Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chicken Gyros

When it comes to ethnic food, Greek cuisine is near and dear to my heart. I love the simple ingredients and intense, fresh flavors. One of the things I find the most surprising about it is that the recipes often meld together ingredients that I don't usually care for on their own, and I end up loving it.  My affinity for Greek food started with the gyro. I was visiting a friend outside of Chicago and after a night out on the town, he took me to a tiny gyro stand.  All I could think of was how I don't love lamb all that much, I hate cucumber and oregano is not on my all-star list either. Despite my protests, he ordered me a classic gyro (grilled marinated lamb, tzatziki sauce, onion, tomato and feta), and I was hooked.  Since then, I have made a point to try all kinds of Greek food and I've enjoyed it all. Yes, even the cucumber!

A good gyro is high on my list of favorite foods. When I bought my house last year, I was delighted to find that it was a couple blocks away from my favorite gyro joint, Sami's Pita House. They serve up gyros with all kinds of fun twists. Their black and white gyro (half lamb and half chicken) would be my vote for a death-row last meal. That got me thinking about chicken gyros and how I could try to make them at home.  I searched and tried quite a few recipes. 

About a year ago, I found this recipe from Bon Appetit magazine. It's easy and so far I haven't met anyone who hasn't enjoyed it. It comes together quickly, in about 30 minutes or so. It's also healthy, especially if you use a low-cal pita. Make the yogurt sauce a day ahead if you can. That will give the herbs and garlic a chance to meld with the yogurt and it really brings out their flavors. You can top your gyro with whatever you like. I am a fan of tomato and feta. I didn't have tomato this time around, but I always have feta on hand.  I prefer sheep's milk feta over cow's milk, but either one is fine.  If you don't have pita bread, you can use naan or any kind of flatbread.

Chicken Gyros with Yogurt-Dill Sauce
from Bon Appetit, December 1997

Makes 4 servings

1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 tablespoons, plus one teaspoon chopped fresh dill
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onion (or 1 large onion), thinly sliced
4 pita bread rounds, warmed

Stir yogurt, 2 tbsp dill, garlic and 1 tsp lemon juice together in a small bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Place chicken in medium bowl. Sprinkle with oregano, 1 tsp of dill and salt and pepper.  Salt to coat.

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken; saute until lightly browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add 1 tbsp oil to skillet. Add onions; saute until beginning to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Return chicken and any juices to skillet. Add 1 tbsp lemon juice. Stir until heated through, about 2 minutes.

Arrange pita rounds on plates. Top with chicken mixture. Spoon some yogurt sauce over chicken.  Pass extra sauce separately.

Grab some napkins and dig in!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Love, love, love

I was doing some maintenance on the blog this morning before work and noticed that in my two weeks of blogging, I have seven official followers. That's more than I can count on one hand! :)  Thanks to everyone who's reading (whether you are following or not). I love writing the blog and I'm excited for new things to come! 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Great Food, Fast

I think old man winter was making a point with today's cold and dreary weather.  Winter in Michigan is not quite over yet. On my lunch break today, I took a field trip to my favorite specialty grocer, G.B. Russo. I was supposed to be looking for a new tart pan and a good bottle of balsamic vinegar, but instead I found myself aimlessly cruising the aisles. Then I looked down at my cart and realized that maybe my wandering hadn't been so random, after all. I had picked up pasta, grated parmesan, and prosciutto; the makings for a winter blah-busting carbonara!

If you've never had carbonara, it's unbelievable and incredibly easy to make.  It comes together in less than twenty minutes. I guaranteed you'll be addicted. It's one of my favorite comfort foods. Since carbonara has so few ingredients, make sure to use the highest quality that you can.  Freshly grated parmesan does indeed taste a world different than the stuff in the green container.

The first time I made carbonara, I worried about the eggs.  Could it really have raw eggs in it?  The answer is yes and no. The sauce is simply hot water, egg and cheese. The egg is added to the hot pasta while it's removed from the heat.  The water from the pasta and the heat of the pasta itself help to cook the egg, albeit at a very low temperature.  The eggs reach a safe temperature in the dish so that they aren't considered raw. If you pay attention to the sauce, you'll notice the slight consistency and color changes as the egg cooks. That being said, I wouldn't feed carbonara to a very young child or anyone with immune system issues, just to be on the safe side.

My favorite carbonara recipe is from an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine. It calls for bacon, but I used prosciutto instead because I like it better. I also realized I didn't have any leeks, so I sauteed some onion instead. I always add a few grinds of black pepper to my pasta as well. 

