Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sushi rice

I've made sushi (and sushi rice) many times over the years, but this weekend I was finally able to conquer the technique to great rice! I dare not say I was able to master the sushi rice, because there are chefs that literally spend their lives perfecting this very "simple" technique. But after reading various recipes and watching multiple You Tube videos, I have to say I was finally able to produce rice with both excellent flavor and texture!

Buying pre-cut sushi-grade fish means my sashimi looks awesome!
Now that I've tackled the hardest part of sushi, my next goal is to get better at rolling. My biggest problem is overfilling the rolls (more fish! more avocado!), so some pieces are literally busting at the seams. But that just gives me more reason to practice making (and eating) sushi! And let's be honest--I'm not charging anyone for my meal here so as long as it tastes good, which it did, that's all that matters.

Each roll may not have looked perfect, but arranging the
sushi on a platter really brings out the simple beauty of this dinner.
Usually when I buy sushi-grade fish I get a small piece of tuna at Whole Foods. But this time we went to Joong Boo market in Chicago and got a package of 4 different types of sushi-grade fish (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and smoked salmon). Not only was it half the price of Whole Foods, we had a variety of fish for our meal! All we needed then were a few other veggies (plus a bottle of sake and rice wine) and we were set for the evening.

Since we had a variety of fish, I made 4 different types of rolls.
  1. Oshinko (pickled Japanese radish). I love this sushi roll for its simplicity and salty/vinegary/sweet crunch! Find oshinko at your local asian market (it looks like this.)
  2. Spicy tuna with cucumber and avocado. To make the spicy tuna (or spicy anything) just finely chop the fish and add a touch of Sriracha and mayonnaise, to taste. (Kewpie mayo is excellent if you can get your hands on some!)
  3. Salmon with cucumber. 
  4. "Mexican" roll, which was probably my favorite. It's a combination of yellowtail, avocado, jalapeno, and cilantro and topped with very very thinly sliced lime (or lemon), peel and all. The peel can get a bit bitter and tough, but if you slice it as thinly as possible the flavor just melds into the dish. I think the citrus on top is an essential flavor component of the roll, although the boy didn't love it. So I hope try it... and if you don't like it, just take it off!
Though making sushi at home does take a little bit of investment into some of the ingredients you'll want on hand (nori, ginger, wasabi, rice vinegar, etc), it ends up being eons cheaper than going out to dinner. And it's a hell of a lot more fun too!

Yours in waiting for the day she can make sushi again,

Sushi rice, adapted from No Recipes, Morimoto, and other resources.

You should definitely read the full write-up from No Recipes. His step-by-step directions and photos cover a lot of details that I may not describe here. 

Rinsing the rice is essential to remove all that excess starch. Do not skip this step, and make sure to rinse until the water is running almost clear. 

To soak or not to soak? The recipes I found online were pretty split between soaking the rice and not soaking the rice prior to cooking. I soaked mine, so I can't say how the texture is different if you don't soak the rice. I'm sure your cooking vehicle (rice cooker vs stove top pot) and quality of rice will have a bigger impact, so it sounds like you could skip the soaking step if you felt inclined to do so.

Watch videos on how best to cool your rice down to get a sense of the technique. Here are a few that I watched on how to best cool the rice down (one, two, three). This step makes a HUGE difference in the texture of the rice, so take a few minutes to watch how other people do it. In the past my mushy sushi rice came down to the fact that I was cooling the rice by dumping it into a medium sized bowl, so the steam couldn't properly escape. Although I don't have a hangiri (the wooden bowl traditionally used to cool and season the sushi rice), I just used a large 9 x 13" glass baking dish. Sure, a wooden bowl might be preferable as it pulls away some of the moisture from the sushi rice, but what's more important is to have a container large enough so the rice can be spread out to cool (and not steam and turn to mush).

When seasoning your sushi rice the amount of liquid will seem like a lot. And it is, as you end up using ~1/4 cup seasoned vinegar for every ~2.5 cups of cooked rice. But trust me, it's fine. The rice will soak up all that delicious sweet/salty vinegary liquid and give your sushi rice that flavor that is so essential to a delicious maki roll! One more note about the vinegar seasoning: I saw a lot of different ratios out there for vinegar:sugar:salt. For example, Morimoto says 4:2:1 while No Recipes says 4:3:0.3. I didn't want the rice too sweet so I used the sugar ratio as recommended by Morimoto. But I've used the full 4:2:1 ratio in the past and it's a tad heavy on the salt to me. So ended up on a ratio that was 4:2:0.6!

