Tuesday, December 18, 2007
I was happy to see that it has a nice sauce component, for practice. The sauce starts with a roux which is then reduced a bit. The only difficult part of the process was picking the beef out the onions. I don't mind them and these were awfully tasty. But the recipe said to keep them out and Channing hates them, so I lost this round. I think I did use a too-expensive cut of beef, but the result was very good. The knife skills with meat are very different than vegetables. The clean, rocking motion we were taught just doesn't work the same.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I'm trying to keep this record somewhat chronological, but Blogger is really strict about posting order (at least, as far as I can figure out so far). Once I put a stake in the ground with a Draft, that's the time and date that's stuck to it, regardless of when I publish it. So, it's a double-edged sword. Everything is in order, because I dropped in the stubs as drafts. On the other hand, it looks like there isn't any new content.
So, just keep an eye on the December posts for new stuff. All of the Thanksgiving stuff should be there in a few days, complete with recipes as well as new different sutff. I currently have 11 posts in Draft stage, which will be filled in one or two a day, as I take breaks from working on the last draft (finally!) of my mysterious book chapter.
Case in point: I was making the sauce, once again, for our semi-Mexican themed holiday party. I lucked out and found ripe ones, but when I started actually preparing it, I found that the were very, very mild in flavor. Consequently, I had to be very careful with the other ingredients, particularly with the lemon juice and salt, so that they wouldn't overpower the avocado. I dialed back a LOT from the usual mixture. I generally prefer a much more intense flavor, but a delicate touch was called for here. It "sold" well, so I think I got it right. I've always done this to taste anyway, but this is the first time I've ever encountered any this mild.
Avocados (~1 per cup of sauce you want)
Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
Yellow Onion - diced
Fresh Cilantro - chopped
Tomato - deseeded, membrane removed, diced
Jalepeno Peppers - very small dice (for flavor)
Serrano Peppers - very small dice (for heat)
Ground Chipotle Powder (from Penzey's)
Prep all of the ingredients and arrange in front of you. Mash avocados and taste to get the baseline. Add all of the other ingredients to taste, working through one at a time. The only exception, for me, is the tomato. I'm not a big fan, but I think they're needed for color. Those I add until the proportion looks right. Make sure you bite into some onion when tasting, so you account for the sweetness there.
Serve with restaurant style, locally produced tortilla chips. Using Tostitos or Doritos (do they even make the plain variety anymore?) is a sin.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
I use the Coffee Flan recipe, usually without the coffee flavoring (though it's virtually identical to the regular flan recipe on the previous page in the book). But the coffee version is tasty as well.
I made this for the second time was in my corporate apartment in St. Louis about 11 years ago. There is a long and embarrassing story about that event, but I learned four things from the experience:
- Don't trust cats.
- Always (and I can't stress this enough), always keep a box of toothpicks in your kitchen for testing doneness.
- Plexiglas really is pretty much unbreakable.
- This recipe goes from good to absolutely perfect if you add about 90 minutes to the baking time (keeping the water in the bath filled).
In every flan recipe I've read, they always said to not stir the sugar as you're making the caramel. I've resisted that before, but because of what I've learned about saute'ing I figured I'd give it a shot. Stirring releases needed heat when caramelizing (proteins and sugars). I think I was always afraid that I'd end up with incredibly burnt sugar on the bottom and uncooked on top. I tried it and, sure enough, it worked. I did let it go a little longer than usual and got a darker syrup than usual, having noticed Kennedy's recommendation for exactly that.
The result worked very, very well. The flavor was more intense and not so cloyingly sweet. I was pleased at how well this worked as a party food. I served from a single platter, rather than individual servings, but people went with it and ate the entire thing.
Two more notes about flan:
- I've tried several other recipes over the years which usually had sweetened condensed milk in them. I guess that's essentially what you're making in the first step of this recipe, but this seems to work much better.
- Trying to get the caramelized sugar into individual ramekins in a nightmare. I tried doing 12 once and either the sugar seizes up after only a few or it's burning while you try to keep it fluid. Screw it. Just make the big one.
For the menu issue, I got the inspiration to used a pork taco mix I had from Penzey's as a rub and then use the Lime Cilantro recipe from Thanksgiving on regular, rather than sweet, potatoes. I also applied what I had learned about pork from the Sauces 101 class, as part of the ancillary learning to counter the dryness.
Turns out I was out of the Pork-specific seasoning, so I used one of my jars of Penzey's regular taco seasoning and let it sit for an hour. About an hour or two before the start, I seared all sides of each loin (2 packages = 4 loins) in a pan with corn oil (for the hint of flavor) and then set them to roast in a pan @ 350F with my remote thermometer in. I took them out when it hit 148F (targetting between 145 and 150) and let them rest.
I put them back in the oven, covered with foil at 200F, until ready to serve at 8:00. I then had my friend Ross cut them into medallions about 1/3" thick. They were perfect. Just the right temperature, just the barest hint of pink and still very juicy.
Time did get the better of me on the potatoes, but the pork itself just flew out of the pan. I've never run out before.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Everything went pretty well. I cut and marinated the beef for two full days instead of just 12 hours, just because of the logistics of getting time at the stove (I think this is about right because our fridge is a bit on the cold side). The actual cooking process was very, very easy. I think this was part because of the recipe and part because I'm really geting the rhythm of my kitchen. I'm getting a better sense of what things work best where, etc.
I suspect I overdid it on the browning. I ended up adding about 1/3 cup of bacon grease I had leftover in the fridge when the pan started going dry (if I hadn't had that, I would have used grapeseed oil). This was making me think at the time that something was up. In part, that may have been that I was using a bit more than the 2 lbs in the recipe. But then I noticed one of my notes on the recipe from class, which said that you only need to brown two large sides of the meat. I was turning the pieces onto all sides which, on the well-cut ones, was six. So, I essentially tripled the browning time. And added more fat to the mix. I don't think that it was necessarily a problem, but it did add a lot to the cooking time.
The end result was pretty good, but not quite to the level of the class. I'd give it a B+/A-, where the batch in class was a solid A+. By the time it had cooled, I still hadn't eaten much dinner, so I ended up eating a full portion right there at the stove.
We'll be having it for dinner on Thursday night, per the recommendation to let it sit like a soup or chili. I don't know how it will turn out then, but I think my tasting was pretty apples-to-apples regarding the individual preparations. But it seemed that the meat was a little tougher than it should have been. I think going with the longer braise that the instructor recommended would work well.
Picking out the bay leaves and herb stems was a bit of a pain, though. I may try going the route of the cheesecloth bags for these kind of items next time.
Oh, a charming story about our local Jewel: Channing and I don't drink around the house much, so we didn't have any cognac around . Nor did we need a large bottle, since it would really only be for cooking. So he picked me up a small bottle (those little flask looking things that have about a pint) and, while checking out, the sacker makes a comment, "Oh, someone's gonna get drunk tonight." The checker then responded, "He got a small bottle because he's trying to hide it." Right in front of Channing. Bitch.
I'm still not sure if I'm going to report this (we have her name, ID number, date and time on the receipt). I'm really turning into a cranky old man about these kinds of things and am still somewhat paying for having filed a complaint against the driver on my CTA route. But seriously....
This definitely needs to become a regular menu item as it's really straight-forward, easy and extremely tasty.
In digging though my spices, I did notice that I have several jars of curry powder that I have not touched in literally years. Yet I've been cooking Indian a lot. I can only assume that these are spice blends that I'm basically making from scratch with each dish and the recipes I'm using are not geared for the American audience that the curry powder is. I have to read up more on that.
I think this means that I should throw them away. Not only are they too old, but they're taking up space in my cabinet while being unlikely to ever be used. I've read about throwing out old spices, but I can never bring myself to do that. If I suspect that something has lost its punch, I'll usually double it for a recipe and then adjust to taste during cooking as well. Maybe I need to just suck it up and start pitching...
In making arrangements for this trip, I realized that, despite all of my talk about cooking over the years, I haven't actually cooked a meal for them since 1988. Seriously.
And boy, that was a disaster (though everyone was very nice about it).
