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Thomas The Accidental Gourmet

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Embrace Your Inner Hippie--Basil Olive Oil and Cognac Vanilla

I affectionately refer to my mother in-law as the earth mother. This is in part because she used to make homemade yogurt on the hood of her car. I suppose that Basil Olive Oil and Cognac Vanilla aren't very hippie-ish. But, hey, they're homemade, and that's as close as most of us will come to our inner hippie.

The nice thing about these two is that they're incredibly simple to make.

The bad thing is that you may have family and friends request that you make some for them and share. Which, I suppose, is sort of hippie-ish after all.

Basil Olive Oil

You'll need as much extra virgin olive oil as you will put in a container. I have a bottle with a little pouring spout that holds about 12 ounces, so that's my measuring stick. Chop up fresh basil leaves, so that you have 1/2 cup chopped leaves. DON'T USED DRIED. Speaking of which, if you don't already have one, go right now and plant a basil plant in your backyard or in your window sill. You should have a rosemary plant as well. Sun is good.

Put your olive oil in a small sauce pan (you want as little surface area on your stove as possible), add the basil, and heat on low heat for about 30 minutes. The size of your pan will dictate your time a bit. Ultimately, keep cooking your basil about 10 minutes after you can smell it from another room.

Another important thing is not to fry the basil. If you hear popping, remove the pan from the heat until the oil cools down.

Once your oil has absorbed the basil taste (you can always taste test it, just don't dip your finger in the pan), strain it through a coffee filter and put it in your container. You can save the basil leaves and put them in a pasta dish (such as the Ravioli Primavera, previously posted). Our favorite uses for the oil include pasta, paninis, salad, and eggs.

Cognac Vanilla

This is so easy, I'm almost embarrassed to post it.

Buy a bottle of cognac (750 ml). Buy 5 vanilla beans (buy in bulk at Central Market or Whole Foods). Cut the beans in half, then cut each one in half lengthwise. Place in the bottle of cognac. Wait 2-3 months, sampling occasionally (it's really tasty, so don't sample it too much). Obviously, you're going to have significantly more vanilla than you could ever hope to use in several years. So bottle some up and give it to your baking friends.

You might also consider using some really good rum to do this.

Passing the Smell Test--Grilled Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken and Basil Tomato Marinara on Cinnamon Rice

I made a mistake recently. I asked some friends coming over for dinner if they had any requests. Normally, unless there's an allergy at issue, I don't pay attention to whether someone does or doesn't like a particular ingredient. This a point of contention in my house. My wife says we are supposed to care about our guests' enjoyment, whereas I like to look at them as guinea pigs.

But, I asked. So I was looking at either chicken or beef. I don't normally like to cook chicken for company because I think of it as a bland food that needs a lot of dressing up. But we'd just had the family over for steaks the night before. Chicken it would be. I decided to adapt a recipe I'd made up for shrimp one evening a while ago. The problem was that the shrimp recipe occurred after we'd all had a few glasses of wine. I remembered that it had cinnamon rice, some sort of marinara, and goat cheese. Beyond that, I had no idea. I was going to have to find the right spice combination...again.

For the novice cook, spices are scary. Once we get past salt, pepper, and maybe oregano, most of us are afraid to venture deep into the spice cabinet. How do we know what will taste good together, and what will be a bust?

The answer is simple: your spices and ingredients have to pass the smell test. If you smell two ingredients, and they "battle each other," then your food is going to have conflicting taste. If one of your spices overpowers the other in your nose, it will in your mouth, as well.

When I'm trying something new, the first thing I do is to smell the various spices and ingredients I plan on using. If I like the way they combine in my nose, then I'm pretty certain that I'll like the way they all fit together as a meal. This way, even though I may use some exotic ingredients, or ingredients that don't normally go together, I rarely end up with food that just flat out tastes weird.

If you try this recipe, prep all the ingredients before you mix anything together. Then sniff one ingredient after another in quick succession. I'll bet you'll like what you smell.

Grilled Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken and Basil Tomato Marinara on Cinnamon Rice

What you need:

3 chicken breasts
8 roma tomatoes
3 ounces of goat cheese
1/8 cup olive oil
1 large clove of garlic
1 serrano pepper
3 large fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4-1/2 tsp lime juice
sea salt

What to do with it:

Get some charcoal going on the grill.

We're going to start with the marinara. Start by peeling, seeding, and chopping the tomatoes. Chop the basil and place in a sauce pan with the tomatoes, olive oil, cardamon and about 1 1/2 tsp sea salt. Start cooking on medium low heat, stirring occasionally. You're going to keep cooking this for a while, until the tomatoes are almost all liquid.

Mince the garlic and serrano (don't seed it), and mix them and the lime juice into the goat cheese. Use a fork. Add about 1 tsp salt as you go.

