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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Healthy - Part 3

I hear so often that summer is the easiest time, other than the holiday/Christmas season, to gain weight, and I’m not sure why - probably because we get together with family and friends and keep on having fun, and with that comes eating.  I find summer to be the easiest time to lose/maintain weight (which I proved handily to myself once again this year).  I’m more active in the summer, I drink a lot more water, but I find summer foods to be far healthier than what I eat/cook in the cooler months.

In the cooler months, I crave bigger flavors and heartier dishes.  And let’s face it, maybe we’re not quite as conscious of what we look like when we have sweaters, jackets, and scarves to cover some of it up.

Grilled shrimp sandwich
But in the summer, sure, we barbecue and drink margaritas and eat pie, but I like to keep some of those things to a minimum, and grilling doesn’t have to mean burgers, hot dogs, ribs, and wings every night.  How about chicken and fish?  How about vegetables?  For that matter, how about fruit?  Grilled corn and grilled peaches and especially grilled tomatoes and eggplants are among my favorites.

This week, grilled shrimp and grilled chicken were on the menu, but there was nothing boring or plain about them.

Sancerre rose
Grilled shrimp sandwiches was dinner a few nights ago.  The fresh jumbo shrimp were peeled and deveined, and brushed with barbecue sauce (a concoction of Jack Daniel’s sauce, worcestershire sauce, hickory seasoning, local wildflower honey, and soy sauce), and after the shrimp were grilled, onto fresh rolls they went, with very thinly sliced red onions, sliced avocado, and sliced (massive) local tomatoes.  I also added a dressing of pureed cilantro, fresh lime juice, olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper, and garlic.  With a side of sweet local Long Island corn, that’s a perfectly healthy and delicious summer dinner.  And of course I chose a rose for it - an organic rose from a very small producer in Sancerre.  That means it was a rose of Pinot Noir - dry, clean, bright, with notes of barely ripened strawberries, raspberries, lemon, watermelon rind, and fresh herbs, and white stony mineral.

And last night I made something that not only tasted delicious, it looked beautiful on the plate.

Anjou rouge
Salad for dinner
I bought a small bottle of mission fig balsamic vinegar the other day and wanted to put it to use this week.  So I decided on a salad for dinner.  I opted for organic baby greens and tossed them with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, kosher salt, black pepper, and garlic, and then placed it on plates.  I finely chopped shallot and added it to the plates.  Then I added candied walnuts and fresh crumbled goat cheese.  I then grilled somewhat thinly sliced (but not too thin!) chicken breasts which I had seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper, and after they were thoroughly cooked on both sides but careful not to overcook, I removed from the heat, set aside for a few moments, and then sliced the chicken, placed it on top of the salads, garnished with fresh thyme leaves from my plant at home, and drizzled with the mission fig balsamic vinegar.  I can’t remember the last time I was so proud of something so simple, just because it looked lovely and I knew it would taste great.  With it, I sliced a ciabatta loaf, and the wine I selected was a Cabernet Franc.  The Cabernet Franc was an Anjou rouge, from the Loire Valley in France, by a very small producer.  Notes of plum, dark fruits, pine/herbs, pink blossoms, mushroom, forest floor, and a distinct “dirty” earthiness that I expected from a Loire Cabernet Franc, were all present - as well as a fascinating dark inky purple color in the glass but a very clean feel, and medium body, and a lengthy finish - perfect for pairing with the salad.

Healthy dishes don’t have to be boring, and fun, delicious dishes don’t have to be fattening.  Pick fresh, good quality, delicious ingredients for maximum flavor, choose just one or two relatively uncomplicated side dishes, and a good wine, and you’re good to go.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Healthy - Part 2

When I’m trying to eat healthier, aside from the obvious like drink more water and tea, and incorporate more vegetables and fruits into my diet, I also tend to focus on fish and chicken.  And in the warmer months, mostly fish.

A few nights ago, I created a nice summer dish that was simple and healthy and clean, and paired a good wine with it, for dinner on the porch.

Fresh salmon was rubbed in olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt, black pepper, and cumin.  Cook it at 350F until that pale line starts to show on the side of the filet, and it’s done (you could also check it with a fork or butter knife to see if it’s flaking a bit but that would alter the presentation - I just look for that line).

The salsa was chopped mango and peach, and finely chopped red bell pepper and shallot, and seasoned with lime juice, mirin, and black pepper, and then spoon some of the salsa over the salmon, and garnish with fresh chopped cilantro.

On the side was fresh local Long Island sweet corn from the farm stand, and a “salad” of black beans, fresh campari tomatoes, chunks of avocado, and scallion, with a dressing of olive oil, lime juice, kosher salt, black pepper, and garlic.

