Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reconstructing Shrimp Salad

A few years ago, I put together a cookbook for my brother-in-law and his wife using favorite family recipes from my mother-in-law, Jacque, who got many of them from her mother-in-law, Grandma Pete. I figured it would be a pretty easy gift to make - type up the recipes, write an intro, slap on some photos and I'm done.

I figured wrong.

Most of the recipes were pretty straight-forward and complete with a list of ingredients, measurements and directions. I'd even made one or two dishes before such as the Cornish pasties we always serve on Christmas Eve. Others, however, proved more challenging to decipher.

Grandma Pete's Peach Cobbler, for instance, was a handwritten list of five ingredients with precious few instructions. I'd never made cobbler before, so I had no idea how to write a recipe that a novice home chef could successfully execute. I ended up spending a Saturday afternoon making a test cobbler with blackberries. It turned out great, and now it's one of my favorite desserts - warm and comforting and super easy.

But Grandma Pete's Shrimp Salad - one of Jacque's favorites - mystified me. Not only were the measurements absent, but I couldn't quite envision how to put the salad together. Did the lettuce merely serve as a bed for the dressed shrimp, or was I supposed to toss it along with the shrimp, mayo, lemon juice and salt? And was that really all there was to the dressing? Unlike the cobbler, I didn't do a test-run. I typed up the ingredients sans measurements and just made up the instructions.

I had a chance to redeem myself when I was asked to bring a salad to my mother-in-law's birthday party.

Since the recipe wasn't clear, I made an executive decision to make a green salad with shrimp rather than a true shrimp salad. I included more veggies - tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado - to boost the nutrition and turned up the flavor by roasting the shrimp. I also couldn't resist adding some fresh dill to the dressing.

I tested my concoction on Brandon even though he claimed to have no memory of his grandmother's salad. "Huh," he said, after biting into a drenched lettuce leaf. "You know, it kind of tastes familiar."

My reconstructed salad (which I forgot to photograph during the festivities) turned out surprisingly well, and I even munched on the leftovers later that night.

Grandma Pete's Shrimp Salad

I found out later that Grandma Pete's recipe was indeed for a true shrimp salad. Apparently, she shredded the lettuce and used bay shrimp, although I prefer the larger crustaceans. You could also add diced avocado for a little richness and nutrition.

1-2 lbs. medium-sized raw shrimp
2 tbs. olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
lettuce, shredded (I like butter lettuce, but Pete used iceberg.)
1/2 purple onion, diced
2 celery stalks, halved length-wise and diced
1 avocado, diced (optional)

1 cup mayonnaise
juice of half a lemon
2 tbs. fresh dill, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and devein shrimp, removing the tails. Spread on a cookie sheet with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 6 to 8 minutes, until the shrimp are pink and firm. Be sure not to overcook, or shrimp will become rubbery. Let cool for several minutes.

Combine mayonnaise, lemon juice and dill, and whisk until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, combine shrimp, lettuce, onion, celery and avocado. Add dressing one spoonful at a time, and toss gently.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Five Dollar Plate: Marylou's Adobo

Many, many months ago, my good friend, Marylou, gave me her recipe for traditional, Filipino adobo, and for many, many months it sat, untouched, in my email box. The ingredients were simple enough - pork or chicken, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic - but the method of simmering the meat for an hour, then browning it in a skillet, was foreign to me.

I was tempted to disregard Marylou's exacting instructions and take the more familiar route - sear, then braise. Tradition won the day. I defrosted a couple of pork shoulder steaks I bought on sale at Safeway for less than two bucks a piece, and got to work.
I was transferring the meat to the skillet when I realized I was basically making carnitas - duh!

Marylou's recipe was easy, with minimal prep work. Although her instructions said to let the meat marinate for 30 minutes, other online recipes called for a minimum of three hours. I let it sit for an hour. Even then, the adobo only took a little over two hours to make, including an hour for simmering.

The adobo was tangy and flavorful with a bit of heat - an instant family hit. I served it over long-grain, white rice with half a bag of TJ's organic baby spinach leaves I sauteed with a dollop of vegetable oil and dash of salt. We liked the adobo so much, next week I'm going to try it with a combination of pork and chicken.

