Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Feast of the Seven Fishes

This year, J. and I stayed in the New Jersey for Christmas.  Since J. is part Sicilian, it was his idea to prepare a Feast of the Seven Fishes.  I had my reservations about it, since seven seems like a lot of fishes.  But it turned out to be a lot of fun.  I got to cook some fishes that I had never made before, like lobster, and clams, and calamari. This may become our own little tradition.

Here's a rundown of last night's menu:

1) Steamed Lobster Tails

This was by far was the best item on the the menu, and the easiest to cook! I have my trepidations about cooking  live lobster.  Something about dropping a live moving creature into a boiling bath of water freaks me out. And what if it tries to fight back?  One day, I will get over this fear, but until then, I am sticking to lobster tails.  Which were delicious steamed and dipped in lemon butter.

2) Shrimp and Scallop Scampi
To make my life easier, I combined two of the fishes and used this recipe.  Tried and true, scampi is always a crowd pleaser. I used fresh scallops purchased the same day from Whole Foods and frozen shrimp that we had in the freezer from Trader Joes.  Next time, I will make it with fresh shrimp as well.

3) Baked Stuffed Clams from Simply Recipes
This was the first time I had ever cooked clams (which are also live, so I realize that should negate my fear of cooking live lobsters... but clams do not move and do not have claws).  I used local cherrystone clams from Whole Foods, which worked quite well.  And it was kinda neat to see the clams open up.  Though, one note about the recipe, it calls for traditional breadcrumbs, and I used panko crumbs because I had run out of traditional.  The panko bread crumbs made the stuffing a bit crumbly, so I would stick to the traditional.

4) Salmon Cakes
I got to use my own recipe here!  This time, I made them into mini salmon cakes, so they would be more cocktail appetizer size.

5) Crispy Baked Calamari by Robyn Miller
This was also a new item for me, since I have never cooked calamari before.  I bought the cleaned calamari from Whole Foods, which I had to cut into rings.  A few notes about the recipe - I chose it because it was healthier than traditional fried calamari. I liked the idea of using ground up tortilla chips in the breading.  I used Xochitl brand, which is my favorite brand, because it is low in sodium.  But in this recipe, it didn't work so well because it made the breading bland, since I omitted the ranch dressing seasoning.  (Robyn Miller says you can omit the ranch dressing seasoning, I suggest if you are going to do that, either use a saltier tortilla chip, or add some additional salt to the crumb mixture). The recipe also calls for buttermilk, which I couldn't find in the store, but substituting a cup of milk with a tablespoon of white vinegar works fine. And we used regular jarred marinara sauce.

6) Seared Ahi Tuna from Simply Recipes
I chose this recipe since I wanted at least one item to have an Asian flair to it, as a nod to my own heritage. I made this before and really enjoyed it when I made it as the main course for a meal.  But since I used frozen ahi tuna steaks, this time, it seemed a bit lackluster compared to the crisp and bright flavors of fresh seafood.  Next time, I will use fresh fish.

A few notes on methodology and timing:

This took a bit of planning ahead. I started by making the marinade for the tuna and letting it marinate in the fridge. Then I made the stuffed clams, and once those were in the oven, I made the salmon cakes.  Once the clams and the salmon cakes were done, I set them aside, loosely covered with foil to keep warm.  I then made the calamari.  (J. helped with dredging them in buttermilk and breading, and putting them in the oven).  While he was doing that, I started boiling water for the pasta and prepping the shrimp and scallop scampi.  Once that was done. I lowered the oven to 200 degrees to reheat the clams and salmon cakes for a few minutes while I seared the tuna and steamed the lobster tails.  The whole process took about three hours, and only involved two trips for J. to run out and buy more lemons and milk.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Christmas Cake Pops

For my birthday, approximately seven months ago, I got a Cake Pop Maker from my friend, La (Thanks, La!). While a gracious gift, it was also around the time I was moving to a new apartment, so the cake pop maker and accessories went into a box and got stored away into a closet. (Sorry, La.) But they were not forgotten! Last week, J. and I hosted a Secret Santa exchange among a few friends in town, and I thought, what better time to finally make use of my cake pop maker? Who wouldn't want little white "snowballs" festively dotted with green and red sprinkles?

For those of you have never seen a cake pop maker, imagine a waffle iron, with plates that have these little round indentations instead of the "waffle" shape.  Or look at the picture here. It comes with a cake pop stand to use for cooling the cakes and to hold the cake pops after frosting them. And La was generous to also get me the "chocolatier" for dipping in the frosting (essentially it is a miniature crock-pot).

This actually turned out to be a fun project. Although one downside of the cake pop maker is that it only makes 12 cake pops at a time, and the recipes all make about 36 cake pops, so that means you have to bake them in batches.

I used the vanilla cake recipe and the vanilla frosting dip recipe from the cake pop maker manual.  The manual also has some handy tips in there.  For example, I learned that it was easier to freeze the cake balls for five minutes before dipping them in frosting made the process easier.  And dipping the stick in the frosting before jabbing them into the cake balls helps to keep the cake from falling off the stick.  I've never tried making cake pops without a cake pop maker, so I couldn't tell you if it was any easier.  I do like that it only took about four minutes to cook each batch.

I decorated the pops with red and green Christmas Sprinkles and crushed candy canes.  A note on the cake pops with candy canes - the red dye on the candy canes will start to run if you make the cake pops too far in advance.  They still taste good, but I recommend serving them the day of so they stay crisp and pretty when you serve them to guests, and don't look like mangled eyeballs.  (Though something to keep in mind if we ever serve them at a Halloween party!)

I'm looking forward to testing out the other recipes in the manual (I read somewhere it is better to use the recipes in the manual when using the cake pop maker since they are especially formulated for it).  Next I hope to make the apple cider doughnut holes or the red velvet cake pops.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

We spent Thanksgiving with J's family.  Instead of coming back home with Thanksgiving leftovers, we came home with a fresh butternut squash from J's mom's garden. Which, in my opinion, is something to be thankful for.

After my acorn squash fiasco, I had no interest in peeling a butternut squash.  Unfortunately most of the recipes I found called for peeling and cubing the squash, so I had to use the roasting method from this recipe, but followed the rest of the basic method from this recipe.  And then I added spices to meet my fancy. 

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

1 butternut squash
1 carrot (or about 4-5 baby carrots), chopped
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 yellow bell pepper, chopped (I added this on a whim because I didn't have celery)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2  Tbs and 1/4 tsp olive oil, divided
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Spices (adjust according to taste):
2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp all spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 

Prick butternut squash with a fork all over.  (Using a sharp knife would probably be easier, but stabbing a squash with a fork is so much more fun). Roast in the oven for about 1 hour. Allow to cool.  When cool enough to touch, cut in half lengthwise, and scoop out seeds and fibers.  Scoop out the pulp into a bowl and set aside. 

Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a large pot.  Cook carrots, onion, and bell pepper for about 8-10 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent. Push vegetables to the sides of the pot. Add garlic and and remaining 1/4 tsp of olive oil. Saute for about 30 seconds and then incorporate with the rest of the vegetables. Add chicken broth and squash pulp.  Bring to a boil and then lower heat to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add spices according to taste. (I added about 1/2 tsp of each until it met my liking). 

Allow to cool a bit and then puree in batches in the blender. (Or use an immersion blender.) Taste and adjust seasonings again.