Monday, September 21, 2009

5 or Less: Mexican Chicken-Rice Soup

At Hallmark magazine, we ran a little feature called 4-Ingredient Challenge in which readers were invited to send in recipes that used only 4 ingredients—not counting oil, salt and pepper (or a sweetener if it was a dessert). It's an interesting exercise in cooking, and I had readers who came up with some pretty cool solutions, like using an orange to count as one ingredient but provide two kinds of flavor: juice and zest.

The trick to this type of cooking is to find a single ingredient—like an orange—that does double or triple duty. Spice blends, like garam masala or Italian herbs, are a good example of that. Another good trick is to take advantage of store-bought mixtures with a complex of flavors, such as bottled salsas, curry pastes, or, as in the recipe below, one of the gazillion flavors of diced tomato on the market.

Since 4 ingredients is indeed a challenge (a huge number of readers sent in variations on hamburger meat, onion, tomato sauce and cheese), I decided to add one more ingredient. This still makes for a pretty streamlined recipe and gives you some more flavor wiggle room. Here is my first "5 or Less" recipe. Only 5 ingredients and it took about 30 minutes to make, but only about 10 minutes of it was hands-on.

Mexican Chicken-Rice Soup

If you want to splurge and go for a 6th ingredient, add a little bit of cumin or oregano. I used chicken breast here because I happened to have it on hand, but chicken thigh will make a much more deeply flavored broth. Just be sure to take off all the extra fat that comes with thigh meat or you'll have a greasy soup.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch chunks
6 cups water
3/4 cup rice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 can (14.5 ounces) spicy diced tomatoes
1/2 cup minced cilantro

1. In a large saucepan or small Dutch oven, heat the oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant. Increase the heat to medium-high, add the chicken, and cook for 2 minutes, just to sear the outsides. Scoop into a bowl and set aside.
2. Add the water, rice and salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer, partially cover and cook for 10 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes and the chicken to the pan and return to a high simmer. Cook uncovered until the rice is tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed.
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Friday, September 18, 2009

Recipe cards for adventurous new cooks

About a year ago I wrote about a company that sells exotic food kits, the idea being that you could try out an exotic cuisine without having to invest in all the wacko ingredients that would then languish in your cabinet. Here's another little company that has taken the same idea and scaled it down to friendlier proportions. World Cuisine Institute (a lofty title for two women friends who started the company) has put together recipe cards for cool dishes like Saudi Arabian Chicken Kabsah, Mexican Mole and Ethiopian Doro Wat, and attached little bags of spices in the quantities you need to do the recipe.

The cards sell for $7 (except for the side dishes, which are $8 because they include the rice or beans) and are available in various retail locations in Colorado or on the World Cuisine Institute website. They have a number of gift sets, so if you know someone who was inspired by Julie and Julia to try to "cook his/her way through" something, you could give him/her the entire set of recipes for $100. (There are also smaller sets of 3 or 4 recipe cards, all about $20.)

UPDATE (November 2010): The World Cuisine Institute appears to have disappeared. It was definitely a home-grown business, and perhaps the women who were running it just couldn't make a go of it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fruit as medicine

In the 1867 book The Market Assistant (see yesterday's post), the author went on a tad about fruit as medicine:
[Fruits] are not only nutritious, but they are also medicinal in their properties. They produce certain beneficial changes in the blood (which medical men term "alterative"), which alters the blood from an unhealthy to its healthy condition; consequently, by the use of ripe fruits, many diseases lurking in the system are either neutralized or removed. Many fruits have the peculiar medicinal property of "cooling" the blood as it is termed, or in other words, rendering it less liable to feverish or inflammable excitement.
Though not supported by any kind of serious scientific fact, it turns out these notions were right on the money. What Grandma (and mid 19th-century docs) took on faith has since been borne out by research. In the past 15 years or so, fruits (especially those with deep colors) have been identified as being exceptionally concentrated sources of antioxidants, with effects ranging from memory improvement to tumor suppression.

So, next time you eat some blueberries, just see if your inflammable excitement doesn't abate.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Market Assistant

I love reading old cookbooks. I don't mean 1900s old, more like 1800s old. It's interesting to see what things remain the same and what things have changed. On the one side are the forgotten kitchen skills of our foremothers (making buttermilk, waxing the pinfeathers on poultry, hanging meat); on the other are the things we have today that were unknown then (pluots, chipotle peppers, broccolini--not to mention frozen food, food processors, and silicone).

