice should absorb all the liquid.

Shew!! I am TIRED just reading all that, not to mention the lengthy and repetitive cooking and heating. In my version, the hour in the oven, covered, is all it takes to cook the zucchini to the perfect tenderness without being mushy. The rice absorbs the liquid the squash will give off during baking, without the hassle of squeezing it out, heating and adding it back. Half and half along with the butter gives it that signature Julia Child richness and the slightly larger amount of Parmesan makes it hearty. The heavier sprinkle of cheese on top of the dish also gives the dish a beautiful crusty, salty crust. Serve this with roast chicken or pork and get ready for rave reviews.

Monday, September 12, 2016

My spin on Sheet Pan Dinner- Cilantro Lime Chicken

I spent the whole winter counting the days til the warm spring sun shines down on me and I can start thinking about growing fresh herbs again. I've weeks flipping through garden catalogs and seed flyers and anxiously awaiting the springtime. This is our first summer in the city house and once again I be able to fine beautiful fresh herbs. I didn't plant a garden this spring, but with an abundance of farmers markets and specialty grocery stores I will have so many options. I plan to really embrace cilantro. Cilantro is the Either Or Plant- you either love it or you hate it. I used to detest the stuff and gagged any time I detected even a hint of it in my salsa. I decided to make an honest attempt to embrace it, and I sure have, falling in love the the flowery herby essence and bright flavor that's so unique.

All those fresh herbs mean I will have lots of great new flavors to play with. Cilantro is just inviting me to go in a Latin direction. Cilantro and lime are perfect partners, and juicy chicken is the perfect protein to showcase those flavors. While you can opt for chicken breasts, which work great in this recipe, chicken thighs are where the flavor is. Be sure to buy bone-in chicken thighs. This marinade is perfect for all kinds of chicken, so if you prefer a big platter of chicken legs, go for it. It's not too shabby for a wing recipe either. I opted to brown my chicken in that trusty cast iron beauty I have and finish as a "sheet pan dinner" but you can roast it right in the skillet and skip the vegetables or grill this chicken too.  

Juicy Cilantro Lime Chicken 

6 skin on, bone in chicken thighs (I used leg quarters, cut up, so 3 legs and 3 thighs)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more
3 tablespoons lime juice
zest of one lime
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup minced cilantro (stems and leaves)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
baby Yukon Gold potatoes (about 4 cups)
1 medium onion
2 red or orange bell peppers

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a large zip top bag along with all the other ingredients. Seal the bag and massage to mix ingredients and coat the chicken. Allow the chicken to marinate 3-4 hours (you can go overnight in the fridge too).

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a heavy oven safe skillet, such as cast iron, heat the skillet over medium high heat. Add a small amount of cooking oil and place the chicken, skin side down, in the hot pan. Allow the skin side to brown well, then flip the chicken and brown the other side. 

While the chicken is browning, prepare your veggies. Cut the potatoes in half, cut the onion into wedges and cut the peppers into chunks. Toss veggies with a little olive oil and salt and pepper.

Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread the veggies evenly onto the foil. Top with the chicken. Spoon the pan juices over. Bake until chicken tests done, 45 minutes to an hour, and the skin is golden brown.

Garnish with additional lime slices for squeezing and sprinkle with additional chopped cilantro.

Choosing the chicken for this dish is important. A lot of people think they don't like chicken on the bone. You have to get past that thinking guys. Bone in and skin on chicken is by far more flavorful and juicy than a boneless skinless breast can ever hope to be. Plus, you don't get the gorgeous browning and flavor building that you do with skin on chicken. Face your fears and buy the bone in chicken. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nathan's Bake Shop Special- Skillet Bread

My recent experiment with the pitta con sarde has reignited my passion for baking. In a big way too. Nothing too easy like cupcakes and pies- and believe me, I was tempted to go there- but breads. Yeasty soft and pillowy doughs and crusty crunchy crusts. Herby savory loaves, spicy cinnamony rolls of heaven, vanilla glazes and melted butters. Bread is such a homey and comforting food and usually the first casualty of carb-cutting when people change their eating habits. 

