Monday, December 26, 2011

New Gravy Ideas

Here's another idea for your chicken gravy.  Recently, I needed to use up some chicken, but I was running low on interesting ingredients, so I cut up two pounds of chicken and sauteed it.  In the mean time, I put about 1 1/2 cups of rice in the microwave and started some gravy cooking.  Once the rice was cooked, I put in a healthy dose of frozen vegetables in to thaw (I had corn and peas - carrots, lima beans, and green beans, or anything you like would work).  By then, I had the oven preheating to 375.  I put all the chicken and veggies in a deep 9 x 12 casserole, added as much rice as I thought was needed (about 2/3, meaning that a cup of uncooked rice would have done the job), and then poured in the gravy.  You can top the end result with toasted bread crumbs or some panko cooked quickly in a bit of butter.  Cook 20-30 minutes and you have a chicken and rice casserole.  Or, if you want to save time on the last step, mix the chicken, gravy and vegetables, then serve over rice and you have chicken a la king.  It's not fancy, but the family really enjoys it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Taking Stock

First, please excuse the bad pun.  Many migraine authors speak of the virtue of making stock.  This typical recipe is one you might want to try.  For something this simple, you'd think that recipes are pretty similar.  Well, mostly.  I found a great ingredient that most recipes overlook, courtesy of Alton Brown:  leeks.   Then I found some good technique tips from Bobby Flay.

Here's what I learned from the experience:  1) You may not end up with nearly as much stock as you expect at the end.  I had to bring along a couple of boxes of store-bought stock to Thanksgiving in order to get everything prepared, and even that was almost not enough.  2) I prefer unsalted stock, so I can add salt to my dishes later.  This can be scary, because you work on this stuff and nurse it to perfection all day long, yet you can't really test it to see if it's perfect if you haven't salted it.  If that keeps you from sleeping at night, put a bit in a bowl, salt it, and taste that.  3)  Technique matters.  If you skim the stock as you go, you will get a lot of the smaller "yuck" out when it is still easy to do so.  If you refrigerate your end product and then skim the fat, it will be cleaner-tasting and healthier.  4) Carrots and leeks are powerful ingredients:  if you use them heavily, your stock will be noticeably sweet.  If you like that, great.  If you don't, be careful with those two items.  Personally, I loved it, but someone else tasted my gravy and seemed more puzzled than thrilled.  5) If you're really pinching pennies, you can throw your chicken bones and carcasses in a freezer back and collect them until you have enough to make the stock.  It works very well, but it can be touch to break apart large frozen blocks of chicken parts. 

My take on the entire experience:  I came out with surprisingly little product, and according to some chefs, it doesn't last, even if frozen.  It was really delicious in my gravy and I was happy to have tried it, but to have barely enough for two family meals, it was entirely too much trouble.  My recommendation is to try it when you plan to be stuck in the house anyway and be your own judge.  And don't feel bad if you decide that this route is not for you.  I'm glad to have the extra space in my freezer back (No more bones!) and I won't be trying this again for a long time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New Ingredient Alert

Here's a fun new ingredient to try.  Kitchen Basics is now selling its seafood stock at Kroger.  It's not quite as migraine-compliant as some of their stocks, but it is still one of the best options available short of making your own.  I used it in jambalaya with excellent results and could easily see using it in etouffee.  A bechamel made with this would go nicely on some fish.  In fact, any seafood dish that normally uses chicken stock would benefit from this alternative.  Check the ingredients and see if this might be something you could use.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Kheema Therapy

Aarti Party is one of the best things to happen to Food Network.  Aside from being a joy to watch, Aarti Sequeira brings some great new tastes to the home cook's arsenal.  One of the basic dishes she makes that is easily adapted to the migraine diet is kheema.  Substitutions are very straight-forward:  scallions or shallots can be used instead of onions (I've started veering more towards scallions because they are the easiest to prepare - cut of the bottoms, chop, and they're done), and the vinegar can be replaced with white vinegar (Add a little at a time and taste before adding more) or omitted entirely.

