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Saturday, May 30, 2009


A few years ago, Bob and I were in New York City on the upper west side. We stopped for an afternoon snack at Rosa Mexicana, where our next door neighbor had told us we could have phenomenal guacamole made at our table. His report was accurate; we watched beautiful, perfectly ripe avocados mashed with other delicious ingredients right in front of our eyes. While the snack was a little pricey, they gave us a pre-printed copy of the recipe before we left.

We tried Rosa's recipe at home and felt that it wasn't as good as what we'd eaten at the restaurant. So I studied a number of other recipes and improvised a few times, and came up with the guacamole our family can't get enough of.

2-3 small or 1-2 large, ripe avocados
1 small tomato, diced very small
2-3 Tablespoons onion, diced very small (I like red, but yellow or white will also do)
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix all ingredients together. Refrigerate for an hour or so before serving.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Roast Chicken, Simple Yet Exquisite

Whole chickens are regularly on sale at a very good price. At Costco, they're always cheap. We've used them in the past for a number of favorites, like chicken noodle soup, chicken and dumplings, and a chicken and rice dish that we all really like.

We've tried roasting chickens before, but temporarily gave up after we encountered some persistent problems: one, the grease splattered all over the oven and made a horrible mess which we relived through smoke every time the oven was on. And two, cooking the chicken thoroughly without drying it out was a challenge.

This post is more about cooking method than it is an actual recipe. There are endless improvisations on this theme. But it's a classic technique that you'll use often after you've tried it.

One of the secrets to roasting chicken is to make the oven hot--preheat it to 450 degrees. Another secret is to make the chicken as dry as possible. I hold the chicken under the tap in the kitchen sink to wash the cavity out thoroughly, but then I also dry the inside and outside of the chicken completely with paper towels. I also usually let it air dry for a few minutes while I'm assembling all of the other ingredients and utensils I need to prepare the bird for baking.

I've seen people fill the bird cavity with lemons or onions or other flavorings. I believe that the drier you can keep the chicken, the more it will roast instead of steaming. Hence, the more succulent and tender your meat will be. I sometimes put some fresh herbs in the cavity, though--washed and well-dried, of course. Last night's selection included thyme and sage because they've taken off early out in the garden.

Once the chicken is dry, it should be trussed. I won't go into a lot of detail here about how to truss a chicken, but there is plenty of help on the internet if you haven't done it before. It basically involves tying up the legs and tying the wings in back so that there are no flailing appendages. This makes for a prettier chicken, and also helps it to cook more uniformly. I've checked at every supermarket in the area, and none of them have butcher's twine. I'm pleased to report that, while it's probably not the most budget friendly option, dental floss works quite nicely.

Finish preparing the chicken by rubbing it with a couple of teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil. Then sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper.

Finally, to keep your oven relatively clean during the roasting process, slice a couple of potatoes in the bottom of your roasting pan. They don't have to be especially nice potatoes. You're not going to want to eat it after the meat is done. The potatoes will absorb the grease that would otherwise splatter all over the place. Put a rack in the pan and place the chicken on the rack.

Bake the chicken for 60 to 70 minutes (for a 3-4 pound bird). Let it rest for a few minutes after you take it out of the oven, and then carve. When we cut our chicken for dinner last night, it was so juicy that we actually had a bit of a flood on the cutting board and had to sop it up with paper towels.

Here's what the finished product should look like, and it smells and tastes even better than it looks!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pulled Pork

I'm a long-time fan of pulled pork. It's my favorite form of southern barbecue, with brisket a close second. I've attended a lot of gatherings where pulled pork is served. Sometimes the juiciness of the slow-roasted meat is overshadowed by the fact that it's drenched in bottled barbecue sauce.

Aside from basic cooking method (low and slow), there are two keys to great pulled pork: a great rub and the perfect sauce. This rub creates a spicy crust on the meat after you roast it all day. The sauce is sweet but understated. For me, it's the perfect combo.

Pulled Pork
1 3-4 pound pork butt roast (also known as shoulder roast or Boston butt)

For the rub:
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne

Mix ingredients together. This makes at least twice as much as you'll need for one roast. I keep some in the cupboard in an airtight container to save the work of re-creating the rub each time.

Rub pork with mixture the night before you intend to serve it. Store in a gallon plastic bag over night. In the morning, leave roast at room temperature for two hours and then re-rub. Place the meat in a 250-degree oven for 7 to 8 hours (internal temperature should be between 195 and 200 when done). Your house will smell great all afternoon, by the way. Cook meat until it is tender and falls apart easily.

