Cold Peanut Noodle Salad Perfected

I can’t believe I’ve done it.IMG_3075

I’ve spent the past 35 years in search of the perfect recipe for cold peanut/sesame noodle salad.  I’ve tried recipes from restaurants, cookbooks, friends, enemies, the Internet…you name it, I’ve tried it.  I’ve experimented with numerous methods and techniques, different types of noodles, flavor combinations native to different nationalities–Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Burmese. I’ve tried different levels of spice and heat. I’ve experimented with the participants in cooking classes I’ve taught.

And each time there seemed to be some element of the recipe missing.  I always thought: good, but not just perfect.

Until now.

I think I’ve done it.

Recognizing, of course, that each of you has your own version of what’s perfect in this classic–it’s one of those recipes that you use to gauge how good an Asian restaurant is. This is one of mine.

I started my quest with my long-time friend Vicki (are you still with me, Vicki Corey?  I bow in your general direction), who shared with me the basic concept of “threes.” Three tablespoons of this, that, and the other, three teaspoons of this and that. And this recipe, which I still have and which is reproduced way back in the early pages of this blog (here’s the link:  https://jeffskitchen.net/?s=Vicki%27s, or search on Vicki’s Noodles), has served me extremely well. No matter where or which recipe I tried I kept coming back to this one as being as close to perfect as I had found. It even once won me a “Philly’s Best” award when I was making it for a small gourmet shop in Ardmore, PA, a place known for good food.

It’s (in my view) just the right amount of spicy/hot for everyone, but if you like it spicier/hotter, add more chili oil or some Sriracha to suit yourself.  In this version of the recipe I’ll recommend specific ingredient brands, most of which are available at your local Asian grocery store.

Also, when you read my recommendation for the noodles to use, you’ll holler, “WHAT??? THAT’S NOT ASIAN!”  Okay, I know that. But what are you expecting? Authentic or perfect?  I’ll opt for perfect.

Try it.  You’ll like it. Guaranteed!

Spicy Sesame Peanut-Noodle Salad

Ingredients:

1 box (13.25 oz) rotini or fusilli whole wheat noodles, cooked al dente’

3 Tablespoons premium dark soy sauce

3 Tablespoons brown rice vinegar

1 Tablespoon fish sauce

2 Tablespoons toasted dark sesame seed oil

2 teaspoons sesame chili oil

3 Tablespoons dark brown sugar

3 Tablespoons Crazy Richard’s crunchy peanut butter

1/3 cup chopped red cabbage

1 medium carrot, shredded fine

1/3 cup chopped green onion, divided

1/3 cup chopped peanuts, divided

½ cup FRESH(!) bean sprouts

Preparation:

  1. Whisk the next seven ingredients (soy sauce through peanut butter) until they are completely blended.
  2. Cook the noodles per package, 1 minute LESS than the recommended al dente’ time; drain 5-10 minutes, but DO NOT RINSE.
  3. Place the noodles in a large bowl, add the sauce and toss to coat all the noodles well.
  4. Add the cabbage, carrot, ¼ cup green onion, ¼ cup peanuts, and bean sprouts and toss again to coat all the ingredients. If you wish a more Thai flavor, add ¼ cup shredded fresh Thai basil or chopped cilantro.
  5. If you wish to add a protein—slices of grilled chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu, do it now.
  6. Allow to stand until the salad reaches room temperature.

Garnish with the remaining peanuts and green onion and serve at room temperature or refrigerate for later, but allow to return to room temperature for serving (garnish when serving).

And by the way, if you’re truly interested in an authentic Sesame Noodle salad or if you’re allergic to nuts, replace the peanut butter with tahini. And for an authentic noodle, you can use either 8 ounces medium rice noodles, or Soba or Udon noodles.

One-Pot Spicy Thai Noodles

I came across an intriguing recipe the other day, and it looked about halfway unbelievable. I thought I might be able to improve it, and improve it I did. I changed it up from the original because A) doing so here would approximate plagiarism; B) I think my version came out way better than the original; and C) I’m not the biggest fan of zucchini in one-pot dishes–I find it to be mushy and I don’t think it adds significantly to the flavor layers in the dish. In most Asian cuisines there are layers of complex flavor and texture, and to me, zucchini doesn’t contribute enough to the dish to make it into the final product. I will, however, provide you with a link to the original at the end of the post.

