Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chicken Teriyaki Tenders with Rice and Asparagus

This is a great weeknight 30-minute meal that every family enjoys.  Teriyaki is a Japanese cooking technique where foods are broiled or grilled in a sweet soy sauce marinade.  I use chicken tenders which, because of their size, absorb the flavor of the teriyaki sauce nicely and they are inexpensive.  You can use a pre-made teriyaki sauce (I like the Kikkoman Teriyaki Takumi Collection - Garlic and Green Onion) or you can make your own.  You can make a good long-grain wild rice or you can use a rice box mix.

The meal starts in the morning before I leave for work when I prepare the chicken.  Chicken tenders are the little flap of meat that folds over the back side of a boneless, skinless breast.  This flap has a tendon which must be removed before cooking. If you prefer you can simply slice a regular chicken breast to use in this recipe, but because of the tendon the 'tenders' are less expensive and taste just as good.  Removing the tendon is not difficult.  To do this, I use a pair of pliers I keep for kitchen tasks and grip the white tendon piece that is sticking out.  I hold the chicken tender down and either pull the tendor out between my fingers or hold it down with the back of a knife and pull it under the knife blade, removing the tendon completely.   Once removed, I place the tenders in a zippered storage bag and add the teriyaki sauce.  I then place it in the refrigerator where it will spend the day until I get home to make dinner.

I start the rice first, because it takes the full 30 minutes.  I use a long-grain wild rice and add some sliced almonds because I like a little crunchy texture with this dish.  While the rice is cooking, you simply spray a baking dish with food release and add the tenders.  Place these in a 375F pre-heated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. 

While the chicken and rice are cooking, I quickly prepare the fresh asparagus and place it on a cookie sheet with some olive oil and salt/pepper.  I'm often asked if it is necessary to peel the asparagus.  I typically peel asparagus that has a thicker stock.  A thick stalk on asparagus is typical of the freshest, first cut of the plant.  I usually avoid asparagus that is very very thin, as these are typically from later cuttings although you certainly don't need to peel the stalks.  So with that said, I often do peel the asparagus after first cutting off the bottom dried out end.  This is easily done with a potato peeler as shown in the photo.  This ensures a tender, non-stringy asparagus that your family will enjoy.  You can see it removes the more fibrous outer edge.  (Never ever serve canned mushy asparagus.)  I add the asparagus to the 375F oven during the last 10-12 minutes of cooking time for the chicken, so it all comes out at once.

Finally, I like to serve this dish family style with the rice underneath the chicken.  Then I finely chop some celery to sprinkle on the top, because it both adds color and provides yet a little more texture to the dish.  And the entire meal is on the table in about 30 minutes.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Happy, Friendly, Food-Loving Brazil

With Brazil's famous Carnival upon us this weekend, I wanted to share our experience in this land of food and football loving Brazil.  Here in the States you get the impression that Brazil is all about grilled meat and you rarely hear about other culinary delights.  While they did have many delicious meats, this beautiful country offers so much more.

South America's largest country, Brazil is an amalgam of peoples, cultures, and flavors. The country's regional cuisines are influenced strongly by its cultural diversity—beginning originally with the native Guarani, Tupi, and Arawak peoples, then with the Portuguese colonists and African slaves in the fourteenth century, and later with large waves of Germans, Japanese, Italians, Syrians, and Lebanese.  I'm pleased to say the country, rich in resources, is also rich in fantastic, diverse foods and today I'll share with you some of our favorites which we found on our tour of Rio de Janerio, Porto Alegre and Igaussu Falls. 
Brazil has nearly 7500 km (or 4600 miles) of Atlantic ocean coastline and the world's largest river by volume (the Amazon) making seafood popular, plentiful and extremely fresh.  In many restaurants in Rio we found large iced fish cases from which you could select your meal.  From smaller fish, served whole and grilled, to fillets encrusted with nuts, the choice was impressive.  Most of the fish was served with rice as a side-dish, which appeared to be more popular than potatoes throughout our travels.

