Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Easy Guacamole

Sitting around this evening, waiting for the chicken to thaw out, I started to feel really hungry. It snowed here for the first time this winter, hence I felt like having something warm and yummy... Nachos, cream cheese puffs, crab rangoon, hot and sour soup...you get the idea! Anyway, long story short there was nothing in the fridge or pantry to fill any of the above cravings. What I did have was a bag of corn chips, avocados and tomatoes. Perfect!

Depending on who you talk to, people have a variety of beliefs what guacamole should and shouldn't have, develop your own recipe. You're going to eat it so enjoy it how you like it... just follow these basics.

Avocado mashed or crushed
Tomato, diced small (optional)
Onion, diced small (optional)
Lime juice (fresh or bottle)
Garlic Salt (you can also use garlic powder + salt separately)
Sour Cream (if your avocado isn't completely ripe)

Simply crush or mash the avocado, add the garlic, lime juice, and sour cream if needed. Mix well then gently fold in the onions and tomato. Serve immediately with chips or bread, otherwise refrigerate until ready to eat. I used sour cream to help with the consistency since the avocado I had wasn't quite ripe. Also, I don't like onion so I don't add it. Some people feel that guacamole should be only the avocado itself, nothing else. In that case just add the lime juice and salt... you can also use garlic but thats up to you.

Hope you enjoy this healthy snack as much as I did!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Almond Pesto

I love pasta, especially those with a lot of sauce. I'm a big fan of Pesto, given that basil is one of my favorite ingredients! Last night I was wanting to use up a lot of basil which had been sitting in the fridge for some time. I didn't have any pine nuts at home and needed to make dinner quickly. I decided to improvise by using almonds instead. It worked well and turned out pretty delicious too. Of course the purpose of substitution is always to use what we have in the pantry, but be careful to use blanched or regular almonds with the skin removed and try to avoid salted almonds so that you can salt your sauce or pasta to taste. (If you have plain almonds at home with skin, you can soak them in hot water for 10 min and then easily remove the skin)

1/2 bunch fresh basil, stems trimmed
~ 5 to 10 sprigs cilantro (optional)
~ 12 to 15 almonds
~ 1 tbsp crushed garlic or paste
salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup grated cheese

To make the pesto, just rinse the basil and place in a blender or food processor. Add the almonds, garlic, salt and fresh cilantro or parsley (if you want). I used a little cilantro just to add some flavor but this is up to your taste if you want to add anything in with your basil. Add in a few drops of water and puree. When the almonds seem to be almost dissolved, add in olive oil and continue to puree for a minute. Your mixture should look smooth and creamy, not too dry or lumpy. You can add water or olive oil as necessary to reach a good consistency.

Traditionally, pesto has Parmesan cheese added to it. I made this pesto and added it to a cream sauce which had Asiago cheese, so I didn't add any cheese when making the pesto itself. If you are going to have pesto on its own then please add Parmesan, Romano or any other cheese you want before the olive oil step in this mix.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cooking - Is there a hype?

This past weekend was a little crazy, for DC as well as our home. It was Inauguration 2009 and we had a number of guests in town, some staying with us and some with other friends. We decided to have a dinner on Sunday at our house, to get everyone in the same place with out dealing with the madness of downtown DC. I decided to make a traditional Pakistani winter favorite called Haleem. It is like a heavy soup made from a variety of lentils and grains, plus beef and spices. Traditionally this dish was considered very special, kind of like turkey or ham on Christmas day, due to the fact that it takes a long time to make. Aside from the cleaning and soaking of the pulses, you cook the ingredients for a number of hours until the meat is so tender, it melts just by touch.

When our guests were eating dinner, most commented on how great it was for me to get everyone together and how I really went out of my way to make this meal. They were impressed that I would take on such a task and made additional dishes as well. Yes, it was a lot of people and I made more than just Haleem; but to be honest, it wasn't as complicated as everyone made it seem. Granted most of the people over that day don't usually cook and I'm positive few had ever made Haleem. Had they ever attempted, they would've learned that things are very different today than they were a generation ago. Cooking today is by no means as complicated and time consuming as yesteryear.

