Stir Fried Swiss Chard

Stir fried swiss chard was an improvisation - I had a big bunch of Swiss Chard in my CSA box, along with some garlic, and I had a chinese themed meal planned.  Voila!  Since I have my stir fry technique internalized, this was a quick side dish that I put together while I was making my chinese barbecued pork.
*I wish planning dinner was always this easy.  Sometimes, it feels like I'm sweating blood, trying to come up with enough meals for the week:  
"Tortillas and chicken - no, we did that last week.  Shoot, I still need a quick meal for Thursday, when Ben has soccer.  Oh, and a starch and a veg side for the hamburgers..."

Recipe: Stir Fried Swiss Chard

Grand Unified Stir Fry Theory (aka: Stir Fry, basic technique)

This is the basic technique I use for weeknight stir frying - meat, vegetables, or (preferably) both together as a one skillet meal.*  As I've mentioned before - anything that goes well with basic white rice is a recipe I use a lot.
*Right now, the kids make me cook the meat and the vegetables separately; I can't let the vegetables contaminate the meat. Or vice versa.  I accidentally added a red pepper to the chicken stir fry this week - you should have heard the whining.

However, stir fry is another one of my culinary pathways.  "American" Chinese food was the first non-american cuisine I ate*, and the one that started to open my eyes to the fact that there was a wide world of taste out there.  Specifically, the little hole in the wall Hunan restaurant on Chardon Rd in Wickliffe (just past E 260th) that served the best Hot and Sour soup I've ever had.  Their Governor's chicken was great, too.  The combination of sweet, spicy, sour and hot was a revelation to me.  Especially in that soup - I would buy it in the "bathtub" size.
*I don't count American Italian - it's been integrated into american home cooking too much.  Or at least my family's American home cooking.  Spaghetti night, with Ragu and store-bought garlic bread.  Ah, memories.  Or, more specifically, Pixifood.  (h/t - Joe Posnaski, one of my favorite sports writers.  And not just because he's from Cleveland.)

Basic Technique: Stir-Fry

Chinese BBQ Boneless Ribs

Pork shoulder (aka Boston Butt, or Pork Butt**) is one of my favorite cuts of meat. I'm particularly fond of using it as "ribs" - which are sold in my local grocery store as "western ribs", but are really just 2" thick slices of pork shoulder roast. They cost a LOT less than real ribs do around here - as low as $1.29/lb, where spare ribs never seem to go below $2.19 a pound. When you consider all the extra meat you get out of the western ribs as compared to the spare ribs, it is quite the deal.*
*That's not to say I don't like real ribs - just not often. At those prices, when so much of what you're paying for is bone, I can only bring myself to buy them a couple of times a summer. Where did we go wrong? The ribs are supposed to be the cheap cut, the throwaway part that you can get cheap. I guess they got too popular. Sniffle. I'll be OK, I just need a moment alone...
**You got me. I just like saying "Pork Butt". I get to channel my inner 9-year old. Not that he's ever that far from the surface to begin with.
Recipe: Chinese barbecued pork boneless ribs (Char siu)

Roasted Red Pepper Dip

When I am asked to bring an appetizer, this is usually the first thing I think of.* Other than roasting the peppers, it's "dump and process". I like that when I'm rushing around, getting ready to go to someone's house!
*OK, the second thing. The first thing is a cheese plate with some good blue cheese, hard cheese, and goat cheese, and a sliced baguette on the side. Mmm. Cheese.

Recipe: Grill Roasted Red Pepper Dip

Basic White Rice

This is, by far, the side dish I make most often.  Why?  Because The Kids will eat it.  Always.  I think they'd be happy if this was all I ever made for them.  "White rice?  Just plain white rice this time, right, Dad?"*
*Translation: No funny stuff, right?  You're not getting fancy on us again, right?

It's the perfect side dish for Asian meals - I usually make it with a stir fry of some sort, but it also goes well with grilled chicken, barbecued pork, and many other meals.*
*Red beans and rice, of course, how could I forget red beans and rice...

Recipe: Basic White Rice

Cook time: 30 minutes

  • 2 cups rice (my preferences are: jasmine rice, CalRose rice, or Carolina long grain rice)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt (or table salt)
  • 1 tbsp butter (optional)
Put ingredients in a 3 quart or larger saucepan with a tight fitting lid.  Cover, and bring to a boil over high heat.  Remove the cover once the water is boiling, reduce the heat to medium, and continue to boil until the water boils away to just below the level of the rice.*  Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat, and let the pot stand, covered, for another 10 minutes.  Fluff with a fork and serve.
 *Tom Johnson of the WRSOC referred to this as "Fish Eyes" - the boiling water coming from just below the surface of the rice creates holes in the surfaced of the rice, and you will see bubbles forming in the holes of the rice.
Fish Eyes
*You need a pot with a tight fitting lid for this recipe - I use this one from Calphalon, which you can usually get a good deal on at Bed Bath and Beyond.  It doesn't have to be nonstick, but it helps the cleanup.

*Don't skip the salt!  The rice is pretty plain to begin with, but without the salt, it's plain AND bland.  The butter, however, I will only add if I'm cooking rice for a western-influenced meal.  The rice just tastes better without the butter if I'm having it with, say, a stir fry.

*To halve this recipe, go with 1 cup rice,  and 1.5 cups water.  I usually wind up cooking 3 cups rice and 4.5 cups water - The Kids will eat it all if I only cook 2 cups worth of rice, and usually I want some leftover rice to go with the leftover meal.