So, with the new kitchen and all of my skills, I figured it was way past time. Also, Karin is quite an excellent cook herself, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try out the collaborative cooking thing.
She's on a restricted diet these days and though she can always find something good on a menu and insisted that we not factor that in to planning, I did anyway. Because I think that boundaries force you to be more creative and, also, might as well improve the chances of success. The two good fits, cuisine-wise, were Italian and Indian. We wanted to show off Anteprima, so Italian was covered that weekend. Also, for all their trips here, they'd never been up to Devon Avenue. So, when getting the few ingredients I don't have on hand (fresh fenugreek or curry leaves, for example), I have to chance to show off a new part of the city.
Turns out it was a win for me, too. I usually go to Patel Brothers (2542 W Devon Ave), as they're the biggest and seem to have everything (except a meat counter). Because of parking (always a challenge up there), I ended a little further west on Devon than usual and in front of the North Water Market (2626 W Devon Ave - between Rockwell St & Talman Ave). Oh my. This place is amazing. The produce section is literally four times the size of Patel Brothers and the layout is much easier to navigate. I ended up getting all of our produce there, the fenugreek, the breads (frozen) and some basmati rice to replace the bag I'd been having problems with recently. I think they really enjoyed the experience, with all the people, the variety of foods and the Bollywood music over the PA.
I'm not sure if their spice and sauce collections are as extensive or cheap, but overall, I think that North Water has become my new favorite. On reflection, I think that maybe I went to Patel Brothers more because they were further east on Devon (I drive east to west on that stretch) and more brightly lit outside. We also picked up some pakora and samosas at Kamdar Plaza (2646 W. Devon Ave - a basic Indian grocery with a great sweet shop as well) as I didn't want to be frying at home that night.
For dinner, the menu was:
Pakora and Samosas
Naan and Paratha (purchased frozen)
Sweet Tamarind Chutney
Bengali Red Lentil Dahl
Murgh Saag (Chicken with Spinach)
Here is the problem with coming back to these posts after a long time. While I generally have an excellent memory, I can't remember if we had anything for desert. I can't imagine that we didn't, but it sure as heck wouldn't have been rice pudding because of the no dairy requirement. Anyway. I eliminated the currants and cashews from the rice because dried fruits and nuts are also restricted. No worries. Also, to avoid butter, I used grape seed oil, which worked just fine. The Murgh Saag was the new thing for me; a recipe I'd looked at for a long time in Razzaq's Indian Lowfat Cooking, but had never made. That will get its own post.
Overall, this worked out really well. The prep and cooking to for. ev. er, though. I think because there was a lot of chatting and less "focus." We started cooking at 7:00/7:30 and didn't serve until 9:30. There's just no way. This should have taken half that time. But everyone had a great time and I managed to deliver without embarrassing myself. I'd give it a B+.
Planning, preparation and flexibility was key. I was able to successfully execute everything on the menu with a self-imposed grade of B or better, for an overall A-. I'm good with that. For now.
I didn't really realize how much stuff I was making until my dad called that day and asked what I was serving. As I read off the list, the sheer time it took me to say it all shocked me. Discussions of the particulars of each item will have their own entry. For completeness, I'm including every dish, even if there wasn't anything new I learned about it or related techniques, etc.
I separated out the dishes that would reheat well or needed to stay cold until served and made those on Wednesday night. These were the Cheese Grits, Spinach Cheddar Bake, Treebeards’ Mushroom Soup and the Lemon Ginger Cheesecake. This left the balance for Thursday itself. With a dinner time of 5:00, I had plenty of time.
With those four done, I figured all I’d really have to do was the turkey. Worst case, if I just threw together a green salad to start, I’d be okay. On top that, since Chris was bringing an Apple Cranberry pie, I figured I could blow off the Chocolate Tart if I ended up too pressed and we’d still have a wicked desert spread.
I prepped all of the remaining dishes at once. I find that if I’m cooking one dish and, in the middle, I start prep for the next, something always goes wrong. My concentration gets muddled and I usually miss a step or ingredient of one or the other dish. If I work in series (finish one completely before starting the other), that takes too damned long. So I used my great big counter to lay out the ingredients for each recipe in a row and then just went to it. The improved knife skills also paid off in that I was able to be a lot faster with all of the chopping.
We ended up serving about an hour late, because I decided to go ahead with the tart at the last minute. But that was totally worth it. Also, it was just about the right amount of time for everyone to get acquainted and relaxed.
I was concerned a little about having everything warm for serving. I addressed this by serving in courses, at least with salad, soup, the main event and desert, with generous time in between each for conversation and to let stomachs settle a bit. This gave everything time to heat up in time for its particular serving and for people to pace themselves.
I got big props, because everyone is nice. But these were further validated by JT's comment regarding robust flavor (a specific goal of mine) and Channing's mother's repeated approval then and over the next few days. This is a woman that speaks her mind, so that was high praise.
The only think that held me back was the use of whole milk (or half & half) in the recipe and Channing's hatred of whole mushrooms. Do you see a pattern in what I have to work with here? It's a texture thing, actually.
I knew I needed a soup course for Thanksgiving and I'd made the Eastside's Curried Corn Chowder too many times before (and he doesn't like that, either, because of the whole kernels of corn and the spice). So, I threw this on the menu.
There were enough dishes that anyone who wasn't interested in it wouldn't go hungry (only hurt my feelings), but wanted as many people to enjoy it as possible, of course. I realized that I now have an immersion blender, so I could make it a mix of regular and creamed soup. That way, I could serve the cream-only portion to Channing and still have the basic recipe for us.
Preparation was pretty fast and easy, the hardest part being cleaning 2.5 lbs of mushrooms. I'm pretty fast on these and it still takes about 15 minutes, just for that.
While the result wasn't quite what my 15+ year old memory led me to expect, it was quite good. There was definitely a pepper kick in there which, with the other spices, kept it from being anything like the canned Cream of Mushroom. Most of the heaviness of the liquid was a function of my having blended half of the recipe and using the the half & half itself. I think you could easily go with a lighter milk and it would be fine.
While eating dinner, I did find that there were a few lumps of flour in the mix. They didn't taste too different from the softened mushrooms, so not a big deal, but it was a little embarassing. I need to be more careful with the flour next time. I had made two batches - I'm pretty sure the first was fine, but I was rushing through the second one and I'm willing to bet that I just got careless.
An example of the lack of information? There's absolutely no place where he gives an estimate of how long the cooking time would be. While I appreciate going by temperature only, not telling that info really makes planning meal time difficult.
Fine. I had the intent to brine it until I realized how much of the solution I'd have to make to put the bird in the cooler (many gallons). Screw it. It didn't seem to help last time anyway. Oh, and he doesn't actually have a recipe for the brine. You have to pick it out of the verbiage and it's still missing the point that you have to boil and cool the solution before you soak the bird.
So, I basically used the Roasted Chicken method on this larger bird. I grabbed a fresh 20 pounder at Jewel, so I didn't have to worry about thawing. I would have preferred a more natural bird from Whole Foods. But I happened to spot the chosen victim while on a regular shopping trip and saw that I could save myself an easily 3 hour ordeal.
They were out of sage at Jewel, so I mixed a holiday rub I picked up at Whole Foods into 1.5 sticks of butter. This was rubbed over and under the skin. I also threw a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme, 2 small quartered onions a several smashed cloves of garlic into the cavity and then trussed it up (with twine - the legs were too big for the skin trick).
The only time crunch I faced was getting things out of the oven in time to put in the turkey. Then I remembered my trick from a few years ago - the grill. For the second time, stress just melted away.
The hardest part was regulating the temperature with the grill flame. I did use the Brown trick for browning the turkey:
- Start the turkey @ 500F and roast for 30 minutes.
- At that point, cover the breast with a foil shield and reduce the temp to 350F until done.
I was surprised at how fast this cooked. We hit 165F within about 2.5 hours, when I expected about 4. It came out just right, though, so I think I finally got the thermometer right (granted, the thigh on the turkey is a much bigger target). Though it was ready a good few hours before dinner, it held a lot of its heat. I carved in the kitchen and added a touch of heat from the microwave before serving.