My directions are for a stove-top rice method. The No Recipes link above can be useful if you are going to prepare your rice in a rice cooker.

This recipe is enough rice to make 4 - 5 sushi rolls (serves 2+ people)

250 grams (~1 1/4 cups) rice
1 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 TBSP sugar
2 tsp kosher salt (I used Morton's)

  1. Put the rice in large bowl and wash with cold tap water. Using your hands, gently rub the rice to remove the excess starches. (The water will be so cloudy from the starch that you won't be able to see the rice in your bowl!) Immediately drain the rice, rinse, and repeat the process another 4 - 6 times, or until the water is mostly clear. 
  2. Fill the bowl up once more and let the rice sit for 30 minutes.
  3. After soaking, give the rice a final rinse and drain in a fine-mesh sieve for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the rice to a large heavy bottomed pot and add water. Heat the pot over medium high and bring the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling immediately cover your pot with a tight fitting lid and turn the heat down to low. Cook the rice on low for 15 minutes.
  5. Once the rice is done, turn off the heat and let the rice steam for an additional 10 minutes.
  6. While you wait for the rice to cook, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small bowl. Microwave until the sugar and salt is just dissolved. 
  7. Once the rice is done, dump it into a very large bowl or large baking dish. Holding a wooden spoon directly over the rice, pour the vinegar mixture over the spoon, while moving the spoon around. (Watch the videos in my notes section above for a better description of this step, which helps distribute the vinegar evenly across all the rice.)
  8. Using broad flat wooden spoon in one hand and a fan or piece of cardboard in the other, gently combine the rice and vinegar using a side-to-side cutting motion with the edge of the spoon while fanning the rice. (The side-to-side motion is used to separate each grain of rice, so the vinegar penetrates every surface without mashing the rice. The fan is used to cool the rice and evaporate any excess liquid evaporate quickly, which gives your rice a nice shine and prevents it from getting mushy.) The rice is done when the surface is no longer wet and slippery, the rice is fluffy, and each grain is very shiny. It will still be a little warm, but it should not be hot.
  9. Spread the rice out over the surface of your bowl or baking dish, and cover with a damp towel until you're ready to use it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sausage, swiss chard, and lentil soup

Final stretch of winter is upon us! Which means now's the time to fill your belly with as much soup as you can.

I absolutely love soup, but never make it enough during the winter. One reason is that I tend to focus more on main dishes, and my soup recipes got lost in the mix. Plus they're not often hearty enough, and the boy isn't a huge fan of making them the star of a meal.

The solution: this soup!

The lentils, sausage, swiss chard, and veggies result in a soup that hearty and meaty and filling and bursting with tons of flavor and textures. Serve this with a piece of crusty bread (and a glass of red wine!) and you're set for the night.

I would apologize for the lack of a cute photo, but I'm not going to for 2 main reasons:
  1. This soup was too damn good, and eating took precedence over photographing this deliciousness!
  2. I live in Chicago and the sun sets well before I even leave work, so there's 0% chance I have any kind of great lighting when cooking these days.
Yours in sharing delicious food and recipes, even if the pictures are a bit sub par,

Sausage, swiss chard, and lentil soup, from Smitten Kitchen

Serves 6


For the soup
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large links of Italian sausage or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, diced
2 celery stalks, sliced or diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into half-moons or diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced (reserve half for later in recipe)
Kosher salt
A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 cups shredded or thinly ribboned Swiss chard leaves or kale

For the garlic oil finish (I didn't try this, but Smitten Kitchen says it makes the world of difference)
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil and 2 cloves of sliced garlic in a small skillet over medium heat until garlic softens and hisses.

Grated Pecorino Romano cheese to finish, optional

  1. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot on medium heat. When hot, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it starts to brown, about five minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrots, garlic, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional). 
  2. Cook until the vegetables soften a bit, another 5 minutes. Add the lentils, bay leaves, tomatoes, water, more salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook until the lentils are tender, about 40 minutes. (Add more water if your soup is getting too thick during the cooking process).
  3. When the lentils are cooked, add the chard and cook until the leaves are tender, just a few minutes. Discard the bay leaves. 
  4. To finish, divide soup among bowls, and drizzle with the garlic oil finish (see above). Top with fresh Romano. Leftovers will keep for several days in the fridge.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Multi-course birthday dinner

Happy belated birthday to me!

