Thursday, December 27, 2007

Warmed plates

At this time of year, especially, when things cool quickly it is so important to warm the serving dishes and the eating dishes too. If things are to be served in bowls, then heating with boiling water does the trick. Otherwise you have to get a bit more ingenious. I use the infra red lamps in the warming racks, but you can also microwave the plates as long as theer is some liquid or gel pack available. It makes such a difference to have hot food on hot plates. It keeps your interest so much longer.

Mashed potatoes - with a difference

For dinner tonight we had some simple grilled steak, steamed carrots and mashed potatoes. One of the best flavors for carrots is ginger, so I thought maybe we should have ginger mashed potatoes.
A couple of weeks ago we paid a visit to Penderry's spice shop in Fort Worth and bought a large bag of crystallized ginger. The fresh ginger on the fridge had grown a bit of a beard and needed to be tossed out anyway!
So the potatoes were simmered, the carrots steaming above them, with a few slices of crystallized ginger. When the potatoes were cooked, I fished out the now soft crystallized ginger and chopped it finely. Rice the potatoes, add some butter, milk, salt, pepper, and the chopped ginger. Stir, adjust seasoning and serve on warmed plates with the carrots and steak. Delicious!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas dinner

Madame and I thought we would be on our own for Christmas this year. Our neighbours, John and Lydia called at the last minute and asked if we would like to eat Christmas dinner with them. When John invites, it would be a very foolish person who turns him down. The food is always good!

So we made some cranberry sauce, a warmed goat cheese salad, green beans and roasted potatoes to go with their appetizers, a beautifully roasted turkey, a light and delicious dressing, and gravy. Lydia had made some rouille which we had as an appetizer - with of all things some peach champagne (Madame's favourite).

For dessert, a cheesecake, with a blueberry sauce made from blueberries, simple syrup and a little cassis. All in all a terrific time.

Cranberry sauce
12 oz package frozen cranberries
1T Seville orange marmalade (the kind made from bitter oranges)
7/8 cup white sugar
1 cup water
2T Creme de Cassis

Bring sugar/water to the boil. Add marmalade and cranberries. Simmer for 10 or so minutes. Take off heat and allow to cool for a few minutes (doesn't have to be completely cooled). Add the creme de cassis. Refrigerate overnight.

Warmed Goat Cheese Salad
4 Rounds of fresh goat cheese 1/2 to 1 inch thick
1 Egg beaten with a few splashes of hot sauce (to taste)
1 Cup fresh breadcrumbs (not toasted)
1/2t Paprika
1/2t Salt
1/2t Pepper
1t Neutral oil
4 Tomato slices - each the same diameter as the rounds of cheese.
Mixed salad greens (try to include some mint, tarragon, basil)
Juice of 1 large lemon.
2T Rice wine vinegar
1T neutral oil

Mix salt, pepper and paprika into breadcrumbs and put into a low bowl. Into another low bowl break the egg and beat lightly with a fork. Coat each round of cheese first with the egg and then breadcrumbs. Leave to sit for 15 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature.
Heat the oil on a griddle or other flat surface until shimmering. Put the rounds of goat cheese flat side down onto the skillet and allow the crumbs to brown (about 2 minutes). Flip the cheese over to the other side and cook until the second side is brown.
Arrange the tomato slices on a large plate, and put one toasted cheese round onto each tomato slice. Mound the greens on the plate separate from the tomato/cheese rounds. Make a quick dressing from the lemon juice, vinegar and oil. Combine thoroughly and pour over the greens.

Roasted Potatoes
2 Large baking potatoes (russets in the USA). Use starchy not waxy potatoes
1T salt
3Oz butter.

Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Make sure that the rack is on the middle shelf.
Peel the potatoes and cut into bit sized chunks. I typically get 8 pieces per large russet. Cover potatoes with water in a large saucepan and add the salt. Bring the potatoes to a simmer and simmer for about 7 minutes. Meanwhile put the butter into a roasting pan and put in the oven to melt.
Once the potatoes have simmered for 7 minutes, drain them and dry them thoroughly. Dry them in the original pan over very low heat. When they have dried, put the lid back on the pan and shake the potatoes vigorously. This roughs up the outsides and helps create a really nice crunchy crust. Tip the potatoes into the melted butter and make sure they are coated on all sides. Put into the oven and roast for about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, turn the potatoes over so that they brown evenly, and put back into the oven for another 25 or so minutes. Depends on the size of the potatoes. They are cooked when the outside is evenly brown and crunchy.