We made one for dinner and one to go home
with Nathan
Some people are lucky enough to share their passion for food with close friends and family, and I'm happy to say I am among them. I've always loved cooking with my family. My oldest daughter and I used to hit the farmers market, the corn stand and the grocery store and then spend the day freezing veggies and meatballs. Year after year my kids and I made holiday treats and cookies and later my dear friend and almost sister Jessica and I held holiday baking marathons. My friend Katie and I often have all day cooking events- with and without kids. Some of the most precious times in my life are times spent cooking with my grandson Nathan. Our unlikely tradition began with a pan of nachos and has grown into something really special. Whenever we have a weekend together we plan to make something fun and tasty. Recently Nathan came to spend the night with me. Life has been a little chaotic for this young man recently and he needed a break from the daily grind and spend some time with Gramma.

We always start our plans with "what are we going to cook?" We had some trouble deciding this time! It's the end of summer, not quite autumn, still warm out, not cool and breezy, too early for chili and stew. We had a tough time choosing and finally decided on fried chicken, but we knew early on we would be baking some homemade bread.

Living in the city I certainly have no problem locating beautiful breads. I don't have to do any baking, but where is the fun in that? Cooking, baking, and writing about it are hobbies to me just as much as knitting and painting and woodworking are hobbies to other people. I spend lots of hours reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows- always in a quest to learn new techniques, discover more flavors and interesting foods. Bread cookbooks have become my latest obsession and all that reading gives me ideas and inspiration and reason to play in the dough.

Like many people, for years I used a bread machine to make bread at home. I could grab a ready to go boxed mix or I could pull a book off the shelf and throw the ingredients into the machine and let it do all the work for me. Certainly this was a convenient way to have home baked bread but it didn't really challenge me or test my baking ability. I got a hot, fresh, but oddly square loaf. I was always yearning for something a little more handcrafted. When The Chef and I left the lake house and made the migration back to civilization, we left the bread machine behind as well.

Exact measurements are so important.
Cooking with Nathan is as much a learning experience for me as it is for him. He learned that the bread rises and become fluffy and filled with tiny air pockets because of that living thing in an envelope called yeast. I learned that the envelopes are really full of thousands and thousands of teeny tiny zombies that come back to life when you add warm water. Nathan learned about cast iron skillets, and why we oil them after using them and how they last for many many years. I learned that mixing bread dough by hand is actually way more fun than breaking out the Kitchenaid, especially when poofs of flour floof all over the counter and make you bust out laughing. 

We talked about different kind of pans, like loaf pans and muffin pans, and different kinds of bread, like banana bread and cinnamon bread and bread with strawberries and peanut butter mixed in the dough (Nathan's recipe) and why baking bread in a skillet is actually a pretty cool way to make bread.

Which brings me to this fantastic recipe. You might remember the Dutch oven bread recipe a while back- this one is a similar style, also baked in cast iron, but not in a covered Dutch oven. The dough in the Dutch oven bread is a no-knead bread, which is the easiest thing ever invented, and is so versatile. It looks like a sourdough loaf if you use white flour. Add some herbs and grated cheese and you get a savory loaf packed with flavor. Want a cinnamon bread? Mix up a small dish of cinnamon sugar and add the dough to the skillet in small amounts, sprinkling with cinnamon sugar mixture to make a swirled sweet loaf. 

Cast Iron Skillet Bread

4 cups flour (all purpose or whole wheat)
1 packet active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups warm water
olive oil, for the skillet
topping of choice

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, salt and yeast. If you are adding any herbs or grated cheese to your bread, this is the time to get it in the dough. Whisk it in thoroughly. For dried herbs, use about 2 teaspoons, fresh herbs, up to 1/4 cup minced. Grated cheese, keep it at 1/4 cup for dry grated cheese like Parmesan or 1/2 cup for cheddars and similar cheeses.

