Thursday, January 26, 2012

Toasted Pecans – a Quintessentially Southern Cocktail Nibble

Mention toasted pecans or cheese straws and all of a sudden I’m magically whisked to the South. Both are quintessentially southern appetizers served at parties throughout the South before dinner as cocktail nibbles with drinks. Why it wouldn’t be a party down south without them.

This recipe is from a delightful new cookbook – Southern My Way, Simple Recipes, Fresh Flavors, written by Gena Knox. I grew up in the south, but I also support a healthy diet and lifestyle. There’s more to life than fried chicken and butter, butter, butter.  And Gena proves it with her modern take on southern classics.

I can’t wait until peach season so I can try her Georgia Caprese Salad, a southern spin on the Italian classic Caprese salad, made with fresh local peaches. Herbed salmon with cucumber salad looks particularly healthy and the recipe was inspired by a classic cookbook that’s been a favorite of southern cooks for ages – Charleston Receipts.

Now back to the pecans and some tips. Buy the freshest available. When I was a girl my sister and I picked pecans off of the ground from the trees in the backyard and our parents shelled them with a big old fashioned contraption that doubled as a door stop. Now I buy the current crop from Georgia. Remember that nuts can burn very, very easily when you’re toasting them, so keep a good eye on them and don’t wander too far from the kitchen while they’re in the oven.  Also, toasted pecans are very, very addictive. Make plenty – some for the cook to nibble and lots for your guests. They can disappear from the cocktail table “before you turn around” as they say down south.

Southern Toasted Pecans
Adapted from “Southern My Way” by Gena Knox – yield about 4 cups

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or more to taste
1 pound fresh pecan halves, preferably from Georgia – they’re the best
Large grain sea salt or French fleur de sel for dusting the pecans when they’re taken right out of the oven

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Combine melted butter, Worcestershire sauce, kosher salt and cayenne pepper in a small bowl. Pour the butter mixture over the pecans and toss well to coat. Spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet, taking care to leave them in a single layer. Roast the pecans on the middle rack of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes and checking to see that they are not burning, until pecans are toasted to a light brown. Each time you stir, be sure they are in a single layer again.

When they are done, remove from the oven and spread on wax paper.  Dust the pecans with a healthy sprinkle of grainy sea salt or French fleur de sel and let cool. Store pecans in an airtight covered container at room temperature.

As I said, they're addictive, so make more than you think you need. Especially if you or your husband have a tendency to nibble before the guests arrive as we are inclined to do from time to time.

Speaking of addictive, I’ve become addicted to Pinterest. Pinteret is a virtual pinboard that allows you to organize and share all of the fabulous things you find on the web. I’ve had great fun viewing pinboards created by others, browsing for decorating ideas for our condo or new healthy recipes to try. As you might imagine, my pinboards include fabulous dining rooms, “to die for” kitchens, southern style porches and verandas, and of course some great food thrown in. Come join the party – there’s a red link in the sidebar to the right.

Southern style porch via Pinterest

Pinterest is as addictive as a bowl of southern toasted pecans, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. This recipe for toasted pecans will be linked to Miz Helen’s Country Cottage Full Plate Thursday and Foodie Friday at Designs by Gollum. Pull up a chair and join us.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dreaming of the South of France and Seafood Stew

Lately I’ve been daydreaming about the South of France and my thoughts turned to the fragrant bouillabaisse that we shared with friends at a bistro in the Vieux-Port area of Marseille several years ago. Unfortunately I happen to be far from the  steps of the Mediterranean Sea at the moment, so I’m unlikely to find the variety of fish that is abundant there. But I’m not letting that stop me from  making a fish stew.

I normally use a mild flavored white fish, such as halibut in this stew. However, we eyed a bag of assorted octopus, cuttlefish and squid in the frozen seafood section of our local market the other day and decided to use it instead. It was a success and we will definitely use it again when we can get our hands on it. However, don’t let not finding that seafood assortment stop you from making it. It’s a terrific stew no matter what kind of mild fish you find in your market. Maybe you'll even dream of Marseille.

