Without a trace

A couple of weeks ago I pulled a dish out of the freezer marked Spinach Torta, 5 pieces, with no date listed.  It was really good; well browned layers of spinach in a creamy base interspersed with pieces of thickly grated cheese.

It’s a mystery. I have found no backup, and I am pretty good at leaving a trail when it comes to recipes.  Even when I’m tinkering, I jot down a note for follow up. Either I was in a huge hurry or thought it wouldn’t matter, the question has remained with me, “How did I make that?”

I keep coming up with possibilities and theories… and here’s my latest bright idea.

Although I suspect I used fresh spinach, I opt for a carton of frozen chopped spinach. Right away, we know it will be different. We know that in working with spinach it’s all about eliminating the inherent moisture.  Once frozen spinach is defrosted, it’s simply a matter of squeezing this mass very well.

I also know that I would not be making a quiche, since I prefer something more solid.  I opt for a base similar to a Greek spinach filling with ricotta, plus a bit of bread crumbs for added moisture control and binder. The custard has more structure; reminiscent of clafoutis, it includes milk, egg, and a bit of flour.

Spinach Torta

So, there you have it.  This baby is not going anywhere, it has plenty of flavor and holds together beautifully.  Don’t be surprised when another version shows here, since that will likely happen again!

Spinach Torta

Ingredients
½ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp salt, divided
½ tsp nutmeg
5 eggs, beaten
⅔ cup milk
10-ounce frozen chopped spinach, thaw, drain, squeeze dry
1 green onion chopped and/or 1 clove garlic, mash & minced
⅔ cup ricotta
3 Tbsp Parmesan, grated
2 Tbsp bread crumbs
½ cup grated cheese, pepper jack, muenster or mozzarella

Instructions

  1. Spread a pie plate or quiche dish with non-stick spray.
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, ¼ tsp salt, and nutmeg.  Add the beaten eggs and incorporate the flour into the eggs with a fork. Then, stir in the milk and whisk until smooth. Let stand 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375° F.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine spinach, green onion, ½ tsp salt, ricotta, and Parmesan.
  5. Stir the bread crumbs into spinach mixture. Whisk the batter down and add it to the spinach in thirds, stirring well after each addition. Pour the mixture into the baking dish and bake until it begins to set, rotating once, for about 30 minutes.  Sprinkle with ½ cup grated cheese and bake 10-15 minutes longer until puffed.  Serves 4 or more.

Soup Time

The past couple of weeks have been cool and rainy in the Pacific Northwest—not sure I’m ready for fall quite yet, but I’ve sure enjoyed making soup again.

Here’s a more substantial soup to meet the changing seasons. It is inspired by a small amount of roast chicken left in the fridge, just enough for an easy soup.

Earlier, I whipped up a tasty stock with reserved carcass bones left from the roast chicken. Click on this link if you are interested in making your own stock.  As a heads up, this older post needs an update to include a pressure cooker version. The chief difference is in the time factor, which drops to 30 minutes under pressure rather than an hour or longer on the stove.

Armed with a delicious stock, this soup also includes a few basic vegetables and thyme. It’s thickened slightly and rounded out with a handful of orzo for added interest. I’m not a big fan of cream-based soups, but its addition transforms this simple soup into a nourishing entrée when balanced with a hearty salad.

Lacking cream, I finished my soup with a can of evaporated milk, my old standby. I learned to appreciate it while spending time in the Bahamas where it is frequently served with coffee instead of milk or cream. Unlike yogurt or milk, when heated it does not break or curdle.