The recipe as presented is vegetarian, but if you so desire, please try it with chicken, shrimp, pork, beef, or tofu for a jolt of protein and additional body. If you wish to add chicken, beef, or pork, cut into 1-2-inch strips and pound them flat (cut tofu into 1-inch cubes); marinate them 30-60 minutes in 2 Tbsp light soy sauce and 2 Tbsp rice vinegar; add them to the pot after the eggs are cooked; stir-fry them until just barely done; then set aside and continue on, and add them back just before adding the sauce. I am also presenting you options for oils, mushrooms, and leafy herbs based on your preferences. Any will work, in any combination–that’s the beauty of Thai cooking: options abound, while techniques remain the same.

This is a very tasty and simple-to-make one-pot noodle dish, and I highly recommend you try it when you need something quick, tasty, and different. 

Spicy Thai Noodles

Ingredients:

1 8-ounce package medium-width rice noodles 

2 Tbsp peanut, coconut, or vegetable oil, divided

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 head bok choi, chopped, largest leaves chopped into strips

8 ounces mushroom (preferably shiitake, but white will do), chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp brown sugar

1/3 cup low sodium soy sauce

2 tsp fish sauce (optional)

1.5 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce (or more if you wish, up to 1.5 Tbsp–you know what you like)

2 inches fresh ginger, grated

1/4 cup fresh Thai basil (or sweet basil or cilantro–whichever you prefer), chopped

4 green onions, chopped

1/4 cup peanuts, chopped

Instructions:

1. In a large heavy pot, fill halfway with water, salt, and bring to a boil. Add the noodles and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl combine brown sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce if you are using it, sriracha, and ginger; whisk well to combine; set aside.

3. Return the pot to the stove, heat over medium heat, and add 1 Tbsp oil. Add beaten eggs and red pepper flakes and stir to scramble the eggs. Once cooked, set aside with pasta.

4. Return the pot to stove, heat remaining 1 TBS oil over medium heat. Add the bok choi, mushrooms, and garlic. Saute over medium high heat for 5-6 minutes or until veggies are cooked through but the white stalks are still crisp.

5. Turn heat down to low, add pasta and eggs back to pot, then pour the sauce mixture over the top. Using a wooden spoon, stir well to coat pasta and vegetables with sauce. Remove from heat, add peanuts, green onions, and basil or cilantro; stir to combine, then garnish with additional chopped peanuts and chopped green onions.

6. Serve immediately.

Notes: Serve warm or cold – it’s great both ways! If you choose shrimp as your protein, add that when there is about 2-3 minutes left with for the veggies to cook.

Also, if you wish to see the original recipe from which this is adapted, you can find it here:  http://pin.it/smcI5bM

Cauliflower, Red Lentil, and Sweet Potato Stew

I can’t believe how good this is. I also can’t believe that I can cook Indian food this good.

Curried cauliflower and sweet potatoes and lentils?lentils All that, and it’s low fat, almost zero carbs, lots of fiber and protein–it’s just about a perfect food.

We do meatless Monday around here, and I’m always trying to find ways to overcome the meat chromosome in my DNA.  It’s tough sledding, but I’m getting better at it.

So red lentils form the foundation of this wonderful vegan stew, and it’s so easy to do and so good that it has, after one attempt, moved into regular rotation.

Even the kids liked it. It’s fragrant and delicious, and if you’re into vegan or vegetarian, I urge you to try this one.  You’ll like if for sure.

Curried Cauliflower, Red Lentil, and Sweet Potato Stew

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons coconut or extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 large sweet onion, diced

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced

1/2 head cauliflower, cut into florets

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 1/2 cups red lentils, rinsed

6 cups vegetable stock

Chopped fresh cilantro

Preparation:

1.  Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add cumin, turmeric, and curry powder and stir until fragrant, 2-3 minutes.  Add onion and a few pinches of salt, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until tender, 1-2 minutes. Add sweet potatoes, bell pepper, and cauliflower and cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

2.  Add lentils and stock.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, 25-30 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Top with chopped cilantro before serving.