More often than not we find that our produce and meat is already clean, cut, trimmed, cubed, diced, de-stemmed, peeled, packaged, etc. before we bring it home. You also find a number of instruments or gadgets in a modern kitchen which make dicing, mashing, pureeing and grating a breeze. I think back to not long ago when I first moved to Pakistan, how the produce had to be cleaned before refrigerating. The stems, leaves, roots with dirt would still be intact for most vegetables. I also remember my aunt using a stone slab to grind spices and grains for a variety of dishes. There was no such thing as ginger paste or garlic paste in a bottle, you made it all yourself from fresh garlic and ginger root...on a stone slab (no blenders or grinders). In short, things that seemed to be a delicacy or special treat are not so much a feat anymore. With Haleem for example, one no longer needs to clean or peel husk off the pulses (lentils and grains), you don't need to cut the fat off the meat since your butcher will do that for you, packages with all the pulses pre-measured for you can be found in most Asian/Indian stores, either a spice mix or your own ingredients can be used to make Haleem without having to grind or crush the seeds or spices. With modern day technology cooking time for this dish go from 8 hours to about 4 or 5 hours. The prep time which would've taken my grandmother half a day, took me only about an hour...and this was the time in which I soaked the grains and lentils so they would cook softer.

With modern conveniences, anyone can cook almost anything. So why then is there such a hype around cooking? Granted there is always the art and science behind cooking. There are those naturally gifted individuals who, as they would say in Urdu, have "flavor in their hands" (haanth mein maaza hai). And those gourmands who have a knack of picking up on ingredients or flavors from a single bite of food. But beyond those people, today it is possible for anyone to follow instructions on a box and make a great meal. There are a million books, blogs, guides, schools and self proclaimed teachers to tell you how to make almost anything. Be it from a box or from scratch, anyone can do it...at least once! Why make it more difficult than it has to be when all the prep work is already being done for you. I challenge you to try something difficult, something that your mother or grandmother may have spent a whole day making. Look for short cuts and alternatives to their recipe and then share with us how it turned out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chicken Roast

The other day my "sister-in-law to be" (that's a mouth full!) e-mailed asking me for a simple recipe using chicken breast and Desi (Indian/Pakistani) flavors. Immediately, my chicken roast recipe came to mind. I think this is a great recipe to have on hand for a number of reasons:
1. It is very easy and quick to make
2. It has a lot of flavor and can be used with both bone-in and boneless chicken
3. It can be had as a main dish or great side dish, plus the left overs can be used to make great Desi style sandwiches (Kati-roll ring a bell)
4. This is a great item for anyone trying to lose a few pounds, its healthy and naturally low fat!
5. You can alternate/substitute certain ingredients to create a completely different dish each time you make it

I'll list out the recipe first and then later show you how and what can be substituted. Feel free to e-mail me or comment if you have any suggestions/variations you've tried.

1 lb boneless chicken
2 heaping tbsp yogurt
1 full tsp garlic paste
1 tsp red chili pepper (lal mirch powder)
1 tsp ground cumin
salt to taste
~1 tbsp oil

Making sure the chicken is not frozen, dice into ~2" cubes, rinse and place in a bowl that has a lid. Add all of the ingredients except oil. Mix well, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. I would recommend 4hrs to really make the chicken flavorful and moist. Remove the chicken from the fridge about 30 min before preparing (bringing it to room temp). In a deep skillet, add your oil and warm on medium heat. Add the chicken, stir and cover. Let it cook until the juice/water is almost dry, stirring occasionally to ensure all pieces are getting evenly browned. And thats it, ready to eat. Please make sure not to over-cook the chicken or it will get too dry.


*For bone-in chicken, use about 1.5lbs chicken to the above ingredients
*You can substitute the yogurt with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of lemon juice (this will make it more like chicken tikka)
*You can use ground black pepper instead of red chili, add some ground coriander here when using black pepper
*You can make this on a grill instead of a skillet in the summer, just put pieces on skewers and cook till tender
*You can add semi-cooked potatoes (potatoes can be cut in 1/2 or 1/4, depending on size, deep fried, salted then added to the cooking chicken)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Easy Ragu Sauce

As promised, I’m going to share the first recipe I tried from Restaurant Favorites. The actual recipe (Lamb Ragu) called for bone-in lamb, which we neither had at home nor desired to eat the night I made this meal. Instead, I used ground beef (chuck 85% lean) and substituted a few other spices and ingredients along the way. First I’ll share what I made and how, then at the end I will list out the recipe as it is in the book. Remember to serve this with a larger/thicker pasta like spaghetti, penne or rigatoni since it will be a very thick/heavy sauce.

