Week Night Yum Yum: Mango, Tangerine, and Avocado Salad

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In my great Organic Basket of Produce Goodness of Life, I also got a few avocados, tangerines, and the sexiest cabbage you'd ever seen. Add to that a mango that had been sitting pretty on my counter top for the greater part of a week and a half, and I got inspired: Mango Citrus Salad.

Oh ya. Let the colorful games begin.

I love avocados. Seriously one of my favorite foods. But I get sick of the guacamole. I love doing different salads that incorporate avocado, some where it's playing supporting cast and some like this one where the creamy green goodness takes center stage. Add some sweet and tart tangerines for acidity, finely chopped red onion for crunch, cilantro and fresh mint for a cool and refreshing background flavor and you've got a wonderful little salad. I add the mango too because it was there, and added a great super sweet note to the whole thing. Don't have mango? Use pineapple or even pears!

This salad is very versatile: chop it all fine for a fresher take on a "salsa" or keep it chunky for a substantive salad. Or, add some finely shredded cabbage and marinated shrimp to do shrimp tacos:

Either way you slice it, you'll love this summertime salad.
Mango, Tangerine and Avocado Salad
1 large ripe mango, peeled and diced
3-4 tangerines, peeled, seeded and segmented
2 ripe Haas avocados, diced
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped
juice of 1 lime
drizzle of olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients into a bowl. Drizzle with desired amount of olive oil (about a tablespoon or so will do you) and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let stand 15 minutes for flavors to meld together, then serve.
*To make shrimp tacos, just grill up some shrimp simply seasoned with salt and pepper (and a pinch of cayenne if you like them spicy) until pink, about 2-3 minutes per side. Leave whole or chop up and place in corn tortillas. Top with shredded cabbage and lots of the mango-avocado salad, and serve with more lime wedges for garnish.

Ranch Burgers and the "Yes, This Corn Actually IS More Important Than You" Corn On The Cob Masterpiece Of Life

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Yes, the corn was actually that good. But so was the burger and potato salad...

Our friends Tania and Kasra invited us over to their place to partake in the burger ritual known as Ranch Burgers Extravaganza. Ok, so that's my name for it. But believe me, these burgers were awesome and totally merit the adulation.

You must understand. We'd been planning this dinner for literally a year. Scheduling conflicts, sick kids, work....everything managed to tank the dinner for one reason or another until we finally held our fists up to the gods and said "Enough! I must have The Burger before I move!" And so the gods blessed us and made us lost only a little bit on our way over to their place.

We got there and Andrew opened a bottle of wine...sort of:

Heh. It was funny.

But I wasn't there for wine. I was there for burgers...

Delicious beef patties dotted with white onion, seasoned simply with a packet of ranch (you know...the stuff you make dip with for carrots and celery?). I didn't know it could be that easy. That tasty. That...good.

Add some melted cheese and Thousand Island dressing and we're in business, people.

Tell me you don't want to dive through your computer screen right now and pull out one of these gorgeous burgers. Yes, they were that good.
And just when I thought I had gone to heaven in Burgerland, the sides came coming...
Ina Garten's potato salad...

Creamy. Formidable. Perfection. I've tasted a few potato salad recipes and have found them to be kind of "meh" but this one quite possibly could be the best one I've ever had. I am not surprised. Go Ina!

And then we had shrimp...

tip: make sure if you're grilling shrimp to get the raw shrimp at the store; don't use cooked shrimp because by grilling it, you're overcooking it!
And then...the corn...

Kasra told us a funny story about how he'd go to visit Tania at law school and he's stop off first at this place that made this corn, and he'd actually make her wait, even after not seeing her for a while, just so he could have the corn because it was that good. And I thought to myself "bullshit - corn can't be that good." And you know what? It was...

Corn on the cob, grilled then smothered in butter and mayo, then topped with grated cotija cheese and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper, and a squeeze of lime.
Holy Deliciousness.
Best corn ever. Seriously, no joke. My favorite corn used to be the one with parmesan and basil I'd make every day last summer, but I think this summer it's gonna be cotija and lime all the way, every day. This was an insanely good recipe. Sweet corn that got only sweeter from the caramelization that happened when you grill it, then butter and just a touch of mayo lathered on so the salty cotija cheese could stick to it, then a sharp, smoky bite from the cayenne and the fresh lime squeeze just elevated the whole thing up a notch. It was amazing.
I get excited about food, but this recipe I am really excited about. You must try this at your next grill party. And it's super cheap to feed a crowd as well.

