Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Dinner - 2008

We drove down to my brother's house in Texas again for Christmas - a trip that almost didn't happen due to my employment situation. I was laid off the Friday before Christmas, if you hadn't heard, and it kind of freaked us out for a minute. Especially when we found that the car needed a not-so-cheap repair that same day. Thanks to some help from the parents and falling gas prices, we went ahead. We were very happy we did. Being around family was just the thing we needed. And being able to contribute my skills in the kitchen was validating.

In putting together the menu, I swapped out a few standards again, for variety's sake. I also took another pass at a few recipes I'd tried recently, for practice. The menu was:

Lemon Rosemary Roasted Turkey with Gravy
Green Onion Buttermilk Biscuits (not served)
Cheddar Buttermilk Drop Biscuits
Lime Cilantro Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Poblano Gratin Potatoes
Classic Green Bean Casserole (The Cook's Illustrated Version)
Best Potluck Macaroni and Cheese
Cornbread Stuffing with Sausage and Fennel
Vegetable Casserole with Tofu Topping
Sour Cream Apple Pie
Cranberry Eggnog Tart

I came down with a pretty bad headache on Christmas Eve, so I wasn't able to get all of my prep work done then, as I hoped. This was a big factor in dinner getting on the table about 2 hours late (7 instead of 5, as planned). I did, at least, get all of the desserts taken care of.

On the day of, my mom was a HUGE help in the kitchen. I was able to give direction on things to cut and prep and have complete confidence that she would know what I was talking about. My aunt asked my brother and me where we learned and we both answered that while we don't remember any specific "How To" sessions with her, she really taught us a great foundation. My brother also tended the turkey on the grill after I prepped it while I worked in the kitchen. There is no way I would have been able to run back and forth between the two.

There was one mishap, the Green Onion Buttermilk Biscuits, which I caught early and was redundant anyway. I didn't read carefully when mixing and used baking soda instead of salt. I tasted one and not only was the flavor off, but the soda aftertaste lingered for 30 minutes. Ugh. I threw them out. What I didn't realize until very late that day was my brother and sister-in-law had already snuck one and discovered how foul they were, but apparently weren't going to say anything out of niceness. What really sucks is that this was the first time ever that I've messed these up.

Entries for the individual dishes, including recipes and comments, will follow over the next few days. If a recipe has already been posted, I'll be updating the original post if there were any neew discoveries or findings.

Friday, October 24, 2008


If it hasn't already been obvious, I'm going to be putting this blog on a virtual hiatus for a while. I'm way behind in getting my thesis for my MA in Literature written, so any time I have for creating content needs to be focused on that.

I will be doing some clean-up here and there when I need a break from academic theory. There are a LOT of recipes missing from when I didn't have FTP access for uploading and typos abound. I also have a backlog of other posts that need to be filled in. Like Christmas. I completely rocked it then, but have never finished the post. And that Mexican dinner I catered.

If you don't use an RSS reader or service (Yahoo and Google both have good ones), I would recommend that as a way to casually see updates and when this goes live again, without the frustration of click every few days to see, "Oh, nothing new. AGAIN."

Update: 12/30/08 - Well, so much for that. I was laid off just over a week ago (not counting the holidays) and I am needing a "right-brain break" while I look for a new opportunity. If you hear of anything in the Chicago area for an IT Application Development Manager/Director/CIO type, let me know. In the meantime...

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Spiedini di Pollo (Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken Breast with Rosemary)

Ham, Chicken and Rosemary. Especially with the huge bushes of rosemary I now have out back, this recipe was a no-brainer as soon as I saw it in Cucina Rustica.

I went for the fancy, super-thin sliced Prosciutto I found at the Fox & Obel deli counter. I figured it would be more flavorful than the lower-grade stuff I bought at Jewel. I'm not sure that was the right move.

The chicken was okay, but definitely not seasoned enough. There wasn't enough rosemary (though it smelled great while cooking) nor salt/ham flavor. At very least, I needed to salt the meat a little bit. The thicker-cut Prosciutto may not be as high quality a meat, but it might be better for this purpose.

The bread burnt a bit, too. My step-mother thinks that I may have needed more olive oil. I dismissed that at first, as I definitely brushed it down, but I realized that she may have provided a clue. The parts that burned were the sides with crust. i.e., they couldn't absorb the olive oil as well as the other parts. So, the issue may be that the crust doesn't hold the oil well enough and therefore burns easier, so it might be that the bread cubes simply cannot have any crust on them.

Definitely worth another try with some tweaking.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tomato Basil Cream Sauce

This recipe from cooks.com is dead-on in flavor. It just needs a little work.

First off, trying to find "canned plum tomatoes" is just about impossible. Though it seems some varieties actually have illustrations or pictures on the labels which indicate that it's a pretty safe bet that the tomatoes in the can are, in fact, plum. But in looking at 4 different stores, including the awesome Fox & Obel, I couldn't find any that were actually labelled as "plum." I actually have some from the garden, frozen, but I need to first drain, trim and dice another can to figure out what the equivalent measurement is.

The only thing that is off here is that the resulting sauce is that it's way too thick. It tastes exactly as I would have expected from a restaurant, but the consistency is more like a paste than a sauce.

Either the recipe needs to be made in a sauce pan, rather than a skillet as described (the larger surface area of the skillet possibly leading to too-fast evaporation). Or there's not enough liquid in the recipe itself to work with and they need to up the volume of cream and tomato sauce. I think it's probably the latter. Next time, I'll try doubling both liquids, watching the flavors to make sure it doesn't get too dliuted.

But taste-wise? This is awesome stuff.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Menu: Italian Dinner

This past weekend, we had our lovely and talented neighbors and friends, Heather, David, Edward and David over for dinner. In thinking through the menu, I threw out the idea of gnocchi on Facebook and they bit.

I made a tradition Italian dinner course progression. The menu was:

L'antipasto (hot and cold appetizers)
Bruschetta al Maccit (Bread with Fava Bean Puree) and Zucchine Sfrante (Zucchini Puree and Sun-Dried Tomatoes), Pizza Bianca
Il primo ("First Course" - hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup)
Gorgonzola Stuffed Gnocchi with Tomato Basil Cream Sauce
Il secondo ("Second Course" - the main dish, usually fish or meat)
Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken Breast with Rosemary
Il contorno ("Side Dish" - salad or vegetables)
Il dolce ("Dessert")
Duo of Lemon Panacotta and Tiramisu with Raspberries and Hazelnuts, served with a Raspberry Coulis
Il caffè ("Coffee")

We had a great, great evening. The conversation was stimulating, everyone was engaged and people seemed suitably impressed with the food. On that level, I would give the evening an A.

The only thing that I needed to push it into the A+ level was to remember one thing: Portions. When you have five course to work through, if you're going to make it to the big finish, you have GOT to pace yourself on the first few acts. If the diners are too full for dessert at the end, it doesn't matter how damned good it is.

Now, when I broke down the actual dishes, it didn't measure up quite so well. My measure is, "If you were served this meal at a restaurant, would you have been happy with it? By that measure, I'd honestly have to give myself a B-. Just about every dish had at least one significant flaw to be corrected. On the upside, those errors are very identifiable and easy to fix. So, it was an excellent, actionable learning experience.

Write-ups of the individual dishes and recipes to follow as updates to this post and individual dish entries.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rotisserie Chicken - Redux

I did two chickens last night - one with sage and butter for Channing, the other with just rosemary (whole stalks tucked under the skin) for me. Both were stuffed with lemon wedges, yellow onion chunks and more of the herbs.

There's definitely a weight limit on the Weber Genesis rotisserie attachment. I have to check the labels to see how heavy the birds were that I tried to cook last night, but they were definitely too big.

After appearing to be fine for the first few minutes of monitoring, by the time I went to check on them about 15 minutes later, one had fallen completely out of the cage, blocking the whole mechanism. Fortunately, I was able to pull them out and pop them into the oven for regular roasting with very good results. Before then, though, man, the rosemary smelled amazing.

I did learn better how to use the rotisserie device in other ways, though, by using indirect heat (i.e. the middle of the three burners was off) and removing the middle Flavorizer bar, I was able to prevent flare-ups.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


As I mentioned a while back, I have a ton of marinara sauce. But at the same time, I'm watching what I eat pretty carefully these days, which means I can't be eating too much pasta. So what to do?

Somehow, I thought of doing a fake lasagna with some zucchini thin-sliced horizontally, with the Morningstar Farm Grillers Prime or Sausage Recipe Crumbles (or whatever they're called) and some low fat ricotta or cottage cheese. Though I was not too keen on the cheese portion. My neighbor and trainer Heather, pointed out that this is basically rataouille, if I added eggplant and red bell pepper.

Not a fan of that vegetable, by the way. My stepmother is the only person that's actually made me eggplant that I liked and it was seriously fried, so I dunno if that counts.

I decided to give it a shot. The first effort, san eggplant, was really pretty good. I did a bit of experimentation, even trying some eggplant I found at the farmer's market. I got the small zucchini-sized ones (not japanese eggplant, smaller versions of the regular). I think I have a really winner here. After all that, I finally opened a cookbook and found that I was making pretty close to authentic ratatouille.

Oh, and I freaking love my ScanPan saute pan. More on that another day, but my God, it's like magic.

Here's my first shot at writing a recipe:

1 small, narrow eggplant
1 medium yellow squash
1 medium zucchini squash
1/2 yellow onion
1/2 red ball pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
kosher salt
1 cup marinara sauce
1+ tbsp fresh oregeno
2 tbsp fresh basil

Slice eggplant into thin disks. Place in single layer in a colander (over a paper towel or plate to catch the liquid) sprinkled with kosher salt. Sprinkle kosher salt across top as well. Let sweat for ~45 minutes.