There was a downside to the amount of butter, though. I had nothing, I mean nothing, to make gravy with. Just a ton of cooked butter. Yuck. So, at the last minute, I whipped together a wicked veloute sauce. You have no idea how cool it is to be able to say that. It was flawless on the first try.
* Strangely, though, I really like his cookbooks. They have a lot of the science of cooking explained well. But on TV, I find him, well, patronizing, I guess.
The downside is that it's not very flexible for modifications. I discovered this first at my brother's house. We swapped out the pork-based Italian sausage with a chicken sausage because some relative (my sister-in-law, maybe? It's been a while) couldn't eat pork.
The result tasted fine, but was way, way too dry. I think this happened twice, as I had forgotten between the two attempts. So this year, our friends Ebru and Fuzail joined us for the feast. Being Muslim, they couldn't eat the pork either, so I went a different route. I split the recipe into two and put sausage in one and left the other vegetarian. Finally remembering the moistness issue from nixxing the pork sausage before, I upped the chicken stock on the pork-free version.
Unfortunately, there may be a density factor at play here in the baking, also. I split the two versions into covered baking dishes, but they were only about half as deep as usual. Again, a bit dry. So, my lesson from this experience is to just do exactly what the nice people at Bon Appetit tell me. At least in this case.
UPDATE: I made this again at Christmas in Ft. Worth a few weeks later. I found that if you make it in one dish and you up the stock added by a cup or so, it turns out absolutely perfect. Yay!
Something about that grits = polenta thing: A woman in my office, Teresa, is Chicago born and bred, though it seems she got a solid upbringing with Southern food here. She went down to Mississippi with a friend whose father (or some male relative) who is a fantastic cook, based on what Teresa was describing. He served soft polenta with an Italian meal he put together and Teresa had no idea what it was. His response? "They're like grits." So the analogy works both ways.
5 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
1 pint sour cream
1 bulb garlic
salt & fresh ground black pepper
I roast the garlic in the toaster oven, as a) it seems wasteful to use the entire oven for such a small item and b) I'm usually baking something else there at the time anyway, since it is the holidays, after all. I slice the top off, to expose a bit of most, if not all, of the cloves and drizzle olive oil over all of it. Then I roast the buld, lightly covered with a sheet of aluminum foil at 400F for about 20-30 minutes. Thinking about it, I'm not sure I've ever timed this.
Wash the potatoes and chop into ~1.5 inch chunks. Cover with cold water in a pot and boil until fork-tender. Note that I do not peel them.
Once the potatoes are done, drain them, put them back into the pot and mash until creamy. Add sour cream, garlic, salt and pepper while mashing, to taste.
5 lbs is an awful lot, I know. I just got in the habit because I like the leftovers and if I don't do the whole bag at once, the remaining spuds usually go bad.
There's not much to say other than it was easy and straight forward. The sweet potatoes were a hair underdone, so I need to watch that next time.
UPDATE: One thing I have found is that it is really important that you spread the pieces out in a single layer in the oven, with space between each piece, like it says in the recipe. If they're packed too tight or on top of one another, they get mushy. Still taste great, though.
- You can cut this in half. In fact, you should. As written (for 18!), this is an insanely generous amount. As much as I like leftovers of this stuff, really. This is the first time I've tried cutting it down and it worked.
- When reheating something with a crispy crust, do not leave the foil on the entire time. Okay, everyone, "Well, duh." Fine. I waited a bit too long and it was kinda moist. Don't think anyone knew the difference or cared.
Oh, and that first review with the bit about "adding pimentoes for color?" Crazy talk. Just saying.
I'd tried it a few years ago by improvising on a lemon cheesecake recipe, substituing the gingersnaps for graham crackers in the crust and adding Indian ginger paste into the recipe. The result tasted fantastic, though there was a HUGE split in the top and the crust got really soggy.
Then I found this recipe in one of my magazines.
Overall, this turned out well. The texture was just right, there was no breakage, and ti tasted good. So, a good showing. On the down side, the flavor wasn't as intense as late time. I definitely need to make this to taste next time and add a LOT more fresh ginger.
Also, the crust was soggy again. Since I'd made a crumb crust well recently with the key lime pie, so I knew I could pull that off. And since I had blind baked this, my previous theory that the custard had soaked through seemed unlikely. I decided to test my springform pan for water-tightness and, sure enough, it leaked immediately. It looks like some water from the bath leaked into the pan, despite the aluminum foil lining the outside. Mystery solved. I need to look up if there's a way to seal it better (like greasing the groove the bottom seam) or if I just need to buy a new one.
I first made this tart on a dare. When I started cooking, I was on a project for BSG in St. Louis. One of my friends and co-workers there, Scott, would "dare" me that I couldn't make "X." That is, whatever it is he was craving at that time. Sometimes, I bit. Because whatever “X” was, it usually sounded like a good idea.
Once, when I was putting together a meal for the occasion of his wife, Namita's, visit to our project city, he dared me that I couldn't make a chocolate/white chocolate/raspberry desert of some type. So, I hunted down this recipe in my mom's collection of cookbooks as mine was pretty sad at the time and the internet was just a-birthing.
Yes, I'm old. Shut up.
It comes from a little collection called Beat This!, by Ann Hodgman. Quite appropriate for a challenge, I'd say. The book is a diverse gathering; the only thing tying the recipes together being the author's certainty that they are all simply the best ever. I bought my own copy, finally, but I can't say I've made anything else from it yet. That needs to change. It's just that the collection is such a random assortment, I never think to reach for it when I have something specific in mind. It is a very entertaining read and is definitely recommended.
To make this, I had to buy a tart pan. As I walked out of the store, I looked down at my bag and said to myself (and I'm totally not kidding here), "Well, Hal, today you are no longer a man."
I got over that. But that moment of emasculation is why I insist on calling this a tart instead of a "pie," as Hodgman calls it. If I had to have that moment to get the right pan, then it's a tart, damn it.
As I was going at it that afternoon, I could not make the crust to save my life. Three times I went at it, until I finally broke down and went to the store for that Pillsbury pre-made AND pre-rolled crust.
The rest went well and it was a big, impressive hit. It stayed in the repertoire, but it always bugged me that I was "cheating" because a) I'm terminally guilt-ridden and b) it was supposed to be a "french sugar cookie crust" which I really, really wanted to try. Really more of "b," to be honest, but never underestimate a Catholic upbringing, even second-hand as mine was. I even once tried rolling out the Pillsbury Sugar Cookie dough as a crust. Yes, disaster.
Whew, home stretch here, I promise.
So, now that I'm challenging myself, have learned a regular crust and was having a big-ass dinner, it was time to try again. Since I had the cheesecake, I took comfort in knowing I could abort at any time, if need be.
First thing Thursday morning, I tackled the crust. The first try, I did it as instructed in the food processor and got a big gloppy mess. Right away, I decided, "Screw it," and pulled out the pastry cutter. Sure enough, perfect. I forgot to set the timer and almost forgot it while it was blind baking, but thank God I remembered at the last minute and pulled it out at exactly the right time. There were going to be no threesies that day.
With that done, I pulled out all of the ingredients, lined them up and left them while I started work on all the rest of the dishes. If I got through with everything else, I'd tackle it. If not, it was a long weekend. I'd do it later.
Chris and BJ were the first to arrive at around 4:30 or so. I was rounding things up, sans tart, when they asked if there was anything they could do. Chris is a master of deserts and I realized, “Aha, here we go!” So I threw the book his way and asked him to start prepping. I knew he could handle it. Dinner was going to be a little late, but, by God, we’d have the tart. By the time, I could jump in, Chris was working the raspberries. We double teamed the rest and nailed it. I’m digging this collaborative cooking thing.