French Onion Soup — Restaurant Good, Home Made Easy

Fr

I’m a sucker for French onion soup.img_2910
Rich and fragrant, ooey-gooey cheesy, intensely flavored, and most of all, familiar. I try it whenever I find it on a menu, every single time. About half the time I’m disappointed. I’ve tried several times to create a good-as-a-restaurant French onion soup, with mixed results. I’ve made some pretty good ones and some pretty bad ones. Alas, the good ones are so labor intensive that I just don’t have the time, or the inclination, to repeat them. Complicating the problem is that we don’t eat beef around here, so making this pot-o-gold has become a real challenge.

So did I give up? You know better. I decided to create my own recipe. Trial and error usually works, so long as I’m willing to be patient. And dogged.

My rules were simple. It had to be good–restaurant good. It had to be vegetarian. And it had to be easy to make. Did I mention that it had to be good?

The trick is to layer lots of flavors in perfect balance, and know what flavors work well together. It turns out I know these things; I learned them from my cooking mentor Martin Betonio, the Filipino kitchen magician from Miami Beach.

And I make it in a slow cooker.

So here then, is my vegetarian easy-to-make, restaurant-good French onion soup.

Ingredients:

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter

4 large sweet onions, halved and sliced

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 large cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

2 Knorr-Swiss vegetable bouillon cubes (Do not substitute other brands!)

6 ounces dry sherry

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

7 cups vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Freshly ground black pepper

1 baguette, sliced into ¾-inch slices and toasted under the broiler on both sides

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1 cup shredded gruyere cheese

Fresh parsley, coarsely minced, for garnish

Preparation:
Melt the butter in a large, heavy stock pot over medium-high heat; add the onions and paprika and saute, stirring occasionally, until transparent. It’s okay if they brown, but don’t let them burn. Add the sugar and mash the bouillon cubes into the onions, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, another 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until the garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the sherry and stir, scraping any brown bits from the bottom, until the pot is deglazed.

Pour the onion mixture into a crockpot. Add the stock, soy sauce, bay leaf, thyme, and black pepper, cover and cook on high for six hours, then low for two more, or eight -10 hours on low. Remove the bay leaf and adjust for salt and pepper, and add a bit of sherry, if desired.

To serve, ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls, place 2 toasted rounds on the soup, then top with 2 tablespoons each of mozzarella and then Gruyere, and place under the broiler until brown and bubbly. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and serve immediately.

Sicilian Spaghetti and Gravy

Do you slave over a hot stove for hours perfecting your generations-old spaghetti sauce? The one your grandmother made, the one your mother made, the one your aunt across town made and to whom you traveled on Sundays because “her Romagravy was THE ONE!”

I don’t.  At least not any more.

Blame it on Nino.

He is Nino Elia.  He’s a chef of note here in the Lancaster PA area, who specializes in-home dinner parties, small events, and private cooking classes. Ellen and I met him doing a cooking-class presentation at my new favorite gourmet shop in the area, Zest!  They called it Date Night with Nino!, and boy was it ever.  Sixteen (mostly) cooking enthusiasts who love to get together and have a good time.  This particular event was all about cooking Sicilian.

Nino presented pan-fried Kalamata olives with rosemary and ricotta salata, pollo alla vucciria–which he called Chicken Chaos (aptly named!), and spaghetti con pomodoro arrosto al forno, which basically is spaghetti with oven-roasted tomatoes and basil.  It was all amazing.

When I was single and living in Olde City Philadelphia I used to make the spaghetti dish almost every night, because it is filling, healthy, cheap, and simple.  But I didn’t know it had a name–to me it was spaghetti with a quick, fresh tomato and basil condiment.

Nino has raised this dish to an art form, taking it to a place beyond what I knew of Sicilian cuisine.  It isn’t actually very far from what I used to make, but far enough to have awakened in me a new appreciation for what gets made for dinner in Sicily.  I can imagine this dish being served nightly at homes all over the Italian island, and no one ever tiring of it–in fact, one can imagine alterations from time to time to keep the idea fresh.

