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December 2013

Alaska Salmon Chowder

Christmas Dinner is approaching, and I have visions of standing-rib roasts dancing in my head—I’m hosting fifteen people on Wednesday. To prepare, I’ve been reading recipes, counting knives, looking for chairs, and doing all that work that goes behind the meal.

To take a break, I had friends over for lunch on Sunday. Where I come from, there’s no better way to get ready for a big party than by cooking for even more folks. It might sound crazy, but I was being crazy like a fox.

Deep in my freezer, I had a side of keta salmon that the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute had sent me back in the spring. I’ve cooked the salmon up various ways, and I wanted to try it in a soup. Keta salmon is particularly suited to soup. It’s not too fatty, and therefore not too luxurious, to combine it with bacon, cream, and other mouthwatering ingredients. Keta salmon that has been in the freezer for six months is perfect for this kind of treatment.

Santa Maria was very skeptical of my idea. She thought the fish had gone past its sell-by date, but I knew it was okay, and that it would feed a large group. We had four friends and their kids over, and with the Salmon Chowder and some bagels, we had a fine time. After making lunch for ten people, I almost felt ready to host Christmas Dinner. Almost.

Alaska Salmon Chowder

  • 2 oz. butter
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Half an onion, chopped
  • 2 slices of bacon, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 small leek, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill, plus more for garnish*
  • 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 and 1/2 cups diced tomatoes (canned is fine)
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups fish stock or clam juice, or chicken stock*
  • 3 or 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
  • 2 cups Alaska Salmon, cut into 1 inch cubes*
  • 1 cup cream
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in the oil and sweat the chopped vegetables, bay leaf ,and thyme slowly until the onions are translucent.

Add the garlic and the paprika and sauté a bit more

Add the tomatoes and cook for 15 minutes.

Add the flour and cook on low for about 10 minutes, or until the floury taste is gone. Add the wine and simmer until the alcohol is cooked out.

Add the stock or clam juice and the potatoes and season to taste.

Simmer until the potatoes are almost soft, about 15 minutes, depending on how large you cubed your potatoes.

Add the cream and the fish and simmer for about 10 minutes more. 

Add the parsley, correct the seasoning* and serve.

Serves: 8-10

*Notes: I made this with water (I was short chicken stock); I used about 2.5 pounds of fish (one long fillet); I added extra water to compensate for the additional fish; I didn’t measure the cream, but just poured about a cup or so into the pot until it looked right (the original recipe for this soup calls for four cups, so use your judgment); I added about another two tablespoons of dill at the end.


Healthy Pork Tacos

Pork_taco_1

Someone recently told me that I appear to be full of self-doubt. I would have agreed with her, but I wasn’t sure about myself.

All joking aside, the one place where I’m not plagued by second-guessing is the kitchen, at least not anymore than any of the professional chefs I’ve met in my life. Years ago, I worked in a retail fish market with a man who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He taught me a lot about sautéing and making sauces—in that store, where we made a number of prepared foods, the oven was broken, and only the stovetop worked—and he taught me that chefs can be insecure in their judgments. He’d give me something to taste, and wait wide-eyed and eager for my reaction. I thought he was slightly insane (shouldn’t he have known what tasted good and what didn’t?), but later I realized that the cook/eater relationship is complicated, and mutually dependent. What good is it to cook things that people don’t like or won’t eat?

You can guess what makes me think this way these days—I cook for my young girls and my wife, so I’m always concerned about what they might like. I try to please them with not just the flavors I deliver, but with the actual dishes. If someone wants fish tacos for dinner, and that someone is the mother of my two children and the center of my world, well, fish tacos are going to be on the menu. Unless, of course, I need to cook something on that Sunday night that will give me leftovers that I can eat during the week for lunch, like, say, lazy and easy pork tenderloins. As I mentioned, the relationship between the cook and the eater can be complicated.

But as it is with writing sonnets, sometimes the constraints of the form can give rise to great results. The other day, for example, the day in which fish tacos were competing with pork tenderloin on the menu, I realized that tacos are little more than stages for salsa, guacamole, and a given protein. All I needed to do was season the pork in a more Mexican fashion, and I could make pork tacos, and everyone would be happy. I could have my leftovers for sandwiches during the week, and we could have our taco night.

The only variable were those children of mine. Would they like the new dish, or would they balk at it? This was weighing on my mind as I played around with ingredients. I mixed together a bit of cumin, smoked paprika, dried oregano, cinnamon, garlic, and a few other things into a rub. I coated the outsides of the pork tenderloins, and I roasted them at 350 degrees until they were 145 degrees in the center. I let them sit for about five or more minutes, and then I sliced the meat very thinly, and then chopped it a bit so it resembled pulled-pork. I poured the pan drippings over the meat, and then laid everything out on the table.

The moment of truth came a few minutes later, when Pinta wandered past the table and snuck a bit of the meat. “That’s really good,” she said, and I knew dinner would go well. I had no doubt about it.

Healthy Pork Tacos

  • 2 pork tenderloins, about 1lb each
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • a dash of black pepper
  • a bit of honey (maybe a ½ teaspoon)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons (more or less) olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (about) white wine
  • corn tortillas (warmed on stovetop)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

Combine all the spices and the oil.

Place the meat in a low baking dish and rub the mixture on the meat, covering all sides.

Pour the wine around the meat.

Roast in oven until internal temperature of meat is 145 degrees, about 20-30 minutes.

Remove the meat from the oven and let it sit for about five minutes.

Thinly slice the meat and chop it a bit until it resembles shredded pork.

Pour any pan drippings over the meat, and serve with fresh salsa, guacamole, and warmed corn tortillas.