By the way, I think the flicking fingerfuls of white chocolate on the finished product sounds messy and like a waste of good white chocolate. I just melted a couple of ounces, spooned it into a sandwich bag, gathered it all in one corner, nipped off the tip and had myself a quick and easy little pastry bag. And the result? An already awesome desert made much, much better with the proper crust.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Now, I've been holding off on that and some other recipes. I want to include them all, so that you, the valued reader, knows what I'm talking about. My approach has been that if it's available on-line, then link to it. If not, then scan it in with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and include it in the appropriate post. Unfortunately, cleaning up OCR files is very time consuming. So, many have been deferred for the mythical day I can sit down and do that. Not that I have a book chapter to revise and a thesis to write or anything.
So, I told Johanna, "I'll just scan it as an Acrobat .PDF and just send you that." Then I thought, "Hey, I have web space. I can just put them up there so that everyone can see them."
And, thus, a plan was born. Starting tonight, I'm going to scan and post all of the backlog, dropping links into the appropriate post. Yes, in all of their copyright-infringing glory. Those of you using an RSS reader/aggregator will be able to spot these easily. They'll be somewhat decent DPI (150) so you can print them for reference in the kitchen, but at a reasonable file size for download.
P.S. I finally remembered that I can actually type entries on my fancy-pants Treo while on my commute. That should speed things up.
Treebeards' Mushroom Soup
Cornbread Stuffing with Fennel & Sausage
Green Onion Buttermilk Biscuits
Garlic Cheese Grits
Roasted Garlic & Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes
Lime Cilantro Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Spinach Cheddar Bake
Ginger Lemon Cheesecake
Chocolate White Chocolate Mouse Raspberry Tart
Our friend Ebru is bringing Orange Glazed Green Beans and Chris is bringing a fruit pie.
This menu has been pretty fixed over the years. I've been going through a ton of Gourmet back issues and seen some great ideas, but each item here hits a particular flavor point for me.
For instance, there was a great cheddar mashed potatoes I found, but I already got cheddar in the spinach.
There are a few additions, though. Ebru's beans with the orange will compliment well as there seems to be a shortage of green veggies. Chris's pie will balance the "creamy" deserts. I'd generally avoided sweet potatoes before as we already have too much starch, but I think this cilantro lime variation is unique enough that it will work well. The results and recipes to follow.
We often have our friends, BJ and Chris, over on Mondays so we can watch Heroes. So, needing to feed folks gave me the nudge to grab the book and look through it on the train. One surprise: a huge proportion of the recipes are for beef and starch. There are very few recipes for anything centered around green vegetables. That strikes me as very strange. Despite that, this recipe jumped out as kinda retro, but tasty. There's nothing "pie-like" about it, though. No crust, just bread across the top. Anyway.
It's all about the learning these days, but I really didn't expect to get anything out of this effort in that regard. But I was still preparing when they came over and started talking through the recipe with Chris (a great cook in his own right). I mention I'm a little apprehensive about the 12 oz of chili sauce. That's two full bottles of hot sauce, which seems dangerous. I was figuring I'd do it to taste, but still…
Whoops. Thank God he was there. Chili sauce is NOT pepper (or "hot") sauce. Chili sauce is actually a ketchup-like condiment that was, he says, a staple of crappy 50's recipes. I had no clue at all. I worked in a grocery store stocking shelves for 3 years in high school and I can't remember ever hearing of this. He ran over to the Jewel for me and all was good. BTW - it tastes a little like cocktail sauce, like for shrimp cocktail.
The result was pretty damned good. I used the bread stick option, since Jewel didn't have the cornbread. I think it would taste and cut better. I also upped the cumin a bit (several shakes over the pan) because I just love the stuff. and added about 1/4 tsp of salt. Channing was very apprehensive when he saw the onions sautéing and was prepared to go for the frozen soy patties if need be. But he loved it, surprising himself.
I served it with broccoli steamed in champagne (really - long story), tossed with champagne and olive oil and a salad of mixed field greens with Brianna's Chipotle Chedder dressing.
The last time, it was a little tough in part, which I figured was a function of the bread being too stale. In re-reading the recipe yesterday, I also realized that part of the problem may have been that the cubes of bread were too large, so the custard of the pudding didn't have a chance to properly soak in.
So, I bought fresh french bread at Jewel and cut it into 1/2" or so crouton-sized cubes, instead of the 1 1/2" whoppers from before. While the loaf wasn't as crusty as I would have liked, it did okay.
Oh, and in the baking section, I found out that they now sell those aluminum, disposible pans with plastic covers. Finally. They've realized that no one buys those things except to take for pot-lucks and so covers are a good thing. And they were 3 for $2.20. Can't beat that.
This recipe is as fast as they promise. The single step that takes the most time is cubing the bread. On the other hand, I've decided it's kind of a "meh" recipe. It's fast, but it's a bit bland. I'm not sure it's worth the effort to literally and figuratively spice up.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
My Chopping Block course this month was Meat 101. This consisted of working with Beef, Pork and Lamb. The recipe items (and techniques) were:
Red Wine Beef Daube (Stew) [Braising]
Sausage and Mushroom Stuffed Pork Loin [Roasting]
Grilled Lamb Chops 'Scottaditti' [Grilling - obviously]
My God, this was good. Every one of these is on my list to make again. I need to scan and clean the recipes to post them.
Things I learned (which may be mind-numbingly obvious to anyone else):
- When browning stew meat, particularly floured, don't overload the pan. Leave at least a little space between each chunk. Otherwise, you end up with stew-like stuff too soon and no carmelization in the pan.
- Cheaper cuts work better for a braise than an expensive cut like a tenderloin. The less connective tissue, the faster the meat will break down into a mush.
- Like chili, the braise is better the second day, after the flavors have had time to mingle. This is awesome for saving time the day of dinner.
- We browned the beef in bacon fat. If you don't have enough of a given fat for a browning or saute, add some grape seed oil. It's flavor neutral.
- Braising in an oven, instead of on a stove, gives you a more even heat (and less concern about an open flame, from my perspective).
- The longer and slower the braise, the better. We used 350 for 2 hours (due to the class time constraint), but the chef recommended 275 for 5 hours, if possible.
- Do NOT lift the lid during a braise, as it lets moisture escape.
- When searing a stuffed roll, like the pork, start with the "seam" side.
- Use a low or no sodium stock for a reduction (like a sauce). Like with salted butter, the concentration may get too high when the stock evaporates down.
- Raw meat can be out for about 3 hours once it hits room temperature (70F) before the nasty bacteria start to form. The corollary is that buffet items should be taken off the serving line/table at about 2 hours, to be safe.
This was the first class I've ever had at the Mechandise Mart location. I have to say, I think I like the Lincoln Square one better for hand's on. The stoves and ovens are laid out much better for multiple groups. We had three groups crowded shoulder to shoulder when trying to use the burners. Our individual group worked together very well and the recipes lent themselves to swapping out or sharing the hands on parts. We split the prep work so that each person got to work with it. This was particularly useful when we ground out rosemary salt (for the lamb) in a morter and pestle, which it seemed no one had made before and it was easy to pass around the bowl.
My knife and prep skills are definitely getting better. I whipped through the prep very quickly and accurately. That was one of my personal frustrations, driven home by Top Chef when I'd see them finishing entire dishes in the time it would take me to chop.
I did execute the pan sauce (for the pork) well, a definite improvement over the chicken debacle before.
Also, I may need to get a bigger braiser some day, if this method sticks for me. I got one as an extra gift from my mom (they were on a super sale when purchased with a saute pan she was buying me), but it may be a little small for the size of this recipe. A covered casserole would work in the interim.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
We were going over to our friends', Drake and Mary's, for chili and, for my contribution, I thought I should bring something green that would compliment the chili. Think about that and all of the green veggie sides you know. It's kind of hard, isn't it? So I remembered these.
I've been making these for a while for parties and they're a personal favorite. I found the recipe in the Treebeard's Cookbook and picked them because I figure you can't go wrong with spinach and cheese. What I hadn't counted on was the kick the cayenne pepper gives them. Damn. It's really a great addition.
The spice and (minimal) cheese work pretty well, I think. They're more of an appetizer, but at least it's part of the meal somewhere. I think you could probably make them larger, like a crab cake or something, and serve them as sides.