Slice onion and red bell pepper into sticks. Slice yellow squash and zucchini into thin disks. Using the back of a chef's knife or pastry scraper, mash peeled garlic cloves with kosher salt into a paste (salt crystals will act as an abrasive). Mince herbs. At the end of the 45 minutes, pat the eggplant dry with paper towels.

Heat saute pan to medium high. Add olive oil. When oil starts to shimmer, add onions. When onion softens, add mashed garlic. When garlic is browned, add zucchini and summer squash. Heat until both start to soften, turning a bit translucent. Add eggplant and heat until that starts to turn translucent as well. Add red bell pepper. Heat until bell pepper begins to soften. Pour marinara into pan around the edges and sprinkle the herbs across the top. Gently fold in the sauce to the vegetables until heated through.

Serves 4 as a side, 2 as a main course.

* This seems to be all the rage these days. I learned it at the Chopping Block and have since see it on How to Boil Water with Tyler Florence and, yes, America's Test Kitchen

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Black Bean Quinoa Salad

First off, it's pronounced "KEEN-wa."

A few weeks back, I went to a dinner party with a friend who's in Yoga school. As you might expect, all vegetarian. Which, frankly, is fine by me. I found a long time ago that, if necessary, I could go meatless, assuming that included fish, eggs and dairy. Vegans, however, are crazy.

Everything was good, but the one hands-down standout was this dish. I'd never had quinoa before and there were a lot of diced tomatoes, which to this day are my kryptonite. But, damn, this is good. Quinoa is a grain which is apparently a "super-food." It's whole grain, so lots of fiber, but chock-full of protein as well. Usually, I think these kinds of food suck. I'm looking at you, kale. But this actually tastes good and has a nice texture. It's kind of like cous-cous. In fact, I bet you could sub it in very easily. It cooks up kind of like rice, so that's easy.

The recipe does feed an army, though. I succumbed to temptation and and made a double batch, to help work down our tomato and peppers crop. Don't do that. Seriously. As good as it is, it gets tiring eating it twice a day for a week just to finish it before it can go bad.

This recipe was actually my first exposure to the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook. Fortunately, I had made it before trying the Gingered Broccoli, so I still have a good feeling about this book.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Gingered Broccoli

I was pretty excited when I found this recipe in the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook. Ginger, broccoli, soy sauce, what's not too like?

Well, first off, the recipe doesn't point out you should reduce the heat after putting in the broccoli, which I didn't think about. So, that didn't work so well. The sauce didn't burn, but pretty much solidified. I mixed in some more soy sauce, housin sauce and vinegar to thin it out and ended up with over steamed broccoli with vinegar. Blech.

I tried again, taking care to reduce the heat, which seemed to work fine for the doneness of the veg, but the flavor still wasn't very impressive. Kind of like a over-vinegared American barbeque sauce on broccoli.

On the plus side, this was my first use of my new Microplane grater which I got for renewing my Cook's Illustrated subscription. That thing is sweet. Especially for ginger. Unlike a regular grater, you don't get those annoying strings from the root. Even without the handle or the end-tabs (Cook's Illustrated cheaped out on that), this is highly recommended. And seeing all the others on their site just adds things to my Birthday and Christmas wish list.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lemon-Rosemary Lamb (and/or Chicken) Kabobs

Annnnnnd I'm back. The hiatus wasn't doing squat for my thesis writing, so why not?

I don't know much of what to say about this recipe beyond it is the main reason I decided to start growing rosemary. This marinade blew me away, even more so when I realized that it would be great on chicken as well. Even as a marinade for whole breasts. Good eatin'.

It's also another example of how Better Homes and Gardens' "The New Grilling Book" is one of the best all-around cookbooks I own.

I found that the best way to get the lamb is to buy cubed lamb stew meat. I tried getting larger cuts and cutting them down to kabob sizes, but it was totally not worth the trouble or cost. Though I paid less per pound, that savings was quickly blown away by the waste in the trimming. Granted, I don't have great butchery skills, but still...

So, I finally, finally decided to make this this year after the plants out back are getting pretty gigantic. I've been holding off, afraid to touch them so they would be as strong as possible before the winter. Which was completely irrational, I know. They and the sage are doing great. The temps just dropped to the 60's this week, so I figure I have a few more weeks before I have to mulch and cover them. And then pray.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Garlic Press

I've been watching some more America's Test Kitchen lately and have seen them using a garlic press for mincing. It looked pretty effective. It's been a while since I've tried it, over 10 years, but I've been carrying mine (a gift at some point, I think) around for a long, long time. So, in making my ersatz ratatouille, I decided to give it a shot and literally dug mine out of the bottom of a storage box.

Okay, granted, I've got one of the ubiquitous aluminum ones everyone had a while back, but, boy, this sucked. With average-sized cloves, at least 1/2 of each one would be stuck in the "bowl" of the device. I'd have to dig them out and then re-seat everything, getting that sticky garlic juice all over my hands anyway.

Maybe the design of the one they use on ATC is better (it certainly looks fancier), but I have to give this one an "F." I'll stick with my new-found method of grinding it into a paste with kosher salt using the back of a knife.

Red Wine Marinara

I made another pass at tomato sauce and, while I've been happy with my previous attempts, I really knocked it out of the park with this batch.

I used the Eastside Cafe's recipe as a base, tripled it and used 1/2 red wine and 1/2 low sodium chicken broth for the water. The tomatos were Dei Fratelli again and the herbs came from our various plantings. Once it had cooked, I took my immersion blender to it (which I didn't do last time) and brought it to an even, smooth sauce. Absolutely perfect.

The downside is that by tripling the recipe, I had a LOT of sauce. Thank goodness it freezes well.

The recipe is reprinted with the kind permission of the Eastside Cafe.

Carter, Ruth, Elaine Martin & Dorsey Barger. Inside the Eastside: Recipes from the Eastside Cafe' Menu. Austin: Eastside Cafe/Blame Books 1993. p 22. Buy it here (It's now titled Eastside’s Inside Secrets)..

Egg White Omelettes

So, I ran out of Egg Beaters last week, but had some egg whites in the fridge from when I was thinking of making another Angel Food cake. Rather than let those go to waste, I figured I'd use them for my morning omelette.


I had enough for four days, so I was able to experiment a little bit. I was able to get them to not be quite as rubbery by whisking them up to even out the consistency, but really, even my best effort (which was, frankly, much better than most egg white omelettes I've tried) was still kind of gross.

I don't know why restaurants offer these as an option rather then just keeping Egg Beaters or something in their cooler.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Saag (Indian Spinach) Quesadillas

You know, I've always claimed that Indian and Mexican foods have a strong common base - heavy use of cumin, cilantro and serrano and jalepeno peppers.

With this, I made my first venture into the fusion and nailed it.

I had promised Channing we'd have Chicken Quesadillas for dinner, only to get home and find that I had left the chicken filling out all day. It went very bad. So, rather than dooming him to another night of microwaved Grillers Prime, I searched around for something I could make quesadillas from beyond the cheese and tortillas I knew I had.

In scrambling through the fridge, I came across the leftover saag panir (Indian creamed spinach with cheese) from our dinner a few nights before. I can't claim the saag for myself - it was frozen from the store, btw.

So I took that, removed the panir chunks (because those basically wouldn't melt) and mixed in the shredded monterey jack cheese we had. It was still a bit soupy, so I threw in some cheddar to get to the right consistency for quesadillas (basically, just enough cheese to bind the rest when melted).

Pre-cooked, it tasted pretty good.

When properly grilled up, amazing. Wow. I'll make this on purpose, for sure, though I may try with just the jack cheese, to see. But it's a definite winner. And as I want to start actually creating recipes, I think this Indian/Mexican fusion is a great direction that will work.

P.S. I'm starting to teach Channing some basic kitchen techniques, so he can have some of the things he likes if I don't happen to be home (slicing meats, etc). We did these collaboratively, with him manning the grill after the first one, and he did a great job. While I don't think that cooking will be an interest for him like it is me, it was fun and I think we might take one of the Chopping Block's couples classes just for grins.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kale & Fiddlehead Fern

At least, I think it was kale.

It might have been the spigarello. I've never had either, so it's hard to tell.

But I shied away from it for a while, kind of afraid of how it'd turn out. I learned two things:

1) It keeps fresh a long time. It was in my fridge for almost 10 days without wilting or discoloring (both of the greens were hearty like this). I had trimmed and wrapped the stalks of the fern in a wet paper towel, so I wasn't as surprised with their longevity.

2) It's really not bad. A little like spinach, without that turnip green bite I was afraid of.

I sauteed both in about a tablespoon of olive oil with a clove of minced garlic each. I folowed the advice of the booth guy and brought the oil to a heat with the garlic already in it.

The fern was a little nutty tasting, in a good way, but the garlic really overpowered it. And might have been responsible for that taste, as well. But they were kind of fun and interesting. There's a page from the University of Maine that has recipes and info about them.

Served up with a sliced chicken breast sandwich on onion roll with lemon-thyme mustard, this was a pretty nice, slightly different meal.

When I cook the other green, I'll either figure out which one this was (I'm still leaning kale, though) or I'll have to buy another batch of at least one and keep track. Lesson learned? Mark your bags from the farmer's market, folks.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chad Vader - Day Shift Manager

Really stretching the limits of "topic" here, but I found this entertainment by way of local blog design caffeinated. Enjoy. There are eight episodes in the series available on You Tube, plus some ancillary pieces (such as training videos).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Herb Gardening

This past weekend, I finally got all of the herbs that I've been buying over the past two weeks planted. I'm amazed that none of them died in the meantime. I think this pretty well does it for this year, though I may try to get some regular Oregano going.

