Posts tagged dinners

Shrimp and the Future

The BP oil spill has been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for about a month now, with no end in sight. As oil and chemicals drift towards the Louisiana coast, it’s easy to imagine the destruction being inflicted on these fishing grounds and the people who make their livings from them. This article from the New York Times addresses the issues straight-on, explaining how the majority of our domestic seafood comes from either Louisiana or Alaska, and how this spill will likely cause seafood shortages from the Gulf. It makes me wonder, between E-coli laced meat and toxic seafood, what will be left for us to eat?

One of the many reasons why I feel so sad about the BP situation is because in the past few years, I had recently renewed my love for shrimp. It all started with my first trip to Disneyworld as a child—whenever I think about it, I don’t remember the exhilarating curves and dips of Space Mountain or the sentimental sweetness of the It’s a Small World ride. No, my most vivid memory is of sitting at a white-clothed table with my parents and younger sister in front of a tall, narrow glass filled with my first shrimp cocktail. After my initial bites of those cold boiled shrimp dipped in their deliciously zesty tarter sauce, I couldn’t get enough, and I think I had a shrimp cocktail every night for the rest of that week. Mickey Mouse and Goofy just couldn’t compete.

But something changed in my early twenties, and for a long while I couldn’t stand the sight of shrimp. It had something to do with the texture, and I didn’t touch them for years. But in an effort to partake of their health benefits, I started eating and enjoying them again a few years ago. Their mild flavor works well in a variety of recipes, from Italian to Asian and everything else in between.

Currently my favorite shrimp dish is this recipe from the New York Times, published over a year ago. From the moment it appeared, these roasted, lemon-infused shrimp and smoky, cumin- and coriander-accented broccoli took the blogging world by storm, and with good reason. Served with brown or white rice, they form an easy and healthy meal, packed with a unique and addictive combination of flavors. I’ve been making it at least once a month for the past year, and I haven’t tired of it yet.

Jim and I recently tried a Thai-inspired recipe from Food & Wine as well, an intriguing mix of grilled shrimp, garlic, cilantro, shallots, red pepper, and soba noodles, mixed with various Asian seasonings. Jim loved the spicy combination of flavors with the buckwheat noodles, and I expect this recipe to enter our regular dinner rotation as well. We slurped up every bite in one sitting.

I don’t mean to minimize the oil spill in the Gulf with petty talk about my favorite shrimp recipes; there are so many huge ramifications of this catastrophic event that it depresses me just to read about them. But talking about the impact of this spill on my daily life in Brooklyn, miles away from where it is actually happening, reminds me that I’m really not so distant from it at all. These disasters, both natural and man-made, impact us all in one way or another. Shrimp dinners are just the beginning.

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Memories of Essaouira

During our honeymoon in Morocco, Jim and I spent a few days in the seaside town of Essaouira. We strolled the narrow stone streets overlooking the ocean and relaxed on the beach, breathing in the salt air with each step. One hot, sunny day at lunchtime, we walked down to the port and seated ourselves at one of the myriad fish stands right by the water. Seagulls swarmed overhead, swooping down every so often to investigate the fresh seafood that local fishermen unloaded from their boats.

At the time, Jim and I didn’t eat fish often. But there was no way we could avoid it in Essaouira, and neither did we want to. Maybe we were still giddy from our wedding or something, I’m not sure. Anyway, we ordered a big platter of straight-from-the-sea, grilled sardines for lunch. Using our hands, we picked our way past the charred, salty skin and spindly bones to the cleanest, freshest meat we had ever tasted. Four years later, we still talk about about that lunch and its effect on us.

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This past weekend we tried to recreate that meal—or at least the spirit of it—in a very different setting. We pulled our grill pan out from under the sink, heated it through, and grilled 2 pounds of barely seasoned sardines for dinner. A Brooklyn apartment might seem a shabby substitute for an exotic African port, but it didn’t hinder us at all. After cooking for just a couple of minutes on each side, the skin of the shimmery fish was transformed into a crackly coating, and our apartment was quickly infused with salty scents of the sea. (That’s my nice way of saying it smelled like fish.)

