Archive for January, 2008

Homemade Kettle Corn and Popcorn

Lately I have been craving popcorn — HOMEMADE popcorn. I’ll go make some in a second, right after I extol its virtues and try to convince you not to use the microwaved variety any longer.

First, all the reasons NOT to eat microwave popcorn. Yes. I know it’s super convenient and fast, but (here’s the list):

  1. Most are full of artery-clogging hydrogenated oils.
  2. Even if you find a kind that isn’t full of hydrogenated oils, microwave popcorn has a fake butter flavor and real butter is just so much yummier.
  3. That fake butter flavor is created by a chemical powder that is literally killing the people who work in the popcorn factories (I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true. You can read about it at this New York Times article on OSHA)
  4. It’s easy to burn microwave popcorn

Okay — now for all the reasons you should try making popcorn on your own:

  1. It is far less expensive to make your own popcorn. A bag of kernals that will pop into numerous bowls of delightful popcorn is only a fraction of the cost of a box of microwave popcorn with only three bags.
  2. You can use any old pot you’ve got lying around the house. You don’t need a fancy popcorn pot, but if you have one, feel free to use it.
  3. You can even use your microwave. Follow these directions on the Food Network site from Alton Brown (which I haven’t tried).
  4. You can control the butter and salt so the popcorn tastes perfect for you (and not some test market).
  5. You can easily make kettlecorn (yes — it’s very easy. You just add some sugar to the pot and it crystallizes onto the popcorn. Just follow the directions below).
  6. Homemade popcorn is far healthier.

So give homemade popcorn a try!

Buttered Popcorn

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 cup popcorn kernals

1-2 Tbsp melted butter

salt to taste

  1. Find a large pot (the kind you’d use to boil a pound of pasta). Metal or cast iron are fine.
  2. Set the pot on the stove and add the oil.
  3. Turn the stove on medium and then add the popcorn.
  4. Cover the pot and just stand there looking pretty until the oil heats up.
  5. Once the popcorn starts to pop (which you’ll hear — don’t open the cover to check or you might get a kernel in your eye) start shaking the pot here and there so the popcorn doesn’t burn on the bottom.
  6. When the popcorn starts to really get going you should shake the pot while keeping it still on the burner (you may need oven mitts for this).
  7. When the popcorn slows down, turn off the heat.
  8. Quickly melt some butter in a pan or the microwave.
  9. Pour the popcorn into a bowl. Dump the butter on top and sprinkle on some salt (I like sea salt).
  10. Mix and eat.

Homemade Kettle Corn

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 cup popcorn kernals

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Pretty much the exact same instructions as those above, except you add the sugar and salt to the pot when you add the popcorn and then you don’t add any butter or salt at the end.

Note: be sure to use an older pot when making kettlecorn as the crystallized sugar can burn at the bottom, leaving little spots.

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Kid-friendly Scallops (Plus some Spice for Mom and Dad)

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Yum! Scallops! I love scallops when they’re fresh and cooked well. I think a lot of people just “think” they don’t like scallops because they’ve ordered them in a restaurant that has left them sitting around in the fridge for a few days so they lose the fresh taste of the ocean (and a good scallop should always taste of the open sea). Another problem with serving scallops is that they’re easy to overcook, which makes them rubbery, so people think they don’t like the texture. Fresh scallops cooked perfectly are a tasty treat and I hope that even if you’ve been burned by bad scallops in the past, you’ll give cooking them a try. If you’re at the stove, you have control over the quality and how long they’re cooked, so you can cook them to perfection.

Okay — back to MY meal. I saw some delicious-looking large white scallops yesterday and decided I had to have them. The great thing about cooking scallops is that they cook quickly, so making them means I can make dinner in a flash. The only problem with making scallops is that I love them with a little crushed red pepper, which my kids will definitely not eat. I therefore have to cook them in two batches. It adds about five minutes to the overall cooking time, but as my girls end up happy and I end up with some spice in my meal, we’re all satisfied.

The cooking method I use for my daughters’ scallops is inspired by Mark Bittman’s recipe for scallops with heavy cream (at New York Times Online), although I don’t use white wine and I don’t clean out the pan and I also don’t do a lot of other stuff. It’s a kids meal, so I make it tasty and fast and as easy as possible. I sometimes make my husband’s and my scallops using his recipe as well, but as he uses heavy cream, I tend to only do so about once a year. My recipe uses a little butter, but also some olive oil and lemon, so it’s not as caloric or fatty and has a nice accent of citrus to complement the parsley and crushed red pepper, which I like.

