Thursday, 28 June 2012

Pork Stir-Fried with Fresh Ginger

Stir-fries are brilliant week-night meals. They are generally very easy, and once everything is chopped up, they are ready in the blink of an eye. This one is great, because it is very flavorful and and packed with veggies. Simple and delicious. And on a Monday evening, what could possibly be better than that?

I found this dish in Nancie McDermott's "Real Thai", tweaked it a bit (her servings tend to be tiny) and I find it to be a great basic recipe for a quick stir-fry. You can adjust the heat of ginger and Sri Racha to taste (I love ginger and my sweetie loves spicy, so when we make it, it generally sets off our fire alarm), but it's practically impossible to screw up. The original recipe called for the ginger to be cut into long, thin slices, but that seemed to concentrate it's taste in a few bites. If you chop it instead, the lovely flavor will be in every mouthful.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1/2 pound pork, thinly sliced
3/4 to 1 cup fresh ginger, chopped
1 small onion, sliced lengthwise into thin wedges
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 package fresh mushrooms (oyster mushrooms, if you can find them), thinly sliced lengthwise
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 small red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons water
1 to 2 tablespoons Sri Racha sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

Heat a wok over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the oil and swirl to coat the surface. When the oil is very hot, drop a piece of garlic in the pan: if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready. Add the garlic and toss until it just begins to turn golden, about 15 seconds. Add the pork and stir-fry until it is no longer pink, about 2 minutes.

Add the ginger and toss to coat with the oil. Let it cook one minute and then add the onion and fish sauce and toss to mix them in. Add the mushrooms and soy sauce and stir-fry until the mushrooms have softened and are shiny, about 1 minute.

Add the bell pepper, Sri Racha sauce, water and sugar and toss well. Cook without stirring for 1 minute. Taste the sauce: it should have a pleasant balance of hot, salty and sweet. Adjust with soy sauce and/or sugar, as needed. Transfer to a serving platter and serve hot, with some jasmine rice or rice noodles. We had it on vermicelli when I took the pictures and I have to say I prefer it on noodles of any size, as it's not saucy enough for the flavor to really be absorbed by rice.

The meat will be very tender, and there will be a lovely ginger heat in every bite. You can also substitute the pork for the equivalent quantity of chicken or tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces. Play around with the veggies, and the possibilities are just about endless.

If fish sauce makes you queasy (the smell grosses the living daylights out of me, even more so when I start thinking about what goes it in, so I use it as little as possible), simply use 6 tablespoons of soy sauce, and add a pinch of salt when you add the sugar.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Chicken Parmesan

My mother kept a version of this recipe up her sleeve when she wanted to make sure my brother and I would show up for dinner. There is a reason chicken Parmesan is legendary as far as getting finicky kids to eat. It. Just. Works. Breaded chicken, hot pasta, a simple tomato sauce and melted cheese. Duh. What sane kid would turn something like this down?

I may be all grown up now (in body, if not in mind), but every once in a blue moon, my inner child gets a craving for a plate of this nostalgic indulgence. I had only ever made it with processed ingredients before: frozen chicken or veal cutlets and jarred sauce. I blush at the memory, and I won't ever do that again, scout's honor! Especially since I found out that making chicken parm from scratch is way easier than I had imagined. Sure, there is a bit of cleaning to do after, and you gotta time yourself well to get the pasta and chicken ready at the same time, but it comes together without a hitch. No wonder moms have been using this to get their progeny around the table for ages!

Psst! You don't really have to use chicken. Scalloped veal is a classic alternative, very popular with grown-ups, and vegetarians will find a recipe for chickpea cutlets at the end of this post, because everyone should be able to enjoy this recipe. I happened to have plenty of chicken handy, so I made this:

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 cup fresh basil, sliced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved crosswise
1 large egg
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1 package spaghetti or rottini
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus extra for serving

First, make the uber-simple tomato-basil sauce. In a large saucepan, sauté the garlic and 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until it starts to sizzle. Stir in the tomatoes, basil, oregano, red wine vinegar (if you prefer a sweeter sauce, skip the vinegar and add 1 teaspoon brown sugar instead), a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a simmer; cook until the sauce thickens a bit and the flavors meld, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the fresh basil for the last 5 minutes on the heat. Cover and keep warm (you can make the sauce up to a couple of hours early, if you need: simply reheat it over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, when the chicken goes under the broiler).

Put the chicken pieces between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound, using a heavy pan, until the cutlets are about 1/4-inch thick. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a shallow bowl, beat egg until well-blended. Mix bread crumbs with some black pepper on a plate. Preheat broiler. Working one cutlet at a time, dip both sides of each in beaten egg, then in bread crumbs. Put cutlets on a wire rack set over a cookie sheet (this will save you from picking up massive messes of crumbs and drippings).