Mix in the warm water til the dough forms.

It looks a little rough, but trust us, it turns out perfect.
Pour the water over the flour and mix in with a wooden spoon and mix it in well. The dough will look a little rough but that's ok. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest and rise in a draft free spot for an hour.

Brush your cast iron skillet (I use a 10 inch skillet) with a little olive oil.

Our bread dough didn't slash so we just left it and
sprinkled on some flaked sea salt.

Flour your hands and sprinkle a little flour over the dough in the bowl. Use your fingers to work the dough out of the bowl and place it into the skillet shaping into a round loaf. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow the dough to rise one more time for half an hour.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Uncover the dough and brush with a little additional olive oil or melted butter. Slash the top decoratively and sprinkle with seeds, bits of grain such as hemp seed or oatmeal. I like to sprinkle a little flaked sea salt on top too for extra crunch.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the crust is deep golden brown. Remove the bread from the skillet and allow to cool on a rack. Slice and serve while still a little warm.

Baking bread like this is so easy and doesn't require all kinds of kneading and shaping and multiple rising and specialty pans. Just basic ingredients and that old cast iron skillet. It's not unthinkable to have freshly baked bread on the table for dinner, even on a weeknight, and where many bread recipes are an exact science, these easy recipes do allow some room for playing- with flavor and textures. This is also a great way to get kids interested in their food and learning to make some of the basics we take for granted from scratch. It's fun and better for all of us.

Disclaimer- this recipe is a close variation of numerous published recipes, none of which I own or claim to have written. This particular combination of ingredients works perfectly for me, and I have shared it with you.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Foodie Field Trip- Girlfriend Day in Pella

There is nothing like finding that awesome friend that you really connect with. My friend Katie is that friend. Not only do we work together but our home lives are nearly mirror images of the other's. Work, family, kids, and life as a chef wife. We understand the crazy schedules and cranky behavior and other oddities that our other friends don't get. Makes for some fun conversations, lots of cheerleading and venting and best of all- sharing adventures. On a recent Saturday we decided to hit the road for a short road trip and set our sites on Pella, Iowa. Less than an hour away it was a great drive, beautiful weather and not jam packed with tourists like during Pella's Tulip Time celebration. We didn't exactly have the town o ourselves but it wasn't so bad.

Arriving in Pella we already knew a couple of stops on our agenda- the bakeries, but before that we wanted to visit a few other shops and stroll around. The first place we visited was an antique shop right on the square. Like the usual antique shop it was packed with memories. Different items caught our eyes- Katie was drawn to antique jewelry and unique toys, vintage coffee cups and dishes,  while I was awestruck by an old gas stove, old canning jars galore, and dishes and cookbooks. 

After the antique shop we hit a Hallmark store. I hadn't been in a Hallmark store in decades! Here I grabbed a few candles and a set of small dishes. Cute and best of all- on clearance. A little walking and window shopping and we were thinking about lunch. The Windmill Cafe looked like a great place to stop so we headed in. It was a nice small town place, with a varied menu. We both chose a gyro- strange choice in a Dutch town but it was so delicious. They had the best fries I've had in forever. 

Patryk is the cutest lunch date in the world!
With lunch out of the way, we got down to business- the bakeries. Pella has two incredible bakeries with a huge assortment of delicious baked goods to tempt you. We were tempted- and we succumbed. Cookies, macaroons, cakes, coffee cake, handmade bread, we each bought a fun assortment of goodies.

Snuggled in between the bakeries is the Ulrich Meat Market- the place to go for genuine Pella Bologna. Like an old time butcher shop you can get all sorts of great meat items here. We also wandered around a cute little coffee shop/store hoping not to spend too much money. 

