Monday, December 29, 2008

Recipe: Tilapia cakes

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I think this recipe was born when I was looking for a way to use up leftover fish. Tilapia is a good friend to our kitchen, in part because they sell beautiful farm-raised tilapia at Costco in packages big enough for dinner plus leftovers. I also like its mildness and versatility. I've made versions of these fish cakes with salmon too, and that's fine, but they definitely taste like salmon. The tilapia makes it more flexible in terms of seasonings.

It does help to make the patties an hour or two in advance so they can firm up in the refrigerator before frying. They hold together better that way.

My husband points out that the reason the kids like these is that they're like big round fish sticks. I think of them more as crab cake stand-ins, but it doesn't matter much. They disappear quickly in our house.

Tilapia cakes with lemon-caper sauce
makes 12 generous patties

1/2 plus 1/4 cup mayonnaise, divided
4 Tbsp capers
juice and zest of one lemon
3 lbs tilapia fillets
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
2 eggs
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (dry or fresh)
salt and pepper to taste
flour, for dredging patties before frying
olive oil, for frying

Make sauce: In a bowl, mix together 1/2 cup mayonnaise, lemon juice, capers, and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until it's time to eat.

Make patties: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the tilapia fillets on a baking sheet about 15 minutes, or until cooked through. Let cool, then flake in a big bowl.

To the flaked fish add 1/4 cup mayonnaise, lemon zest, scallions, bell pepper, eggs, breadcrumbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix together until all ingredients are well distributed, especially the eggs. Form into patties about the size of hamburgers - wet your hands first if it's too sticky. Put the patties on a baking sheet and refrigerate an hour or two to let the patties firm up a bit.

Heat about a half-inch of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Put some flour in a shallow bowl or on a plate, and coat each patty in the flour. This will make a nice crusty shell when you fry the patties, so even though it's a little bit of a pain, don't skip it.

Fry the patties in the olive oil until golden brown on both sides. Serve with the sauce. Watch them evaporate.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tonight's dinner: Turkey burgers, sweet potato pancakes, and green beans

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For dinner tonight:

  • Turkey burgers, with a sauce made of mayonnaise, pesto, little dill pickles and capers, all whizzed in the mini-chopper (and I added some of the sauce to the ground turkey before I made the patties)
  • Leftover sweet potato latkes with homemade apple-pear sauce
  • Blanched green beans with olive oil and coarse red Hawaiian salt
  • Organic herb salad (from the 99cent store, can you believe it?)

A simple dinner at home with our friend Laura, who joins us at our table a few times a week. Nothing fancy. Delicious, though.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Recipe: Chicken pot pie, the easy way

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I was watching Paula Deen on the food channel the other day, and she made something uncharacteristically simple: a chicken pot pie that took about five minutes to put together. Because we've been spending so much time at home this week I've been trying to make meals that put a smile on everyone's face and make being home appealing - we're all missing our sushi lunches, but at the moment budgets are tight for everyone, hm?

So I threw together a variation on that chicken pot pie. Everyone loved it. And today there's only a tiny bit left, so someone's been at the leftovers....

Easy chicken pot pie

1 cooked rotisserie chicken, meat taken off the bones and pulled apart into bite-size pieces
2 cups frozen vegetable mix (peas, carrots, corn, etc.)
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/4 cup white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups biscuit mix, e.g. Bisquick
1 cup milk
1 stick butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray a casserole dish (I used a five-quart cast iron dutch oven) with cooking spray. Put the chicken and then the vegetables in the casserole. Mix together the cans of soup, wine, and one cup of water, and pour over the chicken and vegetables. Shower with salt and pepper to taste.

Mix biscuit mix and milk and pour over casserole. On top, pour melted butter.

Bake at 375 degrees for about an hour, until golden brown on top and bubbling underneath. It might take less than an hour, depending on what vessel you've used. Serve and eat.

Recipe: Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes) for an army

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We've been invited to yet another Hanukkah celebration tonight - how lucky for us! - and I volunteered to make the latkes. For about 30 people.

We got started early this morning. Michael washed and cut the potatoes and sweet potatoes into pieces small enough to fit down the tube of the food processor. Yes, I have to admit, I do not hand-grate my potatoes. I haven't found that it makes much of a difference to the final product, as long as I follow several key steps afterward.

