Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon with Shiitake Mushroom Sauce & Crispy Ridged Potato Chips

The filet mignon (French for "petite or dainty fillet") is the most prized cut of meat from a cow. Universally recognized for its tenderness, this small portion of meat is extracted from the tenderloin, which is a snake-like-shaped piece of meat sandwiched between the sirloin and top sirloin cuts. Each steer produces two tenderloins but they combine to only weigh maybe 4 to 6 pounds in total, hence its relative rarity and consequently higher cost. The filet mignon's extreme tenderness is derived from the fact that that particular part of the steer does not get any workout at all, remaining tender throughout the lifetime of the steer. Which is good news for the rest of us because after biting through a medium rare-cooked filet mignon, you can never go back to any other cuts of meat.

Walking through the meat section of my local grocery store last week, I came across a surprising find. Vacuum packed in a compact and neat package were two circular cut filet mignons (weighing about 5 oz. each), already wrapped tightly around them with bacon. Now, that is not the reason for the surprise. What got me all excited was the price. For $4.99, I was able to purchase two pieces of filet mignon wrapped in bacon! Just imagine this, a gourmet dinner entrée for two that will cost you around $10 or less (after adding in side dishes). An impressive and delicious treat for you and a significant other without breaking the bank.

For this dish, I chose to make a shiitake mushroom sauce and some crispy ridged potato chips to go along with the filet mignon. I started by rehydrating some dried shiitake mushroom in water. After that's done, no not discard the soaking water as we'll use it later to add more flavor to the sauce. Julienne the mushrooms as they are now nice and pliable. Now, lets sear the filet mignons on a deep skillet. Make sure the oil is nice and hot before browning the meat on both sides. Remove the filets from the skillet and finish them in a low oven set between 300 and 350 degrees F. No sense in rushing it and you wouldn't want to go over medium temperature on this one. Trust me, a well-done filet mignon is such a waste of a good piece of meat.

Lets now make the sauce starting from the skillet that was used to brown the meat. Sauté some finely chopped shallots and garlic, scraping the bottom of the skillet to mix in all the fine savory meat crust left behind from the earlier meat searing. Deglaze the skillet with a little bit of red wine and some of that mushroom soaking water from earlier. Add the julienned mushrooms and half a can of beef broth (can be easily obtained from the grocery store). Simmer the sauce until it reduces to half the liquid level that you started with or until it reaches a saucy consistency (sticks lightly to the spoon). Taste it and season with salt and pepper if desired.

As for the potato chips, I found a chance to use my new mandolin, so I went for the ridged cut. You can either use regular Russert baking potatoes or red bliss potatoes for this application. I chose the latter. Just wash them thoroughly (no need to peel) and go crazy on the mandolin. Make sure that the oil that you are using for deep frying the potato chips get to a desired temperature of 350 degrees F and above or the resulting chips will be soggy. Deep fry them until golden brown and when done, place them on paper towel-lined plates to drain the excess oil. Immediately after coming out of the frying oil, sprinkle salt and pepper on the chips to get the seasonings to stick to the surface.

And there you have it, a gourmet meal without the gourmet prices. Why pay more than $50 for a couple of filet mignon entrées at a restaurant when you can do it quite as easily from the comfort of your own home for a fifth of that price. And you get to impress that special someone in your life as well. Bon Appétit!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chicken Piccata

Chicken Piccata is a dish that is less intimidating to make than one might expect. Most people equate piccata as a recipe originating from Italy but it was actually created in the United States with obvious influences from the old country. Piccata is most commonly served with either chicken or veal.

Let's start off with a few pieces of boneless chicken breast, either sliced thinly or pounded out flat to facilitate fast cooking. Season 2 cups of flour with salt, pepper and some cayenne and coat the chicken meat thoroughly with it. Heat up some oil on a skillet and start searing until the meat is cooked and golden brown in color on the outside. Set them aside and let's make the sauce.

