Make Something New Every Day

This blog is inspired by all those who love to cook, whether experienced or not, and who continue to experiment with new ideas & ingredients, and best of all, share their passion with others.

The first entries are recipes prepared by the students of Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland, CA. Fifteen students with varying cooking experience participated in my weekly workshop (via Tutorpedia), and successfully prepared various meals, snacks, and baked goods as part of an after-school program.

Along with the recipes from that class, I will continue to add new seasonal items, spanning every genre of the culinary world, as well as a helpful list of links to recipes, instructional videos, and places to shop and volunteer in your area.

Feel free to ask me questions and share your recipes and ideas as well. I look forward to cooking with you.

May 7, 2014

Easy Perfect Polenta

Looks good, doesn't it? It is.
Read on to see how easy it is to make!

That does look good, but polenta is one of those things you break your arm stirring for hours, right? Nope. 

It's true. Cooking polenta takes about 30 minutes total. But with a couple tricks provided by my culinary heroes of making difficult easy (while amping up the delicious) - America's Test Kitchen - we can make creamy, luscious polenta with very little stirring.

3 & 3/4C water
3/4C polenta (Bob's Red Mill works great!)
pinch of baking soda
1/2t kosher salt

2T butter
1/3C grated Parmigiano Reggiano 

Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed 4Qt pot. Keep the lid on so the water doesn't evaporate. 
Once the water is boiling, add a pinch of baking soda, and the 1/2t kosher salt. The baking soda will help break down the large grains of corn, and save you a lot of stirring. 
While whisking the water back & forth, sprinkle in the polenta. If it foams up, whisk quickly, and if needed, turn off the flame. Stir down the raging boil, then turn down your burner to the lowest setting possible, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes. If you have a "simmer" burner on your stove, transfer the pot to it, and use the lowest possible flame. 
Some newer gas ranges feature a "simmer" burner, which is ideal for cooking polenta. 

The lowest possible flame I could get out of my simmer burner before it goes out. Make sure there is no draft in your kitchen, or the flame could go out, and your kitchen could fill with gas. Although you don't have to stir the whole time, keep an eye on the flame. 
After 5 minutes, remove the lid and stir the polenta. It should be starting to absorb most of the water. Stir it well, replace the cover, and cook for 20 more minutes. If you can't get your flame as low as you'd like, check the pot after 10 or 15 minutes. You can stir as often as needed to keep the bottom from scorching, but ideally, you won't have to. 

After 25 minutes total cooking time, your polenta might look done. Give it a good stir, and check two things: 

  • Give it a taste. If you're biting down on chewy pieces of cornmeal, it needs to cook for another 5 minutes. 
  • Also, stir it, and see how the polenta falls off the whisk. If it runs right off, it needs another 5 minutes. 

Cooked polenta should be velvety-smooth in your mouth, but still hold up a bit on the whisk. (See the photo below)

Some of the polenta stays in the whisk, and the part that falls
sits on top rather than sinking in. It's done!
Perfectly cooked polenta is soft and flowing, but doesn't run off the whisk.
When spooned into a bowl, it will settle a bit, but maintain a soft mound. 
Congratulations! You made perfect polenta. Now, finish it with the butter, Parmesan, and pepper (or omit the butter & cheese if you are vegan). If you think it needs more salt, I suggest you sprinkle a little on each serving, rather than stir more into the whole batch. If you're planning on saving the rest for the next day, you'll be glad. Salt can taste more concentrated once a dish has cooled. I also add other things to my leftovers (like Tapatillo!), and prefer to control the salt then. 

Bonus! You can have soft polenta with just about any accompaniment for dinner, then save the rest for next level action the next day (or two). 
Soft polenta poured into a lightly oiled dish sets firmly when chilled. This 8" dish will yield 4 generous wedges of polenta that you can sear, creating an irresistible crust

To fry leftover polenta, cut a slice out of your chilled pan. Gently pat it dry on a paper towel. Water will spatter when it touches a hot pan, so you want to avoid that.

Heat a nonstick pan to high. Add 2T olive oil. Once the oil is heated, gently lay in the polenta, and don't move it for at least 5 minutes. If you have a spatter screen, you'll want to use it. Once one side is nicely golden, use a thin spatula to shimmy under the polenta and give it a quick flip. Ideally, flip it to a spot on the pan that has some oil. Again, don't move it for about 5 minutes. That way you'll get that lovely crust. 