Put some water on to boil for your rice.

Cut your chicken in half laterally so that you have two sides each about 1/2" thick. Don't quite cut them all the way through (you want a "hinge" on one side). Microwave the goat cheese mixture about 15 seconds so that it is a bit softer, and spread it on one half of each chicken breast. Now fold the two halves back together. Use a couple of tooth picks, and cooking twine if you've got it, to keep the halves of the chicken together.

Measure out your rice, and add the cinnamon to it.

At this point, your water should be boiling and your coals ready for cooking. Put the rice on. Check the tomatoes: if they've cooked down, turn down the heat to low. If not, keep going. Put your chicken on the grill. You're going to cook it about 8 minutes per side, depending on your grill.

Once the chicken is done, slice it into strips about 1/4 inch wide. Plate the rice, top with marinara, and put the chicken on top. Serve with a buttery chardonnay, such as J. Lohr.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bagna Càuda and Frutti di Mare on Linguini

I believe there are three kinds of people: those that can do math, and those that can't.

Hmmmm. Alright, there are only two kinds of people: those that like lists, and those that think of a list as an oppressive yoke, whose sole purpose is to suck the pleasure out of your day by hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles. I'm not a fan of lists.

My wife likes lists. She also likes recipes. Give her a complex, multi-step recipe, and she's in heaven.

I tend to mess up recipes. My classic blunder is to read the list of ingredients, throw them all in a skillet together, and then read the part that tells me that there is, in fact, a very crucial order for adding things.

Sometimes we find a way for our two little worlds to coincide. For the opening of the 20th Winter Olympics, we decided to make a typical Piedmontese dish, bagna càuda. (For those that don't know, bagna càuda is hot olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies into which you dip raw and cooked vegetables, and bread.)

We got to use a recipe to make the bagna càuda, which made my wife happy. But it makes a lot, and once you're done dipping you've got a lot of oil left over that it just seems a waste to pour out. So we didn't. And I got to play around and use it to make something completely different. Everybody's happy.

Bagna Càuda and Frutti di Mare on Linguini

What you need:


Leftover bagna càuda

For the frutti di mare, about 1/3 pound mixed seafood per person, cut into 1" pieces. Examples are: lobster tail, squid tubes, mahi mahi, clams, and sea scallps.

What to do with it:

Let's make bagna càuda first. To 2 cups extra virgin olive oil, add 10 cloves of finely-minced garlic and 12 minced anchovies. Cook on low heat, stirring or whisking often, until the garlic and anchovies have mostly dissolved. Finish by stirring in about 1/2 cup butter. (This is when you place the bagna càuda into a fondue pot and dip in your veggies and bread.)

When you're done dipping, don't throw out the oil. When you're ready to cook the frutti di mare(and it can be "tomorrow"), place the oil over medium high heat in a small sauce pan. Go ahead and start your linguini now.

Once your oil is heated, and your linguini almost done, drop your seafood in the oil and cook for 4-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not overcook.

Place the linguini in a large bowl and ladle out the frutti di mare--don't worry about draining the oil: you'll want some on the linguini. Toss, salt to taste, and serve. Consider a barbera wine to go with it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Life Is Too Short for Cheap Booze

Most people don't drink just to get drunk. At least not once they graduate college.

So, if you're not drinking to get drunk, why would you swill rot gut instead of something that tastes good? I guess it's like my mother always said: "anything worth doing is worth doing right." Although I don't think she was talking about rum at the time.

Drinking gin and tonic? Don't dip below Tanqueray. Margarita on the rocks? Herradura silver should be your bottom end tequila. Making a mimosa? Avoid the Andre. I know they're a bit more expensive, but we all ought to be drinking less anyhow. Or, skip Starbucks that week!

This concept has broader applications in the kitchen. We don't (or shouldn't) eat just to eat. We should enjoy what's on the plate. To enjoy what's on the plate--that is, to have food that tastes good--you have to start with ingredients that taste good. Sounds pretty elementary. You wouldn't buy a cheap select grade flank steak and pair it with a quality David Bruce Russian River Valley pinot noir. But have you ever bought the cheapest wine you could find for cooking? You know, the one on the very bottom shelf. In a jug. That's not an ingredient that tastes good, and it will permeate your dish.

One thing I like to do is to cook with the wine I'm drinking. Most dishes only call for 1/2 cup or less of wine, so it won't be missed. If whatever I'm cooking calls for a lot of wine, my rule of thumb is to use a wine that I enjoy drinking by itself--when the cooking's done, there will usually be wine left over, after all.