It’s time for a bowl of creamy steamy chicken soup—while the weather is still cool…

Creamy Chicken Orzo Soup

Ingredients
3 Tbsp butter, or part olive oil
½ small onion, chop
1 medium carrot, chop
1 stalk celery with leaves, chop
½ cup orzo
2 Tbsp flour
½ tsp dried thyme
4 cups chicken stock, good quality
1 heaping cup cooked chicken or turkey, shred or cut into bites
½ tsp salt or to taste, and ¼ tsp white pepper
½ cup hot cream or evaporated milk
fresh thyme leaves

Instructions

  1. In a soup pot over medium heat, melt the butter and add the vegetables, cooking until soft. Add the toss and toss well.
  2. Stir in the flour, cook 2-3 minutes.
  3. Slowly stir in stock and bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes.  Add the chicken and simmer 5 minutes, or until orzo is tender.
  4. Add the cream and cook 3-5 minutes longer to heat and combine flavors.  Adjust seasoning.  Serve with fresh thyme. Serves 4.

Happiness is…

I’ve been practicing with the new mortar and pestle making spice blends and ended up spending time tinkering with Indian garlic/ginger pastes and blends. Which lead me back to my old favorite Tandoori Chicken.

But that is not where I ended up. My focus was on Chicken Tikka Masala, which begins with chicken pieces marinated in a spicy yogurt blend. They are frequently skewered for easy searing in the famed tandoori oven. These morsels are then added to a creamy curried tomato sauce.

It seemed to me that the old Tandoori Chicken yogurt marinade would suffice nicely.   I wanted to keep this simple, seriously.  I would eliminate the grilling portion and pan sear the chicken pieces, since there is so much going on here.

I’d been thinking about this for several days. Yesterday I prepped boneless skinless thighs and cut them into large bite-size strips for fast cooking. The yogurt marinade is straight forward.  Many recipes include yellow and red food dye which just doesn’t work for me. I sometimes opt for turmeric and red chilies, but mostly there is plenty of garlic and ginger supported by cumin, coriander and such.

On this occasion, Happiness is… bashing a garlic and ginger spice blend in the mortar and pestle in the blink of an eye.

Today I pulled out the Instant Pot and got going.  First I knocked out a batch of basmati rice, which only takes 6 minutes.  Then, another Happiness Experience: more garlic and ginger bashed with spices for the Masala Sauce.

Turns out, the marinated chicken sautés up nicely when the Instant Pot is cranked up as hot as it will go. The yogurt firms up and all the spices help in the browning process. This all needs to be done in small batches for successful searing… then set aside for the Masala sauce.

In the same pot, an onion sauté starts things off, its moisture releases the browned bits in the pan. The spice paste is added next and stirred until aromatic. So fresh is this past, it literally blooms in the pan. The tomato base is then added and it simmers briefly to bring the flavors together. After 10 minutes I pull out the immersion blender to puree any odd chunks but keep a little texture.

A cream layer is added to round out the sauce and tame it just a bit. Finally, the tandoori  chicken pieces are dropped in for a brief simmer—only long enough to finish cooking them—but still retain their unique tandoori flavor and not lose it to the sauce.

Served over basmati rice, this makes one heck of a dish. A little homemade cranberry ginger chutney spooned on the side sends it right over the top.

Today, Happiness is… two recipes: Chicken Tandoori (not previously posted, clearly an oversight) and Chicken Tikka Masala (incomplete without it).

Chicken Tandoori

Ingredients

2 pounds chicken thighs/legs, skin optional
Yogurt Marinade
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
2 Tbsp ginger, grate
1 tsp each turmeric, coriander, cumin, salt
1 Tbsp paprika + ½ tsp cayenne
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp oil for brushing grill and chicken

Instructions

  1. Place chicken in zip lock bag.
  2. Marinade:  Make garlic-ginger paste in mortar and pestle, add the spices and blend well.  Combine blend with the lemon juice and yogurt.  Pour over the chicken, marinate up to 24 hours.
  3. To grill: brush grill and chicken with oil, cook over hot coals, 4 minutes per side, turning as needed until seared and blistered, about 30 minutes. (Internal temperature 160-165°F.)  Makes 4 servings.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Ingredients
1 recipe marinated Tandoori Chicken: boneless pieces cut into strips, room temperature
Masala Sauce
2 Tbsp canola oil
1 onion, chop
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
2 tsp ginger, grate
1 tsp each cumin, coriander, turmeric, red chile flakes, and salt
14 ounces crushed tomatoes
8 ounces tomato sauce
¾-1 cup cream, full-fat coconut milk, or evaporated milk
2 tsp garam masala (optional)