Two pointers may assist you.  First, Aarti says to saute the onions, add the garlic and ginger (cook a minute), and then add the dried spices and cook another minute.  I usually like to cook my dry spices more before adding wet ingredients.  This gets rid of a "raw spice" flavor that some fine less refined than my approach.  I prefer to either cook the spices first, then add the onions/shallots/scallions, or I sometimes add the dry spices with the onions/shallots/scallions and cook them a bit more that way.  In either event, the garlic and ginger go in last for a short time so that they do not burn.

The second issue is working with ground beef.  If you add regular ground beef or chuck to the spice mix, you end up with a lot of grease.  If you drain the grease, it takes a lot of the flavor away with it; if you don't drain the grease, your end result will be unhealthy and probably ruined.  If you cook and drain the beef, and then combine it with the spice mix, the flavors don't really get into the beef and your dish does not rise to its potenial.  There is an easy solution:  Ground sirloin gives off virtually no grease, so you can add it to the spice mix, cook it without draining, and it should come out perfectly. 

As a side note, if you make something that requires a sear on your ground beef ("Brown meat tastes good!" - Anne Burrell)  like pasta bolognese, grease will trip you up there as well.  Again, ground sirloin and other super-lean cuts will save the day.  It costs more, but at times like these, short cuts don't pay off.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Holy Grail

Back before my wife got sick, I used to get ambitious in the kitchen on Saturday morning. I did not really know what I was doing, but I was determined to figure out how to make moo goo gai pan. I looked in over a dozen Chinese cooking books for a recipe and it turned out to be impossible to find (this was before Google, if you can remember that). I fooled around numerous times and always came up with something edible, but never anything that would fool someone that had eaten it from a restaurant. That quest continued into my second life as a migraine-friendly cook, and I've finally come up with something that might pass for restaurant food.

The ingredients:
Canola or other unflavored oil
Chicken cut into bite-sized pieces
Carrots (peeled)
Celery stalks
Bok Choy (one bunch of baby Bok Choy works with 2 lbs of chicken)
Optional Chinese ingredients: water chesnuts, baby corn, bamboo shoots (at least one is recommended)
Fresh Ginger
Chicken stock
Soy Sauce (optional)
Corn starch
Kosher Salt (What could be more Chinese than Kosher salt?)
Plain rice

Technique and prep are important, but not difficult. Food prep is key for two reasons. First, eye appeal will help you to make the best impression. Second, food safety depends on you following the golden rule of food prep: don't put veggies where raw meat has been. So, we cut the veggies before the meat. Start with the bok choy. Cut the leafy top off and put in its own bowl. Cut off the bottom that holds it together and you have stems similar in size and shape to celery stalks. Cut the bok choy, scallions, carrots and celery into uniform thin diagonal medallions. This gives you big pieces that will cook uniformly and look nice on the plate. Set those aside in their own bowl. Water chesnuts can be purchased in pre-cut form, in various shapes. I prefer the medallions because they will cook more uniformly with the fresh veggies. Rinse the canned Chinese ingredients and put with the fresh veggies. Peel some ginger (this is the "secret ingredient"). Grate about a tablespoon (teaspoon if you're not a ginger maniac) of ginger into its own small bowl. Custard bowls are perfect for this.

I'm lazy and I buy a lot of boneless chicken breast on sale because it's quick and easy to deal with. However, it's not necessarily the best choice for this dish. Lately, I've gone to cracked chicken breasts or my new favorite, thighs (with the bones). I buy a little extra to compensate for the skin and bone that will not be eaten, but it is a big cost saver, plus it gives you skin to work with (and bones for making your own stock). I like to fry the skin in some oil while I am boning and cutting the chicken. It's not the healthiest choice, and not strictly required, but it will add some awesome richness to the end product. It's best to rinse the chicken before cutting. Dry it with a paper towel or it will spatter when put in the oil. Wash your hands before touching anything else.