Start with half a stick of butter and sauté some shallots and garlic. Add flour, dry white wine and lemon juice together with capers and fresh thyme. Make sure you wash and soak the capers before using as they can be very salty. Add some chicken bouillon (I use Knorr brand) and continue cooking until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper and pour it over the chicken cutlets and serve. Now, wasn't that easy?

Easy-to-make Rosemary & Orange Roasted Chicken

I love both eating and cooking roasted chicken as it is not only delicious but also does not require much prep time. The time factor is a heaven-sent especially for busy parents struggling to cook dinner after long a day at the office. First, let me describe how to prepare a roasted chicken meal on the fly and then after that, we can get into the specifics of making the rosemary and orange glaze.

All you need is a whole chicken (or a combination of breast and thigh meat) and a few ingredients one should have handy around the house. First, clean the chicken thoroughly (including the inner cavity of the whole chicken), removing the extra fat and skin. Melt some butter and generously lather it all over the chicken. Seasoning can be as simple as just salt and pepper or with an addition of maybe dried oregano or thyme, Old Bay, poultry or roasted garlic seasonings. Now, put the chicken on a baking pan and cover it with foil paper and bake it in the oven at 450 degrees F. If you have potatoes or carrots lying around your refrigerator, you can roast those with the chicken as well. To get an even cooking time, try to cut the potatoes and carrots into equal size chunks. Oil these pieces well and season with salt and pepper as well as some dried herbs if you have any. Oregano and thyme perform very well for this particular function. Just lay the vegetables in the same pan as the chicken and roast in the oven. Now you have your protein, your starch (from the potatoes) AND also your vegetable roasting in the oven all at the same time!

Now, to make the rosemary and orange glaze, I approached the initial preparation of the chicken a little differently. Clean and season chicken as I described in the earlier paragraph. However, before roasting it in the oven, brown the outside skin of the chicken first on a hot skillet. After that is done, remove the chicken and set it aside. You can now see the yummy tiny bits and pieces plus some of the oils from the chicken left behind from the browning on the skillet. Finely chop up some garlic and shallots and cook them on the skillet. Now, deglaze the skillet with orange juice and orange flavored liqueur like Triple Sec or Grand Marnier (if you have some handy). Add chopped fresh rosemary and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced and the contents become thick and sauce-like. Taste it and season with some salt if need be. Portion the glaze into two, one to act as a sauce when serving and the other for the cooking of the chicken. Get a brush and spread one portion of the glaze over the entire chicken that was set aside earlier. You can now start roasting the chicken in the oven, initially covered with foil paper. When the chicken is almost done, remove the foil and roast it uncovered for another 5 - 10 minutes in order to get the glaze caramelized on the chicken. At this point, watch the chicken carefully as the caramelization process can quickly accelerate without warning and you might be confronted with burnt chicken skin instead.

Roasting a whole chicken can take an hour or more in the oven but the best part is the initial prep time is fast and you can almost forget about it when it goes into the oven. Set a timer and go do something fun with the kids while waiting for dinner to finish cooking. Serve the roasted chicken with the portion of the glaze (you might want to thin it out a little with a touch of orange juice) that you set aside earlier together with the potatoes and carrots and you have yourself a complete meal for the family all set with minimum fuss.

Dip your chips into this! Ye Olde Spinach & Artichoke Dip

The ever popular spinach and artichoke dip is always a crowd-pleaser wherever and whenever it is served. Its cheesy goodness and the delicious combination of spinach and artichokes will keep you dipping until it is all gone. And to top it all off, it ridiculously easy to make, with very little prep and short cooking time in the oven.

Start off with the main ingredients, spinach and artichoke. You don't need fresh spinach and you can easily make do with frozen chopped spinach. If you are planning to use fresh spinach, wilt it a little by boiling it in water for no more than a minute or two. As for the artichokes, buy the marinated ones as they contain the most flavor. Give the artichokes a rough chop and both ingredients are ready to roll to the next step.

