Ricki Cooking School, Chapter 5 – F*cking Awesome Chicken Skewers

I made these f*cking awesome chicken skewers Sunday. And then we made the rest of them tonight. Here they are:

And I feel terribly pleased with myself for them because I sort of made them up. I mean, I took a couple of different recipes and put them together. And they were f*cking awesome. I love them so much; this is my new go-to recipe (or base of a recipe) and here’s how I did it.

First I bought a shit-ton (actually way too many) boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Now, here’s the thing. Chicken thighs are a pain in the ass to cut up into skewer-able squares. If you want ease of cutting up, definitely go boneless, skinless chicken breast. But chicken thighs are a lot more delicious. They hold their moisture better.

So anyway, I found this recipe and pretty much used this marinade on the chicken. I dredged the chicken in salt, pepper, and Aleppo pepper (The recipe called for cayenne, but I found my Aleppo pepper first, so I used that). Then I made twice the honey-maple syrup sauce – 2/3 cup maple syrup (the good kind, the real kind, not the Aunt Jemima colored corn syrup), 1/2 cup Dijon mustard, a few good splashes of cider vinegar (2 tbsp would be double the recipe, but do I need to tell you I didn’t measure?), and a strong splash of soy sauce.

I marinated the cut-up chicken thighs for a few days. You don’t have to do it for a few days. What happened with me was, the barbecue was Sunday, but Jason had planned an awesome anniversary date that would be basically all day Saturday, and then staying overnight downtown, so I knew I couldn’t do this the night before or even the morning of the barbecue, so I did it Friday. But you could probably marinade overnight or even early in the morning.

Then, inspired by this recipe, I cut up some peaches and got some sage leaves and skewered them all up! I used about two peach pieces – I quartered the peaches, then cut that in half, so I’m talking large-bite-sized peach pieces (but the picture above has smaller pieces because it was made today and I had run out of peaches) – and four sage leaves per skewer. Obviously, that’s to taste, although sage is a strong flavor so go easy on the leaves. Then I poured the leftover marinade over the skewers and handed them to Jason, who grilled them up! And oh my God they were so f*cking awesome, you guys. I cannot recommend this enough.

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Ricki Cooking School, Chapter 4 – Panzanella

It is time.

It should not be time yet. Were I a good local/organic/seasonal cook, this wouldn’t be going up – or even be made – until August. But dudes, I crave this salad. I start making it as soon as I can vaguely justify the purchase of tomatoes in the supermarket. It is better if you wait. But I didn’t.

So, for a panzanella, what you need are:

1. Tomatoes

2. Bread

Everything else you put in is your choice. Actually, even the tomatoes are sort of optional; you can make a “spring” panzanella with, oh, say, asparagus and radishes (I have; it’s delicious) or a “fall” panzanella with Brussels sprouts and pears (I haven’t; I will). But the non-qualified panzanella is tomatoes and bread.

I wrote about how I do the bread here but I’ll repeat it in case you don’t feel the urge to click my link and give me another page view. And also because it’s the most important part of the panzanella. Now, this is not necessarily the traditional way to do it. A lot of recipes would just have you throw in slightly stale bread in chunks; some might have you toast it. But this is how I do it, and it’s delicious.

1. Get good bread. I like a sourdough, a Tuscan, a Country – something thick and dense and crusty.

2. Cut in thick slices. Lay slices on baking sheet. Set oven to Broil. (Or use your toaster oven.)

3. Drizzle bread with olive oil and sprinkle with good salt – sea salt is a good idea; kosher salt is fine. Not table. Never table. Why do you even still have table salt?

4. Put under broiler or toaster and watch it. When it’s nice and brown, take it out. This can take anywhere from 3 – 6 minutes; the key is, WATCH IT. Every variety of bread I buy takes a different amount of time.

5. While it’s broiling, get out a garlic clove and slice it so you have a good chunk to hold in your hand and a raw edge. I usually just lop the top off the clove; if it’s big, you can cut it in half.

6. When the bread is done, take it out and rub the garlic piece all over it. The bread must be hot when you do this, so be careful. Spear the garlic piece on a fork if you have to.

