Archive for November, 2011

A Chicken in Every Pot

A roasted whole chicken is a busy cook’s best most delicious friend.  I say that not because it’s super fast or extremely easy (it is neither), but because if  you cook it on Sunday, you can nibble on it the rest of the week, or with a little more effort, make a variety of meals from it for the rest of the week.  Stay tuned for posts giving suggestions for meals making use of the roast chicken.

A roast chicken is also the ultimate test of a cook’s skill. Making a simple, but kick-ass juicy roast chicken is a real challenge.  To me it is all about what happens before it hits the oven.  By that, I mean brining – wet or dry.

The term brining refers to the process of soaking meat (typically poultry or pork) in a salt solution for a few hours or days.  The way that it works is that the salt tenderizes the meat by breaking down the structure of the muscle of the meat resulting in the meat absorbing water from the brine thereby preventing the bird from drying out in the oven.  If additional spices have been added to the brine, the meat will also be infused with the flavor of the spices.  The term dry brining refers to the process of covering the meat with a dry salt rub.  The way that it works is that the salt draws a little moisture from the bird while simultaneously opening the bird’s pores.  The moisture and the salt mix and work their way back into the bird’s muscles thereby seasoning the bird throughout through osmosis over the course of a few hours or days.  If spices are added to the salt, the spices will also infuse the meat with the flavor of the spices.  The term “dry brining” is somewhat of a misnomer since by definition a “brine” is a liquid salt solution.  As such, dry brining is not really brining at all – it is curing.

Over the years, I have made a lot of chickens and you can get really elaborate with how you prepare  your brines.  For example, you can get creative with spices or even sub in cider or buttermilk to replace the water.  I used to be a devoted experimental briner, but within the last year, I’ve become a pretty big fan of dry brining since the process is far less cumbersome.  I’m still experimenting with dry rub recipes so I’ll post more on that in the future.

For now, here are examples of recipes for both wet and dry brined chickens.  Total time from start to finish might seem a little long, but most of it is passive time when you can get on with the rest of your life.  That’s particularly true if you go the dry brined route.  Either way, these recipes favor Sunday cooking with week-night eating. Read the rest of this entry »

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Home-Cooked vs. Take-Out

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who doesn’t understand why anyone would take what’s left of their precious little free time to cook their own food when you can get any type of cuisine delivered right to your door or desk in under 40 minutes with no clean-up after.  For the person who views cooking as a chore to be avoided at all costs and who has a lot of discretionary income, there is probably no counter-argument that will sway such a person.  For a person with less of an aversion to the kitchen, I offer four points to consider when weighing the value of cooking your own food against ordering take-out:

1.  Ingredients – you control them.  Sugar, fat, unrecognizable mystery sauce – you can control  or eliminate all that.

2. Quality – because you control the amount and quality of the ingredients, you control the quality of the finished product.

3. Portions – you control whether you eat a pound of pasta or a normal serving size.  I know that, theoretically, you always have the ability to control your portion size by simply putting the fork down, but that takes a lot of self-control.  We’ve all done it – eaten 3/4 of a plate of food that was already 2x more food than we really needed, but we kept going past the point of comfort for the simple reason that the food was there.  Check out Brian Wansink‘s book, “Mindless Eating:  Why We Eat More Than We Think” for some fascinating and funny insight on that point.  I personally find it a lot easier to control how much I eat before I put it on the plate, than after it’s on the plate.  Take-out portions are always too big and too hard to walk away from.

4.  Costs –  on a cost per serving basis, the monetary costs of cooking for yourself will often be equal to or less than the costs of ordering the same food in for delivery.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against take-out in all cases, but against take-out as the default method of eating.  Take-out definitely has its benefits – cuisines that might be beyond your cooking skills to duplicate (that’s Indian food for me) and it eliminates the time costs of your own labor.  The last benefit is pretty powerful, and if you’re using that free time to do things that make you happy and enhance your life, then by all means order in every day.  However, if you’re just freeing up more TV time, why not spend some of that time cooking for yourself?  If your apartment is as small as mine, you can cook for yourself and watch TV so it’s a win-win.