Orecchiette Carbonara from Bon Appetit Magazine, April 2008

4 slices bacon, diced
2 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/3 inch pieces
10 ounces orecchiette pasta or small shells
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus additional for serving
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Cook bacon in a large skillet until crisp, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel to drain. Leave 2 tablespoons of fat in the skillet.  Add leeks and saute over medium heat until tender, about 6 minutes. Turn off heat.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Whisk eggs and 1/2 cup parmesan in medium bowl to blend; gradually whisk in 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid. Add pasta to leeks in skillet and stir to heat. Pour egg mixture over pasta and stir until sauce is just creamy and eggs are no longer raw, about 2 minutes (Return skillet to VERY low heat if eggs are runny; do not overcook or eggs will curdle). Add some of the remaining 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid to the skillet if needed to moisten. Stir in bacon and parsley. Serve pasta, passing additional cheese separately.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

This little piggy went to market...

I admit that I'm not a huge fan of pork in general.  For some reason, it just never tops my list of favorites.  However, this recipe is pretty close to changing my mind. The dry rub combined with beer braising makes for intensely flavorful and tender meat.  Let the rub sit on the meat as long as possible, in order for the best flavor. I used a bottle of Founders Dirty Bastard as the beer for the braising liquid. The sauce itself is more like a sweet/spicy combo, rather than a barbecue flavor.  I like my pulled pork messy, so I usually double up on the sauce. You might need to add extra beer to the pan juices for this. The recipe makes a huge amount of pulled pork, but it freezes well.  I like to serve it with a good cheese (I used muenster this time) on toasted onion rolls.  Sweet potato fries and a salad round it out for a great meal. 

Beer Braised Pork Butt by Dave Lieberman

2 Tbsp salt
About 40 grinds (1 Tbsp) cracked black pepper
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp garlic powder
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground mustard seed
12 oz dark beer
4 cloves chopped garlic
5lb pork butt roast

Combine the first 6 ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Rub all over both sides of the pork butt. Wrap the meat in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour and as long as overnight.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Unwrap pork and place in a roasting pan with sides at least 2 inches high. Cook 45 minutes until dark brown and carmelizing in places. Remove from oven.  Lower heat to 325 degrees. Pour beer over the top and add the chopped garlic around the pork. Cover with aluminum foil. Poke about 10 holes in the foil to vent. Cook the pork butt for 2 1/2 hours longer, or until it is tender enough to separate easily from the center bone.

Place the meat on a plate and pour the pan juice (there should be plenty) into a saucepan. To the pan juices, add:
1/2 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp whole grain Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp Worchestershire sauce
1/3 cup brown sugar

Bring to a simmer until reduced by half and thick, about 20 minutes.

While the sauce is boiling down, pull apart the pork with two forks. Pour the sauce over the pulled pork and work through until fully coated.

Grab a napkin and enjoy!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dress it up

When the weather starts to warm up each year, I find myself looking forward to the first spring vegetables.  There's nothing like seeing early lettuces, broccoli and other goodies hitting the farmers market. I inevitably start thinking of all the things I'm going to make with them.

I love vegetables, but I usually prefer them raw or very, very lightly steamed. I like the crunch and the taste of raw veggies. As a result, I enjoy a lot of salads.  I eat salad at least once per day, just about every day.  I like to mix it up with different kinds of greens, veggies and dressings to keep things interesting.  About a year ago, I read the ingredients in one of my favorite bottled dressings and was a little baffled. It's a simple vinegar and oil dressing, but I couldn't even pronounce half of the stuff in it.  Feeling disillusioned and annoyed, I decided that I would make my own dressings from there on out.  And I did.  It's quick and easy, and once I learned a base recipe or two, the combinations seemed endless.  Best of all, I control exactly what's in it. No more xanthan gum or calcium disodium for me!

The following is my favorite fool-proof basic vinaigrette recipe.  It's very flavorful and the mustard helps to bind the oil and vinegar into something creamy and wonderful (don't worry - the dressing doesn't taste strongly of mustard). You can jazz it up by adding minced shallots or fresh herbs like parsley, chives or tarragon. I use my small food processor for making the base, rather than the blender. Either one will work. Get a couple of squirt bottles for storage, and you're good to go.

House Vinaigrette, by Thomas Keller
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups canola oil (you can use vegetable oil, but don't substitute olive oil here, it's too heavy)

Combine the mustard and vinegar in a blender and blend at medium speed for about 15 seconds.  With the machine running, slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup of the oil.  Don't be tempted to add all of the oil to the blender, or the vinaigrette will becomg too thick.  It should be very creamy.

Transfer the vinaigrette to a small bowl and, whisking constantly, slowly stream in the remaining 1 cup oil. The dressing can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. Should the vinaigrette separate, use a blender or immersion blender to re-emulsify it (a vigorous shake of the bottle usually works too).

