Friday, September 28, 2007

Reheating Sauces

Yesterday, my sister found this blog in the course of an email search. I hadn't been promoting this other than a recent addition to my email footer. Also, Johanna over at the very interesting and highly recommended Comics Worth Reading linked to me once after I asked her a question about the Amazon Associates program. So, I was curious to know who was looking at this, as I had previously assumed I had an audience of, maybe, 3. Not that it should affect what I'm doing, which is to motivate myself and document progress. Anyway, I installed a hit counter (Blogpatrol), which also includes some reporting on how people got to the site. One feature is that they tell you the search criteria used to get here if someone used Google.

Whew. What's my point, other than to freak you out about Big Brother?

Someone yesterday got here with the phrase "reheating bernaise sauce." So this reminded me of something I hadn't shared yet. 1 1/2 weeks ago, I had my at-home success with hollandaise sauce, for which I closed the report with "Eggs Benedict tomorrow!" That Sunday, I went ahead with that plan and put the sauce in the microwave. Guess what? Yeah, I'm sure everyone else in the world knows, but it almost immediately broke. The sad thing is that I tried for 30 seconds (on the default setting of High) first and it seemed okay. But rather than stirring what I had at that state, I popped it in for 30 seconds more. That's what did it.

In Sauce class a few days later, our hollandaise got cold before our end of class meal and I wanted to avoid the same result. So, I made a warm water bath and very gently whisked the sauce to keep the temperature even. Note that before I possibly ruined my teammate's work, I did run this by the instructor and get the thumb's up. The method worked very well. I need to look up how to save those after they do actually break or to thicken it up if it's too thin; there must be a way. If the yolks curdle, it's hopeless, but afterwards...

So there you go. You implicitly ask and you receive.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Using the Mandoline Slicer

The goal tonight was knife skills practice. I had purchased a mess of potatoes, onions and a few tomatoes to work with. There's a big bag of carrots in the fridge, too, so that will be in a day or two. But, I got distracted by our Oxo Mandoline slicer. Yes, seeing one in use on last week's Top Chef encouraged me.

Ever since we got ours as a wedding present (after coveting the Steele's for months), I have never been able to get very effective use out of ours. It just seemed difficult to use. To be fair, I'd never practiced using it - I just gave it a shot when I was actually preparing a meal. So, there was no room for error or playing around. It probably also wasn't helping that after every attempt, I cleaned it by putting the blade in the dishwasher, dulling it every time.

So, I tried sharpening the primary flat blade on my new whetstone tool by pulling it out and treating it like a knife. That seemed to help a whle lot.

Also, I'd had problems before on the back part of the veggie in question not getting a clean separation at the end. A quick firm stroke with a full follow through really helped that - I started getting clean cuts all the way through.

The texture of tomatoes seemed to require a small twist at the end of the stroke to work through the tougher outer skin. I got a series of perfect hamburger slices, which I then chopped by hand to use in the Red Lentil Dal later this week.

I then washed a 5 lb bag of potates and went to it. These came out very nicely. I went for a thin slice at first, ~1/8". After a few of those, I dialed it down as thin as it could go, which also worked well. Not quite paper thin. I'll use these in a Potates Gorganzola Gratin later, too. Channing usually isn't a fan of potatoes, but tried these at Taste of Heaven last week and liked them. Cheese conquers all, I guess.

I tried julianning and the wavy side of the blade. What I can't figure out is how on earth you get waffle fries out of this thing. I'll have to look that up.

So, I'm feeling a lot more confident with this tool. I've got a LOT of potatoes to eat now, though.

Ginger Honey Cookies

Hmm. These were the cookies I was going to make on Monday night that cut for time. They're from the month's Gourmet (Oct 07), though the recipe isn't posted. I made them tonight because, well, if nothing else, I paid 14 freaking bucks for the crystalized ginger on Monday, so I'll be damned if I let it sit on the shelf. Though I also really like ginger.

They tasted fine, but they were way, way too soft. I'm pretty sure that they weren't cooked long enough, but the instructions say cook for 10-14 minutes (a pretty wide variation, there, in a short time frame) until they are "golden brown." That's great and all, but how on earth can you tell when the batter starts out at pretty much that color? And this isn't a multi-batch recipe like Toll House, where you can adjust after the first sheet - it's all or nothing.

The recipe also says they they should be "pillowy." Mine were anything but. Flat, flat, flat. If I had to guess, it would be that I didn't get enough air into the batter (starting with the butter and brown sugar step).

I can tell that getting the timing of these right will result in a lot of burnt cookies.

So, screw it. No Do Overs on these. Here's the recipe if you want to give it a shot yourself after my glowing endorsement:


The crisp edge and pillow-soft, chewy middle of these cookies will be the first things that strike you when you bite into them. But it's the faintly peppery traces of ginger that will make you crave more.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt /br>1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup mild honey

Preheat oven to 350F with racks in upper and lower thirds.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, ginger, and salt in a bowl.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Beat in egg and honey until combined. Reduce speed to low, then mix in flour mixture.

