Monday, October 17, 2016

Pasta Salad

I was looking for a side dish that would also serve as a light lunch.  I wanted it cold, mainly because it's hot outside.  I also didn't want anything mayonnaise-based much for the same reasons.  I settled on making a pasta salad.  Nothing earth-shattering, it was just something light and tasty.  I did have a few other requirements.  For example a light dressing, not only not mayo-based but something you don't need a lot of it.  I wanted it to compliment the flavors of the other ingredients, not overrule them.  What I discovered was that you can put pretty much any veggie you like and a wide selection of cold-cuts.  It's more versatile than I thought and it's a great way to deal with a few veggie-draw leftovers.  For example those basil leaves left over from a Caprese salad, or that half a cucumber or onion.  Here's what I did:

I boiled up a pot of the three-color rotini pasta, 12 oz box.  It's not that the green and red one are flavored all that different from the white ones, but the color contrast works nicely.  Cook this slightly past aldente -- and I mean slightly.  If you overcook these, they tend to fall apart.  The reason I go slight past aldente is that since this is a cold dish, aldente pasta tends to become a little harder once cooled down.  My preference more than anything else.  Once cooked and drained, set aside to cool.

While it was cooling, I broke out the chef's knife and started cutting and chopping.  Here's what I had on hand for my first attempt at this sort of salad:

  • 1 whole cucumber, peeled (it was an older one and the peel tends to get bitter), small dice
  • 1 medium red onion, small dice
  • 1 large sweet red bell pepper, small dice
  • 1 medium ham steak, also small dice
  • 1 head of broccoli, chopped
  • 2 carrots cut and sliced into thin matchsticks about an inch or so long
  • 1 ball of mozzarella (1/4 inch cube dice).  I prefer fresh over the part-skim drier form.
  • 4 green onions, sliced on a bias, about 1/4 inch long
  • 4 basil leaves, chiffon-ed. That is rolled up together lengthwise, then thinly sliced with a sharp knife across the width.  You end up ribbons of basil.

Lastly the dressing, you put 3 Tbs of red wine vinegar in a bowl, add about 2 tsp of Dijon mustard and one finely chopped (or minced) garlic clove.  Then whisk as you slowly drizzle in 6 Tbs of good olive oil (extra-virgin is best).  The ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 seems to work well.  If you drop it to 2:1 it tastes more of the vinegar, and anything over 4:1 comes across a little oily texture.  For this type of dressing, I stay away from the county-style Dijon's, they are a bit lumpy and the flavor doesn't seem to distribute that well.

Once you are done adding the oil, whisk for another minute or two, check the seasoning for taste and add salt and pepper.  It's a nice light dressing and you won't need a lot of it.  In fact it all depends on the volume of the other ingredients.  I usually dress with half and see how things look and taste before I add any more.

And that it.  Just put everything in a large bowl and dress to your taste.  Like I said, this was what I had on hand.  The ingredients for this sort of summer salad are pretty versatile.  If my veggie drawer had a different selection, I would have used that.

An added note, I did this salad a second time and added some diced fresh button mushrooms.  The flavor was good, but they were a little woody.  So the next time, I made up the dressing early and twice the usual amount.  Then I marinated the mushrooms for a couple of hours before doing the rest.  That softened them up and they became more part of the whole instead of a slightly discordant note.

Hard-boiled eggs, leftover chicken or turkey, shredded lettuce, celery, and even a little canned tuna might work well in various combinations.  I am also tempted to spice things up a bit with some jalapeno, cilantro, and even red pepper flake, but that will have to wait until I am flying solo.  Not everyone appreciates such spices.

Ranch Fried Chicken

I made something that went over real well with the family, Ranch Fried Chicken.  I'd heard of it before but the recipes always involved a packet of dry ranch seasoning, which to me never tasted very much like Ranch dressing once cooked in anything, like a meatloaf.  Well I caught an episode of America's Test Kitchen or Cook's Country (I have trouble telling those two shows apart) and they did Ranch Fried Chicken without using the packet of whatever.  It was intriguing.  I couldn't use part of the recipe, since cilantro and cayenne don't agree with my spouse, so I changed things a couple of times and hit a recipe that not only did remind me of Ranch, but the family enjoyed it!


