Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Melted Onions and Quick Curried Chicken

Several years ago, I watched a man I knew from India make a simple chicken dish. He sliced onions very, very thin, then cooked them very slowly, in a heavy pan over low heat, until they almost melted, stirring frequently. Then he added commercial curry powder (he was not in his own kitchen -  suggested it would have been a commercial masala, or spice mix,  at home, but I don't know what mixture) and stirred it in. Then he browned chicken legs in the pan, added water, and simmered. about half an hour, until the chicken was fully cooked. The onion made a rich sauce, the whole thing smelled wonderful, and tasted delicious. But it took time...

The next Fall, when I could buy bags of field fresh onions at Greenmarket for little money, I remembered that, and decided the onion would be a good choice for pre-cooking. I pulled out a heavy frying pan, sliced pounds of onion almost paper thin, and cooked it up and froze it. (I then found myself going to it when I didn't feel well for cooked onion - which is the reason I then started pre-cooking ordinary sauteed onion.) But it was very easy to use it to make a quick curry.

A few weeks ago, I bought my ten pound bag of beautifully fresh onions, and cooked about half of them.  I cut them in half, and then  cut the half again, and sliced them thinly, so they fell in fine shreds.
Then I took out a big heavy enameled cast iron pan - the heaviest pan I have - heated canola oil in it, and filled it with the shredded onion. The onion cooks down incredibly, as the fresh juice simmers and concentrates,  so I basically kept slicing, adding, and stirring. Once the pan was full, I put the heat as low as I could, and left it there, stirring occasionally. (I did this on a Sunday afternoon while watching a baseball game, and stirred between innings...  it does take time, but most of it isn't *my* time.)  The onion just kept melting into a smooth mass of savory goodness - the kitchen smelled wonderful!
Often, I stop it when all the onion is soft and transparent, but this time I let it brown a little. Be careful, though - once it starts browning stir frequently, as it can suddenly start to burn, and that would be just too sad... (I caught this one *just* in time... you may see bits of the darker brown...)

Once I had it the way I wanted, it, I turned off the heat and let it cool, then packed it in zipper bags, pressed thin, so I can  easily break off pieces the size I want. It's amazing how little space five pounds of onion takes, after it is cooked down. I lay the bags flat in the freezer, and knew I had gold.

One day last week, when my schedule called for a quick and easy dinner, I decided to make curried chicken. When I got home, I took out the frozen onion, and a boneless chicken breast. I broke off a chunk of onion, and dropped it into a saute pan over a medium flame, to melt while I cut the meat up in bitesized pieces.

 Once the onion was heated through, I sprinkled in some curry powder. (As I've said before, the amount is going to really vary, both with your taste and with the heat of your curry powder.) I stirred it around with the onion - sauteing the spice mixture helps bring out the flavor.

Then I added the cut up chicken, and stirred it until it was coated with the onion-spice mix and starting to brown. I poured in half a cup of water, brought it just to a boil, then lowered the heat and let it simmer about five minutes, while I heated kale and rice I had already cooked. I tasted it to be sure I had enough curry powder, and served. The water, onion, and spice had simmered down into a rich sauce.

I don't know if my friend from Goa would approve (well - probably he would - he's very practical!) and I certainly would not claim this to be any cuisine but 21st Century New York - but it was good, and took very little time.

Quick Curried Chicken

1 onion, sliced thin  (or a chunk of precooked Frozen Melted Onion)
Canola oil if using fresh onion
1 t curry powder, or to taste
1/2 pound boneless chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
1/2 cup water

If using fresh onion, heat oil in a pan, add the onion, and stir over low heat until absolutely soft. If using Frozen Melted Onion, place it in a pan over low heat until heated through.

Stir curry powder into the onion. Raise the heat under the pan. Add the chicken. Stir until coated with the onion spice mixture, and let brown slightly. Add water.

Simmer until chicken is cooked through, and sauce thickens - about five minutes. (This may be a little longer if you increase the recipe.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Simple Microwaved Winter Squash

Isn't that pretty?

Why, yes, I do like winter squash... All kinds - this Carnival, and acorn, and butternut, and hubbard, and...

We're having a very strange year. It's October, and we're still getting corn and tomatoes. Not that I'm complaining - we love them - but... in October, I want squash.

And, sometimes, the simplest treatments are the best. I've made my soup, and I'll do many things before the season is over - but I just want to savor the taste... with maybe just a touch of butter and salt.