I'd been chopping the onion and grating the cheese with a food processor the last few times. this is fast, but the long strings of each aren't as nice texture-wise as they could be. Counting clean-up, I'm just as fast now with a fine dice and hand grating, so I went all manual this time.
I was a bit shy on the cayenne. Don't be. The kick is good. Also, serve them warm and keep them on a warming plate if in a party situation. They lose some flavor when they get cold.
P.S. I was very impressed with Mary's chili, especially for a Yankee :-)
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
In addition to tackling the Roast Chicken again, I tried the Poulet Saute' Chasseur (Sauteed Chicken with Shallots, Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Tarragon) from the Chicken 101 class. More specifically, I tried the chicken part. I didn't have mushrooms or tarragon in the house, but what I really wanted to practice was pounding the chicken properly.
Wow. The joke just writes itself, doesn't it? Ahem.
There was nothing exciting about the roast chicken except that I did it completely correctly this time. I went by time, rather than temperature only as I did last time. At 20 min/pound, I cooked it for 2 hours, 20 minutes. While the internal temp was insanely high (200-something), it came out really well. I think I over-compensated a bit (though the time was pretty accurate) and I may have been touching a bone when measuring. Again, something to practice.
Instead of my big turkey roaster, I opted for a smaller lasagna pan I had. My roasting rack from our Weber grill fit, so the area of the pan was cut in about half. This made it much, much easier to baste.
We didn't eat the bird that night, but I used the meat the next night tossed with some pasta and spinach. But I tasted pieces of breast and thigh the evening of the cooking and it was decently juicy and taste. And then, of course, the carcass went to stock.
So, for what we did eat. I'd never used the proper technique when pounding out chicken. As I think I mentioned in the Chicken 101 entry, you're supposed to flatten the chicken with strokes of the mallet (strike and pull to the side) instead of hammering it like a nail. This worked really well. For this, you then dredge the breast in a little olive oil and then saute' it (though, really, it seemed more like pan frying).
The "sauteeing" worked out well. As with all things I cooking in a saute or omelette pan, the first one was a wash - a little undercooked for the flour coating on one side (the chicken was fine, though).
I then followed The Joy of Cooking's recipe for gravy which worked out really, really well. From memory, you deglaze the pan with white wine, bring to a simmer and whisk in flour. The thickness of the gravy depends on the amount of flour and the thickening takes a few moments after it's whisked in. It came out a little thick, as I didn't wait long enough, but it was very, very close to perfect.
This is the third time I've ended up with undercooked rice in the last month. I think I just got a bad bag. Like it's too old and dried out or something. I usually don't have a problem with rice at all. Of course, on those (formerly rare) I screw up, I think of Keith on Survivor: Australia who proclaimed he was a fantastic chef and then couldn't make decent rice to save his life.
Friday, November 2, 2007
But last night, Channing and I went to see the Comedians of Comedy live show at the Vic theater. This was really hilarious stuff and, if they come to your town, it's a must-see. It's a tight 2.5 hour performance by six comics with no filler. At only $29 (plus the stupid Ticketmaster fees), it's a great value for your entertainment dollar. Every performaner was great, but the standouts for us were John Mulaney and Eugene Mirman.
There was even an attention-seeking loser fanboy who was not only annoying in line, but by virute of having front-row seats (it was general admission), he literally put himself in position to be mocked by every single performer.
If you don't know already, the tour is organized by and stars Patton Oswalt, who was the voice of Remy in the Pixar film, Ratatouille.
Which, if you haven't seen it, is a hilarious movie about a rat who aspires to be a fine French chef.
And there you go. Topic.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
- 8" Chef's Knife (G-2)
- 7" Santoku Knife (G-46)
- 4 1/2" Utility Knife (GSF-22)
- 5 1/2" Vegetable Knife (GS-5)
But I finally got a nice stainless steel holder mounted under the cabinets and all is good.
The big surprise was needing to re-learn technique. The weight and grips on these are all different from their closest Chicago Cutlery equivilents, so my muscle memory (even that which I just refined in the Knife Skills class) has to be adjusted. Each blade has its strengths, depending on the situation, which I'm just starting to learn.
I'm really liking these a lot. One of my table partners for Meat 101 works at Bed, Bath & Beyond and was making an argument for another brand (I've forgotten the name). Apparently, you can go up even further on the blade hardness scale. But before I put these on my Amazon wish list, I tried several different ones in the different classes and kept coming back to these. Also, they look really, really nice. I'm not above caring about that.
Next up are the Hollow Ground Santoku (G-48 - similar to the other, but with a scalloped blade) and the 10" Chef's Knife (G-16).
In the spirit of the holiday, I decided to whip some up. I threw this recipe together from a few I found at the International Chili Society, memory of previous cookups and a few things I found in my spice collection. This works great with turkey, but should be good with beef as well. Tonight's batch was virtually fat free. If you go with beef, I would recommend adding up to another pound, to account for the loss of volume from the fat when browning and draining the meat before adding in the rest of the ingredients. A longer simmer time may be needed to tenderize the beef more.
2 pounds ground turkey breast
29 oz can tomato sauce
3 cups water
2 tablespoons masa flour
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon dried oregeno
1 tablespoon fresh sweet basil, chopped
1/2 tablespoon dried epazote
1/2 tablespoon dried jalepeno
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Brown ground (turkey) meat until cooked through. Mix masa flour with 2 cups warm water into a smooth paste. Stir into chili to tighten it and add flavor. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 1 hour. Add water if needed during simmer.
This used up the last of the summer basil crop here. This worked out really well - I'm very pleased with the results.
One thing I've noticed - up here in Chicago, they don't sell ground beef for chili. I know, big surprise, but it never occurred to me how regional that was until I looked for it last year.
I remember my mom mentioned several times that she read one chili cookoff champion claimed his secret was to use several different sizes of meat: regular grind (i.e. hamburger), chili grind (much larger) and stew chunks. His theory was that every judge had a preference for the cut size of meat and, this way, he satisified them all. The turkey kind of naturally ends up giving several sizes of meat chunks, by the way it binds during cooking. You have to really break it up in the browning to get that consistent hamburger texture, but if you dial it back...
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Treebeards Cookbook - While ostesibly a restaurant cookbook, Dan and Jamie broadened the scope of the book to include recipes that fit the Treebeards style, but weren't on their menu. It's a really good, solid performer. Sadly, though, their Red Beans and Rice recipe is nothing like that served in the restaurant. In fact, it turns out a mushy mess, making it the sole bad recipe I've found. Considering that it's their signature, you'd think they would have tested it better. I've given it to a few people over the years and they've had exactly the same result. But their recipes for things such as Butter Cake, Savory Green Beans, Baked Black Beans, Stuffed Pork Chops, etc more than compensate.
Eastside Cafe: Soup Yourself & Inside The Eastside Cafe - Both books focus on fresh ingredients and herbs, capturing the essence of this wonderful restaurant. They are modest in size, staying closer to the actual menu, with no filler. Soup Yourself was one of the first cookbooks I've owned. I actually recently rediscovered it, as I started having stock on-hand more often. The second, Inside The Eastside (now titled Eastside’s Inside Secrets: Recipes from the Eastside Café Menu), is a more general book, covering all of the menu parts. The Chicken Quesadilla recipe has been a staple for years. I recently tried their Marinara Sauce recipe and it's fantastic.
The Joy of Cooking (1975) and The All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking (1997) - I received the old one as a particularly inspired birthday present from my mother in 1987. I was just about to get out of college and away from the convenience of Rice University Food Service, so I definitely needed some guidence in cooking for myself. Then 9 years later, my brother and I both received a copies of the then new edition for Christmas - this was the first major re-write to the book ever (it's had at least one since then). I assumed she had forgotten the first gift and I didn't say anything, not wanting to spoil the occasion. Then, at home, I thought about pitching the old one. But only briefly - I quickly found that they are different enough to be considered unique and of high quality enough to be invaluable. If something is more a home-style American classic, I'll usually look in the old copy. If it involves a more modern flair, the new one. For example, my all-time favorite, old-school red enchilada sauce is in the old one. The only Tres Leches recipe in my entire collection, including several Mexican/Latin cookbooks? The new one.
