Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Moveable Feast

By the time you read this, we should be deep into the Sierras on a long-planned 41-mile hike. One of my favorite parts of planning these trips is working out the logistics of the food. It's not that the food is more important than the other aspects: the location, the quiet of the lakes, the wildlife we see - it's just that the food is what's most in my control and what comes with the most constraints.

For backpacking, you definitely want to make sure you have enough to keep you feeling fueled and comfortable. But it can't be too heavy, for obvious reasons, or too bulky. Even with these constraints, I've found that many of our regular home recipes can be adapted for the trail.

For this trip, which is 5 days and 4 nights, we'd set a weight budget of 20 pounds: 1 pound per person per day. Here's what we have packed up:

  • Potato Pancakes (twice because I really like them..)
  • Strawberry coffee cake
  • Cheddar biscuits & bacon
  • (and one other breakfast that doesn't count since we'll eat it at the car before starting off)


  • BLTs - yes with real L and T (twice because I really really like them)
  • Salame and cheese sandwiches (twice because we have a lot of salame..)
  • Hummus & tabouleh
  • Sukiyaki
  • Couscous with chicken, lemon and olives
  • Pizza with salame, tomatoes, fennel, mushrooms, peppers and onions
  • Tamale pie
Snacks & misc:
  • Gatorade - 5 quarts' worth
  • Trail mix - 2 1/2 pounds
  • Jelly bellys
  • Salty snacks: sourdough cheese crackers & also punjabi mix
  • Fruit leather
  • Torrone - gotta have treats
  • Chocolate covered fruit - and more treats
  • 2 airplane bottles of bourbon - and even more treats!
  • 10 Clif Bars/Luna Bars
  • Mayo, mustard, ketchup packets
  • Instant ginger drink

    All that weighs in at 12 pounds before adding in the bread and olives. I'm pretty proud of being able to put in that much variety, treats and snacks in so little weight. Of course that's not going to be what I think when I have to carry it...
Throughout the year we keep our eyes out for products that might support backpacking. I especially like the various international markets close to home for dried mixes and surprises: hummus mix, tabouleh mix, the ginger drink, tiny pastas that cook quickly. The best finds from a regular store are shelf-stable bacon (4-6 servings in under 3 oz!) and potato pancake mix.

I am so looking forward to this trip - it's our longest to date. Going 4 days/3 nights is one thing, 5 days/4 nights is quite another. Will share some of our experiences when we're back!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Eggplant Canneloni with Tomato Sauce

Pasta has become somewhat of a Sunday tradition for us; most weekends we prepare a batch of pasta dough and turn it into spaghetti, fettucine, lasagna, cannelloni, tortelloni, ravioli or some other sort of shape. This weekend we wanted to use a large globe eggplant (freshly procured from the Farmers’ Market), and our initial thought was a Joyce Goldstein recipe for Ravioli alla Melanzane. However, it seemed that we would end up with way too much filling for ravioli, hence the change of direction towards cannelloni. As with our other culinary endeavors, we each have a specific role to play: he makes the pasta while she assembles the cannelloni. Here’s what we ended up doing. The recipe makes about 4 small or 3 larger servings of cannelloni, with leftover pasta and tomato sauce that can be used another time.

follow the link for a detailed description of making the pasta
1 1/3 cups flour
2 large eggs

1 large eggplant
1 large clove of garlic
1/4 cup grated asiago cheese
Dash of cream (optional)
Salt and pepper

1 tbsp olive oil
½ large red onion
1 large tomato, chopped
1 500g package of passata
~1 tbsp capers
~2 tbsp basil, cut into chiffonade (plus more to garnish)
Red chili pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Cheese (any kind) for topping/garnish

Start by making the pasta: mix the flour and eggs in a food processor until they come together into a single mass, about 30-40 sec. Finish kneading by hand for another 30 sec or so. The final dough should be smooth, silky and not sticky - it’s better to start with a little less flour and then add more if the dough is too wet initially. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

For the eggplant filling, prick the eggplant all over with a fork and roast in a 450 ºF oven for 30-40 minutes until soft. Wrap the garlic in aluminum foil and roast for 10-15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh out from the eggplant skin and drain in a colander for about 30 minutes. Chop the eggplant and garlic into small, soft pieces, mix well with the grated cheese and season to taste. If desired, a little cream can be added at this stage. Leave to cool.