Drop 14 heaping tablespoons of dough 2 inches apart onto 2 ungreased baking sheets.

Bake, Switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until golden, 10 to 14 minutes total (Cookies will spread flat).

Cool completely on sheets on racks. Cookies keep in an airtight container at room temperature 3 days.

Do Over: Buerre Blanc

It's a week of catch-up in the kitchen and my first order of business was to win my battle with buerre blanc. I tried the exact recipe I had tried the previous night and it came out perfect. Basically, I took the Chopping Block recipe and added the tarragon and lemon from the Trib recipe. As I expected, the heat was the culprit before and by controlling that correctly, I got a smooth, coating consistency. It does take a long, long time to work in the cold butter into the sauce and it does consume your full attention during that time. Definitely not an absolute last minute kind of thing.

The one thing I'll tweak next time is the tarrogon and lemon. While the sauce came out perfect, the flavor wasn't as intense as the night before. I suspect it had something to do with properly reducing the lemon juice. It was still really good, though.

I served it with the left over poached chicken from the night before and some gemelli tossed with white wine and olive oil. The pasta was my first planned use of that "sauce" from the fingerling potatoes and it worked just as I expected.

It was a very light beige plate, though.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Menu: Overreaching (Poached Chicken with Buerre Blanc, Broccoli with Mornay and Pumpkin Bread Pudding)

We were having folks over for the season premiere of Heroes last night. I went a little overboard...

The menu:
Mixed Greens with White Wine Vinaigrette
Poached Chicken with Lemon-Tarragon Buerre Blanc
Broccoli with Mornay Sauce
Pumpkin Bread Pudding

The meta reason for this blog really pushed me here. I realized I had been light on content this past week, an indication that I had not been getting in the kitchen like I should. So, I was looking to catch up a bit.

Ugh. Not my best moment in menu planning. The two biggest issues were 1) I made a sit down meal - and a fancy sit-down meal at that - for what should have been casual, on the couch fare 2) I didn't get done until 8:45 when we were planning on an 8:00 start.

I put this one together after going through the latest issue of Gourmet and last week's Good Eats section in the Trib while on the train. The Trib section highlight was an offering of 10 recipes for chicken breasts, the first of which had a buerre blanc, the sauce I didn't get to make hands on last week in Sauce class. If that isn't a sign...

The bread pudding addressed a few things: 1) we had a lot of stale bread from the last dinner. Those artisian loaves, even from Jewel, have only a one day freshness in those paper/cello bags and I'm really tired of wasting those 2) on Top Chef a few weeks ago, Tre was kicked off for screwing up a bread pudding, which everyone called easy. So I had to see how easy it really was. 3) Channing likes it.

I thought I could crank this whole mess out in the 60 minutes, which if I didn't have to prep, I probably could have made. Also, I can't talk when I cook - my short-term memory is just too crappy. Fortunately, I didn't attempt the cookies I was thinking about.

While a bit late and too formal, it went okay, overall. A B/B-, I think. The execution errors were small; the buerre blanc broke and one of the chicken breasts was underdone. The points off are not for the actual food quality this time.

Le blow by blow (to be moved to individual recipe entries once I post those):

While it's hard to mess up a vinaigrette, this batch was quite good. I cut the mustard (the Terrapin Ridge Cracked Pepper-Lemon-Thyme again) to 1/2 part, with 1 part white wine vinegar and 3 parts olive oil. So, I kept the taste from last time, just dampend to a smoother level. I think that doctoring it up with a little fresh pepper, lemon juice and thyme would be nice next time.

The mornay sauce went well. It seemed to be a bit thin, but after adding the swiss cheese, it turned out just right.

Poaching the chicken turned out really, really nice. I've done this for salmon before, but this never occurred to me. I think this would be much, much better for salads. It was very tender and it's easy. It's impossible to burn, of course. The super-thick chicken breasts are the bane of my existence in general and, in this case, one of them turned out under done.

The buerre blanc was both a failure and a success. I made two significant errors here. The first was not adding the lemon and tarragon until after the shallot/white wine reduction (though that seemed to reduce down decently - maybe it wasn't a bad mistake after all). The second, for sure, was that I forgot to reduce the heat when adding the cold butter. Not surprisingly, the sauce completely broke. However, it tasted amazing. This is spectacular stuff.

The bread pudding was as easy as its reputation. This turned out really nicely. Next time, I will try to use fresher bread (one day old), as this was really, really, really stale, but overall, this was a very successful effort.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Treebeards' Butter Cake

It's been a slow week in the kitchen, after the event last Sunday. So, here's a recommended recipe to keep things moving along. It can be found in the Treebeards Cookbook and about a million times in the Houston Chronicle's Food section.

