Food Blog 4 – Tomato Pesto Awesomeness… erm, Bread

Today’s recipe is one that I stole and adapted from my mother. (Though to be fair, my mom is generous enough to give it to me – stealing makes it sound much more dangerous.) When I was growing up, she used to make what we called ‘tomato bread’ about once a month, which wasn’t nearly enough for me.  There’s something addictive about garlic, butter, salt, and tomatoes on crusty bread.

When I got to college, I discovered pesto and a light bulb went off in my head. The name for what follows isn’t particularly catchy, but the flavours are addictive as hell and it’s easy food for a meal for two (with leftovers) or for a party appetizer.

This is what we start with.

Tomato-Pesto Bread

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Foodblog 3 – Quick Chicken Nachos

Two days ago we discussed chicken. Yesterday I gave you my salsa recipe. Today we’ll combine them into an actual meal-something that is damned tasty.

1 can refried beans
2 chicken breasts
1 bag of tortilla chips
Pickled chilis (either sliced jalapenos or pepperoncini)
Cheese (Optional)
Salsa (Optional)
Guacamole (Optional)
Cilantro for garnish

Right, so this is one of those really customizable meals that takes about 15 minutes to make if you store-buy everything (like the salsa and guac) and less than an hour if you do the salsa and guacamole yourself. I find the flavour combinations addictive enough that I eat until I’m miserable with this dish. Do your best to avoid this problem.

1) Empty the can of refried beans into a pan with 2-4 oz of water, and set the pan on medium-low heat. Stir the beans around so the water gets evenly distributed throughout the mixture and just let it set there until everything else is ready. When you are prepared to serve, the bean mixture should be thin enough to easily spoon onto the chips.

2) Slice the chicken breasts in half and add a light cumin dusting to the outside along with salt and pepper. Cook them as described here. When they are done, dice them into bite-size pieces.

3) Put a layer of tortilla chips on a plate.

4) Add the beans over chips. Then add the diced chicken as well.

5) Add a layer of grated cheese over everything.

6)  From here, add whatever elements you want. I like salsa, guacamole, sour cream, and peppers. Other people like chives, olives, fresh tomatoes, lettuce, bacon – at this point it’s a playground for your tastebuds, so do what you want. One way to cut the fat is to leave off the sour cream and/or the guacamole. You could also cut the tortilla chips and put lettuce in its place, or quick fry your own tortillas… the variations are endless.

@mixedknuts on Twitter

Food Blog 2 – Fresh Salsa in a Barren Wasteland

The UK is a barren wasteland for Mexican food. At the super market you’ll find Old El Paso and little else, and the stuff they sell as ‘salsa’ here is almost universally wretched. It’s either canned/jarred crap the U.S. had 30 years ago or it’s horribly sweet and vinegary stuff you can get in the refrigerated aisle. For someone whose favourite cuisine is Tex-Mex and who spent some important developmental years in the American South West, neither of these is edible.

Unfortunately for me, I haven’t been very happy with most of the recipes I’ve found for salsa online either. Recipes from Europe seem to interchange ‘salsa’ with ‘sauce’ whenever they feel like it, while a number of easy American stalwarts like Alton Brown somehow think red peppers belong in salsa. Experts like Bobby Flay and Rick Bayless produce some amazing salsa variations, but they are also damned complex to recreate, especially when you just  need to satisfy your own personal salsa cravings.  So, for the last year I have been dicking around and coming up with my own.

It goes a little somethin’ like this:

200-250g (7-8oz) of Grape or Plum tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 lime (juice only)
1 large chipotle (you can exchange this for a large Jalapeno if you want a less smoky flavour – I usually err toward the chipotle version about 60% of the time)
1.5 Tblsp Ancho Chili Powder
1 Tblsp Salt (I use kosher or fine sea salt.)
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 Tbsp finely chopped cilantro
Total time: 20-25 minutes

Start by chopping the tomatoes to whatever thickness you like in your salsa. Me, I like some chunk, but not giant pieces. I rarely make puree’d salsas, even though those are an integral part in more traditional Mexican cuisine. When you transfer the tomatoes to a bowl, try and leave as much of the juice and seeds behind as you can. It’s not a huge deal with smaller toms, but the seeds and juice are extra tasteless liquid that gets added to the mix. If you use larger tomatoes, you need to actively chop out the liquid sacks inside the tomato or your salsa will be too runny.

Once the chopped tomatoes are in a bowl, squeeze over half the lime juice and add the salt. Next mince  the garlic (mincing means to finely chop in order to distribute the flavour) and dice the shallots and add those to the bowl as well. While most salsa recipes call for onion, I prefer the milder flavour of shallots. Those of you who like really spiky onion flavour, feel free to add half a red onion instead – the recipe is flexible and can be adjusted to your tastes.

Next mince the chipotle and add that to the bowl as well. Chipotles are smoked jalapenos, and they usually come in a can with adobo sauce. In the United States these are easy to find in the Mexican section of most super markets (or you can hit up a Mercado), while in the U.K. the only market I’ve found them in was a large Waitrose.  You can however, order them online and have them shipped. The nice part about these is that they come usually 6-8 in a can, and once you open the can, you can store the rest in a plastic container in the fridge where they will keep for a long time. Bacteria aren’t brave enough to attack something this spicy.

At this point add the spices to the bowl, squeeze the other half of the lime in and mix everything around and let it sit in the fridge for 30 minutes. What this does is lets the flavours have time to intermingle. After the 30 minutes, add the chopped cilantro and you are done. What you should taste is something a bit limey and really quite smoky, intercut with tomato, garlic, and a cilantro finish. The spice on this should be acceptable to most taste buds, so if you are a spice fiend, you’ll need to dial it up a notch. I will also often add another teaspoon of salt at the time I add the cilantro, but that part is up to you.