Go get those veggies!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nutella + Banana Bread = YUM

I don't have much of a sweet tooth. The sight or smell of rich, decadent chocolate does nothing for me. When I crave something on the sweeter side, it's usually lemon meringue or key lime pie. That being said, even I still have the urge now and again for something sweet. Banana bread is often my go-to baked good.  What's not to love, right? A couple of years ago, I was looking for a way to jazz up some banana bread for a bake sale and I came across a jar of Nutella in my pantry. Voila - kitchen magic was born! If you've never tried Nutella, it's wonderful.  Even I, who am not a huge fan of chocolate, can appreciate it. The chocolate taste is very subtle, and the hazelnut really shines. You can find it at your regular grocery store, right alongside the peanut butter and jelly.

Over the last year or so, the Nutella banana bread has become my most requested recipe! I love to make this bread because it's quick and you can easily add or omit ingredients as you like. The base recipe is very forgiving.  If you don't like nuts, leave 'em out. No Nutella? No problem; throw in a handful of chocolate chips instead. This recipe would be great for kids to help with or for those who aren't really into baking (like myself). I can pretty much guarantee that you'll earn brownie points for taking it to work or over to a friend's house.

The basic recipe started out years ago on a half sheet of lined paper. I've made tweaks to it here and there, and I have to say, I think it's pratically perfect now! The ratio of dry to wet ingredients seems quite high, but don't worry. Just keep mixing. As you stir, the liquids will come out of the bananas and you'll end up with a thick batter. I hope you enjoy this recipe and have fun making it your own. I would love to hear any creative spins on it that you might come up with!

Nutella Banana Bread
3-4 very ripe bananas
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a loaf pan. Mash the bananas in a large bowl with a fork.  Add everything but the Nutella and mix well. Spoon half of the batter into the loaf pan. Add 3-4 dollops of Nutella and swirl with a knife.  Add the rest of the batter, top with more Nutella and swirl. Bake 55-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool and enjoy!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cooking With Beer? Yes, Please!

This year I am determined to organize my recipes and cook more from my cookbooks. I have a pretty good collection of them and there are an amazing number of recipes that I haven’t even tried.  I often use recipes from web sites or the numerous cooking magazines that I subscribe to, sadly neglecting the cookbooks themselves.  So this week, I turned to the ultimate cooking tome; Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for my inspiration. 
Those who know me in any capacity are well aware of my love for beer.  Fortunately, Michigan (and Grand Rapids in particular) has an abundance of local craft brewers, which takes my beer affinity to the level of near-obsession.  As a beer aficionado, I am drawn to recipes that list it among the ingredients. As I was browsing Julia’s collection, I came across Beef and Onions Braised in Beer.  It was a no-brainer! 
As always, when you cook with beer, make sure that you use something you would actually drink.  The alcohol cooks off, but the flavor intensifies during the cooking process.  If you don’t like it right out of the bottle, you won’t like it in your bowl either.  All beers are not created equal, so stick with the style of beer that the recipe calls for.  Using a porter in place of a pale ale will not give you good results.  Beer is like wine in that certain styles go better with certain foods. 
The recipe was quite simple and resulted in amazingly tender beef and a slightly tangy gravy, thanks to the addition of splash of vinegar at the end.  The beer really deepened the flavor of the gravy and was a nice twist.  I served it over lightly buttered egg noodles, which are a favorite of mine.  Perfect dinner on a gray winter’s day! 
Carbonnades a la Flamande (Beef and Onions Braised in Beer) by Julia Child
Serves 6

Heavy skillet
3-lb lean beef chuck roast
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
6 cups (1.5 lbs) sliced onions
Salt and pepper
4 cloves mashed garlic
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Cut the beef into slives about 2 by 4 inches across and 1/2 inch thick.  Dry meat on paper towels. Add oil to skillet and heat until oil is shimmering.  Brown the beef slices, a few at a time, then set them aside on a platter.

Reduce the heat to moderate. Stir the onions into the skillet, adding more oil if necessary, and brown the onions lightly for about 10 minutes.  Stir frequently. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the garlic.

Dutch Oven or other cast iron deep baking dish
Salt and pepper
Arrange half of the browned beef in the dish and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Spread half of the onions over the beef.  Repeat with the rest of the beef and onions.

1 cup beef stock or beef bouillon
2-3 cups light beer (Pilsner or lager style)
2 Tbsp light brown sugar
1 large herb bouquet (6 parsley sprigs, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 tsp thyme tied with kitchen twine)
Heat the stock or bouillon in the browning skillet, scraping up the cooking juices and de-glazing your pan. Stir in the brown sugar. Pour it over the meat.  Add enough beer so that the meat/onions are barely covered. Bury the herbs among the meat. Bring the casserole to a simmer on top of the stove, then cover and place in the lower third of the the preheated oven. Keep at a very slow simmer for 2.5 hours, at the end of which time the meat should be fork-tender.

1/2 Tbsp cornstarch blended with 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
Remove herb bouquet.  Drain the cooking liquid out of the baking dish into a saucepan. Skim off fat.  Add the starch and vinegar mixture to the cooking liquid and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.  Pour sauce back over the meat.  Serve with parsley potatoes or buttered noodles.

Bon appetit!