For the base of this dip, use cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream. Make sure that the cream cheese is soft enough and pliable before adding the rest of the ingredients in. Microwaving it for a couple of minutes if it is still frozen hard will help. Now just add the cream cheese, mayo, sour cream, spinach, artichokes, grated Parmesan cheese, garlic powder in a mixing bowl and season with a little salt. Mix the ingredients thoroughly and transfer to a casserole dish and top it with more grated Parmesan. Bake it in the oven at 350 degrees F for approximately 20 -25 minutes or until the cheese browns up just a little. Alternatively, you can also add roasted red peppers (chopped coarsely) for an extra layer of flavor.

And there you have it, your own homemade spinach and artichoke dip, easy to make and with little fuss.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lobster Mac & Cheese

When it comes to American comfort foods, the humble macaroni and cheese would be in anyone's top 5 list. A sure-fire crowd-pleaser any time you serve it, mac & cheese provides a subtle yet satisfying hint of one's childhood without being passe. Kraft Foods has marketed its Kraft Mac 'n Cheese product for years and is one of the most popular dinner-in-a-box items on the market today. Just recently, Kraft updated this product line with the Kraft Easy Mac, a microwaveable application so easy (just add water and pop it into the microwave) that a child can prepare it (or so says the Kraft marketing machine).

Nowadays, it may be convenient for busy parents to just pop one of those ubiquitous blue Kraft boxes open but for the generations of Moms before us, comfort foods should be lovingly prepared and no expense should be spared. That's why I've come up with my own version of mac & cheese, kicked up a notch (or two)! As a fair warning, this dish is not for people looking to eat healthily or lose weight. Let's face it, lobster, butter and cheese are not exactly ingredients one would find on the typical weight-loss program. Oh and let's not forget the yummy bacon as well!

So let's start with the lobster (of course). Boil the lobster for 15 - 20 minutes in a pot that is big enough to immerse the entire crustacean in water. This cooking time is for a regular 1.25 lb lobster. As the weight goes up, so must the cooking time. Typically, one adds another 10 minutes of boiling time for every extra pound. Once the lobster is cooked, cool it down in ice water for a few minutes and start shucking. To duplicate the above presentation that I did, save the lobster's tail shell by first, removing the body from the tail. Now, with a sharp knife, cut the tail down the middle but not all the way through to the bottom layer of the shell. Place the cut tail in the palm of your hand and squeeze. You'll hear a cracking sound and you can now pry the tail meat whole from its casing. Wash the shell thoroughly and save it for plating.

Next, boil a box of elbow macaroni pasta until al dente. Remember to wait for the water (salted) to come to a boil before adding the macaroni. Keep stirring frequently and check for doneness. The macaroni should not be too soft and must retain a little bit of bite to it. Remember, the macaroni would still need to go into the oven for baking later on.

Now let's work on the cheese sauce, which starts with the classical French bechamel sauce. Using the same amount of butter and flour (2 tablespoons with 2 tablespoons), create a roux (a thickening agent). On low heat, melt the butter and then add the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes (make sure that the roux does not turn brown) and then add 2 cups of either milk or light cream. Bring the milk up to temperature (not boiling) and add your cheese. I use shredded white cheddar cheese but you can mix it up with other cheeses as well. If your sauce is too thick, add more milk and continue cooking (on low heat) until the cheese thoroughly melts. Taste the sauce and season appropriately with salt and pepper. As a warning, do not leave your cheese sauce for more than a minute on the stove as it would burn quickly on the bottom of your pot. Keep the heat low and keep stirring.

While the sauce is working, bake up a few slices of bacon and ground them up when they become crispy. Also, ground up some Ritz cracker together with panko crumbs to make the crumb topping for your mac & cheese. Add some melted butter to the crumb combination and season with salt and pepper. When the sauce is done, fold it into the cooked macaroni pasta. For some texture and color, I also added green peas together with the cut lobster meat as well. Thoroughly mix everything well and transfer to a baking pan. Top it with the crumbs and bake it at 350 degree F until the crumbs turn golden brown.

