Monthly Archives: January 2011

Fish Cakes Mad

Great gratin to the rescue.

(The recipe’s below.)

As a general rule, I hate fish cakes.  It’s just one of those things.  Few foods will drop my appetite faster than the hint of one cooking.  If fish cakes suddenly became the only meal available, I’d scrape moss and eat bugs.

This came to mind the other night when I walked in late to find my wife making fish cakes.  Actually, my first reflex was to think hard whether today was our anniversary.

Let me explain how I got into this situation.  It’s actually my father’s fault.  Dad was cut from a sheet of stainless steel.  When I was growing up, he was never confused by subtleties.  Things were either black, or white.  Which is why the idea that romance might require a bit more than a hallmark card with flowers on it, did not automatically occur to him.

Matters came to a head one birthday when he actually gifted my mother a large, brightly wrapped box brimming with vacuum cleaner.  In his mind, he was saving his wife unnecessary labor.  All those new, nifty attachments.  A modern shiny replacement for the old upright.

In front of the family, my mother bit her lip.  I don’t know what was said privately.  But my mother made fish cakes for dinner that night.  Oily, pungent canned tuna and bread crumbs, fried crispy brown in oil.  The house reeked for days.

Now dad, raised on a North Dakota farm with plain boiled potatoes, as far from an ocean as it was possible to be, was not a fan of fish in any form.  I don’t know if he’d ever actually run across anything with fins before he left home.  I think he privately doubted humans were intended to eat any creature that swam in its own pee and smelled like it.

But he’d raised his children to clean their plates of whatever dinner was put in front of them.  So he sat with his back straight and silently ate his fish cakes.

After that, fish cake nights would appear every so often.  And I never developed a taste.

‘What’s for dinner?’ I say.

‘New recipe’, my wife says, over a bowl of potent canned salmon and spices, already being formed into patties.  The dog is on station, alerted by the smell, hoping for an accident.

‘And rice’, she says.  And its clear, if I’m going to get something to eat, I’m going to have to make it myself.  What have I forgotten?

‘You said you’d make dinner tonight’, she says, solving the riddle, and then I remember, she’d asked me to cover.

‘Coming up’, I reply, and wonder whether somewhere, silently, dad’s smiling.  It’s a brave new world, pop.

Now, the only way to make up for a lousy main dish is to load on the sides.  And if possible, make something that will stand on its own.  I happen to have just the recipe.  And, while it’s pretty simple to make, it’s actual cooking, not just opening a box.  Julia Childs made it.  It even has a French name: Gratin Dauphinois.  So, it qualifies as fixing dinner.  And, Dad would approve.

You’ll Need: a 9 x 13 baking dish, cheese grater, knife or mandoline (the slicing tool, not the musical instrument), medium sauce pan

Ingredients:

  • six large russet or other starchy potato
  • 1 unpeeled garlic, cut in half
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere or good Swiss cheese
  • 2 cups boiling milk or (it’s better with) cream

How To Make:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.  Peel and slice the potatoes into rounds 1/8 inch thick.
  2. Bring the milk or cream to steaming hot in the saucepan, but don’t let it boil over.  When it tries, turn off the heat.
  3. Rub the cut side of the garlic clove all around the baking dish.  Then smear, to cover, the baking dish bottom and sides with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
  4. Spread half the potato slices in the baking dish, top with half the remaining butter, and half the salt and pepper.
  5. Put the rest of the potatoes in a layer on top.  Add the remaining butter, salt pepper, and then sprinkle evenly with the cheese.
  6. Carefully pour the milk or cream into the baking dish.
  7. Put a baking sheet (with a lip) in the oven on a shelf about one third of the way from the top.  Put the baking dish with potatoes on the baking sheet.  (Pull the shelf partly out to help keep from spilling.)
  8. Bake about 30 minutes. You’ll know when it’s done when the potatoes are tender to a fork, the top is golden brown and bubbly.
  9. Let it set out of the oven about ten minutes before serving.

Let The Chips Fall

These chips are down.  In a good way.

It’s January.  The month that makes climbing out of bed in the morning especially slow, and that first cup of coffee particularly welcome.  My youngest has learned January is named for the Roman god Janus, a guy with two faces, one looking right, one looking left.  It’s apparently a warning for this time of year.  Check both ways for chariots or disasters before crossing the street, going to work, leaving the house.  Those Romans knew a thing or two.

Even the dog hangs back before going out.  When she comes back in she noses round the kitchen floor, expecting bits of fallen doughnut or pastry.  She gives me a look.  It’s a diet, I tell her.

Foraging for snacks in the bag becomes very tempting, this time of year.  They were let in the house for the holidays, all the ‘itos’ and their relatives.  But they’re banished now, because if you let them stay, they’ll never, ever move out.

The kids complain to me, after school they’re hungry.  So one evening I go looking for some relatively healthy way to put chips on the table.

Now, you may not be aware, but in the UK, potato chips … alright, crisps … are a matter of huge national pride and culinary investment.  Their varieties put Americas’ to shame, with our paltry choice of BBQ, plain or ruffled.  The concept there is to get an entire meal onto the chip.