  • Finely chopped fresh Dill (5 Tbs, divided 3 and 2)
  • Finely chopped fresh Parsley (5 Tbs, divided 3 and 2)
  • Finely chopped fresh Rosemary (3 Tbs, divided (2 and 1)
  • Finely minced garlic (2 cloves)
  • Buttermilk (1 cup)
  • White Vinegar (2 tsp)
  • Salt (1/2 tsp)
  • Black Pepper (1/2 tsp)
  • AP Flour (1 cup)
  • Cornstarch (1/2 cup)
  • Garlic Powder (1 tsp)
  • Old Bay Seasoning (2 tsp)
  • 6 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs (yes, boneless and skinless, it really does work)
  • Dry, salt and pepper your Chicken Thighs
  • Mix the Buttermilk, Vinegar, 3 Tbs of Dill and Parsley, 2 Tbs of Rosemary, Salt and Pepper, and minced Garlic in a bowl.  
  • Reserve a quarter cup as a dipping sauce.
  • In a separate bowl combine the Flour, Cornstarch, Garlic powder and Old Bay Seasoning.
  • Soak each Thigh in the Buttermilk mixture to coat.  No need to brine or marinate for long period, that's the benefit of using chicken thighs.
  • Dredge in the Flour mixture and set aside.
  • Preheat 2-3 inches of Vegetable or Peanut oil to 350F degrees is a vessel wide and deep enough for some frying.  I usually use a cast iron dutch oven.
  • Once the oil is hot, gently, and I do mean gently, slid in two pieces of chicken.  Fry for approximately 7-8 minutes.  You do have to keep adjusting the flame to keep the oil about 350. 
  • You will see a drop in temperature when the pieces are added, but it should recover quickly.  If it falls too far, you might need to cook one piece at a time.  About the 3.5-4 minute mark turn over the pieces.
  • Remove to a paper towel for just a few seconds to get some of the surface oil off.  
  • Then transfer to a wire rack over a sheet pan to drain off any more oil.  If the oil remains hot enough, there is usually very little oil drained off.
  • Repeat with the other three batches.
  • Let the last batch rest while plating, using a little of the reserve buttermilk mixture as a dip.  I have also found Ranch Dressing and even Frank's Red Hot are excellent accompaniments rather than the buttermilk mixture.
  • I have made as many as 6 batches (12 thighs) and the first pair of thighs were still plenty hot when I was done.  If you are making more, I recommend placing your wire rack/sheet pan in the oven at 200 degrees.  It will keep it hot without cooking it further and shouldn't start drying out out before you are done.
Some notes:
  • Do not let the oil go too high.  Not only can you burn your chicken, but if you let it get over 400F, you shouldn't strain the oil and reuse.  I use two strainers and a double piece of cheesecloth between them to strain my oil and I can set several fries out of each container.  I don't use it for anything other than frying.  You wouldn't want to make a salad dressing out of it.
  • The chicken is also good cold and even as leftovers.  I know it sounds like a sin, but I simple put the leftovers in a plastic ziploc bag.  It's never going to be as crispy as freshly fried, so I have given up trying to maintain the crispness.  None of the techniques I have heard of seemed to work overnight anyway.

Sous Vide Cooking

I picked up a Sous Vide Cooker (Anova Precision Cooker) and have been experimenting with it.  So far, so good!  Chicken breasts come out perfectly cooked and incredibly juicy.  I vacuum-packed two of them with some thyme, froze them, and then dropped them in 145F water for two hours.  After letting them cool, I diced them and mixed in some chopped celery, onion, mayo, and some seasonings and had a great tasting and basic chicken salad.  Served with some lettuce and lunch is on.  Going to be doing some more soon!  Pork Tenderloin is up next!  I'm thinking of dicing it and tossing into a sweet-sour sauce -- NOT on of those sickly-sweet red jarred sauces -- I'll let you know how it turned out.

Only downside of sous-vide cooking is the time.  It's not for a quick meal after work.  However, I have found that if you cook it ahead, you can simply dice, brown, and mix it into just about anything else and time is less of a problem.  Just a bit of planning.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Pressure Cooker Soft Chicken Tacos

I've been doing more cooking lately, but haven't been blogging about it.  I will try and get things down on paper . . . so to speak . . . more often.  Recently I did a Root Beer BBQ sauce that came out great and last night I did chicken thighs in the pressure cooker and everyone loved them.


  • Chicken Thighs (about 2lbs):  I used skinless and boneless thighs, but you can use bone-in.  I do recommend removing the skin, it's kinda nasty in the pressure cooker.
  • Canned Tomatoes (1 14.5 oz can of crushed or diced)
  • Onion (1 chopped)
  • Garlic (3 cloves, minced)
  • Chicken Stock (1/2 cup)
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
Serve with:
  • Tortillas (I like soft, taco size)
  • Lettuce (about 2 cups shredded)
  • Tomatoes (2 fresh, diced)
  • Onion (1 diced)
  • Shredded Cheese
  • Salsa


  1. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs liberally.
  2. Heat some olive oil in your pressure cooker, medium heat
  3. Add the chopped onion, saute until softened
  4. Add the minced garlic, saute for about 30 seconds
  5. Add chicken stock and de-glaze the pan
  6. Add the chicken and canned tomatoes
  7. Seal the lid and let the pressure rise to it's limit
  8. Cook for 10 minutes under pressure and then turn off the heat
  9. Let the pressure release naturally.  It will take 10-15 minutes.
  10. Once the pressure is gone, remove the lid and take the chicken out with a slotted spoon
  11. Shred the chicken between two forks and return to the cooking liquid to stay warm and juicy.
  12. Once the rest of the meal is ready, spoon the chicken into a serving dish, it's OK to have some of the cooked onion and tomatoes as well.

Should make enough for 12-15 tacos, depending on how loaded you like them.  Serve with the condiments of your choice.  I like keeping it simple with lettuce, fresh onion and tomato, salsa, cheese, and sour cream.  But whatever you like will work!

This isn't a very spicy dish because a couple of family members can't handle spice.  There are plenty of alternatives:

  • Season the chicken with Chile Powder or Cumin, in addition to salt and pepper
  • Use Salsa instead of canned tomatoes for the cooking medium.  You should be able to eliminate the onions and garlic if you use salsa instead.
  • Use Beer or Apple Juice instead of Chicken Stock
  • I do recommend Chick Thighs over Chicken Breasts, I have had very little luck with breasts in the pressure cooker.  They get surprisingly rubbery and dry.