Meanwhile, prepare the tomato sauce. Finely chop the onion and fry gently in the oil over medium heat until soft but not brown. Add the chopped tomato and the passata; bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for ~30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a pinch of red chili pepper flakes. Towards the end of cooking time, add the capers and basil.

Preheat the oven to 375 ºF and set a wide saucepan of water to boil. Oil a 9 x 13” dish with cooking spray. To assemble the cannelloni, divide the dough into 4 and roll out each piece into a long, thin sheet using a pasta maker; keep the other balls covered with plastic wrap while you work. Cut each sheet into squares (about 5” long/wide).

Immerse the squares individually in the pan of boiling water until the float to the top, about 30 sec each. Drain the squares as they are ready, spoon a few tbsp of eggplant filling across the width of the pasta square, roll up into a tube and place in the 9 x 13” dish. Continue until all the filling is used up; as noted above, there will be leftover pasta which can be re-rolled into your favorite shape, ready for another meal.

Pour the tomato sauce over the top of the cannelloni and top with basil and a few slices of cheese. Bake for 20-30 minutes until heated through. Garnish with more basil and serve.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Daring Do!

We joined the Daring Cooks as a way to challenge ourselves and get out of our routine. However, when we signed up a little too late to participate in the molecular food challenge, which involved skate and bananas with dehydrated caper powder and other items, I think we both felt we'd dodged a bullet. So much for daring. Then this month's challenge was posted and my initial reaction was 'paella, well that's not scary at all!'. Some people (aka me) are just never satisfied... Well, actually, it all turned out to be quite fun. Just because we're not scared of paella, doesn't mean that we actually ever make it.

And I should add that Olga, the host of this challenge insists it's not paella. It's Rice with Cuttlefish, Artichokes and Mushrooms. Or in our case Rice with Chicken, Artichokes and Mushrooms since one of us won't eat fish, cuttle- or other-wise.

Reading the reactions from other Daring Cooks also made me so grateful to live in California where artichokes are plentiful and affordable and we could have got cuttlefish if we'd wanted to. I love having the fresh produce and the opportunities. We even picked up Spanish rice from Valencia and a lovely Basque wine to go with it all from the shops a short walk from home.
The recipe also included an allioli made by hand in a mortar and pestle. We started with the allioli (traditional recipe): this stuff is amazingly pungent and potent, a little goes a long way! The color seems to be very dependent on the water content: after continually adding olive oil it was a yellow-green color, but when we added back a little water and/or lemon juice it became significantly lighter in color.

Next up was the sofregit: we started with the onions, garlic and green pepper and then added the tomato. This was be the basis for one of our meals later in the week as well as the challenge recipe...
We sautéed the mushrooms together with the artichokes, then transferred them to our cooking/serving dish. Next we added the rice and saffron; the suggested cooking time was perfect to yield rice that was fully cooked but not mushy and sticky.
We grilled the chicken separately from the paella and served it skewered on a branch of oregano from the garden. Just a little of the allioli was enough to impart a strong flavor to the rice! Here is our finished dish:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Summer Dinner in Fog-town

Ah, summer in San Francisco: while the rest of America basks in sunshine and warmth, we reach for our sweaters and watch the cold, foggy drizzle blow by. And, at mealtime our thoughts turn not to salads but to warming comfort food – like chicken pot pie. So often, however, chicken pot pie can be disappointing: mushy vegetables, bland flavors a sauce that’s either too gooey or too runny and the crust seems to just sit there like a stranger on a bus that doesn't want to get involved. We shared an idea of what chicken pot pie could be, then set out the other night to see if we could accomplish it. Honestly, I think we were both stunned by our success.