So no more long, loving hours in the kitchen with red gravy (save that for some other recipe).  Don’t cook your sauce to death.  This one reeks of fresh ingredients.  But also, it is so quick and simple that you will likely want to make this one of your go-to “dinners in a hurry.”  That’s the way it ought to be.Sicilian Spaghetti

Spaghetti con pomodoro arrosto al forno

Ingredients:

12 ripe Roma tomatoes

5-8 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1 bunch fresh basil, divided

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

kosher salt and pepper to taste

Parmesano Reggiano

Preparation:

For the sauce:  Cut the tomatoes in half and place on an olive-oiled baking sheet, skin side down.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper, garlic, chopped basil, and olive oil.  Bake for 20 minutes in a pre-heated 400-degree oven.  After 20 minutes turn the tomatoes cut side down an bake for another 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven, cover loosely with foil, and set aside until just before the pasta is finished.  Pick off the skins and half the sauce in a large saute pan over low heat. Chop or mash the tomatoes into chunks, taste for salt and pepper and adjust the flavor.

For the pasta:  Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.  When the tomatoes come out of the oven, add a tablespoon salt to the boiling water and stir once. Then add a box of spaghetti, stir once or twice, and cook for 2 minutes less than the recommended time on the package for al-dente pasta (the timing is important–the pasta will continue to cook after you remove it from the water).  With a slotted spoon, remove the pasta from the water and place it in the pan with the sauce.  Toss lightly to coat the pasta with the sauce.

Serve the pasta topped with the remaining sauce, garnished with more freshly chopped basil, freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Want to see more of Nino?  Check him out at:  https://www.facebook.com/Nino-Elia-145679935496202/

Mangia!

Cold sesame noodles: the quest continues

I think that this is becoming one of my life’s passions.sesame noodles Perhaps my single favorite bring-along dish when we go avisitin’ in the summertime is cold Asian sesame noodles–peanut noodles, for those of you who have been following along or catching the occasional posts I jam into this space.  It’s also my favorite food, one that I am in constant movement toward the perfect version of this well-known and highly popular dish.

Sesame noodles.  Just the words themselves send me into paroxysms of joy.  Thinking about them make me quiver and want to try yet another version.

I won a local cooking prize once with my original version, which is not really my version, but rather a gift recipe given to me by a friend more than 30 years ago.  Since then I have tweaked and twirled the recipe, made it twice weekly for a late, lamented gourmet shop in Ardmore, PA (where the chef gave me wonderful input for moving the recipe closer toward perfect), produced at least two dozen different versions for my own edification–always in the service of finding one single blend that might become my “always” recipe.

The difference in the recipes is always the sauce (duh!).  There are as many different versions of the sauce as there are versions of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust.  At least.

I took a stab at a recipe I found courtesy of the New York Times that was touted as “authentic,” one that stated the opinion that if it contained peanut butter it’s not sesame noodles (to that I retort:  Bosh!!).  That recipe was good–great, actually, but it wasn’t “The One.”

So on goes the search.

I found another recipe I decided to try that seems more authentic, and I made that, twice, the first time exactly as the recipe was written and then with a couple of tiny tweaks that I have found actually made my own version better.

So, because I understand that cold sesame noodle salad is entirely a personal preference thing, I’m going to present you with my latest attempt at perfection, one I got from a Vietnamese cook who swears that this is the true authentic cold sesame-noodle salad.  Try this one on for size:

SICHUAN COLD NOODLE SALAD

Ingredients:

8 ounces flat rice noodles

2 ribs celery, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 large carrot, julienne cut

8 ounces fresh bean sprouts

Sauce

3 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (acceptable substitution is 2½ tablespoons tahini and 1½ teaspoon toasted sesame-seed oil)

2 tablespoons Chinese brown-rice vinegar

2½ tablespoons regular soy sauce

1½ teaspoons dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon Chinese chili paste (or more, or less, as you prefer)

1 heaping teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle

To finish:

2 tablespoons toasted sesame-seed oil

12 ounces poached chicken breast, hand shredded

2 scallions, green parts only, cut into thin rounds

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Preparation:

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions, always using the minimum recommended cooking time.  Add the celery and carrot, cook one minute more, then plunge the noodles into cold water.  Important tip: Do not overcook the noodles, they become mushy very quickly. Flush with cold water twice, until the water runs clear, and drain well.  Toss with one tablespoon toasted sesame-seed oil and set aside.

