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Flank Steak with Herbed Salsa and Asparagus Artichoke Salad

May 23, 2011

Today I went back to the well for one of my favorite dinners: flank steak.  It’s super easy (just salt, pepper, and a grill or broiler), and can be paired with pretty much any vegetable to make a reasonably healthy, quick, and delicious meal.

One of my favorite accoutrements for flank steak (or any steak, really) is chimichurri, the classic Argentine steak dressing.  This time I tried a twist on that, using Food & Wine’s recipe for Flank Steak with Herbed Salsa.  The herbed salsa is basically chimichurri, except it uses tomatoes, mint, and lemon juice in place of olive oil for a fresher, less greasy taste.  On the side, we had Asparagus Artichoke Salad that my wife had made ahead.  Side dishes that can be kept in the fridge are a real boon to cooking on a busy schedule, since focusing on one dish allows you to relax during preparation rather than feel like you’re working.  Ugh.  Since it was nice out, I fired up the grill – cooking a steak on the back porch basically involves drinking beer outside and picking up a pair of tongs every so often.  But I’ve also cooked flank steaks under a broiler, which works just as well.

steak / salsa / beer... oh yeah

All the essential ingredients

mmm... meat

Steak porn

Steak sliced and plated, with salsa and asparagus salad

Start-to-finish, the steak took about 35 minutes.  The grill took 15 minutes to heat up, which was enough time to prepare the salsa, and the steak sat for 10 minutes before slicing, which was enough time to clean up.  A fresh, vibrant meal in half an hour can’t be beat.

Sonoran Dogs: the birthday dinner

March 23, 2011

I’ve been raving about Sonoran Dogs ever since our trip to Tucson.  My wife must be listening or something, because she made homemade Sonoran Dogs for my birthday dinner as well as a few other gourmet items.  Walking into the house to the smell of cooking Sonoran Dog ingredients is one of life’s great joys that, until yesterday, I had never experienced.

The homemade Sonoran Dogs, recipe from the Tucson Citizen:

Sonoran Dogs!

My birthday “cake” was deviled eggs, another one of my favorites…

…because tapioca pearls with sweet coconut canteloupe (dessert) doesn’t hold candles too well:

All in all, a wonderful, surprising, and unique birthday dinner.

Basic rotini and tomato sauce (with a shout-out to the iconic Sonoran Dog)

March 22, 2011

Yesterday evening, still tired from our weekend trip to Tucson and with few ingredients in-house, we made a basic rotini and tomato sauce for dinner.  This is one of our fallback meals when we haven’t thought ahead about the night’s dinner, because all the ingredients keep for a long time and can be squirreled away for a rainy day.  But just because the ingredients don’t include fresh meats and veggies doesn’t mean the dish has to be boring – pasta in tomato sauce can be made many different ways, according to your tastes and your pantry.

The pasta is easy enough – boil some water and follow the directions on the box.  We used rotini, because its twists hold sauce well, but you could make this with any shape.  While the water is boiling, start the sauce.  For one pound of pasta, I’ve found that a 14-ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (depending on whether you like chunky or smooth sauce) and a 6-ounce can of tomato paste produce a perfect amount of sauce.  First, dice 2-3 cloves of garlic and prepare your meat.  Last night we used some hot Italian turkey sausage that we had in the freezer, but this recipe also works well with pork, chicken, or kielbasa.  If using raw sausage (not including kielbasa), slice open the casing and squeeze the meat out into chunks; for other types of meat dice into 1-inch cubes.

Sauté the garlic and meat in a tablespoon or two of olive oil on medium-high heat until the meat is browned (but not cooked through – if you wait this long, the garlic will burn).  Once the meat is browned, add your spices and the 6-ounce can of tomato paste.  We used fresh oregano and basil and dried red pepper flakes, but a variety of different spices work well here, depending on what you have in the house and what you like.  Mix all the chunks – garlic, meat, and spices – into the tomato paste and stir while cooking for a few minutes.  Cooking the tomato paste without liquid in the pan caramelizes some of the tomato and will give the sauce a far richer and more complex flavor than simply adding the paste to the liquid sauce.  When you smell roasted tomato (2-3 minutes), add your diced or crushed tomatoes.  Add a tablespoon or so of sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer the sauce until the pasta is done (ideally at least 10-15 minutes).

