Thursday, March 20, 2014

Pecorino Romano Black Pepper Crackers

These crackers are pretty amazing. I considered calling them a cheez-it copy cat, but they aren't quite that, being Romano flavored, and they're a bit like a parmesan Goldfish cracker, except not quite so puffy, and again, Romano flavored. 

But really, calling these crackers a copycat of any commercially produced cracker would be doing them a huge injustice. These are so, so, so much better than a Cheez It or a Goldfish cracker, they're better than Carr's, better than any commercial cracker I've ever had. And very addicting.

I first made these a few weeks ago, mostly just to see if I could make crackers. I've never been super confident when it comes to flour products one has to roll out. I hate sticky doughs, but abhor dry baked goods, and there is a fine line between dough too sticky, and a final product that turns out too dry.

This dough, however, is very easy to roll out, provided you flour the surface and your rolling pin. I use a nonstick rolling pin, but I don't necessarily think it's any better than a wooden one. The key with this cracker is to roll the dough so thin it's practically see through. Think about 4 sheets of printer paper thick.

I served the first batch to some friends who dropped in by surprise and we devoured them all with beers, and they were perfect. I love the idea of being the type of hostess who always has some homemade snacks, and maybe a well mixed cocktail or two to offer guests while making sparkling conversation, so I was excited to have freshly baked crackers to offer my friends. 

In reality though, I am very frequently the type of hostess who, when announced guests drop by, plops down an open box of Carr's crackers and a wedge of cheddar, then mostly fails at conversation while working on this blog. Full disclosure, I'm doing that right now. 

Full, full disclosure, there isn't even any cheddar. This time, I just plopped down a partially eaten box of Carr's crackers. Our friend is eating them happily anyway. So I'm not always a perfect hostess, but you know, sometimes there is fresh baked bread and well mixed cocktails with homemade ginger syrup. It varies around here.

The second batch, the one photographed here, I baked to go along with some potato, leek, and cheddar soup I made for S and myself last week. The crackers were a fantastic compliment to the rich, creamy soup. They would definitely also be great with chicken or vegetable soup, I can just imagine them delightfully soaked in chicken broth. 

These would also be lovely if made with Parmesan, or Asiago, or just about any hard cheese. They would probably be great with Manchego and a pinch of cinnamon, or super aged Gouda. I, however, love the aged, earthy, slightly funky sheep's milk flavor of the Pecorino Romano. I bet you'll love them, too. Enjoy!

Pecorino Romano Black Pepper Crackers

2 Cups flour plus extra for dusting
2/3 C water
1/4 C + 1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
2/3 C  grated Romano cheese ~3oz
1 tbsp cracked black pepper
extra cheese salt and pepper for topping

In a large bowl combine 2 C flour, salt, cheese, and black pepper, stir with a fork to combine. Add the water, then the olive oil, and mix again, until a loose dough forms. Add more flour if dough is too wet. 

Lightly flour counter top, dump dough out, and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 3-5 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap or Bee's Wrap, and let sit 20 minutes. 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees fahrenheit. 
Divide dough into 6 even balls. Place one ball on a floured surface, put the others back under the plastic wrap. Roll out the ball on the floured surface until it's super super thin, thinner than a dime. I used a good deal of flour on the counter and on my rolling pin to keep it from sticking and it rolled out very easily. Once the dough is nearly paper thin, cut into pieces using small cookie cutters, or use a pizza cutter or knife to cut rolled out dough into little squares, place on parchment paper lined cookie sheet (they can be close together, they won't spread), and bake 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Kale and Quinoa Chicken Pomegranate Salad with Maple-Balsamic Dressing.

I live in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan, which isn't just a cute name. When I walk down my block I pass two buddhist temples for whom the burning of offerings on the Manhattan sidewalk is not an uncommon occurrence, I don't bat an eye at the fish, plucked fresh from the East River, dangling, drying, mouths open, from my neighbors fire escapes. 