I paired dinner with the 2007 Stag’s Leap “Karia” Chardonnay from Napa - Stag’s Leap is a very good and reputable producer in California and a sort of American icon in terms of California wineries, in that they’ve been around quite some time and have proven their quality over and over again.  I’m not a big fan of heavily oaked California Chardonnays, so this one was excellent because I had stored it in the cellar for quite some time and lots of the oakiness had been tamed by now, leaving a relatively clean feel with some soft, round texture, and notes of baked apple, pear, a hint of butterscotch and just a touch of lemon.  I do love Chardonnay with salmon, and the pairing was excellent.

So there’s a healthy summer dinner - not cheap to make as fresh fish at a good quality and fresh produce cost some money these days, but it’s worth it to eat something healthy and delicious - at least I think it is.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Healthy - Part 1

Tuna, vegetables, mung bean noodles, Asian style sauce
Shame on me for posting so many unhealthy recipes, no?  Sure, I’ve posted some that are good for our health, but very few.  Truthfully, though - I’ve been taking steps to eat healthier lately, and the results have been very good - I found myself in a bit of a health rut and started eating better and exercising more, and so far I feel great!  My energy levels are back up to where I wanted them, my body feels and looks good, my hair and nails feel healthier, and I’m sleeping better at night.

Sure, I still dabble in my less than healthy recipes, but some of them I change out a few ingredients to make it a little less caloric and better for me, but rarely, since I don’t believe in messing around with recipes that have worked for so many years.  A restaurateur once told me in his native Italian, “sempre un po” - “always a little” - yes, we can have things that seem fattening, if we do it only in moderation instead of piling it onto our plates.  We can enjoy food and wine, butter, cheese, meats, etc., and stay healthy, if we just take less of it.  There’s no reason to deprive ourselves of what we love.  Right?

Pinot Blanc
So, I’m big into fish of all kinds, cooked and served all different ways.  Fish is generally really healthy, with lots of nutrients, natural oils, and often fairly low in calories (at least that’s what I like to believe).  I try to eat fish as often as I can, served and prepared lots of ways.  I’ve already told you quite a bit about how I like to prepare salmon many ways, and shellfish too.

What I’ve also told you on more than one occasion is that I like cooking Italian and French style, and lately I’ve been experimenting with Hungarian cooking as well.  Challenges for me include Spanish and German.  Another big challenge for me is Asian cooking.  But I do love Asian cooking methods and flavors.

Pinot Blanc
So a short time ago, I needed something fairly quick and easy, and healthy if possible.  I chose sushi grade tuna at the local fish monger (expensive, yes, but totally worth it if you love good fish) - and I seasoned it with sea salt, black pepper, and coated it in sesame seeds.  I pan seared it (barely) and sliced it into small pieces.

I love beans.  I love foods made with beans.  So I chose mung bean noodles, the clear and fun ones in the Asian section of the food market.  I boiled them for a moment until they were softened (which doesn’t take very long at all).  And I julienned carrots, scallions, cilantro, and thinly sliced avocados.  I then made a sauce of soy sauce, wildflower honey, sesame seeds, fresh lime juice, ginger, mirin, and wasabi.  I whisked it together and poured it over the noodles, added the vegetables, and topped it with the tuna - and WOW was it delicious, and very healthy!

I chose an Alsatian (fairly) dry style Pinot Blanc to pair with it, with orchard and tropical fruit notes and floral characteristics with a white stony minerality and bright acidity with a long finish.  I don’t usually go for Pinot Blanc but not only was this one delicious, it was a perfect pairing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Black and Blue Steak with Bearnaise Sauce

I was involved with someone a while back - actually, several guys - who insisted, invariably, on ordering their steak well done.  For those of you who like it well done, I’m very sorry for judging, but that just seems a waste of perfectly good meat.  In fact, one guy went so far as to refuse to watch me eat steak that was pink in the middle.  What a fool.

Anyway, I love my meat cooked, well, barely.  Recently, I challenged myself to a meat dish with just a steak and whatever ingredients I had available.  My mom told me about Arthur Schwartz and how he suggested recipes to make when it seems you’ve got nothing in the house.  Well, I learned to cook that way when I was in law school and living away in Connecticut for 3 years.  Sometimes I didn’t have time to get to the market and buy ingredients - and many a recipe was created that way, with items I’d find in the refrigerator, pantries, etc.  (And of course, you’ve got to have a variety of wines in the racks, at the ready, depending on what you choose to make.)

Fortunately, there were some great ingredients available.  I was talking to my sister and snooping around and realized that it looked like ingredients were available for a Bearnaise sauce.  Wow!  Steak with Bearnaise sauce!

I chose a Barbaresco to pair with it.  Just in case you aren’t familiar with Barbaresco, it’s an appellation in Northern Italy, in Piemonte, made form the Nebbiolo grape.  You want it to be a bit aged at least, as Nebbiolo is tannic and therefore bone dry, and shows characteristics of cherry, rose petals, spice, and

The steak was cooked black and blue - seared and darkened on the outside, and very rare on the inside - just the way I love it.  And all the while, I sipped on the Barbaresco as it opened up.

