Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fish Tacos

If you were able to read that title without giggling, then you are a better person than I am.

This is one of my favourite recipes ever because it's easy, it's tasty and I just plain love Mexican food. This recipe is based on this recipe on Epicurious. It's totally worth it to the full Epicurious recipe, but this one has less steps and less going on.

Working time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

2 white fish filets. (I used frozen basa from the Asian grocery store because it was $2.99 for two large filets! Enough for three meals!!)
1 cup roughly chopped cilantro
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp chili powder
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped (omit if you're not a spicy food fan, though jalapeno is really not that spicy. Maybe this is a good place to start?)

Note: Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling the jalapeno. I have a friend who didn't do this after making stuffed peppers and had to endure burning hands for hours. Luckily he didn't touch any other parts of his body.

Let's do it!
Mix the cilantro, two tbsp of oil and garlic in a large bowl. Place the fish in this mixture and let marinate for about 20 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir it around so it's evenly marinating.

Heat up a pan with some olive oil on medium/high. Stir in red onion, green pepper and jalapeno for about 10 minutes, until everything is soft and browned. Put this mixture aside.

Fry each filet in this pan for about 3 minutes each side. The fish is cooked when it flakes easily. When both the filets are cooked through, toss everything back in the pan, including the marinade and break up the fish with the spatula. Mix and sautee for another two minutes. Taste and season with salt if needed. That's it!

A delicious topping (found on the original recipe) is finely sliced red onion with diced jalapenos in red wine vinegar. Super delicious. I have it on mine above there. In my opinion, it totally makes the dish, but it's up to you if you want it.

Pack it up
Obviously, pack the fish separately from your tortillas. You can also chop up some lettuce and tomatoes if you're into that. I like to have some fresh lime to squeeze over this. Also, be prepared to eat this cold if your workplace is dead set against microwaving fish.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Quinoa and Other Stuff Salad

Otherwise known as the "Quinoa and whatever else I have laying around" salad.

Quinoa is supposed to be super good for you, so I try to make it as often as I can.

1/2 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed well
3/4 cup water
Any veggies, beans, etc. you have laying around
1 lemon or some kind of vinegar
Same amount of some kind of oil

Let's do it!
Throw the quinoa and water in a rice cooker and turn it on. If you don't have a rice cooker, boil the water, throw in the quinoa, simmer and cover. Drain if necessary.

Rinse/chop any veggies you have laying around. I had frozen edamame, chickpeas and tomatoes.

Measure up 1:1 lemon or vinegar and oil in a glass jar. Put in some salt. I also tossed in a bit of dried basil. You can use fresh basil or whatever light herb you like. Shake shake shake!

Mix everything up in a container with a lid.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Wild Rice Stuffed Turkey Roast - Dinner edition

Today's lunch was leftovers from our Easter meal, so here's the dinner I made for my family-in-law on Friday. Please note, I made WAY too much food. All this was enough for maybe 10-12 people. Also, this recipe is not for the lazy, you need to be ambitious for this!

Working time: 1-1.5 hours
Cooking time: 2.5 hours altogether

5 turkey thighs, bone in
8 servings of cooked, wild rice and brown rice blend (2 cups of uncooked rice, cooked to package instructions, I bought the President's Choice brand)
4 celery stalks, cleaned
2 onions
4 carrots
5 cloves of garlic
2 cups of mushrooms (whichever kind you want, I had white and cremini) diced
1 cup of dried cranberries
1/2 cup of salt
1/2 cup of sugar
fresh or dried rosemary (maybe 1tsp dried, 1 tbsp fresh)
2 tbsp flour

Tools: A sharp knife, a giant bowl, one or two big baking/lasagna trays, kitchen string cut into 15" lengths, cling wrap or parchment paper, a meat mallet, an instant read thermometer, a friend who doesn't get grossed out about raw meat.

Let's do it!