For dessert? Persian rose water cookies:

So yum. And lime pops for the kids. ;)
Tania and Kasra have been generous in letting me share their recipes with you here on the blog. I love that both recipes can be easily adapted for crowds, and ingredients can be easily substituted. Don't like onions? Use garlic. Can't find cotija cheese? Do feta. This is another great example of cooking being about techniques rather than ingredients. Follow the basic steps and let your imagination do the rest in the kitchen.
Ranch Burgers
2 pounds ground beef (20% fat; can also use ground chuck)
1 (1 ounce) package ranch dressing mix
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup crushed saltine crackers
1 onion, chopped
deli sliced sharp white cheddar
sliced tomato
thousand island dressing
your favorite burger buns

Preheat the grill for high heat.
In a bowl, mix the ground beef, ranch dressing mix, egg, crushed crackers, and onion. Form into hamburger patties. Lightly oil the grill grate. Place patties on the grill, and cook 5 minutes per side, or until well done. Once one side is done, flip the burger and top it with a slice of cheese if desired to reach melted cheese stage.
Serve with sliced tomato, lettuce, and thousand island dressing if desired.
Potato Salad courtesy of Ina Garten
3 pounds small white potatoes
Kosher salt
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped red onion

Place the potatoes and 2 tablespoons of salt in a large pot of water. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the potatoes are barely tender when pierced with a knife. Drain the potatoes in a colander, then place the colander with the potatoes over the empty pot and cover with a clean, dry kitchen towel. Allow the potatoes to steam for 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, buttermilk, Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, dill, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Set aside.
When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in quarters or in half, depending on their size. Place the cut potatoes in a large bowl. While the potatoes are still warm, pour enough dressing over them to moisten. Add the celery and red onion, 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Toss well, cover, and refrigerate for a few hours to allow the flavors to blend. Serve cold or at room
Marinated Grilled Shrimp courtesy of allrecipes.com
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pounds fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
skewers (soaked in water for at least an hour)

In a large bowl, stir together the garlic, olive oil, tomato sauce, and red wine vinegar. Season with basil, salt, and cayenne pepper. Add shrimp to the bowl, and stir until evenly coated. Cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour, stirring once or twice.
Preheat grill for medium heat. Thread shrimp onto skewers, piercing once near the tail and once near the head. Discard marinade.
Lightly oil grill grate. Cook shrimp on preheated grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until opaque.
"Yes, This Corn Actually IS More Important Than You" Corn on the Cob
6 corn on the cob, husks and silks removed
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup mayo
grated cotija cheese*
cayenne pepper
fresh lime wedges
Preheat grill to high.
Grill the corn on direct heat until you achieve char marks, making sure to turn the corn frequently. Remove from heat and immediately rub them with butter. Using a knife or back of spoon (or basting brush), spread a little bit of mayo on the cob; the mayo will help the cheese stick. Either directly grate the cheese right on the corn or grate the cheese in a plate and then roll the corn in the cheese to cover it more densely. Top with a small pinch of cayenne pepper and serve with lime wedges.
*You can find cotija cheese in the mexican cheese section of your grocery store, where the pickles, horseradish and fresh tortillas are located. If you can't find it you can substituted with crumbled feta cheese.