Heart of Palm
Perhaps the biggest dining surprise we had on the trip was the appetizer of heart of palm.  To us hearts of palm are small, white, canned sticks that are often added to salads that are somewhat flavorless.  So when dining at Aprazivel in Rio, generally felt by many to be their favorite restaurant in the area, we were curious to try out this highly praised item.

Our Friend Pam with Kevin
Aprazivel is not just a restaurant, it's an experience. Located on the hilltop in the heart of the Santa Teresa bohemian neighborhood, the restaurant is an exotic tropical oasis filled with thatched roofs, beautiful wood, soft light, tropical plants, and tables in tree houses. The view is outstanding, looking down on the lights of Rio. It had excellent cuisine, carefully designed with exotic tropical ingredients and true Brazilian dishes with a touch of finesse.

Heart of palm is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees. In Brazil the ivory-colored pupunha hearts of palm are prized by chefs, and now we know why.  These are not the small, domesticated farm versions that are grown for canning.  Instead these are large palm hearts as big around as my wrist.  When steamed in the trunk, as we had at Aprazivel, it takes on the taste of tender lobster and sweet corn combined. We drizzled it with a little basil-olive oil sauce and it was melt-in-your-mouth tender.  Eaten raw it has a crunchy taste and makes a perfect addendum to any fresh cut salad.  Cut then grilled, it was equally delicious.

At Aprazivel Kevin had the roasted goat which was also tender and mild.  Served on mashed potatoes with a complex sauce, it was just delicious.  I had the local stewed chicken/rice dish that was served with a side of plantains (similar to a banana but firmer and lower in sugar.)  It was also very flavorful.  We saved our visit to the famed Brazlian churrascaria (a restaurant that specializes in grilled meats) until we flew south to Porto Alegre, where we were in the heart of Gaucho (traditional cowboy) country.  There we enjoyed local traditional performances as well as the famous selection of grilled meats.  We had this several nights and at some places it was served by waiters in Gaucho costumes circulating through the room with a wide-variety of grilled meats and sausages.  Every place was an 'all you can eat' bonanza which left us overly full but happy!

Coffee, Cocktails and Softdrinks
Brazil is the largest coffee producer in the world and it is eagerly consumed by both locals and tourists alike, with local coffee shops available everywhere.  Brazilian coffee is not is grown at high elevation which means it is relatively low in acidity. It typically has been dried inside the fruit (dry-processed) so that some of the sweetness of the fruit carries into the cup.  As such, the coffee tends to be round, sweet and well-nuanced rather than big and bright.  We found this particularly delightful and often took a break during the day to enjoy a cup with a dessert.  We also were introduced to Brazil's national cocktail called a Caipirinha, while in Rio attending the Samba school. A caipirinha is made with cachaça (sugar cane rum), sugar (preferably white powdered sugar) and limes, crushed in the glass with the sugar. Cachaça is Brazil's most common distilled alcoholic beverage. 
The major difference between cachaça and rum is that rum is made from molasses, a by-product from refineries that boil the cane juice while cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled.  A caipirinha can also be made with standard rum or even vodka, and during our travels we felt it our culinary duty to try all variations! (smile) But when coffee or a cocktail were not an option, we enjoyed Guarana Antarctica, which is a moderately sweet soft drink made of a tropical berry that grows in the Amazon.  As you can see, when we travel we do our best to soak up the local flavors.

With their historic European connection, Brazil's desserts are on par with anything you can find on the Continent.  As in most things, they've taken a classic dish from the homeland and combined it with with local flavors.  As such there was lots of coconut, mango, passion fruit and banana flavors on the menu when combined with candies, cakes and custards.  Brazilians also cook bananas in many ways although frying them in vegetable oil or butter is the probably the most popular. The bananas are often served just the way they come out of the pan and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and sometimes prepared flambé with rum (ala Bananas Foster). 

Docinhos are Brazilian desserts made of eggs, sugar, and/or sweetened condensed milk, and a variety of fruits and nuts, including coconut, dates, prunes, walnuts, Brazil nuts, peanuts, etc.  Many Brazilian recipes are made with condensed milk.  It came to Brazil from Switzerland over a hundred years ago and like in the U.S. it's made by Nestlé.  Because the label featured the picture of a milkmaid, the cans became known as the "maid milk' and that's what condensed milk is called to this day (Leite Moça) in Brazil.

