Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Rockin’ Moroccan Couscous

Couscous has become all the rage in my kitchen.  Why?  For starters, once those tiny, spherical pellets hit boiling water, it’s only a 5 minute countdown ‘til finish.  Made from the same semolina flour used to make spaghetti, couscous is an excellent source of fiber and vitamins.  Nutrition and cook time aside, I love couscous because it is malleable to my mealtime musings.  A dish laden with ethnic spices and cooked vegetables, the quintessential Moroccan-style couscous, is as easy as the Greek Salad couscous with fresh tomatoes, Kalamata olives, cucumber, and feta cheese.  I even eat them “barebones”, with a little help from my friends: olive oil, salt, and pepper.   It’s simply a matter of your mood and what you have in your pantry.   
Feeling that I had been under utilizing my spice arsenal recently, I opted for Moroccan Couscous.  While you may view the amount of spices as daunting, it is multi-purpose.  While cooking, I discovered a novel method of air freshening: toasting spices.  Cook and clean at the same time.  That is consummate college cooking.  After only a few seconds, the stale kitchen air was shrouded with a veil of aromatic spices. 
Though I went meatless on this version of Moroccan Couscous, you will not leave the table hungry.  Garbanzo beans, or chickpeas, are the muscle-building protein for this meal.  Beans get a bad rap for being a “poor man’s meat”.  But at $1 a can, the “poor college student” sees opportunity.  Chick peas have been cultivated for over 7,500 years.  Their track record among humans is solid.  Plus, they have a great nutty taste, are low-fat and high protein.  Why give up on a good thing?  

Your first bite brings on this epiphany that what you are eating is the perfect blend of fragrant herbs and spices, couscous, chickpeas, vegetables, raisins, and orange juice all at once.  Then you realize that Moroccan Couscous is a lot easier to say, especially when your mouth is full.  Enjoy the noms!

Moroccan Couscous
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp freshly grated ginger
½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
¼ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground allspice
2 T olive oil
1 red onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 zucchini, diced
½ cup raisins
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 T grated lemon zest
1 (14.5 oz) can low sodium garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cups vegetable broth
½ cup orange juice
1 ½ cups couscous
3 T fresh mint, chopped
1.       Heat a large, heavy bottomed pan (I used my 13 inch All-Clad) over medium heat. 
2.       Stir in spices; gently toast until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes.
3.       Stir in oil, onion, and garlic until softened.   
 4.       Stir in bell pepper and zucchini; cook for 5 minutes. 
 5.       Stir in the raisins, salt, black pepper, lemon zest, and garbanzos.
6.       Pour in chicken broth and orange juice; turn heat to high and bring to a boil. 
 7.       When mixture is boiling, stir in the couscous and remove from heat; cover, and let stand 5 minutes. 

8.       Fluff with a fork, and fold in chopped mint. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dixie Chicken with Cayenne Spice Rub

What’s the deal with liquid marinades?  Ziplock bags have become the new badge of grill honor.  If you don’t bring your steak or chicken out in a Ziplock full of mystery liquid you have already lost grill-cred, bro.  Who cares what you threw in there (balsamic vinegar, ketchup and teriyaki, or Sriracha, olive oil and brown sugar).  If it’s not fully submerged, they say your dish won’t float.  

What about the dry rub method?  The meat is smothered with a dry coat of spices that gradually massages its way in.  I find that rubs are more of a holistic tenderization approach.   This particular rub I adapted from Bon Appetit 2004 produced a juicy meat and a crispy, caramelized crust of brown sugar, cayenne pepper, and other chili spices.  Rubs also do not require running for the paper towels to sop up any excess wetness before slapping your protein on the grill. Leaving a dry rub on during the cooking can boost your flavor even more.  

The spice butter that was brushed on just before serving was the icing on this cake.  It was better than sauce, gravy, or any possible seasoning combination.  Then again, it is butter-based.  When I combined all the ingredients for the butter, it looked like the consistency of honey mustard.  But boy, did it taste like heaven.   Although Virginia may not be Dixieland, I had a taste of it there that night by the grill.  The grilled chicken and potatoes, the bite of slaw I snagged from a friend, and the Triple Chocolate Pudding Pie that was waiting for me in the fridge all spelled Dixie to me. 

Dixie Chicken with Cayenne Spice Rub
2 T salt
1 T coarsely ground black pepper
1 T packed golden brown sugar
2 t garlic powder
1 ½ t cornstarch
1 ½ t onion powder
1 t lemon-pepper seasoning
1 t chili powder
¼ t ground cumin
1 t cayenne pepper
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 pounds chicken (can be breasts, cut-up-whole-chickens, legs, wings, etc.)

1.       Combine first 9 ingredients in small bowl; whisk spice rub to blend well.

2.       Transfer 1 T space rub to medium bowl; add butter and mix well.

3.       Chill butter until well solidified.
4.       Sprinkle spice rub over both sides of chicken pieces.  Arrange on wax-paper-lined plate.  Let sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours.  