*Leftovers - I store the rice in a Gladware container, and reheat it directly in the microwave - the liquid in the rice gives you enough steam to help reheat it.  The Kids eat the reheated, leftover rice just about as willingly as they eat it freshly cooked.

Adapted from Tom Johnson, WRSOC.

On the importance of basic techniques

How did I get here?

In 1999, I decided I was going to cook dinner every night.  I don't exactly remember what prompted this; it was a gradual thing, my interest in cooking.

It started with wine.  Diane came back from a trip to Europe with her sister, Jackie, and said "you know, they have a glass of wine with dinner every night...".  I can't exactly say why, but that struck a chord in me, and I was off and running.

Then, to go with the wine, I wanted to learn how to cook.  NPR had an intervew with Barbara Kafka, about her book Roasting-A Simple Art.  In it, she describes how to make a great Thanksgiving turkey in about two hours - roast it in your oven, with the oven set as high as you can.  Then, remove the turkey, and make a sauce with the pan drippings and some water.  I tried it, and it was great!  So I went out and bought the book, which is based on this premise - roast everything at 500*F. didn't work so well for me.  It's great for the turkey; chicken, too.  You get nice, crispy skin, even if the breast meat is a bit dry - but the pan sauce covers up for that.  Unfortunately, this method of cooking is guaranteed to set off your fire alarm every time you use it.  And most things (other than turkey) come out dry and overcooked.*
*Ask Diane about the "Chrismas Goose" I cooked the one time.   Or anyone else in the family I cooked for - I became famous for getting the batteries out of the fire alarm in under 15 seconds.

Not willing to let a little thing like fire alarms stop me, I kept cooking.  I bought a few more cookbooks, I got a bit better, I started to think I could cook.  Of course, Diane had to keep asking me - "Shouldn't a meal include vegetables?  Meat and potatoes are okay, but I could use something green in my diet."  A few years later, I was cooking fairly often; I even got past the vegetable side dish hurdle on occasion.  But I didn't feel like I could just "whip something up" based on what was in the refrigerator.

And then, then... I saw this cartoon in the New Yorker, with the punch line:"Actually, he's not bad, considering that he's recipe dependent."

I was laughing, and cringing at the same time.  That struck a nerve - I wasn't learning how to cook; I was learning how to follow recipes.
THAT is when I decided to become a cook - to cook dinner every night, and to learn how to cook based on the ingredients I have on hand.

The key was Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book.  In it, she explains many of the basic techniques in cooking, and then how to vary the ingredients and flavors of that technique in many, many different ways.

I started with "the saute".  12" skillet (NOT non-stick), heated over medium-high with a thin coating of vegetable oil in it.  Cook four chicken breasts, salted, peppered, and coated with flour, for 4 minutes per side.  Remove breasts; put 1/2 cup chicken broth in the pan, and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits in the pan to make the sauce.

What Pam Anderson makes sure you know in her book is: this isn't just about chicken breasts, and it isn't just about a chicken broth based sauce - this is "a saute" and "a pan sauce".  This is how you cook any tender meat that's 1" thick (or less) - and this is how you use the browned bits that the saute creates as the base of an almost infinite number of sauces.

Those sauces are pretty similar in preparation, but very different in taste: 1/2 cup of liquid, with some variations in the seasoning.  French style chicken breasts?  Add shallots, chicken broth, lemon, capers.  Voila!  Lemon-caper chicken.  (Or veal.  Or pork).  Want Italian?  Make your sauce with garlic, a can of diced tomatoes, and some basil.  Sprinkle some parmesan on the chicken breasts, serve on pasta, and you have Chicken Parmesan.

What this opened up to me was that the basis of all cooking is three things: ingredients, base techniques, and flavor profiles.  What are the right cooking techniques for the main ingredients you have, and what flavor profiles do you want to use with them?  If you know the variations on those three things, and you can cook almost anything in the western repertoire of food.  Know how make chili, texas style, with cubes of beef chuck?  You know how to make a braise - a perfect technique for tough meats.  Brown the meat, brown some aromatics (onion, garlic), add liquid to just cover the meat (tomatoes, beef broth) and some seasonings (chili powder).  Put this in a pot with a lid, and simmer on low heat for a few hours, until the beef is fork tender.  Now, with a little variation, you know how to make everything from Beef Stew to Beef Bourginon, to Beef Paprikash, or even to Coq Au Van - it's just a braise!  When I see a sale on chuck roast, chicken thighs, pork shoulder - I now have a wide range of options - what do I have in the house?  What flavors do I want to do with this?

Later on, I read Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef, where he describes what you are taught at a real culinary school.  It explained what I had learned*: training is about the basic techniques for specific ingredients, and the flavor combinations that go with different cuisines.  Put those together, and you have a professional chef!**
*Only, he describes it with style - I'm fumbling around with how to describe how amazing it felt when this concept fell into place for me.  And, Alton Brown - my hero! - also had a hand in my learning this - can't forget to give him a shout-out.
**Well, this idea, and a willingness to work 12 hour days, 6 days a week, for minimal pay, and have your busiest days be weekends and holidays.   Also, "I'm dead" is the only good excuse for not coming in to work.

Oh, and Barbra Kafka, Roasting at 500*F, and the smoke detector?  She was right - it's just high heat roasting, followed by deglazing the pan.  As long as you use the technique with the right ingredients, it works great!  But I think you should turn the oven down to 450*F - it gives me a few more minutes before I have to pull the batteries out of the smoke detector.

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