If you don't want a heavy dessert after dinner or with your afternoon coffee, you might be offered a Brigadeiro, which is a candy in the docinhos family.  This is a simple Brazilian chocolate bonbon, created in the 1940s and named after Brigadier Eduardo Gomes. It is a very popular candy in Brazil and as with most chocolate, a nice way to end any meal.

In Closing
I hope it's quite evident that we truly loved our travels throughout Brazil.  I  could have gone on for quite a while longer and shared hundreds of photos with you of Brazil's fine culinary traditions.  If you have the opportunity to travel to Brazil I encourage you to go and to spend as much time as you can enjoying the many delights the country offers.  Obrigado!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Nothing says love like Rigatoni alla Buttera.

This favorite Italian dish with sausage and peas is often translated as "Peasant-Style Pasta" although I have always thought the word Buttera was a family name and does not actually translate to peasant.  It's close to  "Buttero" an Italian cowboy and I suppose it's possible that the dish gets its name from these cow herders.  But wherever the name comes from, it's just darn good Italian-style comfort food and easy to make for your loved one! 

Rigatoni alla Buttera is pasta served with sausage, tomatoes, peas, parmesan, and cream. 

I first enjoyed this dish at our favorite Chicago Italian restaurant, Coco Pazzo.  It serves Tuscan inspired cuisine using only the freshest of ingredients.  If you were not sitting in the midst of downtown Chicago you would think that the kitchen had a garden and seaside just outside its doors.   Fresh vegetables, roasted whole fish, house made squid ink pasta... but I digress.  

When we are in New York City, Lavagna in East Village is a Zagat-rated neighborhood Italian restaurant we try not to miss. While Kevin often orders their very wonderful fresh fish, the reason to go to Lavagna is for the rigatoni.   It is extremely popular with locals and visitors alike and once you have it there you will order it time and again.

Thankfully, it's also easy to make at home either completely from scratch as I describe below, or even on a weeknight with a jar of Mario Batali's vodka sauce

1 1/2 cups peas (fresh or thawed frozen peas)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium chopped yellow onion
1/2 pound or a bit more Italian sausage (mild or a mix of mild/hot)
2 to 3 ounces sliced pancetta, finely minced (optional)
1 cup red wine
4 cups tomato sauce
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 pound dried rigatoni
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Notes:  If using fresh peas, drop them into a small saucepan of boiling salted water and cook until tender but still a bit firm. Drain and set aside.   I get fresh Italian sausage at my local Italian store and it is very lean, so I brown it in a little oil.  If your sausage if fatty, omit the oil in the step below. 

To make the sauce, heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed skillet or sauce pan over high heat.  Add the sausage and optional pancetta, and cook, stirring and breaking up the sausage with a wooden spoon, until the sausage has a golden brown color, 3 to 5 minutes.  Remove the sausage from the pan and reduce heat to medium.

Add the chopped onion and stir until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the red wine and stir any brown bits from the bottom of the pan and until the wine is reduced at least by half.  Add the tomato sauce and season with salt, pepper and Italian seasonings.   Return the sausage to the pan and heat until just bubbling and then reduce heat and simmer for 30-60 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the coarse salt and pasta and cook until the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite.

Stir the cream into the tomato sauce and heat through.   Taste the sauce and correct seasonings as necessary.  Stir in half the peas, simmer for another minute or two, and turn off the heat.   (The sauce can be prepared several hours ahead. Reheat gently before using.)

Drain the pasta and place in the pan or skillet with the sauce. Add a small handful of the Parmigiano and mix over medium heat until the pasta and sauce are well combined, about 7 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning.  Sprinkle the remaining peas on the top of each serving along with the remaining Parmigiano.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Oxtails: "The Sweetest Meat is Closest to the Bone"

While dining in Rio de Janeiro at Giuseppe Grill, a well known New York Times recommended restaurant, Kevin asked if he should try the oxtails which are the specialty of the house.  He had never had them and always likes to try new dishes.  I described them in the classic braised preparation and he ordered.  But what arrived was nothing like what I had described, but rather what appeared to be more like German sauerbraten; large but thin slices of what seemed to be pickled then roasted beef.  