I don’t know why it took us four years to cook sardines at home, especially when there are so many benefits to eating them. Sardines are a highly sustainable fish source, which at least puts my mind at ease in terms of purchasing and eating them. And in addition to being a great source of omega-3s, they are low in all those scary contaminants I keep reading about. These small, oily fish surprisingly pack a big nutritional punch.

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But let’s not forget how good they taste. I served ours atop a bed of rice, with some fresh lemon wedges on the side. The crisp skin was a perfect foil to the fresh, flaky meat hidden within. Even though we were miles away from Morocco, Jim and I were transported there for just a moment, as we once again used our hands to pick past the tiny bones towards the light, clean flesh of the sardines. Fishy apartment aside, it was a great trip.

Recipe for Indoor Grilled Sardines (adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe in the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times)

  • 2 pounds of cleaned sardines
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • pepper
  • lemon wedges

Heat a grill pan over medium heat, until it is very hot. While the pan is heating, rinse the sardines, and dry them with paper towels. Toss with olive oil, and season them generously with salt and pepper.

When the grill is ready, place the sardines on it. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter using tongs and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Rampless Risotto

risotto

What are the most obvious signs of spring? Some might say the flowering trees and plants; others celebrate the arrival of warmer temperatures and lighter jackets. But in the world of food blogs, spring means one thing: ramps.

Food bloggers love these mild spring onions. Once they are sighted at farmers’ markets, new posts about ramps fill my RSS reader, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Ramps in pasta, ramps on pizza, ramps, ramps, ramps. I’m sure there are many good reasons for this unabashed ramp love, but I don’t understand it—I’ve never tried a single ramp. I don’t know how I’ve survived in this rampless state until now, but I sure hope I don’t get banned from food blogging because of it. 

In fact, starting last weekend I did everything I could to cure my ramp-related ignorance. Jim had picked up a local flyer advertising that last week’s farmers’ market would be “all about ramps.” On Sunday morning, with my shopping bag slung over my shoulder, I bounded down my apartment steps and made my way to the Carroll Gardens market. I went straight to the W. Rogowski farm stand and searched earnestly between the piles of lettuce, spinach, and green onions.

“Excuse me, do you have ramps today?” I asked, a hint of worry creeping into my voice.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to go down to the swamp to look for them this week,” responded a harried-looking Cheryl Rogowski. “But we do have watercress.”

Boo. Boo on watercress. I sighed and bought some asparagus, swiss chard, and green garlic instead.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on my ramps. On Monday morning I headed to the Union Square Farmers’ Market. At 8 am. Before work. In the rain. 

I walked around and around the market. I saw more asparagus, and I saw more watercress. I spied bread, greens, and flowers.

But no ramps. 

And then, my friends, I gave up. 

That evening at home, I took the spring risotto recipe that I had planned to make with ramps and shifted the ingredients around a bit. The original recipe called for a ramp and swiss chard pesto to be stirred into a risotto of asparagus, fava beans, and peas. Instead of using ramps in the pesto, I chopped some leeks with the swiss chard. I didn’t have any fava beans, and I hate peas, so I concentrated on the asparagus and green garlic that I had purchased the day before. And in the end, even without ramps, I created two beautiful and creamy plates of risotto. Each lemony forkful was full of fresh, green specks of seasonal goodness. I’m not giving up on ramps for good, but with them or without them, spring has definitely arrived. 

Recipe for Spring Risotto with Asparagus, Green Garlic, Swiss Chard, and Leeks (Adapted from the New York Times, April 23, 2008)

For the pesto:

  • 1 leek, cleaned and chopped
  • 3/4 cups packed swiss chard leaves
  • dash of salt
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil

For the risotto:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon minced shallots
  • 3 sprigs of green garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • About 5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 6 to 10 rods of asparagus, sliced into 2-inch pieces
  • Parmesan cheese

For the pesto: Place the chopped leeks, swiss chard leaves, and salt in a small food processor or hand blender. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil. Season to taste. Set aside.

For the risotto: In a medium saucepan, bring your chicken or vegetable stock to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add 1/2 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a large pot. Once the butter has melted, add the green garlic and the shallots. Cook garlic and shallots together until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the rice. Stir the rice for a minute or two, until the edges become translucent.

