Friday, May 27, 2011

Picnic-Perfect Side Dish: Nutted Brown Rice

Just in time for Memorial Day weekend, I'm sharing one of my favorite, easily-portable sides that goes great with grilled chicken, and can double as a vegetarian-friendly entree for those who aren't eating meat. Best part? If you have leftovers, they're great with some Greek yogurt and stewed rhubarb (speaking from experience). Amazing!

Growing up, my family would always make a nutted wild rice with pecans, raisins, and mint. We would serve it aside a grilled breast of chicken for a picnic dinner, or bring it along to a grilling party — it goes so well with barbecued chicken. So, when it came time to come up with a grill-friendly side dish, I knew just where to go for inspiration.

Not everyone likes wild rice, so I swapped the slim, dark grains for short-grain brown rice. Cooking it with a bit of coconut oil gives it an irresistible creaminess. The addition of finely chopped scallions gives the rice a subtle kick, and the juicy grapes add more color and a sweet touch. The orange juice and zest adds another layer of complexity to the dish — I've found those I serve this to are often left wondering exactly what it is.

1 tablespoon coconut oil
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 1/2 cups short-grain brown rice
12 ounces red grapes, washed and halved
1 bunch scallions, whites and half of the greens finely sliced
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 cup walnuts, toasted

In a large saucepan, heat coconut and water over high heat until boiling. Add the brown rice, season with salt, cover, and simmer on low heat for 40 minutes, or until the rice is just cooked and water is gone. Turn off the heat and let the rice stand for 5 minutes.

While the rice cooks, combine the grapes, scallions, and orange zest and juice together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

When the rice is done, add to the scallion mixture. Combine and let it sit for 10 minutes as the rice cools. Check seasoning and top with walnuts.

Serves 6-8
Total time: 1 hour

Saturday, May 21, 2011


I'm off tomorrow bright and early for Charleston, S.C., so there hasn't been much cooking in my kitchen this weekend (other than the washing machine). But, stay tuned for some tidbits and trip images from my whirlwind trip down South.

Know what is also on my mind? Memorial Day weekend! It's next weekend, and for me, it's the official beginning of summer. Maybe no jam-making or blueberry pie baking just quite yet, but there will be sand between the toes and the smell of grill-smoke in the air.

Sounds awfully good to me.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Bill Ward's Brickpile

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cilantro Sauce for Steak

A couple of weeks ago, I had been broiling some flank steak for dinner. The first night you serve steak (especially grass-fed), all you need are a couple of slices of still-warm flank steak to satisfy. The second night, though, leftovers often need a little kick to add some extra brightness and pizzazz (especially when eating them cold, as I was). Luckily for me, I had a whole bunch of fresh cilantro from the market.

Ever since I had shared an Argentinian steak with chimichurri last year with a dear friend, I've had a craving for the same tender, juicy slices of steak topped with the slightly spicy, palate-cleansing, refreshing green sauce. While I have the recipe for that same exact dish, I didn't want to re-create that sauce when making something for my steak. I wanted to make something all my own.

Training for a half-marathon, I've been cognizant of my salt intake to ensure I replenish electrolytes. So, when cooking, I'll often opt to add some sodium to my cooking by using light white miso or Dr. Bragg's Liquid Aminos. Take a bag of cilantro, a little white miso, some roasted garlic cloves... and some olive oil and apple cider vinegar to balance it all out. Sounded like a delicious combination to me -- but would it work?

It did -- and it was so good.

Cilantro "Chimichurri"

1 bunch cilantro, leaves removed and stems discarded
2 tablespoons white miso
6-8 cloves fresh roasted garlic
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
Olive oil to taste/consistency

In a mini-prep, combine cilantro, miso, and garlic. Roughly blend. Add apple cider and blend. Add olive oil to consistency. Taste and season if necessary. Serve atop broiled flank steak.

Margarita Meets Violets - A New Favorite

Nothing screams warm weather happy hour more than an ice-cold margarita. It's one of my favorites, but this season, I've started to experiment with my version of the classic drink in an effort to find a new updated and unusual go-to combination. And lo be have it, I think I've found just the thing I've been looking for.

