Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Knives

I may have mentioned this already, but I got four new Globals for my birthday and anniversery.
I received:
  • 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)

My God, they're sharp. Because of lack space in the knife block, I had to leave them out on the counter because I didn't have the plastic sleeves yet. Yes, scary. But putting them in the drawers seemed more dangerous, as I could see someone sticking their hand in for something else and slicing open a finger. Given my horrible memory, I'd expect that to be me.

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).

(Turkey) Chili

When I was a kid, every year at Halloween, my mom would make us chili for dinner before we went trick-or-treating. If I remember right, it was to keep us warm on the cold October nights. But it was Texas, for God's sake. Right now, as I type this at 12:30 in the morning, it's 66F down there. It was always an agonizingly slow dinner because I just want to go run out and get the good stuff. It was really good chili, though. I appreciated it a lot more the other times she served it, when I didn't feel I was missing out on prime candy-gathering time.

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

Cookbooks, Part I

I have to say, I have a decent number of cookbooks. As with any set, there are some that have never been used, but there are a select few that have become trusted sources. I've mentioned this before in passing, but these are mine:

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 CafĂ© 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

Chicken Noodle Soup with Herbs

Quickly on the heels of making the chicken stock, soup had to be made. As I do with most of my soup-oriented needs, I pulled out my copy of the Eastside Cafe's Soup Yourself. I mentioned the Eastside earlier, but it was buried in an update to the running "Things I Want to Make" post.

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.


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

Chicken Stock

Okay, easy, easy easy. I just threw the carcasses from the Chicken 101 class (I had frozen it) and this week's Roast Chicken debacle into a stock pot with a ton of the chopped up carrots from my last knife practice, a chopped up onion, two chopped up celery stalks, some bay leaves and peppercorns. Simmered for 2.5 hours and there you have it. Strained it through a colander and a fine mesh sieve and I've got a mean stock for my Herbed Chicken Noodle Soup this week. Oh, and I got all of the meat off of the carcasses, which will go into the soup. So, no wastage resulted from the Roast incident.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Roasted Chicken

Oh, this didn't go well.

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

Indian at Home - The Chopping Block Recipes in Action

The past Friday, Jenni, my bud from Northwestern and the Indian Vegetarian class came over with her husband Dan to practice the recipes from our class. Our friends Chris & Joe and Rotem joined us for the meal.

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

Practice Makes Perfect - Knife Skills

And so the pithy blog entry titles begin.

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

The Chopping Block Learns Customer Service from the Airlines?

Grrr. For the second time in two weeks, a Meat 101 class I signed up for at the Chopping Block has been cancelled on me. I had registered for this second class date/time specifically at their recommendation, but got bumped for a private party. Again. Fine, whatever, but I figured I'd call to find out what the deal was with this class apparently being a target and to reschedule yet again. I'm almost finished reserving the last space in another session when I get transferred to another lady and have to start the process from scratch. So far, I've essentially registered for this class four times.

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

Starch-a-rama: Gnocci & Rice Pudding

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.

Chicken 101

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.

We made:

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

Things I Want to Make

This is a running list of the dishes/techniques that I need to work on or try for the first time. These are either to fill in gaps in technique or just things I want to make becase I like them a lot and have never tried them. Now that I've tackled two of my big phobias, sauces and pie crusts, the next steps aren't quite as clear.

  • 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

Gorgonzola Potatoes au Gratin

I put this together using the potatoes from my mandoline slicer practice session (no, I did not wait two weeks and use nasty spoiled potatoes, I'm just slow in posting). I got the idea for the gorgonzola version of potatoes au gratin from a dinner we had recently at A Taste of Heaven. Channing's not a big fan of potatoes except when they're very crispy fried, but in this case, his love for blue cheese flavors won.

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

Creative Experiment: Low(er) Fat Saag Panir (Indian Creamed Spinach)

I never posted this recipe from the Indian Meal mainly because the book it comes from, the Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, is a monster and, consequently, kind of hard to get onto the scanner. It's a very interesting read - it only suffers from a lack of pictures.

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.