This is a clear winner every single time. I made it a few times in rapid succession and the same thing happens every. single. time. Everyone asks what they are and comments about how rich they must be. Then everyone makes an obligatory comment about their diet. A few people say they'll just have half of one. As they moan, everyone else takes one to see what the fuss is about. And then the carnage begins.

I've been adding a sharp Chinese cinnamon and using my Mexican vanilla to these lately to give it more of a punch, but they're awesome plain, too. A friend once tried these with egg substitute and low fat cream cheese and they were okay, but nowhere near awesome.

Do they even make those little 3 ox packages of cream cheese anymore? For the past few years, I've had to buy 2 of the 8 oz. packages and save the remaining 7 oz.


There is nothing quite as decadent as our buttercake. The buttery crust is topped with a rich cream cheese layer.

3 cups Pillsbury Plus yellow cake mix*
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 egg

3 1/3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 3-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

* Each box of cake mix yields 3 cups dry mix.

FOR CRUST: Generously spray a 10 x 15-inch jelly roll pan with non-stick spray. With an electric mixer, blend dry cake mix, melted butter and 1 egg on low speed until moistened. Mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Pat onto bottom and sides of prepared pan. Set aside.

FOR FILLING: With electric mixer on low speed, mix 3 1/3 cups sifted powdered sugar, 2 eggs, vanilla and cream cheese until ingredients are moistened. Carefully cover mixer with a large, clean kitchen towel (making certain no part of the towel comes near the beaters), turn mixer to high speed and beat for 5 minutes. Turn mixer to low speed and remove towel. Add remaining 11/2 cups sifted powdered sugar and mix until well blended. Carefully replace towel and return mixer to high speed; beat for 5 minutes. Pour mixture over crust in pan and spread evenly.

Bake at 350F for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. When cool, slice into squares.

Tidwell, Dan, Jamie Mize and Janie Baur. Treebeards Cookbook. Houston: Treebeards, Inc., 1993, p. 94 .

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sauces 101, Pt 2

Last night was Part 2 of my Sauces 101 class as the Chopping Block. This time around we learned the rest ofthe "Mother Sauces," which were:

We had a different instructor and assistants this time. They were all great, solidifying my impression of quality at the store across the board. If I had noted names, I would definitely give them props here.

I made sure to work towards more equal time with my table partners on the hands on stuff , which I facilitated by moving to the other side of the table from the stove. That worked out pretty well.

The downside was that I only ended up being hands on with the hollandaise. I didn't worry about the vinaigrette or mayonnaise, because I've done the first and the second seemed really, really easy. But I wasn't paying attention like I should have and missed out on the buerre blanc.

I actually started the hollandaise, but handed off the whisk. My partners then had the dreaded curdle, which I think was function of keeping the egg over the heat too long. I was handed the whisk for the second attempt and I rocked it. Practice. It paid off.

I also got compliments from the staff for my knife skills on my shallots. I'm still slow, but those are coming along.

A few observations/things I learned:

Mustard is, apparently, a common ingredient in mayonnaise, used as an emulisfier. What I don't get is how you get any other flavors like a regular mayonaisse or an ailoi with the mustard in there. The instructor said that you wouldn't be able to tell, but I'm not yet 100% convincd. I could definitely taste it in ours. So, I'm thinking that egg yolks are the way to go.

A few years ago, the Pulse button on my KitchenAid food processor died, so I have to use the On and Off buttons quickly to pulse, or twist the feeder/lid. Another guy in the class mentioned that his KitchenAid had the same exact problem, but that his father-in-law was able to fix it. I'm very, very tempted to give this a try. Not quite at the point of getting out the tool box, but... This came up because we used the exact same model that I have for the mayonaisse.

We made the hollandaise with a double-boiler, which Peterson recommended against. I asked about it and they thought the direct heat method is harder to control the heat (the opposite of what Peterson says),but is done in kitchens more for time, fewer pans, etc. The boiler is definitely more forgiving with the heat. Now that I know the direct heat way, I may stick with it.

Clarified Butter/Ghee

You've probably noticed a lot of references to clarified butter or ghee here. I had been content to use jarred ghee from the Indian market until I noticed how much it actually cost. The first time I had a recipe that called for it, I had made it at home, not knowing I could buy it in the store. That recipe, from an Indian Vegetarian Cooking book, directed you to bake a pound of butter in a 9x12 pan at very low heat (200F?) for a hour or two. (I think this may have been when I realized that good percentage of Indian cooking instructions are designed just to make you miserable. For some examples, take a look at the kitchen and cookware designs found in the book 100% India. Yikes). Needless to say, as soon as I saw that it was on the shelf, I started buying it pre-made.

So, as the pain in the butt factor drove me from making my own to buying it, my recent increased use of clarified butter (particularly with the hollandaise) made me more aware of the price. Staring at the $3.49 price tag for a small jar while whisking the sauce really bugged me. Thereby driving me back to making it on my own.