For the presentation, scoop the finished mac and cheese into the cavity of the lobster tail and garnish with bacon bits and the lobster's claw meat. If you have parsley, you can chop it up and use it for garnish as well.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Chicken and Seafood Pad Thai

Pad Thai or Thai-style stir-fried noodles is as recognizable in a Thai restaurant as a Big Mac at McDonald's. The dish encompasses all the of flavor profiles unique to Thai cooking, ie. a combination of sour, salty, sweet and spicy, also known as the four S-es. In fact, when cooking Pad Thai, one has to keep these flavors in mind and try to balance all four without overwhelming one flavor over another. This also means that one has to use the correct ingredients. For example, tempted as you might be, do not ever use soy sauce in Pad Thai as that would essentially throw the authenticity of the entire dish out the window. As a lesson for all would-be cooks out there, not all Asian dishes require the deployment of soy sauce or for that matter, ginger. The saltiness in this dish should come from nothing other than fish sauce (yet another South-east Asian favorite), period.

Pad Thai can be made either as a vegetarian dish or with seafood or poultry. For the vegetarian option, use tofu or any other type of vegetable that catches your fancy. The more popular version of Pad Thai involves the use of shrimp and/or chicken. If you are using chicken, cut the meat into thin strips so as to facilitate a faster cooking time. While Pad Thai is essentially, a Thai creation, Malaysia has its own equivalent, albeit with subtle yet influential differences. Mee Goreng or fried noodles (how's that for a straight-to-the-point description!), is a spicy stir-fried noodle dish that adds an interesting layer of tomato and potato-based sauce to the overall flavor equation.

So, how does one go about making Pad Thai? Let's start with the ingredients. Remember the four S-es? OK, as I mentioned earlier, the saltiness in the dish comes from fish sauce, the sour component is from tamarind juice, the sweetness from palm sugar (you can also use brown sugar) and the spiciness is extracted from either Thai bird chilies (if you are looking for punishing hell-fire heat) or, for the less adventurous, regular chili powder. Other ingredients include lime juice, eggs, bean sprouts, preserved turnip, roasted peanuts (chopped fine), chives or scallions (cut into inch-long segments), shallots and garlic. As for the protein, I'm using both shrimp and chicken. Of course, let's not forget the rice noodles (choose the one that is white in color, translucent, flat and about a quarter of an inch wide). Do not boil the noodles in hot water, just soak them for about an hour in warm water, enough to be pliable.

As the first step, let's sweat the shallots and brown the garlic. Next, add the shrimp and chicken and cook them most of the way. You can also cook the eggs at this time. Remove both the proteins and also the eggs from the pan so as not to overcook. Now, add the soaked noodles into the pan together with tamarind juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and the chilies. Mix them up thoroughly (add water as needed) and add the chopped roasted peanuts, preserved turnip and scallions. At the same time, throw the proteins back into the mix and keep cooking. At the last minute, add the bean sprouts and finish the dish. It's important to keep the bean sprouts as crunchy as possible, and that means very little cooking. You can garnish your Pad Thai with more roasted peanuts and scallions. Sometimes, some raw bean sprouts are also served together with the Pad Thai on the side.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chicken Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce

Just a few days ago, out of the blue, I decided--on a whim--to cook a favorite Malaysian dish of mine called chicken satay. I've never attempted to make it before but since I had all the exotic ingredients (lemongrass, tamarind and galangal) on hand, I thought maybe it was finally time to give it a try. As I researched and pulled a couple of authentic-sounding recipes off the internet, I started reminiscing about the last time I ate chicken satay. For some reason, my mind actually drew a blank! Has it really been that long ago that I can't even remember the last time I had it (I hazard a guess of maybe 3-4 years since I last partook but your guess is as good as mine!)?