Last Saturday was my thirty-fifth birthday. I decided to spell out 'thirty fifth' because for some reason it doesn't look quite as bad spelled out versus in numerical form. (35!!!!)

Though I've had some pretty awesome birthdays over the years, I'll be blunt: sharing your birthday with Valentine's day sucks. When I was in my teens and twenties it was a constant reminder that I was perpetually single. I'm now in a relationship, but then the one thing I'd love to splurge on for my birthday (going to a really nice dinner) gets hijacked by couples looking for "romance" on this cheesy Hallmark holiday (which is about 492,340,039 times worse when Valentine's day falls on a Saturday). Ugh.

So we decided to postpone our nice dinner at Herb and planned a fancy 4-course dinner at home instead.  (Menu generated from this site!)

This meal was perfect for so many reasons, but the main one was that there is very little active time to prepare each of the courses. All the work was either on the front end (french-onion soup, crème brûlée) or required a relatively fast cooking time (scallops, lamb). It was also nice preparing each course individually, and you didn't have to worry about timing multiple courses such that everything would be magically ready at the same time. Stress-free cooking and eating fabulously fancy food--exactly what you want on your birthday.

First course: French-onion soup

Who doesn't love the salty and savory French-onion soup topped with copious amounts of cheese?! Normally this soup is pretty labor intensive, but I found a fabulous recipe that cooks the soup entirely in the slow cooker.

YES! You heard me. Slow cooker. Just make sure you start this at least a day in advance, because the onions need to first caramelize in the slow cooker 1 day (or night) and the soup simmers the next day. But once it's done you just pop in an oven-safe bowl, throw a slice or 2 of bread on top, and cover with some grated gruyere.

It just needs about 30 minutes in the oven to get the cheese and bubbly and melty. Soooo goood!

Second Course: Seared scallops with brown butter and lemon

I'm a purist when it comes to scallops. No cream or herbs or crazy flavors for me. Just sear them and throw a bit of melted butter on top and I'm in food heaven. But then I came across this twist: serve the scallops with browned butter. Genius! The recipe also called for some fresh lemon zest in the butter which did wonders in brightening up the flavor of the dish. Definitely a great twist on one of my favorite meals.

Third Course: Grilled lamb loin chops with rosemary and garlic

So remember how I told you that a Valentine's birthday messes with my plans to go out to eat every year? Well, turns out it can also mess with your plans to make your own fancy dinner! Originally this course was supposed to be a lamb chop (you know, the kind with the fancy bone), but of course the grocery store was completely sold out. Luckily though they had lamb loin chops, which were incredible. I was able to use the same recipe I'd planned on, but instead of pan searing the rib chops, the butcher recommended grilling the loin chops.

Oh. My. Goodness. I can't even describe how good this meal was. The lamb was so flavorful, tender, and melt-in-your mouth delicious that I think it may have even surpassed my love of rib eye!

Third Course: Lavender crème brûlée

If you've followed this blog for a while you'll know that I have an unhealthy love of lavender in my desserts. Particularly creamy ones (ie, chiffon cake with lavender creme, lavender cookies, and lavender ice cream). So when I decided to make crème brûlée (and 'treat yo-self' to a kitchen torch for my birthday) I knew I had to put lavender in it. Best. Decision. Ever.

We probably had a bit too much to eat on my birthday dinner (we could have made our 2nd and 3rd course portions a tad smaller), but everything we had was perfect, so it's hard to complain. Though it was probably the most expensive meal we've cooked ourselves at home (~$40 for all the food in total), it's still a ton cheaper than getting all this incredible food out at a restaurant. So you can call it a budget-friendly option for a splurge meal.

Buen Provecho,

Recipes for each course are below, in order of appearance:

Slow-cooker french-onion soup, adapted from the Kitchen

3 pounds yellow onions, peeled, sliced, and cut into quarter-moons
2 TBSP unsalted butter, melted
2 TBSP olive oil
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
8 - 10 cups beef broth (I like the Better than Bouillon concentrated broth)
3 TBSP brandy, optional

To serve
baguette slices, toasted, for each bowl
Gruyere cheese, grated (1/3 - 1/2 cup per bowl)
Chopped shallot or fresh onion, optional

