Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cocktail Basics

Being able to offer your guests a pre-dinner cocktail, particularly in the warmer months, is a necessity for good entertaining.  As you may know if you follow this blog, I usually make a specific cocktail for each event and I try to find something inventive that goes well with the day's appetizers.  For more formal occasion I offer up a Champagne cocktail of some variety.  But with summer upon us I return to a group of basic cocktails usually served outdoors.

Mixers:  To make a wide-range of cocktails you need to have some basic ingredients on hand.  These include sweet and sour cocktail mix, simple syrup (cooked sugar water), sour apple schnapps, cranberry juice, olives and lemons/limes (or lemon/lime juice).  I also like to have a few flavored syrups handy such as those made by Monin, particularly those related to summer fruits and berries.  Of course grenadine is often called for in many recipes, which is actually the flavor of pomegranate taking its name from the Spanish word for the fruit. So keeping a bottle of this on hand is also a good idea.  I realize this is a significant list of mixers, but this list will set you up for the summer and give you the ability to make a large number of cocktails throughout the year.

Bitters:  As bitters has made a come back, I thought I should also include a note about this special item.  A bitters is an alcoholic beverage flavored with herbal essences and has a bitter or bittersweet flavor. The function of the bitters is to bring together the spirit flavors and mellow them.  Angostura bitters is widely available and can be used in a Manhattan or Martini.  However, a dash of a good quality orange bitters, such as Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6 is my preference and makes a world of difference in the classic Martini.

Liquor/Spirits:  Now on to the primary ingredients.  Here I keep a smaller variety sticking to just a good quality rum, gin and vodka.  Add a bottle of dry vermouth, and you are ready for the basic and always popular Martini or any flavored Martini-like drink you care to make by adding one of the above flavors.  Using this method you can avoid purchasing too many flavored liquors and simply mix your own when you need them.  With that said, my summer bar service wouldn't be complete without coconut rum, which I generously add to Coca-Cola in the summer time.

Equipment:  Of course to mix and serve the drinks you'll need some basic equipment and the appropriate glass.  For the equipment you'll simply need a cocktail shaker with strainer (built in or separate), a shot measuring glass, cocktail napkins, and straws (both tall and short).  Keep in mind that a U.S. standard shot is 1.5 fluid ounces and many recipes set out the ingredients in ounces.  So do not assume a shot is an ounce or your cocktail will be overly strong.  I keep two cocktail mixing vessels (as shown below).  One is larger (shown in blue) and is good for stirred drinks for four people. it comes with it's own glass stir, but you could use most any stir that is long and thin.  I  also keep the cocktail shaker with built in strainer which typically holds enough for two cocktails.

Glassware:  Once you've mixed your drinks you now need to serve them appropriately.  Nothing says 'oh my!' quite like serving your lovingly prepared cocktail in the wrong glass or worse yet, a plastic cup.  The main glasses you'll need are the Martini glass, the highball and the rocks glass.  These come in all shapes and sizes but I would recommend you use a mid-sized version of each.  I'm particularly fond of the more narrow (2 1/4 - 2 3/4 inch diameter) highball as they look less like a water glass and are easier to hold and appear more elegant.  You may also want to have a margarita glass on hand if you do frozen drinks in the summer time.

Cocktails Types and Recipes:  Now that you are all stocked up and ready to make them for your guests, you'll need to decide what to serve.  I like to think of cocktails in these categories:  up, highball, rocks, champagne, frozen, and punch.  As you can tell these mostly refer to the type of glass they will be served in.  This is a good way to think about it because you may not have all available glasses in the quantity you need for your guests.  If you do have plenty of glassware but want instead to focus on a particularly type of base liquor, then consider this cocktail guide.   Here you can start with any flavor or liquor you prefer and then view related recipes.  I also like to use Tippler's Taxonomy when considering cocktail options.

