Friday, August 29, 2014

Stop Worrying about What to Cook for Labor Day
What’s cooking? The Whole Damn Menu, from grilled skirt steak to frozen yogurt

One of the great joys of summertime for me is taking my son’s family to the pool where my hubby plays golf. My own children never much cared for this pool because it wasn’t in our town so their friends weren’t there. But my 2½-year-old granddaughter and my 5-month-old grandson haven’t reached that stage yet, so they are perfectly happy to join me. And as the pool closes after this weekend, I’m madly jamming in as many visits there as possible. I think both grandkids may be waterlogged by the end of the season.

In addition to marking the end of what we think of as summer – never mind that it’s got another 3 weeks to its run – Labor Day offers one final shot at a National Grilling Day. One last nationwide salute to outdoor cooking and eating.

I have mentioned before that one of the few problems with condo living here in NJ is that I have no outdoor grill. But I have the next best thing: a son and daughter-in-law who don’t mind if I take food to their house to grill. And last weekend, I gathered up a full meal to prepare there for the entire family. Then I decided it was so good, I would pass the whole damn menu along to you for your Labor Day festivities. Except for the meat, it’s an homage to the farmers’ market, but even if you have no farmers’ market in your area (What?! No farmers’ market?!!), the fruits and veggies should all be readily available at your local supermarket.

A couple of notes about the recipes. The meat is from a recent write-up by Melissa Clark in The New York Times. The garlic, thyme, and basil of the marinade bring a delightfully herby flavor to the steak, which is already juicy and reasonably tender as a cut – as long as you slice it on the diagonal. (More about this later.) And because the long, ribbons of skirt steak offer more surface than interior, they cook quickly. If they seem unwieldy to work with, you can just cut them in half or thirds.

The tomatoes are from an old favorite of mine out of the original Silver Palate Cookbook. This time, I wanted to make use of the crisp, peppery arugula I got at the farmers’ market, instead of spinach, which was in the original preparation. I also substituted corn for the pine nuts in the original, and I loved the sweetness and crunch they brought to the dish.

As for the peach frozen yogurt, I must admit to being a mintaholic – I can never get enough of the stuff. I was in line to buy lettuce from my organic farmstand, and was almost knocked over by the fragrance of a big bunch of mint. So I bought it, and decided to combine it with the peaches in the frozen yogurt. But if you are not a mint freak, you won’t lose anything by eliminating it from the recipe.

The Menu

Grilled Skirt Steak with Spicy Pesto Marinade
Tomatoes Stuffed with Arugula, Corn, and Ricotta
Watermelon and Feta Salad with Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette
Minted Peach Frozen Yogurt

It’s all easy to make, and while the tomatoes take a bit of time, you can assemble them in the morning and refrigerate them until a half-hour before it’s time to eat. On the night before, make the frozen yogurt mixture and the salad dressing, and marinate the beef. Assemble the salad while the tomatoes are baking and the beef is on the grill. In fact, I’ve laid out the entire cooking schedule for you, right after the recipes.

The Recipes

Grilled Skirt Steak with Spicy Pesto Marinade

Adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times

Serves 6.

1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
3 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon thyme leaves (if no lemon thyme, use regular thyme)
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons pickled peppers (peperoncini or jalapeño – seeds removed), coarsely chopped
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
finely grated zest of 1 lemon (2 lemons if using regular thyme)
juice of half a lemon (1-1½ tablespoons)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2½ pounds skirt steak

In a food processor or blender, combine the basil leaves, scallions, thyme, garlic, peppers, salt, zest, and lemon juice. Pulse until the mixture is grainy. Add the olive oil and blend – stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides – until the mixture is thick and pasty, 30 seconds to a minute.

Blot the meat with paper towels and put it in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Pour in the marinade, close the bag securely, and massage until the marinade is well distributed. Alternatively, put the meat in a large dish, spoon the marinade over it, and cover with cellophane wrap.  In either case, refrigerate the meat and marinade at least 30 minutes – preferably overnight.