I started my research with the classic margarita -- made with 100% lime juice. Then, I went on to experiment with sweet and deep red blood orange juice. It made for a cocktail wonderful for easy sipping throughout the winter, but for spring, I wanted something more, well... flowery?

Then entered creme de violette. Four years ago, I discovered St-Germain, a delightfully sweet liqueur that is now one of my favorite go-tos for adding flavor and aroma to light-bodied white wines and proseccos. From the same family that makes St-Germain comes Creme Yvette, a retro violet-vanilla liqueur with a deep purple color. Sweet, slightly flowery, I thought it to be just the mixer for a margarita made with lemon juice to cut the sweetness. 

Made with the same technique as my classic margarita, this slightly-sweet, not too strong cocktail is just perfect for a cocktail hour beverage by the pool or a signature sipper to serve at your next soiree. 

1 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 part Creme Yvette or another creme de violette liqueur
1 part tequila
Ice, for shaking
Lemon, for garnish

In a shaker or glass measuring cup, combine liquids and ice. Shake well until cool and ice is half melted. Strain into martini glass (served up) or into lowball with the ice. 

Serves two.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Practicing Polenta, Try #1

 I don't know what it is about polenta that makes me like it so much. It started two years ago with the most incredible lamb dish at The Stone House's Pietra restaurant. Granted, I'm sure it had a lot of cream, butter, and rich cheese, but the splurge was worth it (especially when served over braised kale, and a topped with a meltingly-tender braised lamb shank and crisp semolina-coated onion rings).

Nowadays, I have to be careful with how much corn I eat (avoiding any corn that might be non-organic, as to avoid the inevitable tummyache), but there is always room for polenta, especially when its grown, milled, and packaged in Rhode Island.

I grew up spending my summers in Westport, Mass., where there is a wonderful brand of locally-milled cornmeal called Gray's Grist Mill. My dad would always use the cornmeal when making pancakes or waffles, to cut the flour and add some heft (and nutritive value) to the batter. Naturally, my love of Gray’s cornmeal led me to experiment with their product for making one of my favorite comfort foods: Polenta. 
While I typically make polenta with chicken stock for added flavor, I’ve started to experiment with using plain water and instead adding a variety of seasonings to jazz up the cornmeal — that is where this recipe has its roots. 

While the result wasn't anything like Pietra's, it was quite good. Armed with a fresh bag of Gray's cornmeal, I'm thinking about what's next up on my polenta experiment agenda. Maybe a polenta pizza, or something simple with goat cheese and lots of spring green vegetables and peas. Of course, creating a baked version of the addictive polenta fries Chef Matt serves up at Providence’s La Laiterie will have to happen, too.

Adapted from The Daily Meal

4 cups water or stock
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for mushrooms
1 bunch kale, leaves removed from stems and torn into bite-sized leaved
1/4 cup water
4 mushroom caps
2 tablespoons light white miso paste, thinned until a glaze with water
1 cup cornmeal, preferably Gray’s
8 ounces cheese, such as Gruyère

Preheat broiler to high.

Meanwhile, bring water, salt, and pepper to a boil in a large saucepan.
In a sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the kale and gently sauté until it begins to turn bright green. Season with salt and pepper and add 1/4 cup water. Turn heat to medium low and let it cook until tender, stirring often, about 10 minutes.

While the kale cooks, lay mushroom caps, gill-side up, on broiler tray. Brush with oil and miso paste. Broil for 5 minutes, then turn broiler to low and broil 5-8 minutes longer, until tender and juicy. Let the caps rest until cool enough to touch, and then cut each cap into bite-sized pieces.
Once the water comes to a boil, add the cornmeal in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until thick and creamy. Remove from heat and add cheese.

To serve, place about 3/4 cup polenta in each of the 4 bowls. Top each with greens and a chopped mushroom cap.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Best Cinco de Mayo Party Food: Simple Steak Tacos

Traditional Mexican food isn't rich, cheesy, and totally filling like the dishes you might typically find in a conventional Mexican restaurant. With a great emphasis on fresh produce, bright, clean flavors, and a variety of colors in each dish, I find real Mexican food to be surprisingly enjoyable.