A Simple Sangria

Monday, May 17, 2010

Everyone thinks of red wine when they hear "sangria." And there's nothing I enjoy more on a hot summer's day than a good, spiced up red sangria. But have you tried a white sangria? It's made the same way: wine, fruits, and splashed with other liquors. And is the same refreshing cocktail, only I find it's even crisper and colder than a red sangria. It's a perfect and fun cocktail to kick off a party, and is a great drink to take into a fish-centered main course dinner.
As part of my challenge last week to use ingredients from my organic produce basket, I decided to throw in the fruits I got into a pitcher of cold pinos grigio. And voila! An awesome cocktail that looked as beautiful as it tasted.
Sangrias are very versitle; you can literally use whatever wine you like with whatever spices, fruits or liquors you have on hand. You rarely will have to actually go out and shop for ingredients for a sangria - often you will have everything right in your home or pantry!
I loved how simple and delicious my white sangria turned out, so I thought I'd share the recipe with you all here. Again, substitute this fruit for that, or use a different wine all together. The point is to get the spirit of the cocktail (no pun intended) and go from there.
Organic Fruit Basket White Sangria
1 bottle good pinos grigio
1 cup Triple Sec or other orange-flavored liquor
1 organic green apple, sliced thinly with skin on
2 tangerines, peeled and broken into segments
1/2 pint fresh organic strawberries, sliced thinly
1/4 cup super-fine white sugar (or regular granulated sugar)
Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher. Using a wooden spoon, gently press on the fruit to help release their juices. Place in refrigerator and let stand at least an hour, preferably up to 3. Add ice cubes to pitcher before serving and serve in large wine glasses with fruit and cubes in each glass.

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Chicken Tortilla Stew

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I really try to push my kids to expand their palate. Even at the ages of 3 and 18 months respectively, they have a sense of what's good and what's bleh so I like to help cultivate that and encourage them to try new things and different flavors.

It's a myth that young kids will only eat bland, mushy foods. On the contrary, the more flavorful and colorful the higher the success rate for consumption. That's why kids usually have no trouble eating Italian or Asian foods - they're both pretty to look at and tasty, well seasoned with depth of flavor. So use the same logic in your kitchen.

A super easy, healthy and flavorful dish you can make your family any busy weeknight is my recipe for Chicken Tortilla Stew. I call it a stew because it's a lot more concentrated with veggies rather than a super-seasoned brothy soup. And because I'm making it at home, I can control the fat and spice level for my little ones.

It's another myth that kids don't like spices. They don't like spicy, but actually love spices. My basic spice combination for southwestern cuisine involves ancho chile powder, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, oregano and bay leaf.

Bay leaf is actually a diuretic when used in large quantities, so I like to use a tiny one when cooking for the kids or just cut a large one in half. Ancho chile, paprika and cinnamon give this stew a warmth without having an aggressive spice. If I were making this for adults, I'd add cayenne as well. Oregano and coriander gives a subtle sweetness to the dish, and smoky cumin makes it taste and smell like quintessential southwestern cooking.

And my "trinity" for southwestern soups include white onion, carrots, celery and poblano peppers.

I know it's not a trifecta per se, but whatever. It makes for an excellent base.

Cati and Trajan love this soup whenever I make it, and with readily available ingredients and some help with frozen veggies, you can whip this up in a half an hour too. It also keeps in the fridge a few days as well.

Chicken Tortilla Stew
2-3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 small white onion, chopped small
2 carrots, peeled and chopped small
1 celery stalk, chopped small
1/2 poblano pepper, chopped small
1 tsp ancho chile powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 small bay leaf
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 large ripe roma tomatoes, chopped (or a can of chopped tomatoes)
4 cups organic chicken broth (recommended: Swanson's)
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 can black beans, drained
crumbled tortilla chips
chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)
finely shredded low-fat cheddar cheese for garnish (optional)
1 avocado, diced for garnish (optional)

Heat some olive oil in a heavy cast-iron pot like a Dutch oven. Season the chicken breasts liberally with salt and pepper, and brown on all sides in the oil about 7 minutes. You want to achieve a good golden crust on both sides to lock in the juices and create a good flavor base for the stew. Once browned, remove chicken from pot and set aside.

In the oil that the chicken was browned in, add the onion, celery, carrots and poblano peppers. Mix well, evenly coating the vegetables with the seasoned oil. Take a quick taste and add more salt and pepper if needed, and more oil if needed. Cook vegetables until tender, about 7 minutes on medium-high heat. If vegetables begin to burn, reduce heat to medium and continue cooking until softened.

Add the spices all at once - chile powder, cumin, oregano, coriander, paprika, cinnamon and bay leaf -- and mix to incorporate. Cook until spices are become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute until garlic becomes fragrant. Add the tomatoes and cook a couple of minutes, until tomatoes begin to soften and render their juices. You can help this process along by gently pressing on the tomato chunks with your wooden spoon. Use the juice that comes out of the tomato and any steam from the vegetables to scrape up any brown bits that have formed on the bottom. This is the flavor!! Add the chicken broth and give it a good stir. Crank the temperature on high and bring stew to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and let simmer 20 minutes, uncovered.