Add the white wine to the pot, and stir the rice until it has absorbed most of the wine. You know the liquid has been absorbed when you can scrape your spoon through the rice and it sticks to the sides of the pan a bit, showing the bottom of the pan. 

Add a few spoonfuls of stock to the rice. I usually work with a ladle, and add 1 full ladle of stock at a time. Stir the rice until the liquid is absorbed, and then add some more stock. Stir the rice continuously. (Taking a few small breaks is fine.) Continue to add stock and stir the rice in this manner until the rice is al dente and quite creamy, about 18 to 20 minutes.

When the rice is about halfway done (at the 10-12 minute mark) add the asparagus to the pot. Continue to stir.

When the rice is done, remove it from the heat. Stir in the pesto. Stir in 1/2 tablespoon of butter and about 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, topped with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Blogworthy or Not: Skirt Steak Fajitas

One of the more stressful aspects about maintaining a food blog is determining whether or not a dish is “blogworthy.” Every time I consider writing about a meal I’ve cooked at home, I ask myself if it’s fascinating enough to blog about or if it’s a dish everyone has seen before. For example, a meal as novel as Goan shrimp curry is absolutely blogworthy and posted about immediately. But weeknight staples like spaghetti with garlic, parmesan, and olive oil, or turkey burgers? They don’t usually make the cut. To be honest, sometimes I experiment with a new recipe just so I have something—anything—to blog about.

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But often the most familiar dish in the world is all I want to cook. And in rare instances, an ordinary, almost banal meal is even worth writing about. That’s how I feel about the skirt steak fajitas I made this week. After a weekend of eating out, I was anxious to cook, and to create something simple and full of flavor. I turned to skirt steak, a tough cut of meat that tenderizes wonderfully when marinated while also taking on the flavors of the marinade’s ingredients. I rely on three staples for my marinade: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and lime juice. Because I had made this recipe a million times before (ok, maybe 10 times), I knew I could rely on this powerful mix of flavors.

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Let’s get one thing straight here: This is Tex-Mex via my Brooklyn kitchen. As you can tell, my skirt steak fajitas are not exotic or elegant, and I make no claims to fajita authenticity. But wrapped in a soft corn tortilla with fresh guacamole, crisp cilantro, charred onions, and smoky peppers, the lime-infused steak more than satisfied my need for a fresh, simple dinner. For me, that was enough to make my fajitas blogworthy.

Recipe for Christina’s Skirt Steak Fajitas

  • 1 2-lb skirt steak
  • juice squeezed from 1/2 of a lime
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 red pepper, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 onion, sliced lengthwise
  • fresh guacamole
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
  • 6-8 large corn tortillas

In a shallow baking dish, mix together 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, and the fresh lime juice. Season with salt and pepper. Add skirt steak, turning once to coat. If you need to, you can cut the skirt steak into smaller pieces to make it fit in the baking dish. Marinate for 1 hour in the refrigerator, turning the meat after 30 minutes.

When the meat is almost finished marinating, take it out of the refrigerator. Preheat the broiler. Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until onions have caramelized and peppers start to soften, about 10 -15 minutes, stirring once in a while. Set aside when done.

While the peppers and onions are cooking, remove the meat from the marinade and cook it under the broiler. Cook for about 5 minutes per side. (The meat will be about medium to medium-well done at this point. Adjust cooking time to your preference.) Remove from the broiler and let it rest for 5 minutes. Slice the meat into thin strips, at an angle.

Wrap your tortillas in aluminum foil and warm them in the oven for about 10 minutes. Remove and assemble the fajitas to your liking: Place a few spoonfuls of peppers and onions with 3-5 slices of skirt steak in the center of the tortilla. Top with fresh guacamole and chopped cilantro. Wrap. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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More Chard

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I may have to change the name of this blog from Artichoke Heart to Swiss Chard of My Heart (or something along those lines.) Lately I can’t get enough of this leafy green. That Swiss chard, cannellini bean, and barley soup should have kept me satisfied for at least a few weeks, but last weekend Jim and I returned for more, making a meatless lasagna layered with tomatoes, ricotta cheese, and yes, more chard.