Green Beans
2 slices of bacon across into 1/4 inch strips
1lb green beans topped and tailed and cut on the bias into 1 inch lengths

In a lidded skillet over low heat, gently render the fat from the bacon. Once the fat has rendered, but before the bacon is crisp, turn the heat up to medium and add the green beans. Stir the beans and bacon until the beans are covered in a thin layer of bacon fat. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan, put the lid on, and turn the heat to low. Allow the beans to stem for about 7 minutes - until the water has completely evaporated. Serve immediately.
Note there is no reason to add any salt, the bacon is probably salty enough.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


We typically buy our eggs at the farmers' market in Dallas. They seem to taste better and appear fresher. However they don't come with the sell by date on the box - they are in open flats. So when I bring them home, the challenge is to remember which are the old eggs (the stragglers left over from the previous trip) and which are the new ones. An easy way to deal with this is to alternate colors. On one trip I will buy white eggs, on the next trip brown ones, etc. That way I can easily tell which eggs have to be eaten first (or if I want a very fresh egg, which eggs are the freshest).

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A trip to the Farmers' Market

In Dallas we have a year round farmers' market and it carries some locally grown produce at the right season. Many of the stalls are just dealers though. We always try to buy tomatoes there - seconds if possible because the taste is so much better and the value spectacular.

Yesterday we went down looking for root vegetables, winter fruits, etc. and were pleased to discover some tomatoes which were local (hot-house). These were at a stall run by a delightful Hispanic family. Many of the stalls cut up some of their better offerings to try. These clever people had made a salad of tomoatoes, apples, vinegar, onions and cilantro to lure prospective purchasers. It was fantastic and was the deal closer. .

For lunch today I tried to recreate the salad. It was well worth it. It needed some tweaks...


1 medium apple (Gala or Pink Lady)
4T Sherry vinegar
6 green onions - whites and light green parts chopped into small pieces on the bias
2 whole tomatoes
1/2 cayenne pepper finely minced
1T light oilive oil
1/2 bunch of cilantro roughly chopped - leaves only
1t sugar (more or less depending on ripeness of tomatoes)
salt and pepper to taste


Halve and core the apple. No need to peel. I use a melon baller to core it Chop the apple into 1/2 inch cubes. Pour the vinegar over the apple immediately to prevent browning. Mix in the green onions. Core and chop the tomatoes into the apple sized pieces. Add the tomatoes to the apples/onions/vinegar and mix. Mix in the chopped cayenne pepper and the cilantro. Taste and add sugar, salt and pepper as desired.

Leave to set for an hour or so. Serve with croutons . We dressed it with a little goat cheese.

No wimpy food!

I have just come back from a few days in Boston - well Cambridge really where everything I had to eat could be summed up in one word - wimpy.

The Marriott used a kind of yellowy offering from a chemistry set to make a rather bland omelet - have they never heard of salt, I wonder? Anyway this yellow egg-like liquid made some of the worst tasting, rubbery breakfast food ever. The last day, I went to Sebastien's across the street - at least I knew they would use real eggs and the eggs were better. The fried potatoes were OK, but the textures were all off - and, again no salt. Anyone would think it had been the Boston Salt Party, not the Boston tea Party back in 1773.

Even the much vaunted Legal Sea Food was off its game a bit. My tradtional favourite there - the baked scrod - was no longer the work of art that it had once been. It now tasted like it was mass produced in some central kitchen where they had again lost the salt cellar.

I was therefore much relieved on Friday evening when our neighbors invited us for Tamales, which of course, are traditional amongst the Latino culture here for Christmas. Aha, at last food that tasted of something! Good hot sauce too, and some wonderful charro beans. Washed down with a couple of beers - ahhhh yes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The second loaf

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had made a double batch of dough. So, you might wonder, what happened to the second loaf?
I had stored the sloppy dough in a bag in the fridge for 36 hours before attempting to shape it/bake it. When I took it out, it was very cold (37 degrees), and didn't seem to want to spread so much. So, I let it warm up a bit, it became sloppier. I covered it with flour, shaped it, put it onto the parchment paper, into a small skillet and let it rise. This time it rose and didn't just spread!
Followed the usual baking process (450 degrees, backed down to 400 for 30 minutes, took cover off and baked 20 minutes more until internal temperature of 210).
Hallelujah, it rose! No longer a hockey puck, but a real loaf! Fantastic flavor, fantastic crust, fantastic crumb. Only problem was it didn't stick around long! So, I don't feel that I need the vinegar and beer. So, if this is repeatable, I'll be in tall cotten!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The bread saga continues

The first couple of loaves were pretty good - great taste, but the overbrowning was annoying me. I went back to the original NY Times recipe to start again. So I made a double batch of dough - doubling each ingredient, but substituting 5 oz (1 cup or so) wholewheat flower for the equivalent quantity of AP flour.