We ate our rotini and sauce with grissini that my lovely wife had made ahead, adding rosemary to the dough in place of juniper berries.  Definitely not necessary, but a gourmet touch that really added to the presentation.  Sprinkle a little shredded parm on top, and you have a bowl full of delicious.

the grissini got excited about the tastiness of the sauce

A gastronomic addendum: over the weekend we were in Tucson, Arizona, my first visit there since the early 90s.  While there, we sampled a Sonoran Dog, one of the local specialties.  Definitely not for the faint of heart, it consists of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled, then smothered in a bun with beans, tomatoes, onions, and cheese and drizzled with mayo.  Sonoran Dogs are so decadent that they’ve been featured on the pig-out show Man vs. Food.

a Sonoran Dog (image from stu_spivack on Flickr)

Although probably not the thing to eat before a four-hour plane flight (live and learn), the taste was so amazing that I was craving one the next morning.  With a little Googling I found that, although mostly confined to the Tucson area, these delicacies are available at Big Star in Chicago, a 15 minute walk from my house!  Dangerous news.  Hopefully I’ll soon provide you with a review of Big Star’s take on these things, but for now my left arm is getting too tingly to type more.

Turkey Stew with Peppers and Mushrooms

March 22, 2011

It’s been a few days since I last posted, due to a weekend trip cross-country for a friend’s wedding and a backlog of work.  Anyway, we made this recipe from Simply Recipes last Wednesday night for a quick and easy meal.  The recipe is a fairly standard stew – you could substitute in almost any meat or vegetables – but the combination of the acidic tomato juice and the thick, creamy Greek yogurt provide a rich and appetizing base.

the raw ingredients - pretty simple stuff

We left the mushrooms out of the ingredient list because my wife isn’t a huge mushroom fan, but mushrooms in stews with yogurt sauce are often delicious.  From here you can probably guess the steps: sear the turkey to brown it and provoke the delicious Mailliard effect; sauté the peppers, onions, and garlic; then add the juicy tomatoes and the spices and simmer for a bit.  The only twist comes at the end of the recipe, where you stir corn starch into the Greek yogurt before adding it to the warm (but not simmering) stew.  The cool yogurt mixes with the tangy, flavorful tomato and pepper sauce to create a creamy sauce that isn’t the least bit bland.

ready for eating!

This stew is a delicious, easy meal.  Quite tasty, and if it’s not zippy enough for your tastes, its flavors go quite nicely with a dash of Tabasco.  As long as you have Greek yogurt and canned tomatoes, you could use almost any meat and any veggies to create a similar stew on a moment’s notice.

Roasted chicken legs with potatoes and kale

March 16, 2011

Last night’s recipe: roasted chicken legs with potatoes and kale.  Although this recipe takes an hour, the active time is only 10 minutes – basically pile everything in the pan and stick it in the oven – so it’s ideal if you don’t need to eat immediately but have other stuff to take care of.  The prep for this dish is incredibly simple – slice the chicken halfway through the joint and dust it with spices, wash the kale, and slice the potatoes.  One of the wonderful things about chicken is that when you cook it, the skin melts and makes everything around it delicious, so you don’t really need to do much.

The raw ingredients. Although the recipe calls for 8 leg quarters, I used 6 giant ones instead. Also, I only had 2 6-oz bunches of kale, while the recipe calls for (and could certainly have taken) more.

The chicken, sliced (on the underside of the joint) and spiced

In the roasting pan, ready to go in the oven

Fresh out of the oven

This dish first cooks for 20 minutes covered, to wilt the kale and soften the potatoes.  Then it goes for 30 more minutes uncovered (all at 450 degrees), which gives the skin of the chicken a splendid crispy texture.

Closeup of the crispy, delicious chicken skin

The verdict: a great dish that produces some really delicious leftovers (lunch today).  I probably would have added a bit more salt than the recipe calls for, but I could say that about a lot of recipes.  Really, this dish doesn’t need a lot of spice, because it has plenty of flavor between the chicken skin and the slight bitterness of the kale.  While this recipe doesn’t work if you get home late and are in a real hurry to eat, it works perfectly if you want dinner in an hour but don’t want to put in a lot of work.

Cavatelli with Spicy Winter Squash

March 15, 2011

Monday night I got home ready to cook, to find that my wife had already started chopping ingredients for a recipe we’d picked out – Cavatelli with Spicy Winter Squash, another Food and Wine recipe.  Bonus!

