Sunday, December 28, 2008

Watching turtles and fish, eating loco moco

I haven't been writing in my blog because I have been out of wireless range in Hawaii. We just moved to an oceanfront place and it has wireless, so here I am. We are about halfway through a very relaxed trip, and I am doing a couple of my favorite things, cooking with local ingredients and watching sea life.

There are a few sea turtles that frequent the tidal pools and rocky shores under our lanai here. They like to come up in the afternoon and sun themselves while munching on the seaweed growing there. About 50 feet out in the deeper water there are several schools of yellow tangs that are easy to pick out when the sun is shining on the water. Their presence tells me that there are a lot more cool fish hanging out there around the lava shelf. But there is a lot of surge down there and it would be challenging to get to, so we shan’t climb down to snorkel there. We will, however, walk south about 100 yards on a path to a little sandy beach and walk into the water to see what we can see. I am scared to death of the water – nearly drowned when I was about 10 – but my desire to see the neato fish pushes me forward anyway. Probably tomorrow.

Brunch this morning was loco moco. This is a very Hawaii-specific dish. In its basic form it is white rice topped with a hamburger patty and a fried egg, covered with brown gravy. Sometimes served with a scoop of macaroni salad. (More on mac salad, Hawaiian-style, in a minute.) Our version was a little more luxe. Last night I made fried rice with diced Portuguese sausage, carrots, egg, and green onions. It was a huge batch, meant to last for a week of breakfasts or lunches. So I heated up two portions of fried rice, and cooked some patties I made by mincing tenderloin trimmings. I also made some Knorr brown gravy and fried some eggs. (Knorr is closest to the traditional gravy I get.) I cook the eggs sunny-side up but cover them to ensure that the white is still cooked with a runny or very soft yolk. Rice goes on the bottom of the plate, then meat, eggs, and gravy. Put a scoop of mac salad on the plate and VOILA! A deluxe loco moco.

Hawaiian mac salad is quite different from macaroni salad you may have had. It consists of a grated carrot, a pound of overcooked macaroni, and a cup or more of Best Foods/Hellman’s mayonnaise. Some salt and pepper, and let it sit until everything is well-absorbed. Then add a little more mayo if you like it moist. I happen to like it very much, and Costco here on the island used to sell a very good version. I couldn’t find it this time so once we got to a place with a wireless connection I did some research to find some recipes that resembled what I wanted. The result was very close to what I have enjoyed at the greasy spoon “plate lunch” places around here. If you’ve never heard of “plate lunch,” it is an entrée like fried chicken or fish or teriyaki beef or curried beef stew served with two scoops of white rice and a scoop of mac or mac/potato salad. It is usually an inexpensive, wickedly bad for you, and quite yummy meal.

Back to turtle watching and working on a “healthy glow” on my face, while sipping some champagne.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Canning tomatillo salsa

Tomatillos looked really good at Cash and Carry this week, so I bought a 2-pound bag. That made a lot of salsa, even after taking some to a couple of parties. So I decided to can it. It always seems like canning is going to be a hassle, and why only can three jars of something? But every time I start on canning with a small batch of something it really isn't a hassle, nor does it generate a big mess. And now I'll have some good salsa in the pantry. That makes me happy.

Multigrain bread

One of my weekend cooking projects was bread with some "oomph." This bread includes hazelnut flour, whole wheat flour, and dark rye flour in addition to bread flour. It looks a little dense but the texture is great and it's not heavy at all. It tastes nutty and a little sweet from the honey I used in it. Great for toast!

Friday, December 12, 2008

What's cooking: Rice pudding

With this nasty wet and windy storm outside, I started thinking about comfort food. Just so happened that I had four cups of leftover popcorn rice and some half-and-half that needed to be used up. I’ve never made rice pudding before but I really like it. So I reviewed several recipes and settled on this:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk two egg yolks with 1/3 cup sugar. Whisk in ½ cup half-and-half until smooth. Whisk this mixture in a large oven-safe saucepan with 3 ½ cups of half-and-half, another 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon vanilla, and 1 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon. Add four cups of cooked rice. Stir constantly over medium heat, breaking up lumps of rice, until the mixture comes to a simmer. Put pan in oven and cook for 1 ¼ hours, stirring once. Allow to cool and serve at room temperature or chilled.

Just the ticket for a cold blustery day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's cooking: spicy chocolate fudge marshmallows

This experiment started in October when I decided to fulfill a commitment to my nephew James – to make chocolate marshmallows.  I went through a few rounds and came up with something that was quite good, using a fudge syrup in the gelatin.  For a champagne tasting we’re going to tomorrow night, I wanted something a little more “adult.”  So I have taken the base recipe and added  some pasilla chile powder for flavor, a bit of guajillo chile powder for flavor and heat, and some freshly ground cinnamon. Kind of a Mexican chocolate thing going on. Right now the KitchenAid mixer is whipping its little heart out; it takes at least 15 minutes on high to get the mixture whipped up nice and light.  Then I’ll pour it on a buttered sheet pan dusted with a mixture of powdered sugar, cornstarch, and cocoa and let it sit overnight before cutting it up with a pizza cutter.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

What's for dinner: Ruth's lasagna

Ruth is Dave’s mother. Unfortunately I never got to meet her. He says she was a big fan of Julia Child, so I suspect we would have gotten along pretty well. Last night was my first time making this recipe, though in the past I have enjoyed this lasagna when Dave made it for a crowd. You can feed 8-10 people with this easily.

Ingredients A: 2 lb hamburger 1 lb Italian sausage 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 T parsley (I assume dried, but we use 3 T minced fresh parsley) 1 T basil (dried, we use 3 T fresh or frozen) 2 t salt 2 - 14 oz cans tomatoes or puree (or one large can) 2 - 6oz cans tomato paste 2 t sugar 1 C grated Parmesan cheese

Ingredients B: 1 10oz pkg wide lasagna noodles (you’ll need 12 noodles)

Ingredients C: 24 oz ricotta cheese (the original recipe uses large curd cottage cheese; I prefer ricotta) 2 eggs, beaten 2 t salt ½ t pepper 2 T parsley flakes (I use 6 T fresh minced parsley) ½ C grated Parmesan cheese

Ingredients D: 1 lb mozzarella cheese, sliced very thin or shredded


A: Brown meat slowly, spoon off excess fat. Add rest of “A” and simmer uncovered until thick, about 45 min, stirring occasionally.

B: Cook noodles until tender, drain and rinse under cold water.

C: Combine ingredients

Put a bit of sauce on the bottom of a 10x13 deep casserole, just to cover. Place half of noodles in pan (about six noodles). Spread half of C over evenly, add half of the mozzarella cheese and half of A. Repeat layers. Top with a little shredded mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil. Bake in moderate oven (350) for 45 min then uncover and bake another 15 min. Let stand 10-15 min before serving.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Preserved lemon recipe

I got several requests for this recipe after posting my carrot salad recipe. So here is what I do. 2 dozen medium size fresh lemons Sea salt or kosher salt 1 quart glass jar with lid

Slice half of the lemons from top to bottom into quarters, but don't cut all the way through so that the lemon has four "petals." In a mixing bowl, toss the cut lemons generously with salt, packing some inside each lemon. Place the salted lemons into the quart jar. Juice the remaining lemons and pour the juice into the jar. Fill the jar to the top. Secure the lid and let sit in a cool dry place for at least 3 days. The lemons can set longer and will keep in the refrigerator. I keep mine for a very long time so I cover the whole thing with some olive oil. You don't have to make so many, you can just do a couple, once you have them covered in salt then just put in lemon juice to cover. Also note that if you are using a canning jar and a canning flat as a lid, you should cover the jar mouth with plastic wrap before putting the lid on to avoid corrosion of the lid.