Instructions

  1. Sear chicken: heat large pot to medium high with 2 Tbsp oil (multicooker: Sauté/Hi). Sear chicken 3 minutes per side in batches, don’t overcrowd. Remove to holding plate.
  2. For Sauce: reduce heat to medium-high (multicooker: Saute/Medium). Add onion, sauté to soften while scraping up browned bits in pan.  Make garlic-ginger paste in mortar and pestle, add the spices and blend together.  Stir the blend into the pot until aromatic, 2-3 minutes.
  3. Reduce heat, add tomato products, thin with water if quite thick, simmer 10 minutes. Puree if desired.
  4. Stir in the cream, garam masala, and chicken, simmer 10-15 minutes.  Adjust seasoning and serve with basmati rice, sprinkle with cilantro. Serves 4-6.

Easy Entertaining: Chicken Ragout

This hearty chicken dish is the definition of flexibility—and the ideal solution for an easy dinner with friends.

Our Chicken Ragout features plump chicken pieces simmered in a rustic tomato sauce that is enriched with mushrooms, rosemary, sweet carrots, and other vegetables.

We have options with this dish:  it can be prepped and cooked in various stages for enjoyment right away or set aside until later. If you chose to make it ahead,  know that these big flavors will mellow and improve as the ragout waits for you.

The preparation is straight forward, brown the chicken off then use the pan drippings to flavor the basic tomato sauce. Let the chicken simmer in the sauce until tender. When it’s convenient, separately roast the mushrooms, onion, pepper, rosemary, and carrots in a hot oven to precook and bring out their inherent sweetness, and set aside until needed.

The dish can all be assembled for enjoyment later the same day, or refrigerate the components and bring  out when ready to serve.  Reheat the chicken in tomato sauce, add the roasted vegetables, and simmer briefly. The ragout should retain its distinct freshness, yet blend the robust flavors into one dynamic package.

Serve the ragout with Creamy Polenta or a pasta of your choice to round out the rustic tomato sauce that develops.

Chicken Ragout with Roasted Hearty Vegetables

Ingredients

3½ pound chicken, cut into portions, or equivalent pieces
½ salt & red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh or ½ tsp dried sage or herbes de Provence
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, mash & sliver
1 tsp dried rosemary
1½ cups chicken stock
14½ ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
2 Tbsp tomato paste
Roasted  Hearty Vegetables (follows)

Instructions

  1. Sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper, and sage.
  2. In a large pot or in a multi-cooker set to Hi Sauté, heat 2 Tbsp. oil, add chicken and sauté until golden brown, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to bowl.
  3. Lower heat to Medium Sauté, add garlic and rosemary and briefly sauté. Deglaze with a ½ cup stock, scraping up browned bits, about 1 minute. Stir in canned tomatoes with juice and tomato paste, remaining broth, and bring to a boil. Drop heat to Low Sauté and simmer 5-10 minutes to blend flavors.
  4. Add the chicken and any juices to sauce and simmer covered over low heat for 20 minutes, or set multi-cooker to HI Pressure for 10 minutes using 10 minutes natural release. Can be cooled and chilled overnight at this point.
  5. Skim off excess fat, add the roasted vegetables to heated chicken and simmer 10-15 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning. Serve with Creamy Polenta, sprinkle with drained capers or fresh basil.  Serves 4

Roasted Hearty Vegetables  Using 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, 1 tsp fennel seed. 1 small onion in wedges, 2 medium carrots cut up, 1 cup crimini mushrooms halved, 1 green pepper cut.