When contemplating the ingredients that we have now that they didn't have then, I checked in with my favorite food-history website Feeding America and stumbled across a book called The Market Assistant. It was published in 1867 by a guy named Thomas Farrington De Voe, who was (and this is for you New Yorkers) a butcher at New York City's Jefferson Market. The book was a sequel to one he had written in 1861 called The Market Book. In his preface, De Voe explains why there was such a big gap between the two books, which he had intended as companion volumes:
The dreadful Rebellion, however, commenced with the attack on Fort Sumter the day after I had arranged for the publishing of [The Market Book], and I concluded to wait for the suppression of the Rebellion before entering upon the second.
The dreadful Rebellion. Wow.

Anyway, here's the thing that I found that falls into the category of Things That Have Remained the Same. In the 1860s, ingredients not yet in season locally were being shipped to the Northeastern markets from warmer climes. As De Voe says:
Early in the spring from the South...many rare vegetables and other edibles are brought to market by the facilities afforded by the railcars and steamboats, thus inducing...artificial seasons.
And what did I find that they had then that we don't now? Actually, not much except for a substantially greater variety of things like potatoes, apples, grapes, and tomatoes--things now designated as heirlooms. But I did find these:
  • Swan
  • Fresh kidney beans
  • Scarlet carrots
  • Martynia--a fruit that was pickled like cucumbers
  • Potatoes with great names--black kidneys, peach-blow, yellow pink-eyes
  • Fig tomatoes--probably like squat plum tomatoes
  • Shaddock--a forerunner to the modernday grapefruit
  • Ground cherries (husk tomatoes)
  • Pineapple cheese--cheese in the shape of you know what
  • Chimney-corner butter--cheap butter, made in the winter (the best butter was made in the spring)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Awesome sushi

In July I wrote about these sushi wrappers made of soy (Soy Wrappers for Sushi). I just knew they could be wonderful in the hands of an inspired cook.

My favorite artist/blogger, Luxirare, made my imaginings come true. Who else could have made such an incredible looking piece of sushi? Check out her (as always) wonderful photo essay about making this, and other, spectacular looking wrapped edibles. It's actually a story about her assembling a bento box lunch to which she has also added a fantastic collection of jello shots (scroll to the end of the bento box story).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Salad spinners, old school

When I lived in France in my late teens, I was introduced to my first salad spinner. Jeanine (who was the live-in housekeeper in the pension where I lived) took a bunch of washed greens, put them in a dishtowel, formed the towel into a bag and then just did a Pete Townshend-style windmill with her arm. The centrifugal force made the water come flying out through the weave of the dishtowel. When she was done, she had perfectly dried lettuce.

There is a world of complex, multi-part salad spinners on the market, but sometimes the simplest is the best. Here are a couple of salad spinners that are based on the same principle: using the cook's arm as the operative component.

1 This is a really old-school French salad spinner. They probably don't make them like this any more; the basket shown here is a reproduction of an antique and is available on Amazon for $23.

2 Remember these collapsible wire baskets? It was probably one of the first grown-up kitchen items I owned after I graduated from college. The cool thing is that when you flip the handles down, they become feet for the basket so that it can stand on its own. You may be able to find it in hardware stores around the country, but you can definitely get one for $9 from Lehmans.

3 The flaw in these first two spinners (and in the towel-flinging method described above) is that you throw water everywhere. No problem if you have a porch or backyard, but sort of a problem if you live in an apartment—not that that ever stopped me. So here is a salad spinner (which as far as I can make out is still just sold in Europe) from a Danish design firm called Eva Solo. The bucket is flexible so that after you wash the greens in it, you pinch the rim of the bucket to form a spout and pour out the water. Then you whirl the bucket around by its nylon handle. The water is forced to the bottom of the bucket, where it collects under a drainage plate that separates the greens from the water. Check here for more info on the bucket (and other Eva Solo designs).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pestos with Panache

Pesto is the past participle of the Italian verb pestare, which means to crush or bruise. (On a side note, an occhio pesto is a black eye.) So technically speaking, in the kitchen, a pesto can be any combination of things that are crushed or bruised.


There is a very specific crushed concoction that has simply co-opted the generic meaning of pesto: a sauce from Genoa made with basil, garlic, nuts, Parmesan and olive oil. Food editors and recipe writers love to tinker with this idea—cilantro instead of basil, walnuts instead of pignoli—but they rarely stray too far from the mother ship.

So, it's really great to run into Pestos with Panache, a collection of sauces that have nicely pushed the pesto envelope. The titles of the pestos from Brooklyn-based Lauren Stewart (founder & CEO) are enough to make you want to try them, but luckily the promise of the titles is well delivered in the tasting.

