Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Another weeknight meal

Last night my roommate Anne and I enjoyed this quick pasta with cherry tomatoes, white beans and chicken for dinner. Anne supplied the ingredients and did the dishes; in exchange, I helmed the cooking process. The result of about 12 minutes' prep work in the kitchen was a warming, filling meal, perfect for the first (already brisk) night of fall:

Penne with Cherry Tomatoes, White Beans and Chicken
Serves 4

1. Cut 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts into bite-size pieces. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper and set aside. Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
2. Heat 2 tbsp. of olive oil in large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until browned on all sides and nearly cooked through, about 6 minutes. Remove the cooked chicken and set aside.
3. Lower the heat to medium and add 1 tbsp. more oil, if necessary. Add 2 chopped garlic cloves and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute. Do not let the garlic brown.
4. Over high heat, deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup chicken broth or dry white wine. Allow liquid to reduce for about 3 minutes, then add 1 pint of halved cherry tomatoes, a good amount of salt, and some crushed red pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat until tomatoes have wilted and released most of their liquid, about 4-6 minutes.
5. Add 1 small can (15.5 oz) of drained and rinsed white beans (cannellini beans) and the reserved chicken pieces to the skillet and stir gently. Lower heat and allow mixture to simmer. Meanwhile, salt the pasta water heavily and add about half a 1-lb. box of penne or other short pasta and cook until al dente, about 10-12 minutes.
6. Drain pasta and add to the simmering sauce, mixing well. Add about 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, reserving some for garnish, as well as a few tbsp. of olive oil and more salt and pepper to taste. Serve in bowls, topping each portion with more parsley and some grated parmesan, if desired.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indoor grilling

I don't use the broiler setting on my oven for many things; it's usually reserved for the very specific task of browning cheese on a pizza. If I'm cooking meat, I generally like to sear it in a cast-iron pan, or, even better, grill it outdoors. That way, I have continuous access to whatever I'm making and can more easily judge when it's done. But I always prepare this simple recipe of kofta kebabs--one of my favorite weeknight meals--using the broiler. I don't know why, but it comes out best that way. The meat browns but doesn't char. and it cooks up plump and juicy.

Kofta (or kofte) kebabs are just one example of the myriad (and usually delicious) Middle Eastern meats-on-a-stick. Though Turkish restaurants serve them most often, you can find them on Greek, Lebanese and Palestinian menus, too. What sets this dish apart from your run-of-the-mill cubed-meat kebab is that this one is made with ground meat, and because you can easily incorporate many seasonings into the meat itself--instead of just sprinkling them on top--you end up with something that's incredibly flavorful.

To prepare the kebabs, all you have to do is dump some ground meat into a bowl--you definitely want to use ground lamb if you have access to it, but if you don't a lean ground beef, like ground sirloin, will work just fine--and mix in chopped onions, minced garlic, and a good amount of strong, fresh seasonings. You can put in whatever you like; I tend towards using Middle Eastern spices like cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, but spice blends like curry powder or even five spice would also be delicious--it just depends on what you're in the mood for. The key to this recipe is to season aggressively--you really want the meat to be fragrant with spices. This is not a subtle dish.

After you mix in your spices--along with a lot of salt--shape the meat into vaguely ovoid logs. Don't make them too thick, as they'll take forever to cook though; this is one of the rare examples of a meat dish that I cook to medium or even well-done (forgive my pun). You want the meat to have a firm texture through and through, and that only comes about when there's no more pink inside. At this point you can slide skewers into the kebabs, if you wish; that's a step that's aesthetically pleasing, perhaps, but serves no real purpose when the meat is being cooked in the broiler or on the grill. (The reason kebabs are skewered is because they were traditionally roasted over indirect heat, and the metal running through the center of the meat heated up and cooked the kebabs through.) Then, place the kebabs on a hot grill or on a preheated broiler pan and cook them, turning once, for about 6-8 minutes a side, depending on their size. The kebabs will be hot, spicy and juicy, so take that into consideration when choosing a side dish; some sort of rice pilaf is traditional, but I went for a cooling salad of chickpeas, tomatoes, onions and parsley dressed with olive oil and lemon juice; another nice option would be a cucumber salad with yogurt and fresh mint.