In the ground, I have:
  • Rosemary

  • Sage

  • Greek Oregano

I'm counting on the Rosemary and Sage to make it through the winter.
In pots, I have:
  • Thyme

  • Orange Thyme

  • Sweet Basil

  • Cinnamon Basil

  • Dill

  • Tarragon

  • Flat-leaf Parley

The Dill has grown enough in the pot that it's ready to start using now. I have a few weeks on the rest, at least.

Green City Market

In my mad dash to get down to the Merchandise Mart on Friday, I passed the sign for the Green City Market. I've never been to it before and had my curiousity picqued by, of course, Top Chef, where they had to gather all of the ingredients for a challenge there.

The current season (the fourth) was filmed around October of last year, so the variety is very different of course. But if they had to execute that challenge yesterday, it would have been 15 different takes on asparagus. Sheesh. That was pretty much the only thing that anyone had yet.

There were also some cheeses, breads and meats as well, but the big thing for me was fresh herbs, which I wanted in order to finish out the garden. I also decided to look for ramp and try it myself. I didn't find that, but there was one stand that had a number of different greens. After poking around and listening in on some folks talking, I picked up a kale, spigarello and fiddle head fern. I've never had any of them, so it will be an adventure. For all, it seems the best preparation is to sautee them a bit in a garlic infused olive oil. Or steamed.

I also picked up a pretty sizable rosemary plant, which I'm hoping is big enough that the likelihood of surviving is higher, and some orange thyme, tarragon and flot leaf parsley.

I think the Evanston one may actually be larger (though I went there much later in the summer, if I recall, so that might be a function of the time of year) and has the advantage of free parking, where Green City is $9, assuming you remember to get your ticket validated. On the upside, Green City does allow you to bring your dog with you, and Tiny loves that kind of thing.

Turkey Spinach Meatloaf

I found this recipe for Turkey Spinach Meatloaf many years ago in the Houston Chronicle. Prior to this, the only time I ever had Turkey Meatloaf was when we would visit my grandmother in Abilene, Texas.

For a number of years, we went to visit her for a week every summer, to give my parents a much needed break from us. I have to say, in spite of her age and the fact that it was, well, Abilene, she did a really good job of keeping us entertained. The only serious bout of boredom I recall was during the election of Pope John Paul I as we had to stay at her place for several days on end waiting for that damned white smoke. Thank God there was a seven hour time difference, so that by the time the cardinals would pack it in for the day, we'd still have the afternoon to get out.

Back then (the mid-to-late seventies), getting ground turkey wasn't as easy, so she was dependent on the whims of the local butcher. It seems she had about a 50% to 75%success rate getting it at the time of our visits - missing out on it just enough that it was a special treat. Her recipe was essentially a poultry oriented version of the basic beef loaf. She had a great touch with the seasonings on that.

So, when I spotted this one, I jumped on it, already being primed for the concept. Of course, it's very, very different. But very tasty. The basil really comes through, which was particularly useful this week, seeing as how I had to finish up the mountains I bought from Restaurant Depot.

This batch didn't work out as well as it had in the past. The flavor is fine, but it falls apart too easily. There are two basic reasons, I think.

First, I doubled the recipe and used two square cake pans. My second loaf pan is in a box somewhere down in the basement. Second, I went the almost completely fat free route, using 99% lean ground turkey breast and egg substitute, so I think there wasn't as much binding action going on. It usually cooks a lot longer for me that it did, as the loaf pans are twice as deep, which I think may give the egg proteins more time to firm up, like a custard.

Writing this makes me think that someday, I need to try to recreate hers. I can still remember the taste, so it may be doable.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Marinara Sauce - Redux

I decided to vamp a bit on my marinara sauce. I started with the basic recipe from the Eastside Cafe and worked from there. I didn't have all of the herbs, as they were sold out of oregeno at Jewel. So, I decided to go with basil and use red wine instead of water. The results worked pretty well.

The sauce was a nice deep red, like I've been shooting for, which I ascribe almost entirely to the red wine. Also, the sauce seemed smooth enough that I decided to forgo the pureeing. Channing wasn't a huge fan of the chunky sauce, but seems to like the flavor enough to let it slide. I liked the change of pace for that, but think I ultimately prefer a smoother sauce, so I will hit it with the immersion blender myself next time.

A great discovery was Dei Fratelli canned tomatoes. These guys have no added salt, wo I have the convenience of the canned product without having to worry about the reduction, like in my last go-round.

The recipe is reprinted with the kind permission of the Eastside Cafe, because Dorsey rocks.

The fancy-pants citation: Carter, Ruth, Elaine Martin & Dorsey Barger. Inside the Eastside: Recipes from the Eastside Cafe' Menu. Austin: Eastside Cafe/Blame Books 1993. p 22. Buy it here. (It's now titled Eastside’s Inside Secrets).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Restaurant Depot

This past weekend, our friend Fuzail took me to Restaurant Depot, using his family's wholesale license (it's wholesale only).

Wow. I completely geeked out. It was overwhelming to see all of the supplies that were available.

And then the foodstuffs. There was a lot of great stuff and it opened my eyes in more practical terms to how restaurants shop. Seeing the variety to which you can buy things pre-prepped really gives some practical insight into decisions you have to make in the kitchen regarding the balances you have to strike between time. money and quality. For example, you can run the entire gamut from fresh tomatoes down to pre-made pizza sauce.

Also, that thing of giving Top Chef contestants a budget to shop with at a grocrey store? I realized (which I should have known) that it's completely about relating to the home chef - that the viewer can buy the same ingredients the contestants are using. But the prices are just a fraction of supermarket retail. Of course, you have to be cooking in bulk so that they don't go to waste.

There were these HUGE boxes of fresh herbs for, like, $5. There is no way I could ever use enough rosemary to justify the purchase, though I figured I could probably get good value out of the basil.

And, since I'm acting as a personal chef for the Dragons Bachelor Auction meal, I bought myself a chef's jacket. It's a great olive green. One thing I noticed: I wear an XXL in long sleeves, if there's no XL Tall available (i.e. usually). I certainly wanted that in this case as the jacket goes over your regular clothes. But I settled for the XL. Good thing. It's HUGE. Vanity sizing seems to have hit the cook's market, too. It looks really good, though.

I also bought a set of those translucent squirt bottles (for sauces), orchata mix, and a few things I'm forgetting at the moment. I was seriously curious about the China caps (basically large strainers used for soups) and may grab one next time.

Also, I realized that I just need to work in a kitchen for real - my curiousity is really overwhelming. Ideally, a weekend gig prepping some place. I need to make friends with some chefs and find one who would be willing to let me do that a couple of Saturdays a month or something. Of course, if I won the lottery, I'd be signing up for culinary school the next day. But in the meantime...

Friday, May 2, 2008


I've never been great at these, which I considered to be somewhat of a failure of legacy on my part. Back in the seventies, my dad saw an episode of Julia Child's show and, it not being the internet, he took meticulous notes on an episode about making omelettes. I have no idea why this caught his attention, as he otherwise didn't do much of the cooking.* I need to ask him about that.

Anyway, omelettes, specifically chili cheese omelettes became his thing. He was really good at them. He could crank them out flawlessly over a Coleman single burner camp stove, even.

I've never been great at them. More often than not, I would just have have to give up and make them into "egg scrambles" or migas (if you have tortilla chips to throw in). I've come to understand that it's a mark of how well you understand your pan and how heat works. So, there's a gap.

On top of that, we recieved an omelette pan for our wedding, from my mother, I believe. I've never been able to get it to work right - being Calphalon One, it's supposed to be non-stick, but I've always had a problem with it. Eggs stick all the time in it. I vowed that I would defeat this pan and get it to work right. Yes, I have grudges against inanimate objects.

I've also been trying to eat better, including a solid, healthy breakfast in the morning. Egg Beaters omelettes were an obvious direction. I fill these with a serving of the Morningstar Farms Sausage flavored crumbles which are amazing. Perfectly seasoned for my taste.

So, I've been trying this for a week and, by the end, I started getting pretty good. A little Pam on the pan and keeping the temperature at a medium-high seems to work pretty well. I'm practicing the flipping and am starting to get the feel for it. I had a back-slide one day, where I left the pan on the heat too long before I started and, of course, everything stuck. Big mess. But for the most part, the right direction.

* Though years later, he got to be quite handy around the kitchen.

Update: The Costco version of Egg Beaters, Egg Starts, are noticably weaker in regards to quality. Overall, they're tougher than Egg Beaters. Tolerable, but as soon as I use them up, back to the name brand.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Rotisserie Chicken

Someone gave us a rotisserie attachment for the Weber grill for our wedding - I can't find my thank-you list right now, or I'd name-check that person as they deserve. I'm embarassed to admit I just used it for the first time last night. The two factors holding me back before where that I wasn't comfortable yet with cooking whole chickens and I was going to have to run an extension cord from our kitchen out to the deck.

Since we got it, I've done roast chickens several times and our new pad has an electrical outlet next on the deck, next to the grill. So, last night, with the advent of decent weather in our fair city, it was time to try it out.

I wanted to get the basic technique down this time around, so rather than fancy recipes, I did a simple roast chicken preparation, minus the butter under the skin. I rinsed, dried and seasoned the birds, using only kosher salt and pepper. I also stuffed the cavities with 2 cloves of crushed garlic and strips of yellow onion. Though the cage of the basket is pretty tight and secure, I did need to truss the cavity, which I did using the "skin truss" (poking holes in the skin and tucking the legs into those, rather than using twine.

The recipe on the Weber site recommended 1-1.25 hours at Indirect High, possibly adjusting to Indirect Medium if the skin was browning too quickly.