The consistency of the dough reminded me of being a "bricklayer's mate" - the poor schmuck who has to move barrow loads of wet cement around so the brickie has a ready supply of "muck". The texture of this dough was just like the same texture as the cement. I was not encouraged.

Now I understand why the original recipe calls for towels and not parchment. The towels allow flour to be incorporated into the weave, and they wick a little liquid away. I didn't use towels :-(

After the 17 hour rest, the dough had great bubbles, it shown a propensity to rise, but was still more starter consistency than bread dough consistency.

Dumping onto a floured counter, it immediately spread as wide as it could. So I dusted it with four, folded it a couple of times and let it rest. After it had occupied the whole space, and rested well, I shaped it (more like corralled than shaped) into parchment paper in a small skillet for the final rise.

The final rise was more of a 2-dimensional affair. It did rise vertically a bit, but not enough. However it spread widely.

No matter, I though, all this extra water will create extra steam - gotta be good for the crust So into the pot (this time 450 degree going to 400) dutch oven and it was baking. This time, although it didn't rise enough, it also didn't overbrown. The flavor was excellent, although to my surprise, I think the addition of beer and vinegar in the Cooks Illustrated recipe, gave a deeper flavor. So the result is a loaf that is about 8" in diameter and 2" high. Great crust, good flavor, fairly open crumb, but not what I would call a loaf. More a giant hockey puck.

Major lesson learned here is not to use cooking spray. It seems as if cooking spray actually helps the crust to overbrown. So for this one, no spray and a better crust. However, I changed so many things that I don't know if the cooking spray made a difference or not.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A celery trick

I like to try to do things efficiently in the kitchen. One of my pet peeves is dealing with celery. The ribs are long and cumbersome and variable in width as you go down towards the root. So rather than breaking off a single rib and chopping that, I leave the bunch (head, or whatever the word for the whole celery is) intact and slice crosswise across all the ribs. That way, I can get the pieces even in size quite simply. The main downside, of course, is that you have to guess at the amount of celery you are using. That isn't usually a problem, since most stews, braises, etc. are not that critical. Also you don't get suitable length pieces for stirring your bloody mary.

French Bistro Chicken in a Pot

I tried another recipe from the recent Cooks Illustrated last evening. This was the French Bistro Chicken in a Pot. The idea is that if you cook a chicken in just its own juices inside a dutch oven. It will come up moist, juicy, flavorful and all round excellent. Again the folks at Cooks Illustrated are right. This is extremely straightforward and absolutely delicious. Here's what I did.

1 5lb roasting chicken - innards removed, patted dry inside and out and salted/peppered liberally
1T canola oil
1 Red onion - medium dice
2 Stalks celery - medium dice (more on celery in the next posting)
2 Bay leaves
1 Head of garlic, individual cloves peeled and kept whole
1 Sprig of rosemary

Pre-heat the oven to 275F. Put a rack low in the oven (and make sure it is not on a pizza stone or other heat store). Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat until smoking. Brown the chicken breast side down in the oil. After 3 or 4 minutes in the hot oil, toss in the aromatics. After another few minutes, turn the chicken over and allow the back to brown. Make sure the garlic doesn't burn by occasionally scraping the aromatics around. You want some caramelization on the onions and celery for extra flavor. Cover the top of the dutch oven with foil and then put the lid on. This provides a better seal than just putting the lid on. Put the dutch oven and contents into the oven and leave it there for 1 hour 40 minutes. It is cooked when the breast meat registers 165 on your thermometer.
Remove from the oven and set the chicken to rest on a carving board. Tent it with foil (I used the foil that had been sealing the dutch oven). Strain the pan juices into a fat separator and press all the liquid out of the aromatics. Discard the aromatics - they have given their all. Leave for a few minutes for the fat to rise to the top. Decant the pan juices into a small saucepan and put over very low heat to stay warm.
After the chicken has rested for 15 or so minutes, carve it. The skin will look awful, by the way, so I serve it without the skin. I removed the breasts whole and sliced them crosswise. Take the juices pan off heat and squeeze in the juice of 1/2 a lemon. Serve the chicken breast pieces on hot plates with a little of the pan juice poured over them.
When I made this, Madame and I shared a single breast (the advantage of a large chicken), and we served 1/2 a spaghetti squash that I had microwaved with salt, pepper and a little butter.
This was a spectacular treatment for chicken - definitely worth repeating.

