Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Have some tacos and beer and let ourselves go

OK, this post is about neither tacos nor beer. But it is about my near obsession with good Tex-Mex food, and the title is from a song I like, so deal with it. "But wait," you say, "you live in London. How could you possibly get decent Tex-Mex there?" The truth is, you can get acceptable Tex-Mex here (and there are good burritos here and there) but until we found these places, I had to rely on my cooking skills to get us through.

The first thing I had to master was salsa. This is not my recipe - it's my friend H's (actually I believe it's her stepmom's). I've been making it so long from memory now, I think my proportions might be a bit different, but for all intents and purposes, it is hers. This is my first foray into blogging food photos, so bear with me if they suck...

Homemade Salsa

What you need:
1/2 medium yellow onion (I used about 2/3 of the one pictured because it was a bit small.)
About 3 medium jalepenos (You can use fresh, but I like the canned ones that have the carrots and onions in them. I used La Preferida brand this time, but others are fine.)
2-3 cloves garlic
About 1/4 c cilantro leaves (called coriander in the UK)
4 400 g cans peeled whole plum tomatoes (In the US, I used 2 large cans - can't remember the weights of those!)
Salt to taste (about 1 1/2 tsp)
Splash cider or white vinegar (about 1/2 tsp)

Food processor

Cut the onion, garlic and jalepenos into chunks and whiz in a food processor into small pieces. Add the cilantro and process a bit more (you don't want to obliterate the cilantro, so wait until the other stuff is pretty much done before adding it).Transfer the onion, etc. to a bowl.

Begin processing the tomatoes; I do one can at a time (about 4 tomatoes). Just pulse them 3-4 times so that they stay a bit chunky. If you overprocess, you'll end up with "salsa water" (as H says). As each batch is finished, add it to the onion, etc. in the bowl.

Stir everything up, add the salt and vinegar, and taste. Remember you can always add more jalepeno (tip: use the liquid from the jalepeno can to add a bit more spice without having to process another chili), cliantro, salt, etc. Store in the fridge, and it should last for a couple of weeks. Also, the flavors will blend as the salsa sits, so let it stand for at least a couple of hours before making any final adjustments to the taste.

I've been making quesadillas in various forms for ages. But they are perfect with the salsa, and also helped us get our Tex-Mex fix when there were no restaurants for us to frequent. Plus, I promised them in my first post about fast food.

Easy Cheese Quesadillas
Flour tortillas
Shredded cheese (I use mature/sharp cheddar here, but Pepper Jack, Jack or a Mexican blend would all be fine.)
Non-stick spray (e.g., Pam) (You can use vegetable oil, but I prefer this lower-fat version)

Heat a skillet (big enough for the tortilla to lie flat) over medium-low heat (if it's too hot the tortilla will brown and burn before the cheese melts). Spray with non-stick spray and add the tortilla. Cook for about 10 seconds on one side to soften, then turn over. Add the cheese so it covers half the tortilla, then fold the tortilla over. Cook until brown on the bottom, then flip and continue cooking until the other side is brown.

Serve with salsa, guac (see below), sour cream (or plain yogurt for a low-fat sub if, like me, you live in a place where low-fat sour cream doesn't exist) and refried beans.

Variations: Make these slightly less easy, but certainly more nutritious, by adding some chicken breast chunks sauteed with onions (and peppers if you like them) and chili powder. Sauteed spinach and/or mushrooms are also a good filling.

Since I also promised quick-fix guac in that first post, here it is:

Mash up a ripe avocado (if it is not ripe when you buy it, stick it in a paper bag for a day or so to speed up the ripening). Add a squeeze of lime juice (lemon will do, or really you can leave it out altogether), some salt and pepper, and a couple of spoonfuls of salsa (homemade if you've got it; if not jarred is certainly fine). That's it!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Foodie wannabe

I feel like such a foodie. Two weekends ago we went to Borough Market, where I had wild boar sausages and sea salt caramel fudge and bought all those tomatoes. Then Sunday we went to Whole Foods for lunch and browsing. And yesterday I stopped by Gail's Bread and bought a yummy granary bloomer loaf instead of my usual grocery store wheat sandwich bread.