While stew is coming to a boil, cut chicken into cubes or shred it. If you have little ones, I like to shred it so it's easier for them to eat. Place cut chicken back into the stew (don't worry if some of it isn't quite cooked all the way through - it will finish cooking now in the stew) along with any juices that accumulated on the plate it was resting on.

Once stew has simmered and reduced a bit in liquid, add your corn and beans and cook another 5-10 minutes until corn is warmed through, and everything is nice and tender. Give the stew a final taste and adjust with seasonings if needed. Add a handful of the crushed tortilla chips right into the stew and give it a stir. You can also reserve some extra to top for crunch.

To serve, ladle out a generous portion of stew in a bowl. Top with some cheese, chopped cilantro, avocado, and more crushed chips if desired and serve immediately.
My Notes:
Want this vegetarian style? Take out the chicken and add another can of red kidney beans for a hearty and healthy vegetarian style stew.
Making this for adults only and want some spicy kick to the meal? Add a minced jalepeno when you saute your vegetables, or a teaspoon of cayenne pepper with the herbs. And you can always serve your favorite hot sauce on the side if little kiddos are eating at the table too.
A great side dish to serve with this stew is your favorite cornbread. Even better -- make cornbread muffins with a dab of honey in the batter.

The Holy Grail In Orange County?? Yes! It's Called The Milk Man!!!

I've actually found the culinary Holy Grail in Orange County. Ironically, a month before we're set to move to Seattle (more on that later), but The Holy Grail nonetheless.

What if I told you that in Orange County, you could have fresh organic produce, organic dairy products, and freshly baked pies and pastries delivered to your door (!) at a discounted rate? Ya, I'd think I was drinking too much lately too. But you can! Really, you can! It's called Rockview Farms!!!

Some dude from Rockview came to my house a few weeks ago and was pitching this Ya Right, Do I Look Like An Idiot message to me about organic this, non-hormone that and I could have it all at my doorstep by the time I wake up once a week. I called his bluff and signed up. And low and behold, a week later, I got my order:

1 gallon of whole for the kids, 1 gallon of 2% for Andrew and me, unsalted butter, whipping cream and cottage cheese in addition to assorted Yolplait yogurts and 2 gallons of apple juice to go along with the freshly squeezed, organic orange juice (!).

And then my fresh, organic veggies:

That would be the sexiest head of cabbage I'd ever seen, a cute little broccoli head, the most beautiful cauliflower that's ever existed (and I hate cauliflower and wanted to dive into that sucker!), lettuce, Swiss chard, fresh organic strawberries, apples, 2 avocados and sugar snap peas (!). In addition to some kickass homemade granola.

And all of this was a fraction of what I'd spend at a grocery store.

The taste? UH-MAY-ZING.

Rockview Farms are located in Tustin, California. They carry everything from milk to cream to juices. You can sign up with just them for dairy products that will be delivered to you once a week at 5:30 in the morning (!) so you literally wake up one day a week to fresh, organic dairy at your doorstep. Or, check out this link for the Rockview products as well as the baked goods and produce. And you can have your own milk man and produce guy too!

Unfortunately they only service Orange County, California so if you're a resident then I highly recommend checking it out and giving them a try. They're a no-minimum obligation; try them once and if you hate it then cancel right then with no penalty. Need it for a month only? No worries. Want to continue for years...great!

I was so inspired by my basket of goodies, all week I've been making foods inspired by and using these ingredients. Stay tuned to see what I come up with!

Lobster. Macaroni. Cheese. Heaven.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sometimes you can find something in food that takes it to a whole new level, a skyrocketing trip into the stratosphere of heavenly goodness and complete satisfaction. Such is the destination when you combine a few ingredients: pasta, cheese, truffle and lobster. The pillowy clouds of carbohydrate goodness float in the sea of melted cheese, as chunks of tender lobster poached in butter navigate through with force of texture. And the turbo booster into heaven: white truffle oil.

Uh huh.

I'll wait for you to get a napkin. Go head. I understand.

