Tomato jam, updated (aka the best ketchup)

It’s almost Memorial Day here in the US, and that means the start of barbecue season. For our crowd, that means burgers. Lots and lots of burgers. And for me, a burger just isn’t a burger without a big splodge of ketchup.

But, after a lot of pretending that everything was fine between me and ketchup, I’ve had to admit defeat. As usual, onion is the culprit. The classic American ketchup (rhymes with “Shmeinz”) contains onion powder, and even such a small amount is apparently enough to rumble my stomach. It’s also sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t an issue for me but causes trouble for some of my friends.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. I first made tomato jam years ago, and loved it, and then more or less forgot about it. When I started bellyaching to Sam about my new ketchup-less life, he suggested that tomato jam might be worth a revisit. And he was right. This stuff is basically ketchup 2.0: thicker, sweeter, spicier, with a more interesting texture and intense tomatoey flavor. It’s the best thing that ever happened to a burger. And it’s lovely on a sandwich, with cheese and crackers, or alongside whatever configuration of eggs and potatoes you like for breakfast.

For this go-around I turned to Food in Jars, which is my favorite online resource for canning and preserving recipes. (Marisa also commented on a blog post here once, so that basically makes us friends.) This recipe is explicitly designed for water-bath canning, meaning you can put up a batch during tomato season and portion it out throughout the year. If processing the jam for shelf storage feels too daunting, though, it’s just fine as a fridge or freezer jam.

tomato jam jars

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Parmesan, fennel, and sea salt shortbreads

Okay, stay with me. The title of this post might sound…odd. But I promise you, these are one of the easiest and most addictive nibbles around.

This recipe was my introduction to savory shortbreads, and I’m absolutely hooked. The flavor combination is sophisticated and lovely: fragrant with fennel, savory with salt, and sharp with cheese and black pepper. They’re a fabulous snack or party nibble, and I tend to make them for every potluck I’m invited to these days. Or, sometimes, I’ll just whip up a batch for myself and parcel them out over a week or so, as an afternoon treat with a mug of tea.

I’ve tweaked the proportions a bit from the original Bon Appetit recipe, dialing back the sugar and slightly upping the cheese. I also modified the method: instead of chilling and rolling out the dough, I simply press it into a baking dish. Then, while the shortbread is still hot from the oven, I cut it into squares with a sharp knife. It’s easier and less messy than rolling out, and it means you can go from “I want cookies!” to having cookies in the oven in a matter of minutes.

Honestly, the hardest part of this recipe is grating a giant pile of cheese. You do need a lot of it–at least 1 cup, though you could go as high as 1 1/2 cups if you’ve got the patience (and the arm strength). And the cheese really does need to be freshly grated, if at all possible. Pre-grated Parmesan–even the relatively good-quality stuff–just won’t have the same flavor, and the added anti-caking agents can mess with the bake.

This is one of those recipes that’s gloriously adaptable. I’d recommend making it at least once as written, but then feel free to tweak it as you see fit. You could use just about any tangy hard cheese in place of the Parmesan, like aged Manchego or Gruyere, or even extra-sharp cheddar. You could omit the fennel seeds, or replace them with another seasoning–maybe some cumin or caraway seeds on top, or minced fresh rosemary or thyme in the dough itself. For me, the only non-negotiables are black pepper in the dough and flaky sea salt on top.

parmesan fennel shortbread plate

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Skillet-roasted chicken and potatoes

There are roughly a gabillion roast chicken recipes in the world. This is my absolute favorite.

I didn’t really grow up in a roast-beast-and-potatoes household. If we ate chicken, it was usually a rotisserie bird from the grocery store–delicious, but not much of a cooking lesson. So it’s been a real joy, as an adult, to teach myself the basics of chicken cookery. I’ve tried lots of methods for roasting chicken and potatoes in the same pan, and this method is a winner every time. All you need, equipment-wise, is a 12-inch cast-iron skillet.

When it comes to roasting poultry, I’m all about spatchcocking. You could ask a butcher to do this for you, but I find it’s pretty easy to do it myself with a sharp pair of kitchen shears. (I also cut out the wishbone, which is totally optional but makes the breast way easier to carve.) I make a bed of diced potatoes in the skillet, lay the flattened chicken on top, and roast the whole rig in a 450-degree oven until the bird is done. Then I move the chicken to a cutting board to rest, and use that time to broil the potatoes until they’re golden and irresistible.

Obviously, there’s a lot of room here to play with flavors and seasonings. Salt is a must, and black pepper is always nice. I usually add some minced fresh rosemary to the potatoes–a reliably wonderful flavor combination. But you could really use any mix of herbs, spices, oils, and add-ins, depending on your mood and what you’ve got on hand. I’ve included some suggestions at the bottom of the recipe.

roast chicken potatoes skillet

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Baked salmon for a crowd

Whole lemon-roasted side of salmon. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Fancy? It sure is–and also the easiest dinner party main course I’ve ever made. Full stop.

I got the idea from a Bon Appetit video, and it’s stunning in its simplicity. Oil a baking sheet, and lay down a handful of lemon slices. Plop the salmon on top and scatter over more lemon slices. Pile a big bunch of chard or beet greens around the fish. Season everything with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes. Rest. Eat.