Kofta Kebabs

Serves 4

1. In a large bowl, combine 2 lbs. of ground lamb or ground sirloin, half of a large white or yellow onion, very finely chopped, 4 garlic cloves, minced, salt and freshly ground black pepper, and about 3-4 tbsp. of spices of your choice, such as ground cumin, ground coriander, ground cinnamon, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano. Mix to combine, but do not overmix; shape into 8 ovoid logs.
2. Place kebabs on a preheated broiler pan and cook under the broiler for 12-16 minutes, turning once, or until kebabs are just cooked through. Alternatively, grill kebabs on a charcoal or gas grill.

Monday, September 15, 2008

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming

Well here I am, back as promised. Last night I cooked a quick, delicious and fabulously inexpensive dinner--and a somewhat unusual one, too. I'd like to share it with you.

I've written on the blog about the necessity, for me, that the meals I eat out--and the ones that I cook, too--are cheap (thus the Cheap Eats section on this site). Well, now that I'm living on my own and paying rent for the first time in my life, that's more important than ever. It's also of supreme importance, nowadays, that whatever I make for dinner be fast-cooking and relatively simple to make. I'm currently working 7 days a week (yes, you read that right), and while I still want to cook for myself it can be a bit of a challenge to get in front of a hot stove after a long day. Luckily, the meal I made last night fit the bill on both those counts.

What I made was a squid, white bean and tomato stew. Also known as calamari, squid is quite cheap and is a nice protein option when you're sick of the usual suspects like chicken, beef, fish, tofu or beans. I got my squid from the specialty foods store I work at, which is highly overpriced, for $8.99/lb (with my employee discount applied it cost $6.75/lb). That's not a bad price, but you can definitely find it cheaper, usually around $6.50/lb and even less in Chinatowns and Asian supermarkets. Anyway, I digress. The point is, squid is inexpensive and tasty and we should cook with it more often. When you buy it, just make sure it looks very white and non-slimey and that it has no fishy odor whatsoever.

For this simple and very last-minute stew all I did was sweat some onions and garlic, added some chicken broth, canned crushed tomatoes, canned white beans (aka cannellini), crushed red pepper flakes and dried oregano, brought it to a simmer and then slipped in some cleaned and rinsed calamari--both the tentacles (my favorite part: mmm, tentacles) and the bodies, sliced into rings. Now at this point you can go two ways: you can cook the stew just 4-5 minutes more, taking it off the heat as soon as the squid is cooked through, or you can let it simmer on the stove for about 25 minutes more. There is a culinary saying about squid that goes something like "cook it for 1 minute or 1 hour" which isn't entirely correct but which is good to keep in mind. That is, in order to ensure a tender final product, squid must be cooked very very quickly (think fried calamari) or low and slow. I opted for the latter because once all the chopping and stirring was done all I had to do was sit and play with my cat as my apartment filled with the enticing aromas of the bubbling pot on the stove. Also, cooking the stew longer will meld all the flavors better and produce a thicker, more luxurious broth. And who doesn't like a luxurious broth? The whole endeavor was still over and done with in 35 minutes, and the resulting dish was nourishing, satisfying and even a little bit out of the ordinary. Beat that, Rachel Ray.

Squid, White Bean and Tomato Stew
Serves 4

1. Over medium-low heat, sweat half of a large white or yellow onion, finely chopped, in some olive oil. Add some kosher salt, two minced garlic cloves, some crushed red pepper flakes and some dried oregano, to taste.
2. Add one small can (14 oz.) of low-sodium chicken broth, 1 small can (14.5 0z.) of crushed tomatoes, and one small can (15.5 oz.) of rinsed and drained white beans (cannellini beans) and stir gently to combine, taking care not to crush the delicate beans. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
3. Once the stew is simmering, add 1 pound of cleaned and rinsed squid, both the tentacles and the bodies, sliced into rings. Continue to simmer until stew is thickened and squid is tender, about 20 - 25 minutes. Serve in bowls, garnishing each portion with a spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil and some chopped fresh parsley.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I'll be back!

I know, I know, it's been a while since I've written on here--moving, starting a new job and getting a new kitten, among other things, take up a lot of time! I doubt any of you out there are holding your breath--but if so, you'll get to exhale soon, I promise. Stay tuned for reports on the cheap eats local to my new neighborhood of "South Slope," Brooklyn, and tales of cooking in my new, smaller kitchen on a slightly more constrained budget. Cheers!