Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2009
Seasonal Cooking 25 Jan 2009 03:40 pm
A lot of what I cook ends up in the freezer. Sometimes that’s by accident, either because a recipe makes a lot more than expected, or because, as a single cook, I often end up with more than I can or want to eat in a week. Sometimes though, I’ll prepare something expressly to go directly into the freezer. It might be an ingredient I’ll want on hand for later, like chicken stock, or it might be pre-prepared dish — something to become, later on, a weeknight dinner that’s low-effort and quick, but still homemade. It’s the Dave’s Kitchen version of convenience food.
And so, with the defiant mindset of “anything a commercial food processor can do in a factory I can do better in my kitchen,” I set out to create my own frozen breaded fish fillets. To be as simple & quick as Mrs. Paul’s, the frozen fillets will need to cook in the oven, not in a messy cauldron of hot oil. To vie with the succulent-yet-crispy quality of a fried fillet, when I prepare the standard four-part breading sequence of milk, flour, egg wash, and breadcrumbs, I dress the breadcrumbs with a little fat. I’ve used olive oil for this, though if you’re feeling indulgent and want the extra flavor, you can opt (as I usually do) for melted butter. I also give the breadcrumbs a flavor boost with some dried thyme and plenty of salt and pepper. Paprika, seasoned salt or dried onion flakes are good additions here as well.
Speaking of breadcrumbs, I’ll make another nod to Mark Bittman’s New York Times article in which he exhorts us to make from scratch things that easily can be but often aren’t. I had on hand some slices of French bread left over from a recent take out delivery (mmm… coq au vin from Le Barricou); as well as the end of a loaf of whole wheat sourdough bread made by my brother. It was in both cases too much bread for me to finish, and rather than toss it out or let it go moldy, I tore it into chunks and let it sit in the open for a few days until it was dry (you can speed up this process by leaving the bread for a couple of hours in a just-warm oven, or overnight in an oven with only the pilot light burning). It required only a spin in the Cuisinart to turn the dry chunks to crumbs. Making breadcrumbs myself in this way meant I didn’t waste good bread, didn’t spend money on commercially prepared bread crumbs, and ended up with a better tasting ingredient. A triple win. (Note that if you’re in a bind and do need to buy breadcrumbs, and if you’re lucky enough to have a local bakery, check there. Many of the small Italian bakeries here in Brooklyn have breadcrumbs, and they tend to be more flavorful than supermarket varieties).
But I digress. Once my breading assembly line was complete, I got the fish fillets out of the fridge, thoroughly rinsed them, and patted them dry. I’ve used tilapia for this, and I prefer cod, but on the day I shopped I could only find flounder, which also works fine. I cut each rinsed and dried fillet lengthwise down the middle, then cut each half across into three pieces, so that I ended up with pieces roughly the size of of a deck of cards. Keep in mind that the smaller the pieces, the more breading you’ll need. If you think you may run short on crumbs, or if you’re being diligently diet-conscious and want a higher proportion of fish to bread, cut the fillets bigger. If you’ve got plenty of buttery breadcrumbs and like lots of the crispy stuff, cut ‘em smaller, down to fishstick or nugget size (and be sure to adjust the final baking time accordingly).
Each piece of fish went first into milk, then flour, then egg wash, then breadcrumbs. At every step I made sure the fillets were thoroughly coated (even pressing the breadcrumb mixture onto the fish to adhere as much of it as possible), but didn’t carry extra coating away: extra liquid was allowed to drain away, and I gently shook off any loose coating at the dry steps. The coated fillets then were laid onto a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer; when that layer was complete a second layer was built on top, separated from the first by a sheet of plastic wrap. Don’t stack the fillets directly on top of each other, or let them touch each other too much; you want them to come out of the freezer as individual fillets, not as unmanageable, bready fish blocks. When all the pieces are coated and neatly layered on the tray, the whole thing gets covered in plastic wrap and shoved into the freezer for an overnight stay. In the morning they’re removed from the tray and replaced in the freezer in ziplock bags.
Now, on some harried worknight, too tired to cook but hungry for homemade food, I can pull out a fillet or two, toss them into a 350˚ oven for 15 minutes, and I’ll have a hot, delicious piece of breaded fish as the centerpiece for a quick dinner. It can go atop some sautéed spinach, or alongside a salad or stalk of steamed broccoli, or into any number of other healthy, quick dinners. One of my favorite (if maybe less healthy) preparations is to melt a slice of cheese on top (foodie confession: I often use American cheese for this), and place it on a lightly toasted bun schmeared with tarter sauce and layered with chopped lettuce. Did I say fast food favorites made at home? Voila: home made Filet-o-Fish®.