There was a LOT of flame at the start, which cause a little bit of (though not too much char). Afterwards, I found that one of the "Flavorizer" bars (A-shaped bars that site between the grill surface and the flames in a Weber) was turned over. Instead of letting grease run down the sides of the "A," it was getting trapped in the trough of the "V." So, I think this may have caused the flame eruptions. I think that the rotation of the basket may have knocked it over (a stray wing, perhaps), but as I've been cleaning and reassembling it lately, it's entirely possible that I hadn't put that bar back in place.

The results were pretty good. Mine was a little bit dry, but not bad at all. A piece that fell off of Channing's was unbelievably tender, moist and tasty. I think they were a bit over-cooked, so I'll go with Indirect Medium the next time. Also, I think I'll do the butter under the skin prep on Channing's to crisp it up a bit.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Roasted Corn Salsas

"Argh," you say. "Enough with the damned salsas, already!"

Um, sorry, but there are still a few more to go. And I'm getting a lot out of them.

Among other things, these concoctions are great opportunities for working on various knife skills. For example, in this recipe, I needed to cut corn off the cob. This is really hard to do right, it seems. Most of the kernels get sliced in half, instead of removed at the base, because I'm too paranoid of getting cob into the mix. The wierd thing is, that's never happened. The cob must be very tough or something, but I've never cut too deep.

That aside, this effort really speaks to the need for fresh ingredients. I only got the peppers and corn a few days ago, but they were already getting a little bit dried out. I thought they were still usable, but the result is a bit tough.

As far as the actual recipe goes, I'm not a big fan. It's spicy as all get out and, again, possibly too much, relative to the flavor. The taste is really reminiscent of a dish I vaguely remember from the '70's. I think it was "Mexicorn." Anyway, it's a bit, um, cheesy in that annoying '70's way.

Also, it's another "salad" type salsa, not a sauce. I added some of the leftover lime juice (for flavor and, hopefully, some rehydration) and I think I'll try working with some salt or something after it has time to sit in the fridge for a day. That's the second big learning thing from these salsa. They lend themselves to experimentation with flavors and ingredients. Granted, this isn't the best example (salt and lime - not very adventuresome), but it works as a general principle.

Oh, and of course, Salsa! Salsa! Salsa!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Technical Difficulties

So why am I posting without the recipes lately?

Well, something's gone wonky with my FTP access and I have to dig up some of the old, old account information (involving dead email accounts and credit card numbers that have long been changed) to fix it. So, for now, I am not able to upload the pdfs. I'll keep posting, so I don't lose the thoughts or have too much of a backlog again. That doesn't help you any, dear reader, but I promise I'll get it fixed ASAP.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Angel Food Cake

We had neighbors over for dinner this week and I was still reeling from the awesomeness of the Orange Caramel Sauce. I wanted to show this stuff off with a new desert.

How do I let that sauce become the centerpiece? It works great with strawberries, so that was a gimme. So, I wanted a cake or cookie with a neutral flavor which would let more of the pure sauce flavor through.

I hit on the obvious choice of Angel Food Cake. Bonus? Angel Food Cake has virtually no fat in it. I'd forgotten that. Well, there was no way I was going to go with store bought for that because I needed to learn how. But I kept that option open if things went to hell.

Treebeards' had a recipe that looked pretty straightforward. Turns out it's really, really easy. The result was, frankly, perfect.

The only difficulty I faced was that the recipe calls for the flute pan to be ungreased, but I had a little trouble getting the cake out, even with a non-stick surface. Running a table knife around the edges and bottom worked fine, but I can't help feeling there's something wrong. Either the recipe missed that step or I should grease and dust the pan. I'm leaning towards the first.

Update: I've since learned I'm wrong about needing to grease the pan. Chris Kendall explained it in passing on America's Test Kitchen. Apparently, since there's no yeast or baking powder in the mix, all the rising comes from the expansion of the air bubbles and the egg whites essentially "climbing" the sides of the tube pan. If you grease the pan, the mix can't "grip" the side and it won't rise properly. I never got around to trying a greased pan, so that's a good thing.

Also, I've tried Jewel's bakery-made ones since the original post. They suck. This is easy enough that there's no excuse for wasting your money on those things.

Smoky Chipotle Salsa

Yet another recipe from Salsa! Salsa! Salsa!

This is definitely the most flavorful and best tasting one to date, but by far the hottest of the ones I've made. Honestly, probably too much so.

Here's one thing I think caused that: I used the adobo sauce from the can the chipotles were packed in. They do sell adobo sauce by itself and I bet I could make it, as well. So, I'm just guessing, but reasonably sure that using that would cut the heat. I would hope it doesn't cut the smoky chipotle flavor too much as well, though.

(Chocolate) Toffee Fruit Salsa

I thought this was an interesting idea and a way to vary the desert fare just a bit. I'm surprised I haven't seen anything like this on a restaurant menu. It's still definitely a salsa, but has an elegance that can make for an impressive finish to a meal.

I substituted Amaretto for the Frangelico, as the only bottle of Frangelico that Jewel had was enormous and there's no way I could ever use or drink it. Using the other nut-based liquor worked just fine.

They say to serve it with gourmet vanilla wafers. I have no idea what those would be - I assume they mean something classier than Nabisco Nillas. I served it with Maria cookies, because they're about the same size as a tortilla chip and more substantial in texture, so they won't dissolve immediately when the sauce touches them.

However, I would really like to try it with desert tortilla chips. The usual version of those is fried four tortilla chips sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. I would like to try a corn tortilla version - I think that the corn would work well with sugar and be a bit different.

While it served up well, the consistency was better immediately after I mixed it. I think I should keep the sauce and fruit separate until right before serving in the future.

Oh, yeah, and it's from Salsa! Salsa! Salsa!

Orange Caramel Sauce

My god, this sauce is good. And really easy, too.

I don't know what else to say about it, really. It's very much like the caramel syrup you get from a flan, with a distinct orange flavor. It's too much like the flan syrup to be served with it as a distinct sauce (though it would be a great extension to that syrup, as you don't always get as much as you think), but I tossed some strawberries with it and it was amazing. Many potential uses for this.

Chicken Enchiladas with Verde Sauce

I've been making these for years, but they really were more like Mexican lasagna (where the tortillas were the lasagna noodles) which was very tasty and all, but not anything like what you'd get in a restaurant. With the Dragons' dinner coming up in the near future, that just won't do.

But how to bake in the pan and then plate it, looking like the restaurants?

Answer: you don't.

I don't know why, in 15 years, this never, ever occurred to me. I guess because I didn't need to do it, but turns out, you pour some sauce on the serving plate, roll the tortillas (softened in heated oil, which I'd never done), top with sauce and cheese and then you bake them until the cheese melts. Duh. I found this technique laid out for me in a way I could finally understand in the Tex-Mex Cookbook. I got this for Christmas from Karin and hadn't really looked at it soo much until now. My God, this is a fantastic book. It's as much about the history of Tex-Mex cuisine as it is recipes and I've been to a surprising number of the restaurants they discussed. Highly recommended.

Also, since I wasn't making these for myself and since I've learned that there are times when boiling meat is not inappropriate, I used boiled chicken thighs (with a little breast mixed in) for the filling. Much, much, better.

On the down side, I used the canned green sauce, which was a mistake. This definitely needs to be fresh. The flavor was too sharp and, dare I say, tinny. The Eastside Cafe cookbook has a great tomatillo sauce recipe which I'll use next time. They are also the source for the filling recipe, so they're clearly my trusted source for flavors.

Roasted Poblano with Orange Salsa

I wanted to make something that was clearly not the traditional salsa, possibly with a little sweetness.

Roasting poblanos was the neat part of this recipe from Salsa! Salsa! Salsa!. I just laid them on the gas burner and turned them as the skin blackened. The support tines of the burners were a little wide, so I got the clever idea to lay a wire rack across the burner. Once I saw that it was glowing red hot, I figured that was, in fact, a bad idea, not a clever one. I did get it off in time before it melted.

I rinsed off the charred skin, though our neighbor Heather reminded me that the proper method is shaking them in a brown paper bag. I'm pretty sure that this would better keep some of the smoky flavor.

The end result was a little bitter to start and, honestly, not a huge success. It definitely had potential, so it was worth working with.

It got a little better after the first day (I think all of them need at least a day in the fridge, like a soup or other sauce). I then pureed it with the immersion blender and added about a tsp of salt (a pinch at a time). This helped quite a bit. When I served it last night, it got thumbs up from Mary upstairs, so I think I'm on the right track.

Finally, I'm sure some of the bitterness came from the orange zest. I need to exercise greater care that I don't go too deep on the grating and hit pith.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


My brilliant (ahem) friend John asked, "When can I expect to see this on Cooking with Hal?" The answer: within 3 hours. But I'm not going to actually cook it, no sir.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of much coooking/food-related humor. And by humor, I mean something a bit funnier than tropes such as, "Boy, school cafeteria/airline/other institution food sure sucks, don't it?" or "Those fancy-pants restaurants sure give small portions!"

But count on the Onion to come through in this article from the AV Club (an always great source for pop culture reading).

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fresh Herbed Tomato Salsa

Again, a perfect storm of circumstances drives me to try something out. Christmas before last, someone (I think Karin) gave me a great tiny little book, Salsa! Salsa! Salsa! I've been meaning to make stuff from it for some time now, but because it's literally so small, I often don't even notice it on the shelf.

A second factor coming into place was that I recently started a focused weight-loss effort. So, I need to find and make things which are healthy, but still have good flavor. Being generally fat-free and veggie-rific, salsas are just perfect.