To use, remove a quarter lemon and pull out the pulp. I usually put the pulp back in the jar to keep the volume of liquid up. Dice or thinly slice the peel. These can be used in chicken stew, even dice up the peel and put a little in tuna salad. I make ahi tartare (minced fresh raw tuna) and add some to that along with my other seasonings. And of course in that carrot salad. Any time you have a savory dish that calls for lemon zest or juice and has salt, you can use some of this for an interestingly different flavor.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What's for dinner: Moroccan-style carrot salad

Well, really it’s miso-marinated flatiron steak and Russian banana potatoes (fingerlings) and the carrot salad. But the carrot salad is the interesting part. And it makes a pretty picture.

I took 2 cups of sliced carrots and tossed them with ½ t each salt, cinnamon, and cumin and ¼ t ground white pepper. Then I microwaved them for three minutes until they were just tender. Added 1 T juice from preserved lemons and 1 T chopped preserved lemon while they were still hot. I know most of you haven’t even seen a preserved lemon – you can use fresh lemon juice and lemon zest, you might need to adjust the salt a little bit as the preserved lemon is salty. Once the carrots are just warm, add 1/4 C minced sweet onion, ½ C minced parsley, and enough olive oil to barely bind it all together and give it a sheen.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What's for dinner: Braised lamb shanks, chanterelles, and butternut squash

Lamb shanks are on our list of “favorite things.” All that connective tissue that gets so yummy when you cook them low and slow in moist heat. I use some north Africa-inspired seasonings, some dried apricots, raisins, carrots, and tomatoes in the sauce. After browning the lamb, I just put all the rest of the stuff in the pot and put it into a slow oven (300-325 degrees) for 3 or 4 hours. In this case it’s longer because Dave’s working late, so I reduced the oven to 200 after the meat was tender, like it is in the photo.

I picked up some very clean chanterelle mushrooms at the farmers market today and will do a quick sauté with some shallots – when the mushrooms are really good, you want to mess with them as little as possible. I’m also roasting some butternut squash cubes, and we’ll start with a little salad.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

More experiments wth rye bread

I am bound and determined to come up with a rye loaf that is rich and moist and is not solid as a brick. Last night I made a sponge:

  • 1 T yeast
  • 2 t sugar
  • 1 cup AP flour
  • 1 cup water

Whisk together, cover with plastic and set aside on the counter overnight. Next day, make the dough:

  • Sponge
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2.5 cups high-gluten flour
  • 1.5 cups dark rye flour
  • 3 T oil
  • 2 T molasses
  • 1 t salt

Mix all ingredients in stand mixer with dough hook. Knead with dough hook for 6-7 minutes until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. It will be very soft but should also be stretchy and pliable, not sticking to your hands. Oil a bown and put the dough in it, let it rise until doubled. Gently fold dough, don't punch it down or you'll lose too many air bubbles. You just want to deflate it a bit. Shape into a 12" loaf and put onto a peel dusted with cornmeal. Cover and allow to rise again, about an hour. Heat oven with baking stone to 400 degrees. Slash top with razor or sharp knife, about five diagonal slashes. Bake until internal temp is 205-210 degrees.

This turned out moist, with great flavor. Next time I will preheat the baking stone longer, as the bread stuck to it just a bit.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What's for dinner: fried chicken, potatoes, broccoli

I bought a chicken yesterday and disassembled it. Boned out the breasts and the thighs and put them in an salty/spicy buttermilk marinade. Put everything else (trimmings, legs, wings) into a pot and added a couple of cans of chicken broth and a couple of cans of water, some onion and celery, and some savory. Simmered the pot for a while, and fished out the legs and wings for eating later. Strained the broth and put it in the fridge along with the marinating meat.

Today I shall make a seasoned flour and add a couple of tablespoons of buttermilk to make it kind of lumpy (this is a recipe from Cook's Illustrated/Cook's Country). Then I will coat the boned chicken pieces with the lumpy coating and shallow fry them. Theoretically the chicken will come out very crispy due to those lumps. I will peel some Yukon gold potatoes and make mashed potatoes, and use the rich chicken stock I made yesterday to make gravy. Some steamed broccoli, and we'll have a nice dinner. I'll send along some pictures if it is pretty.

Hope you all have the Thanksgiving you are wishing for. As for me, I am one of the 7% of Americans who are traveling instead of going to a family dinner, and running off to the coast to spend some quality time with my overworked husband.

Update: As you can see, dinner did come out pretty and tasted even better.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What's for dinner: fried sole and sweet potato chips

I'll admit this up front: I do have fear of frying. Deep frying just seems so involved and messy. But every time I do it, I say to myself that I will remember that it's not so bad. Maybe today it was easier because I didn't decide on frying for dinner until about 4:00 today. Was running through the grocery store and saw some beautiful sole, at a great price. So I postponed our crispy shallow-fried chicken dinner until tomorrow and grabbed the fish. On the way home I realized that I have lots of fry coating, from our trip to New England last summer. Might as well try a shallow fry of fish, I thought. Then when Dave got home from work, he asked if we were frying fish then could I maybe make sweet potato chips, too? Heck, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I discarded the idea of pulling out the big iron skillet and went for a wide pot instead, thinking I might as well use the same pot for both things.

I used the mandoline to get nice evenly thin slices of sweet potatoes, and we got the pot of oil (2" deep) heating up (starting target, 375 degrees). My plan was to put Dave in charge of the chips, which was silly because since neither of us have ever done them before you know I'm going to be hanging out and "supervising." First batch was a little dark, but after that we got it just right. As you can see from the picture, we were able to make a half sheet pan do double duty as a landing pad for the chips and the fish. Breading the fish was easy – I used a one-step approach, not the three-step flour/egg/breading. The fish picked up the corn flour and spices of the Zatarain's Louisiana Fish Fry quite nicely. Two minutes in the hot oil and it was GBD – very tender and juicy with a softly crisp coating, crunchy around the edges.

For us, a nice spin on fish and chips!

Monday, November 24, 2008

What's for dinner: Beef with mushroom and bacon gravy

Had about 4 oz of tenderloin scraps and 8 oz of thin-sliced eye of round in the freezer. Cut that into ¼” dice and seared it in a little bacon fat and ½ t dried thyme. Removed that from the pan and put the juices into a small bowl. Added 2 T of chopped dried porcini to those juices and topped it off with some hot water, letting it steep. To the skillet I added ½ a medium onion, chopped, 3 slices of cooked bacon, chopped, and 8 oz of chopped mushrooms. Cooked until the mushrooms were limp and the onions were translucent, seasoning with salt and pepper. I make shiitake mushroom powder and so I added about 2 T of that, too. Poured in the rehydrated porcini and juices and cooked for about a minute. Added 1 T tomato paste and stirred in, then added 2 T flour and cooked and stirred until the flour was incorporated, about four minutes. Stir in cooked meat and one can of chicken stock, bring to simmer. Stir until thickened and simmer for a few minutes until the raw flour taste is cooked out. Just before serving, stir in ½ C of sour cream. Serve over long-grain white rice.

I’m serving it with peeled sliced asparagus stems. I guess you can almost call it beef Stroganoff, the flavors are very similar.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

New thing to try: Gelato

While we were out the other night, we stopped in at a gelateria in the neighborhood. Now, while gelato is "just" Italian ice cream, it has very intense flavors. After our treat, Dave decided that we should try making some for ourselves. I found a half-dozen Italian cookbooks in my collection that had recipes and background info. The keys to gelato seem to be a very intensely flavored syrup, and much less fat from the dairy component.