Seafood Stew
Adapted from Pierre Franey’s Low Calorie Gourmet – serves 6

3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
½ cup chopped fennel (excluding the leaves)
½ cup peeled and chopped carrot
½ cup chopped leek, cleaned, white part only
1 dried hot red pepper, crushed
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chopped canned whole tomatoes
2 cups water
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound bag of frozen mixed seafood containing octopus, cuttlefish and squid – or - if unavailable, 1 pound boneless white-fleshed, nonoily fish such as halibut, striped bass or red fish, cut into ¾” cubes
1 tablespoon Pernod, Ricard, or any other anise flavored liqueur (optional, but will impart the flavor of the South of France and Marseille)
½ pound small scallops
½ pound shrimp, preferably wild caught, peeled and deveined
18 mussels
18 small to medium sized clams
¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat the olive oil in a kettle and add the onion, garlic, fennel, carrot, and leek. Cook the vegetables until they wilt, taking care not to burn the garlic.

Add the crushed hot pepper, bay leaf, thyme, wine, tomatoes, water, and Pernod if using.

Bring the mixture to a boil and add the salt and pepper. Cover the kettle tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the frozen seafood mixture (or the fish) along with the Pernod if using and cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Add the scallops, shrimp, mussels, and clams. Cook for another minute or two until the mussels and clams have opened, discarding any that do not open. Take special care not to overcook the seafood.

Sprinkle the stew with the parsley and serve immediately with crusty toast fingers  or a French baquette to soak up the briny juices of the stew.

Here’s to dreaming of seafood from the Mediterranean Sea and the South of France. Bon Appetit! 

I will be linking this seafood stew to Miz Helen’s Country Cottage Full Plate Thursday and Foodie Friday at Designs by Gollum.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chicken Scarpariello Recipe

As Chef Emeril would announce at the beginning of his “Emeril Live” cooking show on  the Food Network, “Stuart is in the house.” By way of introduction, Stuart is my brother-in-law, a gourmet with extraordinary good taste, and will be our special chef of the day. If you love Italian food, I promise you’re in for a treat.

Whereas I tend to favor French food, Stuart on the other hand loves Italian. All of his married life, he’s lived in close-in Long Island and dined more times than I can keep track of in some of New York City’s finest Italian restaurants, including Mario Batali’s award winning Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in Greenwich Village. Recently he and his wife retired and relocated near us in the mountains. While we were home recently he prepared one of his Italian favorites for us as the very first guests in his new home – Chicken Scarpariello.

Chicken Scarpariello is an Italian dish and means “chicken shoemaker’s style,” because a cobbler might have eaten this dish. However, my research confirms that Scarpariello may have also been a testament to the resourcefulness of Italian immigrant cooks who managed to achieve the seductive flavors of their homeland from the few ingredients they found in America.

Many recipes for this dish call for a whole frying chicken, but Stuart used  chicken thighs for their depth of flavor and ease of serving. It’s a dish perfectly suited to serving family style at the table, as the photo shows below. Grazie Stuart for being our chef of the day and I hope you’ll bless us with more of your delicious Italian food in the future.

Chicken Scarpariello
Adapted from Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen – serves 6

12 chicken thighs with bones and skin (2 per person)
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed
½ pound sweet (also called mild in some markets) Italian sausage (preferably without fennel seeds), cut into 1-inch pieces
10 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 pickled cherry peppers, cut in half and stemmed
¼ cup red-wine vinegar
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock, or reduced-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Wash and pat dry the chicken thighs, then season generously with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 475 degrees F. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet. Add to the skillet as many pieces of chicken that will comfortably fit without touching, skin side down, taking care not to crowd the skillet. You will most probably need to do brown the chicken in batches. Cook the chicken, turning as necessary, until golden brown on all sides, about 8 minutes.

The secret to gold-brown chicken pieces is to leave them be as they cook. They will brown better if you aren’t constantly turning them or checking on their progress.

