Saturday, June 5, 2010

summer squash gratin

So I’m on this summer squash kick, because my friends Ken and MA gave me some that came from Ken’s great-grandmother’s farm in southeast Georgia. They also gave me some Vidalia onions, and I’m not one to turn those down. I love it when Vidalia onions are in season – I use them in everything. In trying to figure out what to do with all this vedge, I made the zucchini bread in the previous post, then turned to The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. I usually consult that book before attacking any vedge I haven’t made in a while. I came across her squash gratin recipe, and decided to adapt the non-dairy version – mainly because I didn’t have any dairy in the house that day, but also I didn’t want the end result to be too heavy on the stomach.

I have a lemon thyme plant in the yard which has just exploded, and I’m trying to use it in everything. If you’ve never heard of lemon thyme, it’s just a variety of regular thyme that’s been crossed with lemon – it’s pretty wonderful and works great in a lot of fish and chicken recipes. I think it goes well with squash because it brightens the dish up a bit. But if you don’t have lemon thyme (I’ve never found sprigs of it for sale at the grocery store), regular thyme will do, and if you want, you can just squeeze a bit of lemon over the dish before it goes into the oven. But you don’t have to, of course. Use any variety of fresh herbs you have too – I happen to have gobs of parsley and basil right now, so those went into this dish too.

I think the key to squash is to definitely add flavorings – squash likes salt, for example, so season each layer of this dish with a pinch of Kosher salt spread all over. I also add a touch of cayenne because I like the addition of a bit of heat – this actually won’t be too spicy, but you could omit the cayenne if you prefer. But again, I think the squash likes it, and won’t kick it out of bed.

I would let your gratin brown a bit more than I let mine, as seen in these pictures. I should have let this one sit in the oven for a little while longer, maybe 10 minutes, but I was in between conference calls and it was way past normal lunch time. You’re going to want to wait a bit after hauling this out of the oven before you can dig in, since it’ll just be far too hot to eat. Also, it accumulated some watery juices, so I poured some of that off. But all in all, this is a nice pleasant dish, yet another thing to do with the abundance of squash and zucchini this time of year. Prior to baking, you could top with a bit of grated Parmesan cheese, which would definitely aid in the browning, however if you want to keep this vegetarian (vegan, really), omit any dairy and you really aren’t missing anything.

Alice Waters’ non-dairy summer squash gratin adapted a bit
Serves 4, although I ate this for three consecutive meals (3 servings) as my meal and I was happy as a clam. Or a pig, for that matter.

. 6 summer squash (a variety if you’d like, or keep it all one color), ends trimmed and sliced into nearly see through rounds on a mandolin. If you don’t have a mandolin, try very hard to get the thinnest slices possible with a knife, or even try a vegetable peeler.
. ½ of one of those big Vidalia onions (or 1 small onion), sliced into thin half moons
. 2 cloves garlic, minced or run through a microplane grater
. ¼ cup basil leaves, chiffonade
. ¼ cup lemon thyme, or regular thyme if you don’t have any, leaves removed from stems, chopped
. ¼ cup parsley, chopped
. Cayenne pepper
. Salt, pepper
. Olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat and add a bit of olive oil (maybe a teaspoon or two). Add the onion slices, a couple of pinches of salt and pepper, and one pinch of cayenne. Sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft. Let cook a bit longer until caramelized and brown. Add the garlic, half the basil, half the parsley, half the lemon thyme (or regular thyme). Stir it all together and turn off the heat.

3. Put onions in the bottom of a gratin dish (you don’t have to grease the dish). Layer on the squash slices and season with salt, a touch more herbs and maybe a wee small pinch of cayenne pepper in between each layer. When you’re done stacking, drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top (teaspoon’s worth).

4. Cover with a parchment piece, and place in the oven. Cook until the squash is translucent, 20 to 30 minutes. Take off the parchment, press down on squash with a spatula, and bake until lightly browned on top, another 20 to 30 minutes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

a sort-of healthier zucchini bread

The boy refuses to eat summer squash solely because his mom grew it when he was a kid and he was forced to eat it all summer. Unfortunately, zucchini and squash are neglected vegetables and have a bad reputation. I think this is because when we (we = the world at large) were kids, our mothers cooked the living hell out of them, then salted them abundantly; so all we remember is an unpalatable salty mush, the memory of which sticks with us for the rest of our ever lovin’ lives. But honestly, both zucchini and squash are really tasty when prepared correctly. Raw zucchini sliced paper-thin and tossed with a lemony vinaigrette is excellent and tasty.