I eat at takeout places under the Manhattan bridge where the only english spoken is the number system I use to order my hot oil noodles, and I know why the shop keepers wear second sets of sleeves pulled up over their arms (to protect their shirt, of course), what those "Million Dollar Bill" notes in the dollar store are (offerings, to be burnt), I know a traditional funeral procession when I hear one coming down the block, and I can identify the smell of Durian a 50 feet away (it smells delicious, I don't know what everyone complains about). 

The open air fruit markets in my neighborhood sell rambutan, dragon fruit, candied lychees, lotus root, bitter melon, carrots 18 inches long, 4 ft tall sections of sugar cane, giant jackfruits, and of course, pomegranates. It's almost hard to believe once upon a time a pomegranate was exotic to me, unique, special. Now they're one of the most identifiable and western seeming fruits at my market. 

When I was a child I loved greek mythology, and the myth of Hades and Persephone fascinated me. Kidnapping, attempted wooing, a pomegranate aril eaten in Hades, the creation of winter. It was all very dark and scary, and yet I remember finding it kind of weirdly romantic. Apparently my juvenile brain thought tricking someone into spending a third of each year with you was romantic. 

When I was young, my mother would allow me to pick out a piece of exotic fruit at the grocery store, if it wasn't too expensive. We tried pomelo, starfruit, ugly fruit, champagne mangoes (SO GOOD), coconuts, and of course, pomegranates. Pomegranates were one of my favorite fancy fruits. I would cut them into quarters and eat one quarter a night, my little kid fingers deftly picking through all the membranes and flesh to get to the delicious little jewel seeds.

Now, all the fruits that once seemed so exotic to me are more likely to be sold in the nearby fruit market than apples or bananas are (though there are always oranges, regardless of season). Sometimes I stand on Forsyth, under the Manhattan bridge, across from a mechanic with "Moter Shop" painted on the wall, inhaling the pungent-slightly-rotten-very-sweet smell of the durians, picking through a bin of sugar plums or longan berries, wondering how I could be so lucky to live in a place like this. 

Pomegranates make a fantastic pairing with kale, which they absolutely do not sell in my neighborhood. There's also no quinoa, of course. Some things I have to head to SoHo or Tribeca for. The sweet, slightly earthy taste of the pomegranates compliments the green, earthy kale, and the toasted almonds are downright luxurious alongside the formidable greens.

The balsamic vinaigrette is probably my favorite, go-to dressing. It's simple, tangy, and a little bit sweet. I had always emulsified my salad dressings by hand, until recently when S suggested I try the immersion blender while whisking up a caesar dressing, and it worked so beautifully, I've been blending all my dressings this way ever since. 

In this recipe, an immersion blender will leave you with a pale brown, creamy dressing so tangy and sweet and delightful you'll want to triple the batch and pour it on all the lettuce in your house. You'll want to dip lettuce in it and eat the leaves like tortilla chips in salsa. 

I made this salad in the afternoon, and devoured it for lunch alongside a homemade ginger orangina, and then when S came home from work we ate the rest of it out of our giant, stainless steel dinner salad bowls. It was so tasty not one shred of kale, bite of chicken, or crumble of blue cheese was left in our bowls. Enjoy!

Kale and Quinoa Chicken Pomegranate Salad with Maple-Balsamic Dressing
Makes two dinner sized salads with a bit leftover for lunch.

10 oz kale (about 5 cups chopped)
1 Cup quinoa
2 Cups water
4 oz (3/4 C) slivered almonds
1 pomegranate
1 lb chicken breast thin cut
1/2 C crumbled blue cheese

Chicken Marinade
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 C balsamic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
salt + pepper

Maple-Balsamic Dressing
1/3 c balsamic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp maple
3 tbsp olive oil

Begin by marinading the chicken, in a large ziploc bag or shallow pan combine 2 tbsp olive oil, 1/4 C balsamic vinegar, the juice of 1/2 a lemon (about 2 tbsp), and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Mix well, then add the chicken breast, cover (or seal bag), and set aside for at least 30 minutes, but you could even do this in the morning before work, by dinner the chicken will be extra marinaded.