Most of us wait to go to a fancy restaurant to drop up to $40 for such a meal, but no more! I've recreated it. Based on my friend Rogers's excellent macaroni & cheese recipe, I added here and mixed in there to recreate one of my favorite side dishes of all time I had for my birthday last year at Mastro's in Newport Beach.

So strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride with my recipe for:

Lobster Mac & Cheese with 3 Cheeses and White Truffle
2 (10-14 oz) lobster tails*
1/2 pound medium-sized pasta shells (about half the box)
1 stick + 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup "scant" all-purpose flour**
2 large cloves of garlic, minced (about 1 tsp worth)
1/2 cup half & half, heated on stove
1/2 cup whole milk
kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 tsp creole seasoning (recommended: Tony Chachere's)
small pinch of ground nutmeg
1 cup freshly grated Danish style fontina cheese (recommended: Denmark's)
1.5 cups freshly grated white sharp cheddar cheese (recommend: Beecher's)
1/4 cup finely grated Romano cheese (or Parmesan)
1 tsp white truffle oil
breadcrumbs for topping (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using a pair kitchen scissors or a sharp chef's knife, carefully remove the lobster meat from the shell. See notes below for suggestions on how to do this.

Melt 1 stick of butter in a saucepan, and drop the raw lobster tails in the melted butter. Cut the tails in half to fit if you have to. Poach the lobster in the butter until almost cooked through, about 5 minutes. Don't worry if the middle is still raw, as it will finish cooking when you bake the macaroni and cheese. Once done, remove from heat and let stand to cool. Once cooled enough to handle, chop up the lobster into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Prepare your pasta and cheese sauce now.

Set your cream on the stove to warm on very low heat in a small saucepan. You don't want to boil or scald the cream; just heat it through so you can add it to the roux while warm.

Add pasta to a pot of boiling water salted with a good amount of kosher or sea salt (a large pinch's worth), and cook for 9 minutes. You want the pasta slightly under al dente because it will continue to cook in the oven and you don't want it to get too soft. Strain as usual and set aside in a large mixing bowl. Now make the cheese sauce.

Melt the remaining 1/2 stick butter in a saucepan. Once butter has just melted (it has to melt completely), add the flour all at once and begin whisking immediately. Your heat should be medium-low. You are making a white roux or "roux blanc" so make sure you do not leave it alone at this point; you need to keep whisking and stirring. Cook the roux for 3-4 minutes, so the raw flour gets cooked out and you're left with a very smooth roux. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, until garlic is fragrant. Add the warmed cream, a little at a time, constantly whisking. The roux will clump up immediately once the liquid is introduced so don't panic; just keep stirring and whisking to smooth it out. Keep doing this until all the cream is used up. Once the cream has been incorporated, add the whole milk all at once and stir. At this point you can switch to a wooden spoon. Season the roux with salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp is good), and add the white pepper, creole seasoning, and nutmeg. Give it a stir to combine then remove from heat. Now add your cheese: all all the fontina, 1 cup of the cheddar (reserving 1/2 cup for the topping), and the grated Romano. Stir vigorously to combine. The sauce will clump up again because you're introducing cold cheese to a hot cream sauce; this is normal. Keep stirring to encourage the cheeses to melt. The cheddar will be the last one to melt. You can put the sauce back on a low flame to help it melt as well, but make sure you're stirring constantly! Give it a final taste and adjust with salt or seasonings as desired.

Once the sauce is melted, thick and thoroughly cheesed, it's time to assemble. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta. Add the chopped lobster. Add the truffle oil (to taste!) and gently fold all of the ingredients together, careful not to break up the lobster meat or the pasta. Pour the mixture into a buttered casserole dish and top with remaining cheddar cheese and breadcrumbs if desired.

Bake in oven for approximately 30 minutes or until cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

*You can use frozen lobster tails for this, but just make sure they're thawed out before using. A quick way to thaw out is to place lobster tails (still in the plastic bag they came in from the store) in a bowl of warm water. Let them stand, submerged in the water ideally, for about 20 minutes or until thawed. Conversely you can leave them overnight in a refrigerator to thaw, but my method is much faster. :)

**"Scant" means approximately. For this it means between 3/4 and 1 cup of flour. It doesn't have to be exact, so no need to level off anything.

