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.