Monday, April 28, 2008

Rhapsody on a Meatloaf

Asian Mini Meatloaves

Ahh, meatloaf- that most indefinable of foods. You can put damn near anything in a meatloaf. Sadly, for most of us, meatloaf brings to mind public school mystery meat, frozen Salisburg steak TV dinners, and the unfortunate slab of greyish animal product you ordered at the Cracker Barrel on last year's vacation. All too often it leaves you feeling as though you just ate an anvil. Alas, poor doesn't have to be this way.

How does one keep a meatloaf from turning into an inedible brick'o'meat? The trick, as I learned from my mother, is to put things besides meat in your loaf. She mixes in a healthy dose of bread crumbs for hers, which are not only edible but quite tasty. Adjusting the seasonings, she makes an Amercian-style meatloaf with Worcestershire sauce and beef gravy, or an Italian variation topped with tomato sauce, like an enormous oblong meatball. Mmm...oblong meatball...

Being that I'm all young and rebellious and whatnot, I said "Why not put other things- craaazy things- in the meatloaf?" Crazy things like water chestnuts, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. And why not instead of one big loaf make smaller, personal sized loaves? Woo! You can't stop me, mom! I'm outta control!!!

Asian Mini Meatloaves

1 lb ground beef

1 small can water chestnuts, chopped

1 small can bamboo shoots, chopped

2 eggs (take out yolks if you're health-conscious)

1/3 cup shiitake mushrooms, chopped

1 tbsp shallot

2 tbsp scallion

1 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp kecap manis

1 tbsp rice vinegar

2 tsp sesame oil

2 tsp black sesame seeds

2 tsp black pepper

1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns

Preheat oven to 375. Whirl the vegetables in a food processor, or chop very fine. Mix together with seasonings, add meat and egg and mix until thoroughly incorporated. Roll into softball-sized loaves and arrange on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until done. Serve with steamed vegetables and rice.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pasta with Stuff

Mom's Emergency Pasta

When I was a kid, my mom prided herself on getting a good, fast meal on the table, even when there was little to nothing fresh in the house. This pasta dish was an invention of hers, though I'm sure it has some "official" counterpart in the culinary lexica. We could always count on having an onion, some pasta, a chicken cutlet and a jar of artichoke hearts around, but it was greatly improved with the addition of sun-dried or fresh tomatoes and red bell peppers. As I ate this with some frequency growing up, it is definitely my idea of comfort food. And for comfort food, it's pretty damn healthy. To be even more virtuous, and to add a touch of green on the side, I served this with steamed asparagus doused in a simple vinaigrette .

Ingredient of the Day: Artichoke Hearts

Man, I love me some artichoke hearts. They can make a boring dish interesting with zero effort. Mom usually bought the small glass jars of them marinated in seasonings, but the plain canned variety might be best for making dip. Some people don't like artichoke hearts because the ends are occasionally woody. If the pieces look smaller in the jar, they're less likely to have tough bits. If you're really obsessive, you can of course check them before you dump them in your food.

Mom's Emergency Pasta
1/2 lb pasta
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp. garlic, chopped
1/2 onion, sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, sliced
2 chicken breasts, sliced into strips
2 fresh medium tomatoes, diced
1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, with marinade
1/2 cup white wine
Splash of lemon juice
Dash of sugar
Salt, pepper, basil, parsely

While water for pasta heats up, sautee the garlic until brown, then add onions and sautee until browned. Add red pepper and sautee until slightly browned, then add chicken. Let the chicken get a little brown, then add the tomatoes and artichoke hearts, and the white wine. Season with lemon juice, and seasonings to taste. Add the sugar if your tomatoes weren't very sweet, or if you'd like to soften the overall tanginess. You can also add a little balsamic vinegar, if you like. Once your pasta is cooked (but not overcooked) strain it and mix it into the pan over low heat, and let the flavors incorporate a bit. I like mine sprinkled with grated parmesean cheese. Mmm...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dok Bok Something

Dok Bok Ki

Or dok bokki. Or duk bok ki. Or toppoki. This Korean dish eludes my ability to spell or pronounce it, as do most things in Korean. Given that I've gotten complements on my Russian pronunciation, I feel like Korean should be within my verbal grasp. But whenever I asked a Korean friend in college about the proper way to say something, I would inevitably butcher it over and over. I was eventually given a look of disgust that translated as "Your thick barbarian tongue will never speak Korean!"

Well, fine. But I can still make dok bok ki.