So a few years back, about this time of year to be exact, I stumbled upon a zucchini bread recipe. I don’t even remember where I saw it; it might have been on Serious Eats. Anyway, this is that time of year when everyone’s kitchen garden is overflowing with zucchini and nobody knows what to do with all of them, so you find yourself with armfuls of them knocking on the neighbor’s door. So what to do with them? Make bread!

Here’s the thing that people who don’t like zucchini fail to realize: you can’t really taste the zucchini in the bread. So I know your next question will be, then why bother eating it? Well, zucchini is good for you. Chock full of vitamins C and B6 and fiber. Give it a try.

The original recipe for this bread called for 1 ¾ cups of sugar, which seems like a lot. Wait – that IS a lot. My God, I can’t even imagine ingesting that amount of sugar, even split into two loaves. I’m not about to get all High and Mighty on you regarding sugar, because I use it – in moderation – in all its many mutations: brown, molasses, Turbinado, honey (I’ve yet to hop on the agave nectar bandwagon, and probably won’t). I won’t cut sugar out of my diet completely – I will still use it in my cooking and baking and morning coffee, albeit in moderation. But, seriously? One and three quarters cups of sugar?? My teeth ache just thinking about that. So I’ve tried to adapt this recipe to make it include less sugar yet keep it palatable. The end result is good, but be warned that it is not sweet – if you prefer it to be sweeter, by all means add more sugar, I won’t stop you. I’ll just wrinkle my nose and give you the stink eye, but that’s about it.

I’ve also added whole wheat flour to the mix. You could replace all of the flour with whole wheat flour, but I wouldn’t recommend it. A few years ago, when I started using whole wheat flour in my baking, I did some trial runs on pizza dough, and lemme tell you right now: 100% whole wheat pizza dough tastes like cardboard. Don’t believe me? try it. You’ll be playing Frisbee with that pizza crust. My remedy is to mix it half and half with unbleached all purpose flour.

I’m not going to excuse the addition of oil. You need oil in your diet; and I know it seems like a lot, but it’s not like you’ll be eating both loaves of this by yourself in one sitting. You’ll be hacking a slice off for a snack or for breakfast, but not eating the whole thing yourself… right? Right. I’ve also added walnuts (good source of omega-3 fatty acid) and dried tart cherries, which are not only delicious but are a fantastic antioxidant. Plus, I like the flavor combination of the cherries with the chocolate chips. Okay, I also don’t have an excuse for the chocolate included in here, other than it tastes good. Just don’t use milk chocolate; semi-sweet is better for you, and dark is best.

Zucchini Bread adapted from several sources
Makes 2 loaves

. 3 eggs
. 2/3 cup vegetable oil like Canola
. 1 cup sugar
. 2 cups zucchini, grated on a box grater
. 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
. 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
. 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
. 2 teaspoons cinnamon
. 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
. 1 teaspoon baking soda
. ½ teaspoon baking powder
. 1 teaspoon salt
. ½ cup chopped walnuts
. ½ cup dried tart cherries
. ½ cup semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Line two loaf pans with parchment (or grease and flour them if no parchment available). I only have one loaf pan, so I also use a 6 inch round cake pan, because that’s what I have handy.

3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Mix in oil and sugar, then add the zucchini and vanilla.

4. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, salt, nuts, chocolate chips and cherries. Stir this into the large bowl and mix gently. Divide the batter into prepared pans.

5. Bake loaves for 50 minutes (check it at 45 to be sure – don’t overcook), until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

6. Let cool on a baking rack before unmolding and cutting yourself a slice.

Pac Man Zucchini Bread goes in for the kill.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Grilled Jalapeño-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

Yesterday I meant to post the recipe for the grilled pork tenderloin which we made at our Foodbuzz 24 x 24 swanky party, but I got sidetracked by 5 hours of homework. And today I got sidetracked by all that worky work busy bee stuff.

The pork was a big hit, as it has a “wow” factor. God, I hate using that term. But it really does. Sigh. I need to get the hell out of Corporate America, because I find CorpSpeak infiltrating my everyday conversation. I won’t drive down CorpSpeak Lane right now because it makes me completely insane, and as much as misery loves company, I won’t let this be a showstopper.