For example, the lemon gelato that I made tonight. I made a very fragrant syrup by poaching the peels of three lemons with their juice and sugar. Strained out it was flavorful as well as aromatic. The recipe made almost 2 cups of syrup which were to be combined with 1/2 cup of heavy cream and frozen in the ice cream machine. All that worked just fine and the gelato is pale yellow, smells of fresh lemons, and has a really creamy texture.

Oh, and the gelato experiment went on while I was canning five and a half pints of apple butter and six pints of "plum good" applesauce. And made up the fancy cioppino with the base from Friday with clams, mussels, large shrimp, halibut cheeks, big fat scallops, and a Dungeness crab. Served that with fresh bread. I think Dave has cleaned the kitchen at least seven times this weekend -- I think we need a few days off from major kitchen projects!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Don't want to waste the apples!

Over the past weeks we have gotten quite a few apples in our farm basket. In fact there were twelve pounds of apples and two pounds of pluots awaiting consumption. Dave and I decided we need to make apple butter, and with that many apples we’re also making applesauce. Have I made either before? Of course not! But that’s never stopped me…

Today we peeled, cored, and sliced the apples and sliced the pluots. All went into a pot with some water and got cooked down. I ran them through a food mill and got six quarts of puree. Perfect – I need 12 cups of puree for the butter and 12 cups for the sauce. With the pluots it is a beautiful shade of pink. Last thing to do tonight was add the appropriate sugar, spices, and lemon juice to each batch. Tomorrow I will cook down the apple butter, using the induction burner as I think that will give a very even heat on the pan and reduce the likelihood of it scorching as it gets thick. I will also cook the sauce a little bit and then jar them all up and process in a water bath.

Some days it cracks me up that a city girl like me spends time canning and preserving. Guess whether you grow up in the city or the country, if you grow up poor you learn to not waste the apples!

Friday, November 14, 2008

What's for dinner: calamari steak in cioppino broth over linguine

Dinner tonight was born of the need to use up ingredients. I had fresh tomatoes, lots of fresh basil, a bit of fennel, a bit of leek, some celery. I also had the lobster/crab stock I made at the beginning of the week. And a bit of tomato paste. All those flavors screamed Cioppino! So I followed their siren song. The only seafood on hand is frozen calamari steaks, which Dave really likes.

So I chopped up an onion, the fennel, some celery, some leek, and crushed red pepper and sweated them in olive oil. Added a few cloves of chopped garlic and stirred for a few minutes, then the tomato paste and let it caramelize on the bottom of the pot for more flavor. Then the six cups of shellfish stock, and about four cups of seeded chopped tomatoes and a cup of chopped fresh basil. Corrected the seasonings, and simmered for a while.

Meanwhile I cut two calamari steaks into large pieces and rubbed them with salt and lemon juice. The reason I used large pieces is that there’s quite a bit of cioppino base so I want to use it for a full-on stew on Sunday. This way I can poach the calamari in it and be sure I can get all of it out of the broth. Otherwise I’ll have some rubbery overcooked calamari on Sunday.

Then we made some linguine and boiled that up while the calamari poached in the broth. Linguine into big pasta plates with calamari on top and some broth ladled around it. A Washington Barbera to drink. Not bad for a pantry meal.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Cooking projects for today

I’m working on crab cakes today, and Dave wants chocolate ice cream and we have all the ingredients so that is next. He’s doing all the vacuuming today, and he already did the laundry, so he deserves a treat. The crab cakes will be a first course for duck prepared “sous vide.” I'll use the induction burner for that. Sauce will be a duck stock reduction, probably with some of my cherry-plum syrup added. Some nice carrots from the farm on the side they will like that sauce, too.

Last night we made fettuccine and had crab fettuccine. That involved 2 T minced shallot, ½ clove minced garlic, 1 T tarragon sautéed in butter, then add about 1 C cream and simmer to reduce a little bit. Add 1.5 C crab and ½ C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Add cooked pasta to pan with sauce and toss. Serve with a little more parm on top, and a Chardonnay/Pinot-based sparkling wine. Then those red wine-poached pears for dessert.

Yes, dinners next week will be light to offset the richness of this weekend!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Weekend dinners: duck and bean soup, seared duck breasts

It’s been raining hard for two days straight and while we might get a break later this afternoon it will start again tonight. Time to pull down the soup pot and clean out the supplies of stock in the freezer.

Today Dave is picking up a duck for me at an Asian supermarket. I’ve put small white beans on to cook with savory, thyme, and garlic and pulled out a quart of double-strength duck stock. This will be the start of a duck and bean soup that takes its source flavors from French cassoulet. I love cassoulet but don’t keep all the bits on hand that go in for a really authentic one. I'll add some onions cooked with homemade pancetta to the pot when the beans are tender. The cooked beans will rest until Sunday. In the meantime, tonight I will cut up the fresh duck. I will put a curing rub (salt, sugar, pink salt, lavender) on the legs and season the breasts, and refrigerate both.

Tomorrow afternoon I will poach the duck legs in duck fat for about four hours, making duck confit. The duck breasts we will have for dinner on Saturday night, with blue cheese polenta, carrots, and a green salad. I’ve been poaching some pears in a red wine syrup with vanilla and star anise, and I suspect we’ll have those for dessert if we don’t gobble them all down tonight.

On Sunday morning I will add some tomato paste and the duck confit to the beans I cooked today. I also have a chicken breast and thighs that I poached in duck fat that I will pull out of the freezer and add to the pot. I will slow cook this in the oven for several hours, and then add a breadcrumb crust to the top of it and cook it some more. After the crust gets really crisp, I will stir it into the rest of the beans. This is a pretty classic part of a cassoulet recipe. By dinner time on Sunday, it should be ready to eat. Some crusty bread and a green salad with some cheese, and we’re good to go.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

What's for dinner: Prime NY steak w/brandy cream

Major score at Costco this week: fresh Brussels sprouts and USDA Prime NY steaks.

I realize that the little cabbages aren’t on most people’s list of favs, but I’ve converted more than a few people when I braise them with bacon and maple syrup, a trick I learned in a cooking class. Just slice them in half so they can soak up all that nice flavor, and if you finish cooking them without a lid you won’t end up with that nasty sulfur aroma.

These steaks had the most beautiful marbling, and were almost 1 ½” thick. I rubbed them with kosher salt and mushroom powder and let them sit out until they were room temp. Then I rub them with a little olive oil and into a really hot skillet for three minutes on a side. Don’t touch them until the three minutes are up if you want the most beautiful caramelized surface. Then into a 400-degree oven for four minutes. Put them on a plate to rest and made the pan sauce: add a couple of tablespoons of minced onion to the skillet (back on the heat) and stir until the onion is translucent, scraping up the fond in the skillet. Then pull the skillet off the heat and add a couple of tablespoons of brandy; tilt the pan as you put if back on the burner and the brandy will flame. I used more like ¼ cup of brandy (4Tbs), and got flames mostly up to the kitchen ceiling (and we have high ceilings!). But no damage, even kept my eyebrows and I didn’t drop the skillet when it happened. I guess I’m getting used to flambéing. Once the flames went out I added some salt and about a tablespoon of flour, since I wanted the sauce to cling a bit to the meat. Stirred until the flour was cooked and then added heavy cream until I got the consistency I wanted. Did I mention that this meal was designed to harden your arteries even as you prepared it? Anyway, once the sauce was done and I corrected the seasonings, I put the steaks back in the pan for just a bit to coat them in sauce, and plated it up.

You could almost cut the steaks with a glance. Incredibly buttery and tender, and a perfect medium rare all the way through.