If you can find a Korean grocery store, you can probably find all the things you need to make dok bok ki. The dok (or was it the bok?) are thick rice noodles, more like rice cakes, which have a nice bouncy, chewy consistency when cooked. Some dok are shaped like little cylinders, and another variety is a disk cut on a bias. Occasionally, you may find tricolor dok, in which the pink and green cakes traditionally are flavored with beet juice and mugwort respectively. The cooked noodles are mixed with spicy red pepper sauce called gochujang. Depending on what variety you get, the spiciness may range from fairly mild to tearjerkingly hot. Mix the sauce up with some veggies and you're good to go(chujang). Steam some baby bok choy and you can have Dok and Bok!! [Insert paleface barbarian laughter here.]

Dok Bok Ki
2 cups dok
Enough chicken broth to cook dok
2 tbsp oil
2 tsp garlic
1/4 cup gochujang
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 onion, sliced
1 cup tofu, cubed
1/2 cup bamboo shoots
1 cup baby corn
1 cup spinach
Handful of chopped basil
Chopped fresh scallion

Boil the noodles in broth until soft enough to chew- don't overdo it, and make sure to save some of the broth. Sautee garlic in oil until brown, add the onions and cook till golden, then add the tofu, vegetables and the gochujang, and dilute it with some soy sauce, vinegar and a little of the broth from the noodles. Then add the noodles and stir together, letting the dok soak up some of the sauce. The consistency should be light and saucy enough to avoid being clumpy. Sprinkle in some fresh basil and stir, then top with the chopped scallion. Bok appetit.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Morocco Love

Lemon Olive Chicken Tagine

This is a tagine:
"Tagine" also refers to the wonderful aromatic stews one typically makes in it. I do not own such a clay pot, and am not sure how I would use it if I did. Fortunately, you can make tagine the stew about as well in a lidded skillet. I'm not inclined to believe a piece of cookware has any mysterious powers, especially since I saw that the All-Clad company makes a non-stick tagine. I'm sure non-stick tagines are all the rage among housewives in Fez.
Anyway, I made this recipe last night and it is phenomenal. It isn't often that I impress myself, but I can't really take credit since it was incredibly simple to make. The only effort was in acquiring one important ingredient:

Ingredient of the day: Preserved Lemons

We're lucky enough to have a large Iranian population nearby, which meant I knew where to buy lemons preserved in brine. It's fairly easy to make your own, but it takes three weeks, and I was already hungry. Pickling lemons makes them milder and brings out their other subtle flavors. Once you taste them, you might recognize their exotic flavor from certain Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.

Lemon Olive Chicken Tagine
2 lbs chicken thighs
1/4 cup olive oil
2-3 tsp. garlic
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 onion, chopped fine
2 cups chicken broth
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. black pepper
2-3 preserved lemons, sliced thin
1 cup green olives (not the ones with pimento!)

Rub the chicken with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and pepper and let marinate for at least an hour. Heat the oil and brown the chicken on both sides, then add onions, dry seasonings and broth. Stir well to incorporate flavors, lower heat and let simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the slices of preserved lemon and the olives and simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the liquid, raise the heat and stir the sauce until it thickens (about 5-10 minutes). Pour the sauce over the chicken in a deep dish. We ate this with some nice Afghani bread, similar to Moroccan bread, but it would also be lovely over rice. I steamed some green veggies with a lemon-caper vinaigrette on the side.
If last night's dinner was any indication, Morocco is a seriously tasty place.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Relatively Healthy Lasagna

I made a lasagna. And a LoLsagna:Lasagna is a new addition to my repetoire. I've always liked the idea of lasagna, but most lasagnas (both commerical and homemade) seem to resemble blocks of cheese with a few noodles interspersed. I like cheese as a compliment to other things, not as the main attraction. The best solution to this problem is, of course, to make your own lasagna. Here's a recipe with some meat and veggies in it- I made this last night, and it's damn tasty. That's a good thing, because given how much of it there is, I'm going to be eating it all week.

And why did I create a LoLsagna? I must have been thinking of LoLcats again. But why would I connect cats with lasagna? Ahh, yes...

(Whoever "owns" Garfield, please don't sue me.)

Relatively Healthy Lasagna
I'll break this recipe down into its individual components:
1 box of lasagna noodles
1 quart of tomato sauce*
Mozzarella cheese for topping
*I'll do a tomato sauce recipe soon

Meat layer:

2 tbsp oil
2 tsp garlic
1/2 onion, chopped
1 lb ground beef
Frozen peas, if you like
Season with basil, parsely,
oregano, white wine, salt
and pepper.