Have a large bowl standing by, as well as a cover. Either a spare glass microwave turntable or a sheet of foil will do the trick. Remove the skin from the pan and add chicken (You HAVE purchased some cheap non-metal tongs, right?). Add a bit of salt. I sometimes throw in some chicken-flavored Better than Bullion as well. When it is about halfway cooked, add half of the ginger and one or two cloves of minced/pressed garlic (and a bit of soy sauce, if you can). Leaving the liquid in the pan, remove the chicken to the large bowl and cover to keep it hot.

Saute veggies, adding a bit more salt and soy sauce. When about half way done, add the remainder of the ginger and another clove of garlic if desired. Add in bok choy tops and wilt them down. When cooked, add stock. I usually add 8 oz per pound of chicken. Heat, taste and add salt/soy sauce as desired.

To finish the sauce, it needs to be thickened. Usually, we have made a roux and added liquid to make sauces. Here, we started with the liquid and need to add a thickener. Uncooked flour is not the best choice in most cases because of the raw dough taste that it can add. The alternative is corn starch, which goes in at the end and adds no taste. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS! I've had good luck adding about two tablespoons to a cup of water to make a slurry. I stir it up and quickly add 1/2 to 3/4 of the slurry to the pan. I heat it up to a boil and QUICKLY reduce the heat. (Otherwise, the starch breaks down and will not work.) Then I simmer until the sauce is thickened to desired consistency. This is actually the hardest part, as corn starch can be unpredictable. Because it is for texture, not taste, I usually add more, rather than less, using a very thick slurry. Take a final taste (you diluted the sauce with slurry) and salt or add soy sauce as needed. Pour contents into bowl and you are ready to serve over rice.

Tip of the Day

I keep going back to that taco seasoning recipe, but for good reason: it is a workhorse and very quick. I've learned two things about it lately. First, onion power seems to be safe whereas onions are definitely not at my house. Second, you can tweak it to come even closer to tasting like the Mexican restaurant down the street. I have started replacing about 1/4 of my chili powder (the deep red stuff you can find at the grocery store) with ancho chili powder. It's a lighter brown and adds an earthiness that will make your seasoning stand out even more. The variety I found has some heat, otherwise I would probably put in more. Enjoy!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Breaking Out of the Routine

Just because I blog about food does not mean that I am making magic every time I step in the kitchen. I have a bit of a phobia about pork and fish, and good cuts of beef are getting pricier all the time, so I find myself going back and forth between chicken and ground chuck a LOT. I do, in fact, get into a rut with my cooking if I am not constantly vigilant.

Two things pushed me out of my rut yesterday. First, my oldest son, who does not get migraines, is the hardest eater to please in the immediate family. Part of the problem is that he has gotten hooked on Food Network just like me and there are so many great things on there that our migraine patient can't eat. We had a long weekend (which is when I prefer to try new cooking techniques and skills), and he was ready for something new.

The second push came from watching The Worst Cooks in America. This show involves a lot of detailed instruction (much of which is reproduced or even expanded upon on the website) and the cooks all start out as worse than hopeless. Seeing these contestants build their skills and cooking fish helped give me some confidence with it.

Cooking fish without citrus, vinegar or wine was the last obstacle to getting in the kitchen. This recipe for Morrocan-style Tilapia was the trick. 100% migraine friendly (!!!), it uses an inexpensive variety of fish that is not too fishy and is relatively easy to work with.

Here are the challenges I faced and how I dealt with them. I bought a little over 8 oz. per person. They came frozen and were hard like plastic plates, which is great for storage, but a little tricky if you want them for dinner. Fish cooks very quickly, so quick thaws can risk cooking the fish. I decided to put the filets in a gigantic mixing bowl (you MUST get at least one - it's a great problem solver). I filled the bowl with hot water from the sink. the fishy ice cubes cooled it down quickly, so nothing cooked. In 15-20 minutes, they were ready to pat dry with paper towels and cook. Easy, breezy, beautiful! (Yes, I watch too much America's Next Top Model too.)