We had a nice salad of baby greens with blue cheese crumbles and candied pecans in a raspberry vinaigrette to round out the meal. No leftovers tonight!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Joy of Oysters

Like your first kiss, I believe you always remember your first raw oyster. Where you were, who you were with, how your stomach did a little flip-flop as you contemplated it, how easy it was to have another after that first one.
After spending a few hours with other oyster lovers at an oyster harvest/beach BBQ last weekend, I'm even more convinced that I'm right. I overheard several people reminiscing about their first oyster, and it did sound like they were talking about their first kiss. So you heard it here first: first kiss=first raw oyster.
We actually didn't eat raw oysters that day, but there were plenty of barbecued ones.
It was an absolutely gorgeous, picture-puzzle kind of day.
Gathering oysters? Not so glamorous. This black "primordial ooze" sucked me in up to my knees. Not pretty, and it smelled less than pristine.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What's for dinner: Beef tenderloin roasted in salt crust

Have to make room in the freezer for all that sausage, so I pulled out a small (1lb) beef tenderloin roast I cut the last time we bought a whole tenderloin. I had leftover egg whites from making frozen custard and pastry cream, and we’d bought a big bag of table salt to use to try out salt crust roasting. So tonight seemed like a good time to try it.

I had seasoned the beef with green and pink peppercorns before I froze it. So I just mixed the egg whites with 2 pounds of salt, then made a1/2” deep base layer on a foil-covered sheet pan. Beef goes on top of that, insert a probe thermometer so I know for sure when it’s done (looking for 125 degrees). Spooning the salt over the top and sides was like working with wet sand, and went very smoothly. Put into the oven on 450 degree convection roast. Also put in a foil pouch of new potatoes with just salt, butter, and parsley and thawed out some gold and pink beets I’d roasted and put away last week. Dinner will be late (Dave worked today, and worked late) but good.

The Great Grind: Italian Sausage

This sausage project started because of Dave’s monthly card game with his buddies. He hosted it a few weeks ago and I made them Italian sausages with peppers and onions for dinner, and had mixed the peppers and onions into a homemade tomato sauce. Dave wanted more, he loved it. And we’ve been getting piles of bell peppers in our CSA basket, I can’t eat them, and we needed a way to not waste them. This week I made more than a gallon of homemade marinara with roasted peppers and onions, which has gone into freezer containers. It just seemed like it would be fun to make our own sausage for it, especially since I have a lot of fresh sage right now.

We then picked up a whole boneless pork butt, this one was a little smaller than I usually get, only ten pounds. Certainly enough for plenty of sausage, though! I started making sausages after I took a class at Culinary Communion a couple of years ago. Then I bought “Charcuterie” by Ruhlman and Polcyn, a great reference book for so many things preserved. I made their Italian sausage recipe the first time, probably two years ago. Since then I have tuned the seasonings and method, doing my usual literature surveys in my collection and online. And before anyone emails me about this, yes, I know that “true” Italian sausage doesn’t have paprika, parsley, and anise seed, at least to the purists. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with improving flavor. I use a heavy-duty KitchenAid mixer for this, with grinder and sausage stuffer attachments. You can use a hand grinder, too. If you use ground pork from your butcher, be sure to beat the seasoned pork to develop the myocin as described in the first paragraph of the recipe – your results will be so much better, even if you are only making a breakfast sausage with salt, sage, and pepper.

Shelly’s Italian-style Sausage

  • Three pounds of pork butt, cut into ½” dice (do not trim fat off!)
  • ½ t anise seed
  • 1 ½ t black peppercorns
  • 4 t fennel seed
  • 4 t salt
  • 1 T minced fresh sage (or 1 t dried)
  • 2 t hot paprika
  • 2 t sweet paprika
  • 2 T puréed fresh garlic
  • 1 ½ T chopped parsley
  • 2 oz dry red wine
  • About 5 feet of hog or artificial casings, if you want sausage links, cut into 3- to 4-foot lengths

Grind anise and peppercorns together, then add the fennel seed and crush it but don’t grind it to a powder. I use a mortar and pestle for this but can be done in a spice grinder or coffee grinder, of course. Add all ingredients to the pork and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate overnight. Next day, run the pork through a grinder with the medium plate. Grind it into a bowl set in another bowl filled with ice. It is important to keep the fat cold, if it melts your sausage will have a curdled texture and the fat will all drain away when you cook it, leaving it dry and with a lot less flavor. Fry about an ounce and taste to check for seasonings. Adjust as needed. Then either in one big bowl with your hands or a wooden spoon, or in batches in a heavy-duty mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the meat until you see it get sticky and it looks like threads are developing in it. This process develops a protein in the meat called myocin, and it’s what makes sausage more than just some seasoned ground meat. The myocin gives the sausage a smoother texture and helps it hold together instead of being crumbly. Do not skip this step if you want really good sausage! Put the sausage back into the refrigerator for an hour or so until it is cold again.

In the meantime, if you are making links prepare the casings according to the instructions on the package. If there are no instructions, soak natural casings in cold water for about an hour until they are soft, then run water through the casings. Set up your sausage grinder with a stuffing tube, great the outside of the tube, and feed a couple of the lengths of casing onto it. Pull the casing until you have about 2 inches hanging off of the end of the stuffing tube. Do not tie this off. Cut yourself twice as many 4” pieces of kitchen twine as you have pieces of casing. Put a big sheet pan under the stuffing tube and rub about a tablespoon of water across this. The water makes the sausage slide easily on the pan while it rests as it comes off the stuffer. Start feeding the pork into your stuffer, and stop as soon as the meat begins to appear in the casing. With your fingers, smooth the casing over the meat and push out any air from the end of the casing. Then tie off the end of the casing next to the meat. Continue to feed pork into the stuffer, making sure the casing is evenly filled but not stretched as tight as it will go – you’ll need a little bit of give to twist the links. The sausage will be about 1 ¼” in diameter as it comes off the stuffing tube. When you can see that you have about two inches of casing left on the tube, stop feeding and gently ease the end of the sausage off the tube. While the sausage sits on the sheet pan, smooth out any uneven spots, and then squeeze all the air out of the open end of the casing and then tie it off with one of your pieces of kitchen twine. Continue with the rest of the pork and the casings.

To twist the sausage into links, begin from the left end of the sausage. Move your left hand in six inches (or as long as you want your links) in from one end, and place your right hand the same distance farther in on the sausage. Squeeze with your thumb and forefinger on both hands to divide the sausage, then grasp the link that is between your hands and twist it toward you two times. Move your left hand six inches in from the rightmost twist, and your right hand six inches to the right of your left hand. Once again squeeze your thumbs and forefingers together to divide the sausage, but this time twist the link away from you two time. Repeat this process, twisting toward you the next time and away from you the time after that.

Of course, you can just form the sausage into logs, wrap them in plastic and chill, then freeze them and slice off what you need in patties, or make patties and freeze them on a sheet pan then put into freezer bags.

Store the sausage in the refrigerator overnight before cooking. The sausage will keep about three days refrigerated or a month or two frozen. When you cook them, cook to an internal temperature of about 160-165 degrees. I put them in a skillet with six ounces of water, and cover to steam them gently for about 15 minutes, then uncover and brown them or put them on a grill.

(recipe copyright 2008, Vivian R. Johnsen)

Rum balls, in advance of the holiday season

These things last forever. Seriously, I've kept them on a shelf in a sealed container for two years and they were still great. And they don't taste like raisins, good thing since I'm not wild about raisins. The original version of this came from my ex-mother-in-law, Doris. I've tweaked it since then, but still want to give her credit as I think this recipe has been passed down for several generations.
  • 2 C raisins
  • 2 C walnuts or pecans
  • 1 lb vanilla wafers
  • 2 C powdered sugar
  • 2 T cocoa
  • 3/4 C rum or bourbon, or other flavorful liquor
  • 1/3 C light corn syrup
  • More powdered sugar, for coating

Grind together raisins, nuts and cookies. Mix in remaining ingredients. Roll into 1" balls and roll in additional powdered sugar. Makes dozens.