The dutch oven has to be a pretty big one, since you want to be able to get the whole chicken into it. You can use a pottery oven, but since you can't use that on top of the stove, you have to dirty another pan. The Emerilware cast iron dutch oven that I bought for the bread is too small for this recipe :-(. I reverted to my trusty Le Creuset pan (with the broken knob on the kid)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Leaving comments on blogs

Several friends have told me that it is not obvious how to post comments to a blog. It is a bit weird, and the design of the form is poor. So here are the instructions.

Press the little comment text under a posting and a small pop up window opens. This window cannot be resized (at least not under Internet Explorer). You put the text of your comment into the box. Then you need to scroll down. You are asked for some identification and you have choices. You can put your own blogger id in the email and password combination, but that isn't something most would probably want to do. You can also post anonymously by checking the anonymous button. The other choice is to press the "nickname" button, and put your nickname in there. That should not be an email address or anything that is directly traceable back to you, but is likely to be known by me or the small community of folks reading this. So for example, Madame comments under that name or occasionally as Mme.

You are also asked to enter a security string. This is a collection of characters (sometimes numbers too) that are displayed on the screen in a way that can easily be read by people, and are hard to read by machines. By entering that string of characters, you are essentially saying, "This is a human entering the information, not a bot". Try it and see.

Caraway seeds

When I was about 8 years old, I was living with my beloved grandmother .We lived in a small town in Dorset on the south coast of England. She had a very good friend (an ancient spinster, called Miss Gilbert) who lived next door. Occasionally we would walk to Miss Gilbert's house for tea. There was always cake!!!
On one fateful afternoon we went to Miss Gilbert's house and she produced a seed cake. Seed cake is (was?!) a popular English cake for serving with afternoon tea. It is essentially a pound cake with caraway seeds mixed into the batter prior to baking.
I had never had one of these before - and it tasted disgusting to me. Of course, being the polite child, I thanked Miss Gilbert for the cake, choked the piece down (after even the dog turned up its nose when I offered it surreptitiously). I must have been too enthusiastic in my thanks. Seed cake was now "Christopher's favourite" and offered every time we went there for tea. These visits became steadily less frequent - at least for me.
Fast forward 40 some years. Madame tells me that she likes nothing better than sauerkraut with caraway seeds - or rye bread with caraway seeds. I think that if I pulverized caraway seeds with the sole of my shoe, she would eat that too.
As soon as the bread had been pronounced a success, I heard, "Honey, you can make me some rye bread with caraway now, can't you?" I'll wait until I have a head cold, wear a face mask, and make sure all the windows are open the vent fan on before that happens

The bread

In previous posts, I have been anticipating the making of bread the (almost) no-knead way. After the dutch oven trials and tribulations, we finally made a loaf. Breakfast this morning became a very special occasion as we sliced into the creation. It looked like a little rustic, not quite as perfectly shaped as a professional baker would have done . The crust was quite firm, and nicely browned. The bottom crust was a bit overbrowned and tough, however. The crumb had a nice slightly dense texture with very even air pockets and a really deep, complex, not too yeasty taste. Of course, I immediately shared the crust with Madame, while toasting a couple of slices to try with marmalde (me) or jam (Madame). It was fantastic! Was it as good as the bread from the Breadhaus? No, not quite. But I can at least handle this in pajamas. Emeril's cast iron dutch oven did the trick.

Experimentation will take place. I think I will lower the initial temperature to 475, and cut back the cooking temperature to 400 for the next one.

Some obvious substitutions - add some pasta flour, and coat the loaf with sesame seeds.

Replacing some of the AP flour with wholewheat.

Using bread flour instead of AP - I suspect I may have to adjust the liquid proportions a bit.