While the fish thawed, I worked on the mango. Mango is a delicious fruit, but it poses a couple of challenges if you're not familiar with it. First, the skin is very tough. I used a chef's knife, but you may find it easier to use a vegetable peeler or a smaller knife like a paring knife. Second, mangos have a gigantic pit, shaped like a huge almond. YouTube has some videos on cutting mangos that are worth checking out. Some techniques bypass the peeling, eliminating that issue completely.

Cilantro turned out to be the biggest issue in my meal. I eat it, but I don't use it much in my own recipes. The trick here was to not use too much. I tried "eyeballing" it and my son insisted on grabbing the measuring cup. He took some out, and as it turned out, it was still more that I would have preferred. My two tips: chop it very fine (food processor if you have to) and add it gradually, tasting periodically.

A salsa of just mango and cilantro is something you might want to improve on. I could see finely chopped shallots going nicely with it, plus maybe a touch of white vinegar to balance the sweetness. Maybe a tiny bit of red pepper flake would help too. However, mango is such an awesome fruit that it alone would be wonderful with the fish.

Seasoning the fish is not too tricky. I like to use spices from the farmer's market as opposed to the grocery store. They are usually cheaper, fresher, and they taste SO much better. Cumin and coriander are essential to my cooking, so they are worth the trouble of the occasional road trip. My only issue here was how to season the "B side" of the fish. A couple of tricks to try: 1) use a wire cooling rack to minimize contact with the seasoned "A side" while seasoning the "B side"; and 2) start with the flat side down, so when you flip to season the "B side", less of the "A side" side is in contact with the wire rack. Seasoning the "B side" after you put the seasoned "A side" down in the hot pan is awkward and potentially dangerous if you have to rub the spices into the fish. (Full disclosure: I rubbed it with a spatula) I used sea salt, which tastes better than table salt. Kosher salt is probably too big and grainy for this purpose.

Cooking: I used a non-stick pan. I had to cook in batches because only four filets would fit in the pan. I had a holding plate and a pre-formed tent of aluminum foil to keep the earlier batch hot. My son threw dish towels on it to keep it even warmer. Worked great. Non-stick pans require safe utensils. I used a large plastic spatula (don't have a fish one) so I could get completely under the fish and not break it. I used non-scratch tongs in my left hand to assist. Oil just needs to barely cover the pan surface. You'll probably need to add a bit after each batch. Fish should be cooked to "fork tender", not to "flaky and dry". Watch the fatter part of the fish to make sure it it cooked all the way through. If there was a line next to where the fish's spine was, it will not disappear completely with cooking.

This dish was a welcome change from "the usual", it did not make a ridiculous amount of mess, and it helped me build my confidence with fish. If you are ready to branch out from beef, chicken and pork, this is not a bad place to start. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Siren's Call

Despite great pain, disfigurement, inconvenience and emotional trauma caused thereby, I am looking forward to pulling out my mandolin again. However, this time it will be preceded by the purchase and donning of a cut-resistant glove, widely available at cooking supply stores and on Amazon.

Why? Because my wife can tolerate parmesan cheese, this recipe for healthy fettucini alfredo with zucchini calls for one, texture and shape really do make a difference in a dish like this, and a mandolin is the easiest way to julienne vegetables until you've really honed your knife skills.

Even if the idea of a healthy vegetarian dinner does not appeal to you, take a look at the recipe. Ellie uses some techniques that will come in handy for other dishes.

First, note that she reserves some pasta water before draining the pasta. This starchy water is used to thin the pasta sauce to desired consistency if it gets too thick. Unlike plain water, it adds a subtle "presence" to the sauce that is considered desirable. You don't want to over-do this, but a light touch will improve your pasta sauces. Also the starchy water adds a taste to the sauce that is already in the pasta, which "brings the elements on the plate together as one", as some cooks like to say. In other words, common ingredients in discrete components of a dish (like, pasta and sauce) make them taste like they belong together. All that from a cup of hot cloudy water. . .