Notes: I put half the raisins, half the nuts, and half the cookies into my food processor and grind them together then repeat with the rest. Pour everything into a big big bowl, it will make it a lot easier to get your hands or a big wooden spoon in to mix everything together. Sometimes (okay, most times) I use more liquor than called for. I also double the cocoa sometimes, which would make a lot of sense if you are using a flavored liquor like Sabra where you want to bring out the chocolate flavor. Also if you are using Sabra, you could use a couple of tablespoons of finely grated orange rind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Today's cooking projects: corned beef hash and pepper and onion marinara

Once again, I am consumed by a request from my better half. Wants Italian sausages and a marinara with peppers and onions. Today I am taking care of the sauce. Giant can of diced tomatoes in juice. Two cans of organic tomato paste. Two giant yellow onions, ½” sliced Lyonnaise-style (pole to pole). One quart of frozen roasted assorted peppers, ½” slices. Five cups of diced fresh bell peppers. (Why five cups? Because that’s what I need to use up!) Assorted dried Italian herbs, fresh rosemary and fresh sage. Three tablespoons of chopped garlic. Chop lots more garlic because I’m making ten pounds of sausage tomorrow, but that’s another story. I have a silicone trivet that I use to roll the garlic cloves in, takes the skin right off. Then I use a coarse Microplane to process the garlic, five minutes or so and I have a big pile of chopped garlic. Lots of fresh ground black pepper. Crushed red pepper. Saute onions in olive oil, add peppers and garlic, stir to coat, toss in everything else. Simmer all afternoon. It’s tasting good – even to me, and I have a serious dislike of, as well as an allergy to, bell peppers.

Dinner tonight will be corned beef hash. The other day I pulled the last chunk of homemade corned beef out of the freezer. I was contemplating the cooking method when I realized that the FoodSaver vacuum bag it was in would be a wonderful cooking container for a long slow trip through the oven. So I threw it in the oven at 200 degrees overnight. No muss, no fuss. Then I refrigerated it in its juices. Today I will dice up the corned beef and some red potatoes, steam the potatoes to parcook them, and then fry up the whole mess with some onions. A little horseradish on the side, some boiled turnip greens or maybe arugula, and a real comfort-food dinner for us. Guess we’ll have beer or iced tea to drink, can’t imagine the wine I’d pair with this one. I’ll keep back some of the corned beef and slice enough for a couple of Reuben sandwiches, and freeze it for another day. I will have to set aside some time to cure some more corned beef sometime. It’s been really good.

Now, I just have to figure out where to keep more than a gallon of marinara…

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Coconut cream pie outcome

Well, the crust with the coconut was certainly a challenge, and the filling is a little time-intensive, but the result is quite nice, as you can see. The toasted coconut flakes and white chocolate shavings make a very nice finish.

So, here’s the overall recipe with my tweaks and lessons learned. The garnish is straight from the triple coconut cream pie that Tom Douglas’ restaurants serve around the Seattle downtown area.

Crust: 9” baked deep dish pie crust, optionally add 2 T of sweetened flake coconut to the pastry dough 1 oz white chocolate, melted with 1 t heavy cream (also optional)

Spoon melted white chocolate into cooled pie crust, brushing it up the sides of the crust. Set aside to harden.

Coconut custard: ¼ C sugar 3 T cornstarch ¼ t salt 2 C whole milk 2 T butter 2 egg yolks 1 t vanilla ¾ C sweetened flaked coconut

Whisk sugar and cornstarch together in a medium saucepan or in the top of a double boiler. Whisk in milk, add butter, and heat over medium heat, stirring or whisking constantly, until mixture thickens. Whisk egg yolks until blended. Ladle about a cup of the thickened mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then add the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan, mixing thoroughly. Cook stirring constantly, until thickened again. Set aside to cool, stir in vanilla and coconut, then refrigerate.

Fill crust with custard. Top pie with lightly sweetened whipped cream and garnish with toasted unsweetened coconut flakes and white chocolate curls.

Recipe copyright 2008, Vivian R. Johnsen

More dessert fun: Frozen custard

Yes, I am very good to my husband. He mentions he'd like ice cream, I make some. In between tasks with the coconut cream pie, I decided to try making some frozen custard. Now, I can only imagine what the "real thing" tastes like, as that seems to be an East Coast product that I've not encountered. But hey, I can make a custard. In fact, I can make one up:

3 cups whole milk 3/4 cup of sugar, divided 1/2 vanilla bean, split 1/4 t salt Four egg yolks 1 T cornstarch

Mix the milk with 1/2 cup sugar, the salt, and the vanilla bean in a medium saucepan. Slowly bring to just below a simmer, stirring occasionally. Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar and the cornstarch. When the milk is hot, whisk about a cup of it gradually into the egg yolks (this is called tempering and will keep your egg yolks from scrambling). Pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Do not boil it. I recommend you use a silicone spatula to stir will so you can thoroughly scrape the bottom of the pan. If you do get the custard too hot, it may curdle. But since you are going to freeze it, this really isn't a dreadful problem.

Strain the thickened custard into a container and cool, then refrigerate it at least eight hours or overnight. If you skip this step your final product won't be as creamy. Freeze the custard according to the instructions with your ice cream maker. When the ice cream maker is done, pack the soft custard into a container and put it into the freezer to finish hardening. When you're ready to serve it, put it into the fridge for about 15 minutes so it can soften just a bit.

If frozen custard doesn't taste like this, it should.

(Recipe copyright 2008, V. R. Johnsen)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What's for dessert: Coconut cream pie

A couple of weeks ago I was channel surfing on a Saturday and ran across Tom Douglas, a well-known local chef, making his signature triple-coconut cream pie. I’ve had this wonder more than once at his restaurants, and I think I could eat a whole pie at one sitting. Since then, Dave and I have been gathering the ingredients for a coconut cream pie. I don’t have Tom’s recipe, but the filling is a pastry cream with sweetened flaked coconut added. That’s not hard to do, and I used a recipe out of one of my favorite cookbooks, a first edition of the New York Times Cookbook, edited by Craig Claiborne. A lot of times when I do a literature search through my cookbook collection, I try to be sure to pull in a “vintage” cookbook for comparison. It helps me get perspective sometimes, especially when I run across something like the squirrel stew in the White House Cookbook from the late 1800’s. Once again I am using the vodka pastry recipe from Cook’s Illustrated with the addition of flaked coconut. The pie gets topped with whipped cream, toasted coconut flakes, and white chocolate shavings. I’m thinking about brushing a layer of melted white chocolate on the crust before putting in the filling – I think it will help the crust stay a little crisper and add a nice rich flavor.

You know, I’ve always said I'm not a baker, but I sure seem to be writing a lot about baking these days. At least I’ve gotten to the point where I have more successes than failures, and that feels pretty good. In the end, the way to get comfortable with any kind of cooking is to not worry when something doesn’t turn out – as long as you learn something in the process you can carry forward to the next project. That’s been hard for me to accept sometimes because of course I want everything perfect the first time. But accepting failure is key to becoming fearless in the kitchen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What's for dinner: filet au poivre, brisket chili with winter squash

We bought a whole tenderloin at Costco this week. If you consider the price of steak, it’s actually kind of economical to buy a whole roast and cut it up yourself. With this abundance, I’ve cut a roast off of it and am letting it marinate in a rub of herbes de provence, minced shallot, ground peppercorns, kosher salt, and olive oil. Once it’s had some time to think about its fate, I will tie it up into a compact roast and put it into a 425 degree oven for 25-35 minutes, then immediately into the freezer. This results in a great texture and amazing juiciness. We’ll slice that and serve with dandelion greens sautéed in bacon, garlic, and shallots and smashed potatoes. Probably start with some sliced heirloom tomatoes as some of them are beginning to look like it’s time to be eaten. I have great piles of fresh basil growing in my AeroGardens so we have no shortage of tomato seasoning.

