Monday, January 10, 2011

Beef Tacos

This is the full-on taco kit experience but fresher and home made (that is, without the MSG). I usually make extra filling so that I can use it later in the week for quesadillas or burritos.

(serves two adults and two children)

The Spice Mix
1 Tbs chili powder
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
kosher salt, to taste

The Beef Filling
1 small onion
3 cloves garlic
1 Tbs canola oil
1 lb ground beef
½ c chicken broth
½ c crushed tomatoes
1 Tbs cider vinegar
1 Tbs brown sugar

The Toppings
iceberg lettuce, shredded
cheddar (or Monterey jack) cheese, shredded
tomatoes, finely diced
avocado, finely diced
red onion, finely chopped
sour cream
hot sauce

1. In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the spice mix.

2. Chop the onion. Mince the garlic.

3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over a medium-low flame. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and spice mix. Cook, stirring frequently, until the spices become fragrant, about 1 minute. Raise the flame to medium. Add the ground beef and cook until well browned, breaking up clumps with a wooden spoon.

4. When the meat has browned, add the chicken broth, tomatoes, cider vinegar, and brown sugar. Stirring occasionally, simmer until nearly all of the liquid has evaporated but the meet is still moist, about 10-15 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, prepare the toppings. Serve with corn tortillas.

Thai Chicken Soup

There are two unusual ingredients in this recipe for which there are no acceptable substitutes. Fortunately, you can now find them in most large supermarkets. One is fresh lemongrass, which often hides out near the chile peppers. The other is red (or green) curry paste, which usually lives in the ethnic food aisle next to the Chinese ingredients. Look for the Thai Kitchen brand, which keeps nearly indefinitely.

(serves two adults and two children)

3 stalks lemongrass
3 large shallots
1 bunch cilantro
1 Tbs canola oil
3 Tbs fish sauce (nam pla)
4 c chicken broth
2 14-oz cans coconut milk
¼ lb shiitake mushrooms
1 lb boneless chicken breasts
1 Tbs red curry paste (or green curry paste)
juice of 2 limes
1 Tbs sugar

1. Prepare the lemongrass by removing the coarse outer leaves, trimming the tip, and slicing crosswise to produce thin rings. Peel and coarsely chop the shallots. Coarsely chop two-thirds of the cilantro (including the stems). Pick the leaves from the remaining cilantro and reserve.

2. In a large stock pot, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the lemongrass, shallots, chopped cilantro, and 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the lemongrass and shallots soften, about 3-4 minutes.

3. Before the vegetables begin to brown, stir in the chicken broth and 1 can of the coconut milk. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, trim and slice the mushrooms and thinly slice the chicken. In a small bowl, combine the red curry paste, lime juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons of fish sauce.

5. Once the soup has finished simmering, use a fine-mesh sieve to strain out the solids. Return the soup to the pot and bring to a simmer.

6. Add the sugar and remaining can of coconut milk. Stir in the mushrooms and cook until just tender, about 2-3 minutes. Add the chicken and cook until no longer pink, about another 2-3 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat.

7. Stir in the curry paste mixture. Serve garnished with the reserved cilantro leaves.

• Preparing lemongrass is not unlike preparing leeks. The business part is the thick, tender flesh near the root end.

• This recipe calls for thin slices of chicken breast so that the meat cooks quickly. The easiest way to prepare these is to partially freeze the chicken before slicing it. Ten to fifteen minutes in the freezer usually does the trick..

• Other possible garnishes include sliced jalapeños, sliced green onions, and lime wedges.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Because it's just as easy to make more, I often double this recipe so that I'll have plenty of leftovers. The squash halves are easy to reheat in the oven, and on a winter's night they go wonderfully with a hearty soup.

(serves two adults and two children)

 ¼ c dried porcini mushrooms
1 demibaguette (or half of a standard baguette)
olive oil
kosher salt
2 Tbs crumbled dried herbs (such as thyme, rosemary, or herbes de Provence)
3 acorn squash
freshly ground black pepper
brown sugar
1 medium onion
1 lb sweet sausage

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place the porcinis in a small bowl and cover with 2 cups boiling water.

3. Remove the ends of the demibaguette and cut the remainder (including the crust) into crouton-sized cubes to yield about 4 cups. Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a little salt, and the crumbled dried herbs. Spread on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and toast in the oven until crisp, about 6-8 minutes.

4. Halve the acorn squash and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. Working with one piece at a time, rub with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with brown sugar (about a tablespoon per squash half). Roast in the oven until just cooked through, about 25-30 minutes.

5. While the squash cooks, remove the porcinis from their soaking liquid (reserving the liquid) and chop coarsely,  Chop the onion.

6. In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the sausage, breaking up any clumps. Remove the sausage meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. In the same skillet (adding a little olive oil if the pan seems dry), sauté the onion until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes. Return the sausage to the skillet along with any accumulated juices. Add the toasted baguette cubes, the porcinis, and their soaking liquid. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bread cubes absorb all of the liquid, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for a few minutes as the flavors combine.

7. Distribute the filling evenly among the squash halves and return to the oven. Continue to roast until both the squash and the filling are pleasantly hot. Use the broiler at the end, if you like, to crisp the top.

• My method for chopping the baguette is to slice it lengthwise into strips—bisecting the whole into halfs, the halfs into quarters, and the quarters into eighths. Then I cut the strips crosswise into croutons. This way, each crouton has a puff of bread attached to a bit of crust.

• A nice variation is to add a green leafy vegetable (such as kale) to the stuffing. Chop it and sauté it along with the onion.

• As for leftovers, I reheat them in a 300-degree oven for about 45 minutes. The outside layers of squash become hot much more quickly than the core of the stuffing, so I leave the squash in the turned-off oven for about 10-15 minutes while the temperatures equalize.