Traditional Filipino Adobo

1 1/2 lb. pork shoulder or butt cut into 1 1/2" cubes
1/2 c. vinegar
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. salt
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 small bay leaf
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. sugar
1 c. water
2 tbsp. cooking oil

Combine all ingredients, except cooking oil, in a pot and let stand for at least 30 minutes. Simmer covered for at least 1 hour or until meat is tender. Drain and reserve sauce.

Heat cooking oil in skillet. Brown meat on all sides. Transfer to a serving dish. Pour off all remaining oil from skillet. Add reserved sauce and cook for a minute or two, scraping all browned bits sticking to pan. Pour sauce over meat and serve.

Variation: May be made with chicken or a combination of chicken and pork.

Some online recipes said Filipino adobo should have some heat to it and called for a jalapeno or peppercorns, which are removed before serving. I tossed in a few dashes of red pepper flakes, and it turned out great.

$3.72 - 2 lbs. pork shoulder
$1.00 - organic baby spinach

$4.72 total

Friday, April 9, 2010

Five Dollar Plate: 'I'd Like the Chipper Chicken'

Ever since I was laid off, I've been finding ways to save a little money here and there. I shop less at Macy's and more at Old Navy. I've learned to comb through consignment shops for great deals on designer labels - think Marc Jacobs vest for $13 - and I've all but abandoned Barnes & Noble in favor of my local Friends of the Library bookstore, where I can pick up paperback mysteries for a buck and Jacques Pepin Celebrates for $4.

When it comes to food, I try to be inventive with the ingredients already in our fridge so we waste less and save more. Once, when I was in charge of dessert for a family birthday party, I did a quick inventory of my pantry, then poured through all my recipes and whipped up a Chocolate-Espresso Mousse Cake without a single trip to the grocery store.

Every penny we save allows us to spend more on quality ingredients such as fresh, organic fruits and veggies, preferably from our Farmers' Market because everything there just tastes better.

I also love Trader Joe's because I can get rBST-free cheeses at reasonable prices, nitrate-free lunch meat and bacon, as well as organic eggs, milk, juice, peanut butter, flour, granola, etc. Every so often I hit the national grocery chain near my house for stuff I can't get at TJ's and deals on meat. A few weeks ago I hit the Mother Lode - packages of five chicken breasts for a little more than $5, and six thighs for just under four bucks!

That night I made my mom's chicken and donggu (dried shiitake mushrooms) stir-fry with organic Chinese broccoli I'd picked up for $1 at the Farmers' Market. As I was cooking, I realized the total cost of dinner was somewhere in the neighborhood of $5. Beat that Melissa d'Arabian! Emi loved it, and we even had leftovers for the next night.

I was inspired. I decided to challenge myself to come up with more Five Dollar Plates and make it a regular Mixed Plate feature. (My Curry Lentil Soup recipe comes pretty close to being a Five Dollar Plate: $2 bag of lentils, $2.50 head of organic cauliflower, plus a couple more bucks for an onion, bacon and a carrot.)

Next, I tried David Lebovitz's Roast Chicken With Caramelized Shallots. I love his blog. Not only does it have awesome recipes, but I get to vicariously live the life of an American in Paris. When I read his yummy-sounding recipe for a new twist on roast chicken, I just had to try it out. Lucky for me, I had a freezer full of chicken thighs.

Ultimately, this recipe was more than $5. The shallots cost as much as the chicken - $1.99 for a package of two at Trader Joe's. I also made mashed potatoes using veggies leftover from our St. Patty's Day corned beef boil, and sauteed about 1/2 a bag of organic baby spinach ($1.50 for a 6 oz. bag) in a little bit of olive oil and garlic.

Still, I decided to include it because I think you can trim the cost a bit with some savvy shopping. For instance, substitute thighs with drumsticks ($2.
50 for five drumsticks at Trader Joe's) and look for shallots at a discount grocer. Plus, I really needed some photos for this post.

UPDATE: I just bought a pound of shallots from Safeway for $3, and 4 shallots weighed less than 1/2 a pound which brings the total for this dinner less than $5.50.

This recipe was as delicious and effortless as its creator claimed. One thing I'd do differently: skip turning over the chicken. The skin stuck to the dish, leaving some of the tastiest bits inaccessible.