Although we confirmed with the waiter it was the dish he had ordered, we were never quite certain there wasn't a language barrier.  So when at the meat market this week I saw oxtails, I selected them for our weekend dinner so that I could show him what I consider the classic preparation. 

Most people I know haven't tried (or perhaps heard of) braised oxtail, which is really quite a shame as they have a wonderful, rich beef flavor even better than braised beef short ribs but with less meat.  Oxtails come from the tail of beef cattle (in earlier times it referred only to the tail of an ox or steer, a castrated male.)  The segments are vertebrae so they have lots of iron-rich marrow, contain well exercised muscle, and are marbled with fat.  You don't often see them in your meat case and some say that is because they are not popular.  I'm not convinced, since each steer has only one tail, that the butcher isn't keeping this flavorful meat for himself.

In addition to the classic braised oxtails, there is also the popular oxtail soup with barley.  Oxtail stew is also popular, and somewhat similar to my braised version.  I typically don't make oxtail into stew with vegetables, as the oxtails are fatty and I prefer to be able to remove the meat, strain off the fat and make a gravy while serving separate vegetables that have not been cooked in the fatty broth.  There is also a similar stew recipe that's popular in the Caribbean and you can view the Caribbean Pot food blog for her Stewed Oxtail with Butter Beans recipe which I'm still wanting to try.  Oxtails are also used in a Vietnamese noodle soup and there is a Chinese version of braised oxtails served with rice.  The preparation is similar to my braised oxtails but with flavors of Asia.  Coda alla Vaccinara is a Roman version of oxtail stew usually prepared with a sweet-and-sour taste often with raisins and candied fruit in addition to celery, garlic, prosciutto, pancetta and other vegetables.  If you're in the mood for something a bit different, give it a try.

My Aunt Rose used to tell us that the 'sweetest meat is closest to the bone'.  If you follow this line of thinking, then oxtails certainly are some of the sweetest meat you'll find.  But the smaller pieces do require picking up with fingers to get all of the meat from between the bones, so this is a meal you probably won't want to serve to guests. 

I typically serve oxtails with mashed potatoes, as it makes a wonderful gravy, along with a green vegetable.

3 pounds of oxtail cut into approx. 2-inch pieces
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. oil
1 large yellow/Spanish onions, roughly chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 c. chopped celery
3 cloves garlice, chopped
1/2 bottle red wine
2 cups chicken broth or water
7 ounces, or about 1 cup, crushed tomatoes
3 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350F degrees.  Rinse and dry the oxtail pieces. Dredge lightly in flour.  Heat oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven and brown oxtail pieces 3-4 at a time, not crowding the pan. Remove meat and wipe up any burned flour using tongs and a paper towel.  Increase heat to high and add a little more oil if needed.  Saute the onion for 3-4 minutes stirring frequently.  Add carrots and celery, and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then cook stirring frequently for another 5 minutes or until beginning to brown . Deglaze pan with red wine and cook until reduced by about half.  Add tomatoes, chicken broth, bay leaves and cloves and return meat to pan.  Liquid should be sufficient to cover most if not all of the oxtail pieces. If not, add additional water.  Cover and place the pot in oven and cook until very tender, about 3-4 hours. Check periodically and additional water if needed to keep meat nearly covered.

Remove Dutch oven to stove top and move oxtails onto a platter and cover to keep warm.  Strain the pan juices into a bowl, using a spoon or spatula to squeeze broth from vegetables.  Discard crushed vegetables.  Pour the strained broth (in batches) into a gravy strainer to separate the fat.  Return the broth to a sauce pan and discard the fat.  Heat the broth until it is just beginning to boil.  If it is thick enough to act as a gravy for the oxtails, add the meat to reheat.  If not, make a slurry (stir together a tablespoon of cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of water) and whisk into the hot broth to thicken.

Remove the oxtails from the gravy and garnish on plates or platter.  Serve with mashed potatoes and the thickened gravy.