Turn on the grill, and when you’re ready to cook, pat the excess marinade off the meat with a paper towel. (The marinade will already have done its work, and the meat will cook best if it’s relatively dry.) Grill at medium-high for 3-5 minutes per side – the meat should look lightly charred, and it’s best served rare to medium-rare. Let it stand 5 minutes before slicing.

Kitchen Goddess note: The structure of this cut of meat is such that it will be much more tender – and prettier – if you slice it against the grain, at about a 45-degree angle. So DON’T overcook it, and DO slice it against the grain.

* * *

Tomatoes Stuffed with Arugula, Corn, and Ricotta

Inspired by The Silver Palate Cookbook

Serves 6.

6 ripe tomatoes
salt for draining tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely diced yellow onions
about 10 ounces fresh arugula, rinsed well and coarsely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
grated nutmeg, to taste
1 cup ricotta cheese (whole milk or part-skim)
2 large egg yolks
kernels cut from 1 ear of corn (about 1 cup)
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus additional cheese to top tomatoes

Core the tomatoes and scrape out seeds and ribs using a small spoon. Be careful not to pierce the sides of the tomatoes. Salt the insides and turn them upside down to drain onto paper towels for 30 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat and sauté onions, covered but stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly colored, about 20 minutes.

Place the arugula with a tablespoon of water into a separate, dry skillet over medium heat., and stir it around until it wilts, then cover it and cook – stirring occasionally – for about 5 minutes or until tender. Turn it out onto a cutting board and chop fine.

Add the arugula to the onions and season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. (I started with ¾ teaspoon of kosher salt, about 10 grinds of fresh black pepper, and ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, but you should start slow and adjust to your own liking.) Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 7-8 minutes. Be careful not to scorch it.

In a medium bowl, beat the ricotta with the egg yolks until smooth, and stir in the arugula/onion mixture, the corn, ¼ cup of the cheese, and the parsley. Mix well, and adjust salt/pepper to taste.

Preheat the oven to 350º. With a paper towel, gently blot the insides of the tomatoes dry, and spoon an equal amount of the filling into each. Sprinkle additional cheese on top.

Arrange the tomatoes in a shallow baking dish. If you don’t plan to bake the tomatoes immediately, cover them with Saran Wrap and refrigerate them. When ready, set the dish in the upper third of the oven and bake about 30 minutes or until the tops are lightly browned and bubbly. Serve immediately.

* * *

Oops -- forgot to mention I added slivered Italian olives. Tasty but not necessary.

Watermelon and Feta Salad with Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette

Serves 6.

For the salad:
5-6 cups watermelon, cut in 1-inch cubes
3-4 ounces fresh feta cheese
Bibb lettuce/arugula/watercress/spinach – take your pick

Scatter the watermelon on top of the greens, or toss them together. Crumble the feta on top. Dress with Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette and serve.

For the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon salt
1 clove roasted garlic (optional)
½ cup olive oil
fresh ground pepper

Whisk together the honey, lemon juice, and salt until the salt dissolves. Mash the garlic into it. Add the olive oil in a stream, whisking constantly as you pour. Add the pepper and adjust the seasoning to taste.

* * *

Minted Peach Frozen Yogurt

Inspired by David Lebovitz in The Perfect Scoop

Makes 1 quart.

1½ pounds ripe peaches (about 5 large), peeled, pitted, and cut into chunks
½ cup water
¾ cup sugar
2 sprigs mint
½ cup Greek yogurt (2% fat)
½ cup half-and-half
½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a medium, nonreactive (e.g., glass or stainless steel) saucepan, simmer the peaches in the water, covered but stirring occasionally, until cooked through, 10-12 minutes.

Remove the peaches from the heat and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Add the mint sprigs, cover the pan, and let sit for 10 minutes. Remove the mint and chill the peach mixture in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

When the peaches are cool, purée them with the remaining ingredients in a blender until well mixed but not quite smooth. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve with Nabisco Chocolate Wafers or Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Snaps.