Heat the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat in a 12-inch skillet. When oil starts to shimmer, add the cutlets and sauté until golden brown on each side, about 5 minutes total. Wash and dry the wire rack and return to the cookie sheet. As the cutlets cook, prepare the pasta according to package directions. Transfer the cutlets to the clean wire rack over the cookie sheet. Top each with a portion of the cheeses. Broil the cutlets, 4 to 5 inches from heat source, until cheese melts and is spotty brown (if your broiler is on "high" this will take only a couple of minutes). Drain the pasta. Put a cutlet and a portion of pasta on each plate. Spoon 2 or 3 tablespoons of sauce over the cutlet, then sauce the pasta as desired. Serve with extra Parmesan for sprinkling.

This recipe serves 4, and you may get a bit of leftover pasta and sauce. The cutlets reheat much better than I had expected in the microwave, but you can always half the recipe if you are only cooking for two.

For my vegetarian friends, here is a recipe for chickpea cutlets (from the ever-awesome "Veganomicon") that can be used as an alternative to meat! Follow the recipe below, before broiling and serving them as you would with the chicken.

1 cup cooked chickpeas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup vital wheat gluten
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/4 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, grated
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1/4 teaspoon dried sage

In a mixing bowl, mash the chickpeas together with the oil until there are no whole chickpeas left. Add the remaining ingredients and knead for about 3 minutes, until strings of gluten have formed. Pre-heat a large skillet over medium heat. Meanwhile, divide the cutlet dough into 4 equal pieces. Knead each piece in your hand for a few moments and then flatten and stretch each one into a rough;y 4 by 6-inch rectangular cutlet shape. Add a thin layer of olive oil to the skillet. Place the cutlets in the pan and cook on each side for 6 to 7 minutes. They are ready when they are lightly browned and firm to the touch.

Tada! Now go feed your finicky inner child.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Meat and Mushroom Pasta Bake of Extreme Yumminess

I had set myself the goat of making meat and mushroom lasagne, and in the course of experimenting with making the ultimate mushroom bolognese, I had a little fun with a different kind of pasta bake that turned out so freaking delicious, I really could not NOT share it here.

It was really hot and sticky, and I couldn't bring myself to make bechamel for the lasagne, so I made a seriously tasty sauce, threw it on lovely macaroni, covered it in mozzarella and broiled the whole thing. And my, was that ever an awesome dinner! Stick-to-your-rib filling, rich and utterly satisfying.

Here is the recipe for the meat and mushroom sauce, and the steps to turn it into enough baked macaroni to feed an army. Keep this one flagged for serious hungry evenings, or simply for when you want to make yourself enough lunches for a month.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
8 ounces fresh cremini or mini-portobello mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 pound ground beef
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (14 ounce) can garlic tomato paste
1/3 cup red wine
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package dry macaroni, or other small pasta, like shells
1 (340 gram) package of pizza mozzarella, grated

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté until the garlic is fragrant and the onions are soft and slightly golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until they have released their liquid and are getting colored. Add the ground beef, breaking up the big pieces with a spoon, and cook until the meat crumbles, about 7 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and mix well to blend everything. Add the red wine, stir and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta according to the package's instructions. Preheat the broiler and lightly grease a large baking dish. When they are almost al dente, drain and mix in with the sauce. Spoon the mixture in the baking dish and generously sprinkle with the grated mozzarella. Put under the broiler for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cheese is melted, golden and bubbly.


I was so pleased with this little experiment, and so was my boyfriend! The sauce will be back when I actually get around to tackling lasagne, but it would also be great on any other kind of pasta. And for my vegetarian friends out there, I sneaked with mushroom faux-bolognese recipe from, cuz everyone should enjoy a filling mushroom pasta sauce!

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and diced small
2 medium sized celery ribs, diced small
1/2 medium onion, diced small
Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, grated or minced
3/4 cup red wine
1 pound mixed fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (optional)
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1 (15 ounce) can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 (15 ounce) can tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme

Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in 1 cup of very warm water and let sit for 20 minutes.  Strain through a cheesecloth or a coffee filter and keep the liquid. Sauté the onion, carrot and celery in a large pot in the olive oil with a big pinch of kosher or sea salt and a few grindings of pepper.  Let the vegetables cook for about 8 minutes, on low heat.  Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Increase heat and add the wine.  Cook for 5 minutes, making sure the wine is simmering. Add the mushrooms. Add the rest of the ingredients, including the reserved porcini mushroom liquid. Simmer, uncovered, for about an hour to an hour and a half, until the sauce has reduced down and a lot of the liquid has cooked off - cook until you like the thickness of the sauce. Taste for salt and adjust seasoning.

Veggie-lovers will have their money's worth with that sauce! It's also a great summer substitute for the meaty bolognese, which is obviously a bit heavier, and therefore not always hot-weather appropriate. It's also so jam-packed with delicious vegetables, you won't really miss the meat.

There you have it! An awesome pasta-bake that will be universally satisfying! Don't be afraid of the quantity, as it freezes very well if you don't have rabid dinner guests to clear your baking dish.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Greek Salad

One of the bitterest disappointments I've ever experienced in the realm of mediocre restaurant food is Greek salad. After ordering it twice (at different restaurants, too!) and landing myself a plate full of lettuce and shredded carrots, with two or three olives and a few pathetic flakes of feta cheese, I learned my lesson; when I want Greek salad (also known as horiatiki salata, meaning "country salad"), I make it at home!

