memory makers

The previous Creamy Chicken Orzo Soup post features an image of the soup along with old-fashioned oyster crackers that have been dressed up with herb seasoning, and it has prompted conversations about memories of oyster crackers.

I certainly have a soft spot for these pillowy crackers from growing up outside of Boston… I fondly recall playing with them as they floated in clam chowder. Now, we have so many other options I rarely think of them.  Good news, they are still stocked in most grocery stores, if you look for them.

Since I have a big bag of these guys to work through, I’m learning more ways to use them. Once seasoned and stored in an airtight container, the crackers make a handy and tasty popcorn-like snack. We know they are good on soups, as kids will attest, but they also add a crunch factor on salads in lieu of croutons or nuts.

The crackers are ready to eat in about 10 minutes. The herb butter includes an optional clove of garlic, which is removed before drizzling over the crackers. They are then baked a few minutes in the oven to set flavors and further crisp the crackers.  Enjoy, and make your own memories!

Herb Crackers

Ingredients
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
1 small clove garlic, flatten (optional)
¾ tsp fresh thyme
¾ tsp fresh rosemary
4 cups oyster crackers
Paprika, salt and pepper

Instructions
In a 1 cup microwaveable measure, place butter, garlic, and herbs in microwave. Heat 30 -60 seconds to melt the butter.  Remove the garlic.
Place crackers in large bowl and drizzle the herb butter over them and toss to coat.  Dust lightly with paprika, sprinkle with salt and pepper if desired.  Place crackers on a baking sheet and bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes, until golden. 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.

A Bevy of Bowls

I’m still enjoying Chicken Tikka Masala from the last blog. Since it isn’t excessively hot I like to kick-up my portion­­—but not everyone else agrees. I figure you can always add more spice but it’s not so easy to take it out.

A fun alternative is to set out small bowls of chutney, yogurt, hot pepper flakes, cilantro, and such.  It gives everyone creative license to dress up their own dish according to personal taste.

Since I mentioned Raita in the previous post I’m including it here as an all-in-one alternative to a bevy of bowls.

Beyond a cooling sauce, raita is a versatile dip with vegetables or crackers and breads such as Naan.

For a Greek Tzatziki variation, substitute dill for cilantro and season with garlic and red pepper; cucumber is optional. Perk it up with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.

Raita

Ingredients 
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp green onion, mince
1 Tbsp cilantro, mince
½ small seedless cucumber, small chop
¼ tsp salt
Spice blend
1 tsp each cumin seed and coriander seed, or ¾ tsp each ground
½ hot dried red pepper, seeded, or ¼ tsp red pepper flakes

Instructions
Combine the yogurt, green onion, cilantro and cucumber.
Crush the spices in mortar pestle, add the blend to the yogurt mixture and season with salt. Chill well and serve with cilantro garnish.  Makes 1½ cups

Variation
For Greek Tzatziki: replace the cilantro with dill; season with 1 clove garlic mash & minced, and red pepper. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and drizzle olive oil. Makes 1½ cups

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.

Mortar and Mustard

I’m back in the mortar and pestle game again. I once had a large molcajete from Mexico that yielded a few batches of guacamole and shortly thereafter was relegated to decorator status.

I’m trying again. This time I scaled down and went with a smaller version. Since I am short on storage space, I opted for a 1½ cup rounded granite mortar.

There’s a curing process that most mortar and pestles require before using that removes any lingering grit and debris from manufacturing. It is arduous enough that anyone who has gone through it won’t easily forget. Depending on the material and size, seasoning can vary. For many there’s a tedious grinding of rice into a white powder; mine included garlic, salt, and cumin to form a paste. Once that’s done it’s all rinsed with water and air dried. The mortar and pestle are never washed with soap.

Since then, I’ve been grinding everything in sight and it has gained a spot on my counter for quickly mashing garlic or a spicy blend or paste. My proudest achievement thus far is the Stone-Ground Mustard.

Stone-Ground Mustard

Mustard is fascinating, and the art of producing a condiment from it has been going on for centuries. It makes perfect sense to employ the timeless mortar and pestle—since its basic form is nearly as old as man.