Warming the water/beer/vinegar mixture a little. I added them cool which made the lazy yeast take a long time to wake up. Since the recipe only calls for 1/4 tsp of yeast for 1 lb of flour, getting them motivated is probably a good idea.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Trouble with heat

We had a weekend of quite rich food, so Madame was a bit out of sorts yesterday evening. I had made a fairly rich stew that had been simmering nicely in the oven, but come time for dinner and she wasn't interested. It was cold enough overnight so I could leave the dutch oven outside - well covered and weighted so it could cool and allow any fat to rise to the surface and congeal. After breakfast I portioned some of the stew so she could take it to school for her lunch, refrigerated some and froze the rest. At the same time I made the dough for the (almost) no knead bread. All this and it wasn't yet 7am.
I was a bit startled at around noon when Madame phoned and told me that the stew was too spicy hot to eat. So much so that it made her tongue swell. I tasted the portion in the fridge and there was no spiciness at all. Quite the mystery. Since the only seasonings were salt, pepper, bay leaves and reconstituted dried porcini, I couldn't figure out the issue.
At round 2pm, I shaped the dough for the bread, and set it to rest. At 4:30 or so, I followed the directions for the bread recipe, heated the oven to 500 degrees and put my trusty 30 year old Le Creuset dutch oven into it to preheat. Back upstairs to work for a bit. Imagine my surprise when there was a loud pop from the kitchen. On opening the oven door to see if everything was OK, I saw that the knob on the lid of the dutch oven had exploded. The kitchen was full of acrid phenolic smells. This didn't look good for the bread!
So, off to buy a suitable dutch oven. Cooks Illustrated recommended a Tramontina cast dutch oven - but the only one I could find at my local Target had a plastic knob too. So, continuing the search at Linens and Things (nothing suitable), Macy's - a nice Calphalon enameled pan for more than $200, Williams Sonoma had a deal on Le Creuset for close to $300.
Eventually I tried Bed, Bath and Beyond, and saw a wonderful range of $200 pans there too. Over the weekend I had casually remarked that I thought celebrity endorsement was a scam. The Wolfgang Puck's apologies for restaurants in Chicago's O'Hare airport being great examples of such scams. So, I had no intention of buying a celebrity endorsed dutch oven - that it until I saw the Emeril Lagasse branded 6qt. cast iron dutch oven for $49.95. That was it. I needed a pan, the dough was rising inexorably and I didn't know what would happen to it if I didn't cook it.
The stories end happily, Madame brought home the spicy remnants of the stew - and indeed it was extremely fiery. I have no idea how that happened - especially as the rest of the stew was not all spicy. The dutch oven withstood the heat of the oven, and turned out a beautiful looking loaf. It is still cooling, so we won't know until tomorrow what the bread is like. The house smells like a bakery - a great improvement on earlier in the day when it smelled like a plastics factory.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A much anticipated event

Every couple of months the America's Test Kitchen crew publish Cooks Illustrated Magazine. It is my favorite publication - their unrelenting tracking down of the best way to make a dish are like reading detective fiction. So, no surprise, when the latest issue arived last week I couldn't wait to dive into it.
This time I was not disappointed at all. There are 3 must try recipes + some great tips.
The most intriguing of these was a no knead bread recipe. The recipe was first published in the New York Times by Mark Bittman, but needless to say the test cooks had to mess with it. The results, as reported, are wonderful. Anyhow the method is so intriguing that I just have to try it. I'll post the results when I have given it a go.
There is also an interesting way of cooking chickens (French Bistro comes to mind), some fascinating looking oatmeal cookies, and a whole treatise on the making of stew. It looks as if the dutch oven will be earning its keep!
The Cooks Illustrated recipes can be found on their web site at I will see about getting their permission to reprint the bread recipe in the blog.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A seasonal cocktail...

At this time of the year, clementines are cheap and prevalent. They are juicy, have a great sweet/tart citrusy flavor and are seedless. So, how to use them in a cocktail?

Ingredients (for 2 quite potent drinks!)

6 pieces of candied ginger (+2 pretty pieces for garnish)
5 OZ Vodka (being in Texas, we use Tito's)
a few mint sprigs
2 OZ simple syrup
Juice of 2 Clementines


Steep the candied ginger in the vodka for about 30 minutes. Put plenty of ice in the cocktail shaker, and add the mint and simple syrup. Muddle together for a while until the mint has infused the syrup. Add plenty of ice, followed by the vodka (leaving the ginger in) and the Clementine juice. Put the lid on and shake hard until thoroughly chilled - about 6 hard shakes.