A couple of summers ago, the intense heat led my mother and I to create a Sunday night ritual: I'd go over to her place, we'd make a gargantuan bowl of Greek salad and stuff our faces watching "True Blood" and drinking ice-cold white wine. Good times! It is our ritualistic recipe I'll be sharing today. I can't guarantee the authenticity, but I can promise you it contains no boring lettuce and carrot filler (a crime against good Greek salad committed by Americans).

Greek salad is made to be very refreshing; that country enjoys the kind of weather which requires cooling food and lots of long naps. Needless to say that very fresh and crisp ingredients are key to a great Greek salad. Crunchy, cool cucumbers, ripe tomatoes bursting with flavor, piquant red onions and the briny taste of lots of feta and Kalamata olives, the ensemble drizzled in fruity oil and lemon juice. That's what fresh summer food is all about!

One should be very generous with the feta and olives when making a Greek salad, since it's a defining feature of the dish. My mom and I love both, so we tend to go a little crazy... Some people add green bell peppers to it. If that's your thing, simply julienne your pepper and add to the bowl. I skip the bell peppers because I find they don't really add anything to this vegetable equation of awesomeness, but that's just me.

I like to keep the dressing very simple because I want the veggies' flavors to really shine through (fresh, ripe vegetables are supposed to taste great without any fuss; if they don't, there is a big problem), but this is one recipe where there is absolutely no excuse to not use cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. If you can find some that's imported from Greece, kudos! Drizzle the colorful mix with the liquid gold, a hint of red wine vinegar and some lemon juice and you are good to go!

This recipe serves 4, unless you are as voracious as my mother and I are. It's also a fail-proof crowd-pleaser, so if you are bringing it to a pot-luck or barbecue, double the quantities.

2 cucumbers, cut into thin half-moons
2 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
1 medium red onion, cut into thin rings
1 to 1 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
1 to 1 1/2 cup feta cheese, cubed
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
2 lemons, juiced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 heaping teaspoon dried oregano
Sea salt and ground pepper

Cut up all the vegetables and put them in a large bowl with the olives and the feta. Toss to mix well. In a small bowl, pour about 4 tablespoons of olive oil, add 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, the lemon juice, the chopped garlic and the oregano. Blend vigorously. Divide the salad in serving bowls, drizzle with the dressing and sprinkle with a few crushes of sea salt and pepper.

I could live off this beautifully colorful salad when it's hot and sunny outside. It makes a great light meal, paired with a piece of bread and some hummus, or a refreshing side to grilled meats. Dry white wine is great with Greek salad, but it also goes perfectly with cold light beers.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

White on White Cupcakes

I recently posted a recipe for basic vanilla cupcakes with cream cheese icing. They made rich, buttery cakes, but a friend of mine tried it and found the batter very thick. While this problem can be remedied by adding little splashes of milk, I tried another vanilla cupcake recipe, with a more traditionally runny batter that's easily measured in the cupcake pan with a ice cream scoop.

Not only did those new cupcakes turn out to be delicious, they also turned out to be my favorite vanilla cupcakes of all the recipes I have tried so far! The vanilla flavor is quite present, but not overpowering and the crumb is light and moist. Just heavenly!

White cupcakes according to Betty Crocker's "Big Books of Cupcakes" (for 24 cupcakes):

2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 2/3 cup sugar
5 egg whites
2 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a muffin pan with paper liners. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar, beating well after each addition and scraping the bowl occasionally. Beat 2 minutes longer. Add egg whites, one at the time,  beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. On low speed, alternatively add flour mixture, about 1/3 of mixture at the time, and milk, about 1/2 at a time, beating until just blended. Divide batter in the lined baking cups, filling them about 2/3 of the way. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Wait until completely cooled to frost.

They make a lighter and fluffier cake than the previous recipe, so I decided to pair them with this yummy fluffy vanilla icing, from "Martha Stewart's Cupcakes":

1 1/2 cup (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat the butter on medium speed until pale and creamy, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to medium. Add confectioners sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the bowl as needed. After every 2 additions, raise the speed to high and beat for 10 seconds to aerate the frosting, then return to medium. This process should take about 10 minutes. The frosting will be very pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract, and beat until the frosting is smooth.

Of all the vanilla icings I have tried, this one is my undisputed favorite: it's super-creamy with a great buttery taste. But most importantly, it's not too sweet. The biggest problem I've had with vanilla icings is that the taste of sugar tends to completely take over, but this icing seems to have the perfect butter/sugar proportion. The rich, silky texture is also to die for. As you can see, it pipes nicely into lovely little swirls.

I brought those in lieu of birthday cake for my little brother's 22nd birthday lunch and got raves! Probably because as basic as a vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing may sound, it definitely has this nostalgic quality to it that makes it ideal for birthdays. There is a little taste of early birthday parties to this combination that never fails to satisfy.

Happy birthday, baby bro!