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.