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Easy “Fool-Proof” Vegetable Soup

This is one of the first soups that I ever learned to make. Over the years, I have tweaked it to the point that I don’t really remember the original recipe.  This soup is my stand-by.  Whenever I know that I’m going to have a week full of long hours, I make this soup on Sunday.  Then all I have to do is microwave the soup, toast some bread, and I’ve got a meal in under 10 minutes that is not too heavy to eat late at night.

Add this to your repertoire (or use it to start your repertoire, whichever may be the case), as it is simple to prepare, delicious to eat and good for you too.  Most importantly, you get a lot of bang for your buck because it makes about 6 servings for a total cost of less than $15 – even at Whole Foods type pricing.

I say it is fool-proof because you really can’t mess it up. If you can chop some vegetables, open a can, and turn on the stove without chopping off a digit or lighting yourself on fire, you can make this soup.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Quick Flavor Boosters to Keep on Hand

With these basic herbs, spices and oils on hand, I have found that when both time and creativity are lacking, I can still come up with something flavorful to eat.  These are all easy to find in any grocery or liquor store and are inexpensive. Read the rest of this entry »

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Fish: the ultimate quick fix

Let me say this:  I LOVE fish!  Trout, Salmon, Catfish, Flounder, Cod, you name it, I’m probably a fan (with the exception of Sardines which are just gross and Tilapia which are boring).  So, how can you incorporate fish into a busy work week?

Fish stays fresh 2 to 3 days max in the refrigerator and doesn’t easily lend itself to big casserole type dishes so it can be a little difficult to integrate fish into your week without some planning.  That said, fish is one of the easiest healthy main courses that you can prepare after a long day.  I am very fortunate in that I have easy access to a large supermarket and a farmer’s market so I often have fish 2-3 times a week.  If getting to the grocery store is not as convenient for you, try to get in the habit of buying fish on Sunday so that you know that you have options for the next two days.

Go from raw fish to delicious dinner in about 20 minutes with these two basic recipes.

Variation 1: (super easy)

Serves 1 (or two very light eaters)

Ingredients:

Qty. Item
1/4 to 1/2 Lb Fillet of fresh fish (salmon or catfish work particularly well for this)
1 dash Infused olive oil (citrus infusions work beautifully here)
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 tsp Pepper
1 very small pat of butter (optional)

Instructions:

  1.  Pre-heat oven to Broil.
  2. Rinse fish with cold water and pat dry.
  3. Place on a broil safe tray. Pour oil over the fish.  Then season the fish with salt and pepper. Place butter on top, if using.  Note:  The fish should be well covered with the oil, but not so much so that the oil pools on the tray.  If there is a lot of excess oil on the tray, it will splatter and make a smoky mess of your oven and kitchen.
  4. Broil for 6-8 minutes depending on thickness of the fillet and your preferences for doneness.

Variation 2: (A little more complex)

Serves 1 (or 2 very light eaters)

Ingredients:

Qty Item
1/4 to 1/2 Lb Fillet of fresh fish (salmon or catfish work well)
1 dash Dry Vermouth (approximately a cap full)
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 tsp Pepper
3 small knobs butter (optional)
2 sprigs Fresh Rosemary
4 sprigs Fresh Thyme

Instructions:

  1.  Pre-heat oven to 350.
  2. Rinse fish with cold water and pat dry.
  3. Place fish on a sheet of aluminum foil that is big enough to wrap around the fish to create a little pocket wrap.
  4. Pour the Vermouth over the fish.  Sprinkle the fish with the salt and pepper. Dab on the butter, if using.  Then place the Rosemary and Thyme on top of the fish.
  5. Wrap the fish up and roast on the middle rack in the oven for about 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillet and your preferences for doneness.
  6. Spoon a little of the cooking liquid over the fish and serve.

* Note on the skin: There’s two ways to remove the skin for this dish. You can remove the skin from the fish after Step 2, or you can lift the flesh off the skin once the fish is cooked.  The second approach is a bit easier since the skin usually sticks a bit to the foil.

Round out the meal with a fresh salad and/or a seasonal vegetable such as green beans (that can be steamed while the fish is roasting or broiling.)

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