Making your own mustard blend is not complicated. If you think about it, Asian mustard is simply dry mustard and water.

I opted for yellow mustard seeds which yield a mildly hot mustard. For a tangier, hotter mustard, brown seeds are the way to go, or some combination of the two. I cut mine with a small portion of dry mustard for added creaminess and body.

The goal is to break open the seeds to access interior oils and such, while leaving some whole for bursts of flavor. Rather than starting with dry mustard seeds which jump and bounce about, soaking the seeds will soften their hard outer layer. Once you’ve got a rhythm going with the pestle, a gentle bashing motion quickly breaks down the seeds.

Continue to grind all ingredients and blend with enough cool water to reach desired thickness.  Cover and store the mustard at room temperature for 3-4 days to mellow. As it rests, the mustard will thicken and flavors will soften. Give it a taste and adjust seasoning, if harsh add a few drops of honey. Store in a sealed glass jar for a month or longer.

Stone Ground Mustard, Small Batch

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 Tbsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • 2 tsp shallot or onion, fine chop
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup cold water
  • ½ tsp honey (optional)

Instructions

  1. Briefly crush the mustard seeds to slightly break down. Combine them with the dry mustard and 1/3 cup cold water, let soak 1-3 hours.
  2. Add the salt, allspice, and shallot to the soaked mustard and grind in a mortar and pestle, using a bashing motion to partially break down the seeds and create creaminess.  Add remaining water as needed.
  3. Store in clean glass jar and let mellow 2 or 3 days at room temperature. Adjust seasoning, adding a dash of honey if still harsh. Will hold at room temperature a month or longer.  Makes about ¾ cup

Tinkering with Drinks

I switched to a small soda siphon a year or two ago and haven’t looked back. It fits perfectly in my refrigerator door, out of the way but readily available when I need it. The swap out has greatly reduced wasteful plastic,  glass bottles, and caused me to upgrade my beverage repertoire.

With the return of summer heat I’m back tinkering with drinks and the soda siphon is staying busy. I’m always looking for a new sipper, something refreshing and not too heavy. Fruit syrups are tasty but I’d prefer less sugar. Fresh juices are fun but they can quickly turn into dessert, too.

I very much like the citrusy-tart flavor of fresh pink grapefruit juice. It responds well when lightened up with a blast of sparkling soda, a dash of bitters, a pinch of salt, and some fresh mint or lime.  But, after a while, I needed a change.

And along carrots. I didn’t have to go out in search of carrots, there are usually a few stashed somewhere in the fridge. Carrots are good for snacking and good for you; they are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene, and more. Yes, they are abundant and last well—you could call carrots a universal vegetable. Their mild flavor is adaptable in both sweet and savory dishes, giving them staple status in many of the world’s cuisines.

Turns out, carrots and grapefruit have a symbiotic relationship.

Shaving carrots into thin wide ribbons opens up their surface area and encourages the grapefruit juice to settle in and extract both their color and flavor. In less than an hour and without much effort, you’ll have an earthy, peach colored, mildly sweet-tart juice.

Conversely, the carrot curls absorb the citrus flavors; they make a tasty snack and a pretty garnish.

Serve this refreshing and healthy drink over ice, enliven it with a splash of soda or sparkling water, and garnish with fresh lime and carrot curls for munching.

Grapefruit-Carrot Sparkler

Ingredients

  • 1 medium carrot, peel and shave into thin wide ribbons with a vegetable peeler
  • 2 cups or more fresh pink grapefruit juice, to cover
  • soda or sparkling water

Finish:  ice, lime slices, carrot curls

Instructions

  1. For juice, place carrot ribbons in a container and cover with fresh grapefruit juice. Chill for an hour or longer.  Any remaining curls can be re-used 2 or 3 times.
  2. For the sparkler, place ice in an 8-ounce glass, half fill with grapefruit-carrot juice, top-off with soda or sparkling water, and stir well.  Garnish with carrot curls a squeeze of fresh lime.   Serves 1 or more

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.