Better Home & Gardens: The New Grilling Book - A few years back, I got myself a Weber Grill (the Genesis Silver B, for those playing at home - the Consumer Reports Best Buy that year). I've gotten several different grilling cookbooks since then, but this one is the prize of the collection. Winners have included the Lemon-Rosemary Lamb Kabobs (also really good with Chicken), Crab-Stuffed Tenderloin (the centerpiece of a fancy-pants Christmas dinner with my brother a few years ago) and Soy Glazed Flank Steak.
Monday, October 29, 2007
The Eastside is one of my all time favorite restaurants, owned by a woman I went to high school with, Dorsey Barger. I had the good fortune to go there shortly after it opened, when I was travelling as the Texas sales rep for W.W. Norton (my Willy Loman year - yeah, it was that bad). I went there originally because, even though Dorsey and I didn't know each other that well in high school, it was a touchpoint of something familiar.
Well, it was a double win. I got to know Dorsey better, even in the few spare moments she could spare from running this new endevour, which was great. Neat, neat lady. But even if I had found she was a complete monster, I probably would have continued to eat there anyway, because it's just that good.
There was a certain ubiquitous flavor palate at local restaurants which I labelled simply, "Austin Food." Kind of a California health food/Tex-Mex mix. Lots of black beans, avacodos, tortillas, sprouts, corn, mild salsas, etc. Ultimately, it was bland and a bit heavy. If you're familiar with Austin, I would consider the Kerby Lane to be prototypical in that regard, but it was everywhere you went.
The Eastside's menu was still generally recognizable as Austin Food, but actually had flavor and balance. The Eastside took the ideas that were floating around Austin and executed them right and, from the reviews I've read, continue to do so today.
So, anyway, getting to eat there was an oasis in an unending desert of despair that year.
In deciding what to do with my stock, I realized I'd never gone with the obvious, traditional choice before, so I went with the Chicken Noodle Soup with Herbs. Boy, I'm glad I did. BTW - I emailed Dorsey and she gave me permission to share this (and a few future) recipes.
CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP WITH HERBS
12 cups chicken stock
1 cup onions, diced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
1/2 cup carrots, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
1 teaspoon fresh basil, minced
2 tablespoons lemon thyme, minced
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chives, minced
2 cups dry egg noodles
4 cups cooked chicken, diced
Salt and pepper
In a large soup pot, place stock, onions, oregano, carrots, celery, basil, lemon thyme, parsley, garlic, and chives. Simmer over medium heat for 1 hour. Add chicken and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Add noodles and cook 10 minutes until tender. Salt and pepper to taste.
*If lemon thyme isn't available, use thyme instead.
Carter, Ruth, Elaine Martin & Dorsey Barger. Soup Yourself: 50 Simple yet Sublime Soup Recipes from the Eastside Cafe'. Austin: Eastside Cafe/Blame Books 1992. p 52. Reprinted with kind permission. Buy it here.
When I make a recipe for the first time, I generally try to avoid making changes, so I get a sense of the baseline outcome. The only changes I made to the recipe were:
- Used shredded, rather than chopped, chicken. Because that's how it came off the roast chicken. Most of the bits were bit-sized, so it seemed overkill to chop them on top of it.
- Used thyme instead of lemon thyme (a noted, valid substitution), since I couldn't find the lemon variety.
- Added more like 3 to 4 cups of noodles instead of 2 because the noodles were pretty big and there was a LOT of empty air in the measuring cup. But more importantly, I really like the noodles and at that point in the recipe, all of the flavors are established. It'd be really hard to screw it up based on noodle volume so late in the game.
Result? Awesome. I kept the salt and pepper to a minimum, which was totally the right move. The flavor of the herbs really came through. This was miles away from any pre-made chicken noodle soups. I was able to get 10 cups of stock from the batch earlier and subbed in 2 cups of stock made from concentrate (not boullion). Next time, I think I'd be safe in adding another carrot, as I like them a lot, but otherwise, it stays as is.
This, also, was the clincher in my decision to expand my summer herb growing operation next year. For the last five years, I've grown sweet basil, rosemary and, occasionally, dill. Now that we have the space outside and I'm using them enough, I'm going to add tarragon, sage, oregeno and thyme. Maybe cilantro, but that's so cheap, it's almost free.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Channing is a fan of the rotisserie chicken from Jewel and I figured that the practice wouldn't go to waste. It would allow me to feed him; practice the technique (as simple as it seemed), which would be good prep for the holidays with turkey and get more materials for a homemade chicken stock (I've frozen all the carrots from the knife practice last week).
My instructions from class were buried in a clean-up of my office last week, so I started this from memory on Wednesday night.
I thawed the bird (part of the back was still frozen), softened a stick of butter, mixed in about 2 Tbsp of a holiday spice rub from Whole Foods which I had extra (dried rosemary, sage, thyme, etc), and rubbed it under the skin of the bird. I used the "natural" truss of cutting small whole in the skin and tucking the drumstick ends into those whole. I then put it in the roasting pan and popped it into the over at 400F.
It was started and in the oven when I found the instructions and saw the first possible problems.
In my rush, I committed a cardinal sin - I forgot to wash and pat-dry the chicken. Then, I forgot to salt and pepper the outside and cavity before applying the butter. The first is obviously way more important. It had been rinsed in the course of thawing, so I wasn't too worried, but it should always be done. Don't know what was wrong with me.I did add another stick of butter, btw, for basting. The roaster I have is pretty big and the volume of juices and melted butter on the bottom of the pan just wasn't enough to draw up into the baster (i.e. being spread too thin in the pan). In class, we used smaller roasting pans which were perfectly sized for a chicken.
So, it baked for about 2.5 hours (20 minutes a pound for an almost 7 pound bird). I tested the temperature and it came out as 175F.
It was about 10:30p by the time it was done, so I let it cool and then put it in the fridge for dinner the next day. And then things went wrong.
I put it back in the over at 200F to warm up and started rice for dinner. I figured I'd make a sauce from the butter-laden drippings for both. I walked away for a bit and came back to find the rice at a boil - god knows how long it had been doing that - and then dropped it to a low flame. when all the water was gone/absorbed, the rice turned out underdone. Didn't find that out until the end.
Then I poured the butter/drippings into a saucepan, brought it up to heat and then whisked in a few tablespoons of flour to thicken it up. For a while it looked like things were going well, but I tasted it and it seemed gritty, like the flour hadn't cooked. 20 minutes later, it wasn't any better and I gave up.
And to cap it off, when I started cutting up the chicken to serve, I found that it was undercooked. I don't know how that happened, with the test, and none of it was actually raw, but there was definitely much too much pinkage.
So, the chicken and rice were both undercooked and the gravy was crap. The only upside (other than general learning) was that I can still use the chicken carcass for stock.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Overall, this turned out very, very well. We used all of the recipes from the class, except for the Dal Soup as neither of us was that impressed with it. Jenni and Dan brought Thai Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango for desert. So, the menu was:
Vegetable Pakoras Cilantro Chutney Sweet Tamarind Chutney Aloo Paratha (Potato filled fried griddle bread) Aloo Gobhi (Potato and Cauliflower) Spiced Rice with Currants and Cashews Thai Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango
The spiced rice turned out much better than it did before. It was much more flavorful, which I chalk up to cooking the spices longer than our teammates did. Also, adding the cashews in afterwards was, as I expected, a better strategy.
Aloo Gobhi was the once thing we had been the most hands-off of in class, so it was good to get the experience. It turned out to be really, really easy and tasted great. I'm digging the leftovers.
The mangos, while technically a bit underripe, were absolutely perfect for the rice desert. They were ripe enough that the were purely sweet, with none of that starchy taste (like in an underripe banana, for example), but they were a little crispy. That texture played exceptionally well with the coconut rice. I'm going to make this on my own as soon as I get the recipe from Jenni.
