Early in our relationship I took Amy to a restaurant that I really like. It is this tiny place in what is a not very good neighborhood of St Louis. The place is called Fritanga. It is a Nicaraguan restaurant, and they serve some of the most fantastic food I have ever eaten. It is not a fancy place, and you don’t ever want to go if you are in a hurry. On a busy night all of the tables will be full of people eating, drinking and talking, enjoying the food and relaxed atmosphere as well as the company of the others at their table.
Once I went gluten-free I knew that there would be some sacrifices that I would have to make when dining out. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Fritanga is almost entirely gluten-free!!
Amy likes the pollo al achiote, and I like the lomo de cerdo asado. The two dishes are actually pretty similar, either chicken or pork, marinated in achiote or annatto paste. Annatto seeds are ground with various spices such as cumin, and oregano. It is a very tasty combination, but not hot. I was at Global foods the other day and ran across a container of achiote paste. After seeing how easy it was to use the achiote when I made my chili at work I decided I would try my hand at the pollo al achiote from Fritanga.
The first step for this dish is to marinate the chicken. Pork loin could also be used. The lomo de cerdo asado that I frequently eat there is a thick pork loin chop that is marinated in achiote and grilled. To make the marinade combine a tablespoon of canola oil, and a tablespoon of the achiote paste. This stuff goes a long way, and it will impart a fantastic color and very nice flavor to the chicken.
Combine the achiote and your chicken and allow it to sit for several hours in the fridge. You could grill or bake the chicken. In this case I decided to just bake it.
At Fritanga this would be served with gallo pinto or black beans and rice, with a side of a really tasty slaw, and plantains. The Plantains are served one of several ways. They give you a choice of either chips, tostones or maduros. Any of those are fantastic choices. I personally really like tostones! Unfortunately, I didn’t think to pick up any plantains. When you have them what you do with them depends on how ripe they are. You can make chips when they are green, tostones when they are yellow, and maduros when they are pretty well black.
Since I am a cook, and we are open for Thanksgiving, I work. After, I go to my mom’s for dinner. We have a pretty basic Thanksgiving dinner. Of course I am also on a gluten-free diet, which complicates things a bit. Amy’s family has Thanksgiving dinner while I am at work, and she comes to our dinner late. It works out well enough. I don’t get to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner of my own, but I try to cook something that feels nice and fall-like. This year I decided to take a shot at gluten-free butternut squash ravioli, and a sage beurre blanc. This was the second time I have made pasta, and the first time gluten-free.
The first thing I did was start with the filling for my ravioli.
1 small butternut squash cut into cubes, and seeded
2 thin slices of guanciale(I used less than a slice of bacon. Use pancetta if you don’t have guanciale.) finely diced (optional)
1/2 small onion, finely dice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 TBSP herbes de provence
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup shredded asiago cheese
Start with the squash. Cut off the top and the bottom, then cut the neck off. Cut the neck into one inch cubes, and quarter the bottom, seed it, and cut into one inch cubes. Toss with a little oil, and salt and pepper, and roast it until it is softened and brown. Let it cool for a few minutes, and pull the skins off. This will be easy.Next I heated a skillet, and added a little oil, and then the guanciale to render it. Once it had started to brown a bit I added the garlic and onion. Once the onion had become a bit transparent I added the squash, and herbes de provence, and a little bit of salt. Next I transfered everything to my food processor, and pureed it in batches. I added part of the asiago with each batch. Once I was done I put this in the fridge to cool before I filled the ravioli. If you want to make this vegetarian the only change you would have to make is skip the guanciale, and just saute the onions and garlic in a little oil.
Pasta is a fairly simple thing. With wheat flour it can be as simple as flour, eggs and salt. The time I made lasagna noodles by hand that is what I did. With gluten-free flours it is a bit more involved, but only because you need xanthan gum! I used the four flour bean mix from the Gluten-Free Gourmet by Bette Hagman, but I would imagine any good flour blend would work well. This is a variation of her bean pasta recipe. It worked well. In the case of gluten-free pasta we have an advantage. We don’t have to spend a long time kneading to develop gluten, and the dough doesn’t have to rest before it can be worked, and we also don’t have to worry about overworking the gluten.