Basically, when clarifying butter, you're heating it to separate out the milk solids. Once those are removed, the butter can be heated much higher without burning. The second effect is to boil out the water content. Depending on what book you're reading, it's this second phase that makes clarified butter technically ghee.

A friend told me about his method, which was to nuke the butter and then skim off the solids with a swipe of the paper towel. Having read a few other sources, I realized that the microwave method sounded good, but you weren't going to get rid of the water well that way.

So, I got out my tiny glass sauce pans, chopped up some butter and set it going at medium-low/low heat. After a while, the solids came to the top. Here's the problem: skimming off the solids is a messy pain. I tried using the paper towel method, but a) you soak up some of the good stuff in the process and b) you use a LOT of paper towels. That's too much waste for me. On my second and third rounds, I tried my various slotted instruments, but no dice. I still had to resort to the paper towels. I'll look at the Chhopping Block tonight for a proper skimmer.

After I tackled the solids, I let it sit more to get the water out. This is really kind of neat. It seems that as the water molecules circulate to the bottom of the pan, they heat up enough to boil. So, you get these sudden small bubbles. It's like the movie versions of lava. I caught myself just getting mesmerized waiting for the next micro-boil. Anyway, I just let that go until the bursts stopped, like waiting for your microwave popcorn to stop popping.

Update: Okay, it seems there are two places the solids go: floating to the top (the foamy scum) and drifting to the bottom. So, it seems like straining it may be the best route to go. Also, my skimmer seems to be just fine. I couldn't find any that seemed better designed at the Chopping Block.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Menu: Filet Mignon and Sauces

Our friends John and Anita were in town for the weekend, so I figured I'd whip up a fancy-pants meal for them, to a) practice my sauces and b) show off the fancy new kitchen, which Anita had never seen. John had only seen it before we moved in.

The sauces I went with were a balsalmic viniagrette, bernaise (a variation on the hollandaise) and mornay (a variation on the bechamel). It was going to be relatively low risk as I pretty much made all three before. We had tackled the mornay specifically in class the previous week, I had just finally succeeded with the hollandaise and the vinaigrette, well, that's really hard to screw up.

The menu:
Spinach Salad with Vinaigrette
Filet Mignon with Bernaise Sauce
Steamed Broccoli with Mornay Sauce
Corn Basil Pudding
Peach Raspberry Pie a la mode'

Overall, this went off much better than the last meal (the Pork menu). I'd rate it as a solid B.

Timing remains an issue for me. I've decided to start serving from the kitchen, rather than family style. In part, this is because plating and presentation is kind of neat. Also, it makes it a little easier to control. I also want to be able to eat with my guests, so managing courses is tricky. In this case, I served the salad with the meal all at the same time. The timing was a lot tighter than before as I didn't want the beef to get cold, the broccoli to get overdone or get cold (which it does almost immediately) and the sauces to do whatever horrible thing they might do if they set for too long.

I figured the mornay was all right sitting for a little while, so my timing was take the meat out of the fridge, bring the broccoli water to a boil, heat the grill, make the mornay, grill the steaks, put the broccoli over the steam, make the bernaise while the meat set, then plate and serve immediately. The sequence is sound I think, but it doesn't allow much room for error.

The only new recipe here is the bernaise, sort of. It's a hollandaise, but the variation involves a white wine, vinegar, shallot and tarragon reduction, which I'd never done. I'll post that separately. I need to go back through and add internal links between these posts as well, so watch for that soon.

The blow-by-blow:

Spinach Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette: Nope, you can't screw this up. This Saturday, I met Marie and Larry down at the Old Town Wine Crush, a wine-oriented street fair. In addition to the fantastic chicken tamale I had at the Adobo Grill tent, I found a tent for Old Town Oil where they had tastings of their products. I bought myself a bottle each of their Blood Orange Olive Oil and their Tangerine Balsalmic Vinegar. I mixed these babies 1-to-1 and spooned over the baby spinach leaves. Raves all around. This is great, great stuff.

Filet Mignon with Bernaise Sauce: This course actually addressed two weak spots for me; grilling beef and the sauce. I'm very nervous grilling beef since I do it so infrequently. So, this was a good opportunity. I went with the filet because, well, I'm not sure. It looks classier, so maybe that's it. But, holy God, it's expensive. This isn't helped by the fact that I went to Whole Foods. Which turned out to be a two-hour ordeal, by the way, thanks to forgetting my wallet at home, the register that my transaction was saved on crashing and the largest crowd they've had early on a Sunday that anyone could remember. Sheesh.

I was aiming for medium-rare and ended up closer to rare, which I guess is okay. It tasted alright. I toothpicked bacon around the sides (more use of leftovers), which generally turned out fine, but was a little inconsistent - blackened toward the edges, a little under in the center of the strip.

