One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pesto Potato Salad

If you ask me, a summer gathering isn't a summer gathering unless there's a potato salad. Unfortunately, most potato salads are glorified vehicles for boatloads of mayonnaise and I try to keep my meals low calorie where possible, so I came up with this relatively guilt-free salad which uses pesto sauce rather than mayo.

Pesto contains many heart-healthy ingredients such as pine nuts, olive oil and garlic and is delicious! You can use pesto on chicken, pasta, fish, salads... This salad can be made with purchased pesto. As I try to avoid processed foods, I make my own. The recipe is below. Pesto can be frozen in ice cube trays - just microwave a couple of cubes for a minute to thaw them whenever you need a quick pasta sauce. 

Botulism warning: Garlic and herbs, when kept in oil without the presence of an acid, can lead to a paralytic and potentially fatal illness called botulism. Commercial pesto is heat-treated to prevent this risk. Homemade pesto should be frozen if you intend to keep it beyond a couple of days to stop the development of the botulism bacteria. 

The keys to this potato salad are to salt the cooking water very heavily, to add a splash of vinegar, and to dress the potatoes while they are still hot. Salting the cooking water helps the seasoning penetrate to the core rather than just staying on the surface. The vinegar adds a brightness to the salad and ties all the flavors together, and heat helps the potatoes absorb the flavors better.
Pesto Potato Salad
You can use distilled white winegar, sherry vinegar or wine vinegar. Avoid balsamic which is too sweet for this salad. Try to pick a less floury potato variety such as Yukon Gold or red.  You will need one medium-large potato for each person and half a tablespoon of vinegar and a full tablespoon of pesto for each potato. This can be made the day before and refrigerated.

Potatoes, peeled and diced into one inch cubes
White vinegar
Purchased or homemade pesto

1) Bring a pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil and cook potatoes until fork-tender but not falling apart, 7-10 minutes.

2) Drain the potatoes and immediately toss with the vinegar, then stir in the pesto. Taste and add more salt and pesto if needed.

3) Let cool and avoid eating half of it while still hot like I did!

You must grate your own parmesan cheese or buy the freshly grated stuff from the cheese aisle - don't use the processed cheese product sold in green cans in the pasta sauce section! If grating your own, the easiest way is to break the cheese up into small chunks and grind it in the food processor.

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves (one large bunch)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup grated parmesan
1/3 cup olive oil

1) If using a blender, simply blend all ingredients. If using a food processor, first process the dry ingredients together and then drizzle in the olive oil while the machine is still running.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Easy Blueberry-Peach Cobbler

Last week I ended up with a glut of berries in the fridge and decided to make a dessert. Enter this recipe from Bon Appetit magazine. Cobblers are baked fruit topped with fluffy dough biscuits which soak up all the delicious juices. Making the dough can be a chore but not so here. Although I was dubious about the concept of making the topping using just flour and creme fraiche, it worked like a charm and was definitely as easy as the recipe claims. Creme fraiche is a French version of sour cream, with a milder taste and a higher fat content. It is generally sold in the cheese aisle. You can use any combination of seasonal fruits. Try strawberries with rhubarb in spring, or pears and apples in winter. You need 4-5 cups of chopped fruit. If using peaches, pick ones that are not rock hard.

The best part is that this freezes beautifully, so when winter rolls around and I'm feeling glum, I can always pull out my summery dessert from the freezer to cheer myself up!

A note on measurements: I use standardized US measuring cups and spoons. If you use any random coffee cup to measure out your ingredients the biscuits won't taste the same. For tablespoons or teaspoons, use leveled rather than heaping spoonfuls. When measuring flour do not pack it tightly into the cup, just spoon it in lightly.

Easy Blueberry-Peach Cobbler
I simplified the recipe quite a bit. This is supposed to serve six but two of use greedily polished off half of it, and that after a big dinner! Serve with vanilla icecream, creme fraiche or sour cream on the side. If you want to freeze this, put in plastic containers after it's cooked and cooled down and microwave on high for a couple of minutes until thawed and hot when you're ready to eat it.

2 peaches, peeled, pitted and diced
2 cups mixed blueberries and blackberries
1/2 cup (100g) sugar (If your fruit is very sweet use a bit less sugar)
2 tbsp water
3 tsp cornstarch
1-2 tbsp lemon juice

1 cup (125g) flour
1.5 tsp (7.5g) baking powder
Large pinch of salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup (240ml) creme fraiche

1) Preheat oven to 450F (230C). Set a rack in the bottom third of the oven.

2) In a baking dish, mix all filling ingredients. 

3) In a bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add creme fraiche and stir until all the flour is incorporated and dough comes together. Take golf-ball sized lumps of the dough, flatten slightly and lay on top of the fruit. Sprinkle sugar on top of each dough round.