Gravy part 1 and meat prep
Debone the turkey thighs. Make sure you have a sharp knife. I used my chef's knife. If you have a sharpening stone, sharpen the knife before you start. If you don't, use a sharpening steel, followed by the rough underside of a ceramic cup, wipe the side of the blade along it, both sides. In fact, even if you have a sharpening stone, make sure to do this stuff after, too.

Quick tip: If you don't have a sharpening stone and a good knife and you love to cook, save $100 and buy them. A good chef's knife can be purchased for about $80, and it's worth every penny. My mom bought me a Victorinox as a housewarming gift 10 years ago and I use it every day, for everything. Henkel's twin series is also a good brand. DO NOT skimp on this. If you cook a lot, you need to have a good sharp knife. Otherwise, you're going to give yourself a lot of fatigue and random cuts. There's nothing more dangerous than a dull knife when you're working in the kitchen. In terms of the stone, I mean stone. Get the kind that has two sides, a course and fine side, not the sharpening gadgets. This is a heavy block of rock I'm talking about.

Feel along the underside of the meat, you will feel  the meat come apart along the bone. Follow this with your hands. Rip it apart, slide your knife against the bone to cut the meat away at it. Try to get as much meat off the bone in one piece as you can. Leaving a little meat is fine, the stock (coming up later) will be more flavourful.

Use the bones, garlic, 3 of the carrots and celery, and one onion all chopped coarsely to make the stock. Find a container that will fit all of the meat. Pour in the sugar, salt and rosemary. Dissolve with water and put the meat in. Fill the container until the water covers the meat, and stick it in the fridge, covered with cling wrap, or a plate or whatever. This is called brining. Some people say it helps the meat stay moist and juicy. Some people say that's a load of crap. Personally, I find it works, so I always do it.

Peel the leftover carrot and onion and dice finely, into 1/4 inch cubes. Do the same with the celery and mushrooms. Heat some oil in a big wide saucepan or wok and fry everything until the onion is translucent, and the mushrooms are dark and cooked. Mix this with the rice and cranberries.

Put it all together!
Drain and rinse the turkey. Dry it off with some paper towel. One by one, place the meat skin side down on a cutting board, put cling wrap or parchment paper over it and beat the living hell out of it with the mallet, until it's flattened a bit (but not all mashed up and falling apart). One by one, place the turkey thighs lengthwise (tall) in front of you. Get your friend to cover the bottom 2/3 with a thin later of stuffing (they get the clean job). Press the stuffing down. Roll up the meat and have your friend tie it tight while you hold the roll in place. Put the roll seam down in a baking tray (no grease necessary, it will make enough of its own). Repeat with all the thighs. Make sure you have at least an inch or  two of breathing space between them so they cook evenly. Put the remainder of the stuffing into an ovenproof dish.  Bake the roasts at 350ºF.

After half an hour, I like to turn everything around to make sure it bakes evenly. It's a good idea to keep an eye on the stuff after half an hour, I was using a convection oven and it baked perfectly in an hour. Put the stuffing in when you turn the trays around. All ovens are different, so make sure you check every 15 minutes after the first half hour. They're ready when the thermometer reads 165ºF in the middle. Take them out and move them to the serving dish. Let them sit untouched while you make the gravy. Turn off the oven and let the stuffing (and any sides you made) sit in the hot oven.

Gravy part 2

Quick tip: My mother-in-law showed me the most brilliant way to skim the fat. You put all the stock, juices and fat into a glass dish and let the fat float to the top. Then you take a turkey baster and suck up all the stock and juices and put it in another container, leaving all the fat at the top! Genius!

Pour 2 tbsp of the fat into a saucepan or pot on medium heat. Throw in 2 tbsp of flour and stir around for maybe 4 minutes. Do not let the flour burn. If it's burnt, just start all over. You do NOT want burnt gravy. Pour in the juice/stock mixture in bit by bit, stirring to thicken. Keep going until it's all incorporated. If you're like me, the gravy will be thin at this point, because you don't know how to make thick gravy. But it will taste good, and that's all that matters.