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.

Dulce de Leche

I love dulce de leche. Love, love, love it. I have ever since I had it at Marini's Empanada House in Houston's Montrose back in the '70's. Which was, by the way, a horrifying neighborhood to be in as a young gay teen. The clones were out in force and, because they were the only gays you ever saw or heard of, the inescapable conclusion was, "Oh my god, I'm going to have to be like that when I grow up." Ahem. Anyway, those empanadas were worth it.

Teen trauma aside, here's the recipe, which I received from a secret agent raised in Argentina (no lie!):


1 can sweetened condensed milk

Place in stock pot, cover with water and boil for 5 hours. Periodically add water to keep the level above the top of the can. Remove can from water (with tongs, of course) and let cool. Open can and stir to get a smooth, creamy consistency.

That's it. Essentially, boil the can for 5 hours. It seems that the can acts as a double boiler, carmelizing the milk and sugar without burning. I mentioned this method once to a friend who was a pastry chef and she had never heard of it. In her kitchens, they would use a real double boiler and have to stir it all day in the kitchen.

Even better - because the can is sealed airtight, you can put it on the shelf. I make it 4 cans at a time and save the ones I don't need for a recipe right away. Also, if you're really craving something sweet, you can eat it with a spoon.

I made this because a) I just received a new deep stock pot from my dad and stepmother for my birthday (the deeper pot means I don't have to check the water level as often) and b) I'm going to need it for the most awesome cake ever.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Poached Chicken Redux

This isn't so much a Do Over, as I thought this went well the first time, but I definitely learned something last night.

Due to some household stuff last night, I decided to put off the low(er)-fat Indian Spinach Experiment until tonight. In the interest of putting together something simple, I decided to poach some chicken to toss with some Trader Joe's Potato Parmesan Gnocchi.

I was dealing with the insanely thick (and inconsistent) Jewel chicken breasts and I wanted to avoid the underdone ones I had last time. I used the flat side of the meat mallet to get a uniform thickness of about 3/4 inches. Yet, all of them came out underdone. Fortunately, I checked them before I shredded them. I hadn't tossed the water yet and was able to reheat it to a boil to finish them. But they suffered for it a little. The breasts were not as tender and smooth as before.

Here's an excerpt from that recipe, specifically regarding the chicken:

1. Place the chicken, oil and the juice of one of the lemons in a bowl; cover. Set aside to marinate at least 1 hour.
2. Heat salted water to a boil in a large skillet; add the chicken breasts with the marinade. Lower heat to a simmer; poach chicken until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain the chicken; transfer to plate.

So, that part about lowering the heat to a simmer is apparently very important. I turned the flame to Low, but I'm pretty sure there wasn't a real simmer going.

I'm also thinking that the marinade is a factor. For time, I skipped that. Given the underdone-ness and the slightly off texture, I'm guessing two things are at work: 1) I understand that an acid marinade actually cooks the meat a bit. So by skipping the marinade, I may have accidently reduced the cooking time. 2) I lost the tenderizing aspect of the marinade as well.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Chemical Burns - Ouch.

I went down to Fort Worth this past weekend, so I accrued no kitchen time. I tried to make up for it last night by making the Bengali Red Lentil Dal, which would also use some of the tomatoes and onions from the knife skills practice last week.

The only thing I really had to chop were the serranos. I think I've come to see the light on one thing I disregarded in the Knife Skills class. There, we learned to chop small peppers by quartering them and then slicing out the seeds and membranes. My method has always been to tear those parts out with my fingers, to make sure the peppers are really clean. Well, when doing six of them, versus the usual one or two, that's a lot of spice. My fingers are still burning. Ow, ow, ow. Thank God I was careful not to touch my eyes.

I'll be slicing those puppies from now on.

Also, as tasty as that recipe is, this time around I noticed that there is a LOT of ghee/oil in it. 6 tablespoons. I have to figure out a way to reduce that. Since I have about 2 or 3 pounds of those lentils left, I guess I'll have many opportunities. Tonight I'm going to try to make the saag paneer less oily, for the same reason.