The timing got screwed on the bernaise sauce. Maybe it was having an audience or the general time crunch, but my first batch ended up scrambled. Fortunately, I had one egg left, so I went for a second round (though the broccoli ended up a bit over done as a result). The sauce turned out way, way too thin which I think was completely a function of pouring too much of the wine/tarragon reduction in, rather than doing it to taste. And, perhaps I took it off the fire too soon out of fear of scrambling again. So, that's one that needs some practice. On cheaper cuts of meat, of course. As mentioned above, I will post the bernaise recipe separately.

Steamed Broccoli with Mornay Sauce: Mornay was the variation on the bechamel that we made in class. Basically, you add a little nutmeg (three swipes of the grater, if you're using fresh) and swiss cheese to the basic sauce. It was a little thick, but very tasty. Channing couldn't taste the cheese in the sample I brought home from class, so this was an improvement. As I mentioned before, the broccoli was a touch over done as I accidently left the cover on while I made the second batch of sauce. By the way, as I was checking my spelling of "mornay" on Google, I found that according to Wikipedia, "A Mornay sauce is a Béchamel sauce with shredded or grated cheese added. Usually, it is half Gruyère and half Parmesan." Hmm. Okay. I like the swiss, though.

Corn Pudding with Basil: Well, this is a lesson learned. While this was tasty, it wasn't as world-rocking as the first batch. The clear difference was that the corn I used wasn't as fresh. For the first batch, I used corn I had just bought that morning at the Evanston Farmer's Market. This time, it was corn from that same batch, so it was a little old. I had sliced off the kernels and refrigerated them after I noticed the ears were getting a little dried out. So, it seems that fresh corn is the key for that recipe. Oh, and I know that those "hairs" as I referred to them last time are called "cornsilk." Dunno how I forgot that.

Peach Raspberry Pie: I made this to use up the second batch of crust dough I had in the freezer and the rest of the raspberries. I was very careful to follow the instructions for the raspberry variation on the peach pie, even adding a little more sugar. Also, I was careful to get fully ripe (or at least closer than last time) peaches. It tasted just like it should. Just enough tartness from the raspberries, but not too much. The top crust separated a little bit, making kind of a mess from the pie juice,. That may have been a function of a) using a shallower pie pan b) the dough having been frozen before or c) not having made adequate vents on the top. But while it was a little messy to work with, it served up and tasted great.

Do Over: Those Damned Muffins

Sometimes, you cook things because you don't want food to go to waste. I saw that I still had about a pint of fresh blueberries left that probably didn't have much time left. So, it was muffin time again. There was just under the 4 cups I needed, so I extended it with some some raspberries.

I used the Foster's Market recipe again and I was very careful on my mixing and baking time. Regardless, I got very similar results to the last time. They are still a little tough for my taste, so it wasn't a function of over-mixing (which I assume creates extra gluten or something). It may just be the recipe. I did use jumbo-sized eggs, so I'll switch back to large for that. I'm guessing a third recipe may be in order.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Do Over: Hollandaise Sauce

Since we're doing the Hollandaise in class on Wednesday, I wanted to give it another shot so that I wouldn't be so far behind the curve. I was going to try several small batches until I got it right.

I got out my fresh eggs and followed the Peterson instructions from before. I looked at a couple of other books and they didn't seem to be as technique focused or something. The first batch was exactly the same as the previous attempt. I ended up with scrambled egg yolk. Ugh.

I noticed when whisking the egg yolk and water that I was splashing the mixture out of the brasier, because of the shallow sides. I has used that because of the rounded bottom and the heat resistence. Peterson made a big deal about being able to get at all of the sauce with the whisk and a regular sauce pan had the problematic corners.

I realized that I had a more pointed whisk that could get into the corners easily, so for the second try today, I used my regular sauce pan. It worked! I was able to get a much better froth before it went on the flame. As soon as I could see the streaks on the bottom of the pan (which was the point before when the eggs scrambled), I yanked it off of the fire, whisked more to cool it down (~20 seconds) and added my clarified butter. At that point I was satisfied that it had worked and then proceeded to flavor it with the lemon juice and the salt.

Because I was focusing on the egg part, I didn't bother with juicing fresh lemons and just used the bottled stuff. Then I threw in about a teaspoon of salt. This was a bit much, but overall, it turned out very nice.

So, it seems the key thing I was missing before was a strong enough whisk. Once I was using a pan where I could let loose like I should, all was good.

To make sure that I actually had the technique down, I made a second batch about 10 minutes later. It was no fluke, this worked well, too. I did only put in lemon and mixed the two batched together to reduce the salt taste. Eggs Benedict tomorrow!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sauces 101, Pt 1

On Wednesday, I took another class at the Chopping Block. This was the first of two parts on sauces, the second to be on the following Wednesday. This time, I learned a LOT more and not only about sauces. In part, I think it was the structure of the skills classes (like my Knife Skills class) versus the menu classes (like my Indian class). But the quality of the instructor and the smaller class size made a big difference, too.