  • Heat oven to 425-450°F.  Line a sheet pan with parchment or non-stick foil.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the oil, through fennel seeds.
  • Place the vegetables as cut up into the bowl.  Toss with the seasoned oil to coat.
  • Arrange the vegetables evenly on the pan.  Roast for 20 minutes, until tender-crisp. Stir after the first 10 minutes.  Turn off heat and let stand in oven with residual heat for 10 minutes.

Painless Polenta

I just had to stop and pass on this memorable method for cooking polenta.  Finally, the nightmares are over: no more burbling projectiles of searing polenta. With no effort—and no pain—creamy, smooth polenta is ready in 30 minutes.

In cooking your polenta, it’s important to select the right type. There are instant polentas that cook up in a flash, for which this whole episode is likely a waste of your time. Coarser grains, such as authentic polenta, stone-ground cornmeal, or grits require a longer cooking time. That is what we are interested in here, we want the more traditional style for rich flavor and divine mouth-feel.

And, there is no sticking or burning polenta, either…

This may sound like an infomercial, but I have nothing to gain but good food. The secret is in the multi-cooker and the trick is to use a bit more water than usual. Bring it all to a simmer, stir in the salt and polenta, then seal the lid and bring it to pressure. Let it burble away undisturbed for 20 minutes. Once complete, allow the pressure to release naturally (about 10 minutes). In this magical time, the polenta settles down, expands, and blooms. Carefully remove the lid, bring it all together with a wooden spoon and whisk in a little butter and grated cheese.

Now, you are free to do with it what you will. This polenta is good enough to enjoy without a lot of fuss, but the options are endless.

Spoon it loosely mounded into a bowl porridge-style topped with cheese, or with your favorite mushroom topping or tomato sauce.

Polenta thickens as it sits, so you can pour it into a flat pan or dish to firm up and cut into shapes later.

Make crostini type bites or cut into fingers for dipping. Or, form into cakes for a future side. It’s all good!

Creamy Polenta

Ingredients
5 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup coarse polenta
2 Tbsp butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Place salted water in liner of Instant Pot or other multi-cooker. Set to Hi Saute or equivalent and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta to dissolve any potential lumps.
  2. Seal lid, set to HI Pressure for 20 minutes.  When complete, turn off unit and disconnect. Let stand 10 minutes, then slowly release pressure.  Before opening, tap or shift pot to remove pockets of heat that may have formed in the polenta.  Carefully open and stir down with long wooden spoon.
  3. Whisk the butter and cheese into the polenta to incorporate and make smooth.
  4. Serve in spoonfuls, or pour onto oiled or plastic lined baking sheet, chill and let set. Cut into shapes and reheat in 375°F oven, or in a skillet over medium high with a coating of butter or oil until heated and toasted on each side.  Serves 4 or more.

Fish du Jour

The other day I received a surprise de-briefing from my local fish monger.  As I obliquely scanned the beautifully displayed case and mumbled ‘red snapper’, he dropped everything, came around the counter, and pulled me aside.

With his hands pressed in front of him, he gazed off to the side and softly explained that Red Snapper is an excellent fish that originates in Atlantic waters and not widely available on the west coast.  He pointed out  that the misleading label Pacific Red Snapper is simply some sort of rockfish.  I guess I’m the last person to get the message.  That’s okay, in Tahiti ‘lagoon fish’ is always a delicious menu choice.  I happily headed out with 3 sweet smelling rockfish fillets.

Rockfish is a bass-like species, with a large mouth and spines on its head. Nothing like the red snapper I recall.  This large variety of fish can range in color from copper or red to blue, green or black, and can even sport colorful speckles or stripes.

Still, rockfish are mild flavored, highly marketed and very popular. With all that demand, some can be subject to overfishing and destructive practices. For a reliable resource, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch provides plenty of recommendations to threatened and endangered species. They have both online information as well as an app available for download.

So here’s the genesis behind the red snapper/rockfish event. The secret to the success of this dish is the outstanding bread crumb marinade. Not only does it add flavor and moisture to the fish, the top crisps and gives an unexpected crunchiness when placed close to the heat.