Stir together all the sauce ingredients except the toasted peppers until smooth and well mixed. Taste and tweak the flavors with the sauce ingredients to find the blend of tangy, spicy, salty, and sweet that suits your taste. It should be slightly more pungent than you want, because the other ingredients will dilute the flavor a bit.  When you are happy with the flavor, add the toasted peppercorns and mix well.  Allow to rest about 10 minutes before mixing into the sauce (the sauce can be held in the refrigerator up to 3 days; allow it to come to room temperature and stir well before using).

To serve, toss the noodles, bean sprouts, and the chicken in a large bowl, add the remaining sesame-seed oil, pour the sauce over the top, toss once gently, and sprinkle with the sesame seeds and green onions.

You can also consider other optional ingredients to add:  shredded red cabbage, julienned broccoli stems, dried tofu cubes, coarsely chopped peanuts, sliced water chestnuts, chopped fresh basil or cilantro.

Perfect? Pretty darn close. This version of the recipe allows you to adjust the flavors for yourself to find the blend that pleases you.

Isn’t that the essence of cooking?

 

 

 

 

Ira’s Favorite Chicken

I call this dish Ira’s Favorite Chicken.  I don’t know what else to call it.  It has its roots in the Epicure Market on South Beach, where I cooked for several years. unnamed

This is NOT the Epicure’s recipe–that actual recipe is, to date, unrepeatable. I made it in food-grade 39-gallon plastic tubs, and it took four tubs to make a batch. Also it was forty years ago, and the nuances of the recipe escape me now.  But I’ve come pretty close to getting it right.

I call it Ira’s Favorite Chicken, because one of my favorite cousins–the erstwhile Ira, a physician and magnificent human being in the Philly suburbs–has been bugging me for years to come up with this recipe, and to pass it on to him.  I’ve actually been trying to duplicate it for others since I moved away from Florida, and I think I’ve finally gotten close.  It’s sweet, salty, peppery, pungent, and most of all, tastes like home.

WARNING:  this recipe is complicated, but it’s waaaaay worth the effort.

So Ira, this one’s for you.  It’s not the original, but it’s pretty damn close.  Let me know what you think.  (Wendy, this is a challenge!)

IRA’S FAVORITE CHICKEN

Ingredients:

1 3½ to 4-pound chicken

5 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, finely minced

1 tablespoon honey

½ cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup pineapple juice

1½ tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon toasted sesame-seed oil

1 teaspoon red chili oil

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon pickling spice

3 hefty shakes fine-ground white pepper (NOT black pepper)

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely minced

2 pieces scallion (green onion), green parts only, chopped into small pieces

Preparation:

The day before:

  1. Remove the backbone, and cut the chicken into 12 pieces: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 4 pieces wings, breasts cut in half across the breast (discard the backs and wing tips, or freeze and save for a stock).
  2. In a medium bowl, mix the well the garlic and ginger; place the chicken pieces in the bowl and toss well to coat with the garlic and ginger. Place the chicken by hand into a 1-gallon zipper-close bag–leaving the remaining garlic and ginger in the bowl–and refrigerate for 1 hour.  In the same bowl, mix the remaining ingredients; cover and refrigerate. An hour later, pour the marinade into the bag with the chicken.

Cooking day:

  1. Preheat a convection oven to 375ºF.  (If you don’t have a convection oven, read the note at the end).
  2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and lay the chicken, skin side up on the sheet, leaving some space between the pieces. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover with aluminum foil, and rest for 15 minutes.

If you want to be really authentic to the Epicure recipe, while the chicken is baking, make a glaze of ½ cup apricot jam, 2 tablespoons orange marmalade, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce and ½ teaspoon fish sauce; simmer for 30 minutes, and baste the finished chicken with the glaze just before serving.  Garnish with minced cilantro and chopped scallion.

Serve with fried rice.  You can buy pork fried rice at your favorite Chinese restaurant, buy a fried-rice product in the grocery store (I do like P.F. Chang’s fried rice), or you can make your own, using a fabulous recipe called “Classic Pork Fried Rice” on my Pinterest page (Jeff Thal, on the board called “Chinese New Year.”).

NOTE:  If you don’t have a convection oven, turn the broiler on high for the last five minutes and watch the chicken closely so that it doesn’t burn.  It should blacken just a tiny little bit. Remove from the oven and cover loosely with aluminum foil for 15 minutes.

 

 

Red Lentil Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk

Meatless Monday.