I paired the scallops with risotto made with shallots and peas (a recipe I’ll share tomorrow). I like to serve things like shrimp and scallops with pasta or rice as the seafood doesn’t usually fill my kids up, so we need a little starch.

Scallops for the Kids

4 large scallops

1 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 small shallot

1/4 cup heavy cream

A couple of Tbsp milk (preferably whole)

A squeeze of lemon

1 Tbsp chopped parsley or basil

Salt to taste

Place olive oil and butter in a heavy skillet, such as a cast-iron pan. Heat pan on medium high. Salt the scallops and then cut them into medium-sized pieces. When butter is melted and pan seems hot (but before butter browns) place scallops in the pan and sear until the sides are golden brown.

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Add parsley and shallots, lower pan to medium heat, and cover for about a minute. Remove scallops from pan, turn off the burner, and then add heavy cream and milk. Stir cream to pick up any crispy bits of scallops in the pan, which will give your sauce a deep rich color. Add scallops with parsley and shallots back to the pan and turn heat back on to medium-low. Cover for another minute. Taste to see if you need any more salt. Add a squeeze of lemon and serve with rice or pasta.

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Scallops for the Parents

1 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp olive oil

7-8 large scallops

1 handful chopped fresh parsley or basil

1 large shallot finely chopped

1 pinch of crushed red pepper

A squeeze of lemon

Rinse out your pan and pat it dry. Heat olive oil and butter on medium-high heat until pan is hot and butter is melted, but not browned. Salt scallops and add them to the pan. Sear, cooking each side 1-2 minutes or until they are nicely browned.

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Remove scallops from pan and add shallots, crushed red pepper and parsley. Stir and cook until shallots are wilted. Add scallops and their juices back into the pan and squeeze lemon on top. Stir sauce in pan. Cover for about another minute if scallops need to be cooked a little longer or serve if scallops seem cooked.

Hint: Scallops should be removed when they are barely cooked through. You don’t want ot overcook them.

Plate scallops and spoon sauce from the pan on top of each. Serve with lemon slices.

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The “best” burgers – satisfy the kids and the grownups

On Saturday, my friend Kim came over for dinner. She had a hankering for homemade burgers, and how could we refuse when we love them too! So, with the platonic ideal of the perfect burger in my mind, I headed over to the Grand Lake farmer’s market with my daughter for burger fixings. After a quick ride in the jump house for my daughter, and then a nice snack of home-baked salty pretzels from the bread vendor, we journeyed over to the Prather Ranch stall.

For anyone unfamiliar with Prather Ranch, they are, as far as I’m concerned, the premier local grass-fed beef ranch around. I love them for many reasons (not necessarily in this order).

  1. They are located in Northern California and I’ve been trying to buy food raised and grown locally (or as close as possible).
  2. The cows on their ranch are raised humanely and get to roam around and eat grass (I call this good Karma meat, although my vegetarian friends would point out that they’re still slaughtered).
  3. From what I hear, grass-fed beef has a lower risk of E-coli than corn-fed beef, which eases my mother’s mind. This also means you don’t have to cook your burgers until they’re well-done and hard as hockey pucks. (This isn’t to say you should give your kids rare burgers. It just means that I personally feel I can give my girls medium burgers instead of well-done ones.)
  4. Their beef just tastes better than any other beef I buy. It’s fresher and the flavor is just hands down yummier than other ground-beef choices.

So, with all this in mind, I bought two pounds of ground beef at the Prather Ranch stall. I knew the beef would make great burgers as soon as I looked at it because I could see it was permeated with delicious flecks of fat. Although making burgers out of lean beef may make you feel like you’re being healthy, lean-beef burgers are never worth eating, and therefore not worth the calories, as they always end up dry and tough. A good burger needs some fat to be juicy and flavorful. So when buying beef, try to resist the lean stuff. A little fat in moderation is fine. Just be sure not to eat burgers every day (although once you make the perfect burger it will be hard not to).

Anyway, that night, we set out on our mission to make the best burgers possible. We didn’t want extra trimmings (such as stuffing the burgers with cheese or poblanos). We wanted that great meat to be the star and to simply highlight its natural flavors. Kim finely chopped a quarter of a red onion and added it to the meat along with some salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce while I made some homemade French fries (I mean, you HAVE to have homemade fries with homemade burgers). She then shaped the meat into burgers about 1/3 pound a piece. Tony, my husband, then fired up the grill.

