Spice-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I am all about easy side dishes. I love reading cookbooks and food blogs full of gorgeous gratins, slaws, and the like, but I never get around to making them. On a busy weeknight, if I’m going to eat my vegetables and not resort to snacking on gingersnaps right out of the box, I need side dish recipes that don’t involve ten dishes and ten minutes of chopping. I also need recipes that don’t use too much oil or add too many calories to my plate. (Or I might as well just eat those cookies.)

This brings me to sweet potatoes. They’re so good for you with their lower-than-white-potato glycemic index. They keep for weeks in the pantry. And they are so dang tasty.

You can cook them plainly, but what’s the fun in that? After several microwave-baked sweet potatoes with butter in a row, I’m ready for something more interesting. The usual Thanksgiving treatment (butter, sugar, more sugar) is too decadent to have every day.

These spice-roasted sweet potatoes are a staple in both my kitchens: work and home. They take five minutes to prep, require one baking sheet that you can line with foil to minimize mess, make use of spices you’re probably not tired of yet (when is the last time you used ground fennel?), and they are utterly, unexpectedly delicious.  I clipped this recipe from an old issue of Gourmet and have been making them for years.

The spice rub calls for hot pepper flakes.  If you don’t like spicy foods, the amount can be reduced, but I don’t recommend leaving them out altogether.   The hit of chile really makes this dish – just use a pinch if you’re worried.  The sweetness of the potato will counter the heat.

If you want to make these often, keep a little jar of the spice mix handy to save time.  You can make any quantity easily – just notice the 2:1 ratio of coriander to other spices.  This mix also makes a great rub for steaks or hamburgers.

Spice-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

These potatoes hit all the right notes – salty, spicy, and sweet. The original recipe called for twice the oil.  While oil can help crisp them up, I’m always looking for ways to cut calories and I am thrilled with this compromise.  

adapted from Gourmet, January 2002
Serves 4-6

1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground fennel
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
kosher salt, to taste
2 lb. sweet potatoes
1.5 tbs. olive oil

Heat oven to 425F.

Line a baking sheet with foil and grease lightly.

Mix spices in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Cut sweet potatoes into wedges or a large dice. (Leave skin on.) Place on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle with spice mix, olive oil, and salt.  Don’t skimp on the salt.  Toss to evenly coat and spread potatoes in one layer with space between the pieces.

Roast for 25-30 minutes or until tender.  Flip potatoes once during cooking.

18 Perfect Gifts for a Cook

When Santa came to my house as a child, my siblings and I would line up, youngest to oldest in the hallway leading to the family room, unable to see the toys until given the official OK from our sleepy parents. I, the youngest, would be in the lead, and would tiptoe forward in anticipation, one little step at a time, stretching out the suspense until I could take it no more and finally would rush around the corner to see the piles of toys. Santa didn’t wrap presents in our house; we would be immediately greeted by the toys of our dreams. I clearly remember the time I found my Little Tikes kitchen set. It was taller than me and didn’t seem like a toy but like my own real little kitchen.


Of course, I now know why the youngest took the lead – my big brother and sister knew there was no Santa. They put on a good show.

Now that I’m pushing 30, I feel like Santa is tiptoeing down the hall, sneaking up on me. How am I supposed to finish December’s work and year-end accounting and decorate the house and bake cookies and buy thoughtful presents for everyone?

Christmas still has its magic, though. Mom and I have our little projects together. We trim a fake tree with the tackiest decorations we can find. It’s ghetto-fab meets Dollar General. Those ornaments are so full of Chinese lead paint that our Tannenbaum is probably (definitely) a health hazard. The lights even blink erratically. I’ve suggested adding some pine tree car air fresheners to push us over the top.

Gift giving, too, has its moments. Christmas is overly commercial and may fuel some of our worst materialistic tendencies, but thinking deeply about what a loved one might want or find useful reminds us of our connections to each other. Sometimes we even learn more about others just by asking about their wish lists– I didn’t know my nephew liked to draw until I heard that he wanted art supplies.

Still, the pressure is on to shop for everyone, do it thoughtfully, and manage to finish in time.

This time of year I always compile a list of great gifts for cooks, to share with my customers who might need some help shopping. I pick these items for their quality and usability. Some might seem boring, like sheet pans and parchment paper, but a serious home baker will appreciate the genuine usefulness of these items far more than the latest gadget.