We’re also making dinner for tomorrow. The cover recipe from the new Bon Appétit is “Texas Brisket Chili with Winter Squash.” Dave looked at the recipe and got a hankering for it, so we also bought some brisket at Costco. Already had all the other ingredients, in fact I’ve been looking for ways to use all the winter squash that’s been in our CSA basket. Calls for a red chile sauce from dried chiles, cumin, garlic, oregano, chili powder, tomatoes, and fresh green chiles. Now it’s in the oven for three hours until the cubed brisket is tender, then add the squash and cook for another hour. I’ll chill it out on the deck for a little while, then refrigerate for dinner tomorrow.

Another chore today was cleaning out the vegetable bins in the fridge. Now I have a pot of vegetable stock cooking on the stove, with carrots, celery, onion, fennel, celery, and other bits and pieces tossed in. No, I don’t know what I’ll make from the stock, but whatever it is, it will start with a tasty base. With the fennel in it, a minestrone might be a good idea.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If you like Cook's Illustrated or America's Test Kitchen...

...then you might get a kick out of this. Tonight we went and met Chris Kimball, the host of America’s Test Kitchen show on PBS and the founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines. Dave and I have been fans and subscribers to Cook’s Illustrated for many years. It was fun to hear him talk about some of the experiences he’s had, including his encounters with Julia Child. He has his “patter” and his funny stories down pat, but it didn’t feel like he was rehashing something he’d been saying dozens of times. Perhaps the funniest stories were of tricks his staff has played on him when they are taping ATK. Like the time he was supposed to be taste-testing butter on bread, and they smeared hot chile paste under the butter. Then when he reached for a glass of water and drank about a third of it, he realized he was drinking gin. I even got him to autograph one of my cookbooks. (I have a nice collection of autographed cookbooks. Even two autographed by Julia Child.)
Anyway, if he ever comes to your neighborhood and you have a chance to go hear him, I recommend it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Inventing a new cookie!

Yes, it’s true, there is nothing really new under the sun. But there are many variations, and I think Dave and I have collaborated on something with real potential.

As you’ve read before, we’ve been doing a lot of things with a crostada dough that we really like. It has cornmeal in it for a nice texture and a bit of citrus zest. Dave came up with the idea of using it as a ravioli dough to make sweet ravioli. I was intrigued. We had (again) lots of apples from the CSA basket, varieties well-suited to cooking. He made up a batch of the dough and put it in the fridge, and we debated the filling. I thought the best way to deal with the apples was to cut them into small dice, that way they would fill the ravioli a little better, fewer air pockets. We pre-cooked the apples after letting them sit in sugar a little while so we had some apple juice in which to simmer them. Then we added some herbs – for reasons I’ll explain below I will not tell you what we used.

The dough got rolled out to the dimensions of our ravioli plaque. If you’re not familiar with this tool, it’s a sheet of metal on little feet, divided into 12 ravioli shapes. The center of each shape is cut out, so you can lay a piece of dough across it and use a plastic plate with 12 round bumps just the size of the cutouts to press down and get a “top” layer with indentations for holding a filling. We filled each indentation with about a tablespoon of our apple filling, the laid another piece of dough across the top after brushing it with an egg wash. Then you just roll a rolling pin across the top to press the two layers together and separate the ravioli.

We brushed each piece with egg wash and sprinkled them with raw sugar, and baked them. All we can say is – YUM.

Why am I not publishing the recipe? Because for the first time we have something that maybe I’ll enter in a recipe contest. So stay tuned for info about that, when/if it happens.

If you want to see pictures, you can go to my blog where they are published. I thought that might be a more polite way to use photos, particularly for those of you with dial-up connections.

What not to eat for dinner

Every once in a while, when they send me a coupon for free delivery, I order groceries from Safeway online and have them brought to my front door. It is a significant convenience, as living here in a condo our parking is underground and it is quite a schlep to bring stuff up. In fact, we have a couple of folding, rolling baskets that we keep around for the chore.

On this latest order Safeway was also offering me a free meal – some new frozen dinner that you merely needed to cook for ten minutes and serve. I haven’t tried frozen meals in quite a long time, so I wondered if there had been any improvements in quality, through new production or storage technology. So I ordered the “chicken and Portobello mushrooms fettucine with alfredo sauce.” Gave that a try last night. I will save you the trouble!

I prepared it according to instructions – dump everything into a skillet and cook covered on medium for five minutes, stir and separate the pasta, and cook for another five minutes until the sauce boils for one minute. The time wasn’t enough, more like 20 minutes, but that was no big deal. The pasta even had a nice texture, so looks like progress on that front. But I thought the sauce was under-seasoned so added salt and some shredded fresh basil and dished it up.

Now for the good, the bad, and the ugly: the pasta had a good texture, it was cut thick enough to stand up to the freezing. The chicken was nondescript. The sauce was still anemic, so we grated some Parmigiano-Reggiano over it. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig! That was the bad. The ugly? Well, the portobello mushroom pieces were gritty. There were tomato pieces, too, and the freezing had caused the meat of the tomato to disintegrate, and what was left were some really tough pieces of tomato skin.

The moral? It really only takes a few minutes more to cook some pasta while you sauté a chicken breast and mushroom pieces and finish it with a little cream, cheese, and chopped tomato. In 30 minutes you can have a very good meal, instead of a high-sodium, high-fat shadow of a good meal.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What's for dinner: Another spin on chili, fruit ravioli

I usually make chili by rubbing a chuck roast with spices and let it sit overnight, then searing and braising it. Shred it up, and add the other ingredients and simmer. This time Dave asked me to try it with the meat cut in small cubes, so of course I am doing that. I figured I need a different cut of beef for this, one that holds together when it’s well-cooked. So I bought some beef bottom-round and cut it into about 1/3” dice. Tossed that with the spice mix last night and let it sit. Also took a half-dozen dried red chiles and put them in water, and soaked 2 cups of pinto beans. Today the beans go on in plan water with fresh epazote, oregano, and dried bay leaf, they get salt and garlic when they are almost done. The meat gets browned in an enameled casserole, then the onions go in until they are translucent, and all the red chile pulp and the soaking juice go in with some cumin and salt. For now both pots are simmering away. My brother Bryan is coming for dinner tonight so I’ll get a little fancier and we will have some cornbread with it; maybe I’ll whip up a little honey butter. I also have some Mexican sour cream, crema agria, and that will be good with it. No tomatoes in the chili today. But it does have the usual cinnamon and cocoa that I like in the spice rub. For dessert, Dave is going to play with the crostada dough and make raviolis stuffed with an apple compote. The concept is his idea, the filling is mine. I think they will turn out like nice little fruit-filled pastry cookies, and be great with a little bit of vanilla bean ice cream. The cornmeal in the crostada dough will be a nice echo of the cornbread served with the chili.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fun at Elliott's and Steelhead Diner

I like cooking so much that sometimes I forget that it's fun to go out. Today it was a double-shot of fun. First we (me, Dave, and an out of town business guest of his) went down the street to the bar at Elliott's Oyster House. They were having their annual celebration of the fall oysters. Steeply discounted drinks (94-cent beer!), and lots of good free food: oysters on the half shell, oysters Rockefeller, two other baked oysters, smoked salmon with garnishes, prawn shooters, fried razor clams, ancho-grilled shrimp. Quite the spread. But we weren't done! On up to Steelhead Diner for dinner. Our guest enjoyed the gumbo as much as we do, ditto with the kasu black cod. I had yet another rendition of their clam chowder, this one creamy, with razor clams (yum!), fresh corn, and a drizzle of white truffle oil. It was a fun dinner, and gave me some new ideas for cooking. It was also nice to say hello to Chef Kevin, who gave me a giant "Bramble" apple to bring home and try -- it is about the size of a grapefruit. He says it's good with cabrales blue cheese, so maybe we'll just eat that as a salad tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What's for dinner: Paella

Today I spent a few hours volunteering on a campaign for a tax levy to support the Pike Place Market. Most of you have never been there, I know, but it is the oldest continuously running farmers’ market in the US, and I live practically next door to it. I bundled up 18,000 pieces of literature today! Anyway, I walked home a different way, taking me past “The Spanish Table.” Spanish Table is a great store, carries Spanish and middle-eastern ingredients, wines, kitchenware, cheeses, sausages. I couldn’t resist poking my head in. While there I realized that if I picked up some dry Spanish chorizo and some special Spanish piquillo peppers, I’d have everything to make paella. So I discarded the notion of roasting fish on a bed of fennel fronds, making paella is fun and Dave loves it.