For the sauce:
4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup finely diced plum tomatoes
3 Tablespoons finely chopped onions (red are best)
2 Tablespoons pitted dates, minced
2 large cloves garlic, minced

Combine ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until it reduces to 1 1/2 cups (this will take a couple of hours). Stir occasionally.

To serve:
Shred meat and place in a large bowl. Pour sauce in gradually; coat but don't drown. We like to serve it on crusty rolls or buns. It can also be served on tortillas.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pico de Gallo

The first time I remember tasting pico de gallo was about 25 years ago at a work party. One of my co-workers made it; he called it salsa. It was like no salsa I had ever seen before, and I loved it immediately. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how he did it. For a long time, pico de gallo was a special treat reserved for trips to Mexican restaurants.

When I married Bob, he introduced me to the joys of store-bought pico. It was expensive enough to be an occasional indulgence, usually when we were entertaining guests. Then one day I started thinking about how making it at home couldn't be that difficult. I did a little research on the internet, tried a couple of batches, and came up with a recipe that is cheap, easy and wonderful. We serve it with any Mexican dish, but it's especially good with carne asada tacos.

There's quite a lot of flexibility in the recipe. I often make it with any salsa-looking ingredients that I have on hand--I've put in bits of green bell pepper, chopped green onions or other goodies. It can even be dressed up as a topping for fish or chicken breasts by adding a little mango or pineapple. There aren't really any secrets to making it; just chop everything fine, and make it a few hours ahead so that the flavors can blend awhile as it sits in your fridge.

Pico de Gallo
2 Roma tomatoes, finely chopped
½ medium onion, finely chopped (red onion looks pretty in it; white onion tastes really good. I usually use yellow onion because that’s what we always have)
½ - 1 jalapeno, very finely diced
½ bunch cilantro, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice of ½ lime
1 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper

Mix ingredients together and refrigerate for at least an hour or two before serving.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fabulous Minestrone

We're almost at the end of soup season. We try to eat soup once a week in the winter, and then switch to salads of varying kinds in the summer. Last night marked the transition; we ate Mexican chicken salads (post to come later), and tonight we finished off the winter with a lovely minestrone.

I can't promise we won't eat soup again until the snow falls. We love soup. I should also qualify that this is one of the few soups I make that not everyone in our family loves. But those of us who love it are quite serious in our passion, so we make the others eat it on occasion.

This recipe originally came from my sister. I've made it for years. I don't know where she got it. It says to cook slowly for six hours. A crock pot works well for this. I hardly ever cook it for the full six hours. An hour or two on the stove top seems to work fine; turn up the heat if you've got less time!

1 1-lb. package Jimmy Dean gold label sausage
1 quart water
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
3 large carrots, sliced or cubed
4 stalks chopped celery
2 cans diced tomatoes
2 cans beef consomme
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 clove minced garlic

Brown sausage in a large soup pot and drain well. Return meat to pot. Add other ingredients. cook slowly for six hours. Add the following ingredients:

1 can green beans drained
1 cup macaroni
1 can red kidney beans, undrained

Cook at a rapid boil until macaroni is done (about fifteen minutes). Add salt and/or sugar to taste. Serves 6-8

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's Garden Time

We've found that a small garden in the back yard is vital to good summer cooking. I grew up with a father who was a psychologist, but who really wanted to be a farmer. We gardened endlessly; I admit that I didn't love it.

Bob, on the other hand, grew up in suburban LA. Gardening is new and somewhat exciting to him. And I confess that I have discovered it's in my blood. We have a back corner dedicated to tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, herbs and other adventurous vegetables. We celebrate the ripening of the first summer tomato. We already have great plans for roasting our own (hopefully abundant) red peppers.

Last week our neighbor, Lou, invited our kids to share part of his garden. Lou's gardening skills are legendary. He has a huge plot which is virtually weedless and is remarkably productive. He set aside a row for our girls. When we arrived to Tuesday afternoon to plant under his supervision, he even had it customized for us:

He brought out all kinds of seeds for the kids to choose from. They planted a little bit of everything, including items never allowed for in our garden. The girls were excited about planting a couple of kinds of squash, corn, pumpkins, gourds, and radishes. I don't think they even like radishes, but they were excited about the prospect of watching them grow. They also planted some cucumber seeds and will go back next week to plant some tiny tomatoes.

We're glad they can have the wonder and amazement of their own garden. We look forward to trying new things with the fruits of their labors. We're glad they can learn to raise food from an expert. We'll be learning right along side them.