Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Easy Tuscan Beans

I love beans. I toss them on salads, drop them into soups, and mix and mingle them in many a sauté. They are varied, versatile, diverse, and wide-ranging. As such, they are the consummate performers; perfect little harmonizers layered in the background of a dish, or featured up front and center (albeit usually with a few flavorful back-ups) to sing their rich and satisfying songs.

They can whisper sweet and mellow tunes with a mild, buttery smoothness, or exert sassier notes when mixed with a string of complementary seasonings.

While true foodies might turn up their noses at using anything but dried beans that are soaked and simmered to delicious goodness, canned beans truly work great in a variety of dishes...cold to hot, sautéed to souped. They are convenient, readily available...and quick. (If sodium is a concern, look for low-sodium brands and rinse the beans well before tossing them into what you're making.)

While I'm a fan of all beans...and there are many...cannellinis are one of my favorites. Like their more colorful "fraternal twin," the kidney bean, cannellinis have a distinct kidney shape. They are on the larger size and hold their structure well, making them a great choice for salads, traditional ragouts...and simple sautés like this. They have a slightly nutty and earthy taste and an accommodating ability to assume the layer of flavors around them. Here it's a rich layer of onion, garlic, Italian spices, wine, and tomatoes that set the stage for these little performers...what's not to love?

Easy Tuscan Beans
serves 4 (as an accompaniment to grilled poultry or fish)

2 14.5-ounce cans low-sodium cannellini beans (drained and rinsed)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (at least 1 cup chopped onion, more if preferred)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon dried basil
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley

6 slices bacon, diced (pancetta or turkey bacon work great as well)
2 to 3 cups chopped fresh spinach

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until onions have softened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and basil. Mix well and continue simmering for another minute. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Add wine and broth. Simmer on low for another 5 to 7 minutes, until liquids have reduced down a bit.

* variation: Cook diced bacon (turkey bacon or pancetta) in skillet over medium-high heat. When browned, remove with slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Add in a bit of olive oil to get 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil in pan. Add onion and garlic. Proceed with balance of recipe, adding bacon back into the mix, along with chopped spinach(after addition of wine). Or, for a meat-less dish, omit bacon and simply add chopped spinach after addition of wine.

2. Plate and sprinkle with chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley. Top with grilled chicken or fish...or serve as is.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spring Tacos with Roasted Chicken, Sliced Radish, Guacamole Salsa, Feta & Lime

Granted there's probably not a taco that wouldn't be appreciated in our home, but these are particular favorites this time of year when hints of spring make you crave fresh flavors and crisp textures. And they offer a bit of a departure from the Tex-Mex norms with lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, and salsa...all good, no doubt, but predictable.

As I've said before, you can put just about anything in a tortilla and call it a taco. We've certainly tried our own creations over the years and rarely have we been disappointed. However, until I came across this particular medley of flavors (several years ago via a Martha Stewart show or mag feature), I'd never thought to replace the crunch of lettuce or cabbage with the somewhat mild-to-peppery flavored radish...and it works beautifully. And now is the perfect time for spring/summer radishes.

While you can pretty much get them year-round, the smaller red radishes that are most prominent in markets right now offer the perfect balance of flavor for these fresh tacos. They are crisp, crunchy, and packed with great flavor that is punchy, spicy, and earthy...without being overpowering like many of their winter brethren. (Winter varieties are started in late summer and warmer soils can ramp up the pungent flavor in radishes, giving some of them a bigger bite than might be appreciated.) I've also used "Easter" radishes in these tacos -- the ones that are really a mix of several different varieties in one bunch, with colors ranging from crimson, to purple-y pink, to pale pink. In either case, you basically just want to make sure you select radishes that look bright and unblemished, are firm and compact, and have leafy green tops that show no signs of wilting or yellowing. They can be stored for up to a week in the fridge if you remove their leaves and place the roots in a plastic bag. And, you can even enhance their crispness by dropping them in a cold-water bath for an hour or so before they're called to the cutting board.