The more I cook with Swiss chard, the more I realize how versatile it is. I first discovered it last summer when I made chard leaves stuffed with lemon rice, and since then I’ve tried to cook with it whenever possible. With its mild flavor—it’s not one of those bitter greens like escarole or broccoli rabe—and its sturdy, almost elastic texture, it holds its own in a variety of recipes. And as stated here and here by the New York Times, chard is one of the healthiest foods you could possibly eat, full of calcium, potassium, and vitamins C and A.

I should confess that I had never actually made lasagna before this past weekend. But with the help of this recipe, I got the hang of things quickly. I infused the tomato sauce with onions instead of garlic—I just happen to prefer my tomato sauces this way—and Jim and I used no-boil lasagna noodles. The result was wonderful: a light, healthy pasta dish where the sweet tomato sauce and ricotta cheese were perfectly complemented by the gentle chard. I’ll be honest, I didn’t miss the meat at all. I’m just trying to figure out what to make with the next batch of Swiss chard.

Recipe for Lasagna with Swiss Chard, Tomato Sauce, and Ricotta (Adapted from the New York Times’s Recipes for Health section. Tips on preparing no-boil lasagna noodles adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.)

  • 1 large batch of Swiss chard, washed thoroughly
  • salt
  • 1/2 pound no-boil lasagna noodles
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • a pinch of sugar
  • 5-6 leaves of basil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Put a large pot of generously salted water over high heat. While you wait for the water to boil, make your tomato sauce. Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the chopped onion to the pot and cook, stirring, until soft. This should take about 5 minutes. Remove the onions from the oil and discard. Add the tomatoes, sugar, basil, and a pinch of salt and bring to a simmer. Stir often, until the sauce thickens, about 30 to 40 minutes. When finished, remove the basil leaves and discard. Set the pot to the side and turn to the Swiss chard.

Fill a bowl with ice water. Cut the Swiss chard leaves away from the stems. Discard the stems or save them for another use. When the water in the large pot is boiling, add the Swiss chard. Boil for 1 minute (from the time the water comes back to a boil). You want the leaves to be tender but still bright green; do not overcook. Remove the leaves from the water with a slotted spoon and add them to the ice water; this stops them from cooking further. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop the leaves coarsely. Put the tomato sauce back over low heat, stir in the Swiss chard, and set the pot aside again.

Prepare the lasagna noodles. Fill an oblong baking dish with hot tap water. Add the noodles and soak for 10 minutes, shaking the dish often to keep the noodles from sticking together. Remove the noodles to clean dishcloths and dab excess water.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Add a thin layer of tomato sauce to the bottom of a rectangular baking dish. Add a layer of lasagna noodles. Spread half the ricotta over the noodles and half the tomato-chard sauce over the ricotta. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of Parmesan over the tomato-chard sauce. Add another layer of noodles and top them with the rest of the ricotta, sauce, and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Finish with a layer of noodles and the remaining Parmesan. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top of the lasagna. Cover tightly with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. If you like, finish the lasagna under the broiler for 3 minutes, uncovered, until top is browned. Let the lasagna rest for 5 minutes. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Meal Planning

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Take a look at my refrigerator doors. Sure, I’ve attached all sorts of clutter to them—photos of friends and family, invitations to future events, gym schedules, goofy magnets—but I’ve also made a simple, recent addition that has changed my life. Can you see it? I’ll give you a hint: It’s in the lower left corner.

Let me back up a bit. Before the beginning of this year, I’d often run out of dinner ideas during the work week. If I hadn’t planned ahead, by Wednesday I’d be struggling for inspiration and probably preparing something I’d made a million times before. Then, once the weekend rolled around and I’d had time to peruse my cookbooks and magazines, I’d come across new recipes I wanted to try, older recipes I’d been holding onto for years and never prepared, and favorite recipes I’d forgotten about and wanted to make again.

