8 – Side Dishes

The other weekend, I was killing it in the kitchen. I had just finished off development and photos for a couple new recipes (my recent Curried Beef Stew and Garlic Smashed Potatoes dishes), and I was digging into two new creations: this week’s Skillet-Roasted Winter Vegetables, and next week’s Center-Cut Pork Rib Roast. Everything was going well, and my timing was just right – the dishes were going to finish just as the afternoon sun would be in the perfect position for photos.

But as anyone who’s visited Florida can attest, the weather can change in a blink of an eye. Case in point was this day, because in the course of a few minutes, my early afternoon sunshine transformed into a late evening sky, just as a tornado watch warning chimed on my phone. Clouds rushed in, winds gusted; the ambient light near the window I use for photography disappeared. So, picture this: in the middle of a storm, I rushed outside to our screened-in porch, laid down my photography surfaces, and desperately snapped some photos in near-dark conditions. Sure, I probably could have just waited for a different day, but I also enjoyed the challenge that mother nature threw my way.

The point of this story is to say that sure, my picture came out a bit blurry, but I will likely have fond memories associated with this photography session for years to come. I think it’s moments like those that I appreciate having a food blog in the first place; while cookbooks are often very particular – run through a team of editors and designers – blogging can be as fluid as the author defines. And really, the photo looks much better than some of the photos from this site’s early days, anyway!

This week’s recipe isn’t glamorous, and one we make often. Since the vegetables have varying cooking times, the best approach is to par-boil the hardier vegetables – carrots and parsnips, in this case – and then finish them all off together in the oven. Feel free to swap out the carrots and parsnips with other vegetables, like turnips or beets.

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While we typically eat Basic Mashed Potatoes with our daily meals, you can’t deny the fun that is Smashed Potatoes. In few other recipes can you treat a food so poorly–smashing it with the heel of your palm!–and still come away with something that’s both perfectly crispy and secretly fluffy.

This recipe takes a bit longer than a typical mashed or roasted potato, mostly because you’ll need to cool the potatoes for about 10 minutes, but the extra effort is an excellent way to periodically spice up your relationship with America’s favorite tuber.

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Tortilla Española, sometimes called Tortilla de Patatas, is a Spanish omelette unrelated to the corn and wheat tortillas found in Mexico and neighboring countries (in Spanish, the word tortilla means “small torte/cake”). It is often served cold as a tapa, or warm as part of a meal.

References to the Spanish tortilla didn’t surface until the early 19th century, as a quick meal (for soldiers, as legend has it) using readily-available ingredients of eggs and potatoes, and sometimes onion. Common add-ins for Spanish tortillas include chorizo sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, peas, and eggplant; the name of the dish will often change depending on which ingredients are added to the mix.

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I recently completed some housekeeping on the blog, long overdue; I redeveloped the categories on my sidebar navigation, to include specific ingredients (like shrimp and other sub-categories instead of just seafood), as well as certain types of dishes (like soups & stews) or preparations (pressure cooker recipes). I hope this makes this website a little more user-friendly, and please be sure to share any feedback in the comments below.

In the spirit of housekeeping, I recently realized that there are some very basic recipes missing from the pages of this blog. Some are obvious; I don’t expect to ever provide a tutorial on how to fry bacon, or how to slice an onion, as there are many excellent blogs dedicated to kitchen basics. But others are such a fundamental part of my everyday cooking that their absences were missed. One such recipe is today’s post, for basic mashed potatoes.

I grew up with mashed potatoes as a staple starch. Today’s recipe is very similar to my mom’s basic technique: boil some potatoes, then drain and mash them up with a bunch of butter and cream. Although to be honest, I’m a product of the 1980s (knee-deep in the low-fat craze), so our potatoes were likely made with (yikes!) margarine and (ick!) 2% milk. I’m happy to report that after spending time with my parents the other week, they’re back on real butter and cream.

Today’s recipe comes from the pages of Deep Dish: Season One, the project I released with my friend Tony Federico this past May. In it, we explore a classic American meal – Meatloaf – and build a history lesson, radio show, and comprehensive recipe eBook to explore the ins and outs of one celebrated dinner.