So first I chopped the onions in the food processor and dumped them into two bowls (one for the regular potatoes, one for the sweet potatoes). Then I shredded the potatoes, about eight huge regular ones and 10 smaller sweet potatoes. To each bowl I added eight eggs and a cup and a half of flour, plus a few tablespoons of salt. And then it was time to fry. Which I did in two skillets, with canola oil, on medium-high heat. I'll reheat them later in the oven at the party.

The trick when frying, especially for the regular potatoes, is to scoop the mixture from the top of the bowl with a slotted spoon, so the liquid can drain off before it goes into the pan. I know a lot of people take the time to squeeze out their potatoes and onions before mixing with the other stuff, but I find that once you salt them more liquid comes out anyway. This is less crucial with the sweet potatoes, which give off less liquid in the first place, but important with the regular potatoes.

It took an hour to do the potato latkes in two pans. I'm still working on the sweet potato ones. Whoops, better go turn them.

Darn, that batch got a little too brown. I forget that the sweet potato ones burn faster. Maybe I'd better write this when I'm done!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Recipe: Taco rice casserole, lunch for a rainy day

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I have a few quick, easy, one-pot meals in my stable on which I rely again and again. This dish, which can be called Spanish rice, Mexican rice, taco rice, and probably many other things, is one of my family's favorites. It takes only a few minutes to prepare, can be made days ahead and reheated, freezes fine, and is fun to decorate with various condiments (always a hit with the kids).

Taco rice
serves an infinite number of people (because I always make a lot)

  • 3 lbs ground turkey or beef
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 Tbsp chili powder or taco seasoning
  • 2 cans tomato sauce
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes with juice or puree
  • 2 cups rice (I use brown medium-grain, but any rice will do)
  • 1 large bunch scallions, chopped
  • 1 large bunch cilantro, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • accompaniments: shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, crushed tortilla chips

Brown meat in large pot over high heat. Add onions and peppers; stir about five minutes, until vegetables are softened. Add garlic and chili powder; stir one minute. Add tomato sauce, tomatoes, rice and three to four cups of water. You want it to look soupy at this point, because the rice will absorb a lot of the liquid as it cooks.

Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the rice is cooked and has absorbed the liquid. Stir in the scallions and cilantro. You'll want to check it every 20 minutes or so while it's cooking, and stir, to make sure there's enough liquid in the pot. If, at the end, the rice is cooked and there's still a lot of liquid, take off the lid and simmer it uncovered for a while.
Serve at this point with accompaniments, or turn off the heat and let it sit on the stove for a while. It keeps well. Reheat over low, adding more liquid if necessary so it doesn't burn on the bottom.
Note: This also makes an excellent filling, the next day, for quesadillas or burritos.

Recipe: Frittata with herbs and goat cheese, a quick veggie dinner

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I forgot to take a picture of this last night, so you'll have to use your imagination. I call it a frittata rather than an omelette because of its stint under the broiler (no flipping), but the nomenclature is up to you.

Quick dinner frittata
serves 6

10 eggs
2 Tbsp prepared pesto sauce
2-4 Tbsp chopped fresh or dried herbs, any mixture you like
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 oz goat cheese (or any other cheese will do, actually)

Preheat broiler on high.

Mix together eggs, pesto, herbs, salt and pepper until eggs are slightly frothy.

In an ovenproof skillet (i.e. NOT nonstick, and no rubber handle), heat oil. Pour in eggs. As the eggs start to set, lift up the sides of the omelette to let the raw egg run underneath. Keep doing this and tilting the pan until the top of the omelette is wet but not liquid. Remove from stove.

Crumble cheese on top. Put under broiler for 3-5 minutes, until the eggs are set and the cheese is melted. Cut into wedges and serve.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Recipe: "Dinner party" salmon with mustard, tarragon and wheat germ

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Some old friends came over to dinner tonight with their kids, and only as I was serving did I realize that, inadvertently, I had made an entirely orange dinner. I can't show you the whole thing because my photos of the plates came out too blurry, but let me summarize:
  • "Dinner party salmon" (recipe follows)
  • Sweet-potato latkes
  • Roasted orange cauliflower
  • Roasted cubed butternut squash
  • Homemade macaroni and cheese (for the veggie 10-year-old)
Hmm. I mean, beta carotene is great and all that, but would it have killed me to put a little green on the plate? Silly cook. It tasted great, though.