Remove chicken pieces as they brown, and drain them briefly on paper towels. Place the drained chicken thighs in a roasting pan large enough to hold all of them in a single layer. Repeat the cooking with the remaining chicken, adding more oil to the pan as necessary and adjusting the heat to prevent the bits that stick to the pan from overbrowning. As room becomes available in the skillet after all of the chicken has been added, tuck in pieces of sausage and cook, turning until browned on all sides.

Remove chicken and sausage from the pan, add garlic, and cook until golden, being careful not to burn it. Scatter the cherry peppers in the skillet, season with salt and pepper and stir for a minute. Pour in the vinegar and bring to a boil, scraping into the liquid the browned bits that stick to the skillet, and cook until the vinegar is reduced by half. Add the white wine, bring to a boil, and boil until reduced by half, about 3 minutes.

Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Pour the sauce over the chicken in the roasting pan and stir to coat. Place the chicken in the oven and roast, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and sticky, like molasses, about 10 minutes. If the sauce is still too thin place the roasting pan directly over medium-high heat on the stovetop and cook, stirring until it is reduced about a minute or two. Once the sauce is thickened, toss in parsley and serve.

Buon Appetito from my featured chef of the day, my brother-in-law and good friend Stuart.

This recipe will be linked to Miz Helen’s Country Cottage Full Plate Thursday and Foodie Friday at Designs by Gollum. Won’t you join us?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Potage Parmentier - French Leek & Potato Soup

Potage Parmentier, better known as Leek and Potato soup, was one of my late father-in-law Jim’s favorite soups and one he prepared almost every week. Jim passed away late this October peacefully in his sleep of natural causes. He missed celebrating his 99th birthday by about five weeks. He was quite the gourmet cook and during his career ate in some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan. Jim still lived at home and cooked most of his own meals. He kept his mind sharp doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and reading. He was trim and slim, stopped smoking when the Surgeon General told the world to stop a zillion years ago, and was the picture of good health.

Four generations - 1995
People have asked did Jim know the secret of how stay in good health as you age. He would have probably told you no, but I’ll share some of my observations of his eating habits that I think contributed to his good health.  His style of eating was very similar to the Europeans, in that he enjoyed the art of dining, always had his meals at the dinner table, and sipped a glass of wine during conversations at dinner at a leisurely pace. His diet was well balanced, he didn’t eat “on the run,” never ate in-between meals or indulged in snacks or junk food, and would not eat anything that did not taste good even, if it was a food he enjoyed. As an example, recently I sliced a cantaloupe for breakfast for him, which I knew he liked, and noticed he took only one bite. When I asked why he didn’t finish his cantaloupe, he said, “It didn’t taste good.” I looked down at my own plate and noticed that I had eaten all of my cantaloupe and just realized when he said it that mine didn't really didn’t taste good either. An “ah ha” moment for me.

Any dish whose description contains the word “Parmentier” will contain potatoes – a handy thing to know when reading a French menu. Potage Parmentier is named after the Frenchman Antoine Augustine Parmentier, a mid-18th century potato advocate. Julia Child called Potage Parmentier “simplicity itself” in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s also a very versatile soup base. For instance, just add watercress and voila, you have watercress soup. Chill it and you have vichyssoise. It doesn’t get much simplier than that.

Potage Parmentier – French Leek and Potato Soup
Adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells

1 pound starchy potatoes, such as Idaho, peeled and cut into a large chunks
2 leeks, trimmed, well rinsed, and julienned
1 quart of water
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
¾ cup heavy cream or crème fraiche
For a garnish: 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs, such as tarragon (my personal favorite), chives, or flat-leaf parsley

Combine the potatoes, leeks, and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat and add some salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the potatoes and leeks are very soft, about 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes.

Carefully puree the soup in a blender or a food processor (or pass through a food mill). Return to the saucepan. Add the cream and cook over low heat just until heated through. Adjust the salt and pepper and serve garnished with the fresh herb of your choice. Can be kept covered in the refrigerator for several days. Reheat gently. Serves 4 to 6.

This recipe will be linked to Foodie Friday at Designs by Gollum and Miz Helen’s Full Plate Thursday.