Satay is the quintessential South-east Asian dish popular in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. It is essentially charcoal-grilled heavily-marinated meat (could be chicken, beef, pork, venison and sometimes even rabbit) skewered through bamboo sticks and served with a spicy peanut sauce and sliced fresh cucumbers, red onions and rice cakes (also known locally as "ketupat"). As simple as it sounds, satay has its own unique and bold flavors due to the abundant spices used in the marinate and also in the peanut sauce.

First, let's start by preparing the marinate for the chicken. You'll need coriander powder, fresh lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chili powder, turmeric powder, sugar (or the Indonesian sweet sauce, Kecap Manis), salt and oil. Blend all these ingredients together and marinate the chicken with it. For the meat, try to cut it into long strips, making it easier to be skewered. I use both the breast and thigh meat. Leave the marinated meat in the refrigerator overnight or at least 4-5 hours in order to get the proper seasoning of the meat.

Now for the peanut sauce. Start with dried red chilies (they need to be re-hydrated and de-seeded), garlic, shallots, lemongrass, fresh galangal and coriander powder. Blend all these ingredients together and fry it in oil until a deep aromatic smell wafts through the kitchen. Next, add a cup of roasted peanuts (chopped fine or rough depending on your preference), kecap manis, sugar, salt, water and tamarind juice. Taste and season with either more salt or sugar. Let the sauce simmer and cook for a 10-15 minutes until you get a saucy consistency (not too watery).

For the final part, skewer the marinated meat onto the bamboo sticks and start grilling. Cut some fresh cucumber and red onions and serve with the chicken satay and spicy peanut sauce. Try it and I guarantee that you've never tasted anything better!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Thai Tom Yam Gung Soup

Thailand's culinary heritage, like most of its South-east Asian neighbors', is one that is based on hundreds of years of tradition, culture and the abundant availability of some of the world's most exotic ingredients. One of the most famous of Thai dishes in the Western world is the refreshingly hot and sour Tom Yam Gung soup. It is the quintessential Thai dish, containing all the flavors that is unique to that country's cuisine. The balance of saltiness, sourness and heat really brings this soup to a whole new level.

In Thai, tom means boil and yam means mix while gung stands for shrimp. A light soup that is usually served with fragrant steamed jasmine rice, tom yam gung is traditionally made with seafood, specifically shrimp. In fact, the base of this soup is produced by boiling shrimp heads and shells to obtain the delicious flavor. A word of advice, do not even attempt to make this soup if you can't purchase shrimp with their heads still intact because the head is where you get the most flavor out of the shrimp.

Apart from the shrimp, here is what else you will need in order to make this soup: fish sauce, 1-2 stalks of lemongrass, 3-4 bird's eye chilies (the tiny but explosively spicy chili) and lime zest and juice. The recipe actually calls for kaffir lime leaves but it is a hard ingredient to track down and can usually be substituted with regular lime zest. To add bulk to the soup, I also added baby corn and sliced carrots. The only part of the lemongrass that is usable is the white portion, starting from about 6 inches from the end. Cut the very end part of the root and the rest of the green portion off. Peel the outer one or two layers of the remaining part of the lemongrass and cut it into approximately 1-inch sections so that they can be easily removed after cooking. Use the side of your knife and press hard onto the lemongrass, effectively bruising it and releasing its flavor and smell. As for the bird eye chili, just slice them into thin pieces.