The magic? The center will be as soft and velvety as fresh polenta. Eat it as is, or top with a fried add and a dash of Tapatillo. Add some veggies if you like, and enjoy! 

A Great Kitchen Tool

The inexpensive and indispensable Microplane!
In this recipe I used it to quickly and finely grate the Parmesan.
You'll find it works great on hard cheese, citrus zest, ginger, garlic, and more.
Be careful. The blades are razor sharp. They now come with rubber handles for easier gripping. 

May 4, 2014

Radish Leaf Pesto

During the spring and summer, I often make my own pestos. Store bought varieties tend to have an oxidized taste, too much oil, or (IMO) the wrong combination of ingredients. Since I am fortunate to live in an area with an abundance of inexpensive fresh produce, I enjoy experimenting with new dishes, focusing on economy (both money, and making the most of each ingredient). A lover of basil (who isn't??), I typically make basil pesto. 

Recently, I bought a few bunches of beautiful spring radishes (some of which I used in a Thai cucumber salad). To make the radishes last, I snipped them off their stems and refrigerated them in a container filled with cold water. 

Just before I tossed the greens into the compost bin, I had an epiphany. Why not use the leaves in something? Knowing that some veggie extras are inedible, I did a quick Google search, and got the "green" light to proceed. I tasted a leaf. It Not bitter, not sweet, just sort of grassy and fresh. Because the leaves have sort of a neutral taste, I decided to toast up some pistachios to give the pesto a nutty flavor, as well as a little crunch. Other than that, I stuck to the usual pesto ingredients: olive oil, salt & pepper, parmigiano reggiano, and a little lemon juice. 

The result (as you can see above) was a vibrant pesto, that not only tasted bright and lovely, but kept its green color and freshness after several days in the fridge. Considering that a bunch of radishes costs about 50 cents, this radish leaf pesto is a great way to stretch your dollars, while adding a tasty and healthy touch to your meals. 
Look for radishes with fresh, green, undamaged leaves. Farmers' markets or stores with high turnover are your best bet. Whenever possible, buy organic, or ask where and how the radishes were grown. Obtaining a Certified Organic label is very time-consuming and expensive. Many farmers grow clean produce, without an organic seal of approval. 
Greens from 2 bunches of fresh radishes
About 1/3C of shelled pistachios (Trader Joe's 50% less salt, or Whole Foods bulk are good choices)
Olive or Grapeseed oil
Parmigiano Reggiano (Trader Joe's and Costco have great prices)
Kosher salt, & pepper
Lemon Juice 

In a dry pan, toast the shelled pistachios until they're golden and fragrant. Remove from heat and let cool. 
Toasted pistachios
Remove the stems, and float the radish leaves in a large bowl of cold water. Gently push the greens under the surface of the water every so often. The dirt will settle to the bottom of the bowl. (We're in a drought! You can use "dirty" water on your plants, or to flush your commode. Pouring sandy water down the sink can lead to clogging.) 

Either spin the leaves in a salad spinner, or place them in a clean kitchen towel, wrap up the corners, and give it a few shakes to dry the leaves a bit. (Slightly wet leaves will help produce a smooth pesto.)  

Add the leaves to a blender, food processor, or my favorite go-to, the Mini Prep. Sprinkle about 1/4t of kosher salt (you can always add more later), some fresh ground pepper, the pistachios, the cheese, and drizzle over a few tablespoons of oil. Pulse the blender or processor at first, then let it go for a few seconds. Scrape down the sides, and repeat. If the pesto looks chunky, but a little dry, add some more oil. Once it starts to resemble a pesto, stop the machine and taste. Add a little lemon juice, and adjust the seasoning. Give it one more blend, then transfer the pesto to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed (up to 3 days), or serve immediately. 

My beloved Mini-Prep holds 3C of goodness, has a reversing smartblade, and only cost about $35. It has a ton of uses. Check out the link for color options, more info, and a brief instructional video from the good people at Cuisinart. 

Other than a sauce for pasta, pesto can be used on potatoes, as a spread on a sandwich, or however you like. 

Make & Freeze
You can also prepare and freeze a pesto for later use. I like to freeze it in ice cube trays, then pop them out and store them in freezer bags. The cubes defrost easily, and are great to keep around for dinner "emergencies". 

May 3, 2014

5 Minute Thai Cucumber Salad

OK. 5 minutes depending on your knife skills. But it's quick. And easy. And way cheaper than anything you'll get at a restaurant. For those who need their vegetables sugar-coated, this is a delicious and healthy way to get at least one serving a day.