In Closing
Now some of you may ask what about whiskey, cognac and other drinks.  Well there are some whiskey cocktails I generally stick to the above. If I have some leftover whiskey in the house that I'm trying to use up I may make a whiskey sour or a 7&&. However I prefer to use whiskey, cognac and other related drinks as digestives served after dinner and after cordials (which are liqueurs of sweet distilled spirits with a base liquor, sugar and a variety of fruits, herbs and spices) and served with or just after the dessert.  And that's another subject completely that I will leave for another day!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

All-In Chicken Dinner

I'm always saying to use whatever you have the house, so this week I found myself with chicken and rice.  This dish works equally as well with leftover turkey, and while I haven't tried it with other meats I anticipate it would work just fine.  I call it "all-in" because I go through my pantry and vegetable drawer and try to use what I have on-hand.  That's not to say that you have to do this, and you can just as easily follow the detailed recipe below and have a great meal in short order.

Not pretty but tastes great!
The recipe is easy and quick to make, particularly if you are starting with leftover chicken and rice.  If not, then you must begin by making the rice according to package directions and poaching the chicken until cooked through, which you can certainly do well ahead of time.  In fact if you are thinking of making this for an after-work meal, then do prepare the chicken and rice a day or more ahead and store it in the refrigerator until ready for use.  The entire meal will be ready in under an hour.

I believe the original recipe came from Paula Dean, although as I said above, I make variations on the original based on what I have on hand.  Feel free to do so adding or subtracting the vegetables as you prefer.  If you do add other vegetables and they are fresh, they may need to be cooked first as the finished dish doesn't bake that long in the oven.

I usually serve this dish with a side salad or a green vegetable.  Tonight it will be along side oven-roasted asparagus, as I'm trying to use that before it goes bad.  As you can tell, in our kitchen nothing goes to waste!

1 carrot peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, peeled and diced
1 cup white mushrooms, washed and sliced
1 10 3/4 ounce can condensed cream of celery soup
4 ounce jar pimentos
8 ounce can water chestnuts, drained and chopped
2 14 1/2 ounce cans green beans, drained and rinsed
3 cups diced cooked chicken
1 cup mayonnaise
1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked wild rice
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, plus 1/2 cup for topping
pinch of salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350F.  Microwave the carrots with a little water until tender, about five minutes.  Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and saute until tender, about five minutes more.

Add the condensed cream of celery soup to a large mixing bowl and stir to loosen.  Transfer the ingredients from the skillet to the mixing bowl and stir to combine.  

Add all remaining ingredients to bowl except for the 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese and stir together until thoroughly combined.

Makes 8-10 Adult Servings
Grease or spray a 4 quart casserole dish and pour in the mixture.  Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese on top.  Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbling and center temperature is approximately 160F.  Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blueberry No-Bake Cheesecake

When the weather suddenly turned warm, I turned to my favorite icebox no-bake cheesecake recipe for dessert.  This is particularly good in warm weather when you don't feel like heating up the oven.  It starts with a store-bought Graham cracker crust, but of course you could make your own, but that would include heating the oven.  This recipe is easy to make and comes out perfect every time.  The ingredient list is small. You can even do a low fat version if you are so inclined (I'm not, but you might be. See my notes at the bottom for substitutions.)

Julian's Blueberry No-Bake Cheesecake
I'm always looking for ways to use berries when they are in season and so today I took my standard no-bake cheesecake recipe and added blueberries.  I simply pureed them in a blender with the juice of a lemon.  You could use other berries if you prefer.  While I would never give up my traditional baked cheesecake recipe, this is a fine substitute when you don't have the time and/or do not want to heat the oven. I use it all summer long!

Fresh Blueberry Topping:   I topped the pie with some blueberry topping I had made earlier in the week to serve over ice cream.  While I made the topping the old fashioned way by cooking down some blueberries with sugar, if you are in a hurry just do this.  Purchase a small can of blueberry pie filling and two six ounce packages of blueberries.  Rinse the berries and remove any stems.  Pour the pie filling into bowl and add water, a tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition until it reaches the appropriate sauce consistency.  Gently stir in the cleaned berries and voila, fresh blueberry topping.

1 prepared Graham cracker pie crust, 9 inch.
12 ounces fresh blueberries, washed and stems removed
1 lemon
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (about 1/2 packet of Knor brand)
16 ounces cream cheese (soft)
1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Mint leaves for garnish
Blueberry topping optional (above)

Set aside about 1/2 cup of blueberries.  Squeeze the juice from one lemon.  Puree remaining blueberries with the lemon juice in a blender or food processor.  Place the puree into a microwave safe glass bowl.  Heat the puree for 1-2 minutes on high until hot.  Sprinkle gelatin on top and stir until dissolved into the hot puree, about 2-3 minutes.  Beat the cream cheese until smooth and soft, about 3 minutes with an electric mixer on medium-high.  Scrape down the bowl, turn the mixer to low speed and slowly pour in the condensed milk.  Then slowly pour in the blueberry puree.  Pour mixture into the prepared pie crust.  Dot the top with the 1/2 cup blueberries and chill until set, about 2 hours.

