Belgian Date Night: Moules Frites (Mussels with French Fries)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

This is a super fast dinner. In fact, I made this in literally 10 minutes as the Hubby request it for his Belgian beer. At 10 pm. On a Friday. I took a considerable shortcut by using a bag of frozen french fries, which turn out just fine. If you're a purist you can fry your own from scratch, or skip it all together and go for a freshly baked loaf of crusty bread. Just fine by me.

Moules Frites (Mussels with French Fries)
1.5 lb mediterranean mussels
1/4 cup (approx) all purpose flour
1 large (2 smaller) shallot, peeled and chopped finely
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Take the mussels and pour them into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water and the flour. This flour mixture will force the live mussels to close, letting you know clearly which are alive and which are dead (the ones that remain open). Let mussels stand in this flour water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients (or 5 minutes). When ready, drain the mussels and run them under cold water to rinse off the flour mixture. Rip the "beard" -- the hairy clump that the mussel uses to latch onto stuff to grow in the ocean. Don't remove this until just ready to use because this is the mussels life line -- when it's removed it signals to the mussel it's going to die.

Take a heavy cast iron pot and melt the butter. Add the shallots and garlic and cook about 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, the white wine all at once and the thyme. Mix to combine. Add the mussels and coat them with the butter mixture. Cover tighly with lid and let simmer on medium-low heat about 5 minutes, or until all the shells have opened. The mussels as they open will release their own juices which will incredibly flavor the entire pot, creating an irresistable sauce.

While the mussels cook make the french fries according to package directions.

To serve, spoon out some mussels into individual bowls, then pour the sauce straight over them in each bowl. Serve with the hot fries, some mayo to dip the fries if desired, or the crusty bread and a cold Belgian beer. Conversely, it's romantic to share the mussles right out of the pot they cooked in.

*If you wanted to avoid the alcohol altogether, sub out with chicken or fish stock.

Party Casual: White Bean Dip

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

This dip is based on one of my favorite soups -- White Bean and Rosemary. I caramelize the shallots before adding them to the cannelini beans in the food processor. This adds sweetness and depth of flavor that beats any other bean dip out there, guaranteed. Woodsy rosemary, a light hand of garlic, and fresh mint round out the flavors while a good olive oil makes the dip luxurious and creamy. Using canned beans and a food processor creates this dip in seconds. You can make ahead of time and serve chilled or at room temperature for your next party. It's earthy, it's creamy, it's immensely satisfying...just like a perfect bowl of my favorite soup. Enjoy!

White Bean Dip
1 can cannelini beans (aka "white beans"), drained very well and rinsed with cold water
1/3 cup sliced shallots
olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
1 Tbsp fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped

Heat about a tablespoon of the olive oil in a small saute pan. Add the shallots and saute on medium-low heat until caramelized, about 10 minutes. Stir often so they don't burn! Turn off heat and set aside. Place the drained beans, shallots, garlic, rosemary and mint in the bowl of a food processor. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pulse to puree. With the machine on, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil through the feeder tube and mix until a creamy but chunky consistency is achieved. Transfer dip into a serving bowl and serve.

Can be served warmed, at room temperature, or cold but it's best warm or at room temperature. Perfect with some sliced bread, fresh vegetables, or pita bread.

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Ravioli with Spring Garlic Ricotta and Vegetable Marinara Sauce

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Here's another trick to get your kids to eat vegetables if you have a picky eater: hide them in something they love to eat like pasta sauce. They seriously don't know the difference between an all-tomato based sauce (traditional marinara) and one fortified with vegetables you cook right in with the tomatoes, then puree in the pot with an immersion blender (or in batches in a food processor or blender). In fact, most kids will actually prefer the vegetable one because the flavor is richer. And remember: kids aren't at stupid as we think they are.

Ravioli is a super fun and easy way to get the kids invested in their food. That's actually my first trick to get them to eat healthy: let kids actively participate in the preparation of the meal so they have a vested interest in the dish, and therefore will be more likely to eat their own creation. You can go ahead and make your fresh pasta from scratch -- a very fun but time consuming project you can do with your kids -- or simply use store-bought fresh lasagna pasta sheets like I did here. You can make any filling you like, but I kept it pretty traditional. I used the recipe for Spring Ricotta Salata and simply added eggs and parmesan cheese to it and used that for my ravioli filling. It was insanely good and the kids really, really loved it. The sauce was a collection of basic vegetables chopped small and simmered with tomatoes and tomato juice until very tender, then pureed. Fresh herbs we picked from our garden were the perfect compliment. And of course, the "snow cheese" aka parmesan on top completed the meal. Even if you don't have kids this is a great and easy ravioli recipe to make for dinner. Enjoy!