He heated the grill to about 500-600 degrees and then placed the burgers directly above the flame, which dropped the heat to about 350 -450. He then shut the grill cover and cooked them for about 4-5 minutes on each side. This got them to about medium-rare. He then placed a slice of colby cheese on them (although Kim, the purist, resisted the cheese), and covered them for about another 30 seconds until the cheese melted. Tony kept our daughters burgers on for about a minute longer to make sure their meat was about medium. He then toasted the buns on the grill while the burgers rested (note: always let your burgers rest for a couple of minutes before devouring them. Resting allows the juices in the meat to settle throughout the burger so the entire burger is juicy without being too drippy).

After that, we all happily settled down to what, I feel, were the best burgers we’d ever made and maybe ever had. They were pink on the inside without being too rare, which is just the way we like them. The minimal seasonings let that wonderful grass-fed Prather Ranch meat shine, and our toppings of ketchup, mayonnaise, bread and butter pickles were a perfect match. The fries were also great, but that’s another post.

My only regret is that I’m not having burgers again tonight.

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Yummy Spinach Pie!

When I was a kid, my mother would make pizza and calzones each Christmas Eve along with a dish she called Spinach Pie. I always loved this dish. I would look forward to it each year as one of the many holiday treats my mother would prepare for our family and mourn a little when it was gone. When I got older, and moved out of the house, it never occurred to me that I could make this great dish in my own home until it was my turn to prepare Christmas Eve dinner a few years ago. So there I was, in my kitchen with my mom and other family members, making my pie. As we chatted, drank wine, and cooked, I soon realized that this is really one of the easiest things a home cook can make. I asked my mom why she didn’t make it more often when I was a kid. She shrugged and said simply that she thought of it as a holiday dish. Well, after I served it to my daughters, who devoured their first slice and then asked for more, I was determined to make it an “all-year” dish.

Spinach Pie uses pizza dough (so the “pie” in the title has more to do with pizza pie than coconut cream pie or quiche). Although I sometimes make my own pizza dough, I often just buy pre-made dough at Arizmendi (a bakery in Oakland down the street from my house, with sister branches in Emeryville and SF’s Richmond District), or Trader Joe’s. Homemade dough is great if you have the time, but as a working mom who doesn’t often plan out meals ahead of time, it makes more sense to buy the dough the day I make the dish.

The rest of the ingredients are things I usually have on hand anyway (such a frozen spinach, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan, and some sort of soft cheese), so I usually need to only make a quick run down the street for dough and I’m in business.

I really hope you give this dish a try. The spinach and cheese merge together to form a savory inside that is also creamy, while the yeast dough, drizzled with olive oil, gets a wonderful crispy crust. Also, it’s a new way to get your kids (or adult family and friends) eating spinach, which is full of vitamins and minerals and is a great source for iron.

Spinach Pie

1 lb pizza dough (homemade or bought)

1 bag of frozen spinach

2 Tbsp olive oil

3 garlic cloves chopped

1/2 cup ricotta or plain chevre (or a mixture of both). If you don’t have either, you can substitute cottage cheese.

Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Let dough sit out at room temperature for at least a half hour, but preferably an hour, as chilled dough doesn’t stretch well. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat oil in a large pan on medium heat. Add garlic and brown for a few seconds, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add frozen spinach and stir well. Lower heat to medium-low cook until the spinach is warmed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add more olive oil if the spinach seems dry or if you’d like more of an olive-oil taste.

Cool spinach on a plate for a few minutes. Meanwhile, drizzle a pie plate with olive oil so it’s evenly coated. Get your dough ready (i.e., put the bowl of homemade dough or the package of store-bought dough near the pie plate) and then cover your hands with a little bit of flour so it doesn’t stick to you during handling. Cut the dough in half. Take one half and, with your hands shaped like fists, stretch the dough into a circle about the size of the pie plate. This is sometimes difficult, and, if the dough doesn’t stretch well, you may need to let it rest at room temperature a bit longer. I shape my hands like fists so my fingers don’t rip through the dough, making holes. But, if you do make some holes, it’s not a big deal. Just try to pinch them together and move on.

