Friday, January 29, 2010

Water Chestnut, Arugula, and Endive Salad


Back when I lived in Philadelphia, my aunt learned that I liked Susanna Foo’s restaurant and gave me two of her cookbooks for Christmas. More than two years later, I still had not attempted a recipe from the books—in my inexperienced, cautious state, attempting to replicate the offerings of a high-end Chinese restaurant simply seemed like too intimidating a challenge. Finally this past spring, after building confidence by allowing the America’s Test Kitchen’s chefs to hold my hand through the preparation of a series of three-course meals, I felt ready to attempt a Susanna Foo dinner.

After reading Susanna’s glowing feature on raw fresh water chestnuts, I decided to tackle this salad first. Indeed, the water chestnuts made the dish—they really are something special. If you’ve never tried them, go to a Chinese grocery store and look for small, hard brown fruits covered in dirt. Avoid any that have soft spots, as it means that they are bruised and going bad. Wash them and then peel with a paring knife. They can be stored, peeled, in a bowl of water in the fridge for 1-2 weeks.

The “honeyed” walnuts in this recipe are disproportionately labor intensive. They have a light, crispy texture and unique flavor, and they definitely add to the total package, but you could make a respectable salad with plain old toasted walnuts and save yourself a lot of time.

Recipe by Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine

“Honeyed” Walnuts
  • 1 pound shelled walnut halves
  • 1 ½ cup sugar
  • About 1 ½ cups water
  • 2 tablespoons corn oil (vegetable oil works fine)
  • Wash the walnuts in lots of running water. Soak them for 10 to 15 minutes in water to cover; drain well.
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the nuts and cook for 10 minutes, or until the water turns dark and the nuts are beige-white in color. Drain and rinse under cool water until the water runs clear; drain.

Bring the sugar and 1 ½ cups water to boil in a medium pot over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the walnuts, reduce the heat to low and stir well with a wooden spoon. Simmer the nuts in the syrup for about 15 minutes, stirring often, until they are well-coated with the syrup. Add ¼ cup hot water if the syrup becomes too sticky. Turn off the heat and let the nuts cool in the syrup for another 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Strain off the excess syrup and toss the nuts with the oil. Spread the nuts on a large nonstick baking sheet. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until they are crisp and dry. If they are not yet crisp, bake them a little longer.

The nuts can be stored in a tightly closed container at room temperature for 1 to 2 days or frozen in a sealed plastic bag for up to 3 months.

Water Chestnut, Arugula, and Endive Salad

For Dressing:
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon peeled, minced gingerroot
  • 1 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
For Salad:
  • 1 pound fresh water chestnuts, peeled and washed
  • 2 Belgian endives
  • ¼ pound tender baby arugula, stems removed, washed and dried
  • ½ cup “Honeyed” Walnuts (optional; the above recipe will make much more than this)
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh chervil leaves, for garnish (optional)
Combine all of the ingredients for the vinaigrette and stir well to blend. Set aside.

Cut each water chestnut into thin slices and set aside in a bowl of cold water until needed, to keep them from turning brown.

Cut off the stem end of the Belgian endives. Remove the large outer leaves (you will need 12 of them). Cut each leaf in half lengthwise and place in a large bowl filled with ice water to crisp the leaves. Julienne the remaining smaller inner leaves and immerse them in another bowl of ice water.

Just before serving, drain and dry the water chestnuts and the julienned endive. Place them in a bowl, add the vinaigrette, and mix well.

Place 4 of the halved endive leaves around the perimeter of each of 6 salad plates. Mound some arugula in the center of each plate. Spoon the water chestnut mixture over the top and garnish with the walnuts, if using. Decorate with the chervil leaves, if using.

Yield: 6 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: Not given
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Monday, January 25, 2010

Flounder Meuniere with Browned Butter, Lemon, and Capers


The Gastronomer has always been a seafood lover. Recently, however, she has begun to feel that the fish she consumes simply must be raw. Cooked fish is largely flavorless, she complains (crustaceans excepted), and she refuses to order it at restaurants. Fortunately, she is a bit more flexible in the home; when I feel inspired to fry up a simple white fish preparation, she consumes it with a smile. This flounder recipe gets most of its flavor from capers, a fascinating piece of vegetation whose culinary value I have only started to appreciate in the past year.