Ravioli with Spring Garlic Ricotta and Vegetable Marinara Sauce 
for the ravioli:
1 portion spring ricotta salata (recipe follows)
2 eggs
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 package fresh lasagna pasta sheets

for the vegetable marinara sauce:
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped small
1 large celery stalk, ends trimmed and chopped small
1 large white onion, chopped small
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped small
1 large (2 small) zucchini, ends trimmed and chopped small (no need to peel)
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1 large bay leaf
3 Tbsp fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp fresh oregano, leaves picked off of stem
5-6 stems fresh thyme leaves
1 Tbsp fresh marjory, leaves picked off of stem
V8, vegetable broth, or water to thin out sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil

First prepare the sauce.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add the carrot, celery, and onion and season with a little salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat about 8 minutes, or until beginning to soften. Add the bell pepper and zucchini and cook another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, bay leaf, fresh herbs, and season again with salt and pepper to taste. Cook covered with a lid halfway on about 15 minutes, stirring often. It will be very chunky at first, but the zucchini will let out a lot of water as it cooks to help thin out the chunkiness. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste. Turn heat off and use an immersion blender to help puree the sauce. After that's done, if you prefer a chunkier sauce you can let stand and serve when the ravioli is ready; if you like it a littlt thinner, add your liquid (V8, veg broth, or water) until you achieve your desired consistency of sauce. If you find you've made it too thin, heat the sauce on medium-low heat uncovered until the extra liquid evaporates. Cover and let stand until ready to use.

To make the ravioli, bring a large pot of cold water to a boil.

Add 1 egg and the parmesan cheese to the ricotta salata mixture and mix to combine. This is your filling. Then take out the pasta and working one sheet at a time, gently fold out one large pasta sheet on a flat surface (a large cutting board or clean countertop works just fine). Take the other egg and lightly beat it in another bowl to make an egg wash -- this will help keep the ravioli together. Brush a 1/2" border of the eggwash around half of the lasagna sheet, then three straight lines through the sheet to create four total compartments. Take a generous tablespoon's worth of filling and drop it in the middle of the squares you've created with those egg borders -- you should have 4. Then fold the non-eggwashed side up and over the filling, matching the eggless border to the other side you did brush with the egg wash. Gently press your fingers over each ravioli, pushing air out, and sealing the creases everywhere you applied the egg. Remember -- the eggwash is like your glue, so think of it like glueing two pieces of paper together. Once you're satisfied the filling is intact and the pasta sheet is properly folded over, take a knife and cut on the egg wash borders between each ravioli to loosen them into four separate large ravioli pockets. Then take a fork and gently but firmly press the fork part into the pasta all around the border (like you would an empanada or pie crust) to firmly seal the borders of the ravioli. Repeat with remaining sheets and filling. You will probaby have a little filling left over.

Once the water is boiling, salt it with a generous amount of sea salt. Gently slide the ravioli into the water, one at a time, about 3-5 ravioli to boil at once depending on the size of your vessel. It's important you don't overcrowd the pot to prevent sticking and ensure proper cooking. Cook 5 minutes -- you'll see the pasta turn a pale yellow color and the ravioli will rise to the surface of the water. Gently remove with a slotted spoon and directly onto a plate. Spoon some of the vegetable marinara right over and a generous amount of "snow cheese." Serve hot!

Spring Ricotta Salata1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 large spring garlic, ends trimmed and roughly chopped
1 scallion, ends trimmed and roughly chopped
1 Tbsp roasted garlic cloves (I just get them from the olive bar at the market!)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp fresh oregano leaves
2 Tbsp good olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and mix until combined and thick and creamy.

Spring Ricotta Salata

Monday, June 25, 2012

This is such a light and flavorful appetizer that's just perfect as we transition into warmer summer nights. It comes together literally in seconds if you have a food processor -- less than five minutes if you don't -- and is a perfect snack with some chilled white wine or appetizer for a dinner or party. It's based largely on one of my favorite appetizers at a great restaurant here in Seattle called The Pink Door. They serve their version with a head of roasted garlic and some grilled toasts. My version is a little more punchy using fresh spring garlic, lemon zest, and a heavy hand of fresh herbs. The texture is creamy and heavenly, it spreads easily even on crispy grilled baguetted toasts, and is one of those perfect, delightful and satisfying spring/summer appetizers. Make this for your next party or weekend relaxation -- I promise you'll love it!

Spring Ricotta Salata
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 large spring garlic, ends trimmed and roughly chopped
1 scallion, ends trimmed and roughly chopped
1 Tbsp roasted garlic cloves (I just get them from the olive bar at the market!)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp fresh oregano leaves
2 Tbsp good olive oil

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and mix to combine until thick and creamy and a little chunky in consistency. Serve with toasted sliced baguette.