This salmon dish is one of my party standbys. It can be prepped and refrigerated hours in advance and takes only 15 minutes to bake.

Dinner party salmon
  • 8 two-inch-wide salmon fillets (or a whole side of salmon in one piece)
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp lemon zest
  • juice of one small lemon
  • 2 Tbsp dried tarragon (or fresh, if you have it)
  • 1/4 cup plain wheat germ
  • salt and pepper
Place the salmon on a baking sheet lined with foil. Salt and pepper the fillets.

Mix together mustard, mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice and tarragon. Spread mixture liberally on all sides of salmon. Sprinkle wheat germ on top and press into fish; this will act as a crust when the fish bakes.

Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. If you have a convection setting, use that for 10 minutes instead, and the wheat germ will crisp up a little. It's nice either way.

Leftovers, if you have them, make an excellent salmon salad.

Serves 8ish.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Recipe: Peanut butter and fig jam shortbread bars

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No one in my house actually likes peanut butter much, so why the peanut butter dessert section from the latest Bon Appetit appealed to me is a mystery. Still, their peanut butter and jelly shortbread wedges looked good, so I gave them a try this afternoon.

I didn't have any blackberry jam, but due to the wonderful fig trees behind the studio where I did Pilates this past summer, my cupboards are full of homemade fig preserves. The fig jam doesn't have the tartness of a berry jam, so I added a little extra lemon zest. The end result is crumbly and salty-sweet, and for someone who doesn't like peanut butter desserts, I'm hooked.

Peanut butter and fig jam shortbread bars
adapted from Bon Appetit

1 stick butter, softened (I used salted and omitted the added salt in the original recipe)
1/4 cup creamy natural peanut butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup fig jam
2 Tbsp lemon zest

Spray 8-inch square pan with cooking spray.

Cream butter and peanut butter in stand mixer until creamy, a couple of minutes. Add sugar and vanilla and mix thoroughly. Slow down mixer and add flour until just combined.

Take out a quarter of the dough, put it on a plate, and put it in the freezer for an hour.
Press remaining dough into prepared pan evenly. Cover the dough with fig jam, leaving a small border around the edges. Sprinkle lemon zest over jam. Put in refrigerator until small dough clump is frozen.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Take frozen dough and stab it with a fork to break it into crumbs. Sprinkle the crumbs over the jam and dough in the pan. Bake about 50 minutes, until dough looks dry and light brownish. Cool completely in the pan; cut into squares and lift out with an offset spatula.

Recipe: Lemon shortbread cookies for Mom

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I don't know why shortbread jumped out at me all of a sudden, but when I saw a recipe for lemon shortbread on Pinch My Salt yesterday I had to try it (thanks for the inspiration, Nicole). I'm missing my mom, and her all-time favorite cookie is the Lorna Doone. So I thought I'd try to make something I knew she would like and, if I can stand the lines at the post office, send it off this afternoon.

My first attempt fell a little flat; this one is better. I've adjusted the original recipe a bit - more lemon zest, raw sugar sprinkled on top.

I Miss My Mom Lemon Shortbread

2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup lemon zest
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup raw sugar (large crystals)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Cream butter with sugar and lemon zest in stand mixer for two minutes or until very creamy. By hand, add flour in three additions. The dough will be dry and crumbly; I found it easiest to work the flour in with my hands (not a spoon) until the dough held together when I squeezed it.

Turn the dough out on the counter or a board and flatten into a rectangle. Sprinkle with raw sugar and press the sugar into the top of the dough a bit. Cut the dough into little squares or diamonds, whatever shape you prefer. Scatter the pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake at 325 about 25 minutes, until the bottoms of the cookies are just starting to brown. Cool on baking sheet for five minutes, then put the cookies on a cooling rack. Just try to resist until they cool down - I bet you won't be able to.