Get it? I used a CorpSpeak Term on you. Showstopper. Get it?? Huh? Never mind. Anyone have an icepick I can shove up my nose with which to mix my brain up?

If you’re doing a small pork tenderloin, like a 1 to 2 pounder, follow the stuffing recipe like listed below. But if you’re doing a big honkin’ hog, like the one we did this weekend which was about 5 pounds, double the stuffing.

Now, if you want to do this right, you’ll need to brine it the night before (or, the morning of, at the latest). Brining isn’t daunting at all, and in fact it’s super simple to do and will ensure that your pork doesn’t dry out when cooking. This is especially important if you’re cooking a big huge tenderloin. I’m going to get completely non-technical on you with this brine recipe: in a saucepan on the stove, combine a couple of cups of water with a handful of Kosher salt, a handful of brown sugar, and a couple of black peppercorns. What is a handful? I don’t know. Two or three tablespoons worth? It doesn’t really matter. Just get it in there. Turn the heat on, bring it to a boil, and let it boil for a few minutes, stirring to ensure that the sugar and salt dissolve. Then turn it off and let it come to room temperature. If you’re in a super big hurry, toss some ice in there to get it to cool down more quickly. Put the pork in a Tupperware-type container with a tight fitting lid, and pour the liquid over it. Add plain water if said liquid doesn’t cover the meat completely. Cover with the lid, and put in the fridge overnight.

A few hours before you’re going to cook, make the stuffing:

. 2 jalapeños, seeded and diced
. 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
. 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
. 2 tablespoons oregano, chopped
. 2 tablespoons lime juice
. 2 teaspoons garlic, minced or grated on a microplane grater
. 1 shallot, diced
. 2 tablespoons olive oil
. Salt, pepper

Put all ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Next, take the pork out of the brine and throw the brine away. Rinse the pork under cold running water, washing off all the brine. Pat dry with paper towels and put it on a non-wood cutting board. By non-wooden cutting board, I mean one of those big plastic ones, because you’ll never be able to disinfect the wood one with all the porky germs you’ll cover it with. You’ll want to stuff the pork, so in order to do so, get a sharp knife and cut the tenderloin from one end to the other, straight down the middle WITHOUT cutting through all the way. This will butterfly the pork so that you can open it up a bit. Next, take the flat end of a meat tenderizer/meat hammer/tin can and pound away until the pork is evenly flattened all over. Don’t go insanely crazy with it by taking out your aggressions or anything, but you do want it to be much thinner than before.

Once you have it flat enough to your liking, spread the filling in the middle all the way down the length of the tenderloin. Then, roll the two long sides together and get some butcher’s twine ready. You’ll want to truss it, which means tie it up so that the filling doesn’t fall out. If you’re afraid to truss, just cut a bunch of short lengths of twine and tie the pork up at intervals. But it’s easy to do once you get the first one going; like a brown paper package tied up with string (cue Julie Andrews here). Once you have your pork all bondaged up and ready to go, wrap it in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for an hour or two.

When you’re about ready to cook, get your grill going. Take the pork out of the fridge, unwrap the plastic wrap, and oil the pork with a bit of canola or vegetable oil. Salt and pepper it all over – but don’t go too crazy on the salt, as it will have soaked up some from the brine. When the grill is ready, plop the tenderloin down on the hottest part and flip it around to get some good grill marks every few minutes. After you get some initial grill marks, move the pork over to the cooler side of the grill and put the lid down. Cook until you’ve reached an internal temperature of 155 degrees F (making sure you’re temping the meat and not the stuffing), usually about an hour or so. And this, my friends, is why you need a meat thermometer. How else are you supposed to know if the pork is cooked? You can’t tell if it’s ready by looking at it. Those digital things are super inexpensive these days. If you don’t have one, get one.

Anyway, once it’s reached 155 degrees F internal temperature, pull the meat off to a cutting board and let it rest for at least 20 minutes. The internal temperature will continue to rise during this time, but mainly, the meat will rest which is VERY important. Then, carve and eat.

Man, this was a long winded recipe. Perhaps not necessarily for a school night, but most definitely to be made on a day when you’ve got some time and want to impress people.