Click To Enlarge
Low Fat Option
If you'd like to make this into a diet-friendly recipe, make the following substitutions.

*fat-free sweetened condensed milk instead of regular version
*8 ounces of reduced-fat cream cheese and 8 ounces fat-free cream cheese in place of the regular version
*eliminate the optional blueberry topping

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Chicken Parmesan ~ Improved

Chicken and veal Parmesan are thought of as classics of the Italian cuisine.  And while they are variants on the original eggplant (aubergine) that originated in southern Italy, it is likely these were developed outside of Italy by Italian immigrants.  Parmigiana, parmigiana di melanzane, or melanzane alla parmigiana all refer to this dish, which is claimed by both Campania and Sicily.

Julian's Improved Chicken Parmesan
Most cooks and restaurants make the dish by breading the meat or eggplant with a bread crumb Parmesan cheese mixture, browning in a skillet and then baking with sauce and topping with mozzarella cheese.  Having tried this dish at numerous restaurants, I usually find it to have way too much stringy, chewy, melted cheese on top, and breading that has turned to mush while baking in the sauce.  In short, not a great meal regardless of the center filling, which you can barely taste.

So this week I set out to try and improve the dish.  I should have known that my online search would turn up others that have also attempted to fix these problems, most notably Cooks Illustrated.  They headlined their article with this "What good does it do to create a crisp crust on this Italian American standard if it turns soggy as soon as it's sauced?"  My sentiments exactly.

Below you will find my version of Chicken Parmesan which is largely adapted from that of Cooks Illustrated.  I made several minor adjustments.  When comparing to the classic preparation  you will note the chicken is no longer baked in sauce then topped with cheese, but rather just the opposite.   The chicken is baked with a mixture of two types of cheese (for flavor and texture) and then topped with the sauce after it comes out of the oven.  The cheese acts as a barrier to the sauce keeping the breading crisp.   The other main difference between this and most recipes for chicken or veal Parmesan is the amount of grated Parmesan in the breading.  Now it actually tastes like the name suggests it should.  I had chicken on hand (a huge breast as it turns out) but this could easily be replicated with veal or eggplant.

While I don't give you a recipe here for sauce, you will need a good tomato sauce either homemade or from a jar, as many these days do taste quite nice.

12-16 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat.
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/2 cup fontina cheese, shredded
1 large egg
1 tablespoon flour
 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil
cooking spray (Pam)

Freeze the chicken breasts for 15 minutes then slice them horizontally as shown in the photo.  Pound them to an even thickness.  Sprinkle both sides with 1/8 teaspoon of salt and let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.  Combine mozzarella and fontina cheese in a bowl, set aside.

Whisk egg and flour together in a shallow pie plate until smooth.  Combine Parmesan, panko break crumbs, garlic powder, oregano, basil and pepper in a second shallow pie plate.  Pat chicken dry with paper towels.  Working with one cutlet at a time, dredge cutlet in the egg mixture, allowing excess to drip off.  Coat all sides in Parmesan mixture, pressing so crumbs adhere.  Transfer to a large plate and repeat with remaining cutlets.

Prepare a baking sheet by covering it in foil and spraying with food release or a light coating of olive oil.  Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat until very hot but not smoking.  Carefully place several cutlets in the skillet and fry until brown, about 1-2 minutes.  Carefully turn and brown the other side.  Remove cutlets to prepared baking sheet.  Brown remaining cutlets in a similar fashion.

Adjust oven rack 4 inches from broiler element and heat.  Sprinkle cheese mixture evenly over cutlets, covering as much as possible.  Broil until cheese is melted 2-3 minutes.  Watch during broiling to ensure they do not become overly browned.  Transfer to a serving platter or top a portion of prepared pasta with a serving of chicken.  Top each cutlet with two tablespoons of sauce.  Sprinkle with basil and Parmesan cheese and serve.