Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Quick One: How to Choose a Pineapple

Picking out a properly ripe fruit can be a gamble sometimes, especially when it comes to melons and pineapples. My wife taught me a little trick for selecting a pineapple, and it couldn't be simpler.

First of all, look for a pineapple that has as little green on the skin as possible. The more green it shows, the less ripe it is. Next, squeeze it all around to make sure there aren't any soft spots. If you find that the skin gives easily under pressure, it's overripe and won't be good.

Here's the "big trick": turn the pineapple over and sniff the round spot where it was cut off of the plant. If it smells like a pineapple, it's ripe. Period. If it has no odor or it smells kind of bad, and you've already checked the skin for color and soft spots, then it's really not ripe enough to enjoy yet. Just that simple.

The color/texture/smell trifecta also works for cantaloupes, by the way. Same thing: if the skin doesn't show much green, has no soft spots, and the cut end smells like cantaloupe, you're good to go. Honeydews and watermelons are a different story, though. No easy shortcuts there that I know of, but we'd be happy to hear any that you might know.

'Scuse me now. I have to go eat some more perfectly ripe pineapple before bed...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Light Lunch: Quinoa Salad

(posted by Todd)

The odd little South American grain called quinoa (pronounced keen'-wah) has taken the U.S. by storm in the past couple of years. It is a marvelous, nutritious grain with a unique consistency, transparent and slightly chewy, and addictively delicious. Our family started using quinoa about two years ago and we have come to love it. A little goes a long way, too; one cup of quinoa cooked in six cups of water will feed the whole family. The photo above shows the difference in size between the cooked grains (upper right) and the raw grains (lower left).

This salad is one of our favorite preparations for quinoa. It makes about six large servings. There is one very important rule for using quinoa, and you ignore it at your peril. You should always put quinoa in a wire strainer and rinse it thoroughly under cold water before you begin cooking it. Quinoa grains have a waxy coating called saponin that rinses off easily but will taste very bitter if it isn't removed before cooking. (To give you a clue about the importance of this step, "saponin" and "soap" come from the same root word.) Even if your box of quinoa says it's pre-rinsed, it's a good idea to rinse it again anyway just to be sure.


1 cup quinoa, thoroughly rinsed under cold water
6 cups water
1 large tomato, diced and seeded
1 medium cucumber, diced and seeded
1 stalk celery, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
3 scallions, sliced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 bunch watercress or inland cress, stems removed
4 oz. feta cheese
8 oz. grape tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. sherry vinegar (or 2 tbsp. white wine vinegar and 1 tbsp. sherry)
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 pinch sugar

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan (this is important for the drying step later). Add 1 cup of rinsed quinoa, return to a boil, and cook for about 12 minutes until the grains turn transparent. Drain the quinoa, rinse again, and return it to the saucepan. Spread it evenly in the pan, turn the heat on low, and let the quinoa dry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. (This will keep it from sticking to itself so much, and will allow it to absorb some of the vinaigrette later.) Turn off heat and let the quinoa cool for a few minutes.

Combine all of the vegetables and feta cheese in a large salad bowl. Add the quinoa and carefully toss everything together.

For the vinaigrette, combine the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and sugar in a screw-lid jar and shake until completely blended. Alternately, you can whisk the mixture in a bowl until it is blended, but the jar method will give you a better emulsion. Toss the salad with the vinaigrette. Refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.

If you would like, you can add 1/2 pound of shelled shrimp or diced chicken or ham to the salad for extra protein.

(NOTE: This recipe is adapted from one in Maria Baez Kijac's fabulous cookbook, The South American Table (Harvard Common Press, 2003). Her recipe is wonderful, but we like to omit the meat and substitute cress for the canned corn she suggests. We also toss in some chopped radishes or jicama sometimes if we have them on hand. Feel free to experiment!)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Happy Accidents: Muffuletta Panzanella

(posted by Todd)

Muffuletta (moof-fuh-LAH-tah): n. 1. a round loaf of bread, traditionally topped with sesame seeds, native to Sicily. 2. a sandwich native to the New Orleans, Louisiana area, made with a horizontally sliced loaf of muffuletta bread, and featuring an olive salad made with marinated olives and giardiniera, various luncheon meats, Swiss and provolone cheeses.

Panzanella (pan-zuh-NEL-luh): n. a salad native to Tuscany, Italy, consisting of bread, sliced tomatoes, onions, basil, capers and other optional ingredients, in a vinaigrette dressing. Also known as panmolle. Traditionally the bread used was stale, soaked in water and squeezed dry before the salad was made. In the modern era the bread is usually cubed and fried in oil or toasted.