1 cup flour
2 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 TBSP oil
2 large eggs
That is all it takes. Combine the dry ingredients, whisk the eggs and oil together, and combine, and mix until a ball forms. I had to add a little water to make it all come together, but it was maybe a tablespoon. Kneed for a few minutes on a counter dusted with cornstarch, or you can do what I did. I worked on a piece of parchment, and then rolled it out between a second piece. This allowed me to cut down on the mess in my small kitchen! If you have a pasta maker you could use that, a rolling pin would work well, and if all else fails, improvise! An empty wine bottle would work just fine. I rolled my dough out as thin as I thought I needed it. (I was a little off! Oops, next time I do this they will be a bit thinner!)Add a small amount of filling to the center of the ravioli. In the picture above I have the right amount of filling. When you are ready to top the ravioli with the top dough a small amount of watter along the edge will help them stick together. Pinch the edges together, and set aside. Make sure you have a pot of boiling, salted water ready.
Now, we need to make the sauce. Beurre blanc is literally white butter. It is a simple sauce, but brings a lot of flavor! Start with white wine, and cider vinegar, in equal amounts. I started with 1/2 cup total, and a tablespoon of finely diced onion (shallots would be more traditional, but this worked fine.) and a little fresh ground pepper. Reduce the liquid au sec, add a half dozen torn up leaves of fresh sage, and then whisk in room temperature butter. I used a bit less butter than would traditionally be used. I used a quarter pound of butter, to make a lighter sauce rather than the half pound that should have been used in a traditional beurre blanc. It was still a nice sauce, and tasted great. While you are working on the sauce, boil your pasta for about 7 minutes, and serve hot, topped with the sage beurre blanc! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Obviously I’m going to be writing about soup, again. Remember what I said last time about leftovers? Well, this one is exactly what you need to get rid of all those random bits of leftover veggies. Seriously, it almost makes no difference what it is. What I’m talking about is minestrone. Its a classic Italian soup. Minestrone means big soup, and it is certainly big on flavor. There is no standard recipe, and varies from family to family. Traditionally, it will have beans, but they are not a requirement. Today I made a lot of minestrone. This soup can very easily be made vegetarian or even vegan, depending on what you have around the house, and what you want to put in. This is a vegetable soup, but it doesn’t have to be a vegetarian soup. Through history meat wasn’t eaten as much as it is now, but it was eaten, and probably by almost everyone. In a soup like this pancetta is used to flavor the soup, but it is a minor component in the actual ingredients of the soup. If you don’t eat meat, leave it out.
2 TBSP olive oil
1/4 inch thick slice pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, medium dice
1 carrot medium dice
1 stick of celery, medium dice
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 TBSP crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper
1 can of diced tomatoes
1 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
1 TBSP herbes de provence
Now, once you get to this point you’ll want to just eat it, but don’t! This is kind of the base of the soup, so stick with it!
So, what do you have in the fridge?
Green beans? Corn? Gluten-free pasta? Kohlrabi? Broccoli? Cauliflower? Kale? Spinach? Zucchini? Squash? A can of canellini beans?
You’re also going to need some chicken stock or vegetable stock.
Ok, so lets get started. You have everything cut up? In a large pot, heat your oil, and then add the pancetta if you’re using it. With the pancetta you just want to render it over medium heat, until it is browned but not crisp. Next, add the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Add a little salt, and sweat this over medium heat until the onions have started to turn clear.
Add the tomatoes, mix them in, and add the wine, and herbs. Add the stock, bring it up to a boil, and then depending on what veggies you have to put in the soup start adding them. You’ll want to make sure that you add things that will take longest to cook earliest. As you simmer the soup add things, keeping in mind how long they will take to cook. The last thing I would add would be something like beans or pasta. Beans and pasta taste great, but they tend to soak up liquid, and swell up. They can very easily take over a pot of soup so add way less than you think you should!
That is really all it takes to make great minestrone. No recipe at all, just go, and cook it. Now, for the funny part… I actually adapted this from a cookbook! Henry Hill wrote a cookbook based on his life, and its called the Wiseguy’s Cookbook. If you are a fan of Italian food, as well as the movie Goodfellas you’ll want to get a copy of this book. There are lots of recipes, and its got some pretty interesting stories as well. Not all of them are gluten-free, but a lot of them can be made gluten-free with a little playing around.