For the uninitiated, here are some current examples:

  • Builder’s Breakfast This potato chip has the flavour of eggs, sausage, bacon, toast and beans. It won a competition worth 50,000 pounds for it’s inventor (that’s money, not fat). Strangely, it’s recently been discontinued.
  • Cajun Squirrel This is reported to taste nothing like squirrel – I couldn’t tell you – but is nice and spicy.
  • English Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding To reviewers this one apparently tasted more like beef stew than a true roast. To which I say, hey, what can you expect from a chip?
  • French Garlic Baguette, not too hard to imagine, is it?
  • Australian BBQ Kangaroo, which the company swears contains no marsupial, none.

 

  • Lamb and Mint, Steak and Onion
  • Smoky Bacon

Do we see a trend  here?

These are all sold by Walkers, which is owned by Lays, which apparently doesn’t have the guts to bring them to the states.  Not that I’m suggesting they should.  Or that anyone should eat them.  But as a diet concept, you have to wonder if maybe a meal in a bag has some potential.  To conduct a little research of your own, there’s a link on http://www.dadsinthekitchen.com to Amazon, where you can order a bag.  Strictly for scientific purposes, of course.

Anyway, with the kids still grumping about wanting to move in with the Pringles,  I came up with a dad’s-friendly way to turn that bland, healthy bag of corn tortilla chips in the cupboard into something far more interesting. The end result is a crisp bbq smokey hot wing – or if the kids don’t like the heat, you can scale back or drop the added chili.

You’ll Need:

a small pastry or basting brush; cookie pans; bowl; measuring spoons

Ingredients:

  • Bag of plain corn tortilla chips (salted is best)
  • 1/3 cup catsup
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika (gotta be smoked; if you don’t have any, it’s really worth stocking anyway)
  • 1/8 tsp cumin
  • 1/8 tsp chile powder, or 2 shakes of tabasco sauce (optional)
  • grated cheddar cheese (optional)

How To Make:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 F  / 149 C
  2. Mix the catsup with other ingredients (except cheese) using a fork or spoon til completely blended
  3. Spread tortilla chips in a single layer on cookie sheets
  4. Using the brush, apply a light, thin coat of the flavoring to the tops of the chips.  You don’t want to make puddles, or leave the chips wet. A light coating.
  5. Bake in the oven for 4 to 8 minutes, til the flavoring is dry, but before the chips cook.  If you want to add and melt cheese, take them out at 4 minutes, sprinkle the grated cheese, and return til the cheese is melted.

Champagne: Chic or Chicken?

Champagne chicken sauce recipeOne man’s champagne diet.

Now that the yearly New Years service is over, it’s safe to admit.  I don’t like champagne.

That will probably get my ticket yanked with a segment of the liquor industry, the high-stepping party crew and modern romance food aficionados, but there it is.  Sure, I raised my glass and drank with everybody else.  But, it’s kind of like clapping for the neighbor’s child’s recital.  Not to be confused with actual enjoyment.

Is champagne really the right New Year’s drink in the first place?  For a hearty sendoff of one year and the fingers-crossed hopes for a new one?  Seems to me the occasion deserves a draft Guinness, or a shot of  Bushmills, a decent merlot or the like.  A touch of bitterness, followed by a moment of impossible-to-ignore fullness of flavor, and a real loosening of expectations.

Champagne?

I  first got suspicious when I learned champagne was actually a  wine mistake.  Centuries ago in France champagne grapes were harvested so late, winter cold would sometimes stop the wine fermenting, only to restart in the spring. This caused the yeast to go nuts and produce more gas than usual.  Bottles exploded, the wine fizzed, that kind of mess.  Until one day, as they were dumping another ruined batch, some prince or another wandered in, tasted the stuff, and offered to pay good money.  They couldn’t unload it fast enough.

Now, I’ve got nothing against the champagne industry, who’ve carried on this lucrative tradition, or folks who enjoy bubbly white wines.  I’ll just suggest my favorite way to dispose of this French mistake and its domestic cousins is over shrimp, salad, or as below, to sauce a chicken.  It’s a delicious way to dress food, one pan, man-simple cooking.  And what were you planning to do with all the half-empties anyway?

You’ll need:

Large cast iron or other heavy skillet (big enough to hold the chicken), baking dish (to keep chicken warm)

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/3 – 1/2 bottle of champagne
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon tarragon

How To Make:

  1. Salt and pepper the chicken breasts.
  2. Melt the butter in the skillet, and when it starts to foam, add the garlic.
  3. Add the rest of the butter and heat for one minute at medium heat.
  4. Add the chicken skin side down and brown it, then turn it over, about 5  minutes for each side
  5. Add the champagne to the skillet and cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the chicken broth and tarragon, and cook another 15 minutes.
  7. Take the chicken out, place in a baking pan, cover and keep warm (in the oven, set to its lowest temperature would work).
  8. Add the cream to the pan, raise the heat medium high to bring the liquid to a gentle boil, and stirring, let the sauce reduce in volume by about one half. This can take 15 minutes or more, depending on how much liquid you have at this stage.
  9. Return the chicken to the sauce, coat it well and serve, pouring the extra sauce over the chicken.
Some folks like to spice this dish up with red or cayenne pepper, add sautéed mushrooms, some shallot or onion, that’s up to you.  Great with rice.
Best of the New Year to you.