A few years ago our family had the notion to pack a picnic lunch and head off to the beach for the day. We made a couple of muffuletta sandwiches, piled high with ham, turkey, cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, and homemade olive salad. Unfortunately the humid beach weather wasn't really conducive to big ol' sandwiches. When we arrived at Doheny we opened the picnic basket to find that our carefully crafted muffulettas were falling apart and impossible to slice and pick up. Undaunted, we grabbed a couple of knives, cut the sandwiches up into smaller pieces, and created what was essentially a panzanella salad with muffuletta ingredients. It was a big hit, and we have recreated the dish several times since then.

We like to cut the bread into cubes, toss it in olive oil, add a little salt and toast it into large croutons. Instead of using the usual thinly sliced sandwich meats, for this salad we prefer to have the deli cut half-inch-thick slices of the meats so that we can cube them and toss them with the greens, bread, olive salad and vinaigrette. This has a good number of ingredients and takes some time to prepare, but it will quickly become a family favorite and is great for potlucks, too.

1 round loaf Italian bread, cut into 1-1/2" cubes
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss bread cubes in olive oil and salt; spread out on a baking sheet so that cubes do not touch. Bake in oven until lightly browned and dry, about ten minutes. Remove and let cool.

Olive salad
12 oz. jar giardiniera, drained
6 oz. sliced green olives, good quality
1 tbsp. capers (unless your giardiniera already contains capers)

Chop giardiniera into pieces of 1/2" or less. Mix with sliced olives and capers. Set aside.

1/2 cup olive oil
3 tbsp. sherry vinegar (or 2 tbsp. white wine vinegar and 1 tbsp. sherry)
1 tsp. garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper

Whisk all ingredients together. Set aside. You will need to whisk again just before mixing into the salad so that the ingredients do not separate.

12 oz. mixed salad greens
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 lb. ham, sliced 1/2" thick and then diced
1/2 lb. boneless turkey breast, sliced 1/2" thick and then diced
4 oz. provolone or Swiss cheese, diced

Toss mixed greens and vinaigrette together until thoroughly coated. Add olive salad and toss gently. Gently mix in croutons, tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, meats and cheese. Let rest for about ten minutes before serving so that croutons can soak up some of the vinaigrette. Serves eight.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Quick One: Super Bowl Meatballs

A couple of years ago, in preparation for a holiday gathering, Christie improvised a recipe for meatballs that has turned out to be one of our favorites. It's bone simple and absolutely delicious. In the spirit of easy-fix Super Bowl goodies, today we used frozen meatballs as a hurry-up measure, but you can certainly use your favorite recipe to prepare them.

Super Bowl Meatballs

4 large onions, diced
2 tbsp. oil
3 cups ketchup
2 tbsp. Chinese five-spice powder
60 prepared meatballs, pre-cooked

Heat oil in a 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until soft and transparent, stirring occasionally. Add ketchup and five-spice powder; stir until thoroughly combined. With an immersion blender, blend mixture until no chunks of onion remain. Stir in meatballs and cook, covered, over medium heat until meatballs are heated all the way through. These are great by themselves as a game-day nosh, or served on a French roll with plenty of the sauce.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mac & Cheese: Reduced Calories, Not Reduced Taste

(Posted by Christie and Todd)

Few American comfort foods are as sublime as good old macaroni and cheese. When done well it's a festival of flavors that can be downright addictive. The problem, of course, is that a good helping of decent mac and cheese can carry four-digit calories straight to one's waistline.

Mac and cheese has befuddled many a health-conscious cook because it's kind of difficult to cut back the calories without cutting back the flavor and quality of the dish. If you've ever tried to eat it, you will know that reduced-calorie "cheese" is a non-starter, a freakish melange of recognizable and industrial ingredients slapped together to create something vaguely cheese-like. For macaroni and cheese that's truly enjoyable and health-friendly, the keys are portion control and a few substitutions.

After some experimentation we came up with the version below, packed with flavor but relatively low-cal. One serving (about 1/12 of the entire recipe) comes to only 361 calories; accompanied by some fresh fruit and vegetables on the side, a satisfying, very tasty meal can be enjoyed for 500 calories or less. We stuck with real butter and cheese because their synthetic counterparts just don't make the grade. Using non-fat milk and 1/3-less-fat cream cheese* knocks off quite a bit of weight without killing off the taste quotient.

Reduced Calorie Macaroni and Cheese

2 1/2 tbsp. butter
4 c. non-fat milk
1/4 c. flour
2 c. Cheddar cheese
8 c. elbow macaroni, cooked according to package directions
2 c. crispy rice cereal, crushed
2 oz. 1/3-less-fat cream cheese*
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper (use white pepper if you're neurotic about black flecks in white sauces)
2 c. diced ham

Preheat oven to 350. While macaroni is cooking, heat 1 1/2 tsp. butter and flour in a frying pan over medium heat, stirring frequently. When mixture is combined add milk, nutmeg, salt and black pepper. Whisk until no lumps are left. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until thickened sauce coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat. Add cream cheese; stir until melted completely into sauce. Add Cheddar cheese and stir until thoroughly combined.