Layered on top of shredded chicken tucked into a warm corn tortilla, capped with a great tangy guacamole salsa, sprinkled with sharp, salty feta cheese and some fresh cilantro, and then drizzled with a good squeeze of fresh lime juice, the humble little slices of radish in this taco sparkle. They bring a lively personality to the mix, adding a welcome punch of crisp flavor... while melding beautifully with the other, equally bright components. And, yes, you can substitute the cilantro with another green...perhaps flat leaf parsley or arugula so you still get a bit of an herb-y bite. (I'm not sure why cilantro has such a polarizing impact but it seems like most people either love it or hate it. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground. Whatever green you choose, just try to select one that has a bit of presence.)

This is an effortless meal, simple and quick to throw together. It's especially suited for a buffet, a larger group, or a busy night when dinner happens in shifts since all the ingredients keep well tucked in the fridge until ready to prep. The tortillas are quick to warm up and the chicken is truly best at room you don't have the assembly-line pressure you might with a more conventional taco that is better served up warm. (And, if you cheat a bit I did on this night... you can buy a roasted whole chicken from your market's deli section and cut your prep time even more. From anywhere between $5 and $8, you can get up to four cups of shredded chicken from a whole bird.)

So, yes, this is a simple taco...but certainly not a plain or predictable one. Its unique little radish crunch, tangy, bold flavor, and fresh construction definitely sets it apart as a favorite of ours for spring.

Spring Tacos with Roasted Chicken, Sliced Radish, Guacamole Salsa, Feta & Lime
adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe
serves 4 (makes 8 to 10 tacos)

4 cups shredded, cooked chicken (from one whole roasted chicken*)
6 to 8 radishes, halved and sliced
1 6-ounce container crumbled feta cheese
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
8 to 10 white corn tortillas
2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges

For guacamole salsa:
2 cups diced avocado (from 2 large, or 3 medium avocados)
1 cup diced tomato (halve tomatoes and gently squeeze excess pulp out over sink before dicing)
1/2 cup diced yellow onion (or white onion, if preferred)
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
freshly squeezed juice from one large lime
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Mix ingredients for guacamole salsa (diced avocado through salt and pepper seasoning), cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge until ready to use. (Cutting cross slices in each avocado half and then scooping out meat with a large spoon makes prepping easy.)

2. When ready to serve, warm tortillas over gas flame or in a skillet. Place 1/3 to 1/2 cup shredded chicken into each tortilla, generously dot with sliced radish, add a sprinkle of both feta and chopped cilantro, and top with a dollop of guacamole salsa. Serve with wedges of fresh lime to squeeze over top.

*Note: If you use a roasted chicken, hold leftover carcass aside for stock. Season shredded meat with a little salt and pepper, toss and set aside (or cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge). Remove chicken from fridge to bring to room temperature before serving, or warm it slightly in the microwave.

For stock, simply drop leftover chicken carcass into a pot, add water to cover completely, toss in a cut up onion and carrot, add a whole bay leaf, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, cover it, and set it to simmer on really low heat for an hour or two.

Pour stock mixture through strainer into a large bowl. If not using stock immediately, let it stand until cooled, cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge (or pour into a freezer-safe container and freeze for later use). When you remove it from fridge, skim fat from top before using. (For an average sized chicken, you'll get about 8 cups of stock.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Thai-Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken and Sweet Potato

While I'm fairly comfortable in the kitchen, with or without a recipe, I have to admit that Thai food has eluded me a bit. Until fairly recently, it was simply a cuisine to be enjoyed at a restaurant, prepared by far more capable hands.

There are just SO many spices and sauces that are used in Thai many as 20 that are routinely used in truly authentic dishes, even if in just miniscule amounts. Those adept at this cuisine (like a certain friend of mine) know how to add a dash of this or a pinch of that to make their dishes sing. I believe it takes a certain familiarity with these ingredients to confidently use them; to understand the flavors they impart. And, most importantly, to know what's missing when the dish needs a little something to get it right. There's a bit of an art to balancing the four essential tastes in Thai cooking: salty, sour, spicy, and sweet. An art that is not easily mastered.

Much of the enjoyment I find in everyday cooking is the simple pleasure derived from just tossing together a bit of this or that...until you end up with dinner. While I have a load of recipes I've accumulated over the years, truth be told, only a portion of these get followed to the "T" after they've been tested a few times. Familiarity breeds confidence... an ability to take a quick peek at the ingredients and then kind of wing it from there. It's really just an extension of knowing what you like...not rocket science. It's a creative effort. I also think it's a practice that improves your skills and hones your ability to get flavors right...through simple trial and error. In our home, this particular approach has been coined "punting." I'm not sure how or why we ended up with a football reference, but punts are fairly common in my kitchen. Unless, however, we are talking Thai. I just never felt confident enough with the various spices to attempt this practice with this cuisine. I knew a solid recipe would be needed to venture into this new territory.