Be a Good-Enough Cook: Sage-Rubbed Pork Chops

Sage_Pork_Chop_2013
When it comes to raising children, there is the concept of the “good-enough” parent, which traces its origins to Bruno Bettelheim and Donald Winnicott. I don’t know enough about either of them to try to explain what it really means (though I know just enough to be wary—“Refrigerator Moms” anyone?). Fortunately, the phrase "good-enough" is self-evident, and while I'll leave to the experts what it means when it comes to parenting, when it comes to cooking, it should be applied more often.

Especially for weeknight cooking. After working all day, don’t worry about making the best soufflé, the greatest steak, or the most sublime piece of turbot—just get a good and decent meal on the table. If you can do that, you can sit back and enjoy it. You’ll save money, be healthier, and be closer to your family.

I was thinking about this last Wednesday, when I made pork chops. I’ve toyed around with pork chops before, but they’ve never been very popular around the house. Crusting then with cumin, coriander, and corn meal didn’t really help (though they were delicious). So this past Wednesday when I was making dinner, I decided to step back and shoot for “good enough.”

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees, and then chopped up a bit of fresh sage that was leftover from preparing the Thanksgiving stuffing two weeks ago (and speaking of that sublime stuffing, after I made it and packed it up to take to my brother's house, I realized that I had forgotten a whole step in the recipe--that of adding wine--and it just didn't matter; it was more than good enough the way it was). For the pork chops, I mixed the sage with a bit of olive oil, coated both sides of the meat, and I dropped them into a smoking-hot cast-iron pan. I browned them for a few minutes, flipped them, then slid the pan into the oven for ten minutes. The chops registered 150 in the middle, and I knew they were done. They were juicy and tasty.

Were they embraced by Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria? Not exactly, but everyone ate their dinner. Will I make this dish again? Maybe, especially if have left over sage that I want to use up (I hate wasting herbs). Next time, I might try something different. For Wednesday night, though, it was good enough and that was good enough for me.

Good-Enough Pork Chops

  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh sage (approx.)
  • 2 Tablespoon olive oil (approx)
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 boneless pork chops (about a pound)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put a cast-iron frying pan on to heat on high.

Mix the sage, salt and pepper, and olive oil.

Coat both sides of the pork chops with the herbed oil.

Toss the chops into the hot pan, and brown for about two or three minutes.

Flip the chops and slide the pan into the oven for about ten minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 150 in the center of the meat.


Post-Thanksgiving Recap: Stuffing, Turkey, Cookies and More!

Chocolate_chip_cookies

364 days a year, I’m an abstemious cook. I have a friend who will use more olive oil in one dish than I’ll use in a day of cooking. I routinely cut the amount of sugar in my pancake recipe by a third. Salt is something my wife is always reaching for, but I’ll just use to throw over my shoulder. Thanksgiving, however, I go all in, all out, and, ocassionally, out of my mind (but that's a tale for another time, perhaps a fifty-minute hour).

My brother hosted this year, and each of the guests brought a dish or two. I made Melissa Clark’s stuffing with mushrooms and bacon, and I let the bacon fat ride in the pan, per her instructions. I threw the full teaspoon of salt into the pan, and boom—it tasted like restaurant food! And if you are gluten-intolerant, know that I substituted in gluten-free bread and the stuffing was fantastic; that’s the magic of bacon fat. (I also made Sam Sifton’s Three-Pepper Cornbread stuffing, from his excellent book, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well.”)

The gathering was twenty-three-people large, and my brother prepared two turkeys for the group. They were both moist and delicious. One of them, he said, was dry-brined per Russ Parson’s recipe in the Los Angeles Times (though I would have been tempted by Frank Stitt’s method, in Food & Wine). The other, he told me, he cooked on the BBQ, after rubbing it with an ad-hoc mix of rendered bacon fat and various spices. On my second serving I reached for a turkey wing, and I will never forget its crispy skin for as long as I live.

At twenty-three people, this was the largest assembly of my family in its history. Sometimes, a party this large can be stressful for the hosts, and with good reason. How does one feed all those people (and wash up afterwards, for that matter), without going out of one’s mind? The Thanksgiving meal means added pressure, as most people don’t usually roast a fourteen-pound turkey everyday. The thing about the food, though, is for all of the hype and attention it gets, it is second to people. Getting everyone together to share time at the table is what matters. Corey Mintz, a Canadian food writer, made this point in an essay in the New York Times last week. If you haven’t seen it, and you are ever thinking about having people over for dinner, I suggest you print it out and post it in your kitchen.

And if you want to get people together, it doesn’t always take a giant turkey. Sometimes, it just takes cookies. I may be an abstemious cook, but I know how to have fun. I married Santa Maria, after all. She’s the baker in the house, and the day after Thanksgiving I had a smaller contingent of the extended Stay-at-Stove-Dad family over for an impromptu dinner of hot dogs and dhal. Santa Maria livened it up with a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

 A long time ago, Heirloom Cookie Sheets, a neat little family-run company in Wisconsin, sent me one of its signature stainless-steel cookie sheets. I haven’t used it much, but I broke it out for Santa Maria over the weekend. She was skeptical at first, but she reports that it cooks much better than any other cookie sheet she’s used. So if you're reading this on Cyber Monday, and you're looking to buy something, I suggest getting some for yourself or as a hostess gift for an upcoming holiday party. You’ll be much loved, too, if you bring a batch of cookies. Here’s the recipe:

Chocolate Chip Cookies (Tollhouse cookies)

  •  2 ¼ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks butter (1 cup), at room temperature
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ¾ cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 package semisweet chocolate chips (12 ounces) (Ghirardelli are my favorite)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together dry ingredients.

In a separate bowl, cream sugars with butter; add eggs and vanilla.  Mix with dry ingredients. 

Drop by spoonful onto ungreased cookie sheet; bake 7-10 minutes.