Of course, any firm fleshed fish will work, including halibut, tuna, cod, shark…

Rockfish Fillets with Bread Crumb Marinade

Ingredients
1 pound firm fish fillets, rockfish/snapper, lingcod
⅓ cup chopped parsley
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 anchovy fillets (or 1 tsp paste)
Few sprigs basil, chopped
½ cup dry bread crumbs
⅓ cup olive oil
2 Tbsp lemon juice
pinch red pepper flakes

Instructions

  1. Combine marinade by mixing together the parsley through red pepper flakes; it should be fairly moist.
  2. Line baking sheet with non-stick foil.  Massage marinade into whole fillets. Let stand for 1 hour at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate several hours.
  3. Using top heat source, broil @ 450°F for 8-10 minutes until flaky and crumbs are crisp and brown. Can be held a few minutes at lower heat.   Yield: 4 servings

Bread-and-Breakfast Special

My Friday pizza routine took a turn last night, it became more of a Saturday morning pizza. It was another affirmation that pizza is good anytime, even with an egg on it.

Pizza with Baked Eggs, fresh out of oven

I’m calling this my Bread-and-Breakfast special because it’s ham and cheese on fabulous pizza crust with as many eggs piled on as you wish.

Of course, the saddest part of this was that it was so good, there was none left for breakfast today.  But that can be remedied, since our standby pizza dough recipe (here) makes 2 medium pizzas or 1 large. It also works well because of the prebake process I’ve built into it. With the crust partially baked ahead, it’s a matter of adding toppings and giving it a final bake.

In this case, I wanted a thicker crust rather than the thinner style I usually prefer.  One that would hold a bit of an indentation for each egg to rest in, and soak up some of that eggy goodness. Since this dough is made with instant yeast, it requires little kneading and it rises in a flash. It takes little extra time to roll or pat it into the pan, spread on a little olive oil and let it rise for an extra 15 minutes.

While that was happening, I organized my toppings and began to preheat the oven to 450°F.  For the first bake that sets the dough, I made indentations in it for the eggs, scattered on strips of Canadian bacon tossed with red pepper flakes, and let it bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until it began to color slightly.

For the final bake I spread the cheese blend across the crust, then dropped the eggs in place with a little salt and pepper and more cheese.  I sprinkled herbs across it all and drizzled on a bit more olive oil.  Into the oven it went for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the cheese was bubbly,  egg whites were set, yolks runny, and the crust golden brown.

I learned the eggs continue to cook and set up once out of the oven.  The ham is a nice touch, but can be omitted for a simple cheese pizza. Or, swap it out with mushrooms, prosciutto, peppers, or whatever.

Ham & Cheese Pizza with Baked Eggs

Ingredients
1/2 recipe Pizza Dough
1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 thin slices Canadian bacon, sliced into strips (optional)
½ cup shredded mozzarella or Muenster cheese
¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2-4 eggs
Sea salt and ground pepper
1/2 tsp herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning, or fresh thyme
To finish: 2 green onions, sliced

Instructions

  1. Using fresh dough, roll out to fit a well-oiled medium pizza pan, brush lightly with olive oil. Let it rest 15 minutes while preparing other ingredients.
  2. Preheat oven to 450° F.  Make an indentation in dough for each egg.  Scatter ham on top, and prebake the crust for 8-10 minutes, until set, firm and beginning to color slightly.
  3. If using prebaked crust proceed from here.
  4. Combine and sprinkle all but 1/4 cup cheese over crust. Drop eggs onto crust, sprinkle with salt and pepper and remaining cheese. Season all with herbs and drizzle more oil across the top. Bake 8-10 minutes, until cheese is bubbly, egg whites are set, yolk are set but runny and crust is golden brown.  Let stand briefly, scatter with sliced green onions and slice.  Makes 1 medium pizza.