7. Flip the bread. Re-oil if necessary. Re-salt. Brown. Rub garlic. The browning will take slightly less time the second time around than it did the first. WATCH THE BREAD. Do not leave the kitchen.

8. For the salad, take the bread out, and, once it’s cool enough to handle, cut or rip it into large bite-sized pieces.

This sounds complicated but it’s not. Toast olive-oil-ed bread. Rub with garlic. Done. It is also completely delicious.

Okay, so what about the rest of the salad? Well, get the best tomatoes you can find. Cut them into large bite-sized pieces. What else? I usually like some cannellini beans. Or Great Northern, but, while I prefer Great Northern in my favorite pasta dish (with broccoli rabe and sausage – I’ll post that some other time), I prefer cannellini here. I almost always use basil leaves, too, torn into fairly large pieces or julienned all pretty. If I can’t get basil, or if I want more greenery, I use arugula. The last time I did this, I also used spinach, because I was trying to go super-green. Another lettuce – romaine, radicchio, maybe butter or Boston, although those are a little soft – is fine, too, if you want more green. Also very good are fresh, fresh, fresh cucumbers, either in thin slices or somewhat larger chunks, and/or raw red onions in slices. Capers, which are included in some traditional recipes, or even olives never hurt anything. I’ve been known to throw in mozzarella, cubed, although not lately, because, even with the oil-soaked bread, I like to pretend this salad is healthy. Although a few curls of Parmesan would be nice. I have, in the past, put in corn, either raw or briefly sautéed, but I’ve decided not to do that anymore. You don’t really need to dress this salad, but I usually swirl in a drop of olive oil or a nice nut oil or something, and a splash of champagne vinegar or lemon juice, plus (always) a grind of pepper and maybe a sprinkle of salt, although I keep in mind that the bread is already salted. I’ve seen people recommend topping with roast beef or fairly rare steak slices, or grilled shrimp, or maybe tearing up some prosciutto or what have you. None of these are bad ideas.

In fact, with this salad, nothing is a bad idea. Just put in what you like. I make this differently almost every time I do it. Here is the thing – it’s hard to screw up something when you’ve started with delicious, oil-soaked, garlic-rubbed, toasted bread.

Ricki Cooks the Book – Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

I have, approximately, 1,882 cookbooks. I have cooked food from approximately five. I think it’s time to rectify that.

And to make myself in some way publicly accountable, I’m going to write about cooking from books I haven’t cooked from before! One recipe from each book, and I’ll report it here.

My first entry in this column will be the fig-and-goat-cheese muffins from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.

Now, this is a little unfair for two reasons. One, it’s a brand-new cookbook. I’m 99.9% more likely to cook a recipe from a brand-new cookbook than one I was really excited to get but didn’t cook from immediately. Two, the reason I bought the book was to make these muffins. My friend got the book as a present – and it’s also been featured on many, many Best Of . . . lists – and I flipped through it at her house and I saw these muffins and I wanted them in my mouth right now. So it wasn’t, like, this great act of discipline that I brought myself to cook from this book or anything.

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals is a book that most people will buy in an effort to be healthy. The author, Maria Speck, does remind you in the beginning of the book that just because it has whole-grains doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other delicious and sinful things in it and these muffins illustrate that. Sure, one uses entirely whole wheat flour, and olive oil and buttermilk instead of, I guess, butter. But there’s still sugar and goat cheese and it’s not exactly health food, people. But it’s better for you than the average muffin and it’s totally delicious.

So here’s the recipe:

Filling:

3/4 cup (3 oz) crumbled mild soft goat cheese, at room temp

(It should be noted that the goat cheese doesn’t have to come crumbled. You can just crumble it as you remove it from the package. You probably already knew that, though, right?)

2 tbsp honey

1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

(I should probably also not have to tell you at this point that I wasn’t all that cautious about amounts here. It’s the filling; not the cake. You can be haphazard. So I had the amount of cheese right but I guessed on the honey and vanilla and I’m sure I grated more zest into the bowl than that. And it was definitely noticeable that I did in the final product, but in a delicious way.)

To make filling: Mix all that stuff up with a fork until it’s smooth. Let sit at room temp.