Sautee the garlic in oil till brown, then add the onions and sautee till browned. Add the beef and cook until brown. Pour excess liquid off into the tomato sauce. Throw in some frozen peas and cook until just thawed. Set beef mixture aside.

Cheese and Veggie layer:

1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup baby carrots, sliced into thin circles
1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and drained
chopped basil
salt, pepper
Mix the cheese, spinach and carrots in a bowl, add seasonings to taste.

Cook the noodles until just slightly undercooked (I haven't tried the "no-boil" variety of lasagna yet), and rub them with olive oil to prevent sticking. In a 13 x 9 baking dish, spread a layer of sauce on the bottom, then add a layer of noodles, arranging them so the edges overlap slightly. Add a thin layer of sauce and evenly distribute half of the meat mixture in a layer. Top with more sauce and another layer of noodles. Spread all of the cheese and veggie mixture over this layer. Add some more sauce and another layer of noodles and sauce. Repeat with last of meat mix, add last layer of noodles and top with sauce. Cover pan with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Remove foil and top with mozzarella cheese, then bake for another 10 minutes uncovered. Let the lasagna sit for a few minutes before you cut it. Consume with Garfieldesque abandon.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Noodles of Deception

Pad Thai- Not as Hard as it Looks

Now, I know it looks like this dish has 7 million ingredients, but putting them together doesn't require a lot of thinking. Pad thai is one of those dishes that can be deceptively easy to make, but impresses the hell out of people. Here's a simple recipe that can be on the table in a half hour. Adjust the noodle::stuff ratio depending how noodly you want it. And if you're picky you could probably eliminate 1/3 of these ingredients and still have it taste pretty damn good.

Ingredient of the Day: Spiced Extra-Firm Tofu
You can find this in Asian markets and specialty stores. You've probably had it in pad thai before. It's very firm tofu with a little bit of spice, and adds a nice touch to your pad thai. And, of course, it's full of protein.

Pad Thai

2 tbsp oil
2 tsp garlic, chopped
1/2 onion
1 carrot, shredded
1 small can bamboo shoots
1 block spiced firm tofu, in small cubes.
1 block regular firm tofu, cubed
8-10 frozen, pre-cooked shrimp
1 egg
Rice stick noodles, cooked
Thai seasoning blend (try Bankok Blend from Penzeys)
Fresh basil, if you have it
Soy sauce
Rice vinegar
Kecap manis
Lime juice
Fresh cilantro (if desired)
Crushed peanuts, if desired

Get the water started for the noodles, which cook fast. In a large saucepan, sautee the garlic in oil till golden, then sautee onions until lightly browned. Add both kinds of tofu and cook for a minute, then add bamboo shoots and carrots. Add liquid and dry seasonings and stir, then add the egg and mix it in well. Just before adding the noodles, throw in the cooked shrimp. Add water if more liquid is needed, but don't go overboard. When noodles are cooked, stir them into the sauce until flavors are incorporated. Garnish with peanuts and cilantro, if you like. Amaze your friends with cooking prowess.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Kill Your TV Dinner

Fast Lentils

People say they don't have time to cook. How about a healthy, tasty and chhhheeeap one-pot meal in under 20 minutes? This one is damn near impossible to screw up. If you're a beginner, get yourself some good seasoning blends (like the Turkish one used here) at Penzeys and you're halfway there. While slumming it with a can of Hormel is OK once in a while, if you consider yourself an adult you have no excuse for eating crap all the time.

This recipe is also endlessly adaptable. Got a pepper in the fridge? Throw it in! I chucked in some fresh parsley and a splash of white wine last night and it was great. Like balsamic vinegar? Give it a whirl! Want fajita-flavored lentils instead? Try it and tell me if it works. The world is your oyster. Or in this case, your lentil.

Turkish Lentils

2 tbsp oil
1 tsp garlic
1 onion, chopped
1 cup brown lentils
4 cups chicken stock
Turkish seasoning
Lemon juice

Sautee garlic in oil until golden, add onion and cook till slightly browned. Add lentils, chicken stock and seasoning and bring to a boil, then lower heat and cover. Stir occasionally- if more liquid is needed, add a little water at a time. When lentils are tender, it's done. Season to taste with lemon juice and whatever else you think would taste good. Probably not sprinkles.