5.       Prepare grill; lay the chickens on the areas of the grill that receive medium-high heat. 
6.       Grill about 15 minutes, turn chicken over. Grill until skin is deep golden, about 10 minutes.  **Cooking times varying depending if you have boneless or bone-in chicken; boneless chicken cooks faster.  Sometimes you may need to finish the chicken in the microwave to make sure that it does not dry out but is cooked through**
7.       Brush chicken with butter before serving.  
4 servings  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Triple-Chocolate Pudding Pie with Cappuccino Cream

Remember Sonny the crazed Cuckoo Bird who was “Cuckoo for Coco Puffs”!?  That phrase captures the essence of my love for chocolate.  I have an obsessive-compulsive relationship with chocolate.  Cravings for chocolate are relentless, gripping sensations.  I cannot take my mind off it or satisfy it with something else.   It’s CHOCOLATE, c’mon!  There is nothing like it.  In conversations about chocolate, you do not find many people who simply “like” chocolate or who “occasionally partake” in the eating of chocolate.  We assume that everyone loves chocolate; it is just a matter of what type.  
Finding and securing chocolate is a holy mission, thus the world smiled as I made this pie.  I turned to one of my new favorite cookbooks, Bon Appetit 2004, for the recipe.  I carefully patted down the foundation of salty, chocolate graham crackers.  Then I poured a silky, custard-like pudding filling into the basin of the crust.  The near-black colored chocolate formed soft folds in the pan.  It tasted like virgin chocolate, deeply smooth; seemingly untouched and untainted by both man and excessive sugar.  

I served it chilled, with a dollop of cappuccino cream on top.  At first, the pie was creamy and rich.  Each bite brought a comfortable feeling, almost as if it was warm.  Then the airiness of the cream cut the initial heaviness.  The pie began to float and fade elegantly on my tongue.   My overwhelming desire was not to greedily devour every last bit immediately, but rather to reflect and return to this blissful pie later.  A pie of this caliber demands reverence.  They say the greatest sign of respect for a dish is licking the plate clean.  I would not put it past me.   

Triple-Chocolate Pudding Pie with Cappuccino Cream
9 whole chocolate graham crackers
1 stick salted butter, melted
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
¼ cup cornstarch
3 ½ cups half and half
4 large egg yolks
3 ½ oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
3 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 T salted butter
1 t vanilla extract
1 cup chilled whipping cream
2 T powdered sugar
1 ½ t finely ground coffee
½ t vanilla extract

1.       Preheat oven to 350˚F.  
2.       Finely grind graham crackers in food processors.  Add butter and blend to moisten crumbs. [I just used a rolling pin to crush them up very finely and added butter.  Didn’t work great, but worked.]
3.       Firmly press mixture into a 9 inch diameter pie dish.
4.       Bake until crust sets, about 15 min.  Cool.
5.       Whisk together sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch in heavy medium saucepan.
6.       Gradually whisk in 1 cup half and half.  Whisk in remaining 2 ½ cups half and half and yolks.
7.       Whisk over medium-high heat until mixture thickens and boils, whisking constantly, about 12 minutes.  Remove from heat.  

8.       Add both chocolates and butter; whisk until melted and smooth.  
9.     Add vanilla.
10.   Transfer filling to crust.  Press plastic wrap directly onto surface of filling and chill until filling sets, about 6 hours. 
 11. Meanwhile, beat topping ingredients in large bowl until peaks form.  Rewhisk to thicken when ready to use.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Café Charbon-Epicerie

Through a series of swinging doors unfolded a barroom with checkered tile floors, wood paneling, and candlelit ambiance.  A tall, curly-haired French waiter showed us to the small, wobbly table we had for the evening.  The restaurant had a secluded, boutique feel.  The walls were lined with shelves of dusty wine bottles, antique wooden boxes, and metal picture frames.   Though I did notice that the tablecloths in place were the same picnic plaid types as the ones at Grimaldi’s (apparently these must have gone on sale at the New York City restaurant convention).   
Never has it taken less time to choose my meal from a menu.  It spoke to me, in its sexy French voice, “You will have the hanger steak with pepper sauce and gratin dauphinois, with a Hefeweizen beer to wash it all down."  Gratin dauphinois are thinly sliced potatoes topped with breadcrumbs, grated cheese, eggs and/or butter and browned, much like au gratin potatoes. 
The steak plate arrived in eloquent fashion.  Thick cuts of crimson-colored meat were fanned out around a mound of golden potatoes, and drizzled with a viscous pepper sauce.  Unfortunately, the low light was a detriment to the visual appeal of the food.  I found that candlelit ambiance is not the most conducive to great food photography.  Thankfully, the taste was enough to carry the plate.  
Prepared just the way I like it, the steak was cooked medium-rare: warm and tender center, not demanding excessive gnawing.  The potatoes were stacked like a flaky biscuit.  Each layer had a crispy outer crust with a moist, buttery center.   And I sopped up every last drip of pepper sauce along the way. The beer gave dinner a sweet, floral finish, which balanced out the bite of the pepper sauce.  
 We bartered and traded bites from our plates, all being foodies at heart.  I sampled the shepherd’s pie and the French onion soup, both hearty and delicious.  But honestly, it must be god-like to be better than steak.   The French café experience was like a merging of European chic and country-style meals.  The flavors were bold and savory, without being overwhelming in portion sizes. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