We learned four sauces hands-on, with a demonstration. The hands-on were:

We got a demonstration for a pan sauce from a pork tenderloin sear with red wine for the deglazing.

All of these were quite good. The big surprise for me was the veloute'. It looked a lot like the crappy chicken gravy you see so often, like on mashed potatoes. But this was really tasty. The white wine reduction really gave it some bite. I was also surprised at the tomato sauce. I'd seen that made on TV and the ubiquitous scenes in movies, but never in real life. It's surprisingly not too difficult. I doubt I'm going to swear off jarred pasta sauce like I did with chutney, but I will definitely give it a shot.

Things I learned that had nothing to do with the recipes:

  1. Meat needs to warm to room temperature before you grill or fry it. I had no idea. It certainly hasn't been mentioned in my grilling books. When cold meat is cooked on a high heat, the difference between the outer and inner temeratures is much greater. i.e. you're get charred on the outside and raw in the middle.
  2. A really good reason to use unsalted butter. I always used salted butter, just because. It's certainly better on toast. But if you use a salted butter in a sauce that gets reduced, it will get incredibly salty due to the concentration.
  3. Add ingredients in the order they're listed, even if it seems they're all at once. Well, this explains my issues in the ubiquitous (word of the day) saute' of onion and garlic. Particularly with these two, you're supposed to saute' the onion first, then add the garlic.
  4. Don't stir constantly in a saute'. I thought that you were supposed to, but apparently, this releases heat from the pan. Stir just enough to get an even heat on all the things being sauteed, but no more.

So, this is what I was talking about regarding gaps in my knowledge. These all seem really basic, but I didn't know any of them.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pasta in White Wine

Oh my.

So, I'm cooking up steak tonight, practicing my grilling and making use of a marinade I bought at the Guiness Storehouse (i.e. the brewery tour gift shop) a long time ago. I had a bag of fingerling potatoes left from the dinner a few weeks ago that I needed to use before they went bad, so I planned on a repeat. Here's the problem, Channing hates potatoes and I didn't really want to cook yet another dish. He had a hard day, too, so telling him, "Tough, eat them anyway," wasn't really a winner move. But I really had no idea what to serve him until literally the last minute.

Two brainstorms in quick succession happened. First, I remembered that I had a a little pasta left from the Mac 'n' Cheese (I used pipe doppia rigatura, by the way. You can see it here.). I grabbed that, thinking I'd toss it in some olive oil and shred some parmesan on it, though I really wasn't sure if I had any. Then the second idea hit. I popped the pasta into the microwave for a minute and then tossed it with some of the white wine sauce from the potatoes.

Wow. This is really, really good. Like, I was tempted to steal Channing's plate good. And super light, so that's a bonus.

So, here's the recipe for the sauce, cobbled from the Fingerling Potato recipe. I would guess that this would be enough for up to a pound of pasta.

1/3 cup dry white wine (I used a Pinot Grigio)
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt

Cook pasta al dente and drain. Put pasta into mixing bowl and pour each of the ingredients over pasta and toss. Serve immediately.

The steak worked out great, too. 4 minutes per side, turning every two minutes, gave us a nice medium well done with impressive grill marks. The marinade can be found here if you aren't up to flying to Dublin to pick it up. Tasty stuff.

Top Chef Sighting

We were eating outside at Hamburger Mary's when my friend Rob spotted Dale from Top Chef across the street. He must have heard us mention the show as he turned and looked right after Rob said it. He is easily my favorite contestant in all three seasons of the show and, as of this writing, is still in the running to win. He's got a great combination of personality, attitude and, most importantly, culinary skills which make him a joy to watch.

This show, by the way, was a big influence on my current cooking efforts. Seeing these folks have to create dishes on the fly with insanely short time limits really drove home how much I had to learn. To get to that point where you can fly without the net of a printed recipe (if need be) and truly create, rather than simply execute, is a big, big deal.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Do Over: Blueberry Muffins

I tackled these guys again, using the blueberries I got at the Evanston Farmers Market last week. I switched recipes, going for the Foster's Market cookbook. The recipe is also available online here. The alterations to the recipe were that I used jumbo size eggs instead of large (based on my suspicion that my issues with crumbling were the result of too little binding protein), using Penzey's dried lemon zest when it was clear that my only fresh lemon wasn't going to provide enough (it was a couple of days old and the rind had softened) and adding a bit (~1/4 tsp) of lemon extract to pump up the citrus flavor. I also dusted the tops with sanding sugar, just for flair.

The food processor cup/bowl thing (what do you call that? The place where the blades and food go?) was in the wash, so I used the two-knives-in-a-mixing-bowl method to chop the berries, since it was just asking for a coarse chop. That was kind of fun.

In baking, I made sure I used the entire cooking time (based on the under-baking last time, which may have also contributed to the crumbling). I also switched the backing tins' positions midway to even out the heating. I looked for a little more resistance to the toothpick in testing.