I found it difficult to keep the flour from falling off the fish when flipping it in the pan, so I largely failed to achieve the “golden brown crust” advertised in the recipe. I did, however, manage to cook the fish through without drying it out, and the final product formed a tasty meal served alongside my curried couscous.

Recipe by The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook

For Fish
  • 4 large skinless flounder fillets (6 oz each)
  • salt and pepper
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
For Sauce
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and minced (you can use a bit more if you’re a fan of capers)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper
  • lemon wedges (for serving)
Cook Fish

Pat the flounder fillets dry with paper towels, then season with salt and pepper. Let the seasoned fish stand until it glistens with moisture, about 5 minutes [I have a feeling that my sloppiness in these initial steps may explain why the flour didn’t stick to my fish very well]. Spread the flour in a shallow dish. Dredge the fish through the flour, shaking off the excess, and transfer to a plate.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and melt. Gently lay 2 fillets in the pan and cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Turn the fish over (it may be helpful to use 2 spatulas), and cook for about 2 more minutes. If your fillets are smaller than 6 ounces, this time may need to be reduced. Transfer the fish to a plate, and if you’re feeling hardcore, put the plate in 200 degree oven so that the fish will stay warm while the rest of the fillets are cooking. Wipe the skillet clean with paper towels and repeat with the remaining oil, butter, and fish.

Make Sauce

To make the sauce, wipe the skillet clean, then melt 4 tablespoons of butter in it over medium-high heat. Continue to cook the butter, swirling the pan constantly, until it is golden brown and has a nutty aroma, about 90 seconds. Off the heat, stir in the capers, lemon juice, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve with lemon wedges.

Yield: 4 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 30 minutes
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour
Substitutions: The original recipe called for sole instead of flounder.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Aromatic Curried Couscous


I'm a big fan of couscous, although I don't cook with it very often. I like the dry texture, kind of like Vietnamese com tam, and the Moroccan seasonings commonly used with it. Thus, when I found this recipe in The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, it seemed like a surefire winner. The bacon spinach salad I served before it was a tough act to follow, but the couscous held its own, displaying a sufficiently complex flavor profile to be enjoyed on its own while complementing my seafood entree nicely. Incidentally, I was informed by the Test Kitchen that couscous is technically not a grain but a pasta. Nevertheless, I am putting it in the "grains" category, as they did in the cookbook, because, well, you can't deny that it tastes and feels like a grain.

Recipe by The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder (for a little fusion action I used Vietnamese curry powder)
  • 1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh mint
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and curry powder and cook for about 15 seconds, then pour in the chicken broth and add the raisins. Bring to a boil, then stir in the couscous. Remove the pot from the heat and cover it. After 5 minutes, the couscous will be cooked; take off the lid and stir in the mint and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Yield: 4 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 15 minutes
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 30 minutes

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wilted Spinach Salad with Bacon and Red Onion


I eat a simple spinach salad nearly every evening to start my dinner, usually topped with apple slices, nuts, and a store-bought vinaigrette. It's quite palatable, but I started the habit more to ensure that I got my daily servings of fruits and vegetables than as a way to tickle my taste buds. The following spinach salad, however, is an entirely different story. It's bloody delicious--eating it is a privilege rather than an obligation. Of course, any time you add a whole package of bacon to a salad you lose any right to call it healthy, but it's definitely worth making nonetheless. It turns out a dressing made from bacon fat is a pretty good idea.

Recipe by The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
  • 10 oz. baby spinach (flat-leaf)
  • 10 oz. bacon (10 slices), chopped fine
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 6 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
Place the spinach in a large bowl. Fry the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a paper-towel lined plate and pour off all but 4 tablespoons of the fat. I recommend saving the extra fat in the refrigerator for another use--for instance, it makes for some damn-good cornbread. Add the olive oil to the bacon fat in the skillet and return to medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper and cook until the onion is soft, about 3 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the vinegar, then pour immediately over the spinach and toss to wilt. It is important to perform this step quickly, while the dressing is still hot, to achieve the optimal texture of the spinach. Portion the salad onto individual plates and garnish with the bacon and hard-boiled eggs.

Yield: 4-6 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 30 minutes
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 45 minutes
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