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.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What's for dinner: Chili, part deux

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about getting a beef chuck roast on sale and using a spice rub on it. I braised it, picked off all the fat, and froze the meat and the broth separately for a future batch of chili. The future is today. This morning I started with one very large onion, chopped; four cloves of garlic; chopped; and because it was hanging around, a couple of summer squash, chopped. I sweated all of that in a dutch oven and then added a couple of cups of uncooked pinto beans, a cup of diced green chile (from the freezer), ½ cup of ancho chile paste (also from the freezer), and four parts water to the one part beans. I do not usually soak my beans, I just cook them longer. I also do not add salt at the beginning of the cooking, as I find it makes it hard to get nice creamy beans.

When the beans were nearly cooked (about 2 hrs), I added the 2 C broth left from braising the meat, the chopped meat, and ¼ C of the same spice rub I used on the chuck roast. The spice rub has the usual suspects in chili powder, plus cocoa, cinnamon, and allspice. I also added a generous measure of salt and some harissa paste, about a tablespoon. Harissa is a Moroccan hot chile paste, and I wanted a quick hit of heat and I saw it hanging about in my refrigerator. You can use any other hot sauce or cayenne. Now the pot is on very low heat on a back burner, to simmer slowly until time to eat it. We’ll have it with sharp cheddar cheese and sour cream. A nice quick meal on our way out the door to yet another baseball game.

Yes, yes, I know: no beans in chili, and who ever heard of summer squash in chili. The squash has cooked into nothing recognizable but does add a sweetness to the chili. I also feel better knowing it won’t go bad in the produce drawer.

Monday, September 08, 2008

What's for dinner: Cooking from the pantry

Today, because I was doing canning, I didn’t feel like running to pick up groceries.  I do, however, have a well-stocked pantry so dinner prep wasn’t too bad.  I buy eye of round roast when it is on sale and slice it into ½” slices, freezing them 2 slices per package.  I pulled out one of those, it thaws quickly in a water bath.  I had sour cream on hand, not an everyday occurrence, so I immediately thought I would do a beef Stroganoff.  No fresh mushrooms, but I always have dried shiitakes that I grind to a powder, and dried porcini mushrooms as well.  With an onion, some garlic, a little Dijon mustard, and some commercial beef base (not at all like bouillon cubes) I was set.  But – oh no! – I did not have egg noodles.  Sure I could use pasta, but with a nod to the “Russian” origins of Stroganoff, I decided to cook up some barley.  Three to one ratio of water to barley, well-salted, and tossed in some of the shiitake powder for more earthy flavor and a little olive oil.

The barley cooks for nearly an hour, so I had lots of time to get the rest of the meal ready. Slice the beef into julienne strips, toss with a little salt.  Chop a cup of onion, use the microplane to grate a clove of garlic.  Mix about a tablespoon each of the different mushrooms into a cup of boiling water (love that instant hot water faucet!) and add a teaspoon of the beef base.  Cook the onions in a skillet over high heat until most of the moisture is gone and they just start to brown.  Add beef strips and cook until pink is gone, add garlic.  Stir in 2 T flour and stir to cook the flour for a minute or so, then add the mushroom/beef broth and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard.  Scrape down the skillet and make sure it mixes with no lumps.  Add in some chopped fresh thyme and parsley, simmer for a few minutes to be sure the flour is cooked.  Turn to very low until ready to serve.  When barley is nearly done, add ½ c sour cream to the beef and stir to combine, be sure it doesn’t boil or it will curdle.  Serve over barley.

If I were using fresh mushrooms, I would slice them and cook them with the onions.  This would of course be just fine over egg noodles; the barley gave a wonderful chewy texture and earthy complement to the mushrooms and beef.

We had a nice Washington Hills Gewürztraminer, I think it was a 2006. 


Canning syrups today

I have already mentioned (more than once) that I've been experimenting with glace fruits this summer. Today I canned all the syrups left over from the cherries and the melons. I got 2-1/2 pints of cherry-plum syrup, and five pints of honeydew syrup. I can't say that the honeydew syrup tastes just like melon, because it is sort of caramelized. In the jars, it looks kind of like honey. But it does have an enchanting taste. It would be really good on waffles, in fact good with chicken and waffles if anyone is familiar with that semi-peculiar dish. The cherry-plum has already been proven to be great with sautéed minced shallots in butter as a sauce for pork. I'm also thinking of swirling some into homemade ice cream.

I suspect several jars will be Christmas gifts, along with the pickled carrots I did earlier this summer.