Finally, there was an APB for auction items for my old rugby team's* fundraiser. I decided to donate an upscale Mexican dinner for four for some lucky winner. I was thinking through the menu, how I'm going to present, serve, etc. and, with Top Chef going right now, too, that put me in the thinking of everything fresh, so I committed myself to homemade quacamole and 2 (count 'em, 2) fresh salsas.

I've tackled the rest of the menu items several times, but I've never made salsas before, so I better get some hands on experience. Also, the book has at least 60 different varieties, so I definitely want to try some out.

I decided to lay down a foundation of experience by a traditional red sauce like you'd get at a restaurant. In reading through them, the closest seemed to be the Fresh Herbed Tomato Salsa. the first thing I learned was that these will definitely be good practice of knife skills, if nothing else.

The two changes I made were based on what I had in the house, so I skipped the oregeno and used a yellow onion instead of a red one. The result was pretty darned tasty, even better after a night in the fridge. It has a good balance of spice and depth.

In terms of texture, the result is more of what I'd call a Pico de Gallo than a salsa. I consider Pico to be more of a diced veggie salad in a light, thin liquid where a salsa is more of a sauce (the literal translation of the word).

I'd definitely like to get it more to the sauce end of the spectrum - which I guess I could get either form adding more tomato sauce or pureeing some of the mixture. Also, I'm curious about the oregeno flavor. Since the recipe made a healthy quantity (about a quart), I'm going to divide it up and try all three:
  • Adding tomato sauce

  • Partially pureeing

  • Adding fresh oregeno
Update: I've now tried all three of the options above. These are the results:
  • Adding tomato sauce - This did make it enough like a traditional that Mary noted that it was most like "store-bought." Hmmm. There's good and bad in that. Also, it felt a little like cheating, since tomato sauce is already seasoned.

  • Partially pureeing - Not bad. It did make it a bit more like a sauce rather than pico de gallo, but that was the only change.

  • Adding fresh oregeno - Very, very good. I highly recommend this. Also, after a few days in the fridge, the tomatoes break down a bit more, getting it right to the taste and consistency I wanted.
* That team being the Chicago Dragons. See me in Go Dragons! on Logo on April 14. Again. I swear, it's like Logo only has 40 hours of programming, total. That thing is on just about every week. It's also supposedly on YouTube, but I can't find it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Roasted Green Beans with Warm Soy Vinagrette

I'm a big fan of the roasting of vegetables lately and wanted to work through some green beans I had in the fridge. I found this recipe in From the Harvest, which seemed like a nice, healthier alternative and give the opportunity to try a new sauce.

I don't have a lot of Asian in the pantry, so I knew I was going to have to buy the seseme seeds, seseme oil and rice vinegar. The Jewel was sold out of dark seseme oil, but had chili seseme oil. I figured that with only a teaspoon in the recipe, the spice wouldn't be overpowering.

Aside from that, the other change to the recipe I made was to oven roast the green beans, rather than "pan roast" them (which sounded like frying to me). I used a ginger and garlic seasoned wok oil for the roasting and low sodium soy sauce for the vinaigrette. I served it with some white rice I had in the frige.

Overall, the results were pretty good. The spice from the chili was just right. It did seem that the vinaigrette needed some type of emulsification. When eating the beans, too many times, it just tasted like soy sauce on beans. But in the rice, where everything blended, it was really nice. Perhaps a light touch of a Chinese mustard would do the trick, binding without messing with the flavor. Also, I could have cut the time on the green beans and pulled them out at 20 minutes. So, with a couple of tweaks, this might be a keeper.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Key Lime Bars

I wanted to make a desert for dinner last night, instead of buying another boring box of cookies or something. I just got my 2007 and 2008 America's Test Kitchen cookbooks and read, for like the third time in two weeks, their Key Lime Bars recipe. Well, Channing and I both love key lime, as it is, and with encountering the recipe so often, I had to go with it.

Of course, it really isn't something you make after work for dinner that night. Though the prep and cooking time is pretty quick, the cooling time is 3.5 hours, total. Midnight snack maybe? No, going to save it for the Battlestar Galactica premiere.

I did have a bottle of some key lime juice, but their admonishment against the bottled juice was so strong, I decided I'd be better off going with fresh. Not having a decent juicer at home, there was no way I was going to do 20+ key limes, so I didn't even look. We had a great, great, great hand press juicer at home when I was growing up (which I think my brother ended up with, somehow. Unfair!), but as I use a wooden citrus reamer usually, I went with the regular limes.

Their suggestion of animal crackers being a better crust base than graham crackers tied nicely with a conversation I had with our friend Anita two weeks back about a crust she was making.

No real learning here, other than practice whisking. It's an easy recipe.

Update: We've now eaten them and, god damn, these are good.

Linguine Avgolemono with Artichoke Hearts and Green Beans

I've been meaning to try starting with ingredients and then working towards a dish, like a restaurant does with specials or, well, Top Chef, rather than the other way around like I have been doing.

I had artichoke hearts, green beans and chicken breasts in the fridge. And, I know, these aren't a particular challenge, but I wanted something just a bit different. I put that list into Epicurious' search tool on their home page and found this. Not only was it really easy, it involved a new sauce, which was perfect - giving me a little bit of learning there.

I broiled some chicken breasts and tossed them into the individual bowls afterwards, as I was concerned I wouldn't have enough sauce if put them in with the other ingredients.

It's a definite winner. Channing actually ate all of the vegetables. Not that he enjoyed them much, but it's something.

I was extremely literal with this recipe - possibly more so than usual on the first iteration. I even went as far as to weigh everything with the scale (I usually estimate). The only change I would make next time will be to take it off the stove when the sauce is a bit less done, as it continues to thicken up for a few minutes afterwards. I think, also, that I could increase the sauce and incorporate the cooked chicken in the same toss as the rest of the dish.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Perfect Butterscotch Pudding

Well, I'll be damned.

Butterscotch? It has both butter and scotch. I never expected the name to be literal.

This was another Cook's Illustrated Test Recipe, clearly labelled, "THIS IS NOT A FINISHED RECIPE - DO NOT POST ON WEBSITES OR BLOGS" So, I guess when I catch up on my recipe scanning and posting, I'll have to cut out measurements or something.

I was looking forward to this one, because I used to really, really love Jello butterscotch pudding (though I hated butterscotch candies, strangely enough). I was hoping for something with that intense flavor, without the cloying (I love that word) sweetness.

This was a really interesting process. I had never made pudding from scratch before, so I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, there were three distinct changes to the mixture in the course of making the recipe. It was kind of like alchemy or something. Even though I was working without a candy thermometer (needed for the temperature of the sugar mixture), the descriptions of each change in state were dead on.

That aside, I wasn't too thrilled with the outcome at the time I was refrigerating it. There was a funky, bitter aftertaste. I generally don't like tasting liquor in food, so I was guessing that it was the scotch. But I decided to wait until it was properly set and ready before passing judgement.

The next day, still not great. The texture was a little rough, even after the recommended stirring, and the taste was off. I added about a teaspoon or so of super-fine sugar to my serving to cut it a bit, which helped a bit.

But the second day? There we go. Everything taste and texture-wise settled out and I'd have to say, at that point? Perfect. It went from nasty to excellent, just from sitting in the fridge, completely bypassing the mediocre Jello version.

Pizza Bianca

I started going through the Cook's Illustrated site a month or two ago and found that you can sign up to be a Recipe Tester with them. Sweet. Sadly, I can't find the link now. As much as I love them, I can't give them props on the site design.

Anyway, while this is listed as a "Pizza," it's really pretty close to a Focaccia. Baking is really another of my weak spots, so I had general trepidations. As I didn't have time on a weeknight for letting the dough rise for 2.5 hours and then baking, I put the dough in the fridge like they said until Saturday.

Needless to say, it didn't triple in size as it warmed and rose. I'd say it rose to 150% of the original size in the bowl. This concerned me that I was going to have a brick, so I bought a backup loaf of Tuscan bread, just in case. But as I was spreading it out on the sheet, it sure felt like there was plenty of air in the dough. Sure enough, it was just perfect.

The recipe was pretty straightforward in the end. I made three changes to the recipe:
  • I don't own a pizza stone, so I skipped that.
  • I only had bleached all-purpose flour - no unbleached.
  • At the 20 minute mark where you add the rosemary, I also tossed on parmesan cheese.

Neither of the first two affected the results, it seemed, and the third was just tasty. This is a total winner of a recipe (which I will post later - promise). I think I'm going to have to try other breads now.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Italian Night

This actually happened right before our trip.

We'd been meaning to catch up with our friends Steve and John for a while. A bit of urgency was introduced when we found out that they had vacationed in Barcelona a couple of years back. We really wanted to pick their brains before we went. In the various planning emails, we were going towards a dinner out in the 'hood, but then Steve suggested an Italian place. That kicked off a domino chain of thoughts which prompted me to volunteer.

It was a perfect storm of Italian dishes colliding in my head. In thinking about local Italian places, I remembered I wanted to try the Lemon Pannacotta like I had at Ante Prima. Also, I had a recipe for Pizza Bianca from Cook's Illustrated I needed to make that weekend. Then there was my general plan to make some more tomato sauce for the house also that weekend. Finally, I was zeroing in on my target of making Gorgonzola Stuffed Gnocchi for Channing, having just bought gorgonzola to have on hand for when I finally got around to it. No time like the present.

Fortunately, they bit. So, the menu was:

  • Gorgonzola Stuffed Gnocchi with Broiled Chicken in Tomato Sauce

  • Roasted Broccoli

  • Pizza Bianca

  • Zucchine Sfrante

  • Lemon Panacotta with Lemon Sauce
So, the blow-by-blow:
  • The gnocchi pretty much worked great. I used my standard recipe, properly made with Russet potatoes this time instead of Yukon Gold. I did forget to drain the potatoes while they cooled and left them sitting in the water, which made the texture a little off. But not a disaster, by any means.