Week Night Yum Yum: Spanish Tortilla

Friday, June 22, 2012

This is a really easy go-to week night meal you can literally whip up in seconds, especially if you have leftover potatoes from the night before. If not, cooking them takes less than 10 minutes so it's still a very busy week night friendly meal, or a lovely easy brunch item.
Spanish tortilla is basically a classic tapas dish -- omelette layered with tender thinly sliced potatoes and delicately flavored with saffron. My version adds onions (the addition of onions and/or garlic varies by region in Spain), a little bit of nutty petit basque cheese which is phenomenal, and for a slightly smoky taste and nose -- a very, very light dusting of spanish pimento (aka paprika). I love serving it with a few slices of fresh, ripe tomatoes seasoned with a small sprinkling of sea salt.

It's simple, light, and perfect on a warmer busy night. This recipe serves 4-6 people.

Spanish Tortilla
8 eggs
1 cup's worth of cooked yukon gold potatoes, sliced thinly*
3/4 cup white onion, small dice
spanish olive oil
1/2 tsp saffron threads
salt and freshly ground black pepper
spanish pimento
1/4 cup shredded petit basque cheese
ripe tomatoes on the vine, sliced thick

Preheat oven to broil.

Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large saute pan that is oven-proof (meaning, it's all metal because you will be placing it into the oven eventually). Add the onion and season lightly with some salt and pepper. Saute onion on medium-low heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until softened. Using a spatula, spread the onion out into one even layer, then add the potato slices in an even layer on top. Turn heat down to very low.

Very quickly whisk the eggs until light and a little thick and the color turns pale yellow. Immediately pour the egg mixture right on top of the onions and potatoes, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle the saffron threads on top. Turn the heat up under the pan to about medium-low, then using a spatula, gently move the outsides of the omelette inward (you'll find it will cook from the outside-in), and redistribute the middle back to the outside. Keep doing this to help the omlette cook evenly about 2 minutes, until you see the bottom is beginning to set. Smooth out the omelette on the top with the spatula, then sprinkle the shredded cheese on top.

Place the entire pan under the broiler for about 2-5 minutes (depending on the strength of your broiler) or until top is beginning to golden. Remove (use a glove!) and sprinkle a small dash of spanish pimento on top.

You can serve it straight out of the pan at the table, or gently turn the tortilla out onto a serving platter. If serving this way, I like to garnish the entire tortilla with a border of the sliced tomatoes sprinkled with a little salt and pepper and very lightly drizzled with some olive oil. Conversely, you can serve the tomatoes in their own serving platter similarly seasoned and dressed.

Tortilla can be served hot, warm, or even cold so this makes for a perfect breakfast entertaining dish to serve any guests.

*To make the potatoes, I love using yukon gold potatoes for this. They're less floury and more buttery, so they keep their consistency in the dish giving nice texture when you cut and bite into the tortilla. More floury potatoes like Russett can sort of disintigrate and leave a tasteless contribution to the dish, so try to use the yukon golds if you can. They range in size from tiny balls to larger-than-your-fist size. Because of that it's difficult for me to say "one or two potatoes;" I needed to write the recipe more as net worth after they're sliced and cooked. So...eyeball it. You'll use around 1 of these very large potatoes or 3-4 smaller balls to yield the 1 cup.

To cook, simply wash the potatoes and with the skin still on, slice them about 1/4" thick into little medallions. Then place them in a pot and fill it up with cold water. Add some salt and bring the potatoes to a boil. Then, reduce the heat to medium and simmer the potatoes until you can just stick a fork or knife in them and it goes through easily w/out resistance. This should take around or less than 10 minutes. Be careful not to over cook them or else they'll disitigrate into the omelette, and you really want to try to preserve their beautiful buttery texture. Drain them very well and then set aside until you're ready to use them. This is why any leftover boiled or roasted poatoes work great for this dish as well -- slice or cube them and then add into the omelette when you're ready!

Note that I do not use cream in this omelette. Most French-style omelettes add cream or a little milk to help them puff up. Frittatas certainly do because you want that puffed up almost pancake like fluffiness. A real Spanish tortilla should be actually rather dense and not airy. This is why you're just using eggs and using your arm strength to whip the fluffiness in by way of whisking!