My Notes:
To remove the lobster meat from the shell, turn the lobster over so the underside is exposed. Run your scissors along the middle, carefully snipping through the thin shell. Turn the tail over and do the same with the top shell, but be careful as the top is considerably tougher than the underside. Carefully slide your fingers under the shell and start to break apart the shell to the side. You only need to remove about the first 1/4 part of the shell. Then pinch the tail fins with one hand, and use your other hand to gently pull out the meat all in one piece. Discard shells or freeze to make lobster bisque or fish stock later.

I like using a creole seasoning blend for just a pinch because it adds great flavor and the smallest hint of heat. Creole blends will have cayenne and paprika along with other spices, so it also gives the overall dish a nice color as well that's subtle and flavored. If you can't find it or don't want to use it, then you can substitute with a small pinch of cayenne and paprika.

You can find truffle oil at specialty grocery stores or order online. I get mine from Sapphire Pantry in Laguna Beach.

Week Night Yum Yum: Chicken Curry NOT In A Hurry Because Great Things Take Time

Monday, May 3, 2010

One of my favorite dishes of all time is a good, savory chicken curry. This fragrant and spicy stew-like dish is so comforting and at the same time invigorating. And the combination of spices is literally addicting.

When we hear "curry" we immediately think Indian or Thai. And when we hear "chicken curry" we think Indian, right? WRONG! It's actually an English dish that developed in post-colonial England when the English people had great access to Indian spices and curries and married them with English methods of cooking. The end result: a cream (not coconut) based sauce infused with all sorts of exotic spices ranging on the spectrum from heat to sweet, that is not quite as thick as an English stew but not as thin as an Indian masala either. Whatever it is, it's wonderful.

I've had many curries, both here in the states and abroad. They can range from super sweet using raisins and mango chutney in the sauce to more savory that uses more garlic and herbs and spices. My personal favorite curries are on the savory end, so I developed this recipe right after our trip to England a few years ago. Again I use African birds eye pepper for a real shot of heat in this dish (actually, I use around 3/4 tsp of the stuff for an atomic 9.5 level on a 10 scale) but if it's too much for you or you can't find it, feel free to substitute with cayenne or stay away from it all together.

I used to make this dish all the time, but let's be honest - with all that cream and rice and naan, it's not that good for you. So now it's a special occasion treat on a cold rainy night. And call me crazy, that makes it even better.

Chicken Curry with Basmati Rice
3 boneless and skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and washed
1 Tbsp butter + 2 Tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced (or combo garlic-ginger ratio)
2 Tbsp tomato paste (or 1/3 cup diced tomatoes with juice)
kosher salt
1/4 tsp birds eye african pepper
3 Tbsp good quality curry powder + more to taste
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp whole cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks
1 bay leaf
2 cups chicken broth
heavy cream
chopped fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)
white basmati rice
Take chicken and pat dry well with paper towels. Cut chicken into 1.5-inch cubes and place in a small mixing bowl. Add a tablespoon or so of curry powder and salt to taste, and toss well making sure the chicken is evenly coated by the curry powder. Let stand a half an hour at room temperature. This can be done a day in advance.
In a large skillet or saute pan, heat the butter and oil. Crank the heat up to high and add the chicken cubes. Brown on all sides about 5 minutes. Lower heat to medium-high and remove chicken to a plate or bowl using a slotted spoon. Don't worry if the chicken isn't fully cooked; it will go back into the sauce and finish cooking soon.
Add the onion and bell pepper to the pan, sprinkle with some salt to taste, and saute on medium-high heat until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes. If the onions and peppers start to burn, lower your heat to medium (cooking time and heat will depend on how thinly or thickly you slice them!). Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add the tomato paste and mix to combine. Next add the african pepper, peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon sticks, bay leaf, and remaining curry powder (to taste) all at once and mix to incorporate. Cook on low-medium heat about 3 minutes, until spices become fragrant. Add the chicken broth and using a wooden spoon, scrape up any "brown bits" that formed at the bottom of the pan. Stir until the tomato paste has dissolved in the broth and add the chicken back in. Bring to a simmer. Cook sauce until liquid has reduced and chicken is very tender, about 30 minutes uncovered.
Once liquid has reduced, it will leave a very concentrated sauce. Taste and adjust with salt, pepper or curry as needed. Don't worry if the spices seem very pungent; the cream will dilute the intensity and even out the flavor. Add the cream to your desired consistency, about a 1/4 cup depending on how thin or thick you like your curry sauce. Mix in and cook on low heat for about 3 minutes so cream can heat through. Taste and adjust with seasoning again if necessary. Top with chopped cilantro.
Remove the bay leaf, cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods if you can find any and serve over a bowl of hot basmati rice and with some naan on the side.
My Notes:
For spice you can also always substitute fresh hot peppers, like jalepeno or serrano or Thai chiles. Chop them up fine to your desired level of heat and add them in with the onions and bell peppers.
If you like, you can do a combination minced garlic and ginger as well. Or add a 1/2 tsp of ground ginger if you've got it in your pantry.
This dish can be easily made with shrimp as well. Marinade the raw shrimp in the curry powder as well. No need to sear them first as you don't need to lock in any juices; in fact you'll end up overcooking them. Just begin the sauce with the fresh butter/oil and saute the onions and peppers, building the flavors of the sauce, then go ahead and add your shrimp at the end of cooking once the sauce has reduced. This will ensure sweet and tender shrimp, not disintegrated shadows of their former selves.
Want it vegetarian style? I used to make this dish during Lent all the time. Just add some mushrooms, squash, zucchini and even carrots to the onions-pepper mixture and proceed as normal, substituting with vegetable broth.
Enjoy it!