Chicken and Donggu Stir-Fry with Chinese Broccoli

1 chicken breast, sliced into thin strips roughly an inch long
2 lap cheong (Chinese sausage), diced
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 bunch of Chinese broccoli, chopped into 2-inch lengths
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbs. oyster sauce
2 tbs. soy sauce
1 tbs. peanut oil

Combine chicken, soy sauce and garlic and let marinate for two hours.

Soak mushrooms in hot water for several minutes to rehydrate. Drain, and squeeze out excess water, reserving a few tablespoons for later. Slice the mushrooms and set aside.

Heat oil in a pan on medium high heat and add lap cheung, rendering out the fat. Throw in the chicken and stir frequently. When chicken is completely cooked, add mushrooms, broccoli and oyster sauce. Mix thoroughly. For a thicker "sauce", dissolve 1/2 tsp. of cornstarch in a tablespoon of water and mix with the chicken and veggies.

Serve with rice.

$1 - chicken breast
$1 - broccoli
$3 - sausage, mushrooms, rice
$5 total

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Let Them Eat Ice Cream Cake

Brandon doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, but his absolute favorite dessert is mint chocolate chip ice cream. The first time I made it for him I used fresh mint ala David Leibovitz. And I didn't just use mint from the supermarket, or even the Farmers' Market. I actually bought a live plant, stuck it in a pot, watered and nurtured it until there were enough leaves to harvest for the recipe.

"It takes like a plant," my loving husband opined after taking a few bites of my homemade ice cream.

The next time I made mint chocolate chip ice cream, I just skipped the steeping process and used 2 tsp. of mint extract.

Brandon loved it.

Then again, when I made this quickie version, he loved it, too, so I'm not sure how discerning he is. Me? I much prefer the altered David Lebovitz's recipe. The combination of the rich, creamy, French-style frozen custard with the cool, refreshing mint, is to die for.

I decided to up the ante and made a mint chocolate chip ice cream cake for Brandon's birthday. I made the ice cream a couple days in advance, and the only thing I did differently was store the container in the freezer door instead of in the back so the ice cream would stay soft and easier to spread over the cake.

I baked the cake the day before Brandon's birthday dinner. I used Paula Deen's Basic 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe, which was super easy and turned out great. It's my new go-to cake recipe and I can't wait to make it again. I'm already thinking of ideas for Emi's 2nd birthday ...

I decided to make a small cake using a couple of three-inch round pans, and because I have a terrible track record of sticking cakes, I went with my non-stick, spring form pans that I buttered and floured just in case. As an extra precaution, I even cut out parchment circles to line the bottom of the pans. Plus, I have this handy dandy, off-set, silicon spatula that is great for sliding between the pan and the cake.

Paula's recipe makes three 9-inch layer cakes, so I halved the ingredients and still ended up with too much cake. Once the cakes had cooled, I cut off the rounded tops using a serrated knife, then carefully cut each cake in half to create two layers. (Check out this video of Flo Baker and Julia Child to learn how to cut a layer cake evenly - the relevant part is about 12 minutes into the video.)

Instead of a cardboard cake round, I used the bottom of my spring form pan as a base for the first layer of cake. Taking an off-set spatula, I spread about a 1/2 inch layer of ice cream over the surface of the cake, then topped it with the second cake. I repeated the steps one more time, then "iced" the cake with ice cream.

I used the bottom of my second spring form pan to cover the top of the cake, then lined the sides with strips of parchment paper and covered the entire cake in plastic wrap before storing it in the back corner of my freezer. I set the freezer to the coldest temperature and let the cake harden overnight.

I kept things simple since Brandon doesn't get excited about elaborately decorated cakes, but if you want you could use fondant to cover the cake. That will give you a smooth slate to decorate with fondant cutouts or icing.

If you prefer more ice cream than cake, here's another option to try: Place a single layer of cake, approximately 1/2 to 3/4-inch high, in the spring form pan and fill the rest of the pan with ice cream. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer overnight. When you're ready to remove the pan, use a silicon spatula to separate the ice cream from the sides of the pan. Occasionally dip the spatula in hot water to keep it from sticking to the ice cream.