Pastitsio: Heavenly Perfect Greek Style Macaroni

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hands down, top 10 dishes of all time for family food has got to be Pastitsio. A Greek version of macaroni, it's based on the Italian original called "pasticcio" which basically means "hodgepodge." It's the Mediterranean version of a Shepherd's Pie -- throwing leftover ragu (substantial meat-based sauce) together with cooked macaroni pasta and topping it with a sauce to hold it all together, then baked. It's wonderfully flavorful and substantial, making it perfect to feed a family or as a main or side dish for a larger party on the weekend or pot luck. In fact, I distinctly remember my grandma making this dish at least once every couple of weeks and every time we participated in a pot luck -- it would be this dish and a romanian style potato salad. Yes, we loved carbs.

Pastitsio ranges in preparation and flavorings. Most actually use ground pork or beef, but on occasion use ground lamb or a combination of the three. The pasta varies -- in Greece they use a special pasta just for this dish which is longer and tubular -- think larger spaghetti noodles with a hole down the shaft. But these kinds of pastas are rather difficult to find in mainstream markets, so a simple rigatoni or even penne will do you just fine It's just using these kinds of pasta won't hold the dish together as much as the longer tubular pastas can.

Flavors range according to location. A tomato-based sauce for the ragu is required, but one can flavor it with a heavier hand of garlic, usually cinnamon/clove/mace/nutmeg or a combination of those are used, and fresh herbs like parsley and mint are usually added for both color and flavor. The sauce is a requirement: flour and butter form a roux to serve as the thickening agent for the classic bechamel sauce. Cream is added slowly to the roux, creating a thick and velvety texture. Usually salt, pepper, and a light hand of freshly grated nutmeg or mace is added to enhance the flavor. Often but not always, grated cheese is added to this bechamel to create Mornay Sauce. It's my preference, it's how I grew up with it, and it's perfection.

The meat sauce is thick and hearty, which is why you need a pasta able to stand up to the heft to be
able to pick up all the beefy goodness without falling apart under the weight of the sauce.

Making a super authentic Greek version can be a little challenging depending on where you live. Getting the right pasta is the least of your concerns; you need to worry more about the cheeses. Traditionally, kefalotyri and halloumi cheeses are used in the dish, but unless you have a great Greek community near by who imports, good luck finding these. However, you can substitute with finely grated parmesan cheese for the kefalotyri and some shredded mozzarella for the halloumi. For this recipe I used the parmesan and mozzarella with great success.

The golden crust is courtesy of the Mornay Sauce.
This dish is a little challenging in that you have 3 main prep steps: make the ragu, make the mornay, assemble the whole dish. But each step is not that difficult at all. And it's worth the work. It can be done in advance and simply baked off when you're ready to eat it. It travels very well for parties or pot lucks, and you can make as much or as little of it as you desire. This recipe below can serve 6 people generously. Enjoy!

1 Tbsp olive oil
1white onion, chopped small
1 lb ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground clove
1 tsp dried oregano
1 (16 ounce) can chopped tomatoes, in sauce
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped small
1 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped small
1 lb cooked rigatoni pasta
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 cups half n half
1 egg
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion and cook on medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the ground beef all at once, and season with salt and pepper to taste (I do around 1 larger tsp of each). Cook until the meat is browned and the moisture has evaporated (you'll notice as the beef cooks, it'll let out some juice -- cook until this has evaporated). Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the clove, oregano, tomatoes, parsley, and mint and mix to combine. Cook covered for 30 minutes so beef can soften and flavors can develop. Once cooked, set aside.

Now make the Mornay sauce.

Classic Mornay Sauce 
You can adapt this sauce with pretty much any cheese that melts easily and use it for various
dishes including pastas, casseroles, and even sandwiches (hello croque monsieur!).
Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Once the butter has completely melted, add the flour all at once and begin whisking immediately. Cook on low heat for about 3 minutes to cook the raw flour taste out. Add the half n half slowly at first, whisking as you add, to form the sauce. Add salt to taste and cook the sauce until thickened, about 8 minutes. Once thick and creamy, remove from heat and add the parmesan cheese. Whisk to combine it in the sauce. Set aside to cool 10 minutes. Now, while whisking quickly, add the cracked egg into the sauce. By whisking you'll make sure the egg is incorporated fully and not cook and become scrambled. You'll notice this will considerably thicken the sauce.

Cover with lid and set the sauce aside until ready to assemble.
To form the pastitsio, butter the bottom and sides of a casserole dish. Spoon out a little of the Mornay sauce on the bottom -- just enough to thinly coat the bottom. Add a layer of the cooked pasta, then top with a layer of all the beef mixture on top. Next, add the rest of the pasta all on one even layer. Add the layer of mozzarella cheese on top of the pasta, then pour the entire sauce over, covering every inch of the top of the casserole to your best ability.

Pastitsio ready to be baked.

