Sunday, May 30, 2010

- A little bit of smoke: Learning to love the heat

It's really great when your kids grow up ... especially when they get you cool toys for Christmas. We've been having fun playing with two in particular: the web cam that Meg and Paul gave us, which lets us watch Max the Weimeraner puppy grow before our eyes even though he's hundreds of miles away in St. Louis. And then there's the mini-panini press that Meliss and Jake gave us, with griddles that can be popped in the dishwasher and a surface area that's just right for two.

I must admit we did have some struggles at first. Piling too many ingredients onto bread sliced a shade too thick resulted in no little consternation as our creations ended up slip sliding away when we tried to close the press. But necessity is the mother of invention, so invent we did. Today's lunch was the logical culmination of a series of experiments. It's time to share.

First, you must find wonderful bread. We're fortunate to have found a bakery called Phoenix Rising, where they bake organic breads in a wood-fired brick oven. And there was some leftover rotisserie chicken in the fridge that, along with red pepper, bi-colored squash, avocado, red onion, and fresh mozzarella, seemed just the thing for lunch. Now you can see the problem already ... how to balance all this stuff onto a slice of bread?

Easy. Mush it all together. First grate the veggies, then the cheese. Chunk up some chicken and avocado. Peek out in the garden to see what the deer have left. Rosemary today, other days cilantro, basil or chives. Throw in some toasted pine nuts, salt, and pepper. Then wonder ... what else?

Thin slices of bread, brushed with olive oil and heaped with the filling go onto a hot press, which doesn't get pressed at all, but gently tucked on top of the sandwiches. Then we wait and Don is tasting the leftover filling, saying, "What's in here?" And I smile, because there's something new ... just a little bit of smoke, and a little bit of heat.

The sandwiches come off the press and they taste just right, though odds are we won't have exactly this mixture again. Next time there will be different veggies in the fridge, some other leftover meat to use up. But the smoke ... I won't leave out the smoke: finely diced heat from the tail end of a chipotle, it's better than bacon.

Gotta love Texas.

Friday, May 28, 2010

- Whisking away in Margaritaville: The best salad dressing ever

One of my co-workers left her salad dressing at home the other day, so I shared some vinaigrette that I had stashed in the fridge at work. When she said she'd like the recipe I was shocked (shocked!) to find that I didn't have it posted on the blog. Known in our house as Trellis Vinaigrette, it's loosely based on a recipe from the Trellis in Williamsburg, but it's been ages since I looked at the recipe; I know it by heart.

The all-time Ackert family favorite application for Trellis Vinaigrette is Grilled Chicken Salad ... a bed of leaf lettuce greens topped with bite-sized pieces of grilled chicken (fingers of boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated in white wine and lemon juice for 15 minutes before grilling over a hot charcoal fire), toasted pecans, sliced scallions, boiled (or nuked) red bliss potatoes, and crumbled bacon (a dry cure is best). Some sliced strawberries on top and a generous dose of vinaigrette will do you.

Trellis Vinaigrette also adds great tang and ably moistens deviled egg filling, cole slaw, and potato salad , all of which will no doubt make an appearance on our Memorial Day dinner table, along with burgers and Nathan's hot dogs.

Trellis Vinaigrette 

Juice of 1 or 2 lemons
An equal quantity of apple cider vinegar
Safflower oil, one and a half times the lemon/vinegar quantity
1 heaping teaspoon of Dijon mustard for each lemon
Kosher salt

This recipe is all about proportions.  Since you can't control how much juice is in a lemon, that quantity becomes the basis for the rest of the recipe. So juice the lemon(s) and put the juice in a measuring cup.  Eyeball an equal quantity of apple cider vinegar then make note of the combined quantity. For example, if I squeeze 2 lemons, it usually yields about 1/3 cup of juice, to which I add 1/3 cup of vinegar. Place in a steep sided bowl or a lidded glass jar and add 1/4 tsp salt (you can add more later depending on your taste) and one heaping teaspoon of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard for each lemon ... two in the example we're working on here.

Now measure 1 1/2 times that quantity in safflower oil (which is light, wonderful, and hard to find) ... so, 2/3 cup of lemon and vinegar requires 1 cup oil.

Here's where I part ways with cookbook orthodoxy: I do not slowly drizzle the oil into the lemon and vinegar while whisking away (gasp). Instead, I either shake everything together in a lidded glass jar or I put the whipped cream whisk attachment on my hand mixer and beat until the vinaigrette turns thick and creamy.

If it seems watery, I plunk in a little more mustard and/or oil. If it's bland, I throw in a little more salt, maybe even some pepper.

All of this is greatly facilitated if I have a Margarita in hand as I make the vinaigrette. Fresh lime juice, agave nectar, and a good tequila, shaken in crushed ice. Yum ... think I'll go whisk some up right now.

Friday, May 7, 2010

- Do it yourself Potstickers

I well remember the first time I had potstickers at a Munson family wedding in northern Virginia.  They were a revelation: soft dumplings caramelized on the bottom and filled with savory pork. But they were impossible to find in 1990s Williamsburg, so I was overjoyed to see them on a TGIF menu in Orlando, Florida when we took a family trip to Disney World. As I recall, the company of our hosts, Cathy and her son Alex, was the highlight of that particular meal, the potstickers turning out to be deep-fried and less-than-revelatory.