The result was miles better than last time. I would say that they were on the tough side, which is probably a result of overmixing, which they did warn about in the recipe. On a range of 0-10 from crumbly to tough, with 5 as the mid-point of perfect texture, I'd have to rate the first attempt as a 1 (God knows how they stayed together on the plate) and this as a 6.5/7. Much, much closer to the mark.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Smoked Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese

Damn. Knocked it out of the park. We had a great Smoked Cheddar Mac 'n' Cheese at Glenn's last week and this was my attempt to recreate it. I looked at a lot of recipes and went with this recipe from, which was originally from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook.

The excuse for making such a health hazard at home was that Channing was going to be swimming the Big Shoulders on Saturday morning and needed to carbo-load. It was pretty clear late Friday afternoon that work stuff was going to interfere with his ability to participate (3:30 am log-ins, etc), but I was committed (and craving).

I picked up a Wisconsin Smoked Cheddar at Whole Foods which was, unfortunately, massively expensive. Something like $13/lb. There was a less expensive one, but it was reduced fat, which the manager of the cheese area confirmed would make for a crappy sauce.

The result was really, really nice. It wasn't anywhere close to Glenn's, as the sauce didn't bake up as creamy. But I dare say that it was a success in its own right. I think I might try a mix with a smoked gouda next time, for texture, flavor and price.

This also counts as a Basic Skill since the Cheese sauce is a bechamel (white sauce). There's a link to the sauce recipe within the main recipe, but here's a direct one. I had never made one before and had actually made sure to avoid them. I've never made a gumbo or jambalaya as a result (roux being very similar to a bechamel - cooked a bit more to get to a golden brown, I believe). Needless to say, the reference they make that, "This used to be one of the first lessons in home economics classes" stings a bit. Nonetheless, I executed it flawlessly - no burned butter, no lumps of flour and all the flour got cooked completely. Woo-hoo!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Menu - Garlic Lime Pork Chops, Corn Basil Pudding, Savory Green Beans and Pies(!)

Last night, we had some friends over for dinner whom we hadn't seen in a while and missed the housewarming back in June.

This was the menu:
Green Salad with Lemon Thyme Mustard Vinaigrette
Garlic Lime Pork Chops
Corn Basil Pudding
Savory Green Beans
Peach Raspberry Pie
Key Lime Pie

Overall, I'd have to give this a C. Everyone was very nice about it and complementary, but there were pretty significant problems. The flavors didn't work together that well, the pork was underdone and the green beans were overdone. Desert pretty much saved it.

My big goal for the evening was to actually make a workable pie crust. I worked backwards to the rest of the menu from there, trying to keep it more generic/cuisine neutral. In general, this would have worked flavor-wise except the garlic-lime sauce on the pork was a lot more intense than I planned. That sharpness ovewhelmed the other dishes.

Channing isn't a big fan of fruit pies, so I made a key lime pie as well. This worked well with my goal because I hadn't had good luck with that crust before, either, and can't remember if I've ever made a meraingue in my life.

There were some timing issues that could have been worked out if it had planned more meticiously. As a result, the green beans stayed in the pot too long. I also panicked on the pork chops. I got nervous about over-cooking them and ended up with precisely the opposite issue.


Ever since a certain episode of Martha Stewart's The Apprentice, I've wondered about making my own vinaigrette. She made a really big deal about how she always made her own salad dressing from scratch (while product placing/endorsing Wish-Bone. Go figure). That stuck with me, for some reason. Our friend Marsha had also given us a really nice olive oil from City Olive as a house-warming present.

So, I grabbed my Essentials of Cooking and looked at what mustards we had in the fridge. We had a nice Cracked Pepper Lemon & Thyme mustard from Terrapin Ridge, which went with the other herbed courses of the meal. I didn't know how much mustard to use, so I winged it. Honestly, this book is starting to piss me off for it's lack of specific measurements. The only guidence was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil and beat the mustard and vinegar together before adding the oil. Thank God, I guessed right with 1 tbl mustard, 1 tbl white wine vinegar and 3 tbl olive oil. It tasted a little strong by itself, but just right on a mixed greens salad.

So, Martha wins. It was really, really good and I'll be making my own dressings going forward. Not that I ever bought Wish-Bone anyway.

Grilled Pork Chops with Garlic Lime Sauce

The big problem here, as noted in the menu, was that the meat was undercooked. This was totally a flub on my part. I didn't adequately test it and relied on the times in the recipe. However, I was using very thick (~1") chops, so that threw it all to hell. And they turned out really, really tough, to boot.


And also, the sauce was really way too strong for the rest of the menu. This was a distinct Latin flavor, so black beans, rice and plaintains would be the way to go next time.

They looked nice, though.