Of course, it wouldn't be me at the stove without a few learning moments. This time around they were:
- The Immersion Blender: I tried my new immersion blender on the chutney and learned some basic technique. The most important being, the deeper the blade can get, the easier going it will be. We were using this with bowls that were much too shallow.
- Dates: Just because the first few dates you get out of a package don't have pits, don't assume that all of them will be pitted. Jenni ran afoul of these at least twice with the immersion blender (which can be quite startling) thanks to my stupid assumption.
- Paratha: You can't roll these out all at once and then fry them - they need to be grilled up as soon as they're each ready. I rolled and stacked these, thinking the flour would be enough to keep them from sticking to each other before I moved over to the stove. Nope. I ended up with a big mess of dough after the first few and had to pitch all of the rest.
- Menu: We got raves for everything, but the one thing I noticed when it was all laid out was that there was an awful lot of starch on the table. We didn't realize that by taking the soup out, we lost our one protein dish. So, next time around, I would add a vegetable (like saag panir) and/or a protein (meat, lentils or chickpeas).
I also really liked the communal cooking thing. For the first time every doing it on my "turf," I was really comfortable giving up "control" and was really not stressed. Of course, this also speaks to Jenni as a cooking partner. Also, the new kitchen is fantastic for the sheer amount of workspace, which helped a lot.
The Most Awesome Cake Ever - Chocolate Brownie with Dulce de Leche Filling and Chocolate Orange Cream Cheese Frosting
I made this for Channing one year for his birthday, and perfected it over a few occasions. However, it had been a while and we were way, way overdue. Since it was recently my birthday, we threw together a party, but the entire motivation, really, was so that I could make (and eat) this cake. And why did we need to have have 20 people over? Why couldn't I just bake it and eat it ourselves? Because it's so incredibly rich, you have to share.
I'm not entirely sure where all the inspiration came from, but the main source was the Acadian Bakery's Brownie Chocolate Mousse cake. I had it for the first time at a friend's birthday party years ago and was completely hooked. If you're in Houston, I can't recommend them more. They may have the monumentally bad judgement to think that a photo of Pres. Bush on their home page is a good idea, but the cakes are outstanding.
The Brownie cake is just what it sounds like. Two layers are dense, moist brownie. I just use the Duncan Hines plain recipe (no nuts, caramel chunks, etc). There's enough going on in this that you don't want to have to work with their additives as well.
Now, Channing is a big fan of cream cheese icing, so that was a must. He loves red velvet cake, but I suspect that it's because that cake is a cream cheese icing delivery mechanism. Incidently, he joked that he wanted "a red velvet cake shaped like an armadillo" for our wedding. You know, marrying another man is gay enough. Adding in references to Steel Magnolias is really just too much. Though with the crappy job that La Royale Icing in Oak Park turned out on the wedding cake we did have, we may have been better off. Yes, that is an anti-endorsement. They suck. HUGE waste of money.
The Joy of Cooking recipe for cream cheese icing has variations for chocolate and orange flavors. So, immediately, I say, "Screw it, I'm doing both." I took the chocolate recipe (3 oz of melted unsweetened chocolate to the base recipe - I used semisweet instead) and added orange extract and a sharp cinnamon to taste (about 1/2 tsp and 1 tsp respectively).
Then, I decided to fill it with Dulce de Leche in the middle and used the Heath Bar balls to top it. Diabetes inducing goodness. To use the Dulce de Leche as a filling, open the can and stir the caramel a bit until it's a smooth, spreadable texture (it starts out as a flan-like custard). I've also added a Mexican vanilla to it at times, which works well.
It'd been a few years, so I was really out of practice in assembling and decorating cakes. The result was, frankly, a mess. But it's really, really hard to mess up the flavors and, damn, it tastes so freaking good, it doesn't matter.
I did learn a few things:
- Brownie Layers - Use one box per standard cake pan. I tried doing the 13"x9" pan (I wanted to make a larger version, as we ran out one year), but the layers are just too thin to get from the pan in a single sheet. Also, do NOT use the "cake-like" recipe (adding the extra egg). It makes them rise, which makes frosting very difficult. My top layer started sliding off the Dulce de Leche filling (which was admittedly laid too thick, as well).
- Toffee Topping - I recently discovered Terry's Toffee here in Chicago. Not only is it hands down the best toffee I've ever had, they make an Orange Blossom flavor which worked just great with the other flavors. I chopped up those and put them on top instead of the Heath bar. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
I've been meaning to have a practice session on my knife skills for some time. I've gotten my first Globals for my birthday and anniversary and had bought a big 'ol bag of carrots a week or so ago. Also, I had a good chat with my instructor at the Chopping Block on Saturday about various things culinary, including what culinary school is like (she also teaches at Kendall College). Hearing her describe the kinds of tests the kids have to take/pass, including knife skills, inspired me to just get to it already. Also, she reminded me that you can use all the bits in stock, so it's not like they go to waste.
So I carved up the whole mess in slices, juliennes and various sizes of dices whilst watching reruns of cartoons. Even within the hour or so I took, I saw some definite improvement in getting consistent slices, straight lines and clean cubes. A lot more time and variety is needed, but it was time well spent.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
If this were my first class with them, I would have just hung up then and found another class at another company. Not a great way to build business.
Clarification: Despite this rant (which I stand by), I do want to emphasize that I intend to give them my business for a long time. The instruction at the Chopping Block is outstanding and an good value when you look at the rates at the other options in the city. However, if this registration was my first experience with them, I would have moved on and not had the opportunity to find out. They've hooked me as a customer, but who knows how many others swim away before they get reeled in?
As an actionable suggestion, I would recommend that they figure out a way to track people whom they've had to cancel and reschedule. If there's any kind of risk that a person can't get into another session (such as that one last seat in the third session - if I hadn't called immediately after getting the cancellation email, I might have missed that spot), then go ahead and put the student in there pre-emptively, just to hold the place for them. And, for the inconvenience (especially on a multiple cancellation), offer some kind of retail discount. It would foster some good will and drive some additional retail business. Just a thought.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Well, it certainly wasn't Atkins friendly in our house last night. In addition to getting a move on with the gnocchi, I wanted to give Rice Pudding another shot. So, it was a lot of starch.
For the gnocchi, I used the Todd English recipe in Becoming a Cook. It looked straightforward enough. The only fanciness was that it called for a potato ricer, which I picked up at the Chopping Block on Saturday. I've been curious about those anyway.
I can say it went off without a hitch. Rolling out the pieces with the fork takes a little practice, but after 15 or so...
The recipe specifies using russet potatoes, but I mixed that with a few Yukon Gold I had left over. I did learn one clear advantage with using the russets: they're white. Yukon Gold are yellow. When you're kneading in the egg yolks, it sure is a lot easier to tell when you've got a good mix. I also realized that it may have literally been years since I had peeled a potato. I've been doing them skin-on for mashed, etc. the whole time.
We've been eating packaged gnocchi for a while now, but there is no way I'm going back. The biggest difference was in the texture. We've had a number of brands and they all have a little toughness in the center relative to the homemade. They're not bad, by any stretch, but there is a noticable difference. Also, there are so many things that you could add to the dough for variations...
The Rice Pudding was an attempt to figure it out before Saturday. My friend Jenni is coming over to cook Indian with me that day and it'd be nice to get a handle on it before-hand. It can't be difficult, right? I decided to use a traditional recipe, so I could lay a foundation before I tried the Indian variety (kheer).
I took the recipe from the Gourmet cookbook everyone was all over a few years back (the big yellow one - again, recipe to be posted). The only changes I made were using a capful of vanilla, since I didn't have vanilla beans, and throwing in about a heavy dash of cardamom into the milk, to make it more Indian. Turns out you couldn't taste it at all. But the end result was dead on.
My love for the Chopping Block's classes continues to be validated. At the recommendation of one of my table mates in the Sauces class, I decided to work my way through the 101 series of classes. Chicken seemed like a good place to start since I make a lot of it, but I tend to do the same thing (grilling skinless, boneless breasts) all the time.