So - the Bearnaise sauce.  honestly, I’d never made the sauce before, but I’ve had it many, many times. All I needed was unsalted butter, white vinegar, lemon juice, chopped shallot, kosher salt, black pepper, egg yolks, and tarragon.  (By the way, I love tarragon.)  Melt the butter and then saute the shallots in it, with a touch of kosher salt and black pepper, and stir in the vinegar.  Set it aside and let it cool.  In the meantime, heat your blender, preferably with warm or hot water.  Heat up more butter.  Put the egg yolks, lemon juice, and some warm water into the blender.  Begin trickling in the warm melted butter.  Once the mixture is pureed smooth, place in a bowl and mix in the shallot mixture.  Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper, and add in the tarragon.  That’s it!

It was a perfect pairing - the Barbaresco, steak black and blue, and Bearnaise sauce.  Delicious.  And it’s simple, and inexpensive.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Believe it or not, I’ve got It’s a Wonderful Life on in the background (yes, I realize it’s technically a Christmas movie, but I like watching it when I need a little encouragement), and sipping Primitivo (after some Stoli tonight).

Recently for our 4th of July barbecue, I made my first lemon meringue pie.  I love pie, especially these days when I make them at home.  This was, I believe, my fifth pie.  My signature pie is key lime, but I also enjoy making blueberry, banana cream, pecan, and now lemon meringue.

When you make it from scratch, it’s a little less simple than buying a pie crust and the pie filling.  I make a basic pie crust - flour, water, shortening, salt.  I make it very thin, and when it comes to pie crust, practice makes perfect - or near perfect, at least.

The filling isn’t difficult, but you’ve got to plan correctly because you’ve got to keep on whisking it by hand and you’ve got to keep an eye on it.  Milk, egg yolks, lemon, sugar, butter - just pure golden deliciousness.

And the meringue - well, that’s egg whites, cream of tartar, and sugar, and just a pinch of salt I believe.  For the meringue, I used the stand mixer with the whisk attachment.  Once they’re whipped into stiff peaks, they’re done.  A hint - add the sugar once it’s started forming into a foamy texture, and add it very slowly!

To assemble - bake the pie crust a bit - first with rice or pie weights in the pie shell on with a sheet of wax or parchment paper in between, and then again a few more minutes until it’s turning slightly golden and firm, and then once it’s cooled a bit, pour in the lemon pie filling.  Then, top it with the meringue, and form it into peaks with a spoon or a butter knife.  Let it set a while, and enjoy it.

It’s fairly simple, and worth doing it from scratch.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chicken Paprikash

I probably told you in my goulash blog post (I did write up the goulash, didn’t I?) - anyway, I’m always mentioning that I’m Sicilian.  I don’t often mention that I’m also Hungarian (or a I like to call it, Magyar, which is just another term for an ethnic Hungarian).  Only recently have I been experimenting with Hungarian cooking and wine (the wines I love - a nice sparkling white from Torley, and some Furmint - both dry and sweet - and Kekfrankos - which is Hungary’s Blaufrankisch grape).

And wait until I make the poppyseed strudel again - there’s a fun Magyar dish!  (A little difficult, too.)  It was my grandpa’s favorite.

So last night I finally attempted chicken paprikash.  And I’m happy to report that it’s delicious and quite easy to make, and relatively inexpensive, compared to most things I make.  (We’re also fortunate to have a dear Hungarian friend who sent me a package of authentic Hungarian paprika a little while back, so that certainly helps!)

There are very few ingredients - chicken thighs, sea salt, black pepper, sour cream, cayenne pepper, paprika, chicken stock, unsalted butter, onions, and mushrooms.  If you have a spaetzle machine, by all means, make the spaetzle (or as Hungarians call it, nokedli) - I don’t have such a machine yet, or else I’d make nokedli from scratch.  So for now, I used egg noodles.  And as for wine, I chose the 2006 La Pommeraie de Brown, the 2nd label of Chateau Brown in the Pessac-Leognan part of Bordeaux (just over half Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot), and Peter chose the 2006 Val Sotillo Crianza Ribera del Duero.  Both were very good matches for the dish - for weight I’d go for the Bordeaux, and for flavor match I’d go for the Ribera del Duero, but either way it was delightful.