My favorite preparation is to bake it - which is fine if I have the oven on anyway, and have time... The sweetness concentrates, especially if it browns a little - but it takes at least half an hour in the oven (not to mention time to preheat.) And I don't always want to heat the oven, and I don't always have the time.

So, sometimes, it's the microwave...

All I did was split the squash, and scoop out the seeds. Then I put it, cut side down, in a pyrex dish. (This was a large enough squash that we only ate half of it - I'll do something else with the other half.) I microwaved it for five minutes. At that point, I let it sit while I cooked the rest of dinner.

Shortly before everything else was ready, I took it out and turned it over, with tongs. At this point, I looked at it to see how well cooked it was - this will vary, by the size of the vegetable and the power of your stove. Poke it with a knife if you're not sure - it should be soft all through. (You'll see parts that are cooked, and parts that are still firm.)  I only needed to give this one another three minutes - I find that, with my microwave, it's usually three-five. With my old one, it would have needed at least another five minutes, and maybe more... they vary a lot. When in doubt, start with less - you can always give it another few minutes. However, unlike most vegetables, it's hard to overcook this - don't worry.

When it was done, I then split it in serving sized pieces. Added a touch of butter - and it was done. Couldn't ask for simpler.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Curried Butternut Squash Soup - Theme

The cool weather is coming in - as are the Fall vegetables. Butternut and acorn squash instead of zucchini and pattypan, beets, carrots and  parsnips joining (not yet replacing) the peppers and tomatoes...

And hot soup is starting to sound like a good idea. This is soup and salad season - lunch bridging heat and cold, creamy smooth warm soup with crunchy colorful cool salad.

This is a vegan "creme" soup I've been making for a couple of years. I'd seen some recipes for using silk tofu to make a creamy soup, or a bisque, tried the idea out a bit, and liked it... and experimented with several variations. It gives the feeling of a cream soup, with less fat and no milk, and it is ridiculously easy, as long as you have a blender or food processor.

Silk tofu is a specific type of Japanese tofu. It is most readily available in the shelf stable aseptic packs from Mori-nu. The name is a reference to the smoothness of the tofu, unlike regular, sometimes called Cotton tofu in Japan. It does not refer to the curds being strained through silk, as I have sometimes read... indeed, the difference is that they are not strained at all, and the whey is part of the final product. This does mean that it has less protein per ounce than the regular.

If you can't get silk tofu, regular will work, but it will not be as smooth and luscious. Use soft, rather than firm, and blend very thoroughly.

First, I cooked my squash. Since I was making soup, and wanted the liquid, I simmered it. Take the squash, peel it with a swivel blade vegetable peeler, to remove just the tough part of the peel with as little waste as possible. Then cut it down at the bulbous end, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut the squash up into chunks, put in a large soup pot - bigger than you think you need -  cover with water, add a little salt if you wish,  and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, for about 15-20 minutes, until the vegetable is very soft.

Now - my directions are going to diverge... First, I'll tell you what I normally do. Then, I'll tell you what I really did this time - since a migraine hit while the squash was cooking, so I put it  away for another day... And both are useful options.

Normally... When the squash is cooked, uncover it and let it cool slightly. While it cools, chop a medium onion, and saute it in a little olive oil. When it is soft, add 2 teaspoons of curry powder - more if you like it. The tofu blands out flavor, so you will want more than you usually do - but it's easier to add than to remove... Stir the curry powder with the onions over the heat for just a minute - the heat helps bring out the flavor.

Now, scrape the pan into the soup pot. Swirl a  little of the squash cooking liquid in the fry pan to make sure you get all the onion and spice.

Open a 12 ounce aseptic pack of tofu and put the tofu into the soup pot. It's best to break it up into chunks at this point. (If you can actually get fresh silk tofu - available at Japanese stores, and very occasionally elsewhere, you can use it - you want about 12 ounces. 14 works.  If the package is larger, but so is your squash, go for it...)  Then take an immersion blender - sometimes called a stick blender - and use it to puree the squash, cooking liquid, onion mix, and tofu until smooth. Stand back a bit - it will splatter slightly, and it's still hot... (This is the reason I suggest a large pot!) If you do not have an immersion blender, definitely cool it first, and then put it, in smaller batches, in a regular blender. You shouldn't blend a hot mixture - hot liquid has been known to shoot out of blenders and scald cooks - let's not go there... It will be quite thick, and you may want/need to add liquid (especially if it is in a traditional blender.) This can be plain water, soy milk, or broth.