An "Old" Recipe for A New Artichoke

Artichokes have to be one of my favorite ingredients to work with and eat. I grew up never eating even one, until I met Andrew and ever since I was hooked for life.

Artichokes are thought to have come from Northern Africa originally (the Maghreb region to be exact), and eventually made their way throughout the Mediterranean vis-a-vis the Roman Empire where their popularity is still enjoyed even today. The Dutch eventually brought the artichokes to England where they grew in abundance in Henry VIII's garden at Newhall. Centuries later, French immigrants brought artichokes to the New World when they settled in Louisiana, while Spanish immigrants did the same in California. Today artichokes are primarily grown in the Mediterranean and California, whose climate we know mimics the Mediterranean's almost perfectly.

The most popular variation of the artichoke that we know and use throughout history is called The Globe Artichoke. The artichoke itself is actually a thistle -- the part we eat gives way to a beautiful purple flower, which is also edible. But we primarily eat the "globe" part (the leaves), discard the inedible "choke" that surrounds the super-tasty "heart."

Given its worldly popularity, artichokes can be prepared a number of ways from simply boiled to preserved in sugar syrup like candy. Today the most popular version (and my own favorite) is to simply steam the artichoke and serve it with a concentrated dipping sauce comprised of good quality extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, pepper, garlic, and grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.

But recently when making artichokes, I wanted something different. As I often do, I look to history to find a new "old" take on classic ingredients and found a very interesting recipe from ancient Rome on serving artichokes. Again, steaming or boiling (there is really no way around it because it's so tough) and then served with a dipping sauce comprised of honey, vinegar, and cumin.

I was skeptical, I had to be honest. Cumin? With honey and vinegar? For an artichoke? That couldn't be right. Where was the garlic? The cheese? The olive oil for Chrissakes??
I whipped up a quick batch and was amazed at how beautifully it went with the artichoke. It was stunning. The sweetness of the honey and sharpness of the vinegar together with the smoky cumin seeds was a combination made in heaven that brought out a whole set of new flavors out of the artichokes. I loved it.

And even more, I loved the contrast between the two sacues together -- one was smooth and oily infused with garlic while the other was bright and sweet. I was extremely please with this dish as a whole.
So here is my recipe for....
Artichokes Old & New: with Garlic-Oil and Honey-Vinegar Dipping Sauces
2 large artichokes
1 large clove garlic, minced into a paste
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 heaping tsp finely grated Romano cheese (or Parmesano-Reggiano)
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 heaping Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp toasted cumin seeds
special equipment: steamer
Take artichokes and with a sharp knife, cut off the very tops and discard. Take scissors and snip off the spikes of the remaining leaves (optional). Cut off the stems and discard. Place in a steamer and steam for 40-45 minutes or until extremely tender (leaves should come off very easily).