Stir-fried Tilapia with Black Bean Sauce

Although tilapia has been a supermarket staple for years, I've generally avoided the fish because it tends to be a little bland and rubbery. But in this recipe, those qualities are actually advantages: the taste of the fish never competes with the sauce, and its texture stands up to the relative rough cooking method.

(serves two adults and two children)

3 Tbs black bean sauce with chili (or black bean garlic sauce)
1 Tbs oyster sauce
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 lb tilapia filets
1 bunch green onions
1 Tbs peanut oil

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the black bean sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar. Cut each tilapia filet in half lengthwise, then cut each half into 2-inch slices. Add the slices to the marinade and toss gently to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, trim and slice the green onions into 1-inch lengths.

2. in a wok (or large nonstick skillet), heat the peanut oil over a high flame until very hot. (The oil should be shimmering.) Add the fish pieces. Distribute them evenly around the pan but do not stir. After 3 minutes, add the green onions and stir gently, turning the fish pieces over. Cook, stirring occasionally but gently, until the thickest parts of the fish are cooked through, about another 3 minutes. Serve over rice with an Asian chili sauce such as Sriracha.

• If you don't like black bean sauce, don't worry. Almost any Asian cooking sauce will do. The first time I made this recipe, I was out of black bean sauce, so I substituted chili paste with garlic. The result was a very enjoyable take on Kung Pao fish.

Black Bean Soup

Because of all the beans, this soup can end up thick, but it dilutes easily with a little chicken stock or water.

1 lb dried black beans
4 oz bacon
3 Tbs canola oil
1 large carrot
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
4 c chicken broth
1 Tbs sherry
1 Tbs sherry vinegar
1 tsp Tabasco sauce
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

1. Pick over the beans to remove any stones. Rinse well. Place in a stock pot and add 6 cups cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for two minutes, then remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for 1 hour.Transfer the beans and their cooking liquid to a large bowl..

2. Finely dice the bacon. Wipe the stock pot dry with a paper towel. Add the canola oil and sauté the bacon over medium-low heat until the fat has rendered, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, finely dice the carrot and onion and mince the garlic. Once the bacon fat has rendered, add the carrot, onion, and garlic and sweat for 15 minutes.

3. Add the chicken stock, reserved beans, and bean water (there should be about 4 cups). Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1½–2 hours. Remove from the heat.

4. Once the soup has cooled a little, use an immersion blender or a food processor to puree to your desired consistency. Finish with sherry, sherry vinegar, Tabasco, salt, and pepper to taste. (The amounts listed above are merely suggestions.) Serve with garnishes such as chopped onion, cilantro, sour cream, or chopped hard-boiled egg.

• Replacing some of the chicken stock with beer or red wine gives the soup a richer flavor.

• To make a vegetarian version, omit the bacon and instead add a bit of dried chipotle pepper and some shaved dark chocolate to give the soup a deep, smoky tang. (Chipotles are smoked jalapeno peppers.)


I started making this recipe after buying on a whim a piece of cooking equipment from a company called Nordic Ware. Made out of heavy-duty cast aluminum, it's a baking pan comprised of two 5-cup bundt pans, each of which has a fun decorative design. But even more fun than the pan is what goes in it. Not your mother's fruitcakes, these little gems are tender, flavorful, and make excellent gifts.

4 oz dried apricots
3 oz dried currants
3 oz assorted dried fruit (such as pineapple, apple, or mango)
zest of an orange, grated
¾ c dark rum
5 oz unbleached flour
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or slightly less ground nutmeg)
large pinch of ground cloves
10 Tbs unsalted butter
1 c brown sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp kosher salt
3½ oz crystallized ginger
¼ c dark rum

1. Chop the dried fruit as necessary into small (¼- to ½-inch) pieces. Place in a saucepan with the grated orange zest and rum. Cover and cook over medium heat until the rum has been absorbed, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours and up to 3 days. Before proceeding, remove from the refrigerator and warm to room temperature.

2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Using vegetable shortening or a canola-oil spray, grease two 5-cup bundt pans and flour them, knocking out any excess.

3. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves.

4. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until the butter is fluffy and no lumps of sugar remain, pausing to scrape down the bowl as necessary, about 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs, one and a time, scraping down the bowl and beating for 30-60 seconds following each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract and salt.

5. Add 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture and beat to incorporate. Reserving 2 additional tablespoons, add the remaining flour and beat on low speed long enough to moisten the flour (so that it doesn't fly up in your face). Returning the mixer to medium-high speed, beat for 1 minute.

6. Chop the crystallized ginger into small pieces. Combine with the macerated fruit. Remove the paddle attachment and place the fruit on top of the batter. Sprinkle with the reserved flour. Using a spatula, fold the fruit into the batter so that the fruit is evenly distributed. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans, pressing down as you go to eliminate air pockets.

7. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and continue baking until a knife inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean (or with just a few moist crumbs), about another 1½ hours.

8. Remove the pan from the oven and cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes. Invert the pan and tap gently to remove the cakes. Place each cake on a large piece of plastic wrap and baste with 2 tablespoons dark rum. Cover tightly with the plastic wrap and cover the plastic wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Store at room temperature for at least 2 days before serving with freshly whipped cream.

• For obvious reasons, freshly grated nutmeg produces a much better result than the ground variety your grandmother used to keep in that small tin on her spice shelf. (You're not still trying to use that tin up, are you?) Instead, buy your nutmeg whole and grate it as you need it. Microplame rasps make quick work of the task,

• Adding a little flour to the batter before adding the bulk of the flour helps to emulsify and aerate the batter.

• If you plan to store the cakes for longer than a week, you need to continue basting them. Do so once a week, using an additional 1-2 tablespoons of rum and changing the wrappings each time.