The Cooking Schedule

Step 1: The night before – 

■ Cook the peaches, add the mint and sugar, and cover the pan for 10 minutes while you make the marinade for the meat.

■  Throw together the ingredients for the marinade in your food processor. Blot the meat dry and load it into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. [Kitchen Goddess note: The baggie solution is a triple winner: there’s no mess, you can massage the marinade and the meat together any number of times before cooking, and it takes up way less space in the fridge. And when you’ve removed the meat for cooking, you can toss the bag and its soupy contents into the trash.]

■ Throw away the mint, and stash the peaches in the fridge for overnight. Have a glass of wine and go to bed.

Step 2: The next morning – 

■ Core and salt the tomatoes, and set them to drain.

■ While the tomatoes are draining, run the peaches and remaining ingredients for the frozen yogurt in your blender just long enough to make sure it’s all well mixed. Move the mixture to your ice cream maker and turn it on.

■ Finish the stuffing and fill the tomatoes. Top them with the cheese and set them in a small baking pan with sides. Cover with cellophane wrap and refrigerate until time to cook.

Step 3: Dinner time –

■ Half an hour before dinner time, preheat the oven to 350º. When the oven is ready, start the grill. (These instructions are for a gas grill; I have no idea how far in advance you have to start a charcoal fire – the Kitchen Goddess doesn’t mess with charcoal.) Put the tomatoes in the oven.

■ While the tomatoes are cooking, assemble the salad.

■ Don’t forget to let the meat sit for 5 minutes before slicing, and slice the steak against the grain. If you don’t, you’ll still be chewing the meat when it’s time for dessert.

And have a great Labor Day celebration!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

It’s a Summer Feeding Frenzy
What’s cooking? Roasted Tomato-Peach Spread

“You should live on a farm,” my husband said as he surveyed the 4 pounds of tomatoes, 6 pounds of peaches, 2 pounds of sugar plums, and 6 pints of ground cherries I brought home from the farmers’ market this week. Plus assorted veggies. Thoughts of myself riding a tractor or up at dawn feeding the chickens swirled in my brain. On a farm with these fingernails? Not a chance.

And he doesn’t know the half of it. In the past month, I’ve given a new twist to my farmers’ market regimen: I now carry a supply of fruits and veggies, and maybe some fish, down to my son and his girlfriend in New Brunswick. They’re both new docs in a residency program, with virtually no time for grocery shopping. Then out of fairness to the other son, I drive a bundle of the same to him and his wife in Scotch Plains. I am reminded of one time before they married, when they stopped by on a Sunday and I loaded them up with various extras from my farmers’ market purchases. She turned to him on their way out the door and said, “You know, we should shop here more often.”

I love feeding my family; I’ve felt responsible for their palates since they were born, and I want them to enjoy the great fruits and veggies that are available. And if that means driving an embarrassing number of miles on summer Sundays, ...well, then, that’s what I’ll do. We all have our weaknesses; mine seems to be local produce.

August is really the month that NJ foodies – and the Kitchen Goddess claims both Austin and New Jersey as the sources of her obsession – go wild. The confluence of corn, tomato, and peach harvests is enough to send us into a frenzy.

For me, one way to fully appreciate this dynamite trio is to pile them all together in a salad. Add some of the ultrafresh, crisp and sweet lettuce that’s been available all summer, and an herbed vinaigrette, and you have the main element of a great summer lunch. Sprinkle some sliced almonds or add some wedges of chewy ciabatta bread and an assortment of cheeses, and you really need nothing more. For this particular salad – today’s lunch – I also diced up an avocado.

But what I really want to tell you about is a delightfully chunky, sweet-savory jam I discovered last year. Now before you decide you don’t need another jam, note that this one was designed to work as an appetizer – not a breakfast accompaniment, though I’d be happy to slather it on my toast. In fact, you’ll note that I don’t even call it a jam, because it’s really much more. Roasting the fruits (remember: tomatoes are a fruit) gives this condiment a much more nuanced flavor than any saucepan jam; the onions and roasted garlic take it over the top.