After you line the pie dish with the dough, fill it with the spinach and then top with whatever soft cheese you’re using (I prefer a mixture of ricotta and chevre, although my mother uses only ricotta. In a pinch, I’ve used cottage cheese, which works as long as it’s 4% milkfat). I then sprinkle on a little salt to season the cheese, and then enough Parmesan to evenly coat the top.

Now take the other half of the dough and stretch it out so it fits nicely over the spinach and cheese. Drizzle some olive oil on top and then evenly smooth the oil with your finger tips.

Place the pie in the oven for about 30 minutes. Each oven cooks differently, so just be sure that the top is golden brown and you’ll be fine.

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Kid-friendly Linguine alla Carbonara

As long as we’re talking about scrambled eggs, I’d like to share my recipe for kid-friendly linguine alla carbonara. I love anything carbonara (which is essentially anything with bacon in it), but for years didn’t make carbonara pasta dishes because a) the recipes call for raw eggs (and I have a salmonella phobia, particularly in any food that my children will eat), and b) it’s pretty fatty and caloric. I therefore came up with my own recipe. My kids think of it as a macaroni and cheese with bacon and they love it, while I find many of the wonderful flavors you get in a traditional carbonara but without the salmonella risk and without as much of the fat. Yes, it’s still fattier than some dishes, but not really any fattier than a home-made macaroni and cheese. Also, I add frozen peas at the end, so there’s technically a vegetable in there!

Kid-Friendly Linguine alla Carbonara

1 Tsp olive oil

6-8 slices of bacon sliced into 1-inch pieces

1 lb linguine

1 cup whole milk

1 cup non-fat milk (or you can just use two cups of 2% milk if you have it)

2 eggs

1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/4 cup pecorino or sharp provolone cheese

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup frozen peas

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan, cook the bacon in the olive oil. Don’t crowd the pan, however, as the bacon will steam instead of getting crispy if there’s not enough room. Remove bacon from the pan and set aside. When pan cools a little, drain out the oil, but keep the crispy goodness on the bottom of the pan for later. Meanwhile, cook a pot of linguine in some salted water until al dente.

When the pasta is almost cooked, heat the milk in a pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, scramble some eggs in a heat-proof bowl. When the milks starts to slightly bubble around the edges, remove a ladel-full and add it to the scrambled eggs, being sure to stir the eggs while doing so. You are now essentially tempering the eggs so you can add them to the hot milk without scrambling them. Add the eggs to the hot milk, lowering the temperature to medium-low. Wisk to mix thoroughly. Cook for about 30 seconds and then turn the heat off. If the mixture starts to separate, it’s not a big deal. Your sauce will still be creamy and great. Add some salt and pepper to the egg/milk mixture to taste. Add the pasta to the bacon pan along with the egg mixture. Stir while scraping the bottom so you incorporate the bacon flavor from the pan into the pasta. Add the parsley, peas, and cheese and mix thoroughly. Finally, mix in the bacon bits and serve.

Special Ann Vegetarian Amendment: My friend Ann and I were pondering how to make this dish vegetarian. I think you could easily do this my substituting facon (is that how you spell it?) for bacon, although think that you should also saute some shallots (about 2 medium or 3 small ones) in olive oil to add extra flavor. You can then add the pasta to the facon/shallot pan and then proceed as normal with the remainder of the recipe.
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The perfect scrambled eggs

Scrambled eggs are a no brainer, right? You just stir them a bit in a bowl or a hot pan with some butter and then voila — scrambled eggs! I used to think this was true. I thought that scrambled eggs were all alike and wasn’t really a fan. I always preferred a nice fried egg with a slightly runny yolk, or one poached or soft boiled. And then, about two years ago while reading Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, my relationship with scrambled eggs was changed forever.

Toward the beginning of the book, Julia is attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Instead of the culinary program she eventually joins, she starts out in a layman’s program with a bunch of U.S. GIs. Her teacher, a man who eventually becomes a respected colleague and friend, asks the group how to scramble an egg. Julia, who by this time is in her late 30s and married, thinks the question is a bit silly and steps forward to throw a few eggs in a bowl, add some butter to a hot pan and quickly scramble some eggs. I mean, what could be simpler, right? What she learns, however, is that technique is everything. Those same ingredients, when cooked with more care and thought, go from hard and lumpy to creamy and rich. She realizes that the art of cooking isn’t simply heating food, but cooking it in a way to bring out its essential flavor and texture.