(FYI: I receive no compensation of any sort to recommend these items.  These are tools that I actually use.)

Gear:

 

Vollrath baking sheets 13×18.The industry standard.Will not warp (no bending when it gets hot in the oven or cold on a counter.).Will last a lifetime. Will not have hot spots that burn.And, as a bonus, will fit the parchment paper listed below.Even if someone has a baking sheet already, having a number of them is quite useful for making multiple batches of cookies, etc.


Pre-cut parchment paper.To fit the Vollrath pans.Most grocery stores only carry parchment that comes on a roll, which is a pain to cut to size.These are so easy to use since they fit the pans perfectly and lie flat.A home baker will love this.Also available in larger quantities (and lower price per sheet) at local restaurant supply stores.

Granite French-style rolling pin for pastry.Granite can be pre-chilled, which helps keep the butter in the pastry cold. The heavy weight also helps reduce the amount of muscle power needed.

Silicone pastry rolling mat.Great for rolling pastry, kneading bread, etc.Nothing will stick to it.Eliminates the fear of a pie crust being ruined when it sticks to the counter.

Granite mortar and pestle.The granite gives it weight, which is especially good for cracking whole spices.Essential for Asian cooking where aromatic ingredients are often crushed into a paste.Also great for making salad dressings with herbs, garlic, ginger, or spices. 

Cherry Pitter.Most gadgets are for tasks better done with a knife, but this is an exception.There is no quicker way to pit fresh cherries. It’s also really fun to use.

8” Mighty Santoku MAC knife. Item # MSK-60 and Rollsharp Sharpener # SR-2. Fantastic quality for the price.If you use the recommended ceramic roller sharpener, this knife will stay razor sharp for years with very little effort.A perfect all-purpose knife.I use this knife for 95% of my work in the kitchen.


Fun Spices, Flavorings, and Foods:

 

Smoked Paprika. Paprika’s sensual Spanish side.Adds huge flavor; a little goes a long way. Makes a great spice rub for meats and vegetables.

Porcini powder.Can be used as an easy rub for steaks.A great addition to cream sauces or soups.

Smoked Sea Salt. Perfect for people who use any method of indoor grilling. Imparts a natural smoky flavor to meats, vegetables, etc.

Real Vanilla Beans.An expensive item that is prized for making the best custards, puddings, and ice cream. This is the kind of thing that many people won’t splurge on to buy for themselves.Good news:a little goes a long way.

Bacon-Of-The-Month from The Grateful Palate.My husband got me this last year and it’s been fabulous.Good clean, pork flavors with natural smoke from small producers.Varying cuts of pork and different cures.Perfect gift for a BLT lover.

Cookbooks:

Any cookbook by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.These books are coffee-table gorgeous and really fun to read. My favorite cookbooks of all.Instant inspiration.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet

Beyond the Great Wall

Mangoes and Curry Leaves

Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World


The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidell. It’s an encyclopedia of meat that teaches the basics of cuts, grades, and cooking methods.It also includes a good number of recipes but its real value is as a handy reference for novices and pros alike.

The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider. Full of fun ideas that stress flexibility in the kitchen without being intimidating.Good for novices or experienced cooks.

 

Sun-dried Tomato and Oregano Butter

I ate too much for Thanksgiving and I need some detox.

Seriously.  We finished pies and then made more pies. We took it to a whole ‘nother level.

Now I’m looking for clean food like that grilled chicken.  But there is no need to leave that chicken naked, juicy as it may be.

I usually reserve compound butters for hot weather, since they provide a sauce with no long simmering on the stove and seem to just fit with a crisp glass of white wine, but after the Thanksgiving gluttony the simplicity and lightness are welcome.

If you’re going to make compound butter, you might as well make a bunch of it for the freezer. You can toss it on any grilled meat, slather it on hot pasta with veggies, on steamed vegetables, or even just rub it onto a loaf of good bread.

I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve had buttered La Brea sourdough from Costco for dinner.  I’m not embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve made an impromptu dinner for guests with herb butter, frozen spinach ravioli, and some steamed veggies.  The butter just gives everything a lift out of the ordinary.

By all means, don’t stop with these ingredients and don’t feel the need to run to the store.  If you haven’t got oregano, use basil.  If you haven’t got a lemon, use an orange.  If you don’t have a bottle of wine open, just omit it.

What am I saying?  Open a bottle.