As far as my food preferences go I tend to like spicy food, although not all the time. One of my favorite things before going gluten-free was to go get Chinese at one of several local carry-out places. One of my go to dishes was General T’so’s chicken, spicy, and sweet is one of the flavor combinations that I really dig. As we know, Chinese food is generally off limits due to soy sauce. Needless to say, I was bummed. PF Chang’s and its sister Pei Wei have made our lives a little easier as far as Chinese carry-out. After trying the Spicy chicken at Pei Wei I decided I had found a suitable replacement for General T’so! Not quite the same, but it will do. After a few trips I recently realized that not only did I like it, but I was pretty sure I could come up with my own version for a lot less money, and cut out the trip.
This is going to be a bit of a multi-step thing, but they are easy. First thing you need to do is make your sauce. For most cuisines there are sort of base flavors that are commonly used. If you look at a lot of recipes of French dishes you will spot mirepoix which is simply 2 parts onion diced, and then one part each of celery and carrots. This becomes the trinity in cajun cooking be replacing the carrots with green peppers. Lemongrass and galangal are common in Thai dishes, and in Chinese garlic and ginger. I took the garlic and ginger as a base flavor, and built my sauce from there. Here’s what I came up with:
1 1/4 cup orange juice + lime juice to bring the total to 1 1/3 cup
1 TBSP sambal
1 TBSP honey
1 clove ginger crushed
1 quarter inch thick slice of ginger root
Place everything in a pot, and bring it up to a boil. Then take 1 TBSP of corn starch, and combine with enough orange juice to make a slurry. With the pot still boiling add the slurry while whisking. You don’t want clumps so, be sure you are mixing it while you pour. Remove it from the heat, and cool. Keep this in the fridge till you are ready to finish the dish. Really, that was it!
The next thing I did was get all of the other ingredients prepped. I had four chicken breasts, because I wanted leftovers for lunch for the next few days at work. I also had some broccoli, carrot, and yellow bell pepper. The chicken was cut into bite sized cubes, the broccoli I cut into florets, and the yellow pepper and carrot I sliced thinly.
From here this dish came together pretty much like my last stir-fry chicken post. Start with the chicken, and sauté until cooked nearly through. Then add the veggies, and cook until they are tender. Add the sauce to the pan, and stir to combine, and coat everything. Serve over rice, and enjoy! If you are looking for a vegetarian dish, substitute tofu for the chicken, but remember to get the firmest you can otherwise it will break up while you try to sauté it.
A little bit of analysis: Dinner was very tasty, but… not quite right. It was fairly mild, and not quite sweet enough. It was also not quite thick enough. I still have about half the sauce left, and I think my next step will be to add a bit more honey, sambal, and thicken the sauce a little bit more. It was fun to take a shot at reverse engineering a recipe from only tasting eating it. I’m on the right path, so I’ll keep going a little further. This was a little bit of a challenge just due to the fact that there is a fair amount going on in the sauce.
I hope that my experiment inspires you to see what you can do in the kitchen. All it takes is paying attention to what you are eating, and taking a shot at replicating what you taste. Remember that there is more to what you eat than just the taste. There is flavor, scent, and texture. See how close you can get!
If there is anything you would like me to take a shot at reply here, and I’ll see what I can do. I’d love to hear from you guys!
Today I wanted to write a little bit about lentils. People have been eating them for a long time, and there is a very good reason. They are very nutritious. However, most Americans don’t eat them. I am not really sure why that is though. It seems that this is one of the secrets that vegetarians have been keeping to themselves! Lentils are high in protein and fiber, and also have a great flavor. The two biggest reasons I don’t understand why Americans don’t eat lentils are that they are fast cooking, and also that they are CHEAP!
Last night I decided that I was going to make some dinner, and rather than our usual rice or potatoes, I’d make some lentils. I also wanted to add some fennel to give a nice counterpoint to the earthy flavor of the lentils. We were going to have chicken, and asparagus as well.
Start the lentils first, and pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lentils don’t need soaking, unlike other legumes. You really should sort through them for rocks, and other foreign materials. Then rinse them. Any that float, just pitch them. They are too dry to really cook well. Pour off the water, and cover them by about an inch or so with water. Do not salt them. That will make them less tender. Bring them up to a boil, and then turn the heat down to a simmer. They will need to cook for 30-40 minutes, depending on how tender you like them. Then season them with salt and pepper.