Cut the string off the roasts and slice into medallions. Put the gravy on the table. Bask in the compliments.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Basic soup stock

Do you ever find yourself at home in the evenings with nothing to do? No? Well turn off the TV, then. NOW you have spare time, don't you? Why not spend that time doing something really good for yourself, like making stock? (Don't worry about missing the latest episode of House. Here's the plot: Someone comes in with a mysterious illness. The team thinks it's one thing and give them treatment, the treatment makes it worse. House deduces that the patient is lying about something. Someone on the team is somehow emotionally involved with this case and disagrees. More treatments, the patient keeps getting worse. They break into the patient's house. The patient's lie is found out through a family member or friend. They still can't cure him/her. Something happens in House's life to set off an epiphany. The patient is cured.)

Why make stock? I realize that stock is really cheap in the grocery store, but it's also full of salt, preservatives and sometimes the dreaded MSG. When I'm cooking something, I save all of the bones (yes, ALL of them. My freezer looks like a fricking crypt) in a large freezer bag. When the bag gets pretty full, I get started. You can also do the same thing with veggies and fresh herbs that are almost on their way out. They won't retain their texture, but they will retain their taste.

Cooking time: 1 hour
Working time: 30-40 minutes

1-2 Onions, roughly chopped
5 cloves Garlic, peeled and smashed
2 Celery, roughly chopped
2 Carrots, scrubbed and roughly chopped (I don't bother peeling for stock)
Leftover meat and/or bones (unless you're making veggie stock)

1-2 Bay leaf
10 or so whole peppercorns
Salt to taste

Optional: You can add other herbs depending on the flavour that you want. Thyme and rosemary go well with poultry and pork. If you want to make it sort of Thai style, you can also add in ginger, star anise and cinammon sticks. Otherwise, you can keep it simple and use the stock as a base for a variety of stuff.

Let's do it!
Place the meat/bones into the pot and pour in enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil and take it down to a simmer. Watch the soup and skim off any oil and gray/brown sludge from the surface. My mom bought me this oil/sludge skimmer from an Asian grocery store, and it works very well for this job. Keep watching and keep skimming until it's all gone. This should take maybe 20 minutes. Feel free to walk away for a few minutes at a time to watch your precious House on PVR.

Toss in the veggies and herbs, and more water if needed to cover everything. Put a lid on it and let simmer for half an hour to an hour. Apparently, at this point veggies no longer impart flavour, so it's time to get it all out. I usually take a large, fine meshed drum sieve and place it in another soup pot. Then I ladle all the meat and veggies out of the soup and into the sieve. (You only need to try pouring everything in the sieve from the pot once to figure out how bad of an idea that is) Press down to extract all the liquid. Toss out the meat and veggies. Pour the rest of the liquid in the pot through the sieve to get any small fragments, herbs, etc.

Simmer the stock uncovered until it cooks down to a concentration of flavour you like. Season with salt and let cool. If there's fat on top, skim it, but I usually find that the initial skimming gets everything out.

Quick tip: A lazy way to skim fat is to put the stock in the fridge overnight. The fat will all rise to the surface and congeal, where you can easily spoon it off. Remember, never pour fat down the drain. We pour it into a jar, and when the jar is full, pour that into a bag (always double or triple bag) and throw it in the garbage. Congealed fat will really mess up your plumbing.

At this point, I'll pour some of the stock into small freezer bags and sterilized 500ml mason jars (and do all the stuff you need to do to preserve soup). The ones in the mason jars will last a couple of weeks in the fridge, and the freezer bagged ones last a few months in the freezer, though I usually go through it all within a couple of months, particularly if I'm on an instant noodle kick.

There you have it! A delicious, healthful stock that you can use for soups, risotto, gravy, stews, etc. without all the sodium and crap in the grocery store ones!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Crunchy Chicken Salad Sandwich with Raw Kale Salad

What do you do when you have one chicken thigh that you want to spread over two lunch servings without making some sort of stew thingie? Chicken salad sandwiches!!

But first, let's start with the kale salad, as I made that while the chicken was cooking.