Don't you just want to eat all of these?
Fabulous Fig & Gorgonzola
Decadent Dark Chocolate & Ancho Chile
Pumpkin Chipotle
Prosciutto & Smoked Almond
Succulent Strawberry
Bangin' Blueberry

You can buy them straight from Pestos with Panache in 4, 6, 8, and 12 packs for $52 (4 pack) up to $120 for the 12 pack. The prices include shipping. (And if you happen to be planning a giant feast, Lauren also sells 1-gallon food service containers; contact her for pricing.) To see where the pestos are available offline, check the list of stores.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Several years ago I had my first taste of farinata, an Italian appetizer that falls somewhere between a pancake and pizza. I didn't encounter it in Italy (alas), but in a New York City trattoria with a wood-fired brick oven. I was introduced to it by a lovely Italian gentleman named Mario who worked in the restaurant and decided I should learn how to make farinata.

Farinata starts with a batter made of chickpea flour, salt and water. It gets poured into a pizza-style pan that has a bunch of olive oil in it. Then it bakes in a super-hot oven until it's firm enough and crisp enough to cut. I have experimented over and over with this at home, desperately trying to replicate Mario's farinata, but the truth is that the home oven ain't no brick oven.

That said, it's still tasty and fun—and easy—to make. It's also a perfect appetizer to serve if you have anyone in your crowd who has trouble digesting gluten. You can make it plain (as in the recipe below) or you can doll it up with pizza-type toppings (which you would have to add toward the end of the baking).

You can find chickpea (ceci in Italian) flour in Italian neighborhoods or in Indian markets, where it will be sold as besan. You will also find it in natural foods stores (where it may be labeled garbanzo bean flour) or at Bob's Red Mill website.

I added rosemary and black pepper to the standard batter, but the plain version is very flavorful on its own. I've made it with and without the Parmesan topping; it's great both ways.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 cups chickpea flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups water
1 teaspoon rosemary, minced
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 500°F (or highest temperature available).
2. Pour the oil into a 10 x 15-inch rimmed baking sheet and tilt it to evenly cover.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the chickpea flour and salt. Stir in the water and whisk to blend. If any foam gathers on the surface, skim it off. (By the way, I don't know why the foam makes any difference, but Mario insisted on this step.) Stir in the rosemary and pepper.
4. Place the pan on a pulled-out oven rack. Carefully pour the batter into the pan and bake for 25 minutes. While still hot, sprinkle evenly with the Parmesan.
5. Cut into small squares and serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 12 servings

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Crackers gone wild

When you go to a fancy food show, you start out all bright-eyed and hungry, but as you're charging down the 149th aisle filled with cheese and chips and barbecue sauces, you start to get pretty persnickety about what you're willing to stop and taste.

It's hard to say what actually catches your attention when you're feeling that jaded about food. Some of it is eye-catching packaging, some is the interesting people behind the product, and some is just happenstance.

So here's a group of crackers that each in its way made me stop to taste.

1. 34° Crispbread: Their tagline is "a most clever cracker." I simply had to stop and ask what made the cracker clever. The answer is that the Colorado-based company is the clever one, because the crackers were just as inarticulate as any other cracker I've met. But they were super-thin and crisp, so that's a good thing. They come in Natural, Sesame, Cracked Pepper, and Rosemary. Check them out at

2. Food Should Taste Good: I stopped by the booth of the aptly named Food Should Taste Good, because I already knew how good their products are, and I could see they had three new flavors that I had to try. They didn't disappoint. The new flavors are Cinnamon (really good), Potato & Chive, and Lime. Check all their other flavors (including chocolate!) on their website. P.S. You gotta love that the lime chips are shaped like a lime wedge.

3. raincoast crisps: These crackers from Vancouver are densely packed with fruit and nuts. I stopped to taste these because I really liked the name and the packaging, and a couple of aisles earlier I had met the fig-growing cooperative that supplies them with the fruit for their Fig and Olive crisps. Other crisp flavors are Rosemary Raisin Pecan, Cranberry Hazelnut, Salty Date and Almond. Read more about them at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

More corn: tortillas, corn bread & polenta

When I was thinking what could go into my new corn collection, I realized that it needed to expand past the corn cob. So here's the branch of my collection that deals with things made from corn.

Cast-iron cornbread mold Why do cornsticks always have to be in the shape of an ear of corn? This mold makes 5 cornbread fish, is about 16 x 9 inches and is $20 from Cast Iron Home.

Tortilla basket Any well-dressed table in Mexico has a tortilla basket for keeping the corn tortillas warm and/or from drying out during dinner. This woven palm basket is 8 inches in diameter and 5 inches high. It sells for $17.60 from the Direct from Mexico website.

Polenta pot This handmade hammered-copper pot comes from the Ruffoni family in the Italian Alps. The design of the deep pot (narrow bottom and wide top) is supposed to be ideal for making polenta. At $175 this is quite the indulgence, but if you buy it from Williams-Sonoma, they also throw in a wooden stirring spoon (woo-hoo).