One of the things that’s cool about making paella is that once you’ve got all the ingredients prepped and lined up on the counter, it goes together quite quickly. I’m using a saffron-shellfish stock for the broth, and chorizo and calamari as the proteins. It also takes really big white beans, only need a couple of dozen of them so am cooking them this afternoon. I’ll also need to add some vegetable interest, and am assuming that the CSA bag that comes home with Dave today will have something useful in it. If not, I’ll peel and dice some carrots. I will literally have 8-10 little prep dishes of ingredients lined up by the stove.

The lineup will be: oil, onions, garlic, tomato, chorizo, rice, herbs, broth, beans, calamari (diced), piquillo peppers, chopped parsley. Not an incredibly fancy paella, but one more likely to be served to family in Valencia, though they might add snails because they are quite common (I can do without them!).

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What's for dinner: ribs, chard, potato salad, chocolate cake experiment

The ribs that I mentioned in my last post look and taste like they may be the best ones I’ve ever done. The mustard baste is a nice counterpoint to the brown sugar, smoked paprika, coriander, and cumin in the rub. They are still in the warming oven, waiting for Dave to get home, but I of course have had a little taste – quality control, you know. I put them in the oven before 7 this morning at 250 degrees, and they were already tender at 11.

I had chard from the farm, the kind with pink and yellow and orange stems. I wanted to sauté it in bacon fat, but didn’t have any on hand. But I came up with what I think is a clever solution. I have chunk bacon in the freezer, as I make my own and only slice it as we need it. I used my coarse Microplane to grate a couple of tablespoons of fluffy frozen bacon fat into the pan, then added onions and the chopped chard stems to that and cooked it until the onion was translucent. Then I put in the shredded chard leaves. Worked quite well; we’ll see what Dave thinks.

Cooking potatoes for potato salad was a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for a while: boil the potatoes whole, then peel and chunk while hot and toss with vinegar, cube the potatoes and boil them and drain them, or what. Today I settled on red potatoes, skin on, cubed and steamed. Then I was able to drizzle cider vinegar over them while they were still in the steamer. I like the results. As I’ve said before, I am kind of a purist when it comes to potato salad: potatoes, eggs, onion, celery, mayo (only Best Foods/Hellman’s will do), and yellow or Dijon mustard. Today I added fresh lemon thyme as I had some of that from the farm.

Finally, I’ve had a craving for chocolate cake with chocolate ganache frosting for several days now. I was going to make “fake” fudge today, which is choc chips melted with sweetened condensed milk. The last time I made that I realized that it’s not really fudge, it’s a form of ganache. While I was toasting pecans to go into the fudge, I thought that maybe I should make a chocolate buttermilk sheet cake and use the fudge mixture as an icing. So that is what we are going to do this evening. I’ve been on my feet too long today so I’ll have Dave make the cake when he gets home. I’ll add the pecans and also toffee bits to the fudge. It won’t be a thick layer because the fudge recipe normally goes into a 6x9 pan, and this will be spread on a 9x13 cake. I’ll let you know how the chocolate cake experiment goes.

What's for dinner: boneless short ribs

I’ve always wanted to cook short ribs, they are such a good candidate for my favorite cooking technique, braising. The other day I picked up some boneless chuck short ribs at the local warehouse store, they looked beautiful and I just had to have them. Also picked up mushrooms and new red potatoes, with stew on my mind.

I kind of started with chef Tyler Florence’s recipe for “bistro-style short ribs” but, as usual, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. What I borrowed from him is the use of pureed mirepoix as a base for a braise. (He also uses this in making Bolognese sauce, and I’ve done that, too, with good results.) The boneless ribs (kind of an oxymoron, don’t you think?) did have a lot of outside fat, which I trimmed off, and inside marbling which was going to make the sauce very good.

I cut the meat into 2”x3” chunks and seared it hard on a griddle, to get more flavor into the braise. I then cooked the mirepoix puree - carrots, onions, celery, tomato, garlic – in my oval braisier until it smelled cooked and some of the moisture had cooked off. Added 2 cups of leftover pinot noir. (Yes, I know, how often in my house is wine “left over?” Not often, but that’s beside the point. We’ve found a bargain pinot that we like quite a bit, Pepperwood Grove, and at its price point I don’t mind using it for cooking as well as drinking.) The night before, I had taken 2 pounds of white mushrooms, quartered them, and cooked them in the oven, covered, until I had nice mushroom juice. I reduced the juice by half and added that and a cup of beef broth to the pan, and brought it to a boil. Stirred in the mushrooms and put all the meat into the pan, made sure the liquid covered it. Covered the pan and put it into a 325 degree oven for three hours. I skimmed off the fat that accumulated on top of the sauce, didn’t really need that in there. Served over smashed red potatoes, this was just great. Maybe a little heavy for an indian summer day, but we didn't care.

Tonight we’re having baby back ribs, nine or ten hours in the oven, I rubbed them Monday with a nice seasoning that includes Spanish smoked paprika, to give them a little bbq taste. I will mop them today with a baste that includes cider vinegar, mustard, honey, thyme, and savory among other things. It’s a Carolina-style baste, they do usually seem to use yellow mustard. More on that later, when we see how they turn out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Four alliums, two nightshades, and a big squid

Tonight's dinner is born out of desperation. The CSA baskets are full of tomatoes, eggplant, summer squash (still!), and I'm still working on onions and leeks from last week. And in a silly impulse, I had my husband buy a box of frozen calamari steaks at the local restaurant supply. I don't have room in my freezer for five pounds of calamari steaks, what was I thinking? So we are having angel hair pasta and julienned calamari with a piquant sauce of julienned eggplant, chopped seeded tomatoes, capers, minced leek, chopped onion, minced garlic, and minced shallot. I've broken the pasta into three-inch lengths to more closely match the 3" x 1/4" strips of calamari. I’m using a small green eggplant, doesn’t have much in the way of seeds so it shouldn't have any bitterness, and also soak up some of the tomato flavor. The tomatoes themselves are quite wonderful, organic heirloom varieties that taste like what tomatoes are supposed to. I'm throwing in a brunoise (very fine dice, 1/16th”) of summer squash just because it's there and it does soak up flavors nicely. And as long as it’s cut very small, it won’t add a rubbery or spongy texture, which does happen sometimes with summer squash. Aside from all the prep involved, it also goes together nice and fast, as we have to dash off to a baseball game tonight. At least this is the last week of the season, no postseason for the astonishingly incompetent Mariners...