Raw Kale Salad

I love this salad because it's ridiculously easy, lasts in the fridge for a few days and tastes great. It's also full of vitamins or something.

Working time: 5-10 minutes

6 cups shredded/chopped kale (spines removed)
1/2 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

Let's do it!
Put the oil, lemon juice (keep the seeds out, or the salad will have some bitter surprises for you) and kale in a big bowl. Put in a dash of salt. Using your hands, squeeze and mush up the kale until it's all mixed and it looks like you have about 1/4 of what you started with. Taste, salt (if needed). That's it. Really. That's it. And as an extra benefit, the lemon and olive oil feel great on your hands, I usually just give my hands a quick rinse after without soap, since it feels so nice. On the downside, you will discover that you have a tiny cuts all over your hands during this process.

Crunchy Chicken Salad

This is my first time making this, but not the first time making a chicken salad. To me chicken and egg salads need a few things: protein, onion, something crunchy and something creamy. Instead of the usual boring (and nutritionally empty) celery, I subbed in a nice tart and tasty green apple.

Working time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

1 chicken thigh
1 green onion, cleaned and chopped into thin slices
1/2 green apple cored and diced
1/2 cup of cucumber, diced
1/2 lemon
1 tsp grainy mustard
1-2 tbsp mayonnaise (to your taste)
Optional: Chopped up cilantro would add a pretty wicked kick to this. Too bad I forgot to buy some.

Let's do it!

Rinse and season the chicken with salt and bake in a toaster oven at 350ºF for about 20 minutes. If you don't have a toaster oven, you can cook it on a pan. It's done when you can pierce it to the bone and the liquid runs clear. If you're not sure, err on the side of undercooking. You can always cook it a little more, but you can't save a burnt, dried out chicken. You can also use chicken breast if you're really believe that fat has no place in your life (of which I heartily disagree). When the chicken is done, set it aside to let it cool down.

Meanwhile, chop up the green onion, apple and cucumber and mix them in a bowl. Squeeze half the lemon over it (again, keep the seeds out by squeezing through your other hand) and mix.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin (or dice it and add it for extra flavour). Reserve the juices. Tear all the meat off the bone and chop it up finely. Mix the chicken, mustard, mayo and 1 teaspoon of chicken fat (yes yes YES) into the other stuff.

Quick tip: Get a big zipper freezer bag and store all the bones from the meat you cook. Ideally, you should be cooking with meat attached to bones, since they're cheaper and more flavourful. Once you have a decent amount of bones, you can simmer them with onions, carrots, garlic, herbs and celery for some stock which you can use for soups, gravies, stews... basically anything that requires a stock. You can freeze that stock into single servings in smaller freezer bags. I'll post a how-to on stock sometime soon.

For the sandwich portion of this meal, I bought Vietnamese sub buns from the Asian grocery store (4 for $1!) You can use whatever bread you like.

For all the people who hate mayo out there (*cough* Asians *cough*), it's possible that you actually hate Miracle Whip, which is not mayo, but some kind of quasi-edible abomination. Many people in my mom's generation don't differentiate between the two, so it was probably the MW (which really needs to tone it down) that ruined all the potato salads and sandwiches of your childhood. Give it a shot, you might be surprised.

Quick tip: This recipe is also a great way to use up leftover meat. Just sub that in for chicken, unless it's got some kind of heavy sauce on it, in which case, just slice it up and eat it in a sandwich!

Lunch it up
To package, keep the kale, filling and bread separate in order to keep the bread dry. Put it together at work. If you have a toaster at work, you can toast the bread before putting in the salad. Prepare for your coworkers to marvel at your lunch, and poke at their freezer-food meals in disappointment.

This is a great meal for a hot day. The cucumber and green apple really add a coolness and freshness to the sandwich. I'd recommend this sandwich for the heat of summer, as opposed to a cold and wet spring day. Brrr...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Simple pasta in tomato sauce

This is one of my standards since it's reasonably easy to make, I usually have all the ingredients laying around in my kitchen and it's quite versatile.