The whole thing was pretty easy - I asked the local butcher to leave the skin on the chicken thighs.  I patted them dry and seasoned with plenty of sea salt and black pepper, and the melted some unsalted butter in the Le Creuset pot (recipes generally called for a saute pan but I don’t have a real saute pan that’s big enough - the cast iron enamel pot was perfect anyway) - anyway, once the butter was melted (and smelling gloriously), I browned the chicken in the butter, and then I browned some thinly sliced crimini mushrooms, and once I removed them, I cooked the sliced onions in the browning butter, as they began to caramelize, I added plenty of sea salt, a touch of cayenne pepper, and lots of Hungarian paprika (I can still smell the sweet smoky aromas today).  Once the onions were cooked down a bit, I put the mushrooms back in, and poured in some chicken stock.  After all ingredients were incorporated, I put the chicken back in, and cooked it (recipes generally called for 20-25 minutes, but I think I left it simmering for close to 50 minutes), until the sauce had thickened and the chicken thighs were cooked thoroughly.  I removed the chicken pieces briefly, and then stirred in a bit more salt and sour cream, put the chicken back in, and when it was ready to be served, the macaroni gets cooked and the paprikash gets heated again, and placed atop the macaroni.  It’s that easy.  And delicious!

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Paella - the finished product

So I stepped out of my culinary comfort zone again last week - to make a Spanish paella.  It wasn’t quite as easy as I thought, especially since recipes found online rarely are accurate, if ever.  It’s why I prefer cooking by instinct (Italian cooking) or by reading recipes in books written by celebrated food experts like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin that were written long before any idiot could contribute to online recipes.  And most regrettably, a great many of the inaccurate recipes are posted by “celebrity chefs” that people have come to rely on over the past decade or so.  It isn’t fair to those who really don’t have a natural feel for what’s going on in their kitchens, because they put their faith in these so called experts and their recipes and instructions, and end up with disasters - which translate to inedible dishes, lost time and energy, expensive ingredients ruined, and damaged confidence in the kitchen.  It’s precisely why, when I post a request to my facebook wall asking for a recipe, I specifically ask for recipes you use at home, that are tried and true - NOT internet recipes.
Chicken with dry rub

I’ve had paella lots of times, and I love it.  It’s great any time of the year, but I especially love it in the summer, my favorite time for eating shellfish.  Rice, I’ll be perfectly honest, isn’t my thing, and I only eat it when I make risotto.  But this time I’d eat it, since it was a huge part of the paella.  And believe it or not, the rice ended up being the tricky part, both flavor and texture - thanks to what I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty, is a faulty online recipe from a celebrated chef.  Lucky thing I know textures well enough to fix it, at least as well as I possibly could.  The rice was short grain Spanish rice and I cooked it with dry Spanish white wine and chicken stock.  Basically, you’ve got to add liquid ingredients to rice gradually when making that style of rice, at least I think so, otherwise you don’t really know exactly how much you’ll need to get the proper texture.  And that recipe didn’t call for nearly enough salt - when I began tasting it, I decided it had almost no flavor at all.  You be the judge when you’re cooking - you decide how much you need to season something with salt (or black pepper, within reason) - that’s why I love when a recipe tells us to season something “to taste” - only you know your own taste and the tastes of those for whom you’ve prepared the dish - so trust yourself!
Rice cooking with vegetables

Anyway, good chorizo sausage went into it, as did some crazy good chicken (I only buy chicken from the local butcher now, as supermarket chicken has gotten increasingly disgusting and I see no excuse for poor quality chicken in my dishes) - I seasoned it with a dry rub of sea salt, black pepper, oregano, and paprika.  After letting the flavors work together for a while, I sauteed it.  Outrageously good.  The seafood was sauteed shrimp (again, the recipe didn’t call for seasoning of the shrimp, which to me is flat out nonsense), mussels, and clams (all from the local fish monger - please don’t buy the fish at supermarkets - you’ll thank me once you’ve become accustomed to buying at a small shop that has better control over where the fish comes from and how they’re stored, etc.)  Other ingredients included fresh lemon, garlic, onion, peas, parsley, and tomato - and of course, saffron, my favorite Spanish flavor.  Im pretty sure that’s all there was to it.  I also decided I need a paella pan to make this dish next time (and many more times), as I think it’ll be easier than making it in 2 large-but-not-large-enough pans.
White Rioja - oxidized Viura

My advice?  Find someone who has some experience with this dish and ask that person for his/her recipe.  Don’t follow some internet recipe if Spanish cooking isn’t within your comfort zone.

Now, for the wine.  I chose a Spanish wine of course.  When you think of Spanish whites, if you think of them at all, you probably think of Albarino.  And I do enjoy a fresh young Albarino with shellfish.  But this time I wanted something with a little (read: a lot) more depth.  So I chose the R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia - it’s a controlled oxidized white made from 100% Viura grapes, from Rioja.  And it’s one of my favorite Spanish wines.  This one was vintage 2002.  Funky, salty, stony, and mature, it’s a perfect pairing for many chicken or fish dishes (this dish being both) - plus some fun Spanish cheeses - Mahon and Drunken Goat.  Perfect.