After reading this passage one evening, I put the book down, determined to experiment the next morning with my own scrambled eggs. When I got to the kitchen, however, I modified Julia’s instructions a bit. I just couldn’t bring myself to add that extra pad of butter at the end as it seemed a bit much and went against my mantra of using butter in moderation. The extra butter seemed an indulgence that I might use on Christmas, but not on a regular Saturday.

I then whipped up my eggs. By the time the meal was over, I had gone from being somewhat ambivalent toward the dish to a lover of scrambled egg. I could now see why the French incorporate them into their lunches and dinners instead of treating them as a morning-only meal. I’ve since made them for friends and family and each time I am asked how I make the eggs so creamy and light. Well, here’s my secret (or rather Julia’s discovery). I hope the next time you make this simple meal, you’ll try it!

Scrambled Eggs

2 eggs

1 pad of butter

1 Tbsp (or thereabouts) of whole milk or cream

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat a medium pan (preferably nonstick) over medium-low heat.
  2. In a separate bowl, scramble your eggs enough to break the yolks and mix the whites in, but not enough to make the mixture frothy. In other words, don’t over mix.
  3. When the pan is heated, reduce the heat to low and add the butter. Once the butter melts along the bottom of the pan, add your eggs and let them sit for a bit in the butter. Don’t stir too quickly. You want the heat to permeate the bottom of the eggs and start to cook them.
  4. When you can see that the bottom of the eggs have begun to heat through, stir the eggs and then add the cream or milk, which will instantly froth a bit. Mix the milk or cream into so it integrates into the eggs and makes them custardy.
  5. Continue cooking on low heat until the eggs are slightly firm (but not so long that they are actually firm).
  6. Remove from the pan and serve immediately with salt and pepper to taste.

You can vary this recipe a bit by adding some cheese or chives toward the end (just after you add the milk) or starting out with some bacon or ham in the pan. Better yet, cook some onions in the butter first and then scramble the eggs. Or top with some caviar if you want a luxurious meal. The world is really your oyster when it comes to scrambled eggs. Eat them plain or with your favorite topping, just be sure to cook them with care.

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Puerto Rican Roast Pork Today — Mexican Soup Tomorrow!

It’s cold out. It’s rainy. I need warmth. So, what do I do when I am chilled and need comfort? I roast something all day long. I love doing this when the weather is gloomy as it gives me an excuse to leave my oven on all day. This makes my kitchen nice and toasty with the side bonus of an amazing aroma wafting out of the convection fan all day long.

My choice of roast was easy. I had just bought a pork shoulder on Saturday after reading Mark Bittman’s column on Pernil, which is a Puerto Rican roast pork that looked easy to make and yummy . And, after a slow roast of about five hours, it was quite good. My kids even loved it.

So there I was, Tuesday night, very satisfied with having made a nice pork roast. Even better was the fact that we still had about half of it leftover so we could eat it the next day, which meant I wouldn’t have to cook. But on Wednesday, it was cold and I was chilled and all I wanted was soup. Although I was tempted to just open the container of tomato and roasted red pepper soup I bought a few days earlier at Trader Joe’s, I was intrigued with the idea of turning my Pernil into something more than it was meant to be.

I’m a huge fan of soups and one of my favorites is the chicken tortilla soup at Picanta on 6th Avenue in Berkeley. I wanted to mimic the Mexican flavors in the Picante soup and so set about trying to do just that. Here’s what I did:

Roast Pork Mexican Soup

1 medium onion diced
2 Anaheim peppers
2-3 cups chopped leftover roasted pork, such as Pernil
1 Tbsp each cumin, chile powder, oregano
1 tsp garlic powder
Salt to taste
1 cup vegetable juice or tomato sauce
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup frozen or fresh corn
Cilantro to garnish

Instructions
1. Dice up the onion and Anaheim peppers. Saute in olive oil for about five minutes in a large heavy pot.
2. Add the leftover Pernil or other roasted pork and cook for another five or so minutes.
3. Add the salt, cumin, chile powder, dried oregano, and garlic powder and stir.
4. Add the vegetable juice or tomato sauce along with the chicken broth and let everything simmer for a half hour.
5. Add the corn and serve with about 1 Tbsp chopped cilantro for each serving.

This soup was warm and rich in flavor. The corn was a great addition as the sweetness accentuated the seasonings. I added a couple of tablespoons of cooked white rice to my girls’ bowls so it would be a more filling meal for them and gave all of us some tortilla chips as an accompaniment.

I would definitely make the Pernil again, and when I do, we’ll be having tortilla soup the next day.

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