Sean bought me a book recently called 'How to be a Better Foodie'. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but don't exactly follow all of the advice in it, hence I feel like a foodie wannabe. For example, I usually can't bring myself to pay 3 times the price for organic home grown veggies from the market when they're so much cheaper at the grocery store. However, I will say that to be the best foodie that your budget (and shopping time) will allow is a tip that I should be following. What I mean is, buy the best ingredients you can and your food usually tastes better. Also, despite what the higher prices might lead you to believe, organic, free range, blah, blah, blah is usually better, but not always. So do a taste test and decide for yourself!

To help you get started, I highly recommend the book mentioned above. For those of you in the states, you can get it from

Friday, April 18, 2008

There's something fishy about this

Yesterday I was craving a tuna melt (I know, who craves tuna-from-a-can?), and it got me thinking about fish. When I was younger (as in until about the age of 26), I swore that I hated fish, except for tuna-from-a-can. My boyfriend (now my husband) told me that that was ridiculous and that I really should try 'real' fish. After several tentative bites of his salmon at a restaurant, I decided that he might be on to something. I did this again several times before being brave enough to order salmon for myself. Then I started cooking it at home in a pan on the stove but set off the smoke alarm in our tiny apartment the first few times.

This brings me to today's tip. To avoid setting off the smoke alarm when cooking an oily fish like salmon indoors, and also to help curtail the inevitable smell of fish that can linger for several days, start in a pan on the stove and finish in the oven (a pan that goes from stove to oven is one of my 'essential tools' - a future blog post idea that's on my list to write about someday). This only occurred to me after I saw the technique in a recipe, and I wondered why I'd never thought of it myself. Of course, if you're lucky enough to have a grill (which we FINALLY do after 5 years of living in apartments without outdoor space), clearly you can just cook the fish on it, and prevent both odor and smoke problems.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Please pass the sodium metabisulphite

The subject of my first real post might not actually qualify as being a tip, but it is something that's important to me. So much for keeping to a theme...

Possibly more than the US, the UK is full of what they call 'ready meals'; in the US these are known as 'TV dinners'. Now I've eaten my share of Stouffer's lasagna and M&S chicken tikka masala, and I'm a sucker for the grocery store brand 'fresh' tortellini and soups. I also eat out a lot (well, not so much now that I have a baby, but the guys at the pizza place up the street are now concerned if we haven't ordered take-out in a while). And sometimes you just need a Big Mac and fries washed down with a McFlurry...

I'm not knocking any of these things, but I am starting to appreciate the value of a home-cooked meal, in which the ingredients do not include sodium metabisulphite, autolyzed yeast extract and 2 tablespoons of salt per serving. Perhaps this has something to do with my mother, who pretty much made home-cooked dinner every night while I was growing up (more about that will come in a future post, I think). Maybe it's because I like cooking, or because the older I get the more I need to be careful about what I'm eating (interesting aside - in high school I typically ate seasoned curly fries, a Coke and Little Debbie snack cakes for lunch, either Swiss Cake Rolls or Nutty Bars).

The point of all this is that although you really cannot make a homemade dinner in the same time as it takes to order take-out or heat up jarred soup in the microwave like some of those TV chefs would like you to believe (don't you just hate Rachael Ray and her "In the time you've just wasted sitting on your butt on the couch eating Cheetos and watching TV, I'll have made a delicious and healthy meal"?), you really can cook food at home fairly easily. Now is where the 'tips' for today come in - some of my standby 'recipes' for easy/fast cooking at home.

First, two pasta dishes that aren't spaghetti with meat sauce or boxed mac-n-cheese.