Seasonal Cooking 11 Jan 2009 01:49 pm
Good morning! Wow did I ever sleep! I feel like I slept six months! What time is it anyway? What? It’s JANUARY? I DID sleep six months! Boy am I hungry!
Seriously, if I had readers I would owe them a huge apology for ignoring this blog for so long. My life in 2008 was somewhat… upended, and writing blog posts became, well, deprioritized, as we say at work. Now that things in my personal realm have settled somewhat, and now that it’s a new year to boot, I hope to do better. Here’s to quality food writing in 2009!
Truly, I really did wake up yesterday morning very hungry, my stomach growling so loud it was scaring my cat. And what’s more I’d been fighting a lingering cold, and so I craved something spicy that would cut through the stuffy-nose flavor-haze enough that I could taste it. I had on hand all the ingredients for a quick tomatillo salsa from Rick Bayliss’ Mexican Everyday, so I thought I’d whip that up and poach a couple of eggs in it. I had tortillas and queso fresco – all the makings of my own huevos rancheros. But I knew eggs, cheese, tortillas & salsa alone weren’t going to quiet my rumbling tummy: I’d need a hearty side dish. I didn’t want to wait for rice & beans, and I knew home fries could be made fairly quickly (and would also gave me the chance to use the cool blue potatoes I’d found at the farmer’s market). I’d need only to spice them up to match my salsa-poached eggs.
To that end I carefully chopped a small dried chipotle into fine pieces, and threw it into my mortar along with a chopped clove of garlic and half teaspoon or so of salt. I worked these together until they formed a paste, which then went into a non-stick skillet where I’d heated a tablespoon of olive oil. Once the paste was toasted and fragrant, I added two potatoes that I’d cut into half-inch cubes. I tossed them for a couple of minutes to coat them with the chili paste, then added a little water – very little, only about two tablespoons — a splash of tequila, some salt, and a scant teaspoon of dried epazote, which I’d picked over carefully for stems. Once the liquid came to a boil, I covered the pan tightly, turned the heat down, and left the potatoes to steam, giving the pan a shake now and then to keep them from sticking to the bottom.
Then the eggs: the salsa, (“Fresh Tomatillo Salsa” on page 152 of Bayliss’ very handy cookbook), is a quick and simple matter. All it requires is giving a spin in the food processor to some quartered tomatillos, a jalapeno, garlic, cilantro, salt & a little water. Mexican Everyday has a bunch of salsa recipes that are just as simple and quick as this one. Certainly you can poach eggs in your favorite jarred salsa, but when salsa is this easy, why not make fresh? The higher end supermarket salsa brands can cost six bucks for a small jar. Six bucks! For tomato, onion, chilis, salt and spices — hardly rare, precious ingredients. In the spirit of Mark Bittman’s recent New York Times article about tossing out useless ingredients in the new year, I’m vowing to use commercial salsa as little as possible, and to make my own whenever I can. Homemade is always better anyway.
But I digress. Once the salsa was blended, I spooned about half of it into a small skillet to get ready to start poaching. I found it a little thick for my needs, and also wanted to give it a little more flavor. So I added some water, and a pinch more salt, which was good, then sprinkled in some lime juice, which was a mistake: the salsa was already pretty tangy from the tomatillos, and the lime pushed the tartness factor even further. Oops. Then I added a tablespoon or so of tequila, and its smokiness offset the tangy salsa nicely. Now let’s poach! I turned up the heat just until the mixture bubbled, then carefully slid in two eggs, one at a time, from a ramekin (I find this gives me more control than dropping them in from their shells, and also eliminates the possibility of shell fragments in the egg). I turned the mixture down to a simmer and let the eggs cook slowly.
When a fork test told me the potatoes were cooked through, I removed the lid, raised the heat, and allowed any remaining liquid to boil away, then continued to cook the potatoes, tossing occasionally, to brown the outsides. This can take a while; in fact the longer you cook the potatoes after the liquid is gone, the crispier and better they’ll be. Up to a point, of course: fifteen minutes after the liquid is gone should do it, more if you want them crispier. Also, in my experience, this only works with a non-stick skillet — otherwise, you risk leaving the crispy bits stuck to the pan. As the potatoes were finishing up, I covered the eggs for their last few minutes of cooking, which sped them up considerably and cooked the yolks just how I wanted them – firm around the outside, soft and runny in the middle (careful with this step — the yolks will firm up pretty quickly at this point).
In the meantime I’d crumbled the queso fresco and heated some tortillas in a dry cast iron skillet. I put the tortillas onto the plate first, with the potatoes alongside and the eggs on top. The eggs then got a dressing of the remaining poaching liquid and a generous sprinkling of the crumbled cheese. Slices of ripe avocado would’ve been the perfect accompaniment, if only I’d had some.