    My made-up method for stuffing them with the cheese worked pretty well. I rolled out the cylinder of dough a tad thicker then usual and then rolled that flat. I then placed a chunk of cheese at about every inch, rolled the sides of the tube back up and then cut the pieces in between the cheese chunks. I then rolled the individual dumplings, being careful not to puncture the dough with the fork. The results were pretty large and I think I could have been more efficient, so I'll have to look up how to do this right. But for now, this was fine.

  • For the red sauce, I made the Chopping Block sauce again, but used the canned tomatoes per the option given in the recipe. I let it simmer and reduce for a good 2 hours, which was a big, big mistake. That sodium in the canned tomatoes I mentioned before? Well, when it's reduced, you can really taste it. I had added none to the recipe at all, but the end result was way too salty for me. Channing, John and Steve didn't seem to think so, but I thought it overpowered the gorgonozla.

  • The Roast Broccoli was a big hit, even with Channing. Recipe: Toss broccoli with with olive oil and kosher salt, roast at 450F for 20 minutes. That's it.

  • The Pizza Bianca gets its own entry.

  • The zucchini was supposed to be an appetizer, but I got a late start with it and just served it with dinner. Though it was a half-assed effort (no fresh basil available, for instance), it went over well.

  • With the Pannacotta, I just added lemon extract to taste to the plain recipe, about 1/2 teaspoon. It could have taken a little more, but I wanted to keep it delicate. For the coulis, I used the lemon sauce from the Treebeards Gingerbread recipe.

(Spanish) Arroz con Pollo

Having returned from Barcelona, I figured the time was right for finally trying the Chopping Block's Arroz con Pollo recipe at home. This is the one that Channing was "almost embarassed at how much [he] liked it," when I brought home the leftovers.

The only change I made to the recipe was that I used one package of breasts (2) and one of legs & thighs (2 each), since I don't like dark meat.

Everything seemed to go according to plan in preparation. In the future, I would break down the legs into thighs and drumsticks (got a little lazy). But other than that, there were no surprises.

This was a decent result for at-home eating, but not good enough to serve to guests, by a long shot. While overall, it was tasty, I didn't do myself any favors by using the same rice that had given me problems with the Indian Spiced Rice. The texture is somewhat mealy and underdone at the same time. I think it's old and not absorbing water properly. I just have to suck it up and throw out that rice. There is also a chance that I over-compensated on the spices, which may have given us too much wet powder, essentially.

As I over-bought on the chorizo, I'll have an opportunity to try again, Probably this week.

Back from Travels

The last month or so has been awash in travelling and the preparations for that. We had the opportunity to travel to Barcelona and London with a day-trip to visit our friends in Dublin. Then, following a massive, pain-in-the-ass (but generally very successful) server hardware and database upgrade release, we went down to Houston for a few days for family visits.

There's some food-related stuff to comment on, but that will have be doled out in the next few days as I get organized and work more on my first draft of my Master's thesis.

However, there was a nice surprise on the way over. As you know, I am a huge fan of America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated. In American's in-flight magazine, American Way, I found this great article about the history and operations of the actual Test Kitchen. Good stuff.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I used to hate scones. They were dry, tasteless and way too uppity. My entire experience with them, of course, was based on the ones at Starbucks. And then one day at Panera, I decided to try theirs, taking one each of their Orange Iced and the Savory Ham and Cheese.

Damn. I'm not sure what possessed me to to give them a shot, but those were revelations. both varieties were moist and flavorful, with a distinct firm (but not dry or tough) texture. I love them.

I also noticed that my Foster's Market cookbook had a recipe for them, with a number of variations. I made one batch, divided the dough in half, and then mixed in diced ham and shredded cheddar into one half of the dough. Overall, not bad. They're definitely better served fresh, that's for sure.

A few observations:
  • Scones are basically biscuits. I should have guessed, but I didn't know that before. At least, this recipe is pretty much the same as my biscuit recipe.
  • My oven still needs some adjustment. It's running a little hot now. These were looking done about 3/4 of the way through, easily.
  • The texture was a bit crumbly - not unlike the problem I have with muffins. I think I need to work on the balance between combining and overworking ingredients with flour.
  • I don't like working dough in my food processor. The bits in the corners of the food bowl were dry because the blades couldn't get at them. I had to work them in by hand. Though maybe if I had run it a little longer, I would have gotten them mixed in right and gotten enough gluten action. I was definitely conservative.
  • I need to practice more with the ham and cheese to nail how well Panera does it. I'll probably buy a couple to take home and work side-by-side with them.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Toll House Cookies

For God's sake. Who the hell can screw up these? Even little kids make these.

Me, apparently.

Channing wanted some and I had a lot of chips, etc. leftover from when I didn't get around to baking them this Christmas. So, I was going to make two batches. Among the wealth of chips, I had an orphaned half-bag and only five eggs in the house, so to get rid of them, I decided to make one batch half again as large.

I had everything laid out: two bowls of the dry ingredients and the sugars, all carefully measured out; softened butter and eggs. And then things went to hell. Channing started watching the Daily Show and even the half-listening I was doing was enough to compeltely distract me.

So I don't realize until I'm completely done with the first, normal-sized batch, that I had grabbed the wrong plate of butter and put in 3 sticks of butter instead of 2.

Then, when both batches were finished, wrapped and put in the refrigerator, I looked over at the counter and saw the complete carton of eggs. I totally forgot to add those. So, I put the dough back into the mixer and added the eggs. Now, I realize that there was a missed opportunity to try to fix the extra butter then, by adding in the extra ingredients and maybe fix the proportions. I have no idea how they're going to turn out, but I'm betting not so good.

Even without that debacle, though, I think I'm giving up on using the mixer with cookies. In the days when I used to use a wooden spoon, these were the hands-down best Toll House you've ever had. Nowadays? Kinda generic. The biggest different is the density. I definitely like a denser cookie and I think my friends agree. I haven't gotten the raves that I used to.

Update: Huh. The one with just the eggs missing turned out just fine with adding the eggs late. Who'd of thought? Still need to try the ones with the extra butter.

Update 2: Just fine with the extra butter, too. Guess you really can't mess these up, in the end.

Gingerbread Pancakes with Lemon Sauce

Nope, not a rerun of the previous post.

I've really been wanting a good recipe for Gingerbread Panckaes for a long, long time. I used to get them all the time when I was schlepping books for W.W. Norton. Like the Eastside Cafe, these were a brief respite from the hell that was my life. I've tried improvising before by adding ground ginger, sugar and molasses in varying quantities to regular pancake batter and it never worked. Sometimes the results were outright disasters.

So, I was really stoked when I found this recipe. Sadly, I'm barely functional before I eat in the morning. Kind of makes it tough to make fancy breakfasts. But after putting it off for a month or two, I finally got to it. This was also another opportunity to try out my new two burner griddle.

After mixing everything together, there was a huge amount of batter, so I called our upstairs neighbors, Ron and Mary. God bless them. I like having other cooks around because you can mess something up, like I did here, and they understand.

They turned out burned on the outside and raw on the inside. This particularly chapped my hide as I used to be flawless at pancakes. Also, they were, to me, noticeably tough. Finally, there were noticeable crunchy bits of brown sugar.

There are three things I can think of right off the top of my head that need to be fixed with these (I'm not giving up yet):
  1. I overmixed the batter. A LOT. I wasn't thinking and whisked in the dry ingredients, disregarding/forgetting that it was "mix until just combined." This made them tough, from the gluten forming up, but also I'm sure it made the batter bind up. As it was too thick, it couldn't spread out on the griddle. Being too thick, the outside burned before the inside cooked.
  2. I really need more practice regulating temperature on that griddle.
  3. I had a lot of brown sugar in the house, as I've bought it too often for cookies. My bags dry out and, because I'm in a hurry, I just buy another, forgetting how little is actually used in Tool House cookies. So, the bags build up. I had tried a quick trick for softening that I read online where you put a bowl of water in the microwave with the chunks of sugar. I then dropped it into the food processor. That seemed to work at the time, but crunchies spoke otherwise.

I whipped up some of the lemon sauce to use as syrup for these. This sauce, on the other hand, was fantastic. I even eliminated the issue of the egg white strands by making sure I had a good blend when beating the eggs and pouring then in to the pan while I have a really good whisk of the syrup going.

(Recipe link to be posted soon)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Gingerbread Cake with Lemon Sauce

A little out of order here, as this was one of my things I made for Christmas dinner at my brother's house. I'd made this recipe from the Treebeards Cookbook a few times before, but had avoided the sauce just from my general paranoia I used to have in that area.

The cake itself is pretty foolproof. As mentioned in the Christmas overview, I used whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose white and it was just fine.

I served it at a fundraiser a year ago and gave the sauce a shot, to fancy it up. It was okay, but didn't turn out exactly as it should (a bit thin, if I remember correctly). This Christmas, I was trying to blow the barn doors down, honestly. With my general sauce practice, I figured it was worth tackling again. My god, it's good. It's really not that hard, though it is really, really important to get it up to temperature. There were a few strands of cooked egg white, but I just poured it through a strainer to get them out. The butter gives it a very smooth taste, countering the sharpness of the lemon perfectly.

I have found that you get automatic bonus points for a fancy pan and powdered sugar. We have a cathedral-shaped bundt pan and my sister-in-law has one shaped a lot like pine trees (though I'm not really sure it's supposed to be representational). Use something like that and sprinkle some sugar on through a sieve kind of snow-like over the result and people go nuts.