While artichokes steam, prepare your sauces.
In a small serving bowl, combine the garlic, salt, pepper, cheese, and olive oil. Mix and set aside to let flavors meld together. In another small bowl, combine the vinegar, honey and toasted cumin seeds. Let stand to combine as well.
Serve artichokes with both dipping sauces.
My notes:
If you don't have a steamer, you can create the same effect in a large pot. Cut off the stem of the artichoke, but leave about 2 inches on there. Make sure you cut the stem pretty evenly so the artichoke can stand on its stem. Fill the bottom of your pot of water about 2 inches high with water and place the artichokes inside. You want a pot that large enough to accommodate the artichokes, but small enough so they fit snugly in and won't topple over during cooking. Bring water to a boil, cover with lid, and let artichoke steam until done. Depending on how large your artichokes are (and therefor how long they'd have to cook), the water may evaporate, so make sure you pay attention and add more water during cooking as needed. No need to do this with a steamer as enough room is between the bottom and the steaming basket above.
Yes you have to toaste the cumin seeds. To do this, place seeds in a dry saute pan and gently heat through on low heat until you can smell the cumin. By doing this you "awaken" the essential oils in the seeds and draw them out. This is what gives them flavor in cooking.

A Lesser Known But Still Classic Appetizer: Bruschetta with Prosciutto and Fontina

Bruschetta is one of my all-time favorite dishes. It's easy to make, gives a beautiful presentation, and can be made with readily available ingredients. And like a good friend, is one of those classic dishes that will never fail you for a dinner or party.

There are two main components to a bruschetta: toasted bread and topping. That's it. Bruschetta comes from the Italian word bruscare (pronounced brew-SCAR-eh), which means roughly "to roast over coals." This is in obvious reference to the toasted bread that serves as the "plate" for the topping. And for the record, bruschetta is pronounced brew-SKET-tah, not brew-SHET-tah. A big pet peeve for Italians or those of us married to one.

Bruschetta is traditionally comprised of a grilled bread, often a chiabatta or filone bread, that is cut into 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices and brushed with olive oil, and grilled. While still hot, it is rubbed with a clove of garlic and then topped with a combination of finely chopped fresh tomatoes, red onion, fresh herbs, salt and pepper, and more good extra virgin olive oil.

Traditionally, bruschetta was born in the dark cellars of olive oil pressers. To taste the olive oil, pressers would bring with them some stale bread. As the oil would come out of the presser, they would quickly grill some of the bread on a small portable grill and then dip it in the olive oil to gage the quality. Then garlic was added to the bread, then the tomatoes, and soon we had the bruschetta we know today.

Other variations of the bruschetta exist. Some include a fresh mozzarella in the mixture or replace the tomatoes with cooked beans (like cannelini or even garbanzo). Still others use smoked meats and cheeses, like I did for this recipe featured in this post.

Prosciutto yields itself to many dishes, but I personally love it when it's the star of the show. A good bread, some melted cheese and a topping of a good quality imported prosciutto is a wonderful way to start a meal or enjoy a glass of wine on a lazy Sunday afternoon. So here's my recipe!

Bruschetta with Prosciutto and Fontina
chiabatta bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick
extra virgin olive oil
fontina cheese, sliced thinly
imported prosciutto
rosemary sprigs for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush each slice of bread with some olive oil and lay out on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes until the bread starts to get golden brown. Remove from oven and top each slice with the fontina cheese, then return to oven for 5-7 minutes or until cheese has just melted. Top each slice with some prosciutto and garnish with a rosemary sprig or loose leaves if desired. Then drizzle with more olive oil and serve immediately.

My notes:
This recipe doesn't have measurements because you use the ingredients within proportion of how much you're making. It's completely to taste. Make 4 slices of bruschetta or make the entire loaf! The cooking time will be the same!

I like rosemary actually with this because it goes very well with the fontina cheese and prosciutto, and gives a small but noticeable bite of freshness and earthiness. If you hate rosemary, then you can do thyme. Don't bother with basil or oregano - they aren't strong enough flavors to compete with the cheese and aged ham.

This dish cannot be make in advance, but the advantage of this for a party is that it can literally be done in 15 minutes. To save some time, ask your bakery to pre-slice your loaf for you so all you have to do is brush with olive oil and bake when you get home.