Strain into a small martini glass, and garnish with some candied ginger on a cocktail stick.

Note use less mint than you think, the aggressive mint flavor can overpower the Clementine. Yes we did learn that the hard way and had to make a second drink

Saturday, December 1, 2007

What to do with left over vege trays?

We hosted a wedding shower a week ago. Lots of food, including the mandatory vegetable tray (lots of cut up raw vegetables with a dipping sauce of some kind). There are always left over vegetables, and even the rabbits get sick of them after a while, it seems.

So, what to do?

They are not cut conveniently for cooking - they won't all cook at the same rate. However with a little ingenuity, something tasty can be done

1 T vegetable oil
3 Oz salt pork/pancetta/guanciale/bacon chopped into small pieces
1 Medium onion peeled and cut into wedges (do not mince finely)
8 Small red potatoes cut into equal sized pieces
1 Sprig of rosemary
The vegetable assortment - long strips broken in half
Put the baby carrots with the potatoes and onions
Other vegetables in a heap together
1 Can Italian tomatoes - flesh only, no juice
Some tarragon leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet heat the oil and add the pork product. Cook gently until the fat has rendered and the meat is a bit crispy - about 5-7 minutes.
Add the potatoes, carrots and onions and fry over medium high heat getting some brown coloring on the potatoes. You will need to stir to prevent sticking, but move the contents around as little as possible.

Leaving the heat on medium high and add all the rest of the vegetables (except the tomatoes). Now you do want to keep the vegetables moving so they pick up the flavors in the pan. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Now add the tomatoes and tarragon. Break the tomatoes up with a spatula, bring almost to a boil, cover and simmer for about 5 minutes. The potatoes should just about be cooked. Leave the dish uncovered, and evaporate some of the liquid - the dish should be almost dry. This will finish the cooking of the potatoes. Season as necessary with salt and pepper - remembering what the FDA has just started telling us about salt!

Serve as a side dish - we did it with some grilled strip steaks that our neighborhood grocery store had reduced to $4.99/lb. So we weren't expecting magic, but they came up pretty tasty!

An emergency dip..

In a previous posting, I described the making of quark. One use is for an emergency dip. So you might wonder, what is an emergency dip?
In our house, when I cook steak, Madame can hardly wait for the meat to rest before she wants to try a piece. I have learned to distract her from this by quickly assembling a dip. Last night's used some delicious pickled jalapenos that she found on a recent excursion to Granbury.

1/2 cup quark
1/4 cup mayonnaise (not the NO FAT apology for mayonnaise)
3 heaped tsp pickled jalapenos
1T pickle juice (from a jar of baby dills)

Combine and serve with crackers/toasts/bagel chips or whatever. It wants to be something crunchy.

This worked well to distract Madame from the resting steaks - at least for 10 minutes!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

What have I learned from...

I am a cooking show addict - not for the recipes, but for tips and tricks that make things go faster, make clean up easier, or just make me think, "Wow that's interesting."

The most useful trick of them all has come from Rachael Ray. She always has a large bowl to put the cut off bits and pieces, the trash (wrapping, cans, etc.) right there on the counter. So as she is doing the prep work, she has a quick and easy place to toss the scraps. If I were cooking in sufficient volume, I would have multiple bins - one for meat bits, one for vege bits and one for general trash. After all, I should make stock from the meat and vege bits, but usually don't.

From Alton Brown, the use of different chopping boards for raw meat, veges, etc. This took some getting used to, but now it is a matter of routine. One fewer risk to have to deal with. Also from Alton Brown the brining and cooking of turkeys.

From Jacques Pepin? There is so much. His technique is immaculate. In the recent TV series, 2 things stand out. The first was making kalamata olives look like rabbits for garnish. The second was in making a parchment paper base so I can bake a pie crust blind.

From the America's Test Kitchen cooks - again so much. The importance of the size of the ingredients perhaps most of all. There will be a future posting called "size matters" where I talk about that more. Their whole approach to freeing yourself from the tyranny of recipes and allowing some free form thinking has proven inspirational

From Emeril Lagasse - safety while frying a turkey. I have no desire to fry a turkey, but Emeril's attention to the safety details have made me look critically at my own practices.

From Giada de Laurentiis how to roast vegetables.

From Shirley Corriher - all about flour.