Makes about four dozen tiny little cookies.

Recipe: Smoked salmon and herbed goat cheese toasts for an Impromptu cocktail party

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We, like many families we know, are spending the two weeks of our holiday break mostly at home. One of my greatest pleasures is cooking for the people we like, so we've invited various friends and family over throughout the December holidays for casual dinners.

Our dinner party last night grew at the last minute from six people to 10, so I added a few things to the menu. For a starter, I created these smoked salmon toasts, which disappeared quickly. I'm a big believer in a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator; with the right things on hand, anything is possible.

Smoked salmon and herbed goat cheese toasts

2 ciabatta rolls, demi-baguette or other crusty bread, cut into small rounds or triangles
4 oz soft goat cheese
2 tsp lemon juice
3 tsp lemon zest, divided
a handful of fresh herbs (I used parsley and winter savory from my garden)
salt and pepper to taste
4 oz smoked salmon, cut into small strips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread toasts on a baking sheet. Toast in oven about 15 minutes, until they are dry and crunchy but not browned. Set aside to cool.

In blender or mini-chopper (I love my mini-chopper and use it all the time), whir goat cheese, lemon juice, 2 tsp lemon zest, herbs, and salt and pepper, until smooth and creamy.

Spread a bit of cheese mixture on toasts and top with smoked salmon. Sprinkle with a few threads of lemon zest. Try to put on a platter, but if you're in my house, sigh patiently as people eat them off the prep board.

Makes about 30 little toasts.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Recipe: Apple-pear sauce

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Hanukkah is coming right up, and we're having a few families over here and there for Hanukkah dinners during the week, so of course I woke up thinking about applesauce.

The first time I made homemade applesauce I was in college. I was in one of those snooty Ivy League "secret societies" (not the snootiest of the snooty, fortunately), and every Sunday a couple of people made dinner for the group of 15 in the delapidated house's extremely outdated kitchen. The day of my first turn was a beautiful fall day, and I'd proudly used the car I'd just brought up to school to trek out to a pick-your-own farm, returning with several bushels of apples right off the trees.

I can't remember what else I made for dinner -- possibly my mom's sesame chicken? -- but I know that I spent that entire afternoon at the house peeling, coring and chopping apples. By the time everyone arrived at dinnertime you could smell it down the street. Warm applesauce with vanilla ice cream for dessert that night. I made friends.

My dad, who passed away recently, loved this recipe. I have to admit that I shed a few tears this morning as I peeled and chopped. This was the first time I'd made it since he died.

Any varieties of fruit will do, although some will give off more water than others and you may have to cook them a bit longer.

Chunky applesauce (with pears too, today)

10 large apples, peeled, cored and chopped
4 large pears
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup honey
a squeeze of lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a large pot with a splash of water so the bottom won't burn. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, cover, and let cook until the fruit is soft. Mash with a potato masher for a coarse consistency, or blend with an immersion blender for a smoother sauce. Serve warm or cold, for dessert, as a side with grilled meat, or, of course, with your Hanukkah latkes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Recipe: Thai fish stew

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This is one of those family favorites I hope my children will remember fondly when they're living in their first apartments. You know -- the one that makes them want to come home on Sunday afternoons. It was inspired by a lovely soup my friend Rachel served at a dinner party a few years ago, although she labels hers Brazilian, I believe, rather than Thai.

My 10-year-old son Emery made dinner with me tonight. He's getting quite good at the stove. This is definitely an easy enough recipe for kids to help.

Thai fish stew

  • 1 lb mixed fish, cut into largish cubes (tonight I used tilapia because that's what I had, but often the mix I use includes salmon, swordfish and tuna)
  • 1 lb shrimp, any size
  • juice of 6 big limes
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 bell peppers, any color, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 Tbsp Thai red or yellow curry paste (optional, but it adds a nice flavor and some heat)
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cans coconut milk
  • 8 oz chicken stock
  • large amounts of chopped scallions, cilantro and basil
  • Leftover cooked rice (optional)

Mix the seafood, lime juice, olive oil and salt in a large bowl. Let sit 15 minutes. This will firm up the flesh of the seafood, as in a ceviche, so it doesn't fall apart as quickly in the stew.