Toast the almonds by placing them in a small skillet and heating over low heat. Mix the almonds around, keep them moving most of the time to prevent burning. They will slowly turn pale tan and creamy colored, and then light golden brown and toasty, remove from heat once they look and smell toasted. Careful not to burn them, it's easy to forget and burn one side of every almond. When they'e toasted, after about 6 minutes over heat, pour the almonds into a small bowl and set aside.

Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh steamer, then place in a saucepan along with 2 cups of water, turn heat to medium and bring water to a boil, then give it a stir, reduce to low heat, and cover. Cook for about 12 minutes, or until quinoa has puffed, sprouted, and absorbed most of the water. I like to stop before the quinoa gets too soft, so it will hold its shape better in the salad. Drain any excess water and fluff quinoa with a fork. Set aside.

When the chicken is done marinading, pour a bit of olive oil into a heavy bottomed skillet, place over medium heat and once pan is hot, add the chicken, move it around bit to get an olive oil coating so it won't stick. Add a few tablespoon's of the marinade mix in with the chicken, and cook for a few moments then flip, to brown each side. Reduce heat slightly, cover chicken and let cook another ten minutes, or until juices run clear (cooking length will depend on chicken thickness). 

While the chicken cooks, start on the kale. If you find kale a bit bitter, give it a massage (seriously!), take the leaves in your hands and rub them together until the leaves darken and become softer. I don't mind the strength of kale's taste, or its consistency so I usually don't bother with this, but if you're at all apprehensive about kale I recommend it. It really does change the consistency and lighten the taste of the kale. 

To slice the kale thin, stack 4-6 kale leaves together, then roll them into a long kale cigar. Begin slicing at the leafy end, and cut across the cigar in thin strips. You'll end up with a bunch of skinny, couple-inch-long kale ribbons. Perfect! 

Now, remove the pomegranate arils. There's a great simple way to do this in a bowl of water. Or you can just hack it in half and make a big mess pulling them out with your fingers and eating a bunch as you go. This is my preferred method. Set them aside.

When the chicken is done cooking, remove it from heat, and set aside on a plate to a cool a bit. Then slice into thin, bite sized strips.

For the dressing, combine balsamic vinegar and lemon in a bowl, whisk well. Add maple syrup and whisk again, then slowly, beginning with just a few drops, add the olive oil while whisking like crazy. Continue adding olive oil in a very thin stream while whisking nonstop. The goal here is to emulsify the olive oil into the dressing so they won't separate. You can also you an immersion blender, which are pretty amazing for salad dressing making. 

In large dinner bowls, place a healthy handful of kale, sprinkle it all over generously with quinoa, toss on some pomegranate arils, drizzle with dressing, toss a bit, then add some chicken, blue cheese, and almonds. Add another drizzle of dressing and devour. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chicken Tortilla Soup

I grew up skiing. My parents shoved my tiny little toddler feet into hard plastic boots,  locked them into ski bindings and pushed me down a hill for the first time when I was not yet three years old. Skiing seemed to encompass my childhood winters, swallowing up all the bitter cold, icy roads, and dark, early mornings and turning them all into just another part of a fantastic ski day.

In the midnineties, when I was a still a little girl, my mother and father took a trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado so they could ski, and my father could write an article for a local ski magazine about the resort. The ski magazine arranged some fun resort-y events for them, like a hot air balloon ride, and they had to try out some of the resort's restaurants to write about as well. 

It was at one of the resort restaurants, La Montana Mexican Restaurant, that they discovered this Tortilla Soup. They both loved it. 

After they ate, my father was looking through the prints he had just gotten back from the trip so far (oh, the days of film photography! Holding actual prints in your hands!), when the waiter came over and complimented one of his photographs. I believe it was of the hot air balloon before the ride, which is a rainbow striped bubble tethered to the ground in front of the grey and white behemoths of the mountains in the photos I have seen.

The waiter asked my father if he could buy a copy of the photo from him, and my father thought about it. He had gotten doubles, after all. He told the kid sure, on one condition. He wouldn't sell it to him, but he would trade it- for the Tortilla Soup recipe. The waiter scurried back into the kitchen and reappeared with the recipe a minute later, and the trade was on.