In preparation for Cinco de Mayo, I've been revisiting some Mexican favorites. Start with an ice-cold blood orange margarita, then of course some spicy guacamole with chips and a fruit salsa. Round out the meal with a assemble-your-own taco bar. Arrange a variety of fillings and toppings, salsas, and garnishes, along with both flour and corn tortillas, and one or two proteins (I like flank steak or fish; chicken also works well). Then allow your guests to assemble their own meal.

To inspire you, I'm including my recipe for a simply broiled flank steak. I find that a properly cooked grass-fed flank steak, when seasoned well, needs little garnish other than some thinly sliced vegetables, a couple of slices of avocado, and a dollop of crema. And you don't need to have access to a grill to successfully make a juicy, medium-rare steak (without stinking or smoking up your small studio apartment).

When making a salad — or eating it on the run — isn’t an option, there are tacos. No, I’m not talking about the crispy, Tex-Mex interpretation. I’m talking about the perfectly warm and soft (and more authentically Mexican) flour or corn tortillas. Stuff it moderately, slather on some crema, wrap, and go. One is perfect for lunch, or two for dinner. And if you have leftovers, like I did, sliced steak freezes and defrosts beautifully -- just freeze the slices within two days of cooking and freeze for up to two weeks in a well-sealed glass container. Let the steak defrost in the refrigerator overnight (or on the counter for an hour or two).

Flank Steak Tacos

1 pound flank steak
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 avocado, thinly sliced
8 tortillas, preferably 6-inch corn, but any 6-8-inch corn or flour tortilla will work
2/3 cup Mexican crema or yogurt/sour cream thinned with a little cream, to taste
Freshly chopped cilantro, for garnish

Preheat broiler on high.

Season steak on both sides with salt and pepper. Once broiler is hot, place steak on broiler pan and cook for about 4 minutes, rotating halfway through. Flip steak and broil about 4 minutes longer for medium rare. Continue to cook if you like it more well done. Remove the steak and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before thinly slicing against the grain.

Meanwhile, place vegetables all on a platter and warm the tortillas. Set up a station where guests can assemble their own tacos, starting with a tortilla. Add the steak, vegetables, avocado, crema, and cilantro.

Wrap (roll!) and serve.

Serves 4
Total time: 30 minutes

Basil Pesto: Summer in a Jar

What a weekend! From a hard, quick run after work Friday to watching the Royal Wedding that night with a dear friend, to a long afternoon walk around Brooklyn today, it's been a great weekend for being outside, enjoying the spring flowers -- and thinking about summer.

In celebration of the sun and (finally) dry weather, I'm sharing a couple of my secrets to putting together simple yet delicious appetizers. I'll kick it off with my menu from Friday. Now, the evening was meant to be super casual and low-key -- nibbles and cocktails for two girls. With a bottle of bubbly, we munched on carrot sticks and creamy hummus and olive oil flatbread thins served with cream cheese and hot pepper jelly from Foster's Market -- one of my favorite combinations. As a surprise, my friend also brought over little phyllo triangles filled with a nutty mushroom risotto. So good. So simple. For a small gathering, don't sweat the apps. Serve two, one with veggies, both with a bit of protein (and a whole lot of flavor). For last-minute entertaining, these kinds of snacks are your friend.

Another thing I love to rely on when entertaining is fresh pesto. Nothing screams summer more to me than a pesto made with fresh basil.

In the summer, I always have a jar in the fridge, made homemade nearly weekly. As I don't (yet) have a basil plant, I've been relying on other herbs to make pestos -- cilantro or parsley. I love pesto on toasts with ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes, a sandwich with basil, mozzarella, and fresh tomatoes. Pesto tossed with whole-wheat pasta. Pesto spread on tortillas then garnished with pine nuts, raisins, and Parmigiano and baked. It's also really good in a ham and Swiss sandwich. So simple, so good.

What's your favorite way to serve fresh pesto?

Basil Pesto

4 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, cut into slices
1/3 cup pine nuts (also known as pignoli nuts)
About 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

In a food processor, chop the basil leaves until in about ¼-inch pieces. Add the cheese, pine nuts, and a large pinch of salt. Pulse again until all the nuts and cheese are ground well. With the processor running, add the olive oil until the pesto is the consistency you prefer. I like a thick pesto for spreading on sandwiches and toast, but I’ll add more oil to thin the pesto out for tossing with pasta. Season to taste.

Makes about 2 cups
Prep time: 10 minutes