Now reheat the soup to serving temperature. It's a great make ahead dish for a nice dinner - do everything before now when convenient, then heat just before serving... Taste, and add more curry powder if you like. Remember, not only tastes vary - so do curry powders! Some are much hotter than others...  I sprinkled just a little on top as a garnish, too...

Now - What I Really Did...

It all started the same - but as the squash was just about cooked, the migraine struck. I was actually cooking this in advance for the next night, so I just turned off the heat, lay down, and asked Rich to put the squash away in the fridge when it cooled.

The next day - I got the squash out. Instead of cooking an onion, I just used some of my handy frozen cooked onion (though that did mean I didn't heat the curry powder.) I put part of the squash, a chunk of onion, the tofu, the curry powder and some water in the blender. (Rich had drained the squash - I'd forgotten to tell him I wanted the cooking liquid in the soup.) Blended it until smooth - stopping the blender periodically to push the mixture down towards the blades, and adding more water. (Always stop the blender to push food down... just so many things can go wrong if you do not...) I poured most of that mixture into a pot, put the rest of the squash in the blender, and repeated the process. Mixed it all together in the pot, heated, adjusted spice (my new jar of Hot Curry Powder from a local grocery store is much milder than my old jar from the spice store. I needed to add a lot.) Served.

Now, this lends itself to variations. One fast one is - just follow the last paragraph, using two cans of pumpkin. (Or one can, and only half the tofu.) With shelf stable pumpkin and shelf stable tofu this can turn into a really useful whip together recipe for unplanned company.

Another variation is to change the spicing. I sometimes use pumpkin pie spice, or even just ginger. The taste is quite different, and equally good. And, of course, you can use any winter squash - acorn, carnival, hubbard, cheese pumpkin, whatever you have - they all taste just a little different. It can be a good use for leftover squash, if you baked a large one and need to use that Other Half... just be sure to add a lot of liquid.

It's not really a full meal soup - but great with lunch, or as a nice first course for dinner. It can really dress up a plain meal.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

1 butternut squash
salt (opt.)
1 onion
olive oil to saute
2 t (or more, to taste) curry powder
1 12 oz. pkg. silk tofu
water, soy milk, or broth, as needed

Peel and cut squash, cover with water, add salt if desired, and cook until very soft. Let cool slightly.

While it cools, saute onion in oil. Add curry powder, stir around to heat, then add onion mix to soup pot. Add tofu to pot. Use an immersion blender to puree, adding water, broth, or soy milk to achieve the desired consistency.

Heat to serving temperature.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shredded Pork

I still seem to be writing about that meal with red cabbage...  I really have cooked some other things, in between, but it hit several points I wanted to make.

Speaking about cooking the cabbage, I blithely said that I "added shredded pork." And where did that pork come from, you ask? My freezer of course - doesn't your freezer just produce bags of frozen cooked pork?

Well... mine does, but it needs a little help...

OK - first - what kind of pork?  When I started cooking for myself, in a dorm in college,  my mom took me (during move-in) to a local supermarket to get in some pantry staples and such. The meat department was full of big banner signs - they were changing their meat terminology, to bring it in line with national standards! There would be New Names for the cuts of meat! "This Cut Neither of Us had Ever Heard of" of would now be called "This Other Name We had Never Heard..."

Let me tell you - it's still not really standardized...

So - I'm talking here about a pork shoulder. I have seen them called that, Picnic Shoulders, Pernil, Boston Butt, and other things I'm not remembering offhand... and I have read statements that any one of those names is a misnomer and refers to Something Else. It is a cut frequently used for sausage, pulled pork, pernil (by New York Puerto Ricans, at least -  a major online debate I found was that this is the Wrong Cut for that dish in the rest of the Hispanic world, but, like it or not, this is its primary use in my neighborhood... and the stores all call the cut pernil.)

It is high in fat, tough, a bit awkward to cut off the bone, and, therefore cheap... and it is wonderful either ground or in any long, slow,  low temperature preparation. Tender and delicious - the fat largely cooks out or can be easily removed, but it keeps the meat juicy and delicious. Keep the tender pork loin for chops and roasts - you want a shoulder for this.

The tricky part is that it's a large cut - seven pounds or more. (That includes both bone and fat - you end up with much less meat than that...) And it's usually sold with the big bone right there in the middle. So all that's a nuisance for a small family. On the other hand, all the preparations I mentioned are really good for making ahead. Sometimes I'll just cut off one or two large chunks of the raw meat, and freeze them, to use later in my mini slow cooker, and then simmer the  rest. Or, I'll just cook the whole thing.