Spray a 4-quart casserole dish with non-stick spray. Combine drained macaroni, ham and cheese sauce in casserole; stir gently until macaroni is fully coated with sauce. Sprinkle crushed rice cereal over top of macaroni. Cut 1 tbsp. of butter into nine small pieces and distribute evenly around top. Bake in oven at 350 for 20 minutes, until cereal crust is crispy and sauce bubbles. Serves 12.

* NOTE: 1/3-less-fat cream cheese is readily available in your grocer's deli section, right alongside the regular cream cheese. Sometimes it's labeled as "Neufchatel Cheese", which is a complete misnomer. Real Neufchatel is a soft French cheese similar to a grainier Camembert, with a mushroomy taste. It's believed that the first American cream cheese resulted from a dairyman's failed attempt to make Neufchatel. While that may well be true, it's just plain wrong to apply that name to the American product.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pappardelle with Chicken in Buddha's Hand Cream Sauce

(Posted by Todd)

The Buddha's Hand is one of the strangest critters you will ever encounter in your produce section, if you ever even get the chance. It's a variety of citron, a citrus fruit that is pretty scarce in the U.S. to begin with. It has three distinguishing features: the bizarre shape, with fingerlike appendages hanging below the main fruit body; a small or completely absent inner pulp; and an incredible floral fragrance that makes it like few other fruits on the market. In Eastern nations Buddha's Hands are often used as sacrificial objects for prayers and Buddhist rituals; there and elsewhere, the fruit is used almost exclusively for its fabulously scented zest.

I had only ever seen Buddha's Hands on Food Network and in online articles until about a month ago, when our local supermarket chain stocked some in what we call the "Freaky Produce" section, alongside the kiwano melons and dragonfruit. It was not cheap -- about ten dollars a pound -- but once I smelled the Buddha's Hand I had to pick one up and try it out because the chance doesn't arise very often. Even our many local Oriental markets don't usually carry these, so I struck while the iron was hot.

Zesting a Buddha's Hand is time-consuming but worth the effort. I began by zesting the large portion of the fruit above the fingers. Then I cut the fruit into about twelve slices, along the lines where the fingers attached to the main fruit. From there I used a small paring knife to shave the delectable zest from the fingers. One more perk of Buddha's Hand is that the white pith beneath the zest is not very bitter compared to that of other citrus, so it's okay to get some pith in with your zest. All in all I ended up with about a cup and a half of zest from this one fruit. Try that with a lemon! The zest will freeze for months, so feel free to use as much as you need and freeze the rest until you want more.

Last weekend at Trader Joe's I picked up some pappardelle, the long, wide Tuscan pasta that is traditionally served with hare. Not having a rabbit handy, I opted to prepare chicken with a lemon cream sauce. Then I remembered my stash of Buddha's Hand zest in the freezer and decided to give that a spin. It was a good call; the perfume of the zest infused the sauce with hints of orange blossom and lemon. Because my Buddha's Hand had no pulp at all (and apparently the pulp isn't all that tasty to begin with) I did use lemon juice for the sauce's finishing touch. But the Buddha's Hand is the star of the show here. I served the dish with steamed broccoli and garlic, a perfect accompaniment. This is a very simple preparation that will become a family favorite.

Pappardelle with Chicken in Buddha's Hand Cream Sauce

4 chicken breast halves, de-boned
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 shallots, minced
3 tbsp. butter
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tsp. of Buddha's Hand zest (lemon zest is a fine substitute)
3 tbsp. lemon juice
16 oz. pappardelle pasta

Heat olive oil on high in a non-stick pan. Cook chicken breasts for about three minutes per side. Reduce heat to low, cover pan and cook for about ten more minutes until done through. Remove from heat and let rest while sauce and pasta are prepared.

In a saucepan on medium heat, cook minced shallots in butter, with some salt and pepper to taste, until soft. Add cream and zest, reduce heat and cook until sauce is reduced and thickened, about ten minutes. Turn off heat and stir in lemon juice. Adjust seasoning to taste.

While sauce reduces, bring 8-10 qts. salted water to a boil. Cook pappardelle for 8-10 minutes until al dente. Drain.

Slice chicken into 1/2-inch slices at an angle. Serve on top of pappardelle and top with sauce. Serves six.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Food giveaway at My Italiano Connection

(Posted by Todd)

Giulianni Rigali Bell's wonderful food blog, My Italiano Connection, is a great resource for Italian recipes, ideas and wisdom. We've never met, but she's related by marriage to some of my friends from high school. She has a truly amazing vision for sharing her culinary heritage with the world, and we hope you will check out her blog not only for the giveaway, but for the fine recipes and other posts. The giveaway link is