At this point you can either bake it in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes or let it come to room temperature, cover, and wait to bake at a later time. If baking later, make sure to add on a little cooking time. You want to bake it uncovered until the top is golden brown and bubbling.

To serve, remove from oven and let stand at least 10 minutes so it can set. Then using a sharp knife, cut into the pastitsio and serve. The fresh version will most likely come apart more easily; you'll find the leftovers will keep together into a form much more and be easier to slice through. Leftovers of this taste amazing so this is a very family-friendly meal.

I love serving it with a simply salad of greens with sliced tomato, red onion, and lemon vinaigrette.

Spring Risotto: with English Peas, Asparagus, and Spring Onion

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I wait every single spring for the last few years for these three ingredients: asparagus at its peek, English peas, and spring onion. I'm obsessed with all of them. Asparagus so flavorful and bright green, English peas so sweet and delightfully crunchy, and spring onion that only for a couple of months borders itself on a garlic-scallion hybrid that's insanely good and packs so much flavor.

My all time favorite spring dish to make is this risotto, using my favorite things. It's beautiful with the bright pops of green and the creamy and velvety risotto that's simply To. Die. For. This is gorgeous on its own for a meal, but you can certainly add your favorite protein for a more substantial dinner. An oven-roasted chicken breast sliced on top would be outstanding. I may have to make that next now! Enjoy!

Spring Risotto with English Peas, Asparagus, and Spring Onion
4 cups vegetable broth
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 white onion, very finley chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup cooked english peas
3 asparagus stalks, ends trimmed and stalks sliced on the bias very, very thinly
1-2 spring onion, cleaned and trimmed then sliced very thinly
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the vegetable broth in a small saucepan with lid on, over low heat. You want the broth to be warm but not boiling away violenty.

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper to taste, and saute on medium-low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the rice and mix to combine. Add the white wine -- careful, it will bubble up violently for a second! -- and mix to incorporate. Cook until the rice absorbs all the wine, then begin ladling in the hot broth a ladle at a time (about 1/2 cup - 3/4 cup). Add the broth, then cook until rice absorbs the liquid, then add more broth. Keep doing this, adding the broth slowly as the rice absorbs the liquid -- this is how you'll achieve that desired creamy texture and a perfectly plumped rice!

Once you've finished with all the broth, taste the risotto and make sure it's nice and tender and perfectly seasoned. Adjust as necessary. Add the peas, asparagus, and spring onion and fold in. Cook another minute or two, then add the parmesan cheese. Turn the heat off and mix the cheese in to combine.

Serve immediately, piping hot.

Spring Picnic: Orzo Pasta Salad with English Peas, Artichoke, Arugala, and White Beans

Friday, June 15, 2012

As the first warm days of the year start to show themselves, spring is a great time to enjoy those picnics. Here's the recipe for an orzo salad I made on a recent spring picnic at the beach. It is very simple to prepare, and carries very well. Also stays well in a picnic basket or cooler for a while without worry of spoiling. Enjoy!

Orzo Pasta Salad with English Peas, Artichoke, Arugala, and White Beans
1/2 lb orzo pasta
1 cup cooked english peas (or frozen peas)
1 can artichokes, drained and chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 can white beans, drained and rinsed in cold water
2 cups arugula
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Season the water with some salt, then cook the orzo pasta according to package directions (about 9 minutes). Drain well and set aside in a large mixing bowl. Add the english peas, artichokes, white beans, and arugula on top of the orzo and season the salad with salt and pepper to taste. Add the lemon juice and olive oil -- if you want a "saucey" salad then add all of the oil; a less oily version then use less to taste. Toss with a spoon until all the ingredients are well combined. It's ready to serve, but tastes best if made a few hours or even the night before so flavors can really develop.

Serving suggestion:
I made this salad so it was easily transported without fear of anything spoiling. If you're making this for a party or won't be traveling as far, add some crumbled feta cheese or shaved parmesan if you like.

Date Night: Salmon en Papillote

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

With a newborn and two other small kiddos, getting out for dates is hard. So, the weekly date night has been reinstituted! Here's a wonderful recipe inspired by one of my culinary mentors and  someone I could only hope and dream to ever meet: Jacques Pepin.

En Papillote means "in paper" and is reference to a cooking technique-turned-dish whereby the protein (usually some sort of fish) is cooked along with vegetables, flavors, aromatics, and seasonings within a package made completely of paper. The idea is genious: by creating this dome of paper, you create a greenouse effect inside so the fish and vegetables can cook and flavor each other. This is a wonderful technique if you're dieting as well, because they're no need for copious amounts of fat like say for saute or frying or even oven-roasting. The paper creates the necessary barrier between the tender fish and vegetables whereby keeping everything inside very moist and tender.