4) Bake 25 minutes until dough is golden on top. Let cool for 15 min before eating.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Corn, three ways

One of my favorite things about American summers is sweet corn. The type of corn we have back in Turkey is much hardier and not sweet, and would be inedible unless you boiled it for a couple of hours. To get our corn fix quickly, we had to wait for one of the Itinerant corn sellers that prowl the streets during summers to pass by our window and run down to fish out an ear or two from the big pots of boiling water they wheel around. American corn, by contrast, cooks in a couple of minutes. In addition to tasting great, corn is good for you: It has plenty of fiber as well as vitamins B and C. Plus, it retails for 40 cents an ear at the farmer's market - you can't really get a cheaper snack than that! Given all these advantages, I thought I'd highlight three of my favorite corn recipes for my first blog post.

Corn, Avocado and Tomato Salad

Recipes for tomato-corn salads are a dime a dozen in cooking magazines during summer. I added an avocado because there are few dishes which are not bettered by the inclusion of an avocado! Despite heavy competition this might just be my favorite salad of all time. The keys to this recipe are to use ripe summer tomatoes, avocados and corn, to season with freshly ground pepper (pre-ground black pepper from the supermarket has no taste compared to freshly-ground. Throw that away, spend a couple more dollars and get some whole peppercorns in a grinder - you'll be surprised at the difference it makes) and to be very, VERY generous with the basil. To pick a ripe avocado, choose one that has dark skin and is not rock-hard. It should give slightly when you press it with a finger.

Corn, Avocado and Tomato Salad

The amounts below serve two people as a side dish but I've been known to eat the whole bowl and call it dinner. Serve with crusty bread to sop up the liquids or just drink them up.

1 ear of corn
1 large tomato
1/2 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
Good handful of fresh basil leaves
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1) Stand the corn on its end and cut off the kernels with a sharp knife. Microwave the kernels on high for 2 minutes, let cool. If you don't have a microwave you can also boil the corn for 1 minute.

2) While the corn is cooling, dice the avocado and tomato and finely chop the basil. Combine the vegetables and basil in a bowl and season with salt and fresh-ground black pepper.

3) Put the vinegar in a small bowl and drizzle in the oil while whisking. Toss the dressing with the salad and serve. 

Mexican Corn

This recipe was inspired by a New York times article on grilled Mexican street corn. Since I don't have a grill I gave it a shot with my oven's broiler. Mayonnaise on corn may sound strange but when doctored up with chili pepper and lime and contrasted against the sweetness of the corn, it's highly addictive - and this is coming from someone who normally does not handle spicy food well at all! Paired with a Corona, this makes the perfect summer snack.

Mexican Corn

If you do have a grill, just mix up the sauce and slather it on the grilled cobs. 

For each ear of corn, you will need:
1 tsp oil
1 tbsp mayonnaise
A good squeeze of lime juice
Pinch of cayenne pepper, to taste
1 tsp sour cream (optional)
Pinch of oregano (optional)
Pinch of crumbled feta, goat cheese or Mexican cheese

1) Preheat broiler and set a rack in the middle of the oven. In a bowl, mix the mayonnaise, lime juice, cayenne, sour cream, oregano and cheese.

2) Stand each ear of corn on its end and cut off the kernels with a sharp knife. Spread the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet or broiler-safe skillet (don't use nonstick!) and toss with the oil. 

3) Broil until some of the corn is starting to blister and char. Depending on the strength of your broiler this may take as little as two minutes so check frequently. 

4) Mix with the sauce and serve while still hot. 

Chinese Chicken and Corn Soup

This recipe comes from a cookbook called "Wok & Stir-fry: Fabulous fast food with Asian flavors" which I bought for $5 from a bargain bin. (I freely admit that scoring good deals on cookbooks fills me with much glee!) The book may have been cheap but every single recipe I've tried from it has been gold. This simple soup uses some common Chinese ingredients such as rice wine and sesame oil. You can leave these out if you don't have them as the main flavors in this dish are those of the chicken and the corn. I love the sweet, mild, subtle taste of this soup but it can also be spiced up with a dash of hot sauce. 

Chinese Chicken and Corn Soup
You can use fresh corn from 3-4 ears of corn instead of canned corn. Puree the kernels from two ears in a food processor or blender to substitute for the creamed corn. Serves 4-6 people. 

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tsp cornstarch
1/4 cup water
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 15 oz can creamed corn
1 8 oz can corn kernels
2 eggs, beaten
Chopped scallions or chives, to garnish

1) Pulse the chicken 10-12 times in a food processor or blender until ground, but do not overprocess it into a gloppy paste. Mix the chicken with the soy sauce, rice wine or sherry, cornstarch, water and sesame oil and let sit for 15 min.

2) Heat 1 tbsp of neutral oil such as canola or vegetable in a pot over medium heat. Add the ginger and stir-fry for a few seconds. Add the stock, creamed corn and corn kernels.

3) When the soup starts simmering, add the chicken mixture to the wok. Stirring frequently, bring to a boil and cook for 2-3 minutes. 

4) Pour the beaten eggs into the soup in a very slow stream, using a fork to stir the surface of the soup in a figure eight pattern at the same time. The eggs should cook into thin, lacy threads. Serve, garnished with scallions or chives.