This little philosophy extends beyond food, of course. Bottom line: whatever you're drinking/eating/doing is only as good as what you're putting into it. Use good ingredients. Be a good friend. Be a great spouse. Life's too short for anything else.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Everybody Likes Italian, Right? Ravioli Primavera with Chicken

Most of us aren't familiar with actual Italian food. Most of us are familar with "Italianesque." Think about anything you eat at Macaroni Grill. It's like eating at Cantina Laredo and saying you've had Mexican food.

Of course, Cantina Laredo has its place, and so does Italianesque. The nice thing about Italianesque is that (i) it's easy and (ii) it tastes good. The problem with it is that a lot of people stop at spaghetti with bottled sauce. The difference between spaghetti with Classico pasta sauce, and something that's worth eating, is about five minutes. But how many times have we all opted for spaghetti from a box and sauce from a jar?

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for life.

So, here's a little something for those of you that want more out of your quick food. Total cooking and prep time: about 15 minutes. It's not Italian, but it tastes good. And since it only takes about 5 minutes longer than cooking spaghetti...well, as I said, somewhere there's a metaphor lurking about...

Ravioli Primavera with Chicken


Start with some fresh, firm vegetables. I like to use a leek, a carrot, about 1/2 a bell pepper, and some celery.
1 chicken breast
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp. sour cream
Basil (fresh leaves if you've got 'em, flakes if not)
1 clove garlic
1 tsp. butter
corn starch
Cheese Ravioli (refrigerated, or home made, if you own a pasta press)

What to do with it:

Cut the chicken into about 3/4 inch pieces, and the vegetables about half that size. Mince the garlic and shred the basil if you've got it.

Sautee the chicken in olive oil with the garlic. Add some salt. Your water should be on and heating at this time for the pasta.

Once the chicken is about 3/4 cooked, add the basil, wine and vegetables, and keep your stove on medium. (If your pasta isn't in the pot by now, it should be.) Continue cooking until the chicken is done. Now, add the sour cream, and mix it up into the vegetables. Keep cooking on medium heat until your vegetables are just about to the firmness you want.

Add the butter and cook the chicken and veggies until you've cooked away about 1/2 of your your liquid. Throw in some more salt and some pepper to taste. Now it's time for the corn starch.
If you haven't played with corn starch before, the purpose is to thicken whatever liquid you've got. Right now, your sauce should be pretty thin. Add about a tablespoon of corn starch to 1/8 cup cold water and stir until the starch is completely dissolved. Now, slowly add the starch to your chicken and veggies while stirring. Keep an eye on the thickness--this is purely a matter of personal prefernce. Once you've got your sauce to a thickness you want, add the pasta and toss.

The butter adds just enough fat that, when combined with the thickening of the corn starch, makes this taste significantly more rich than it actually is.

You can easily substitute shrimp for chicken but cook the shrimp after your vegetables. Other veggies work as well, but pay attention to how quickly they will cook: if you're going to add mushrooms, for instance, you'll want to add them after the rest of your vegetables.

My First Recipe Success--Caribbean Shrimp with Papaya-Brie Quesadillas

When my wife and I lived in Austin Texas and I was in law school, we didn't have a lot of money. We allotted ourselves $7.50 each for lunch for the week. If we watched the sales, we could buy Michelenas frozen entrees for 99 cents each, and either have a coke or a V-8. We used to give ourselves $200 per month for groceries and $40 per month for entertainment.

Obviously, if we wanted a meal at a nice restaurant, we had to save for two months or more. Or we could cook a meal at home for $10 to $20. This is when we started experimenting with cooking, and a dish I call Caribbean Shrimp was the first success. More specifically, it's shrimp on a bed of coconut rice with mango-habanero salsa.

Ingredients (these are rough approximations--I never use measuring utensils)
20 medium shrimp, deveined and peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp cayenne
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp paprika
salt & pepper
1/3 cup coconut flakes
white rice
1 mango
1 habanero

What to do with it all
Combine olive oil, cumin, paprika, cayenne, garlic and about 2/3 of the cilantro. Add salt & pepper to taste. Throw in the shrimp and marinate.

Peel & dice the mango and mince 1/2 the habanero (or more, but it's hot). Puree the mango, habanero and the remaining cilantro in a food processor or blender. Heat in a microwave for 2 minutes. This spreads the heat evenly from the habanero.

Add coconut flakes to white rice.

Now skewer the shrimp and throw on the grill and cook the rice.

Serve by plating rice, adding shrimp, and mango salsa on top.

You should have some salsa left over. If you're into dessert, you can make Papaya-Brie Quesadillas. These are pretty simple: slice up a papaya and some brie, place on a flour tortilla, and add some salsa. Either fold that one over, or place another on top. Make certain that you butter the outside of the tortillas, and heat in a cast iron skillet until golden brown on the outside.