Working time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: At least 20 minutes

1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion
3 cloves garlic (or more if you're into that)
1 can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (yes, they cost 50 cents more, but they're worth it. If you want to save the 50 cents, make sure you still buy whole tomatoes, diced/crushed tomatoes have a tart flavour to them)
1 tbsp tomato paste

chopped up fresh basil
salt to taste
Boxed pasta (as opposed to bagged pasta)
Optional: olives, sundried tomatoes, chili peppers, chili flakes, cut up meat, chopped up veggies, leftover sandwich meat, really whatever. In the photo above, I put in chopped up olives from a jar, sundried tomatoes and chili flakes.

Let's do it!

Heat up the oil in a saucepan with a lid to medium low heat.

Chop up the onions and toss them into the saucepan when the oil swirls around the pan quickly. Give them a stir. Peel and mince the garlic and set aside.

Open the can of tomatoes and pour them onto a sieve, over a bowl. Pinch the individual tomatoes open to extract the juices/water inside. Tap the sieve to get all the water/juice into the bowl. Fill a separate bowl of water and rinse the seeds out of the tomatoes. At this point, you can either mix the tomatoes in with the juice and puree it in a food processor, or you can smoosh them with your hands before mixing them back into the juice, making for a chunkier sauce.

Quick tip: I always make sure I have canned tomatoes in my kitchen, they're quick, they're good and you can put them in a billion dishes like stews, curries, sauces and soups. Plus, they last forever which will be great after the rapture happens and you've already gone through all the food in your saintly neighbour's fridge.

Every once in a while, give your onions a quick stir and check to make sure they're not browning too quickly. If the stove is set low enough, you'll be able to work on the tomatoes while the onions are slowly cooking. When the onions are translucent, throw in the garlic and stir. Watch this carefully. Garlic burns quickly and will ruin your sauce. Sure, you could always start over with new onions and garlic, but let's not be silly. When the garlic starts to turn colour, throw in your tomatoes. Stir stir stir.

Now add tomato paste and let it simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. The longer you simmer, the thicker and mellower (less tangy) the sauce will be. The less time you simmer, the fresher the sauce will be.

Quick tip: If you find yourself with 4/5 of a tin of tomato paste leftover, spoon it all into a zipper freezer bag, push all the air out and flatten it. Stick this in your freezer and it will keep for months. When you need sauce, just break a piece off.

5 minutes before you're ready to finish cooking the sauce, throw in the basil. I don't measure a lot of stuff, so I'm guessing you can put in a handful. 

Salt to taste.

While the sauce is simmering, make the pasta, make sure you follow all the directions on the package! I recommend the Barilla brand of pasta. You pay a little more, but if you follow the directions exactly (I set my microwave clock timer to ensure I get it right), you get perfect pasta, instead of that starchy, soggy mess you get with the cheap stuff. The Barilla Rigatoni is my favourite type. When it goes on sale (88 cents at No Frills, last time), I stock up like crazy.

When you're packing your lunch, you can put all sorts of things in the sauce (see optional items above) for variety. I do this as a last step so I can change it up from one day to the next. This recipe will make enough sauce for 2-4 servings (depending on how much you eat). If you store it in a airtight container in your fridge, you can keep it for up to 5 days, but don't take my word for it. Do the sniff test every time. If you're not certain after sniffing, do a taste test. If you're still not sure, throw it out. No sense in making yourself sick to save a buck.

Lunch time tips

If you are like me, you get incredibly angry when your pasta is overcooked. Like.. really angry. Like getting called to HR angry.

To avoid being suspended for inappropriate behaviour, make sure you pack your pasta and sauce separately. To heat up the pasta, boil some water in a kettle or microwave and pour that over the pasta. Shake and strain. Heat up the sauce as you normally would. If you don't have access to a microwave, heat the sauce up that morning, then put it in a thermos. Also beware of heating things up in plastic, as the chemicals will apparently give men boobs, and make women's boobs fall off or something.