One last bit of housekeeping – I’m disappointed to report that the company behind my iOS/Android app will be shuttering their services, and my app will no longer work after the New Year. After spending some weeks researching alternatives, I have not been able to find a solution that fits my budget. One of my goals is to learn programming code well enough to develop my own app, but that’ll be some time from now – I still need to finish writing cookbook #3! So for now, please accept my apologies, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time with my app.

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Let me start this post by acknowledging that this recipe title is a second-order misnomer. You see, combining the words “muffuletta” and “wedge salad”, at face value, is just preposterous. For those of you who know their Sicilian bread history, muffuletta is a large, round, and sturdy bread not unlike focaccia. It was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants, who created a sandwich that bears this same name.

The story goes that Italian-Americans living in New Orleans tired of having to manage a whole plate of pickled vegetables, meat, cheese, and muffuletta bread, so they started throwing it all together for the sake of convenience, and the muffuletta sandwich was born. Today, the signature traits of this sandwich include an olive salad (sometimes mixed with chopped giardiniera pickled vegetables like carrots and cauliflower) and layers of Italian ham, salami, and provolone cheese. Some versions include other meats, like mortadella (similar to bologna), or other cheeses like mozzarella.

So for today’s recipe, not only am I not sharing a bread recipe, I’m also not sharing a sandwich recipe (hence the second-order misnomer). Instead, I wanted to combine the rich and potent flavors of the muffuletta sandwich with the unmistakable crispness and convenience of a wedge salad. After all, what could be easier than making a salad that only requires minimal chopping? Another added bonus of this method: the olive oil used to flavor the olive salad doubles as a salad dressing, making this recipe a simple, two-step process. Sure, it’s not as convenient as a one-handed sandwich, but still – pretty convenient.

Coincidentally, I’m making my first trip to Sicily in a couple weeks, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for muffuletta bread while there.

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Around this time last year, I contributed a series of recipes to Yahoo! Food, and it was a lot of fun. As part of some company restructures, however, the website shut down in February. One of my favorite recipes from my short time there was this New Brunswick-Style Potato Stuffing, so I’m sharing it with you folks this week, just in time to nudge it into your Thanksgiving meal planning. Here’s what I wrote about it last year:

Folks who follow the Paleo diet sometimes get the short stick. For example: croissants. While solutions like “meatzas” (a pizza with a meat crust) might work in some contexts, there just isn’t a good way to create a flaky, lightly-textured pastry using nut flours, or heaven forbid, meat. Similarly, a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing (or “dressing” – more on that in a bit) is difficult to replicate. Typical Paleo reinterpretations feature (yep, you guessed it) meat, and sometimes nuts and dried fruit. All those things sound just fine, thank you very much, but not very reminiscent of stuffing.

Stuffing, as we commonly think of it, is a strange mix between crispy and fluffy, and is often overwhelmingly savory; this taste sensation expertly complements tart cranberry sauce, creamy mashed potatoes, rich gravy, and (hopefully) juicy turkey. So when conceiving a grain-free, Paleo-friendly stuffing, my mind kept returning to fried potatoes – crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside. I almost ran to my local library to do some research, but then I remembered about Google, and discovered that there already exists a potato-based stuffing, just in a seldom-visited cranny of the world (New Brunswick, Canada).

New Brunswick-style potato stuffing is characterized by two concepts: potatoes, and the use of savory (also known as “summer savory”). Savory is a defining seasoning in Atlantic Canada, and is used in most poultry seasonings in the same way that we Yanks use sage. We’re going to use a combination of both savory and sage, to make everyone happy. New Brunswick-style stuffing also typically uses bread slices in addition to the potatoes, but we’ll go ahead and ignore that fact since this is a Paleo recipe.

To get the perfect potato texture, we’re going to par-boil the potatoes to remove some of their starch and to soften them up; that way we can just blast the potatoes over a relatively high heat to crisp them up without worrying about whether they’re done on the inside. We’ll be frying them in duck fat, because it’s delicious, but lard, coconut oil, or any other high-heat oil will work just fine. In a separate pan, we’ll prepare the rest of the dish, then combine the two just before serving (otherwise, the potatoes would get mushy).

One last note: there actually is a distinction between stuffing and dressing, although the distinction is mostly ignored. Stuffing is, by definition, a dressing that is placed inside of a turkey, while dressing is not. Personally, I grew up calling it “stuffing”, regardless of its location in relation to a bird, so we’ll stick with that for this recipe.