Start by adding some salt to a pot of water and boiling the heads and shells of the shrimp for about 20 minutes (any longer and the resulting stock could become bitter from the release of calcium from the shells). Strain the shells from the stock and bring the stock to a boil again, adding fish sauce, lemongrass, lime zest and chilies. Next add the peeled but uncooked shrimp and also the carrots and baby corn and let the soup simmer and cook. When everything is cooked, season the soup again by adding fish sauce, lime juice and salt (remember to taste it first!). Finally, garnish it with cilantro leaves just before serving.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Loiusiana-style Surf & Turf

Louisiana's southern-style cuisines are heavily influenced by its melting pot cultures, specifically the Creole and Cajun styles of cooking. Creole cuisine is inherently more sophisticated and blends the influences from French, Spanish, Mediterranean, Caribbean, African, Canarian and southern American cooking while Cajun cuisine provides a more rustic style that makes full use of local ingredients. In many ways, both Creole and Cajun styles of cooking have definitely influenced each other and the line is sometime blurred and you get a blend of both styles. So, taking a cue from Louisiana's Creole and Cajun cuisine heritages, I melded flavors from both styles of cooking to produce a surf and turf dish that you see above. There are three components to this dish: first is obviously the succulent lobster, second is the spice-rubbed pork tenderloin and finally a vegetable side dish that incorporates some of the ingredients found in New Orleans cuisine.

To start, the pork tenderloin should be left marinating for at least a couple of hours in order to get the intense flavors seeping into the meat. I made a spice rub using olive oil, Caribbean jerk seasoning, Cajun spice, paprika, chili powder, dried herbs like oregano and thyme, fresh ground pepper, salt and some fresh cilantro. Let it sit in the refrigerator while you prepare the other components of this dish. The lobster is easy, just bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and cook the lobster for 15 -20 minutes, depending on the size of the crustacean. The one you see here is approximately 1.5 lbs and it took about 20 minutes to be done cooking. Once it is done, take the lobster out of the pot and submerge it is ice cold water to stop it from cooking any further. Don't worry about it being cold as we'll bake it for a little while in the oven before serving.

Next is the vegetable side dish. The ingredients that I used include celery, bell peppers, onions, okra, zucchini squash, garlic and chickpeas. Known as the holy trinity of Cajun cuisine, the ingredients celery, bell pepper and onions are used as the base for many dishes that originate from Louisiana. This is quite similar to the French mirepoix of celery, carrots and onions. So chop up these ingredients and get them ready.

For the next step, heat up a pan of oil and start searing all round the marinated pork tenderloin, producing a delicious crust. After that's done, transfer it into the oven and finish cooking it for about 30-40 minutes at 450F. After the tenderloin is done, slice it before serving. Now, using the same pan with the yummy bits and pieces of the pork that was left behind, start cooking your vegetables, deglazing the pan with some dry sherry.

To bake the lobster before serving, we need another important component. Take a stick of butter and melt it in a small pot, throw in some chopped garlic and cook. Finish it by adding lemon juice, sherry and a pinch of salt. Now, crack open the lobster tail and its knuckles and pour some of that decadent lemon and sherry garlic butter over the meat and bake in the oven for less than 5 minutes (or until the lobster meat is hot).

Now you are ready to serve. For garnish, I chopped up some cilantro and sprinkled it over the pork and vegetables, together with a slice of lemon.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Fried Lamb Wontons with Honey and Mustard Seed Dipping Sauce

A play on the typical Chinese fried wonton appetizer, I went the Middle Eastern route with this dish. Using fresh ground lamb meat instead of the usual pork and shrimp, this wonton appetizer adds a little pizzazz to an otherwise plain old Chinese restaurant staple.

When using lamb, it has to be seasoned much differently than the usual Asian flavors. For starters, I added fresh chopped mint leaves, fennel seeds and coriander powder, together with garlic and shallots. And instead of a sweet chili sauce, I made a mustard seed, honey and sour cream dipping sauce to go with the lamb. The wonton wrappers are easily available at any Asian grocery store and the only tedious part about this exercise is putting it all together. So, season the ground lamb meat with the ingredients I mentioned above (together with the usual salt and pepper) and let it sit in the refrigerator for an hour or so to let it marinade. The meat is sticky enough that just by folding the sides of the wonton wrapper into the middle, the package would remain shut. Also, make sure that you don't stack these packaged wontons on top of one another as the lower ones tend to get crushed easily and won't look as good when deep-fried.