Muffins:

2 cups white whole wheat flour (though, having made them, I think standard whole wheat flour would have been fine)

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp fine sea salt (or whatever good salt you usually use – not table!)

3 large eggs, at room temp

3/4 cup packed dark or light brown sugar (I used light but only because I couldn’t find the dark in my mess of a pantry. Next time I will use dark.)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I always only have extra-virgin olive oil but if you have regular olive oil I’m sure that would be fine.)

3/4 cup lowfat buttermilk (Every recipe I’ve seen calls for lowfat buttermilk. I’ve never seen non-lowfat buttermilk in the store. Does such an item exist?)

1 cup chopped dried figs (about 10) (I used way more figs than this, I think)

3 tbsp turbinado or granulated sugar, for sprinkling (I used Sugar in the Raw, which may be the same thing as turbinado sugar)

To make muffins:

1. Preheat oven to 4oo degrees F. Butter or spray a 12-muffin pan.

2. Whisk together flour, baking powder and soda and salt in a large bowl. Make well in center.

3. In med bowl, whisk eggs. Add brown sugar and vanilla, then olive oil and buttermilk, until smooth. Add eggs to flour and stir with rubber spatula until just combined. The batter should look lumpy. Fold in figs.

(I messed up and just added the eggs to the flour right away, and then the sugar and vanilla, etc. I think it turned out okay but next time I will try not to mess up and see if they turn out better.)

4. Fill each muffin cup about half-full. Then put a little bit of the cheese mixture in the center of each. Then top with the remaining batter, such that the cheese is not visible. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

5. Bake until muffins look done, 13 minutes or so. (I think mine took fifteen.) “Looks done” = nice dome, browned edges, springy tops. Let cool 5 min, then remove from pan. Eat or save.

I have found these muffins to be totally delicious. Jason seems neutral. Zoe condescended to pick a few crumbs off of one.

Ricki Cooking School, Chapter 3 – Garlic Bread and Tomato Soup with Pesto

I made this tonight and my husband said, “You should write this stuff down.” So I am!

(I’m also wondering if he’s planning to kill me, but still wants his next wife to cook his favorite foods. But probably not. Right?)

So, garlic bread – Buy good bread. Seriously. Don’t chintz out on this step. I like a nice “Country Loaf” or “Tuscan Loaf” or something like that. Sourdough would not be bad either but it’s a little on the dense side.

Then you slice it. Maybe 3/4″ to 1″ thick. (You should keep in mind, as you read that, that I am guessing based on how thick I cut it, and I have no spatial perception at all.) Lay it out on a baking sheet. Drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle some good-quality salt. Sea salt in a big grain if you’ve got; kosher salt if you don’t. Don’t use table salt. In fact, if you’re even thinking, “Wouldn’t table salt be fine?” at this step, just go to the freezer section of your local grocery store and buy Texas Toast or something. Don’t bother with this recipe.

Put the bread under the broiler and WATCH IT. Usually four to five minutes is a good estimate, but don’t leave the kitchen and check frequently until you’ve got a good handle on how fast the bread you prefer toasts in your particular oven. While you’re checking, take one garlic clove, big as you can get, and slice the top off. (You don’t have to peel it but you might want to sort of jimmy the peel away from the top a bit.) Once that side of the bread looks good to you, take it out of the oven and, as soon as you can, rub the garlic clove over all the bread thoroughly. You’ll need to use an oven mitt on one hand to hold the pan and you’ll need to move quick and careful with the hand holding the garlic, but if you don’t do it while the bread is hot the garlic won’t get absorbed properly.

Then turn the bread over, re-salt, and re-olive oil if necessary (It’s frequently not necessary unless you’ve got a dense bread). Then stick it back in the oven, usually for a minute less than the first time. Then repeat the action with the garlic.

And, voila! Delicious garlic bread. I use this as croutons in salad, I use this for my panzanella (which I’ll put up in the summer), I use it for all sorts of reasons. I rarely serve bread without doing this to it first.