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It’s been a couple months since my last soup post, so this one is long overdue. Soups are a vital part of my diet; they are versatile, easy to prepare, and a seamless way to integrate more homemade broth into my eating routine. Today’s lettuce soup is a nice change of pace, and a unique way to avoid the incessant crunching and chewing that comes from eating a plateful of lettuce.

There are two main cuisines with a history of enjoying lettuce in their soup. In Chinese cuisine, it is added as a finishing vegetable, much in the same way you’d add herbs like cilantro or scallions; for example, our local Vietnamese restaurant serves its Chinese-inspired Hu Tieu soup with lettuce on top. Today’s recipe favors the French preparation of lettuce soup, which is often blended (or run through a sieve) and flavored with cream.

Any lettuce will do for this recipe, with the exception of iceberg, because it probably won’t add much flavor. This dish is served both cold and hot, and we prefered the hot version. Lettuce soup has a flavor that’s hard to describe – earthy but not dirty, sharp but not biting. I’ve found that cooking down a leek in the chicken broth enriches and balances the soup; adding a few sprigs of parsley and some lemon zest help brighten its top notes as well.

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Paella is one of my favorite dishes to prepare at home – like fried rice or risotto, it’s an excellent way to clean out the vegetable bin. Moreover, it’s one of my favorite examples how the judicious use of white rice can in fact be very health-promoting; while rice gets a bum rap for being fairly devoid of nutrients, I think it’s just fine in the context of the broth, seafood, and vegetables used in this recipe.

This dish was a standout recipe in my first cookbook, The Ancestral Table, and here’s what I wrote about it:

Paella is a dish from Valencia, along Spain’s eastern coast. Rice was a product of Moorish influence and was a staple in Spain by the 15th century. Paella developed over the years as people began to add combinations of meats and vegetables. While water vole was one of the first meats used in paella, today’s Valencian paella includes rabbit, chicken, snails, and beans; seafood paella is equally popular and is considered a traditional dish along the Valencian coast.

Using an appropriate type of rice is important, as many varieties were specially bred to absorb liquid without losing texture. Calasparra and bomba rices are preferred and are available from gourmet food suppliers and online. Arborio, a common risotto rice, fares pretty well. In a pinch, plain calrose rice will get the job done. Paella is best made over an open flame and is traditionally prepared outdoors.

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September is here, Labor Day has come and passed; it’s time to get autumnal.

Ratatouille is a Provençal vegetable stew, first originating in the city of Nice (near the Southeast tip of France). Its base ingredients, namely tomatoes and eggplant, are indicative of its Mediterranean influence; there are similar dishes in other countries that border the Mediterranean, like Pisto (Spain), Camponata (Sicily), and Briám (Greece).

But who am I fooling – you are probably already aware of this dish. If you’re like me, you were pretty inspired by the 2007 film; to me, it captured the beauty of cooking in a way that few films have. Truth be told, few animated films have stuck with me as long as Ratatouille (but I think Pinocchio will always be my all-time favorite).

For today’s preparation, I kept things simple. Just the right ingredients, done in an hour, and mostly hands off – it’s the perfect accompaniment to a more labor-intensive main dish. In fact, it’d be the perfect time to try out that Chicken in Champagne Sauce recipe you’ve been eyeing for the past few months!

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Arroz con Pollo is a chicken and rice dish popular in Spain and Latin America. While its origin is difficult to trace, it is likely an adaptation of the Paella, a staple Spanish (Valencian) rice dish dating as far back as the 15th century. As with many dishes stemming from Spain’s exploration and colonization, Arroz con Pollo deliciously marries both worlds; Spanish rice and technique combine with ingredients native to the Americas (namely tomatoes and peppers).

There are dozens of variations on Arroz con Pollo, and I fully expect a few comments below lamenting the fact that my version is not exactly like abuelita’s recipe. It’s understandable that this dish evokes some fairly raw emotion, as it is closely aligned with what I’d consider comfort food. I find that there is beauty in creating a personal version of an oft-tweaked recipe; I think that personalization is part of being human, and the many variations of this dish stand as a testament to this concept.

Some common extra add-ins for Arroz con Pollo include pimento-stuffed green olives, beer, and/or ham. Its flavoring paste, known as sofrito, is also the subject of some debate; some call for tomatoes, others eschew them, and still others use an added fat like lard or olive oil.

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