Continuing to seek out potstickers over the years yielded a string of less-than-memorable dining experiences, with the end result that I finally decided to try making my own. The Food Network recipe I printed out over the Christmas 2004 holidays and served to the girls and my folks is riddled with strikeouts and the ever-present beverage recommendation "good with beer." They were a lot of work and the end result never quite reached the level of that first magical taste so many years before. The packaged wonton wrappers that I used were too thick and doughy, often cracking and always overpowering the filling. After a couple of tries, I gave up on the recipe.

So potstickers were the last thing on my mind this past weekend when we were flying back to Austin after attending the funeral for Don's mother, Betty. Having exhausted my reading material (Eat, Pray, Love and Ruth Reichl's For You Mom, Finally), Meg filled the breach with the May issue of Food & Wine magazine. In addition to some intriguing recipes for oatmeal pine nut bars, semolina pancakes, pork and pineapple tacos, and hummus, there was a recipe for do-it-yourself dumplings.

Stopping to pick up some groceries as we drove out of Austin, I was primed to look for potsticker ingredients. Central Market did not disappoint. Fresh ginger, garlic, scallions, cabbage, and shitake mushrooms, along with freshly ground pork, made their way into the basket. Too travel weary to tackle making the "easy five minute dough" promised by Food & Wine, I cooked up an improvised pork filling and stuck it in the fridge, where it languished for a couple of days.

When I did get around to making the potstickers two nights later, we had eaten our way through three quarters of them before I realized they were worth a picture ... and a recipe.

Potstickers (serves two)

2 Tbs safflower or peanut oil
3/4 pound ground pork
1/2 cup rough chopped shitake mushroom tops
1 garlic clove
1 inch peeled fresh ginger
1/4 cup thin sliced scallions
1/2 cup finely shredded cabbage
Sesame oil
Soy sauce
Microplane box grater (this thing scared the heck out of me when I first got it, but now I use it all the time)

Slice green scallions into thin rounds.  Finely shred the cabbage using a medium-sized microplane blade.

Heat the oil in a saute pan, throwing in the pork and shitakes first.  As the pork begins to cook, gently break it up with a wooden spoon (I used an old bamboo paddle that came with a wok that has long since departed ... it's one of my favorite cooking tools).

Grate the garlic and ginger on the finest microplane blade and toss them into the pan, turning the heat down to medium high if things look like they're moving too fast.

Taking care not to overcook the pork (which will get more cooking time in the dumplings), add the sliced scallions and grated cabbage, then cook for another half minute or so. Season with sesame oil and soy sauce to taste. Remove from heat and let cool while you make the dumplings or refrigerate the filling for another day.

BTW, this is more filling than you need to fill 16 dumplings, but the leftovers are a great way to pass the time while the potstickers are cooking.

2/3 cup bread flour (the better to develop gluten)
1/3 cup water
1/4 tsp safflower oil floated on the water
Pinch of salt
1 cup chicken broth (homemade, of course)
2-3 Tbs. safflower or peanut oil for frying

Put the flour in a food processor with 1/4 cup of the oil/water mixture and a pinch of salt. The goal is to make a "raggy dough" according to Food & Wine magazine. As the food processor whirls, add water until the dough masses into a ball. Stop and feel the dough. If it feels dry, restart the food processor and drizzle in more water. If the dough sticks to your finger when you poke it, give it another whirl and sprinkle in a bit more flour until it is just past sticky. 

Don't worry about over-processing ... by forming gluten, you end up with a stretchy dough that handles beautifully. However, you will need to give the dough a rest so that it doesn't act like a rubber band when you try to roll it out. Remove the dough ball from the food processor, gently form it into a disk shape, adding just enough flour to keep it from sticking to your hands, and leave it in a small bowl for 15-30 minutes.

Divide the dough in half, divide the halves into quarters, the quarters into eighths, and stop dividing when you end up with 16 little nuggets of dough. Lightly flour a pastry cloth and rolling pin, then coax the little balls into 3-4" rounds. You'll be amazed how thin you can make them by stretching the dough rounds after rolling them out.

If you made the filling in advance, this would be the time to gently warm it in the microwave (please don't use a high setting ... 40-50% power is much better).  If it seems dry, a splash of chicken broth will help it along.

Put out a sheet of waxed or parchment paper. Dip your finger in water and run it around the edge of a dough round, place a tablespoon of filling in the middle, pinch the dough closed and put the dumpling on the waxed or parchment paper. When you get halfway through filling the dumplings, which look like fat little purses, check the first few and turn them over if they are starting to stick to the paper. If any holes open up, gently pinch them closed.

When the dumplings are filled, heat a few tablespoons of safflower or peanut oil in a skillet large enough to fit all sixteen. Fry the dumplings on high for a minute or two, then add 1/2 cup chicken stock and put a lid on the pan.  Cook another minute or so, then take the lid off and let the stock boil away, gently coaxing the potstickers to keep them from sticking too firmly.  Peeking to see if the dumplings have caramelized on the bottom is allowed. BTW, when Don asked why the potstickers weren't cooked on top, I defied orthodoxy by flipping the dumplings at the last minute to caramelize them on both sides.

Serve immediately, dipping the potstickers in soy sauce to taste ... you can even make a wonton soup of sorts by plunking them in hot chicken broth if you're so inclined. I think we drank a light pinot noir the other night, but an unfiltered sake would be even better (although nigori can be hard to find). Side dishes of rice and/or slaw with an oriental dressing are logical accompaniments if you're really hungry, but as a light supper, potstickers can stand alone.