Oh, and whipped cream. Mix up some sweetened whipped cream with it.

(recipe to be scanned and posted soon).

Improvisation: Lasagna

The Eastside Marinara recipe is presented in the context of making a lasagna. So, a few nights ago, I decided to throw some together. I decided, deliberately, to not refer to a recipe to see what would happen.

Having two quarts of the marinara at home and two packages of thawed chopped frozen spinach, I stopped by Jewel to pick up lasagna noodles, ricotta cheese (this was very hard to find until I realized that it's kept by the cottage cheese and milk, not with the cheeses, even though the latter section included marscapone), shredded mozzarella and Morningstar Farms Sausage Flavored Crumbles. I'd used this fake meat in a lot of stuff over the past few years and it's really pretty good.

For the prep, I boiled the noodles and seasoned the drained and squeezed-dry spinach with garlic. The new thing I did was using a technique with the garlic I first saw on Tyler Florence's How to Boil Water. Using the flat of the knife, you essentially grind the garlic down (after a rough chop) into a paste with kosher salt as an abrasive and olive oil. The instructor in Pan Handling showed a woman the same thing, so there was some more validation. If there's a description or video on the show site or the net, I'll like it here.

It was going okay, but I definitely need practice. I forgot the olive oil component (which I think the Chopping Block teacher didn't use either) and only remembered it after I was watching another episode of the show where he did it again. In fact, I'm not entirely sure Florence did it the first time.

When everything was prepped, I layered starting with sauce, noodles, ricotta, spinach, fake sausage, then repeated once. On the second sausage, I laid down sauce again, another noodle layer, then mozzaralla, topped with dried oregano.

Baked that at 350F (in my newly recalibrated oven) until the cheese and the sides were bubbling. I have to say, it looked amazing. However, it's pretty bland. At very least, it needs more salt, but it also seems I was too heavy on the ricotta, because that's the texture and taste that stays in the mouth. I'd give it a C+/B-.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Indian Meal: Whoa. High Praise, Indeed

Well, that went well.

We were going to get together with Ebru and Fuzail on Sunday and Fuzail said he wanted Indian food. I realized that I had never cooked Indian for him and, him being Pakistani, raised on the stuff and a great cook in his own right, I wanted his input.

In reviewing posts over the past few days, I also noticed that I hadn't had a clean success with the Saag Panir yet and this would give me an opportunity to give it one more try. Likewise, I hadn't enjoyed a success with my own Aloo Paratha either and I wanted to try out my new griddle that I got for Christmas. So, I invited them to come over instead of going out.

The menu was:
Aloo Paratha
Murgh Saag (Chicken with Spinach - Broccoli used here)
Bengali Red Lentil Dal
Saag Panir
Spiced Rice

This menu hit a good balance. We had representation of meat, lentils, green vegetables and starch. Channing would eat the chicken and spinach dishes, so his tastes was covered. It would have been a full meal for a vegetarian as well, going with the spinach and the dal.

Ebru and Fuzail both seemed impressed. Ebru was happy to see the spinach and broccoli, as she hadn't had vegetables yet that day. Fuzail was pleased to see the dal.

But the capper for me was when he said that he thought the spinach was better than his mother's. Honestly? I thought it was my best effort with that recipe yet. I followed the regular recipe and used packaged frozen fried panir, rather than frying it myself (which seriously adds to the oil/fat content). Personally, it was a touch watery and bitter. Gift horses, right? I think I'm going to look for a new recipe, though.

The Paratha went pretty well. I think that I did over-knead the dough a bit, making it a bit tough (I noticed this when rolling). Also, I should have wrapped the dough directly when chilling it, instead of covering the bowl. The top of the dough ball dried out a bit and I had to mix that back into the dough to re-hydrate it. I also need a bit more practice regulating the temperature on the burners under the griddle. It's one of those large two-burner deals and, like most nice newer stoves, all of my burners have different BTU/heat outputs. So, getting an even heat across the surface will take some practice.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Marinara Sauce

After nailing down the Chopping Block tomato sauce recipe, I wanted to try another approach. This time, I used the Eastside Cafe recipe from Inside the Eastside which billed itself as a marninara.

As I might have expected, this was very heavy on the fresh herbs. This reinforced my desire to plant a ton this summer. It also called for canned peeled tomatoes, an option in the Chopping Block recipe and, in fact, what we used in class. I was shocked to discover, when checking out, that even those have huge amounts of sodium in them. If you use those instead of fresh in your homemade sauce, it has just about as much as the jarred stuff, pretty much wiping away one of the main points I had.

I went ahead and made it, just to follow it literally the first time. My initial reaction was that it was definitely spicier, as one might expect when cayenne becomes an ingredient. Also, that hint of wine flavor was replaced by the sweetness of the herbs. It did come out a similar color to the other batches.

So, it's clearly different, but very tasty in its own right. I'll just have to switch to fresh tomatoes. I never thought that I would ever plant them myself, but it's starting to look like I'll need to if I really want a truly fresh taste (well, duh) without the sodium from processed foods.

I had the pleasure of having Linzie as my instructor for the Seafood 101 class right before I made this. As she was also my Sauces 101 instructor, I asked her about the orangeness of the first two attempts. One thought she had was that the immersion blender was adding air that would make it paler. I'm not convinced. Also, I think that I may have overstated the orangeness without having an example to show.

I've heard folks say they use tomato paste in their sauce, so that may be how they get that dark red color. I think I'd like to avoid that, though, because it feels a little like cheating but also, you get right back into that sodium trap.

(recipe to be scanned and posted soon)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Roast Vegetable Hash

It was very cold and I wanted some comfort food that was actually healthy, so I tried this recipe from the Pan Handling class which was part of a scallops dish. I served it with the Cilantro Panko Chicken, though it had nothing to do with the other. I just wanted to.

There was no celery root at our tiny, sucky Jewel, but they did have parsnips, which I'd alway been curious about. I did have a sweet potato at home, so it became carrots, parsnips and sweet potato.

All went well. The carrots were still crunchy when the sweet potatoes were done, but 15 more minutes took care of that. I believe that thyme is now my new favorite herb. I was imagining the smell of it for days later.

Murgh Saag (Indian Chicken with Broccoli, instead of the spinach)

This was essentially a re-do to see how the recipe worked with broccoli instead of spinach (as the recipe says) and if I could cut down on the prep and cooking time.

Turns out that it is, in fact, very good with broccoli and can be lightning fast for prep and cooking. Especially if you buy the bagged, pre-cut broccoli (which I figured was just about as cheap as the whole, once you factor in the weight of the big, dense stem in the whole ones). Sorting through, rinsing and trimming took just about two minutes.

I used just a touch of grape seed oil and it was fine. I don't even think it's necessary at all.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pan Handling (Chopping Block class)

I got the impression when I signed up for this class that is was going to be a survey of different pans and their use. And then as soon as I got done and thought back on it, I thought I had no idea what the focus was. Finally, looking back through the recipes, I realized that the topic was specifically use of the saute pan.

Oh, okay. I really think that could have been a LOT clearer. I'm totally one for a clear, strong thesis statement. Granted, I was a hair late and might have missed a minute (and I mean, literally, 60 seconds of instruction), but I think that if could have stood some better explanation.

That being said, it was some good recipes and a good experience. I ended up buying the ScanPan saute pan that we used, having decided that my crappy Calphalon omelette pan just wasn't good enough, so maybe I did get at least part of the message subliminally.

The instruction was okay, but generally on the lower end of my Chopping Block experiences. I learned more about pie crust and the recipes than I did about techniques for the pan or anything. I think, in part, a lot of content is covered in the other classes I've taken (browning and deglazing, for example). But the recipes themselves are really, really tasty and I had a neat group to work with, so it was definitely worth the time.

In this class, we made:
  • Caramelized Onion Crostada
  • Sauteed Mushroom Bruschetta
  • Chicken Piccata
  • Seared Sea Scallops with Celery Root Hash
The various learnings and tidbits includes:
  • I'm amazed at how much I like celery root. It has a slightly sweet taste and very smooth texture. I think I was expecting something more turnip-like from the look and texture when chopping. I've seen it occasionally at the local Jewel - it's totally one of those things in produce that you overlook until you know to look for it. Also, this really opened up my eyes to roasting all kinds of vegetables.
  • I'm liking the free-form tart thing a lot. I've seen a lot of recipes for various types recently and this was my first try. This was quite good and I think I'll be doing others. Though the dough for the tart wasn't technically part of the topic, the instructor made the point that we should hold and roll the body of the rolling pin, not the handles. Also, to use plenty of flour to prevent sticking and to rotate the disk 1/4 turn after every stroke.
  • When sauteeing the onions for the tart, we started at medium high to get the caramelization, then dropped to medium and then low for the softening part. I don't know if I would have done this by instinct or would have pulled them off then they were browned, but still too firm, for fear of burning.
  • The best places to buy fish in the city, by a long shot, are apparently the Fish Guy (4423 N. Elston) and Dirk's (2070 N. Clyborn).
  • When searing scallops, you have to be careful not to overcook them. However, if they don't release from the pan easily with tongs, they're not done yet.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake

Channning's birthday (45, btw) was coming up and he told me he wanted a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. And not the Most Awesome Cake Ever again, for variety. Fair enough.

So about a week or two before the event, we were on the couch and I decide to start an episode of America's Test Kitchen, the Cook's Illustrated show I raved about before. The episode was titled "Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake." Channing didn't bother to get up and ended up watching the whole thing with me. While not a cooking fan by any stretch, he was kind of interested in all of the segments, giving me his feedback on the host, etc. (we both agree, Christopher Kimball's not someone we'd like personally in real life, but he does a really good job with the show). When they presented the finished product, he said, "Okay, you can make me that cake." Even though it didn't have his beloved cream cheese frosting.