Saute the onion and bell peppers in a little olive oil in a big heavy pot for about five minutes, until they are just starting to soften. Add the garlic and stir briefly. Add the curry paste and tomato paste and stir briefly again, until they are dissolved and have coated the vegetables. Then add the coconut milk, chicken stock, and fish with the marinating liquid. If you've got leftover cooked rice in the refrigerator, add it now -- it will add some body to the stew.

Bring to a gentle boil, turn down the heat, and simmer about 10 minutes, or until the fish and shrimp are just done. Add the scallions and herbs, stir, and serve. If you like more acid, add a little more lime juice at the end, or lemon juice if, like me, you never have enough limes on hand.

Serves at least six, with leftovers for the next day (and yes, it gets better with age).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tonight's table: Tilapia with balsamic reduction, green beans, puree of cauliflower

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What's for dinner tonight? I hope to make this a regular feature, as, of course, it's something that comes up at some point every day.

Tonight's dinner:

  • Tilapia filets, which I dredged in seasoned flour, sauted in a little olive oil, and then dressed with a sauce of browned butter and reduced balsamic vinegar (saw this on Rachel Ray and it sounded good; got good reviews from the family, but personally I thought it needed more acid)

  • Blanched haricots verts (the thin green beans, available in bags at Costco pre-trimmed) with olive oil, a squeeze of Meyer lemon and sea salt

  • "Cauliflower mush," as we affectionately call it, which is one head of cauliflower plus one potato, steamed together, then mashed or blended with a little yogurt, olive oil, grated parmesan, salt and pepper; although tonight, because I had no yogurt, I put in a little of the low-fat sour cream and onion dip I made yesterday, and it added a terrific tang

Dessert? We still have some chai snickerdoodles left, I think, from my baking frenzy of the other day. Or watermelon.

Recipe: Middle-of-the-night Chinese five-spice chocolate truffles

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Last year I started a wee boutique chocolate business, making high-end truffles for a few private clients. It went well -- with just word-of-mouth I got my chocolates into the hands of several celebs via a lovely woman who makes gift baskets for the stars. I hear they were well received. I didn't pursue the business part this year (for logistical reasons), but I'm still making chocolates. I love the smell, mostly, and also how they look in the little bags with their festive twistie ties.

I couldn't sleep last night, so I put up a batch of these Chinese Five-Spice Truffles. The thing I love about truffles is that they're pretty easy to put together and yet they're completely luxurious to give as gifts. I'm handing them out tomorrow at school to all the teachers as holiday gifts.

Chinese Five-Spice Truffles

1 lb excellent dark chocolate, preferably 70%
1 cup heavy cream
2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

Break up the chocolate in a glass bowl. Pour over the cream and spices. Microwave on high, one minute at a time, letting stand for 30 seconds and then stirring between zaps. When all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth, let sit at room temperature for a few hours.

When the mixture is semi-solid, about the consistency of thick frosting, scoop or spoon into little balls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. I use a small (size #100) spring-loaded disher, which works well. Put the baking sheets in the refrigerator for a few hours to firm up. The balls will be ragged and uneven, which is a look I particularly like -- more reminiscent of the fungus for which the candy was originally named.

When the balls are cold and solid, put the cocoa powder in a plastic container with a lid. Drop in a few truffles at a time, put on the lid, shake them around, and then lift them out into a fine-mesh strainer and shake off the extra cocoa powder. This is important -- you want the chocolates to be dusted but not drowned.

And now you're done! I usually put them in little foil candy cups, stick them in a big container, and pack them up as needed for gifts. Always a big hit at parties.

Welcome to my kitchen!

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First thing you need to know about me: I spend a lot of time in my kitchen. I'm told that a lot of delicious things come out of it. I hope that's true, because one of my greatest pleasures in life is making good food for my friends and family.

Second thing you need to know about me: I like to share. Food, recipes, tips, shopping lists. I've done a lot of short food-writing on my Facebook page and elsewhere, but this blog is going to be more, deeper, better, more often.

And third: I want input. Ideas. Corrections. Suggestions. It's no fun doing this in a vacuum. I want friends!

Looking forward to lots of food talk ahead.