Other hunks of roast beast tend to get all the attention for an at-home feast: beef, pork, lamb, even chicken. But cooking an entire side of salmon is far faster and just as impressive. Unlike small fillets, which are prone to overcooking, a big piece of fish stays moist and flaky even if you let it linger in the oven a minute too long. And roasting greens along with the fish is the really genius bit. The top layer of greens gets crisp, the bottom layer gets tender, and you’ve got yourself a no-effort side dish.

I can’t think of another centerpiece meat dish that’s so easy to make, yet delivers such a big wow. The flavors are clean, fresh, and so, so lovely. (It’s hard to be mad at salmon, lemon, and olive oil together.) This is also a visually stunning presentation: the coral cushion of salmon with its lemon-slice buttons, wreathed with dark crispy-soft greens. I’m the world’s most inept food stylist, and yet I still draw “oohs” and “aahs” every time I bring the baking sheet to the table.

baked salmon chard 1

Salmon and greens, ready for the oven

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Tomato paella

It’s high tomato season here in California. They’re everywhere, those fragrant red orbs, and it’s hard not to just eat them all raw. But please, if you can bear it, set aside a few juicy specimens for this recipe. It’s my new favorite paella, and a truly wonderful late-summer party meal.

I’ve been trying for years to come up with a great vegetable paella. This blows away every other version I’ve tried. The difference is those tomatoes–ripe and juicy, cut into meaty wedges and scattered on top of the rice. Unlike other paellas I’ve made, this one starts on the stove and then gets a brief blast in a hot oven. The tomatoes wrinkle and slump, while holding their gorgeous form. Stick a spoon in, and you’ve got sweet tomato jelly on top of delicately seasoned rice. It’s a total winner.

This started its life as a Mark Bittman recipe. I’ve tweaked it a bit, swapping out the onions in his recipe in favor of peppers–both sweet and hot–and romano beans. I add a bay leaf for extra fragrance, and a splash of wine just for fun. To keep the tomato flavor front and center, I use water as the cooking liquid. Once the paella comes out of the oven, it gets strewn with parsley and scallion confetti. Serve with lemon wedges for folks who want a bit of zing, and the rest of that bottle of wine.

tomato paella

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Chard stem “hummus”

Years ago, I won a copy of Root-to-Stalk Cooking in an online raffle. As soon as it arrived in the mail, I plonked down on the couch with a pile of Post-It notes and bookmarked every recipe I was dying to try. Then I tucked the book away on my shelf of cookbooks and promptly forgot it existed. A couple weeks ago I pulled it down, pages still studded with little pink flags. This is the first of those recipes I’ve tried, and it’s good. Really good.

The secret here is chard stems–those beautiful, vivaciously-colored stalks that you should never, ever throw away. I love them pickled; I love them in soups and stews. And, if you blanch them until soft and tender, they make a fabulous hummus-like dip.

Yes, I said hummus. Turns out, cooked chard stems make an admirable–dare I say superior?–replacement for the ubiquitous chickpea. They blend up even smoother and softer than canned chickpeas, with no fibrous skins to get in the way. And their subtle beet-y sweetness is a perfect balance for the usual hummus suspects: nutty-bitter tahini, tangy lemon, and buttery olive oil. It’s delicious, thrifty as hell, and a great low-FODMAP alternative to traditional hummus.

One thing I didn’t expect: if you make this dip with red chard stalks, it turns out pink. Like, tutu pink. Millennial pink. I found this delightful, but it did lead to several party guests asking why there was a bowl of strawberry yogurt next to the chips. Fortunately, chard comes in a wonderful variety of colors. If you prefer a more neutral-colored dip, choose white chard stems, or a mix of white, yellow, and green. (I’d avoid full-on rainbow chard, which seems like it would turn an unappetizing shade of brown.)

chard stem hummus

That drizzle of olive oil means it’s hummus, not yogurt. Right? Right?

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Spicy sweet basil chicken

Sweet basil chicken is a big go-to of mine in Thai restaurants. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s spicy, it’s fragrant, and it nestles oh-so-nicely over a pile of jasmine rice. Plus, because it’s stir-fried to order, I’ve now started asking for it without garlic or onions, which makes it lower in FODMAPs and easier to digest.

Until recently, I never would have thought to make Thai sweet basil chicken at home. But it’s turned into a staple dish in our household. As with so many stir-fries, it’s easily customizable–add or subtract vegetables you like, and dial the spiciness up or down as you prefer. Plus, unlike the no-garlic-please restaurant version, you can use tricks like garlic oil and scallion tops to restore some of that familiar allium spike.

I make no claims to authenticity here. Bringing this into my American kitchen–and adapting it to be low-FODMAP–means I’ve had to make a few tweaks and tucks to the recipe. It’s not an exact match for the restaurant version, and it’s not trying to be. But it is a darned tasty stir-fry, and much easier on my digestive system than the stuff in the takeout box.

Here’s the first bit of sacrilege: you don’t have to use Thai basil. Oh, you should, if you can find it–the sweet, licorice-y aroma will get the dish closest to what you’d find in an American Thai restaurant. But Italian sweet basil from the grocery store is just as delicious, and often much easier to find. If you’re forever buying a bunch of basil just to use a few leaves, then this is the recipe for you. Just toss in the rest of the leaves, and watch as the wok swallows them up.

thai basil chicken 1

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