Monday, September 15, 2008

What's for dinner: 'but cheeks, sous vide

No kidding, that's how I order them from the fish guy. I love halibut cheeks, they are very different in texture from the rest of the fish, longer strands of muscle rather than flakes. They soak up flavors pretty well, too. I've decided that since the scallops prepared sous vide on Friday turned out so well we should try some other proteins cooked that way. I vacuum packed the ‘but cheeks with a couple of slices of lemon, salt, olive oil, sorrel, thyme, and oregano (all fresh). I thought about adding some veg, even in a different package, but the temp for cooked vegetables is higher than the 140 degrees for fish. So I think I’ll fry some diced potatoes, give us a texture contrast to the softness of the ‘but cheeks. Add a green salad, and it will be dinner.

What's for Dinner: Rack of lamb, stir-fry

I’ll bundle two reports in here for the price of one. We’ve had absolutely gorgeous weather up here (many apologies to those who haven’t) so we had to get up and grill at least once this weekend. We have to use a shared gas grill due to our location in a condo. Not really too bad, but we do have to haul a lot of stuff up there sometimes. But the outcome was very nice, as the rack of lamb picture shows. I rubbed it with an herb paste, all of the herb fresh, using oregano, thyme, savory, parsley and rosemary as well as a little leek all ground together with some salt in a mortar and pestle. The potatoes were coated with the same rub and roasted. The zucchini was brushed with some basil vinaigrette left over from Friday’s dinner.
Yesterday I was planning to have stir fry. Even bought some ground pork which I decided to use in deep fried Chinese pork balls. Made them about a teaspoon size, very cute and easy to incorporate in the stir fry. Used canned baby corn and bamboo shoots along with fresh bok choy, snow peas, green beans, carrots, celery, mushrooms, ginger, and garlic. Dave mentioned that he’d never really stir fried, so I put him at the stove for this one The sauce was a combination of Chinese black vinegar, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce, tastes a bit like molasses), tamari soy sauce, chile oil, and chicken stock. I think we’re having grilled chicken on salad today.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What's for dinner: Bday dinner results

As is usually the case with a menu, I made tweaks to what I was planning for tonite.
First, I decided that instead of searing the scallops I would cook them sous vide (under vacuum). That meant cooking them in a vacuum bag in water at a temp no higher than 140 degrees. Not long ago Dave bought a portable induction burner, and it did a magnificent job of keeping the water between 138 and 141 degrees. I made this menu change for two reasons: 1) I was searing the steak, and wanted some texture variety; 2) Less attention needed to be paid to the scallops while I finished the rest of dinner. A third reason was that I wanted to try it -- and as soon as Dave reminded me we have the induction burner, it was a slam dunk. Incidentally, they came out perfect -- firm but not chewy, very sweet, and great with the Bearnaise.
I also messed around with the salad a bit. Same ingredients, but I tried juicing some of the tomatoes and making a fresh tomato aspic with the pearl mozz suspended in it. I think I went a little too light on the gelatin, so it didn't really hold its shape. But the flavor was fantastic, very intense tomato with hits of the basil vinaigrette. Like a cold jellied tomato soup.
The ahi noodles looked great, and so did the Baked Alaska:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What's for dinner: Fancy birthday dinner

Not surprisingly, I try to fix dinners with “Dave’s Favorite Things” for special occasions. In truth, I try to do that most of the time anyway. But for the dinner tomorrow night, I get to take things a little over the top. Menu for tomorrow night:

  • Ahi Sashimi “Noodles” on a bed of daikon radish strings, wasabi cream, white sturgeon caviar. I will take sashimi-grade ahi tuna (raw) and cut it into very fine julienne to resemble red noodles. I have a Japanese tool that cuts things into skinny twisty strings, and will put the ahi on a bed of that. For the wasabi cream I will bring heavy cream to a simmer and add wasabi (Japanese horseradish) powder; it thickens the cream immediately into a nice sauce. That will go around the ahi pile, which I will then garnish with some osetra caviar that should be arriving by air tomorrow.
  • Tomatoes and Pearls, Caprese-style. Organic heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella “perletti” tossed with a fresh basil and shallot dressing, with a chervil herb salad and fresh baguette. For the dressing, I blanch basil and shock it, then blend with extra-virgin olive oil to a loose paste. Blanching it helps keep it green, even when exposed to acid that would normally turn it brown. I’ll grate some shallot into that, and whisk in some white wine vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. I will chop the tomatoes into approximately ¼” dice, so they are about the same size as the adorable little balls of cheese. The tomatoes and cheese get tossed with the dressing, then “spilled” over onto a bed of chervil (an herb we don’t see much of, the flavor is a blend of anise, celery, and parsley but much more delicate) that I grow in my AeroGarden. Along with that we will have bread from a local bakery whose baker won the World Pastry Cup for his bread, beating out the French. It’s a bit of a drive to pick it up fresh on the afternoon of dinner, but a very special treat.
  • Surf and Turf au Béarnaise with Sweet Potato Gaufrettes The surf is jumbo scallops, seared to a deep brown caramel crunch on each side. The turf is a prime NY strip steak, seared on each side then finished in the oven to medium-rare. The steak will be sliced to serve two, and fanned on a plate with a drizzle of Béarnaise sauce over the top. The scallops will be plated two to the plate, on a swirl of the Béarnaise. Since the primary flavor of Béarnaise is tarragon, of course I will garnish with a tarragon ruffle of some soft. Gaufrettes of course are just a fancy name for potato chips, but they are usually cut so the resemble a fine mesh screen. I will do that on a mandoline and then deep fry the sweet potato slices and pile them in a bowl, seasoned with fleur de sel, a special French sea salt gathered by hand from marshes, in this case from the south of France.
  • Baked Alaska Brownie Sundaes Dave has always wanted to try having Baked Alaska at home, so I’m going to give this a try, making it up as I go along. I’ve baked two 4” circles of pecan-toffee brownies, and in a 4” round pan lined with plastic wrap I have layered one cup of fudge brownie ice cream and one cup of dulce-de-leche ice cream. I will make a soft meringue topping, then layer the frozen ice cream block between the two brownies and cover it with the meringue. It then goes into a 450 degree convection oven for 5 minutes or until there’s a little brown on the tips of the meringue swirls. (Wish me luck!!)

Ok, back to the kitchen with me. I have a lot of prep to finish today so that Dave doesn’t have to sit down to dinner tomorrow with a sweaty, frantic, exhausted wife. And in truth, today is his birthday so I do need to do something a little special today as well – probably mojitos and a Korean-style flank steak with rice, garlic glazed carrots.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What's for dinner: Macaroni and Cheese

I will never try to tell you that my mac and cheese is good for your heart.  It’s not.  But sometimes you need comfort food, and this can fill the bill.

Cook 1 pound of pasta. Twisty shapes grab the sauce best, I used cavatappi tonight.  It is important to cook the pasta well, almost over-cook it.  Al dente pasta is not a good thing in mac and cheese. 

Sauté 2 T of grated shallot and 1 clove of grated garlic in 4 T butter.  Whisk in 4 T flour and cook over medium heat for about three minutes.  Add 1//8 t cayenne, 1 t dry mustard, and a pinch of nutmeg. Whisk in 2 cups of half-and-half (okay, you can use skim milk here if you want to!) and one cup of chicken stock or broth.  Bring to a simmer.  Reduce heat and stir in by handfuls 2 C sharp cheddar cheese and 1 C jack cheese.  Stir each handful until it is melted before adding the next handful.  Stir sauce into drained pasta.  Serve as is, or pour into a casserole dish and top with sharp cheddar and breadcrumbs, bake at 350 for about 40 minutes or until bubbly.

My next “What’s for dinner” installment will cover a big project: a birthday dinner for my dear husband.  Dinner is on Friday, but prep starts tomorrow.  I’ll tell you the menu tomorrow.