To deep-fry these delicious mouth-poppers, heat up vegetable oil in a pot. Make sure that the level of the oil in the pot is enough to cover the entire wonton when frying. Remove the wontons from the hot oil as soon as they just turn slightly golden brown, as they will continue cooking even out of the pot. Drain the excess oil by laying a couple of sheets of paper towels on the container that you are transferring the wontons to.

Now for the easy-to-make dipping sauce. Start with some sour cream, add a few spoonfuls of mustard seeds (I used off-the-shelf stone ground mustard seeds that is seasoned with vinegar), honey and a pinch of salt. Stir these ingredients well and just like that, you have yourself a delicious dipping sauce for your lamb wontons.

Mussels with Tomatoes & Artichokes on Pasta

Mussels are bivalve mollusks that are a close relative of the clam. Unlike its clam cousin, mussels have sort of an elongated, asymmetrical shell and are usually black or dark blue in color. They can be found in either freshwater or saltwater habitats, attached to a solid surface (eg. a rock) by means of a strong thread-like structure called a byssal thread or better known as a "beard." Mussels are widely cultivated around the world, from Canada (blue mussels) to China to Spain and New Zealand (green-lipped mussels).

Mussels are commonly used in many cuisines around the world. For this dish, I've gone down the Italian path, cooking the mussels in whole peeled tomatoes, basil, artichokes and mushrooms. And since I have some chickpeas lying around, I decided to add them in as well. First, the mussels. When you buy them, make sure that you pick out those that are tightly shut, which means that they are still alive. Dead mussels can be toxic and you should throw out the opened and dry ones. Also, you would need to remove the "beard" if the mussels have not been de-bearded beforehand.

Start off by cooking chopped garlic and onions in a pan. Next, add the artichokes, chickpeas and mushrooms. Cover the pan and let these ingredients cook for a couple of minutes. Now you can add the peeled whole tomatoes (cut them up first before adding), fresh basil and half a cup of water. Season with salt and pepper and let it cook for a few minutes. Finally, you can now add the washed mussels into the pan. Stir them into the yummy sauce and cover the pan to let them cook. Like all bivalves, the mussels will open up when they are done cooking, releasing their delicious essence into the sauce. While all these things are going on, cook some pasta until al dente and serve it with the mussels. Garnish with scallions or chopped parsley.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Accidental Chef

The first thing that future chefs are taught when they first step into culinary school is the soon-to-be-ubiquitous term, mise en place, a phrase of French origin that literally means, "putting in place." In the culinary world, mise en place refers to the act of setting up the ingredients of a particular recipe before one starts cooking. This could mean measuring out the required ingredients (eg. a cup of flour), separating the egg white from the yolk or as easy as having the required vegetable ready to go in front of you. In a commercial kitchen like in restaurants, mise en place refers to "setting up the line," that is having all the required elements ready and in place for a busy lunch or dinner service.

So what happens when you are at home cooking for the family? Is mise en place needed? For trained chefs, they can't help but be prepared for whatever dish that they are going to be cooking. What about the home cook? I think it is a good routine to get into--know what you are cooking and get all the required ingredients ready before starting. However, there are times when winging it in the kitchen is not only necessary but can be fun as well. And this happens to many of us more often than we imagine.

Most of the time, I plan out what I'm going to be cooking and buy the needed ingredients accordingly, preferably a day or two before. Other times, I don't even bother planning and just look through the fridge for whatever is available and think about what I can do with them. The good thing about this exercise is that I get to use up most of the produce that have been hanging around in the refrigerator more days than they should. Sometimes leftovers can even be combined to make a soup or something. The important thing to note here is nothing should be wasted. This is the "waste not-want not" mentality that I learned from working in restaurants and is perfectly transferable to the home kitchen. And who knows, out from the ashes of those tired leftovers, an exciting phoenix of a dish might rise up and surprise you! Try it and you might be surprised at what you can produce with just a pinch of imagination and a dash of inspiration.