New York Style Pizza: Grimaldi’s Pizzeria

Unlike my college counterparts, spending their Spring Break downing tequila sunrises under the Jamaican sun, I headed north for a bite of the Big Apple.  New York City fit the bill for a foodie themed vacation.  Unfortunately, what ‘fit the bill’ in the guide books, did not mean ‘cheap’.  However, my money was well spent in this city.
Catching the bus to NYC at 6 AM meant no breakfast.  Who has time for eating that early?  Thankfully, I slept on the bus, forgoing pangs of hunger from my stomach.  By 10 I felt like I could eat an entire pizza.  By the time we finally claimed a spot in line at Grimaldi’s, it was noon and my stomach was about to riot. 
 The brick store front was rather unassuming, though that didn’t stop people from taking pictures in front of this local landmark restaurant.  Having the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop was an added real estate perk.  The 15 person line outside waited to be beckoned inside by a grey-haired, New York veteran of the Pizzeria.  
Once inside we sat at a long, clustered table, covered by a picnic plaid tablecloth.  The interior was cramped, but quaint.  Autographed photos and posters lined the walls; my favorite being: “We are going to make a pizza you can’t turn down”.  
 In the back, a coal burning brick oven blazed as pizzas were plunged into the flames on wooden planks.  Leathered hands spun dough like it was weightless.  It soared up and then parachuted back into the folded fingers.  I wanted lessons.  
Back at my seat, the pizza awaited me on a silver pizza plate.  Upon recommendation of my Italian-raised travel buddy, we ordered a 16” pie with sausage, ricotta cheese, and mushrooms.  You couldn’t order it by the slice; only full pizza-pies here.  The taste was a rustic, without being overly greasy or salty.  Although, I doubt you could choose ‘the wrong’ toppings.  
 Slices of New York Style pizza are WTF.  No, no – get your head out of the gutter.  It stands for Wide, Thin, and Foldable.  The first time I tried grappling with one of these enormous slices I used a fork and knife, apparently a cultural faux pas.  This time I knew proper pizza etiquette, and folded my crunchy crust in half and let the juices drip.  No need for utensils.  The slices became a bit soggy by the end from the sweet and savory tomato sauce, but by that time we only had two slices left anyway.  
We set out to cross the Brooklyn Bridge full of New York pizza delight.  As my first authentic, New York Style pizza, I was impressed.  My stomach was as well, and that’s the true judge of a food’s character. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dilly Peas and Carrots

Nothing says ‘wholesome meal’ like butter and cream.  Every kitchen ought to have a recipe for a simple white cream sauce in its arsenal.  The versatility of a white cream sauce is underappreciated, especially since its ingredients are things you probably have on hand already.  The sauce will gently pillow vegetables, chicken, or pasta, making each bite feel like a supple, buttery cushion.  A cream sauce is like an embrace, warm and comforting.  
In my family, Dilly Peas and Carrots meant a thick cream sauce flavored with dill weed and white wine mixed with cooked peas and carrots.  While browsing the internet for other Dilly Peas recipes, I was horrified to see dill pickle juice as one of the main ingredients!  The combination of peas and pickle juice (aka salt and vinegar) sounds like someone was tipsy in the kitchen.  Dill weed and white wine, on the other hand, give the basic cream sauce an aromatic edge.  The pungent kick of white wine along with the tangy, grassy flavor of dill keeps the flavor simple yet unique.  You could also add lemon juice, parmesan, or garlic to your own version.  The recipe could be served by itself as a side, or topped over pasta or chicken for a more substantial meal.    
Dilly Peas and Carrots
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 cup frozen peas
2 T butter
2 T flour
½ cup white wine
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt and pepper
1 T dried dill weed
3 green onions, thinly sliced (optional)

1.       In a medium sized saucepot, bring about 3 cups of water to a boil.
2.       Add in carrots and peas, simmer for about 7-8 minutes, or until carrots are fork tender. Drain. 
3.       Meanwhile, in a small saucepot, melt the butter over medium heat. 
4.       Add in flour and stir until bubbly, about 3 minutes – do not brown.
5.       Add wine, stirring constantly.
6.       Slowly add cream, stir to desired consistency (may need to add more/less liquids).
7.       Season with salt and pepper and dill weed. 
8.       Add in carrots and peas.  Garnish with green onions.