As I mentioned above, if you want less smoke, just use regular jalapenos for the chilis instead.

Since they take a lot of the same prep work, I will usually make this salsa along with the guacamole recipe found here for Mexican food nights (which could include tostadas, tacos, nachos, or fajitas).

Tomorrow I’ll toss up an easy recipe we make about every other week in our house, always to rave reviews.

@mixedknuts on Twitter

Food Blog 1 – Stop Screwing Up Chicken Breasts

Are you happy with how much you know about cooking? It’s a simple question but one that comes with a load of issues behind it (does my ass look big in these jeans?), so maybe it’s easier to ask, “Do you love food?” If the answer is yes, then you should want to learn as much about cooking as there is to know. It’s fucking expensive to eat out at good restaurants all the time, and eating out period is rather fattening as well. Learning to cook your own food is healthy, tasty, and it stretches your brain in all sorts of ways that you might not expect. (Example: Cooking itself is very science-y, particularly with regard to heat and chemistry, but also with regard to flavours as well. I enjoy cooking in the same way I enjoy gaming – everything is a puzzle to be solved and a solution to be perfected.)

Anyway, regardless of how you feel, I am never happy with how much I know about cooking. This would probably be true if I did it professionally, but is certainly the case as an interested amateur. I eat in restaurants like this with some regularity, but the food I produce at home is more family-oriented and could often be classified as comfort food (meaning it’s quick, full of flavour, and usually stuff you can toss in the fridge for leftovers the next day).  As much as I enjoy great presentation, I’m not going to spend an extra 30 minutes on it while making dinner for my wife and family, and I wouldn’t expect you busy people to do that either.

I know this might seem out of place compared to the other stuff that appears on this blog BUT a lot of my readers are younger males, who may or may not have ever created anything beyond microwave pizza and pouring sauce over rice/pasta (I know this will burst some bubbles, but this is not cooking). They likely lack survival skills for the kitchen. Sooo, I’ve decided to toss some food bloggyness up here on the site once a week to help you guys out (and to also force myself to keep writing and learning about food).  Sometimes, I’ll cover basic survival skills. Other times I’ll detail easy, but really flavourful recipes I make all the time. And once in a rare while I’ll toss up a restaurant or cookbook  or wine review for something different. If a dialogue starts up and you guys find yourselves getting into it, maybe I’ll do more than once a week – who knows?

In the meantime, expect me to share some recipes and techniques I’ve learned as an adult that result in tasty (and sometimes even healthy) dishes you can make at home.

Survival Skill #1 – Learn to Cook Chicken Breast
The meat most of us eat more than any other is chicken. It is also the meat that gets tortured more than any other by amateur chefs. I say this out of experience – I made terrible, rubbery chicken for nearly a decade, and I did it for two reasons. First, I was terrified of poisoning anyone with undercooked breasts. And second, I had no idea about the proper relationship between heat, meat, and flavour. So today I’m going to try and help you not to make the mistakes I made, and discuss how to make damned tasty chicken breasts that won’t poison anyone either.

If you buy boneless, skinless breasts at the supermarket, you’ll usually end up with some big fatties that look like the ones on the left in the picture below. Note 1: Breasts like that are generally going to be too thick to cook just by sautéing them in a pan. If you try this, you’ll occasionally achieve chicken nirvana, but more often they’ll end up tough on the thin end and somewhat undercooked in the middle of the thick part. This is bad.

Assuming I want to cook them quickly (like for nachos or to toss in a salad) instead of leaving them as full breasts , I will typically just cut them in half to try and make the breast equally thick all around. This causes them to cook much faster overall, and it increases the surface area we get to brown, which adds flavour.

Another thing that adds flavour to a meat that can be really bland is adding salt and pepper to both sides of the breast before you start cooking them. Depending on what style of cuisine you are working with, you can add other coatings as well, but I almost never cook a chicken breast sans salt/pepper. (If I’m doing Mexican food, I usually add some cumin as well and will sometimes squeeze lime over the breast while it’s cooking.)

Note 2 : Your pan needs to be hot before you add the chicken. This was the other big problem I had when I was younger – I’d start cooking chicken in a cool pan and wonder why the damned things never got brown. Eventually I learned from some chef on the Food Network that you needed to have the pan hot enough to cause olive oil to smoke before you tossed your bird boobs in. Once I had that, brown, juicy chicken breast became a regular thing in my house.  This is the sort of look you are going for on one side before you flip them over.

In general, you want to leave these suckers alone until they are brown enough you want to flip them. Turning them over all the time can yield some strange results in terms of brownness and doneness, and it just annoys the chicken – I recommend avoiding this. Also note I flipped the one on the far right a little early to compare and contrast. Obviously this isn’t rocket science and it isn’t even hard. However, if someone had taught me this 15 years ago, I would have had a much happier time eating chicken while in my 20’s, and so would all of those poor people who came to our house for parties and had to chew and chew and chew to get through a meal. (Sorry all you people – if you happen to stop by the house now, I promise to do better.)

Because this was short and basic, I’ll toss up another recipe tomorrow with the fresh salsa recipe I make on a weekly basis here in the UK because there is no good salsa anywhere in this entire country. Meanwhile, let me know on Twitter and in the comments if you like this concept and hit me up with future topics you’d like to see me cover.

@mixedknuts on Twitter