Failing to Fluff the Couscous and Other Kitchen Confessions

February 19, 2010 at 12:28 am Leave a comment

   I agree with Betty Macomber, whose cover flap text for the Cedar Cove Cookbook describes the preparation and serving of a meal as “probably the ultimate expression of hospitality and friendship, comfort and love.”  I convey nurturing best through the investment of labor and time in a from-scratch meal prepared for people I care about.  

Last weekend it was a “thank-you” dinner for friends who volunteer to dog-sit whenever we are out of town.  I did a simple beef tenderloin stir-fry (meat marinated in soy sauce, a dab of olive oil, a bit of crushed garlic; broccoli, yellow and red peppers, scallions, Chinese pea pods, celery, water chestnuts) with dry-roasted peanuts for sprinkling, a big bowl of cubed fresh fruit, biscuits hot from the oven, and whole-wheat couscous in place of rice.  For dessert, marble cheesecake.  

Fine and dandy, until I got too many things going at once – which is my major flaw as a cook.  The couscous – stirred into boiling broth, removed from the heat, and left briefly to absorb the liquid – got ignored for 12 minutes instead of five, without the requisite fluffing to separate the grains.  The result?  Clumpy couscous, which I blame for some uncharacteristic indigestion I experienced later in the evening.  I had been hoping for “heart-warming,” not “heartburn.”  

My second big flaw as a cook is closely related:  over- cooking/baking/roasting one dish while waiting for other items to get done.  I am improving, but for extra insurance I sometimes go for a foolproof (I must stop calling myself names) main dish that can bear a little extra time on the heat while everything else is being readied.  For example, this menu of Baked Chicken Legs in Hoisin Lemon Sauce, Roasted Potatoes, Corn Pudding, Warm Tomatillo  Salsa, and Applesauce Bran Muffins.  If your oven situation is tight – i.e., you don’t have a commercial kitchen – you can prepare the muffins and corn pudding (which bake at a lower temperature) earlier in the day.  With any luck, you won’t have to be serving up apologies along with your dessert. 

For the chicken:  

4 chicken thighs                      4 chicken drumsticks              2 TB hoisin sauce                   2 tsp olive oil                            2 TB lemon juice                     2 cloves smashed garlic     1/2 tsp ground fennel seed           1/4 tsp cumin                           1/4 tsp cinnamon                3/4 tsp salt                                    1/2 tsp pepper                          (lemon slices for garnish)

Mix hoisin sauce, olive oil, and lemon juice well; stir in remaining seven ingredients.  Lay rinsed, dried, partially skinned chicken pieces in a 17″ x 12″ shallow, heavy baking pan.   Brush all surfaces of chicken with sauce and bake at 425°for 40-45 minutes.  If things aren’t coming out as planned, pour 2 tablespoons of water in bottom of pan, cover pan with foil, and reduce oven temperature until ready to serve.

 The potatoes are simply baking or gold potatoes washed, dried, cut into large cubes (about 1-1/2″), tossed with olive oil, salted and peppered to taste, and roasted in a shallow pan along side the chicken for 40 minutes or so. 

The corn pudding has an interesting source* and requires: 

3 C corn kernels                      1/4 tsp paprika                         1 tsp salt                              3/4 C evaporated skim milk              2 eggs                                      2 TB fat-free sour cream      

Put the corn, paprika, and salt (chives are good here, too, but I never have them on hand) into a blender or food processor and pulse a few times.  Add the milk, eggs, and sour cream and pulse until corn is chopped coarse and all ingredients are well mixed.  Spray or oil an 11″ x 7″ glass baking dish well and pour corn mixture into dish.  Bake at 350° for 55 minutes.  *I started my quest for a corn pudding recipe online, but ended up pulling basics from a volume in my collection, the Home Science Cook Book, copyrighted 1902. 

Moving into the present, a recipe for tomatillo salsa which combines the best of many approaches: 

6 tomatillos                             6 cloves garlic             2 orange sweet peppers   

1/2 large yellow onion             salt & pepper               1 TB olive oil

                                    1 small jalapeno – optional 

Husk, rinse, and cube tomatillos; cut garlic cloves in half.  Wash, seed, and cube sweet peppers.  Peel and cube onion.  Spread vegetables on a foil-lined cookie sheet, salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil.  Chop and seed jalapeno, if using, and sprinkle over veggies.  Roast at 400° for 20-25 minutes.  Serve warm. 

For the muffins, which – with a plate of mild Gouda cheese slices, perhaps – can stand in for dessert: 

2 C all-bran cereal                   3/4 C skim milk                       1/2 C applesauce

1/3 C molasses                        1/4 C canola oil                       2 large eggs

1 C flour                                  1/2 C whole-wheat flour         2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda                    1/2 tsp salt                               1 tsp allspice 

In a medium bowl, mix the cereal, milk, applesauce, molasses, oil, and eggs until combined and let stand for five-ten minutes.  In a large bowl, whisk the flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and allspice.  Fold wet mixture into dry mixture just until dry ingredients are moistened.  Distribute batter evenly between cups in a well-greased 12-muffin pan.  (Sprinkle with a few pine nuts or shelled pistachios, if desired.)  Bake at 400° for 20 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. 

I couldn’t find any information on who originated the toothpick test, but I’m betting that he or she probably didn’t indulge in public confessions of cooking disasters.  Call me a fool…

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Recipe. According to Encarta, "a list of ingredients and instructions for making something." The thesaurus offers the alternate terms, "formula, guidelines, directions, steps, technique."

And what is the "something" we are aiming for here? Simply a life of robust good health in every important area - spiritual, physical, cognitive, and emotional.

To that end we offer inspirational real-life stories about PEOPLE OF FAITH AND COURAGE; menus and cooking directions meant to fuel your creative inclinations and your healthy body in the form of MUSINGS OF A MIDWESTERN FOODIE; and ADVICE FOR LIFE from the perspective of those who have lived it to maturity. (Click on the green category tabs at the top of this page to learn more about each section.)

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