  1. Caramelize the onions: Place the onion slices in a 5-quart (or larger) slow cooker. Stir in the butter, olive oil, salt, and black pepper to taste. Cover and cook on LOW for 12 hours. After cooking the onions should be dark golden brown and soft. (Note: Since my slow cooker is quite good at retaining liquid/steam, the next morning I felt like the onions were still a tad watery and I wanted to caramelize them more. So I removed the lid from the onions and left them in the slow cooker for another hour or so, stirring regularly to make sure they didn't char. Not sure if this made a big difference, but wanted to note what I did...)
  2. Cook the soup: Stir in the balsamic vinegar and up to 10 cups of beef broth. Cover and continue cooking on LOW for at least 6 to 8 hours. (Notes: I only added 8 cups of broth because my slow cooker retains quite a bit of liquid and I didn't want it to be too watery. Adjust as needed for your slow cooker and to taste. You can also cook your soup for longer, as long as there is enough liquid in your slow cooker.
  3. Finish the soup: Once you're done cooking the soup, taste and season with more salt and pepper if desired, and stir in the brandy if using. Adjust the oven rack to the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Ladle the soup into oven-safe bowls and place the bowls on a baking sheet. Top each bowl with a slice of toast and a generous quantity of shredded Gruyere cheese. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the cheese is completely melted. If you'd like to broil the cheese, turn the oven to broil and broil the soup for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and browned. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes, then serve with chopped fresh onion on the side, optional. 
Seared scallops with brown butter and lemon, adapted from Simply Recipes
Serves 2

* When cooking scallops make sure to sear them quickly to avoid overcooking. I have had issues with the scallop sticking to the pan in the past, so I cannot claim to be an expert on how to avoid that problem. I like using a stainless steel pan to get a solid crust on the scallops, but they have a tendency to stick to that type of pan, so make sure to use an oil with a high smoke point and a metal spatula to "scrape" the scallops off the pan (without messing up that gorgeous crust). Luckily only 1 of my 6 scallops stuck to the pan and lost its gorgeous sear in the cooking process, so I'm slowly getting better in my scallop technique!

* The original recipe called for capers, which I did not use, as I wanted my scallops more mild in flavor. But I've included them below if you'd like to try the recipe with capers.

2 - 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1-2 Tbsp canola oil, rice bran oil, or other high smoke point oil
6 sea scallops (ours were 0.9 pounds for 6 pieces, which were quite large scallops!)
1/3 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp capers, drained (optional)

  1. Brown the butter: Place butter in a light-colored saucepan and melt on medium heat. The butter will first foam, then recede. At this point do not walk away, as the butter will brown (and then burn!) relatively quickly quickly. After a few minutes, the milk solids will brown slightly and sink to the bottom. Once they are deeply caramel-colored (but not a burnt brown), remove the pan from the heat and pour immediately into a separate bowl to stop the cooking process. Set aside. 
  2. Pat the scallops dry. Heat the oil in a sauté pan on high heat until the oil is shimmering. (If the oil gets so hot that it begins to smoke, remove the pan from the heat, and turn down the heat a notch before returning the pan to the burner.) When the oil is shimmery hot place the scallops in the pan, flat side down.  Do not touch the scallops once they are in the pan so that they can get a nice sear. After about 3 - 4 minutes the edges of the scallops should be getting quite brown. Use tongs (or spatula if they stick a bit) to flip the the scallops. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until nicely seared. Once both sides are browned, remove the scallops to a warm plate, and turn off the burner. 
  3. Pour any remaining oil from the pan, leaving any browned bits in the pan. Add the white wine to the pan and return the pan to the burner on high heat. Let the wine boil and reduce until you have ~1 tablespoon of liquid left in the pan. Turn off the heat, add the browned butter, lemon zest, and capers (if using) to the pan. Swirl to combine. 
  4. Place scallops on serving plates and pour sauce over them. Serve immediately. 
Grilled lamb loin chops with rosemary and garlic, adapted from Simply Recipes

* For directions on how to cook lamb rib chops, check out the post from Simply Recipes. She has great step-by-step directions for rib chops that are both 1 or 2 bones thick. I used her recipe for the rosemary rub, but we grilled our loin chops instead of pan searing them. 

* I'd recommend cooking your lamb on the medium rare side for the most tender chops (~130 degrees). Decrease by up to 5 degrees for rare.

* These chops were a tad on the salty side (but so good!) Feel free to cut down by 1/2 tsp if you're really sensitive to saltier food.