Second, take a look at the sauce. The main components include flour, oil and milk. Look familiar? Yes, that's a simple bechamel base, put together in a slightly different order than my way. Adding a little garlic, salt and parmesan magically transforms walllpaper paste into something special. If we did this the way we already know, we'd start with the oil, add garlic and cook just a bit (so it's not raw or burned - it's not going to cook well in milk), add flour and cook enough to get rid of the bread-like taste (it's not going to cook in the milk either), and then add milk. Then the base is heated and thickened (heat can be increased a bit at this point). The cheese only needs to melt, not cook, so it can be added late in the process. If the sauce gets a little too thick, use that reserved pasta water (sparingly). Save salt for last, as the cheese can be pretty salty on its own and it will be hard to judge saltiness until the pasta water has been added.

While we are talking about pasta, here are a couple of other tips:
1. Get the water boiling before you do anything else. It takes the water a long time to heat up and you won't have that nice starchy water until you're done.
2. Many cooks salt the pasta water aggressively, because this is the only chance to infuse taste into the pasta. Obviously this can be skipped, especially if you're watching sodium intake, but if you do salt the water, this is yet another reason not to add salt to your sauce until the pasta water has been added to it.
3. Many people prefer their pasta "al dente", meaning firm, but not at all crunchy. One way to achieve this is to stop cooking the pasta just before it is completely finished (yes, you have to pull out a piece and try it), and then put it in the completed sauce to finish cooking. This allows the pasta to absorb sauce flavor and is another way to "bring the elements of the dish together". This is a good way to compensate if you did not salt your water, by design or accident.
4. One of the simplest ways to dress up the taste of pasta sauce is to throw a couple of tablespoons of good quality olive oil in the sauce after it is fully cooked. Using it earlier is a waste, as it breaks down in the cooking process and the effect is greatly reduced. According to recent articles, Colavita and Calumeta are among the best grocery store varieties of olive oil. I can vouch for Colavita - it gives my pasta sauces a taste, texture and shine that actually surpasses some I've had in restaurants.

Pasta sauces can be tough because of all the forbidden ingredients, but hopefully this one will get you thinking about options that taste good without triggering headaches.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My First Experiment in Indian Cuisine

One way to keep the hunt for delicious migraine-friendly recipes fresh and interesting is to take a look at recipes from other countries. Aarti Sequeira, recent winner of The Next Food Network Star, is a great resource. Her recipes combine Indian techniques with American favorites - think "Indian food with training wheels". Her mom's recipe for "Hot Dogs a la Rose" is a great recipe to try if you can tolerate tomatoes.

The tricks to keeping this recipe safe for migraines are pretty basic: 1) Avoid the additives in hot dogs by cutting chicken into pieces and pan frying it with a bit of salt and pepper (and maybe some extra garlic); 2) Shallots instead of onions. The chicken is, not surprisingly, an improvement.

The secret is the flavor base: sauteed garlic, shallots, carrots and ginger are the heart of the recipe. The spices (garam masala and tumeric) are fairly easy to find at the grocery store, Indian market or farmer's market. Fresh ginger (Don't you dare use powder!) is such a fragrant seasoning and it fills the house with a wonderful smell that has everyone circling the kitchen before food is ready. Two tips for ginger: 1) peel it before grating, with either a spoon or carrot peeler; and 2) store it for long periods in a plastic bag, kept in the freezer.

Instead of wraps, I usually serve this over rice, flavored with a bit of salt and tumeric (about 1/2 teaspoon with 2 cups of rice is plenty). The tumeric turns the rice a really nice bright yellow, which adds to the eye appeal of the dish.

If your family's getting tired of alternating grilled chicken and meat loaf, look beyond our borders for some good ideas to shake up the routine. It doesn't have to be difficult, expensive, or time-consuming to make something new and special.