Driving around Pella is also a treat, so many beautiful buildings and gardens, even when it's not tulip season, the town is quaint and friendly. We will definitely be making the trip again. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Another No Recipe Cooking Weekend

We all know one of those planning kinds of people. You know the ones, they sit down with a notebook and a cup of coffee, their calendar and some coupons and plan an entire week's, or more, worth of menus, and actually stick to it. I am NOT that person. Oh I tried, and tried, and tried. I failed. I threw away uncooked vegetables that went bad because I didn't stick to my plan. I just did that in fact, this morning, tossing weepy organic arugula and green beans that I forgot to use for meals during the week. Darn me. I HATE when that happens. I regretfully had to toss an unopened package of beautifully prepared chili lime grilled chicken breast strips because I got lazy and didn't make dinner a few times. I just can't plan ahead! 

A few basics in the pantry and you can make a whole
takeout menu full of recipes for pennies.
Unless.......... it's a manageable amount of food- like say, six bone in chicken breasts. I had a package in the fridge that needed to be cooked or meet a freezing fate in the freezer, so I decided it's time to make some Planned Leftovers. Easy- line a baking sheet with foils, and arrange the chicken breasts on top. Season them liberally. I used the last teaspoon of some Fines Herbes from Penzey's, some garlic salt, Montreal Steak seasoning (I use this for everything), a sprinkle of smoked paprika and some tomato basil seasoning I found on the shelf and rubbed all over the chicken. I popped the chicken breasts into a 350 degree oven and roasted them for about an hour, then I let cool, popped in the fridge, and when cold, pulled the chicken off the bone and saved for some easy meals over the weekend, and I was soooo glad I did. I think I'm going to do this again- on purpose!

Dessert is a snap when you start with a mix
Having had a fairly stressful work week, the weekend was my relax time, my time to do nothing. Cooking wasn't even on my radar. I was whiny, sad that I am missing out on the Italian American Festival and the American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese- and come on!! Who want to miss these events? One of my Foodie Resolutions was to attend more food events in 2016- and so far it's been a tough one to meet. Not for the last of wanting, however, I have had to miss out on several awesome tastings, cooking classes, and a few other events and I'm not too happy about it. So I had a teeny meeny pity party over missing out. Cooking just wasn't in my game plan this weekend. Thankfully, that roasted chicken will come into play a couple times this weekend.

Faced with certain starvation and a fridge with some pretty tasty ingredients contained therein I opted for the easy way out- a salad. Rescued from the veggie drawer, a mostly full bag of organic baby spinach formed the foundation of my salad. I wish I'd also had some fresh basil leaves but i was forced to make do. A couple of very ripe and juicy Roma tomatoes get cut up into bite size chunks and tossed in the bowl. Half a ball of fresh mozzarella, cubed, goes in next, followed with a generous handful of cut up leftover roast chicken breast. Whip up a quick vinaigrette with some olive oil, Dijon mustard and Balsamic vinegar and toss the whole thing together with some crunchy Italian bread croutons. I didn't have any croutons and I missed that crunch. It was a great light dinner I'd definitely make again.

Sunday was a lazy day. Neither the chef nor I wanted to cook again.....and we still had veggies and chicken to use. Sounds like a crazy stir fry of some sort, with rice, was in order.

Out of boredom, I thought I'd check the pantry and maybe whip up some kind of dessert. I spied some good recipe basics on the shelf and decided a cake of some kind would be easy to pull off. Simple to throw together, mix up a one layer yellow cake mix as the package directs. Pour into 8x8 pan. Grab a can of pie filling of choice- I used red raspberry, and spoon it randomly onto the cake batter, swirling a bit. Sprinkle with a topping if you like- I had some leftover pecan brittle from the Naughtiest Bacon so I used that. Chopped nuts, coconut, a streusel recipe- all would be great. Popped into the oven at 350 degrees for 35 minutes and it was perfect. No frosting needed, a little whipped topping or vanilla ice cream would have been great. 

This quick dessert is a great dish to use and experiment. Use your favorite cake flavors and different pie fillings, or fresh fruit, leftover fried apples, whatever!