4 pieces lamb lamb loin chops, thick cut (1 1/4" - 1 1/2"; these ended up being over a pound for us)
2 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary (or 1-2 tsp dried rosemary if you don't have fresh)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil, divided

  1. In a small bowl, mix the rosemary, salt, pepper, garlic, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil together. Coat the lamb chops with the mixture, massaging it into the meat with your fingers. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes. 
  2. Preheat your grill to high with the lid down. Once the grill is heated, oil the grates. Sear the lamb chops for 3 minutes per side (open lid), or until the chops reach 130 degrees for medium rare. Remove chop from the grill, loosely tent with foil, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. 
Lavender crème brûlée, adapted from Shutterbean (via the girl and the fig cookbook)

* This crème brûlée recipe was a touch on the soft side. It still held together very well, but if you like your custard to be more firm I'd assume that a recipe with a higher eggs-to-liquid ratio would be your preference. For example, this recipe is 2.6 yolks:1 cup cream + milk whereas Cooks Illustrated has a recipe that is 3 yolks:1 cup cream. I'll have to try that recipe soon and see which I prefer!

* I cut the recipe down in half (hence the odd liquid measurements) and it was still enough for 4 - 6 people! 

1 cup + 2 TBSP heavy cream
1/3 cup milk
3/4 TBSP dried lavender, plus more for garnish if you'd like
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 TBSP honey
turbinado sugar or Demerara sugar, for the sugar topping (you'll need ~1 tsp or a bit more per ramekin, depending on the diameter of your ramekin)

  1. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan and add the lavender. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the lavender steep for at least 15 minutes (I went a full 30 to enhance the lavender flavor).
  2. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and honey in a separate bowl until smooth. Slowly whisk into the lavender-cream mixture. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any foam. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. 
  3. Preheat oven to 350F and bring a kettle or large saucepan of water to boil over high heat.
  4. Pour the mixture into ramekins. Set the ramekins in a deep baking pan and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking pan with foil and place in the oven. 
  5. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes or until set. (Note: Cooking time may be shorter for the wide and shallow brûlée ramekins. When the custard is done it will be set on the sides while still a little jiggly, but not wet, in the center. If you have a digital instant-read thermometer, the temperature in the center should register 170 to 175 degrees F.)  
  6. Remove the baking pan from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Transfer ramekins to wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Set ramekins on rimmed baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.
  7. When you are ready to serve the custard, remove ramekins from refrigerator and uncover. If condensation has collected place paper towel on surface to soak up moisture. Sprinkle each with about 1 teaspoon turbinado sugar (1 1/2 teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap ramekin for even coverage. Ignite torch and caramelize sugar. To set the sugar and re-chill the custard, refrigerate ramekins uncovered for 15 to 30 minutes (no longer than 45 minutes).
  8. Serve with a mini spoon and crack away!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Slow-cooked salmon

Happy New Year!

A month has already passed in 2015 (how is that possible?!), so are we all continuing our healthy-eating habits? If so, great! If not, no biggie, it just means you're a totally normal human being.

No matter what your eating has been like this past month, how about we get February going on a positive note?

Today I bring you my absolute favorite way to cook salmon—low and slow.

Pair that technique with high-quality salmon, like the Coho I have here, and you'll have the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth, tastes-like-buttah salmon. No joke, this salmon was better than anything I've had at a restaurant. There's just no comparison to anything you've had!

Coho salmon deliciousness--I can't get over that deep color.

We kept the recipe insanely simple (butter, salt, and pepper) so that the flavor of the salmon really shines, but you can use any seasoning, glaze, or topping you want on this fish. In fact, the original recipe was for pesto-rubbed salmon, so clearly anything goes!

Some warm chili-oil buckwheat noodles accompanied this salmon, but really any side dish will do.

In theory the noodle dish was a perfect partner to the salmon. Soy sauce and vinegar dressing with a touch of sweetness on the noodles sounded good, and the green onion-garlic-star anise-ginger-and red pepper flake-infused chili oil drizzled on the dish sounded even better. But the proportions were way off for me; the nuances of the garlic, ginger, and star anise in the oil were lost under a blanket of extreme heat from the pepper flakes and the noodles just didn't have enough flavor on their own. In retrospect, I should have added fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions to the noodle dressing. I'd also cut down the red pepper flakes in the chili oil so I could add more of that flavorful oil without burning my mouth. I haven't had a chance to play with the proportions to my liking, but if you're interested, you can find the original recipe to the noodle salad here. (Other people who left comments seemed to like the salad, so who knows, you may like the recipe more than I did!)