2-3 carrots, cleaned and diced small
2-3 celery ribs, diced small
1 small onion, diced small
8-10 white or baby bella mushrooms, diced (optional)
~2 tbsp olive oil
~1 tbsp salt
~1 tbsp fresh crushed or bottled garlic
~1 lb ground beef (use 85% to 90% lean since you will not be able to drain)
2 tbsp tomato paste
~ 28 oz crushed or diced tomato (canned with no other ingredients)
½ tsp parsley flakes
Few sprigs fresh basil chopped or ~1 tbsp dried basil
Crushed Red Pepper to taste (optional)
~ ½ cup dry red wine (or whatever you may be drinking… I used a Shiraz blend I had open)
½ tsp sugar (optional)
Grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

In a medium to large, heavy bottom pan, warm the olive oil on medium heat. Add the carrots, celery and onions. Sautee for 5 to 7 minutes or until the ingredients start to brown just slightly. Add the mushrooms, if you like, at this point. Continue to cook for another 2 minutes then add the garlic and salt. Mix for a minute or so then add your ground beef which should have been rinsed and drained.

Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring as necessary to avoid sticking. If the beef is too dry, you can add up to a ½ cup of water. Add the tomato paste and mix in well, then add the crushed tomato, parsley, red pepper and basil (if using dried basil) to the mix and cook to a boil (uncovered). Stir in the wine and simmer, stirring to reduce and scraping the bottom to pick up all the ingredients. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes until the mix looks glossy or like a glaze. Cover and lower the heat, simmer for 30 to 40 minutes adding the fresh basil about half way through. Stir as needed during this time (every 10 min or so) and a few minutes before turning off the heat, you can add ½ tsp of sugar to offset the tartness of the sauce.

Note that alcohol evaporates from the wine when reducing, but if you still feel uncomfortable, you can use diluted grape or fruit vinegar (2/3 vinegar, 1/3 water ratio). Also, if the sauce seems too thick, add some water to deliver the perfect consistency for you (to your liking). Serve over pasta and sprinkle with grated cheese and some fresh basil if available.

What I substituted: beef in place of 1 ½ lbs lamb shoulder chop, red pepper instead of black pepper and spaghetti instead of orecchiette pasta. If you want to know how the bone-in meat was cooked into the dish, e-mail me and I will send you details.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Using Cookbooks

Wow! What an exciting couple of weeks it’s been…cooking/eating-wise, in our house that is. A few days after Christmas my husband and I were out window shopping, commenting on how the “blow out” sales weren’t really all that, when we wandered in to Borders. They had a section of clearance books, of which one whole side was nothing but cookbooks!

My husband and I are quite opposite when it comes to buying books. I find few worth buying whereas he loves books, any book, all books; but is particularly drawn to cookbooks or books about chefs, cooking, food, etc. I skimmed through the shelves just to amuse myself, when I came across a book that stood apart. Titled: Restaurant Favorites at Home: A Best Recipe Classic, it sparked my curiosity. How many times have you gone out to eat and fallen in love with a dish because it’s so well prepared or really well matched with the sides? Here was a book that listed out meals from restaurants around the country.

Now, I have to say I never use cookbooks for recipes. Rather I use them for ideas or guidelines; especially when cooking. Baking is a different story. Always remember that every person has their own tastes and what might be enjoyable for some, may be painful for you. For example, many braised or roasted meat dishes often call for thyme, sage or rosemary. I happen to despise the taste of thyme and sage, preferring to stick with flavors a little less intense like coriander, fennel, parsley or basil. I follow the cooking guidelines like baking time/temp or braising technique; but rarely follow ingredients or measurements.

This particular cookbook served exactly that purpose. Yes, it listed out complete recipes with ingredients and measurements as well; but why did I buy it? It broke down in detail how cooking techniques, ingredients, utensils, etc. in a large restaurant kitchen are adapted to your everyday (personal) kitchen. How ovens and skillets etc. vary and what ingredients can be substituted for less expensive versions. How you can make restaurant meals easily at home, without a souse chef or warming table! If you’re like me and enjoy recreating something you enjoy at your favorite restaurant, I highly recommend this book. The next few recipes I post will most definitely be based on meals from this book, which I made over the last two weeks. Feel free to email me with questions, I make a lot of substitutions and often eyeball my measurements to taste and experience.