The technique is a little tricky at first, and you will screw up the folding part and forget a step until you've done it a few times and get the hang of it. But once you do it two, three times you'll be able to knock these out without even thinking. There are a few things to keep in mind for the perfect en papillote:

1. Pick something that will cook fast enough but not too fast to place inside. This means fish is the best bet. However, keep in mind more so the cut of fish rather than the actual choice of fish. You want a thinner slice of salmon if you're going to do such a hearty choice -- something no more than 1/2" thick. White fish tend to cook very fast, so halibut, sea bass, even monkfish can afford to go thicker. Very, very think fish like trout, snapper, tilapia, rockfish yield wonderfully to this technique as well, just make sure to cut your vegetables even thinner then so they all cook properly and you don't have perfectly cooked fish and still-raw vegetables.

2.  Keep your vegetables simple, colorful, flavorful, and sliced thinly! Carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, shallots (as opposed to the clumsier onion), scallion, garlic, citrus thinly sliced, asparagus, tomatoes, fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, mint, leafy greens like spinach, arugula, mizuna, heartier but still quick cooking items like bean sprouts...these are all wonderful selections to include in the paper. Thicker, longer-cooking-required vegetables like broccoli or kale, beets (unless sliced paper thin with a mandolin)...these take far longer to cook than it will take the fish inside. Skip them and serve them on the side if you must.

You want to also make sure you slice your vegetables very, very thinly. This will ensure they cook properly and become tender. The thinner the fish you use, the thinner the vegetable must be sliced. Match-stick cuts for longer vegetables like zucchini and carrots work perfectly, but if you prefer to be fancy you can even shave them or slice them with a mandolin. If I were having a dinner party and serving this, I probably would go that route for presentation's sake. But for every day, a nice thin cut with your knife is just fine.

3.  Keep the seasonings simple and complimentary! Of course you can experiment and do crazy flavors, but the idea here is the vegetables you've selected to include will flavor the fish, and vice versa. There's no real need for fancy marinades and crazy salts and spice blends here. Using those will defeat the purpose of adding all the vegetables (and the healthiness factor of this dish!). Just keep things complimentary with each other. Thyme goes very well with practically everything. Rosemary is heartier and goes famously with mushroom but not so great with carrots I think. Oregano is lovely with tomatoes and zucchini. Mint is a little trickier -- keep it with citrus and a light white fish like tilapia. Cilantro and parsley go with everything. And of course, nothing beats a good course sea salt and freshly ground black pepper!

Now, on to the recipe!

This makes for two people, designed for a perfect date night meal. However, this can obviously be extended out for a perfect meal for 4-8 people. Basically you're limited to how much oven space you have. My recipe is a classic combination based on Jacques' classic recipe. It's perfect and SO flavorful, it will blow your mind. Please include the mushrooms -- you'll be shocked how much flavor they add to the whole dish and in my opinion, really distinguish it from other en papillotes.

Salmon en Papillote
2 filets salmon (skin off and deboned)
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
little olive oil -- about 1 Tbsp worth
1 carrot -- peeled and cut into match sticks
1 zucchini -- peeled and cut into match sticks
1 large (or 2 small) shallot -- peeled and sliced thinly
1/2 cup sliced baby bella mushrooms
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 Tbsp good European butter

Special Equipment: parchment paper (NOT WAX PAPER)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Take the parchment paper and cut a large piece out, about double the size of a large cutting board. Take the paper and fold that in half, creating a rectangle about the size of a large cutting board. The double paper will ensure the fish and vegetables won't seep through and destroy the cooking in the oven!

Brush both sides of the salmon with some oil and season both sides with salt and pepper. Place the salmon on the left half of the paper. Add half of the vegetables and thyme and sprinkle them on top of the salmon and to the sides. Like this:

Season the vegetables with a little salt and pepper to taste, and top with a piece of butter (see above). Now, fold over the right side of the paper up and over the fish and vegetables until you meet the paper on the other side. Starting at the edge of the crease, begin folding the paper over onto itself, creating a border like so:

The trick is to very tighly fold the paper, so go slowly and carefully, smoothing out the folds so they are secure as you go. If you don't pay careful attention to this, steam will escape during the cooking process and your fish will be overcooked and hard, and everything won't cook properly.

Place the finished packets on a baking sheet. You can brush the tops with some vegetable oil if you like to help the paper brown -- Jacque recommends this for presentation purposes -- or you can skip this step. Bake in oven 10 minutes (or less if using a thinner fish -- something thin like tilapia will only take 7 minutes! something like halibut or sea bass will take more like 10-12!) then remove from the oven and let stand a minute.