Because I didn’t have a system in place, this cycle of finding recipes and then forgetting about them occurred more often than not. Putting flags in my cookbooks and folding pages over in magazines didn’t work for me either, as I always failed to remember them as well. So back in January I decided to adopt a different approach. I spent a few hours paging through my books and magazines, and I compiled a list of winter dishes I wanted to make this year. When I was done I attached the list to my refrigerator door. I even added a nerdy little box next to each item, so that I could check off the meal once I had prepared it. I’ve always enjoyed checking finished items off of lists—I used to organize my homework in high school and college with this method—and I still feel a small twinge of satisfaction when I complete an item on my meal planning list.

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As you can see, I am a total dork. But since I’ve adopted this system, not only have Jim and I enjoyed several new recipes, but we’re adding more variety to our diets as I don’t make the same dishes repeatedly. We’re also cooking with more enthusiasm, as almost every meal is a new adventure and something we haven’t tried before. If you look closely at my list, you’ll even see some recipes from my recent blog posts, such as my sweet potato and butternut squash soup and those pork and ricotta meatballs.  That delicious swiss chard, bean, and barley soup? The recipe had been languishing in my recipe binder for years before I added it to my informal kitchen memo. I recently wrote Food & Wine’s green chicken masala on the list, and I am looking forward to making it later in the week.

So, if you are anything like me and need some help organizing your daily meals, I highly recommend my newfound method. I plan on compiling a similar list once spring and summer start. Or, if you don’t have any problems planning your dinners, I hope I’ve given you a good laugh at my food-related nerdiness.

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One More Soup, In Case We Need It

soup

I’m afraid to say that spring is in the air because I don’t want to jinx it. But I’m starting to make some adjustments: I’ve put the puffy winter jacket away in favor of my lighter wool coat. I don’t know where my hat is. And I’m thinking about dishes with ingredients like asparagus and peas. I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I can’t help it.

So before I get carried away by the warm air and chirping birds outside, I’m going to tell you about another soup, this time a lovely, rustic combination of Swiss chard, barley, and cannellini beans. It’s hearty, healthy, and totally appropriate for fall or winter. Let’s think of it as the final chapter in my cold weather soup series, and perhaps it will be useful when that last gasp of winter rolls around in a week or two. (Come on, you know it will. I’m sure it’s getting ready to pounce.) 

There’s another interesting aspect to this soup, besides its ability to keep the cold weather at arm’s length: It marks the first time I cooked with pearl barley. I’m always looking for ways to increase the amount of grains in my diet, and I have often read that barley works well in soups and stews. Pearl barley is not the most nutritious grain out there—it is polished so that both the outer hull and the nutritious layer of bran are removed. But many people like working with it because it cooks faster and is said to be less chewy than other unprocessed forms of barley.

Mixed with the mild Swiss chard and hearty beans, the pearl barley added a light, spongy element to the soup to create a gentle, satisfying meal from start to finish. The next time I make this soup, I think I will shift some of the steps around and add the Swiss chard at the end instead of cooking it for 40 minutes as suggested in the recipe. Not only would this reduce the cooking time a bit, but I think the greens would retain more nutrients if they were cooked for a shorter period of time. So that’s my only advice for you regarding this soup. But you know what? I hope that spring sticks around and you don’t need it anytime soon.

Recipe for Swiss Chard, Barley, and Cannellini Bean Soup (Adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan that appeared in Food & Wine magazine many years ago. It has been in my collection for a long time, but I cannot find it online.)

  • 1 bunch of Swiss chard, washed
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 celery ribs, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/3 cup chopped canned tomatoes in their juice
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 15-ounce can of cannellini beans, drained
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Cut the leaves of the Swiss chard away from the stalks. Slice the stalks crosswise into small pieces. Slice the leaves into strips about 1/4 inch wide.

Heat the olive oil and onion in a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Stir occasionally, until onion is slightly softer, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the Swiss chard and season with a bit of salt. Cover and cook over very low heat for about 40 minutes. Stir once or twice.

At the same time you start cooking the onion in the large soup pot, bring 5 cups of water to boil in a medium pot. Add the barley and simmer over low heat, partly covered, until tender. This will take about 35 minutes. Drain the barley but reserve the cooking water.

Add the beans and barley to the chard, stir, and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of the barley water, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat. Serve in bowls with freshly grated Parmesan. You can thin any leftovers with water if it seems too thick. Serves 4 to 6. Enjoy!

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