The original recipe was developed by a University of Toronto student, Lauren Classen. Ms. Classen won first place with it in some Toronto-based contest, in the appetizer category.

So how can you use it?

■ My favorite way is to serve it as an appetizer. Spread fresh ricotta or goat cheese on top of toasted baguette slices, then top each with a dollop of tomato-peach spread.

■ Apparently, Ms. Classen serves it also as the filling in mini-tarts. I haven’t tried that but will update you when I do.

■ Serve it as the condiment on sandwiches or sliders of sliced pork or chicken. It’ll work well with your Thanksgiving turkey, but to have it in November, you’ll have to preserve it in jars.

Kitchen Goddess note: Preserving is soooo easy. Basically, you just sterilize the jars, fill them with whatever, and submerge them in boiling water for 5 minutes. That wax your grandmother used has gone the way of manual typewriters and rotary dial telephones. More detailed steps to preserving are at this link. 

What the Kitchen Goddess really likes about this recipe is that it uses the oven. No candy thermometer or stovetop guesswork as to when it’s “jam.” And no pectin. The Kitchen Goddess is still trying to figure out pectin.

Roasted Tomato & Peach Spread

Adapted from Lauren Claussen in the Toronto Star

Yield: one quart+, or enough for 6 half-pint Mason jars, filled to a half-inch below the rim.

4 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and halved horizontally
2 pounds ripe peaches, skins on, pitted and cut into chunks about the size of ½-inch dice
1 medium sweet onion, in ½-inch dice
4 large cloves roasted garlic, mashed to a paste
2 teaspoons sugar
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
2 tbsp dried oregano

Preheat the oven to 400º.

Spray a very light coating of oil on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Arrange the tomato halves along the perimeter of the pan. Stir together the peaches, onions, and garlic, and pile them in the center of the pan.

Sprinkle the sugar on the tomatoes, and drizzle the oil over everything. Sprinkle the salt and oregano over everything.

Roast the fruits in the oven for 40 minutes; you’ll notice that the onions and peaches will start to brown on their edges. Remove the pan from the oven and, using a potato masher or some similar instrument (spatula, large spoon), mash the tomatoes to nearly flat, to release the juices. Then, using a spatula or large spoon, mix the peaches, onions, and tomatoes together.

Return the pan to the oven and bake, stirring every 15 minutes, until the tomato juices have pretty much evaporated, and the mixture attains the consistency of thick jam, which will take about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess note: If you have roasted the fruits for the full hour and 15 minutes and it still looks very soupy, spoon off some of the juice into a glass and enjoy it. Then return the pan to the oven for a final 15 minutes. If it’s still very liquid looking, let it sit on top of the stove (no heat), lightly covered, overnight.

Adjust salt or sugar seasoning to taste.

Serve warm or cold. Refrigerate for as long as a week, or freeze, or preserve in Mason jars.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Eating Like a Bear: Wild Salmon
What’s cooking? Salmon Chowder

Sitka Sound

Once upon a time, a talented physician in Ohio pulled up stakes in response to an ad for a private surgeon, and took his wife and three children to live in Alaska. The children grew up, married, established careers, and two of the three raised their own children in a state that remains largely an untrampled and untarnished wilderness. The surgeon and his wife were my husband’s aunt and uncle; their children were his cousins.

Some 60 years later, the stars aligned, and through the combined power of Spoon & Ink, Facebook, and email, I became friendly with the wives of those cousins. They insisted we should visit them in Alaska. Which meant – to me at least – a cruise! Followed by time in Anchorage with the cousins. My husband warned me that it’s such a huge state that we’d only get to see a tiny fraction of it, and he was right. But it’s also spectacularly beautiful. Moreover, if you go during the summer, it’s really pleasant weather, and for a foodie who likes fish, it’s heaven. More on that in a bit.

In addition to the stunning scenery, I made several darling acquaintances.
Sea otters
Harbor seals 
Sea lions

 Some seemed happier to see me than others.

The humpback whales were just shy.