When ready to serve, simply transfer an enitre package onto a plate. A large spatula (or two!) works great for this. Then cut open with a knife and let steam escape. Be careful -- the steam can be very, very hot and burn. Serve right in the paper and enjoy the amazing flavors!

Note: The vegetables and fish will create their own juices, fortified by the butter you added. The reason why you serve the dish in the paper is to keep those juices intact with the rest of the dish. Plus, it's fun to eat out of paper once in a while!

Easy Saganaki: Shrimp Saganaki with Feta Cheese

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I've been exploring my Greek side of the ethnicity tree lately, and came across this fantastic classic Greek dish called Garides Saganaki. Saganaki comes from the name of the pan -- a small, iron skillet type pan with two handles-- that is used for various dishes all under the umbrella of "saganaki." This particular dish originated around the sea, where fisherman brought in the fresh garides and threw them in their saganaki with the trifecta of greek cooking: tomatoes, feta, and ouzo. It's a wonderfully flavorful dish, simple and complex at the same time, and extremely satisfying.  

The traditional requires heads on/shell on shrimp, simmered whole in a tomato-based sauce flavored with ouzo, spices, and chili flakes and is usually served with lightly melted feta cheese on top. I adapted the classic recipe to suit the demands of week night and came up with this much easier to prepare (and eat!) version that hits the requisite notes. Oregano and fresh mint add freshness and depth, while chili flakes add a gorgeous heat to the earthy tomato sauce. To top it? Creamy but still substantial feta cheese -- won't break down against the chunkier sauce but still offer a creamy and salty bite to compliment the sweet, perfectly cooked shrimp.

Admittedly, it won't be as flavorful as simmering the shrimp in the shell; the shell adds immense flavor to any sauce or broth it's cooking in. But, my recipe works for a quick meal to enjoy on a busy week night and certainly won't disappoint!

Shrimp Saganaki
1 lb large raw shrimp -- deveined and shells removed
1/2 cup white onion, chopped small
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (16 ounce) can crushed tomatoes in sauce (recommend: san marzano)
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp oregano (dried or fresh)
1 tsp red chili flakes (less for less spicy)
1 Tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup feta cheese, patted dry and cut into small cubes (or crumbled by hand)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil

Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large cast-iron pan. Add the onion and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook on medium-low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes and stock and mix to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste, add the oregano and chili flakes and stir to combine. Let simmer 10 minutes for flavors to build.

Preheat your broiler to high.

Next, add the shrimp in one even layer. I like making a mosaic type pattern because it presents beautifully:

Neslte the shrimp in and around the chunky sauce and cook on medium heat about 2 minutes. Sprinkle the feta cheese on top and place the pan under the broiler for about 3-5 minutes, depending on the strenght of your broiler. When the shrimp is bright orange and the cheese is on the verge of melting, it's ready.

Carefully pull the pan out of the broiler and top with the mint. Serve piping hot with some cooked white rice, pilaf, or crusty bread. Enjoy!

Kid Tip:
Making this for kids? Add the chili flakes to half of the shrimp on one side, leaving one spicy side for the adults and one mild one for the kids!

Fava Bean Crostini with Goat Cheese

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fava beans are part of spring's amazing bounty. Their large and flavorful, substantial and very slightly sweet when cooked just right. I usually blanch my fresh favas and then throw the beans into a salad or risotto, pasta dishes, or toss with some fresh mint, salt and pepper and olive oil for a side dish to grilled steak. Recently I craved my favorite appetizer -- crostini -- and turned the humble Fava into a creamy deliciousness of epic porportions. Course sea salt adds crunch while fresh garlic and mint adds just enough spice to make it interesting. I kept it quite simple, opting for just a good quality olive oil to do the job. Bringing the dish home is some fresh, piquant goat cheese crumbled on top. This is spring. This is fresh. This is easy and amazing. Enjoy.

Fava Bean Crostini with Fresh Goat Cheese
1 lb fresh fava beans, shelled and blanched*
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
course sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tbp fresh mint leaves
good extra virgin olive oil
loaf of crusti artisan bread -- chiabatta, french, italian, etc.
fresh goat cheese

Place the beans, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and the mint in a food processor and pulse until chopped fine. With the processesor on, stream in the olive oil until a chunky paste consistency forms -- around 2 tablespoons give or take. Slice bread thinly then spread some of the bean mixture on top. Add crumbled cheese and serve.

Can also be served as a dip with sliced bread, fresh vegetables, or crackers as well.