When they returned home my father tried the tortilla soup recipe out on my brother and me. My brother, Sean, was not impressed. Which is not surprising as the reason Sean has never featured in my food antics before is because he is so picky we practically disagree on all things food related. Except pizza. Everyone likes pizza. 

I, on the other hand, loved the soup immediately. It was so spicy, and as I child I loved spicy foods. And it had goopy, stringy melted cheese, which was another thing I loved dearly. Not to mention fried onions as the base- still my favorite way to begin a soup. The spices are what really make it though, as soon as I pour the chili, cumin, and oregano into the pot of broth and veggies, the soup takes on a smell that practically transports me back to my childhood, squatting by the kitchen heater vent on a little blue plastic stool watching my parents prepare dinner.

I have added chicken to the soup for this recipe, to make it more of a dinner on it's own, but it's delicious without too, if you would prefer. This was actually this first time I ever added chicken, but I love the way it turned out. The broth soaked into the chicken really well, and the bit of paprika on the chicken added another layer of spice to the overall flavor. 

I have been meaning to make this recipe for you for months, in fact I have had my father email me his copy of the recipe at least twice in the last year. Yet somehow, when I went to make the soup last week, I couldn't find his recipe anywhere. Not in my saved files on the computer, not in my gmail inbox, not in my facebook inbox. So I gave up and googled it, thinking my parents are probably not the only people to ever request the recipe. Luckily there were many copies of it online, apparently asking for the recipe to this soup is a popular past time of skiers in Steamboat.

I made a few tweaks, in addition to adding the chicken, like adding extra onion, tomato, and jalapeno. The original recipe called for just 1/3 C of diced onion but lets be real, if I don't use the whole onion the day I cut it, I'm never going to remember to use the rest, so in went a whole diced onion, and the soup is definitely better for it. However, just like when I was a little girl- I think the goopy, stringy, melty cheese mingling with the spicy, tomato-y broth is the cherry on top of this spicy, soupy sunday. 

Chicken Tortilla Soup

1 med onion
1-2 jalapeno (I used 1.5)
2 tsp olive oil plus extra for greasing pan
3 cloves garlic
2 vine tomatoes
8 Cups chicken stock
1/2 C tomato juice
2 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cumin
2 tsp oregano
3 tbsp chopped cilantro
1 lb chicken 
1 tsp hot smoked paprika
12 Corn tortillas
Approx. 1/2 C canola or other vegetable oil
Atleast 1/2 Cup Monterey Jack cheese for grating

Preheat oven to 375. Place chicken breast on a lightly oiled pan, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the 1 tsp hot paprika, and when oven is preheated bake chicken breast 15-20 minutes, until the juices run clear and chicken is cooked through.
Shred with two forks and set aside.

While chicken roasts, finely dice the onion, jalapeno, and garlic, pour the 2 tsp olive oil into a large soup pot, turn heat to medium-low and add the onions, garlic, and jalapenos. Cook until onions are transparent, and garlic is soft, about 5-7 minutes. 

Add the chicken stock in a few splashes, stirring well, to deglaze any onion bits that may have stuck to the pan. Add the tomatoes, tomato juice, chili powder, cumin, and oregano. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, add the shredded chicken, and cook for 30-45 minutes.  Add 2 tsp of the chopped cilantro, simmer another 5 minutes. 

While soup is simmering cut the tortillas into chips. I cut mine in half, then cut each half into three triangles, producing 6 chips per tortilla.
Heat about 1/4 inch of canola or other vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat until the corner of a tortilla, when dipped in it, begins to fry quickly. Test the heat by frying one triangle of tortilla first, it should take about 60-90 seconds to fully crisp up and lightly brown at the edges. Cook the tortilla chips in batches, removing the finished chips with a slotted spoon and placing them on a plate lined in paper towels to absorb excess oil. Sprinkle the fresh chips with a bit of salt. 

Serve soup in large bowls topped with grated Monterey Jack cheese, chopped cilantro, and tortilla chips. Enjoy!