As for the tomato soup, I vary it a lot, so I’ll tell you what I did tonight. First, I cut up a shit-load of garlic cloves. I sautéed them in the bottom of a large pot with olive oil, salt, and crushed red pepper. (Sometimes I get fancy and crumble up some chiles de arbol instead.) Then I dumped in two cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes.

Two notes:

1. IT MUST BE SAN MARZANO. “But I always use Del Monte!” No. San Marzano. “But what about organic Whole Foods brand?” No. San Marzano. “But what about locally grown-” No. San Marzano.

2. I know I’m supposed to use the whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes and blend them with my immersion blender, but, as easy-peasy as using the immersion blender usually is, tonight I was making four different cookies while making the soup so I just did the crushed and I didn’t even bother to blend them. Personally I usually like the soup a little smoother, and missed the immersion blender action, but Jason was all over it.

So that was basically it. I heated up canned, crushed (SAN MARZANO) tomatoes. Delicious.

Normally I would swirl in some lightly chopped basil leaves at the end there. But the thing was, I had planned on making this soup, like, a week and a half ago. Then Jason broke his arm and we just had take-out for days and days and days because he likes take-out. So somewhere last week I decided to turn the basil I had bought, and the cilantro left over from something else, into pesto. Here’s how I did that: Zoe and I took a whole bunch of basil, a whole bunch of cilantro, three or four peeled garlic cloves, about half a hunk of parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt, and a ton of walnuts and tossed them in the food processor. With the machine going, I helped Zoe pour olive oil in until we got a sort of paste-y texture. If I were planning to serve it over pasta, I would have tried for a more liquid texture, but since it was going in soup, the paste was perfect. Incidentally, making it more liquid involves EVEN MORE olive oil, so if you are making pesto for pasta, and don’t want to add EVEN MORE olive oil, just toss the pesto and pasta with a little of the pasta cooking water to thin it. It doesn’t make pesto health food, exactly (although honestly, if you’re not trying to actively lose weight, pesto is pretty healthy), but it’s a little better.

Then I threw some lemon juice in there so the basil wouldn’t turn brown and left it in the fridge for a few days, until I finally got around to making the soup. Once I poured the soup in bowls, I added a dollop of the pesto on top.

And that was dinner tonight! One of these days I’ll do pictures with these posts.

Ricki Cooking School, Chapter One – Brussels Sprouts

My in-laws came over last night and they really enjoyed my Brussels sprouts and asked how to make them. The thing is, I always get compliments on the easiest food. Here is how I make Brussels sprouts (or, really, any vegetable) taste good:

1. Cut vegetable appropriately. In the case of Brussels sprouts, that means cutting off the little knobby end, and then cutting them in half lengthwise (or quartering them lengthwise if they’re huge). You’ll get some leaves that separate from the sprout this way. I keep the leaves with everything else; I love the crunch they get when the crisp up in the oven. If you want things more even, discard the leaves. (Also, if you cut them crosswise or fail to cut off the knobby end or just randomly chop them up without regard to appearance – they will still taste good.)

2. Peel some garlic cloves. If you’re like me about garlic, peel at least a head.

3. Put either in a bowl or directly on a baking sheet and toss with olive oil and salt. (You could also line the baking sheet in foil to make for easier clean up.)

4. Put the oven at 450 degrees. Put in the Brussels Sprouts on the baking sheet. When they look like you want to eat them, take them out of the oven. Maybe about 15 minutes, but sometimes less. I usually check at ten minutes, shake the pan, and put them back in.

And really, follow these directions for virtually any vegetable. Potatoes and other root vegetables will take longer to cook. (I’ve also done potatoes at 500 degrees, but really, that’s excessive, and usually results in my smoke alarm going off.) And maybe change up the spicing strategy. For instance, carrots are better with fennel seeds or cumin seeds than they are with garlic cloves. Potatoes do well with a hit of dried rosemary in addition to the cloves. (I don’t like using fresh rosemary in this particular application but it’s up to you.) Cauliflower tastes great with some mustard seeds or cumin seeds instead. A little crushed red pepper never hurt anything. But really, almost any vegetable can be cooked by dousing it in olive oil and salt and roasting it in the oven with some peeled garlic cloves until it looks/smells tasty.