While the lentils are cooking, I julienned half a bulb of fennel, and then placed it in a pot with about a cup of orange juice and a 1/4 cup of bourbon. Bring this up to a boil, and allow the liquid to reduce to a syrup.
The chicken I seasoned with salt and pepper and herbes de provence, and baked for about 15 minutes.
Once everything was just about done I cut the ends off some asparagus, and put them in a skillet with some melted butter and salt and pepper, and lightly sauted them, until they were just tender.
The fennel I used as a garnish on the chicken, and the reduced liquid I poured over the lentils, although there wasn’t a lot of it left. I turned out very nicely, and the sweetness of the fennel balanced the earthy lentils very nicely. It was certainly nice to have something a little different too.
Legend has it that the folds in the French chef’s touque represent ways to cook an egg. Whether or not this is true, is not really the point. The truth is that the egg is one of the most perfect foods. It contains proteins, fat, and an emulsifier called lecithin. Eggs are used in almost any meal, and in any course. The important thing, for right now anyway, is that they taste great! Like most people I know, I enjoy breakfast food pretty much without regard for the time of day. Today for example I decided that I didn’t really feel like dealing with anything overly complicated for dinner, but I also wanted something that would taste great. I decided to make a frittata. A frittata is essentially where I quiche and omelet intersect. So, it is baked like a quiche, but has no crust. These two factors make it ideal for a quick and easy meal.
I was making dinner for two since Amy would be over. It was really a pretty simple meal, everything would be in the frittata! I decided to go with bacon, caramelized onions, and Jarlsberg cheese. I put three pieces of bacon in the oven to cook, because I really didn’t feel like dealing with the mess. Then, I julienned half of an onion. I put the onion in a skillet over low heat to caramelize it. The trick with this is not to mess with it. You have to leave the onion alone long enough to caramelize, and have the heat low so that it doesn’t burn.
Once the onions were caramelized, and the bacon was cooked I chopped the bacon into small pieces, scrambled four eggs, and grated the Jarlsberg. That is it, prep is finished.
Assembling the frittata. From the beginning until it goes into the oven!
First heat a small amount of oil in the skillet, add the eggs, and treat them like you are going to scramble them, as they start to set, mix in the filling ingredients. I added the cheese last, and once everything was incorporated put it straight into the oven. You need to do this fast so that you don’t end up with scrambled eggs though.
I started with the burner down a little low so it took a minute to get going, but once it went into the oven at 375F it only took about 10 minutes.
This was a fantastic dinner, and could have very easily been made into a vegetarian meal. Just like with an omelet there are almost no limits as far as what you could have in your frittata. Enjoy breakfast for supper! I know I do!
As I continue in my quest to keep myself entertained, and fed I ran across an idea that was given to me years ago by a friend who was in culinary school at the time. I had a duck, and no idea what to do with it. She recommended tea smoking it. I made duck a’la orange instead. Today I only had chicken, but I had tea, so I made tea smoked chicken.
First thing, I wanted to marinade the chicken to keep some moisture. I put the chicken in a vacuum bag with some San-J Polynesian glaze. Next time, I might try something else, but this was pretty tasty.
Next, I got my tea mixture together. I took 6 tea bags, a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar, 1/4 cup of uncooked rice, and one star anise, and combined that in a cup. The really important thing I did was to line my skillet with a double layer of aluminum foil. The tea went in the center of the pan. I also took the rubber feet and the plastic handle off my steamer basket. I sprayed that with non-stick spray, and placed it in the pan. The chicken went on the steamer basket. Then obviously, put the lid on, tightly!
The only thing left was to put the chicken on the stove. (In hind-sight, 20-20, you know outside on my Coleman Stove would maybe have been a better idea.) I opened my back door, and turned on the fan to blow as much smoke out as possible. It didn’t smoke a lot, but my apartment does smell a little smoky now. After about 12 minutes on high, I pulled the lid off and checked. The chicken was done, and nice and juicy, and had a really nice mahogany color. I served it with some rice, and sautéed carrots and snow peas.
Next time I will do a few things differently, but it was a tasty experiment. Tons of flavor, and pretty quick. I know, I know, why was I making a smoker on my stove? Three layers of foil next time. I’m also thinking that cutting the chicken into cubes will speed things up. The smokiness was a bit intense, and less time in the smoke would take the edge off of that.