Buckwheat noodles make a great side dish. Still on the hunt for a perfect recipe.

Side dish or not, this salmon is the star of the show. I hope you'll try this technique at least once; I have a feeling it'll be your go-to method for salmon.

Butter makes everything better.
Buen provecho,

Slow-Cooked Salmon (aka, the most amazing salmon you've had)
Adapted from Geoffry Zacharian of the Foot Network

As I said above, you can use any seasoning, topping, or glaze you like for the salmon. This recipe is purely a technique for how to bake the most tender salmon. We served this as is with just salt and pepper and it was perfection.

salmon, any thickness, skinless or skin on (I love Coho salmon if you can find it)

  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.

  2. Brush a baking dish with a thin coat of softened butter and sprinkle salt and pepper over the surface (this is especially important if you are using skinless salmon, probably doesn't matter as much if using skin-on fish).

  3. Place salmon filets skin-side down, brush with softened butter all over each fillet, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

  4. Bake until desired doneness, ~10 to 20 minutes. For our 1" thick fillets, mine was perfect after 15 minutes (maybe medium rare-ish?). The boy liked his a tad more done, which was medium-ish after 20 minutes. 
Note: The original recipe says to bake the fish 8 – 10 minutes for a 1.5" fillet, but the salmon would still be pretty rare at that point. Other reviewers seemed to have the same issue, so I think something might be a bit off with the timing on that recipe. Just trust your eyes, fork, and taste buds when figuring out how long to cook the salmon.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Classic mussels

Two months! It's been quite a while since I've posted. Chalk it up to crazy work hours and 4 big cakes I've made for my cousin's over the past 2 months (cake pics coming after Christmas). But work is back to normal pace and no more cakes in the forseeable future, so it's time to get caught up on some delicious foods I've been cooking up!

I've been trying to eat a bit healthier these days in preparation for the gluttony that is the holidays, especially since this year I'm doing dinner on Christmas eve with my mom's extended family, Christmas day with my dad's extended family, and the day after Christmas with the boy's family! I'm super excited for the non-stop get togethers, but the buttons on my pants do not share my enthusiasm.  :)

So what's a great comfort food that hits the spot on cold winter nights but isn't going to pack on the major pounds?? Steamed mussels, with a delicious white wine sauce that you can dip a toasty, crusty bread into.

And the best part is that while most comfort food takes hours and hours to put together, it literally takes minutes to steam the mussels.

These work great as a first course or a main dish. I prefer eating them for a main dish though, because I always seem to want more than just an appetizer-sized portion and I get to soak up all that delicious broth with a big hunk of bread.

Steamed mussels with white wine and garlic
Recipe adapted from All Recipes and Ina Garten

Serves 2 as a main dish and 4 as a first course.

Remember that mussels are alive when you buy them, and you want to keep them that way until you're ready to cook. I like to buy mussels the day I'm going to serve them, but you can buy them a day in advance. When storing make sure that you do NOT keep them in a closed plastic bag or else you'll suffocate them. One way to store them is to put them in colander, cover with ice, and keep in the fridge. (Place the colander inside a larger bowl so the melting ice drains off.)

Another thing to keep in mind about mussels: they cook very quickly! Use your eyes (and a timer) to gauge their doneness (they pop open once they've cooked). I've read recipes that say to cook them for 10+ minutes, but I find that in my dutch oven they're done in about 4 to 5 minutes! I can't imagine how rubbery they'd be after 10 minutes, so take them off the heat once the shells have opened.

2 pounds mussels
1/4 cup flour (for cleaning the mussels)
2 TBSP butter + 1 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced (~4 TBSP)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
zest from lemon
1 cup white wine (or 2/3 cup chicken broth + 1/3 cup dry vermouth, or beer if you like)
1 – 1.5 tsp kosher salt (omit if using chicken broth that is salted)
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 – 4 TBSP fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
crusty bed to serve

  1. To clean the mussels: put them in a large bowl with 2 quarts of water and the flour and soak for 30 minutes, or until the mussels disgorge any sand. Drain the mussels, then remove the "beard" from each with your fingers. If they're dirty, scrub the mussels with a brush under running water. At this point all the mussels should be tightly shut. If they aren't, squeeze the shells together or tap on the counter; if they're alive they'll slowly close (and stay closed) and if they're dead they'll stay open. Discard any mussels whose shells aren't tightly shut.