And then this little Asian noodle soup happened along. I think the recipe is from 2008 or early 2009...and, best I can tell, it's a Bon Appetit recipe. While I may not be entirely sure of the timing or publication, it is attributed to Mai Pham of Lemon Grass restaurant in Sacramento and the thing that really grabbed my attention, other than the list of yummy ingredients, was the bold caption that appeared at the top of the recipe: "Dish of the Year." I figured that was about as good a recommendation as I was going to get.

Though I'm certainly no more prepared to offer up a punt when it comes to Thai cuisine, I have made this particular soup a few times now and have comfortably adapted it to my own liking.

As is true with most Thai dishes, this soup begins with a paste. (I used a bottled variety, as is called for in the original recipe, but truly authentic Thai pastes are traditionally made by grinding a variety of spices and herbs. Maybe in another life!) This yellow curry paste -- along with the addition of chopped shallots, garlic, lemongrass, and some of the solids from your coconut milk -- is what forms the base of your broth. And, for a soup like's all about the broth. Once you've got the whole thing simmering away, you simply drop in your chicken to cook right in the hot liquid and then add some pre-cooked sweet potato. The rest of the dish consists of flavor-packed onions, green onions, cilantro, and jalapeños...that perfectly balance the sweeter notes of the soup; snow peas for a little crunch; and, of course, silky rice noodles to add a bit of slurp-y substance. For the final touch..and perfect serve it all up with several wedges of lime to squeeze over top.

Thai-Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken and Sweet Potato
adapted from a recipe by Mai Pham of Lemon Grass restaurant
serves 4 to 6

2 cups (1/2-inch cubed) peeled, red-skinned sweet potato
2 cups snow peas, trimmed (I didn't have snow peas this time out and substituted sliced sugar snap peas...both are good)
1 pound vermicelli noodles or rice stick noodles (I used rice stick noodles)

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped shallots
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons finely minced lemongrass (from 2 or 3 stalks)*
2 tablespoons Thai yellow curry paste (I used Thai and True bottled yellow curry paste)
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon hot chili paste (I used Thai Kitchen Roasted Red Chili Paste)
2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk, divided
5 cups low-salt chicken broth
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 pound pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, thinly sliced (about 5 or 6 thighs)
salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/3 cup green onions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 jalapeño chiles (I used green ones but red ones would work nicely as well)

2 to 3 limes, cut into wedges

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat and season with salt. You will use this same pot and water to individually cook your peas, potatoes, and noodles. Begin by adding your snow peas to the boiling water and cook until bright green, about 20 seconds. Using a strainer (do not toss your water!!!), remove peas from pot and rinse under cold water to cool. Set aside in a bowl. Bring your pot of water back to a boil and add sweet potatoes to cook until tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove potatoes with a strainer and rinse under cold water to cool. Set aside in a bowl. Again bring your pot of water back to a boil and add your noodles. Cook noodles until tender but still firm to bite, about 5 or 6 minutes. Drain and rinse noodles under cold water to cool. Transfer noodles to a microwave-safe bowl and set aside.

2. Rinse and dry your soup pot and return it to the stove to prep your broth. Add olive oil to your pot over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic, and lemongrass *(remove tough outer leaves of lemongrass stalks and use only bottom 4 inches of stalk for mincing). Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in curry paste, curry powder, and chili paste. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk (scooping only the thick liquid from the top of the can). Stir until mixture is thick and fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add remaining coconut milk, broth, fish sauce, and sugar. Bring broth to a boil and add chicken. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add cooked sweet potato to soup. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Keep warm.

3. While soup is simmering and chicken is cooking, chop up your toppings (unless you've already done this!).

When soup is ready, place some noodles into each serving bowl and ladle soup over noodles. Top each serving with snow peas, red onions, green onions, cilantro, and jalapeños. Serve with several wedges of fresh lime to squeeze over top.

Note: A certain someone in my family prefers this served as a "curry" over brown rice. (Simply substitute rice for the noodles and ladle a bit less broth when plating.)