As best I remember, I have never, ever made a layer cake from scratch. I figured, okay, if this goes really badly, I can run across the street and get some chocolate cake mix. And if that goes badly, too, given my recent oven situations, then I can run back across the street and buy one. Since Channing has, more than once, expressed a fondness for Jewel's bakery cakes, this would be fine. Which was great to relieve the stress.

One interesting thing about the recipe is that it involves making a "chocolate pudding" from scratch, to add moistness. Overall, even with that step, it was pretty straightforward and easy. I did forget to swap out for the paddle attachment, but I don't think it made a huge difference.

The result was pretty darned good. I may have overcooked it just a bit, making it a little drier than they intended. It tested undone at 30 minutes and instead of adding 5, I may have added as much as 10 minutes, because I forgot to set the timer and got distracted. But all in all, it was fine. No emergency runs to Jewel needed. I was even able to remember the errors in frosting from the last cake and this turned out just right.

I did go ahead and make a traditional cream cheese frosting (i.e. no chocolate added). I've had issues before with it not being smooth enough, with some bits of cream cheese that didn't get mixed (which is easier to see when you make it chocolate - i.e. when it's not all ivory white colored). I made absolutely sure that the cream cheese was up to room temperature and soft before I started and it turned out great.

(Recipes to be scanned and posted soon. I promise).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Seafood 101

I doubled up on my Chopping Block classes in January, to make up for missing one in December. Seafood 101 much finished out my proteins. This was an interesting experience. On one hand, it was full of learning and was taught by Lynzie, my favorite instructor there. On the other, apparently, I don't like seafood that much. Of the three recipes, none really did much for me.

We prepared:
  • Halibut Puttanesca
  • Macadamia Nut Crusted Trout
  • Scallop, Shrimp and Mussel Curry

In the cases of the first two, the fish just didn't taste that good. They have good suppliers and everyone else just loved them, so I think that I just may not be the target audience. I also just don't like mussels or any kind of similar shellfish that much (i.e. mollusks - clam, oysters - but not scallops. Those are great.).

That being said, learning how to skin a halibut was pretty neat. No one else was willing to volunteer for it, so I got to wield the knife there. You're supposed to puncture the skin at the tail end of the fillet to get something to hang onto while you pull the knife through. It's surprisingly tough. Like really, really tough.

The techniques will be useful, but I'll have to modify them. The macadamia nut crust was really nice and would go well with salmon. The curry was actually amazing. I'll probably make it with just the scallops and shrimp sometime.

Here's something else I learned - printed recipes are apparently a relatively new thing at the Chopping Block. Used to be that you'd have to write them down long-hand. Are you kidding me? That would have sucked. The classes busy enough as it is. When would you have time?

Do-Over - Lemon Pound Cake

So, following the Tangerine Pound Cake debacle, I had to get back on the horse and try it again. Having used up the tangerines, it was time to go with lemon. I didn't have any fresh citrus in the house, but I had Penzey's Minced Lemon Peel and ReaLemon. I figured that'd be good enough.

By this time, you know where this is going, right?

Nope, of course they weren't good enough.

While I baked the cake for a longer time, the dried zest was awful. Little hard bits in the bake. While I may not have soaked them long enough before mixing in, I think they were just a bad direction to go in in the first place. I hate to waste anything, but I think I need to throw that bottle away.

The interior was still underdone. Not really to the extreme as the Tengerine version, but there was a noticable bit that was underbaked in the center. This is were the "continuity" of the entries gets a bit off. This was actually the point where I realized that the oven needed re-calibration.

Also, we found out that Dee-Dee, our cat, will eat anything. Including pound cake. Stupid cat.

Panko Cilantro Chicken

This dish had been sitting on my to-do list for a long time, ever since the Trib article on chicken breast recipes came out. But I never managed to have fresh chicken and fresh cilantro at home at the same time whenever I thought of it.

I finally made a concerted effort to get this done. As I was getting really, really hungry, I skipped the sauce.

They came out really tasty, but more because they are essentially fried chicken. I couldn't taste the cilantro much (though the green looked really nice). The preparation was similar to the Poulet Saute' Chasseur, except there is a three step coating process (flour, egg, panko/cilantro) to prepping the chicken instead of just one. In that sense, it was like the Chicharrones De Pollo (which I totally need to make again) and the dredging wasn't nearly as messy.

While the results tasted good, I had the sense that I used too much oil. Next time, I'm going to try raising the heat so that the chicken cooks faster and less is absorbed into the crust. And I need to make the sauce.

Tangerine Pound Cake

Well, this was a disaster. A tasty one, but a disaster nonetheless.

As we had nothing sweet in the house, I decided to try making a pound cake, vaugely inpired that the DeLaurentis woman's show. Since I had some tangerines that needed to be used and no lemons, I took the Lemon Pound Cake recipe from the Gourmet Cookbook and swapped out the citrus.

One thing right off the bat - it takes a LOT longer to zest a tangerine than a lemon. I think because it's harder for the grater to get a grip on the smoother rind of the Clementine or something.

Everything was pretty straightforward, but thank God I turned it out of the pan and onto a plate instead of a rack. Because as soon as it hit the ceramic, it exploded. Like a chocolate lava cake, but yellow and more lava. 2" or so on each end were done, but everything in the middle was a thin wall of cake holding in (until hitting the place) hot batter.

Those end pieces tasted awfully good, though. It's a winner of a recipe.

So what happened? Well, obviously it didn't cook enough. The duration was fine (I did about the full 55 minutes), but I would guess that the oven temperature was too low. According to the manual, I can recalibrate it up to 35F in either direction. So time to buy a cheap oven thermometer and adjust this puppy. This also explains the issue with the lemon poppyseed cake from a while back.

But also, I have to re-think how I'm testing for doneness. I did test this with a toothpick and it came out clean. I've been going for no batter on the toothpick, but reading some other recipes, I think that what I really want is actual crumbs on the toothpick. The oil & fat content is high enough that I think there is an intermediate stage where the batter slips of the toothpick, but hasn't formed crumbs yet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Busy Night - Updates

Tonight, I slammed out five items in an hour. That's what practice buys you. Those kind of sessions are still rare, but happening more often now. The items included:

  • Raspberry Coulis - for the Panna Cotta. I made the custard the night before, but my raspberries were still frozen then.

  • Turkey Keema Mater - Do-over - I made it right this time, with cumin seed instead of fennel. It's a lot, lot better.
  • Spiced Rice - Yes, it was definitely a bad batch of rice before. This is the second batch I've made the basmati I bought in December and it came out perfect. I'm throwing out the rest of that first one.

  • Broiled Chicken Breast - No challenge here, of course, but time was eaten by prepping and seasoning the breasts. I am liking how the breasts I bought at Costco require a little less trimming than Jewel's.

  • Channing's Dinner - Okay, this barely counts. I threw cold pasta in a bowl with some of the homemade tomato sauce, nuked it for 1.5 minutes, tossed in a large-diced broiled chicken breast and sprinkled some parmesan. But while I was juggling the other stuff...

Panna Cotta with Raspberry Coulis

I think that Panna Cotta might be an "in" desert right now. It seemed to be the go-to desert on Top Chef and I've seen it on at least one other cooking show. We were recently at local eatery Anteprima (highly recommended) and I finally gave it a shot, with their lemon variety. Wow. Then this month's Cooks Illustrated had an article about developing the perfect Panna Cotta recipe. So, it had to be made. In a meager deference to copyright, I'm only reproducing the page with the recipe.

If you've never eaten or even seen it, Panna Cotta is very similar to Flan or Creme Caramel. Both are milk based, but the big difference is that Panna Cotta, the Italian version, is gelatin-based, while Flan is an egg custard. Panna Cotta is a little bit lighter, I think, and may be more flexible with flavorings.

It is pretty easy to make. I had some inconsistent results in unmolding the result, which I never have with flan. The desert "tore" a few times, where one section would hold to the cup a bit longer than the others. When I tried dipping the cup in boiling water as recommended, the desert melted some, giving a run-off of milk. In part, this is to be expected, as the recipe does call out making a few extra cups. It might also be the toughness of the gelatin.

In the article, this aspect seemed to be of most concern to the author. Gelatin can take up to 12 hours to fully set, apparently, though it's servable after four. So, the amount of gelatin you use for a same-afternoon serving is different (i.e. more) than if you are making it the day ahead (i.e. less), if you're trying to have consistent results. I made the day-ahead version.

This tasted great, but I've only had it that one time before, so, honestly, I'm not entirely sure if I got the texture right. I suppose the only way to find out is to taste test at Ante Prima and others…

I made the raspberry coulis the next night, as my frozen berries weren't thawed yet, it was getting late and even if I had made the 4-hour formulation, it wouldn't be ready yet.

The one thing I forgot was to puree the mixture before I strained it. I don't think that was too big a deal. However, the mixture started out really, really tart. That may have been an effect of using the frozen berries (and it was definitely them and not the lemon - I tasted a leftover from the bag to check). Regardless, I was able to cut it decently with a couple more spoons of sugar.

The flavor balance came out right, but the sauce was definitely too thin. Much more thickening was required than I could have expected in the refrigerator. I definitely should have drained the thawed berries - that didn't even occur to me until after I added the sugar. I think there was well over ½ cup of juice alone. No matter - I reduced it down by about 1/3 to get a good consistency.

What I don't get is how this is a "fast" dish for Top Chef. It's easy to put together, but how to you get it set within the narrow time frames (usually a total of 2 hours or less) they have to deal with? They must be pushing the gelatin content and/or practically freezing it.