  2. To cook the mussels: Melt butter and olive oil over medium heat in a non-aluminum stock pot or enameled dutch oven. Cook shallots for 5 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the red pepper and lemon zest and cook for another 45 seconds.

  3. Quickly pour in the wine, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Gently add the cleaned mussels and cover immediately. Give the pot a little shake and let the mussels steam for 1 minute (set your timer!)

  4. After 1 minute remove the lid and give the mussels a stir. Replace the cover and steam for 2 more minutes (again, set your timer!)

  5. Remove the cover once again; at this point many/most of your shells will be open. Stir in the parsley, replace the cover, and cook until the shells are all/almost all open, another 1 to 3 minutes. Make sure sure to check your mussels every minute or so at this point. (I find that with my dutch oven I only need about 1 more minute, so don't feel like you need to use the whole 3 minutes. If there are only 1 or 2 that aren't open, I'd turn off the heat and just toss those guys, because they may never open. I'd rather discard a few than have a whole pot of rubbery, overcooked mussels!)

  6. Plate the mussels immediately, making sure to include that delicious broth in the serving dishes. Serve with some warm, crusty french bread and a lemon wedge.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Banana bread and a fall walk

The temperature has dropped precipitously these past few days and all I'm seeing on food blogs is pumpkin everything. It must be fall!

But I'm boycotting pumpkin (because I'm not the biggest fan and the obsession other's have with pumpkin makes me want it even less) and giving you banana bread instead. It's a great excuse to turn on your oven and make your place smell amazing during these colder days.

Sliced bananas on top transform regular banana bread into something magical.
Incredible idea from my friend Stacey.
But before we get to the banana bread, I wanted to share some fall photos I recently took while touring  Graceland Cemetery with the boy. I know it sounds odd to share cemetery photos with you, but Graceland is an historical cemetery built in 1860, with incredible architecture and some of the most prominent figures of Chicago buried there. It's also incredibly spacious and green, and makes you completely forget you live in a big city.

Below are some of my favorite photos; details can be found in the caption underneath each picture.

Gorgeous leaf spotting on our way to the cemetery.

Pops of color around the meandering paths.

The bridge to Burnham island (view from the island).
One of the most influential Chicago architects had the most humble of headstones.
Not too surprising since Daniel Burnham advocated for expansive parks and nature in the city.

Gorgeous headsontes; this statue was about 1/3 the height of the entire thing.

Not your typical cemetery.

Side window of the Ghetty tomb. I had no idea it was so famous when I snapped this photo,
I just loved the architecture. According to Wikipedia: "The Getty Tomb has been said to be the most
significant piece of architecture in Graceland cemetery and the beginning of Sullivan's
involvement in the architectural style known as the Chicago School."

The variety of mausoleums and headstones was endless.

More fall gorgeousness...

I just couldn't stop taking pictures of the trees.


Another famous ChicagoanPotter Palmer and family (yes, the Palmers of The Palmer House Hotel).
If Daniel Burnham had the most modest grave site, then Potter Palmer had the most extravagant.

Rain showers that had passed just an hour before and overcast skies really set the mood.

Such unique architecture throughout the entire cemetery.

All my University of Chicago peeps will recognize the name of Ida Noyes.

If you live in Chicago I'd highly recommend talking a stroll through the cemetery. We covered a lot of ground in an hour, and the fall trees really provide some gorgeous scenery!

And for those of you not in Chicago, how about some banana bread?

Tender but not greasy. Hearty but not dense. Sweet but not overly so. Perfection.
Buen Provecho,

The Best Banana Bread, adapted from Cooks Illustrated and my friend Stacey

Makes one 9-inch loaf

Note from CI: Greasing and flouring only the bottom of a regular loaf pan causes the bread to cling to the sides and rise higher. If using a nonstick loaf pan, on which the sides are very slick, grease and flour sides as well as the bottom. 

Note from Jackie: Whenever I have bananas that are starting to get too ripe, I peel them and place them in a bag and store in the freezer. Once I've saved up a few bananas I make bread! But just know that thawed frozen bananas are A LOT more liquidy than fresh bananas. I used 3 pretty liquidy ones and didn't have any issues here, so I think this recipe is fairly forgiving. Feel free to use all fresh bananas, all frozen bananas, or a combination (which is what my friend Stacey does; 1 frozen banana and 2 fresh). 