*Working with fresh fava beans requires just a few extra steps. First, remove the beans from their pods and set aside. Next, bring a small pot to a boil. Add the beans all at once to the water and cook until they cook bright green in color and float to the top -- about 5 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and place beans directly into an ice bath (bowl of water with ice) to stop the cooking process immediately. When the beans are cool enough to handle, gently open the bean's skin and pop out the bean. You can eat the skin as well, but it's a little tough. Store beans in an air-tight container and toss in your favorite pasta, salads, and risotto recipes all spring!

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Vegetable Soup (!!!!!)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I swear to you the kids designed this one 100% on their own. I let them pick all the ingredients at the store and out of our fridge, then we came home and chopped it all up together and they helped from beginning to end to make this soup. Both kids, even at times veggie-picky Little Boy ate the whole soup up. It was super easy to make, a lot of fun actually between the shopping and integrating the kids into the whole process, and best of all I got them both to eat an extremely healthy and low fat dinner.

I often get asked how I get my kids to eat stuff like veggies and fish. Hell, Little Girl even eats raw oysters now (!). I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but Rule #1 is Get Them Involved. A lot of times picky eaters have an issue with control rather than the food item itself. If you can get them involved in the process from the beginning by choosing their own vegetables and ingredients for the dish, they have a vested interested and the control issue is put to bed. Not only will they be excited to taste the final product, they'll be proud of themselves for creating something from scratch that's so tasty. I can't say it enough: kids aren't as stupid as we think they are. Treat them like a person with opinions and feelings and you'll be surprised how much further that'll take you, especially in the War of the Veggies department!

For this dish the kids both wanted soup. Perfect. It's easy and fast and totally something they can help with. They chose to use carrots, onion, and celery (which happens to be the trinity of soup making!), and add tomatoes, beans, and aromatics. I helped guide them into the foray of fire-roasted tomatoes because I knew they'd love the flavor. And same with the herbs -- I told them all soups use bay leaf so they agreed to use it, then we opted for some fresh herbs from our garden as well as garlic. Of course.

Perfect Vegetable Soup
1 white onion, chopped small
1 stalk of leek -- washed and ends trimmed then sliced thinly (white and light green parts only!)
3-4 carrots, peeled and chopped small
2 stalks celery (or 1 if very large), ends trimmed and chopped small
3/4 cup small cube yukon gold potatoes -- about 2-3 potatoes, depending on size -- unpeeled
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fire-roasted tomatoes, with juice
1 can cannelini beans, drained
6 cups good chicken broth (recommend: Swanson)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small bay leaf
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp fresh oregano leaves, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a medium-large sized soup pot. Add the onions, leek, carrots, and celery all at once and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes, on medium-low heat. Add the potatoes and garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Add the broth slowly at first, gently scraping up the brown bits on the bottom and sides of the pot -- this adds flavor to the soup! Add the bay leaf, thyme, and oregano leaves and bring soup to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium-low and add a lid on top. Simmer the soup until vegetables are very soft, potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork -- about 15 minutes. Add the drained beans and stir to combine. Cook another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve piping hot with good crusty bread.

Week Night Yum Yum: Shrimp Tacos with Chipotle

Think shrimp scampi meets tacos for this dish...

Sweet shrimp is lightly marinated in olive oil and fresh lemon juice with garlic and salt and pepper, then quickly cooked in a saute pan until tender. Condiments include some freshly chopped onion and cilantro, shredded cheese, and a spicy chipotle sauce that comes together in seconds. It's bright, it's spicy, it's healthy and delicious and perfect for a quick weeknight meal. Enjoy!

Shrimp Tacos with Chioptle
1 lb raw shrimp -- peeled, deveined, and tails removed
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 white onion, minced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
shredded cheese (recommend: mild cheddar and monterery jack blend)
2-3 chipotle peppers in adobo
1/2 cup sour cream
3 Tbsp mayo
corn tortillas
fresh lime wedge for garnish

Wash and pat dry the shrimp, then place in a large mixing bowl or gallon size storage bag. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice, and garlic and mix to combine. Let marinade at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour - 2 hours.

While the shrimp marinades, make the condiments.

Combine the onion and cilantro in a bowl and set aside. Add the chipotle peppers with some adobo sauce, sour cream, and mayo in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until combined and a sauce is formed. Pour out into a serving bowl and set aside.

To cook the shrimp, simply heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp all at once, along with the marinade, and cook until all the shrimp turn orange and are firm to the touch -- about 4 minutes.

To heat the tortillas:
place desired amount of tortillas in a kitchen towel and fold over to cover. Heat in microwave for 1 minutes. Keep in the towel until ready to serve -- this will keep them pliable and soft.

To assemble the taco, simply take a corn tortilla and fill it with some shrimp. Add a sprinkling of cheese and the onion-cilantro mixture, then top with some chipotle sauce. Add a fresh squeeze of lime juice if desired.