Although we’d never made it before, this vegetarian recipe seemed like it would be a good break from rich food after a weekend of osso bucco and corned beef.  It’s not exactly low-fat – plenty of olive oil and parmesano reggiano – but the flavors are light and, as I tell myself, olive oil is “good fat.”  The recipe starts like so many pasta recipes, by sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil and adding crushed red pepper.  I like zippy food, and my general rule with crushed red pepper is to add 1.5 times what the recipe calls for.  Then we added the butternut squash and fresh thyme from the window garden, cooked for five minutes with the lid off, then five more minutes with the lid on.  This produced a truly wonderful texture for the squash – soft but not squishy.

We added the squash/garlic/onion mix to the cooked pasta and cheesed it up.  Although the recipe calls for caciocavallo cheese, I already had a brick of fairly nice parmesano reggiano and decided to use that instead.  The recipe calls for 3/4 cup of cheese, but like crushed red pepper, parm is another ingredient that I kick up a notch (I remarked when we were eating that I don’t think I’ve ever had a dish with too much parmesan).  Parmesan has one of the highest levels of free glutamate in any food, so it can really help impart a savory flavor to your dish.  This is especially important in a meat-free dish such as this one.  A good brick of parmesan isn’t that cheap, but it will last a long time and will give you flavor that’s worlds above pre-shredded parm.  I use a microplane to grate the cheese, and it’s pretty easy to produce a good-sized pile of shredded cheese in only a minute (the microplane can also be used to shred cheese at the table).

This dish was as I’d hoped – a light, easy meal.  The umami flavor of the parmesan combined with the zing of the crushed red pepper and the mild winter flavor of the squash worked quite well, and since the recipe uses 1.5 pounds of pasta, there were plenty of leftovers – always a good thing for busy cooks.  Once again, I forgot to take pictures – I’m new to food blogging, I guess – but I promise to start giving more visuals in the future.  For now, just imagine that the dish came out looking exactly like it did in the magazine (actually, it wasn’t far off):

Cavatelli with spicy winter squash, as photographed by Quentin Bacon in Food and Wine magazine

In case anyone is wondering about purchasing ingredients, my wife and I try to pick out 4-5 recipes per week, then do one big shopping trip on the weekend to get all the ingredients.  Planning out meals really isn’t that difficult – we usually spend no more than 15-20 minutes searching for recipes online and making a shopping list.  This method ensures that we have all necessary ingredients, and also helps us maintain variety in our meals with respect to ingredients, richness, and flavor.  The only drawback to this method is that grocery stores, particularly Whole Foods, tend to be jammed on weekends, although it’s not as bad before about 10:30 AM.

Today for breakfast I made soft-boiled eggs on toast with a little leftover osso buco sauce drizzled on top.  It took about 20 minutes start to finish (most of that waiting for the water to boil) and ended up being delicious.  This is another reason why I love to cook – repurposing leftovers can provide you with delicious, interesting meals in no time at all.

Raison d’être

March 14, 2011

I like cooking and I like eating good food.  I also have a job that takes up a lot of my time.

When I get home from work on an average day, two possibilities confront me: I can order food or I can cook.  Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, or Italian restaurants offering takeout are only a few minutes’ walk away.  By taking this option, I can be eating a reasonably tasty meal within half an hour, and when I’m done, my kitchen is still clean.  It’s a fine option for any given night.

But ordering food creates a few problems.  First, I don’t get to cook.  As I hinted before, cooking is a hobby of mine.  I’m someone who really doesn’t practice any other art form, so making delicious meals and tweaking spices just so are my creative outlets.  Sure, I can cook on the weekends, but that really isn’t enough.  Second, takeout meals aren’t usually that healthy.  There’s a reason burritos or General Tso’s chicken or pad thai are pretty tasty, and I always feel a bit more sluggish the day after stuffing myself with a meal involving healthy doses of delicious, delicious fats.  Third, there’s the financial considerations.  I don’t really eat fast food, and man cannot live on $1.69 pastor tacos alone, as delicious as they may be.  A reasonably interesting takeout meal averages about $10-15 per person in the city, while a home-cooked meal can be exquisite at half the price.  Not really a big deal, but it adds up.  And finally, takeout food is collectively boring, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut when convenience is a primary driver of food choices.

This blog is documentation of my desire to cook while working as a professional.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to chronicle the struggle of cooking on a limited time budget as well as keep track of some recipes that are fast yet tasty.  Screw Flanders Bon Appétit!