Sun-dried Tomato and Oregano Butter
The acidity of tomato, lemon, and white wine cut the richness of the butter and keep it from feeling heavy on the tongue.  Once it melts, you have a lovely casual sauce for grilled chicken or fish.  Adapted from Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America.
Serves 5

4 tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbs. sun-dried tomatoes, minced (see note)
2 tbs. fresh oregano, minced
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. dry white wine
kosher salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
plastic wrap

Use a rubber spatula to blend soft butter with other ingredients.If all of the liquid doesn’t mix in well, don’t worry about it.  Just leave the excess in the bowl when you remove the butter.

Lay a long piece of plastic wrap flat on the counter.Use the spatula or your hands to lay the butter down in a roughly oblong shape.Roll the plastic around it. Grab both ends and twist tightly.The pressure will smooth out the butter and make a nice cylinder.

Chill in the refrigerator until firm. (Or pop in the freezer for a few minutes.) Remove plastic wrap and slice into pats for serving.

Melt pats onto hot meats, veggies, or pasta.

Keeps one week in the fridge or several weeks in the freezer.Wrap well, as the butter can absorb flavors from other foods.

Note:I use fairly soft sun-dried tomatoes that are packed dry in vacuum-sealed bags.Tomatoes packed in oil would work well too.If you have rock-hard tomatoes, plump them in hot water for a few minutes to soften.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect (Indoor) Grilled Chicken

Grilled = leather.

First off, I’m not talking about artful, experienced charcoal grilling, or even lighting up the gas grill.  I’m not talking about butterflied, bone-in, skin-on cuts of chicken. I’m definitely not talking about brined cuts of meat.  I’m talking about what happens in home kitchens on busy weeknights when the sun is gone by the time you get home — the Foreman Grilling of boneless, skinless, chicken breasts.  That last-minute, indoor staple of modern life.

The fact is that it’s hard to cook lean meat without drying it out. You want those nice dark grill marks and smoky flavor but if you grill that un-marinated, boneless, skinless chicken breast for too long you’re going to feel like you’re eating footwear.

There is a way to have both grilled flavor and juicy meat. It’s not voodoo. You just have to learn rethink what it means “to grill.”

Step 1:
Get rid of your Foreman Grill.  Why?  It will never get hot enough to make good grill marks quickly or give good grilled flavor.  It’s too hard to clean anyway, despite what the ads say.  If you put a piece of salmon on it, it’s going to smell like salmon fat for a week.

Step 2:
Buy a cast-iron grill pan.  Pre-seasoned so it’s non-stick (naturally).  They’re cheap.  I’ve seen them as low as $20 at Target.  Easy to clean, easy to maintain, can be put in the oven, and it may outlive you.

Step 3:
Buy an instant-read thermometer. Use it to cook your chicken to 165F internal.  Ignore the 185F advised by your meat thermometer’s markings–that’s a total lie.  According to my local health department, chicken is safe at 165F.  That’s one reason that restaurant chicken is juicy and yours isn’t.

An instant-read cannot stay in the oven while the meat cooks, but most chicken breasts are too small to accommodate the thick stem of a standard meat thermometer anyway.  Just pull the chicken out, stick the stem of the instant-read into the thickest part, and wait for the temp to stabilize.  As the name suggests, it won’t take long.

Step 4:
Buy decent chicken.  Organic is great, “all-natural” is good.  Even if you can’t afford the free-range bird, go for the brand with the least water (and other crap) injected into it.

Step 5:
Don’t grill the chicken all the way. Use the pan for lovely grill marks and flavor but finish it in the oven. The oven provides the steady, even, all-enveloping heat that will cook the meat to temp without drying it out.

Perfect (Indoor) Grilled Chicken

boneless, skinless chicken breasts
olive oil, for rubbing
instant read thermometer

Preheat oven to 375F.  Preheat grill pan over high heat.  It’s Ok if your pan starts to smoke. Turn on your exhaust fan.

Rub chicken with just enough oil to lightly coat.

Season your chicken with salt, pepper, and any other spices or herbs.

Grill chicken for 1.5 minutes per side.  No more.  Do not move the chicken while it’s grilling – you’ll only get good grill marks if you let the meat stay in constant contact with the pan.

Move the pan to the oven.  (Or, if you need to grill more than one batch, remove already grilled chicken to a baking dish or pan.)  Bake 8-10 minutes or until the internal temp is 165F as measured by your thermometer.  Remove chicken from the hot pan immediately to avoid overcooking.