2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
1/2 to 1 cup chopped nuts (toasted walnuts or pecans work well), optional
3 very ripe bananas, soft, darkly speckled, mashed well (about 1 1/2 cups; see note above)
1 medium ripe banana, lightly speckled, sliced ~1/4" thick (this is for the topping) 
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
6 TBSP unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease bottom only of regular loaf pan, or grease and flour bottom and sides of nonstick 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan; set aside. 
  2. Combine first five ingredients together in large bowl; set aside. 
  3. Mix mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with wooden spoon in medium bowl. Lightly fold banana mixture into dry ingredients with rubber spatula until just combined and batter looks thick and chunky. 
  4. Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan and top with sliced bananas. Bake until loaf is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 50-55 minutes. 
  5. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rustic plumb cake

Everyone knows that I make some pretty mean cakes.

A random collage of some favorites from my flickr page
But ironically, I'm not the biggest fan of sweet layer cakes with even more sweet frosting piled on.

More often than not I just want a classic, old-fashioned, no frosting, buttery type of cake. You know, the kind that reminds you of your grandmother (even though my nana's cake from childhood was a box mix cake infused with fresh orange zest...YUM!)

Bonus points if its incredibly delicious, takes minutes to throw together, requires minimal dishes, and has some kind of fruit in it.

This cake, THIS cake is my happy place. It's near perfection for me, and everything I want in a single cake.  

Just look at those crevices that form when the cake batter rises up to envelop the fruit!
And you can practically hear the sound that crust makes when tapping a spoon against it.

I want to show you guys the insides of this incredible cake, but all I have is the crappy photo below, which does it no justice. But when taking treats to work it's really hard to get a good photo of the insides, so my cell phone pic will have to do. 

Which is partly a shame, because it may not entice you to make this cake as much as I'd hope. But it's partly the perfect representation of this cake as well, because its not about the aesthetics, it's about the flavor. Sure, it's not a perfectly crafted photo with amazing lighting. But see those splotches on my plate napkin? That shows you how juicy the fruit is on the inside. And see the darker color on top of the tender cake? You can practically feel the crackly crust.

A crust, which when combining a dusting of cinnamon and spices with some sugar in the raw, not only results in an incredible texture, but a bit of warmth and comfort in each bite.

Cake batter + plums + sugar & spice = simply delicious

Will this cake with any awards on Pinterest? Unlikely. But will it satisfy your sweet and buttery tooth and leave you wanting to eat the entire cake. Absolutely.

And if my photos haven't done this cake justice, check out some others by Smitten Kitchen and Lottie + Doof. They have some interesting history nuggets about this recipe as well, which was first published in 1983 (no WONDER it reminds me of my childhood).

Buen Provecho,

Rustic Plum Cake (aka Plum Torte), adapted from Lottie + Doof (who adapted it from Marian Burros of the NY Times)

The original recipe calls for Italian plums, but after buy some duds at the farmers market (sad face), I used regular plums instead. It was glorious. Feel free to substitute other kinds of stone fruit or anything else really. (Apples? Pears? Apricots? Who knowsgo crazy!) Check out the link above to see how Lottie + Doof used raspberries in his.

The original recipe (and most variations) use 1 cup of sugar. But Lottie + Doof cut it down to 3/4 cup, which is what I used here. I found it to be perfectly sweet, so you can bump up the sugar if you prefer it sweeter.

Everyone says this cake is better on day 2. I had mine on the second day and it was delicious, but I cannot give you any information on the difference eating it fresh vs rested. You might just have to make 2 cakes and test out this theory. :)  


1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (115 grams or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
8 to 12 smallish purple Italian purple plums, halved and pitted -OR- 5 to 6 larger plums (I thickly sliced mine, but quarters would work) -OR- another fruit you'd like to try

1 to 2 TBSP sugar in the raw (or regular sugar)
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp apple pie spice (or ground cinnamon), optional

  1. Heat oven to 350°F. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.
  2. In a larger bowl, cream together the butter and sugar using an electric mixer (hand mixer will do!) until fluffy and light in color. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. 
  3. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, and mix until just combined. It will be a fairly thick batter, do not fret!
  4. Spread batter into an ungreased (or lightly greased) 9-inch springform pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, all over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle the top with lemon juice, then apple pie spice, then the sugar in the raw.
  5. Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into a center comes out free of batter, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on rack for a few hours before serving.
  6. Once cool, it is recommended to leave the cake at room temperature overnight (covered) as the cake is better on the second day.