It isn't about recipes for me. There are thousands of recipes out there. It is about becoming more competent and confident in the kitchen

It's cold now....

It is finally cold enough in Dallas for the time of the year. So the tomato season is over - replaced by "hot chocolate season".

No more pa amb tomaquet until next year :-(.

However hot chocolate made simply with milk and Mexican chocolate provides a similar degree of comfort!

Pa amb tomaquet.
A Catalunyan appetizer very simply made. Takes about 5 minutes - the longest part is the toasting of the bread.

A few slices of country bread - 3/8 inch thick - cut into planks about 3 inches wide
Some tomatoes preferably very ripe beefsteak
I clove garlic (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil (Spanish of course for this dish)
Large sea salt crystals
Thinly sliced Manchego cheese - cut in planks to match the shape of the bread (optional)

I buy my bread at the Breadhaus in Grapevine, TX. A bit of a trek, but fantastic bread and wonderful people.

I buy tomatoes at one of the nearby farmers' markets - always trying to get local produce. Since we go through so many of them, we always buy seconds. At about $1 per pound you can't go wrong. Sometimes you have to remove some nasty bits, but not often. They don't keep as long as the firsts - partly because they seem riper, and partly because they can be a bit bruised. Remember, of course, never to keep fresh tomatoes in the refrigerator.

Toast the bread - on a griddle preferably, but the toaster works too.
While the bread is toasting, cut the tomatoes in half around their equators (i.e. not through the stem end).
Do not bother to peel the garlic, but cut the garlic clove in half cross-wise (if using). When the bread is toasted on each side, rub the cut side of the garlic across the bread (optional step). Now press the cut side of a tomato into each slice of bread. Smoosh it around so some of the seeds and liquid permeate the bread. One tomato will do about 3 slices of bread (depending of course on the size of the tomato and the size of the bread!).
Once the bread slices are all coated with tomato, arrange them in layers on a plate, sprinkle the olive oil over them, and then a few large sea salt crystals top get an extra crunch.
If you are feeling especially decadent, lay a slice of Manchego on each - but it is pretty good all on its own!
Serve with a good rustic red wine, lots of people and you have a terrific evening started. Sadly though we will have to wait until the tomato harvest next year.

Hot Chocolate
This is Madame's favorite bed time drink - we have it during the winter instead of dessert. For 2 mugs of hot chocolate, heat together milk and 1/2 a tablet of Mexican chocolate (currently we are using Abuelita). The heating should be slow - the chocolate doesn't melt easily. Keep stirring throughout and don't let the mixture boil.
Pour into heated mugs (1/2 fill with water, microwave until hot - taking care because microwaved water can superheat and leap out of the mug when you move it).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sundays at 4

A group of friends - John, Bette, Rocco, Judy, Madame, and I get together occasionally to put together a themed dinner every couple of months or so. We do it at early on Sundays - appetizers, etc. at 4 and eat a little after 5.

The idea came out of a Fine Cooking contest - Fine Cooking wanted an original recipe using some prescribed ingredients. I created a recipe (a braise using lightly smoked beef dredged with porcini dust, roasted shallots served over polenta). I created the recipe, and then asked friends over to taste it. Took their comments, refined and tried again. We did this early on a Sunday evening - it was the only time we could all get together easily, and we didn't want the formality of a dinner party. This was all about tasting.

The group thought it would be a good idea to expand our cooking skills and repertoire in a safe environment - with each other, so we developed the concept of the "Sundays at 4". It is like a gourmet dining club with a few important differences: First we agreed to total up the cost of the dinner and split it immediately at the end of the evening; Second we would meet ahead of time and jointly choose a theme; Third the household responsible for the main course is also responsible for the wine - however the maximum amount that can be charged to the group is $20 per bottle even if the wine actually costs a lot more.

The format works well. One household responsible for appetizers, the host household responsible for the main course, the third household for the dessert. Sometimes we sneak in a cheese course, sometimes a soup course, it just depends.

We choose themes at the "planning parties" typically held a month or so ahead. Really the planning parties are an excuse to get together again! Sometimes we do them in a house, at others we will try a local restaurant to see what they are like.

Once we have a theme, we encourage each household to come up with something in that theme. Themes are typically country or regional styles. Because the goals are to improve our understanding of food, to learn or practice techniques and to experiment with flavors, the results are not assured. That doesn't matter so much - there is always McDonalds (TM) on the way home if things are too awful.

