Monday, November 9, 2009

Portuguese Roasted Chicken & Potatoes

I recently bought a new cookbook called The New Portuguese Table. I bought it because I have absolutely zero experience with Portuguese food. When I think of European cuisine, Portuguese is not first in line. Sadly enough, it may not even be in line most of the time. Instead it was just a large question mark in my head. But now I'm beginning to appreciate the culinary niche that Portugal fills within the food pantheon. So for dinner last night I made my first Portuguese meal.

Portuguese Roast Chicken

Above you see frango assado com batatas (aka roast chicken with potatoes). A chicken is rubbed with massa de pimentao forte (aka strong or "amped-up" red pepper paste), a mixture of sweet and smoked paprika, red wine, lots of garlic, bay leaf, tomato paste, cilantro, parsley, and some other spices. This was also the first time I have rubbed a chicken under the skin with flavoring. The paste by itself is very strong, but on the roasted chicken it mellowed and added some strong spice flavors. The potatoes had a chance to crisp up on the edges, but you can use them to sop up the natural juices the chicken lost while roasting. Portuguese cooking reminds me in some ways of rustic Italian, but with different flavor combinations based on Portugal's proximity to the Mediterranean and Africa. Like many cultures in Europe they have their own specialty meats and cheeses that often make cameo appearances in their cooking. I was very impressed by what I tasted and what I saw in the book and I can't wait to try another recipe.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

There are few foods that represent Americana better than chocolate chip cookies (other than the obvious apple pie). Nestle Tollhouse has been a standard in my house for as long as I can remember. Most of the time I just use the recipe off the back of the chocolate chip bag. For some reason that same recipe has been transcribed onto a recipe card and placed into a family recipe box as if it was our own. And in some ways it is, being passed down generation to generation of Americans. The only way to make it more patriotic is to put little American flags in it.

David Leite set out to improve chocolate chip cookies. He consulted many different sources to find out what would elevate these cookies to their best. In brief, he started by weighing out the flour, substituting a combination of cake and bread flours for all-purpose flour. He also substitutes chocolate "feves" (some sort of fancy-pants disk), which are supposed to melt more nicely than morsels (I ran out of Ghirardelli disks so I supplemented with chips without much detriment). The dough, once made, is left to rest for about 36 hours. This is rationalized to "let the flours get moisturized" or some sort of other food pseudo-science. Lastly, some coarse sea salt is applied to the top of the cookies for a little salty-sweet combination.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

The cookies did turn out pretty good. They were moist and chewy with some crispy edges. The original recipe usually yields cookies more on the crispy side. These cookies also tended to be thicker in that they did not spread out as much, possibly because the dough is kept cold. The salt on top is what really was a hit with everyone who had one. Many people said it was like eating a chocolate covered pretzel. So in the end, you have to decide on a bit of a trade off: is it worth it to spend the extra time to buy the special ingredients and make the dough in advance for the better experience, or is it better to just use what many people have on hand to make perfectly good classic cookies? The answer, in reality, depends on each person, but these cookies are definitely worth the effort at least once.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pumpkin Lasagna

Pumpkins are finding their way into everything this time of year. You can pretty much use them in any of your favorite foods. Do you like cookies? How about pumpkin cookies? Hershey's chocolate kisses? How about add some pumpkin? Pumpkin pancakes? Pumpkin creme brulee? Pumpkin cake? Pumpkin stew? Pumpkin lasagna?

Pumpkin Lasagna

Well, if you can't tell, this is pumpkin lasagna. The recipe was crafted by Robert Irvine of Food Network and can be found here. It is made pretty much the same as a normal lasagna, except you add layers of pumpkin puree and sliced zucchini. One nice feature of the recipe is that it has you make a quick homemade meaty tomato sauce (perhaps it qualifies as a bolognese?).

Pumpkin Lasagna Slice

I thoroughly enjoyed my slice and had to stop myself from eating half of the pan. What really makes the dish work is that Robert Irvine did not just throw some pumpkin into a normal lasagna. He added the sliced zucchini, kin of the pumpkin, for support as well as some strong flavors from de-cased sausage meat in the sauce. That may be what makes pumpkin so versatile and prolific. It can behave meekly like a mild squash for soups and other vegetal-focused purposes. But it also holds up to strong flavors. Look at the quintessential use of pumpkin in the holiday season: pumpkin pie. You throw ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and a whole host of other pungent spices at pumpkin puree and it just laughs as you get in line for another slice of pie. Pumpkin can even help you balance different flavors. One of the more prevalent "alternative" flavor profiles for pumpkin outside of pie is to use brown butter and sage, the former of which has more subtle notes while the latter is a strong adversary. Pumpkin not only balances the two, but still manages to steal the show. That is what helped it to stand out in this pumpkin lasagna. Hefty sausage and tame tomatoes shine even brighter when pumpkin hangs out in this Italian melange.