Corn Pudding with Basil

I bought a bunch of sweet corn at the Farmer's Market, but my usual tactic of roasted corn wasn't going to work well with the menu - too "grilly" for a more formal dinner. I found this recipe which really hit the mark on a few fronts. It offered a different kind of starch (getting tired of potatoes), it provided a use of some of the huge amounts of basil I have growing on the back deck and it was an opportunity to practice more knife skills, cutting kernals from the cob. Oh, and it was yellow. Nice for the plate.

This was definitely a winner. It was the one thing that everyone at the table completely finished. Also, it looked just like this picture (from the magazine).

I think I've read about methods to get the "hairs" off better when shucking corn, but I couldn't remember it at the time. That was kind of a pain. It was really good knife practice, slicing deep enough to get most of the kernal without kitting the cob.

Savory Green Beans

I've made this recipe a million times and it turned out great, so it was to be the guaranteed winner. Also, for the presentation, it was adding the greens and reds to the plate. Damn. When you overcook the beans, that doesn't work out so well - they lose color. Granted, I used Trader Joe's frozen beans instead of fresh as a time saver. This was the first time I'd ever made it with frozen, so I'm sure that made a big difference, too. Lessons learned.

The recipe comes from Treebeard's in Houston and their cookbook. I can't say enough good things about this restaurant and this book. It is a very solid basic. I would highly recommend it as someone's second cookbook ever, after The Joy of Cooking. From their site, it looks like it's in the 8th printing. My copy is a 2nd printing, so I don't know how much has changed in the intervening 14 years, but I think it'd be a safe bet.


Serves 4 to 6.

Green beans take on a whole new flavor when combined with tomatoes. two kinds of peppers and wonderful herbs.

1 pound fresh green beans
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1/3 cup water
3/4 teaspoon dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon savory
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 medium tomatoes, chopped

Wash and string beans. Set aside.

In 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. melt butter and saute onion and peppers about 5 minutes or until tender. Add water and seasonings. Bring to boil and add green beans. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add tomatoes and continue cooking until beans are tender. about 10 minutes.

Tidwell, Dan, Jamie Mize and Janie Baur. Treebeards Cookbook. Houston: Treebeards, Inc., 1993, p. 187.

Pie Crust

I don't know why I've had such a problem with pie crusts over the years. In particular, I had problems with one for a Chocolate/White Chocolate/Raspberry tart. A long time back, I just gave up in general. Whenever I had to make something with a crust, I would just buy the Pilllsbury pre-made, pre-rolled frozen crusts (they come folded in quarters).

I tried the basic recipe in the Joy of Cooking and, lo and behold, they came out perfect. I don't know what magic words in their suggestions made a difference, but something did. I used the "happy medium" recipe of shortening and butter and I could tell from the first batch of dough that it was just right, so I immediately made a second one to freeze.

The instructions for rolling the dough in the book, plus some of the hands-on instruction for the paratha worked out pretty well. My two big changes on technique were: 1) I erred on the side of too much flour, as suggested, and dusted the top of the dough, rather than the rolling pin. 2) When rolling, I worked to keep the pressure horizontal, rather then vertical as usual.

Recipe to be posted soon

Peach Raspberry Pie

Another cultural touchstone/random memory here. Many years (12?) ago, I went to San Francisco with a dirtbag I was dating and we went to a comedy club/cafe in the Castro area. I honestly wish I could remember more about the venue and the act because they were awesome. I remember practically suffocating from laughter as the performers (two british women, I think) were teaching an audience member how to act like a soccer hooligan.

Anyway, they had a peach raspberry pie in the pastry case that looked amazing. I think the memory sticks precisely because I didn't have any, being very full from dinner before. Unfulfilled desire and all that, I guess. Anyway, it seemed like it'd be awfully tasty. I never got the guts to try making it, thanks to my crust-phobia, but this seemed like a good opportunity. On top of that, my Joy of Cooking had an explicit recipe for it, a modification to their stock Peach Pie recipe. It's like fate was demanding that I make the pie.

Have to say, this turned out pretty well. I had a couple of minor missteps: I missed one of the instructions in the Raspberry modification, to reduce the sugar and lemon juice and the peaches were a bit under-ripe.

So, the result was a little tart and sour. Not much and it was still a very tasty pie. It just wasn't bursting with sweetness like I was hoping.

Key Lime Pie

This also went exceptionally well. This came from my newer copy of The Joy of Cooking. I haven't had good luck before with the graham cracker crusts; they always seemed to be too thick. But I used the food processer to make fine crumbs and was careful with my butter. I couldn't find fresh key limes. I thus had to decide; fresh regular limes or bottled key limes. I went with the latter, figuring the flavor would be the closest to authentic of the two. Now I need to figure out what to do with the rest of the bottle. Additionally, the recipe calls for a 15 oz can of condensed milk, but every one I saw were all 14 oz - the standard size can we all know. I think that has to be a misprint.

The meringue turned out pretty well, especially considering I grabbed cornstarch instead of cream of tartar. Oops.