Chicken Pot Pie with a Biscuit Crust

Ingredients (serves 3)

1 medium non-starchy potato (eg Red Bliss or Yukon Gold)
1 carrot
½ onion
1 stick celery
4 brown mushrooms
Handful of peas (fresh or frozen; you could also substitute snow peas or green beans)
3 slices pancetta or bacon, diced
1 chicken breast, cut into ~ ¾ inch chunks
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp flour
1½ cups of chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Pinch dried thyme
Olive oil

For the biscuit crust

1½ c plain flour
½ tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/3 c shortening
½ c milk

Preheat the oven to 400F, then start by frying the pancetta/bacon; if it’s very lean you may want to add a little olive oil. When it’s starting to get brown around the edges, remove to a plate and add the chicken to the same pan; fry, stirring occasionally until brown on all sides. Remove the chicken to the plate with the bacon.

Cut the vegetables into ~ ½-inch chunks and quarter the mushrooms. Brown the vegetables in the remaining bacon fat/oil; first the carrot, onion, potato and celery; you may need a little more oil in the pan if they keep sticking, but try not to make it too oily. After 5 minutes add the mushroom and peas and continue to cook for 5 more minutes. The vegetables should still be a bit crunchy. Return the pancetta/bacon and chicken to the pan with the vegetables and mix thoroughly.

While the vegetables are cooking, make your veloute sauce (aka gravy). Melt the butter in a saucepan and mix in the flour until it forms a well-blended roux. Gradually add the chicken stock, stirring all the time: slow addition and thorough mixing are key to getting a smooth sauce. When all the stock is incorporated, add salt and pepper to taste along with a pinch of dried thyme. The sauce should be quite strongly seasoned since we didn’t add any seasoning to the meat or vegetables.
To assemble the biscuit crust, mix all the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) then blend in the shortening. Add the milk and stir until just combined. Turn the dough out to a floured board and knead two or three times, then press the dough out to about ½ inch thickness, in approximately the same shape as the top of your baking dish.

Put the meat and vegetables in your baking dish, then pour the veloute sauce over. Cover it all with the biscuit crust, trimming the sides as necessary to make it fit nicely. Poke a few holes in the crust to allow steam to escape, then bake for 20-25 minutes. The crust should be risen, flaky and nicely browned.
A perfect summer dish!

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cooking Basics: Boning a Chicken Breast

In our household, we have clearly assigned duties. I don't think there ever was any discussion about these assignments, they just sort of naturally happened. The monkey does most (read: all) of the chopping. And he takes out the trash. He makes the pasta, I assemble it into tortelloni or lasagne. One of my jobs is to bone the chicken breasts. Although either of us can acceptably accomplish any of these tasks, it seems like reversing the roles would risk upsetting the delicate balance of the universe. And we can't have that. Not on our watch..

Since several of my friends have indicated that they don't know how to bone a chicken breast, I thought it might be a good thing to share. Because I simply abhor waste and inefficiency of any sort, I find that buying a bone-in breast, then using the meat one night and the bones to make stock for another night satisfying in some way.

All you need is a sharp knife and a cutting board. And, of course, the chicken breast. It takes me less than a minute to do both halves of a whole breast - a lot less time than it is going to take to even read this post.

Here's the deal: - note, these instructions are written for a lefty - you might need to reverse them if you are right-handed.

Holding right half firmly, make an incision along the length of the breast just to the left of the breastbone. Continue to deepen this cut, pulling the meat away from the bone so that you can see what you're doing. until you reach the rib bones below.

Once you reach the ribs, angle your knife and slice parallel to these bones, continuing to gently lift the meat away to keep it clear. If that big tendon is visible on the underside, slice it off too. There's really no need to try to get every bit of meat off the bone, especially if you are going to save the bones for stock.

Now repeat for the other side if you bought a whole breast. Done! really simple.

One the meat and bone is separated, I add the bone to a gallon-sized ziploc bag and freeze it. When the bag is full, I make chicken stock:

  • heat the oven to 425 degrees
  • spread the bones, a carrot or two, an onion cut in quarters (leave the skin on!) and one or 2 celery stalks on a baking sheet. If the bones are frozen, I just put them on the try as a block, then periodically check on them and pry them apart as they bake.
  • once everything is browned, I then transfer to a stockpot and cover with water.
  • add a bayleaf, salt and peppercorns and simmer gently for an hour or two
  • strain into a bowl and store.

Depending on how you're using the stock, you might want it more or less concentrated. For risotto, stock should be pretty weak or it'll come out too strong-tasting on the end. For gravy, you'll want it relatively strong.