It’s become a thing in our house, like, I suppose, some of yours.curry

It’s something Ellen has instituted here, and it happens most of the time (except when it doesn’t).  The kids often object, but not all that strenuously unless I produce something with bulgur or faro or some other grain that they perceive tastes like packing peanuts.

So we’re constantly challenged to come up with vegetarian offerings that are packed with nutritional value and interesting genealogy and, oh yes, flavor.

Such is the case with this tasty and fragrant Indian-influenced soup adapted from a recipe taken from the pages of Vegetarian Times.  It’s loaded with flavor—it will perfume your whole house as it cooks—and protein and fiber, and will gain props all round as you serve it up with an interesting hunk of artisan bread or pita wedges or toasted naan, or a scoop of brown rice on the side.

Try this one.  It’s simple to make and memorable, too.

By the way, if you’ve avoided getting an immersion blender, this is the perfect excuse to get one, or ask Santa to deliver one to you this holiday season.

Red Lentil Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cups cold water.

2 cups sweet onions, chopped

1 cup red lentils

3 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

1 14-ounce unsweetened (light if possible) coconut milk

1  teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon finely round white pepper

1 bay leaf

3 cloves garlic, roughly minced

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly minced

1 tablespoon Indian (or try Jamaican) curry

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Preparation:

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat.  Add onions and cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes.  Add water, lentils, carrots, coconut milk, salt, pepper, and the bay leaf.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are tender, 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small non-stick skillet, heat the remaining oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic, ginger, curry, and cilantro.  Cook, stirring often, until fragrant, 2-3 minutes, then add to the soup.  Remove the bay leaf.

Puree the soup, either in the food processor or blender in batches, or in the pot with an immersion blender, until velvety smooth.  Taste and add a bit more salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve hot with fresh sautéed vegetables, brown rice, and/or a nice fresh bread.

Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce

So today I’m faced with a challenge.  We went to a new Italian restaurant for supper the other night, and it was wonderful—Salt & Pepper in the new Worthington shopping plaza on Oregon Pike, about halfway between Roseville Road and Landis Valley Road in Manheim Township.  The best Italian food we have had since we moved here, other than homemade.penne

I had delicious linguine and clams in red sauce, E. had an excellent chicken Parmesan and spaghetti, and M. had spaghetti in vodka sauce, a light and creamy red sauce.  It was an excellent meal.

The challenge, then, is to recreate the spaghetti in vodka sauce and make it even better than the restaurant’s version.  I liked it, but I wished it had had a bit more of a spicy bite. I like my red sauces to have a little punch.  Vodka sauce, on the other hand, is not particularly robust, relying on subtle but complex flavors mixed to perfection.

So what to do?

What I’ve done is replaced black pepper with white pepper, minced shallots instead of garlic, caramelized red onions instead of minced yellow ones, and a bit of sweet paprika and more red-pepper flakes than what most recipes call for. These changes add complexity to the dish.  One further adjustment is that I use Absolut Peppar as the vodka in the recipe, but that is a personal vanity.  Most any good vodka will do, but I truly like the layer of black pepper flavor it imparts.  My favorite vodka is Blair and Brown, a true potato vodka made right here in Pennsylvania, but I’d rather savor that on the rocks with a bit of tonic and lime. Perhaps together?

Try this recipe at home.  Use penne or linguine instead of spaghetti, and whole-wheat pastas will add a bit more bite to the dish.  I’m certain you’ll like it, and will serve it to guests.  It’s a true winner, sure to garner oohs and ahs from your friends and naysayers who think that vodka sauce is a bridge too far.  That’s a bridge I willingly cross.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Ingredients:

1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) , drained, liquid reserved
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, minced (about 1/4 cup)

1  tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium shallots, minced

1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika
1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
kosher salt and freshly ground WHITE pepper (much better than store-bought fine-ground)
1/3 cup vodka (try it with Absolut Peppar)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
2 whole sprigs fresh basil, plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Preparation:
1. Puree half of tomatoes until smooth. Dice remaining tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine pureed and diced tomatoes in liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1 2/3 cups). Add reserved liquid to equal 2 cups.
2. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. To caramelize the onion, add onion and brown sugar and cook over a low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are light golden brown and soft, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste, and cook, stirring constantly about three minutes; add shallots, paprika, and pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Stir in tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove pan from heat and add vodka. Return pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower heat to medium if simmering becomes too vigorous. Remove the basil sprigs and stir in cream and cook until hot, about 1 minute.
4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water, and transfer pasta back to Dutch oven. Add sauce to pasta and toss over medium heat until pasta absorbs some of sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in the minced basil and adjust seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls, garnish with chopped basil, and serve immediately.