And the bears were preoccupied with lunch.

So, speaking of lunch, we had nothing but amazing seafood on the trip. Halibut, cod, rockfish, king crab, scallops, and squid, but the most amazing was the salmon. Served every way you can think of – grilled and nestled on a bed of spring greens or in a sandwich of thick, crusty bread; fried in a crisp panko crumb coating and served with slaw; roasted with a spicy Cajun seasoning; smoked and served with ahi tuna in a sashimi “Napoleon” with fried wonton wrappers as pastry; and grilled with a soy maple glaze and Asian vegetables.

One of the reasons for the plethora of salmon dishes was that it’s now high season for Alaskan salmon. Technically, the season for fresh salmon – or “fresh frozen” (which means it was frozen on the boat, minutes after being caught) runs from May through October. But I’m told that Alaskan salmon are harvested at sea about 11 months of the year. Because of Alaska’s reliance on salmon for food and commercial purposes, the state is extremely careful about protecting salmon habitats and nurturing the salmon population, with the result that all five species of Alaskan salmon are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Kitchen Goddess notes on buying salmon:

■ As with any fresh fish, it shouldn’t smell. If the fish in your market smells, go somewhere else.

■ Good fresh salmon should glisten. It should be firm and evenly colored. Don’t be alarmed if you see white lines running through the fish; they’re evidence of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for you.

■ Yes, wild salmon is more expensive than farmed salmon. But it’s way better for you, and the taste difference is like night and day. So eat like a bear: get wild salmon.

On our way out the door to return East, my new “cousin” Judy (I now think of them all as my family, too) handed me a recipe for Salmon Chowder. Apparently, that’s what she makes when she has “leftover” salmon from the previous night. Frankly, I’ve never bought so much salmon that I’d have leftovers, but I may have to start.

I’m going to assume you don’t have leftover salmon, either, so I’ve given you the amount to buy at the market. It’s worth starting from the beginning to make this chowder, and with corn and fingerling potatoes also now in season, I would encourage you to use both in making this dish.

Because I was just feeding two people, I should have cut the recipe in half. As printed here, it serves 6. But it was so delicious that we have happily eaten it for two dinners, and the Kitchen Goddess served herself some for lunch today. Easy and très yummy.

Salmon Chowder

Serves 6.

1 pound wild salmon, fresh or "fresh frozen"
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 tablespoons chopped herbs (chives, parsley, dill, or your choice)
kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 cups onion, in ¼-½-inch dice
1¼ cups celery, in ¼-½-inch dice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds small red-skinned potatoes (or fingerlings), in ¾-inch dice
1 cup carrots, in ½-inch dice
1¼ cups chicken broth
kernels sliced from 2 medium ears of corn, or 1 cup frozen corn
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
additional salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

– 2 tablespoons fresh parsley or cilantro or dill, minced
– crumbled bacon (about 6 strips to serve 6)

To cook the salmon:
Preheat oven to 425º. Line a baking pan with foil, and brush a bit of the olive oil on the foil. Lay the fish on the foil, skin side down, and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle herbs evenly on top of fish, and bake 15-18 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish), until the fish is just done. Set aside.

To make the chowder:
In a large soup pot (I use a 5.5-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven) over medium heat, melt the butter and add the onion and celery. Sauté until tender, about 6 minutes.

Add the potatoes and carrots and chicken broth, and simmer until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

Kitchen Goddess note: If you will be garnishing with crumbled bacon, start the bacon cooking when you add the potatoes and carrots and broth. I recommend laying the bacon out on a foil-lined baking sheet, and cooking 15 minutes at 400º, but of course you can do it the messy way in a skillet if you prefer.

Once the potatoes and carrots are tender, add the milk, cream, cheese, thyme, Worcestershire, and salt, and stir until combined. Chunk the salmon into cubes about ¾ inch square, and fold them gently into the chowder. Continue cooking until the cheese is fully melted and the soup is hot. Do not let the soup boil. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve garnished with herbs and crumbled bacon.