Clear Out the Fridge/Pantry Pasta

Cook some pasta-spaghetti, ziti, whatever.

While that's cooking, sautee some cut up bacon or pancetta cubes with some chopped onion (yellow, green, shallots - whatever you have) and garlic.
Alternatively, you can chop up some ham and add that after sauteeing the onion/garlic in some olive oil. If you don't want the meat, leave it out (duh). Toss in some red pepper flakes (careful with these; a little goes a long way) and some dried Italian herbs (oregano, basil, etc; in the UK I use Sainsbury's Mediterranean style mixed herbs, which contains oregano, basil, bay, sage and thyme).

Then throw in whatever veggies you want. I typically use frozen peas (no need to thaw, they'll heat up in the pan) and chopped fresh tomato (add this towards the end to prevent it from dissolving into nothing). Mushrooms also work great, as does asparagus or spinach. Tip: Frozen peas are almost always better than fresh because they are frozen so soon after being picked and 'fresh' peas usually aren't all that fresh.

Toss everything with the cooked pasta (you can add a little pasta-cooking water to help bring things together), add some fresh herbs if you want (parsley, basil), grind some black pepper and grate some fresh parmesan over. A tip about the cheese - freshly grated parmesan really tastes better than the alternatives. Please, NEVER buy parmesan cheese in a can. Also, it really is better (and I think cheaper) to buy a block and grate it yourself rather than buying it pre-grated from the store. Bon appetit!

The second pasta dish I just made up last weekend after we bought a ginormous bag of cherry tomatoes at Borough Market.

Margherita Pasta

First, roast the cherry tomatoes. Turn the oven to 200C/400F. Toss tomatoes in a baking dish with olive oil, dried Italian herbs (see above), 8 or so garlic cloves (don't peel-just throw in whole), salt, pepper and a few red pepper flakes. Basically you need enough tomatoes to create sauce for pasta for 2 people; I just put enough to make a single layer in my 9x13 Pyrex dish and that was enough. Bake for 10-15 minutes. They should be starting to burst open.

While the tomatoes are roasting, cook enough pasta (I used penne) for two hungry people. When the pasta's done (make the tomatoes wait for the pasta, not vice versa), toss with the tomatoes, garlic and all the pan juices.

Throw in some chopped fresh mozzarella (I used one large ball) and chopped fresh basil and parsley. Add some freshly ground pepper and freshly grated parmesan, and you're good to go. Oh, and be sure to take the garlic cloves out of the peel before eating them (I kind of like them smeared on bread more than in the pasta itself).

I was also going to write about my easy pizzas and quesadillas/guacamole, but that can wait for another time, as the baby's waking up from his nap now...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In the beginning...

So, I was watching an episode of 'Barefoot Contessa' this afternoon, and Ina was baking a cake. She says something about how you can't overmix the batter until you put in the flour because too much beating of the flour causes too much gluten to develop and you end up with something with a texture more like bread than cake.

It occurred to me that this is quite a useful tip for home cooks and prompted me to think about other little tidbits that I've learned about cooking over the years. I started making a list and decided there were quite a lot o
f things I've picked up, mostly from watching too many cooking shows on TV (Alton Brown's show 'Good Eats' is one of my favorites), but also from my mom and friends, and from living in both the US and the UK. Many of these things I wish I'd learned much earlier than I did!

I'm not an expert. I'm not a chef, nor am I a food scientist (although I do have a couple of degrees in biochemistry). However, I love to cook and enjoy learning about the science behind making home-cooked food taste fabulous. Although not every tip has a scientific rationale behind it, many do, and understanding the science makes these tips make sense.

I hope that this blog will provide a forum for interesting and useful tips about cooking - the ingredients, the science, the methods, the tools, the books, the websites. I also hope that I'll have time to post frequently (I have a 4 month old to deal with right now and soon will have a job to go back to as well). Enjoy!