At the very least, you can make this with 3 ingredients: cucumbers, vinegar, and sugar. With a couple more ingredients, it's fantastic. 

Clockwise from left: Shallots, radishes, cucumbers, bell pepper
Very thinly slice one small shallot. Add to a medium-sized bowl. Drizzle with rice vinegar and sprinkle with a little sugar. Stir, and let sit while you prep the other vegetables. 

Slice a 2-3" piece of English cucumber in half lengthwise, then slice thin half moons. 
Slice a couple radishes as thinly as possible.
Dice a little red bell pepper. 
Stir the cucumber and radish into the shallots & vinegar. Adjust seasoning (if it's too acidic, add a little more sugar). Garnish with the bell pepper. Serve immediately. 

This salad is best made fresh, as the veggies will become limp if left sitting for more than an hour. Keeping rice vinegar in the pantry is a great idea. It's soft and balanced, makes great dressings, and adds dimension to all sorts of dishes. 

Fried Rice...Russian Easter Style

Restaurants are making a killing selling you a carton of leftovers for about $8. 

Next time you find yourself with leftover meat and rice, make a honkin' batch of fried rice, and feed your whole family for a fraction of the cost (and without wondering how much sodium or "mystery ingredients" may be lurking behind that carrot). 

My family only cooks a ham twice a year - at Easter and Christmas. We eat meat so rarely that when we do, we indulge in a pricier nitrite-free ham from a good butcher. And we all want leftovers, so we tend to overbuy (even for a Russian family, hell-bent on overfeeding our guests). This Easter, my Mom* wanted to try a new method she had read about - braising the whole ham in apple cider and spices. This resulted in a moist, delectable flavor, deeply spiked with apple, clove, and allspice. 

Since my Mom is highly praised for her beef Stroganoff, we had a sort of "turf & turf" Easter buffet. Cold ham served with an assortment of salads, and hot Stroganoff served with rice. It was a very warm day, and one of those years when Russian Orthodox Easter falls on the same day as the Gregorian Easter. This meant more leftovers than usual, which was fine with everyone who went home with lovely parting gifts of meat and Easter bread. 

Having cooked and cleaned for days ahead of our annual party, I was not in the mood for preparing anything at all time consuming for myself the following week. And then it hit me. Russian + Chinese makes sense in my family. After all, my Father's family came through China on their way to the U.S. My paternal grandparents were born in Shanghai. And with this Easter falling on April 20th (the anniversary of my Great Grandmother's passing), nothing felt more right than using Russian Easter leftovers to make Chinese food for an American girl. 

Now, contrary to the pomp that precedes the instructions, preparing fried rice can be quite simple and quick. I opted for using fresh veggies, which I usually have in abundance. Most people have a carrot lying in wait in the fridge, and if that bag of peas hasn't been in & out of the freezer for years of bruise-tending, it should be good to go as well. I'll list the ingredients I used, but as always, feel free to improvise. The best way to a successful dish is to prep everything ahead of time so that when you're cooking, you can work quickly. 

Pork Fried Rice
2-3T soy sauce
2T rice vinegar
1t sesame oil
pinch of sugar

3T grapeseed or vegetable oil

1C diced leftover ham
1/2C+ thinly sliced carrot
1/2C+ peas (either blanched fresh, or thawed frozen)
3-4 crimini mushrooms, sliced 
1-2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 green onion, thinly sliced
2-3C leftover white rice
pickled ginger garnish

Whisk together the first 4 ingredients, and set aside. 

Heat a large skillet or wok on high, and add the oil. 
Saute the ham until golden on the edges. Add the carrot and mushroom, and cook about 2 minutes, stirring often to avoid burning. Add the peas to heat through. Make a well in the center of the pan, and add the egg, stirring to scramble, then mix in with the other ingredients. Add the green onion and rice, stir to combine & heat through. Pour the soy sauce mixture evenly over the rice, and heat through for about a minute. 

Serve immediately, topped with julienned pickled ginger. 

Allow leftovers to cool to room temperature before storing in the fridge. 

Note: The special braise on this ham gave this dish a wonderfully authentic Chinese flavor akin to 5-spice. I have made fried rice with regular ham, chicken, shrimp, and tofu - all delicious. Have fun improvising! 

*The ham was Mom's idea, but the credit goes to my brother-in-law, who prepared and sliced the ham to perfection.