Fabulous Summer Salads

So.  Summer.summer salads

It’s hot out there; who wants to cook?  Not me.  So what I worked on this week are summer salads.

Ho hum, right?  Potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad?  Same old same old.

Not this guy.

I came up with two wonderful new recipes inspired by other, pre-existing recipes and worked them over into wonderful new dishes with my (and Ellen’s) personal twists to make a balmy  summer evening absolutely sing with new flavors.

Standard ingredients, new applications.  Here’s what we’ve got.

Among the things upon which Ellen and I agree is that we don’t much like creamy potato salads; you know the ones–potatoes, celery, mayonnaise, salt and pepper–not much about which to get excited.

Enter Eating Well magazine.  Eating well is something I excel at, although “well” is a bit of a stretch. The magazine means healthy; to me, “eating well” generally means enjoying what we’ve made to the extreme.  In this case, I’ll stick to (relatively) healthy–no mayo in this potato salad, just a beautious blend of herbs and spices that make a summer day feel like a celebration.  This month’s issue of Eating Well features a choice of potato salads that are different from the norm almost as much as they are different from each other.

Our choice from this page was a luscious Greek potato salad with (or, in our case, without) beautiful Kalamata olives (Ellen doesn’t like olives, so we left them out, but I love them, so I say “put ’em in!”   Here’s the plan:

The second recipe is a variation on a Mexican bean salad, with a tangy cumin/lime dressing that is similar to one that has long been one of our favorites.  It’s like a bean salad I wrote about a couple of years ago, but with a twist in the dressing.  The dressing started with the Food Network’s Ellie Krieger, but I’ve worked it over to my liking, and I sure do like it.  Better, although the original is delicious.

I think you’ll like both recipes.  We served them with grilled chicken and freshly torn romaine lettuce and the same dressing as in the beans.  Fabulous!

Greek Potato Salad

Ingredients:

2½ pounds red or Yukon Gold potatoes

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1/3 cup reduced-fat Feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup Kalamata olives, quartered (optional!  — NOT!)

1 medium cucumber, seeded and quartered and diced

2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

¼ cup finely chopped shallot

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preparation:

Scrub and dice the potatoes to a ½-inch dice and place on a steamer basket above one inch of water in a large pot; steam until tender, 12-15 minutes. Place the potato dice on a baking sheet, sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon kosher salt and let cool for 15 minutes.  Then gently place them in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl,  whisk together olive oil, vinegar, shallot, mustard, and salt and pepper.  Add the tomatoes, Feta, olives (or not ;), cucumber, and oregano to the potatoes, then drizzle the dressing into the bowl. Toss gently, so as not to break up the potatoes, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Place the bowl in the fridge for at least two hours, then serve.

Mexican Black Bean and Tomato Salad

Ingredients:

2 cans black beans, rinsed well

4 fresh San Marzano (or Roma) plum tomatoes, ½-inch dice

1 orange (or yellow) bell pepper, seeded and pith removed, ½-inch dice

1 4-ounce can chopped green chiles, drained

½ red onion, diced

1 10-oz package of frozen corn, thawed, rinsed, and drained

¼ cup chopped cilantro

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon freshly grated lime zest

1 ½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 ½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper (more if you like your salads tangy!)

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon finely ground white pepper

Preparation:

Place the first seven ingredients (beans through cilantro) in a large bowl.  In a separate, smaller bowl, add the zest, juice, cumin, chipotle pepper, salt, and white pepper, and stir to mix well.  Slowly drizzle the olive oil into the dressing bowl whisking constantly to create a mixed dressing that thickens as you add the oil.  Pour over the salad ingredients and toss to coat the salad well.  Serve immediately to get all the flavor from the tomatoes and cilantro, or chill for later serving.

Both these recipes are tasty and reasonably healthy, and go well with anything grilled.  Try ‘em both!

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