My preferred way to cook it is in a slow cooker - but that long bone doesn't fit in many round cookers, including the one I have right now. One reason I prefer the oval type - several kinds of food come oval - but there we are, this is what I have now. It does fit - just - in my soup pot. Sometimes I add spices, such as coriander, or allspice,  but often I cook it plain, to season later.

There is a big thick rind over a layer of fat along one side. If I'm simmering it, I take a very sharp knife and cut off the rind, leaving some of the fat. I'm not trying to trim it completely, at this point - just get the thick stuff off. Then I put the fat side down in the pan, and add water. I bring it to a boil, then lower to a very low simmer... and cook it 2-3 hours, depending on how large the cut is.

When the meat is fully cooked, it shreds. It is literally falling off the bone. I'll go in with a fork and just pull off a chunk for dinner that night... then I let the rest cool in the broth.

I don't seem to have taken a picture before I started to dismantle it. You can see, though, the awkward shape of the bone. You're not going to get nice neat slices - but the meat is falling apart, so you wouldn't anyway... Just keep pulling off chunks and shreds. I do use a carving knife and fork to do so - you see them in the background, but more to dissect than to slice. I also do now use them to cut away the big chunks of fat.

I shred the meat and put it in containers and zipped bags in the freezer. It is great to add to cooked greens such as the cabbage (OK, it was red, but - same concept.) It works very well with beans of all kinds. It's a good base for semi-traditional pulled pork or barbecue. (The meat properly should be smoked, I understand, but, if that's not an option - I've known people cook it this way, and then simmer the pulled meat with barbecue sauce.)  I'll even cut the shreds a bit more and drop them into a bean soup (even a canned one... they're handy to have on hand for a quick lunch) to give it a little more oomph. The cooking liquid is also great for cooking greens or beans... We're not really used to using a pork base as a stock for soup, though it's common enough in other cultures,  but it's exactly what you want for collards, for instance.

So - an evening's work, or an afternoon when I was home otherwise anyway - and I have several pounds of cooked meat ready for use in a wide variety of meals.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Odds and Ends, Planned and Unplanned

I live in New York City. On the East Side of Manhattan. And the United Nations General Assembly opened last  week...

This may just be of mild interest to anyone who isn't in Manhattan, and isn't interested in international governance and politics. The actual Opening date, however, is of intense interest to anyone in Manhattan. All these diplomats and representatives of government  from all over the world converge on New York at the same time. In  fact, for the actual Opening, we have multiple Heads of State and/or Government. And, well - they have to get around the city somehow... securely... so traffic on the East Side is a bit of a nightmare.

This is all to explain why I waited nearly an hour for a Second Avenue bus  (which normally runs every 10 minutes at that hour, after rush hour) the other day... It was a week after Opening, so the Heads of State had mostly gone home - but, it's still busy.

I knew I was going to be home late. I did a job on the Upper East Side and then, as long as I was uptown, ran some errands that I knew were going to take time. So, I had cooked rice, and some ground beef was ready for hamburgers, and I was going to saute some kale... and we'd have a fairly easy (if unimaginative) dinner in about 15-20 minutes. (Even giving me a few minutes to change clothes and have some water...)

But - when I was still waiting for the bus at 8:00, I knew I needed something even faster and easier...  I called home, told Rich I'd be late, and  to take a container of ratatouille out of the freezer... (and make himself a burger and eat, if he got hungry before I got home... He chose not to.)

When I got home, I put a fry pan on the stove over medium heat, and broke up the beef into it. Added a small chunk of the frozen onion, and a sprinkling of frozen peppers.  Stirred all that around while the beef browned.

Once the beef was brown, I dropped in the (still partly frozen) ratatouille. I did not choose to add tomatoes... I put a cover on it, lowered the heat a bit, and went to change clothes.

Came back, stirred, sat down and asked Rich to set the table and pour water.

Served over rice...

Did not get a picture. We were too hungry - it was late. But, you see the idea - the prepared onion, pepper, and ratatouille allowed me to fix a full meal in hardly any time at all, with hardly any effort.

OK - so - we're used to pictures...

This wasn't really a whole post - it was too simple - but the other day, I made a salad for lunch. I mixed lettuce and arugula, added my prechopped vegetables (which included a beautiful ripe red pepper,) some feta cheese, and a simple oil and vinegar dressing.


It was the perfect flavor explosion. It hit all the bases - sweet red pepper, salty feta, bitter arugula, and sour vinegar.

It was so good I posted on Facebook - and I don't do that - and then ran to take this picture. (Yes - I've already eaten about half of it...)

Sometimes, you just hit it right.