I kind of lucked out in that there were only 5 people in the class, split into teams of 3 and 2. Not only did I get to be in the group of two, thus ensuring more hand's on time, but we also had a very active and knowledgable assistant, who gave us a lot of personal attention.
- Whole Roasted Chicken Stuffed with Sage Garlic Butter
- Arroz con Pollo (Spanish, not Mexican)
- Poulet Saute' Chasseur (Sauteed chicken with shallots, mushrooms, tomatoes and tarragon)
I got to bring a LOT of the food home since a) I only had one partner and b) she had to leave before everything was done to catch her Metra train. Everything was really good, but the clear home run was the Arroz con Pollo. I believe Channing's words were, "I'm almost embarassaed by how much I love this."
Things I learned that I didn't know before:
- When testing the temperature of a chicken or turkey, insert the thermometer under the thigh, essentially under the equivilent of the butt cheek. Be careful not to touch the bone, as that will read hotter then the meat.
- Grape seed oil is generally better for sauteeing than olive oil. It can go higher in temperature before it starts smoking and it's cheaper than olive oil. You really can't taste the olive oin in a sear or a sautee, so it's not worth the extra money.
- When pounding chicken breasts, you should strike the meat and draw the mallet to the side, rather than just hitting it like a nail.
- When reducing a sauce, look at the size of the bubbles as a measure of progress. The bigger the bubbles, the better. Also, in addition to a reduction in volume, look for "nappe," the ability of the liquid to coat the back of a spoon.
Friday, October 12, 2007
- Lemon Ginger Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust - I've made this once and a) it cracked and b) the crust was a soggy mess. But, my god, it was tasty.
- Gnocchi - Our friend Joe Gray made this once when we were at their place and it was the most amazing thing ever. I've never made fresh pasta before, but I finally read a recipe for this in On Being a Cook and it looked reasonable. So, I'm going to give this a shot.
- Grilled Beef - I just generally need practice on this. I have no good instinct for doneness of beef and this is just one that calls for repetition.
- Tuna & Salmon Tartare - I didn't realize until Top Chef that this is apparently a way overdone dish in restaurants. I guess I don't eat out enough at fancy places. I don't care - I love it. I had Tuna Tartare for the first time about a year ago at the Magnolia Cafe in our old neighborhood of Uptown. Then, last Spring, in Paris I had Salmon Tartare. I love sushi, as it is, so seasoning the raw fish is a bonus.
- Smoked Salmon with Lentils - I had this appetizer in Paris at Pascal. It was bascially just what it says, smoked salmon with a side of lentils. But it was memorable for the smooth and delicate taste. It wasn't until I started looking seriously at olive oils that I realized that was a key ingredient.
- Smoked Salmon Ravioli With Lemon Cream Sauce - Yep, more salmon. I just ran across this in an old review of the East Side Cafe, a restaurant owned by a woman I went to high school with, Dorsey Barger. When I was travelling for W.W. Norton (my Willie Loman year), getting to eat there was an oasis in an unending desert of despair. This is all I know about the dish: "Although plenty of cream gives the dish body, it tastes light and perfectly summery. The al dente ravioli pockets come filled with smooth ricotta, ribbons of Napa cabbage, and salmon accented with dill. The lemony cream the dish bathes in is further brightened by a slightly sweet relish topping of red bell pepper." Awesome, huh?
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
I thought I was going to have to take a regular recipe and swap out the cheese used, but I found this recipe with a simple Google search. Restaurants and Institutions is, apparently, a trade magazine and the site is actually pretty interesting. This week's "Recipe of the Week," "Caramel Coconut Rice Pudding" was tempting enough that I registered as a "Point of Sale Software Consultant."
Anyway, this recipe worked out great. I may mince the onions next time for Channing's sake, but I liked them very much sliced as instructed.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
I've had mixed to bad results with the recipe. These are all related to consistency - the flavors are good enough that I keep coming back for another try. The first time, it was kind of oily. That was also my first-ever attempt to cook Indian at home, so there were other things going on, including making ghee from scratch with the baking method I mentioned before. I also took the recipe very literally and fried the panir by hand. I found later that you can buy fried panir frozen at the Indian market, thereby skipping that messy and oily step. Note that you can also buy fresh panir at the market as well, so you can fry it yourself if you want, but you don't have to make it. Fortunately, I figured that out before the first attempt.
I tried again for the dinner and it came out frighteningly stiff. I'm still not sure how, other than I may have simply added way too much cream cheese.
In either attempt, it was tasty, but seriously unhealthy. So, I figured I'd try to de-fat it as much as possible. My intent was to use just a bit of ghee (~1 tbl) to cook the spices and skip the cheese and cream entirely.
Well, that didn't work out so well.
As soon as I added the spinach I knew I was in trouble. I used thawed chooped frozen spinach from which I'd squeezed out the water, just like I have been instructed in every other recipe I've made that uses it. Right away, it was way too dry. So, after it cooked for about 8 minutes, as instructed, I stirred in 3 tbl of cream, just to loosen it up a bit. The flavor was a bit strong. This was because, without bothering to read the spinach package, I had doubled the seasonings assuming that my big bag of Goya frozen spinach was twice as much as what the recipe called for. Not. true. I tried adding only half, but it was a guess. To cut the flavor, I went ahead and added some frozen fried panir I had. The result was fine tasting, but not the lowfat creation I had envisioned.
Looking back, I think my big problem was squeezing out all of the water from the spinach.
PALAK PANIR SAK
Chopped Spinach with Panir Cheese
One of the most popular vegetable dishes in North India is palak panir sak. Every temple and household has its own variation. Sometimes it is made exclusively with spinach, and at others with mixed greens - spinach and mustard, collard, fenugreek or beet greens. Some variations attain notoriety by pureeing cooked spinach and simmering it with cream and fried panir cubes. Other renditions remain textured, matching equal amounts of fried cheese with buttery, wilted chopped spinach. It is a moist, succulent dish that is delicious with hot flatbreads. Bite-sized pieces of flat bread are used to scoop up bits of cheese and spinach. Try palak panir sak with Griddle-Baked Village-Style Corn Bread, Mixed Bean Salad with Fennel or chopped tomatoes with herbs and oil and Golden Pumpkin Toovar Dal Soup for a delicious, nutritious meal.
Preparation time (after assembling ingredients): 5 minutes
Cooking time: about 30 minutes
Serves: 5 or 6
1-2 hot green chilies, cut into pieces
1/2 inch (l.5 cm) piece of fresh inch ginger root, sliced
4 tablespoons (60 ml) panir whey or water
1/2 tablespoon (7 ml) ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) turmeric
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon (l ml) paprika
6 tablespoons (90 ml) ghee or nut oil fresh panir cheese (page 313) made from 6 cups (l.5 liters) milk, cut into 1/2-inch (l.5 cm) cubes (about 6 ounces/170 g)
2 pounds (1 kg) fresh spinach, washed, trimmed and finely chopped, or two 10-ounce (570 g) packages of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) garam masala
1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
3 tablespoons (45 ml) cream or cream cheese, cut into small pieces
1. Place the chilies, ginger and whey or water in a blender or food processor bowl fitted with the metal blade. Process to a smooth puree. Add the coriander, turmeric, cumin and paprika and pulse to blend well. Set aside.
2. Heat the ghee or oil in a nonstick wok or 5-quart/liter saucepan over moderate heat until it is hot but not smoking. Gently add the panir cheese and fry for about 5 more minutes, constantly turning the cubes with a gentle hand, to evenly brown them on all able sides. (If you use a stainless steel pan, the cubes invariably stick to the pan and tend to easy spread apart.) When the cubes are golden brown, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
3. Carefully add the wet spice (masala) to the hot oil and then pack in the freshably spinach leaves. Reduce the heat slightly, cover, and cook for 8 minutes. Using two forks, turn the spinach over so that the cooked leaves on the bottom change places with the leaves on top. Cover and cook for another 8 minutes. (If you are using frozen, defrosted spinach, cook it for only a total of 8 minutes.)
4. Add the garam masala, salt, fried panir and cream or cream cheese. Cover and continue to cook for about 5 minutes. Stir well before serving.