We have tried the following themes:

New England Food (Clam chowder, an indoor clambake, fruit pies)
Italian (multiple times)
Singaporean (not my most shining moment - too spicy and pungent!)

For me the learning has been wonderful. Discovering ingredients (guanciale in an Amatriciana, galangal in the Singaporean food.....). Discovering techniques (the clambake according to the America's Test Kitchen method Forcing myself to make pasta - rather poor at first, but improving with each attempt. Discovering that the ravioli attachment on the pasta machine and I will never be friends!

Each of us has gained new skills, new recipes, new appreciation of food with the best group of "foodie" friends I can imagine.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Quark like substance

In my travels, I found a delicious dairy product that seemed like a cross between yogurt and cottage cheese. In Germany this is called quark (pronounced kvark). In looking for something similar in the US, I happened upon the following. It is delicious - not as acidic tasting as yogurt, and not as bland nor as granular as cottage cheese.

Bring 1 gallon of milk (I use 2%, but Madame prefers it with 1%) almost to a boil, and then allow to cool to about 100F. When it has cooled, stir in 1/2 cup cultured buttermilk. Decant into plastic containers, cover and leave overnight (12 hours at least) in the oven with the light on. That is 116F in my oven.

After it has set, remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temp. Strain through a double thickness of cheesecloth in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours - so it thickens up nicely.

Store in a container with a tight fitting lid.

I use it in almost any recipe that calls for yogurt, but it does especially well when mixed with mayonnaise, roasted garlic and a little tarragon or cilantro for a spectacular dip.

Then of course you can make elegant parfaits with it too. or some pureed raspberries, sieved with a little sugar, heated through to dissolve the sugar and drizzled over it, perhaps with some cassis......

We keep a batch in the house at all times - one never knows when an emergency dip is called for.

French Salad...

Well the idea came from time spent in France a couple of years ago. I often say that, "Life is too short to eat salad", but of course there are salads and then there are SALADS.

I do like composed salads where the ingredients play off each other and especially those that contain potatoes.

So here goes a master list and technique for a really tasty composed salad. A bit fiddly, but fits well into my 45 minute window.

Almost hard cooked eggs (1 1/2 per person, cut vertically into quarters)
A cooked protein (pork belly lardons, guanciale, flank steak, tuna, chicken)
Boiled red potatoes - skin on, but cut into 1 inch chunks. Best if you can buy them that size
A soft cheese (Brie, Epoisse, even Roquefort, Tallegio, soft goat cheese...)
A dressing (normally a simple vinaigrette)
Spring onions or scallions
Some suitable salad greens. I like to use Mesclun, but pretty much any greens will work.

Simmer the potatoes until they are cooked. With about 7 minutes to go with the potatoes, put the eggs into the water. Eggs in the US are washed, so I don't think there is anything to be concerned about. Anyway the temp is 212 and the eggs will be in for 7 minutes.

Take the eggs out, place immediately in lots of cold water. Strain the potatoes, allow to cool for about 5 minutes (they should still be warm)and toss with the vinaigrette. Slice the eggs into the vertical quarters.

Put the greens into the bowl with the potatoes and vinaigrette. Toss. Note dressing the salad this way means you use less dressing than pouring the dressing over the greens. My waist line appreciates it!

Compose the salad, adding whatever ingredients you want - making sure that you mix in the protein. For example you might want to add roasted red peppers, or tomatoes, - you certainly want something red in there. Radishes work. Cooled steamed green beans are nice as well. They can be steamed on top of the potatoes.

Finish the salad with the cheese, eggs and green onions as decorations. You can make this a mound of salad in a large bowl for family style eating, or do them individually.

There are no quantities in here because it really doesn't matter a whole lot. Just make sure that it isn't all lettuce! The potatoes in vinaigrette really make this dish.

The Dr. on standby

I was given Heston Blumenthal's wonderful book, "In Search of Perfection" for Christmas last year. Even though Heston Blumenthal can be quite intimidating, his method of cooking steak intrigued me. It also provide me with an opportunity to acquire a hithertoo banned piece of kitchen equipment - namely a blowtorch.

The method involves cooking (?) the meat (a 2 bone rib) very slowly indeed. The oven temperature during the process must not rise above 120 degrees (or about 50 degrees Celsius). The meat has to be held at this temperature for around 16 hours. Madame's first thought was this is ideal bacteria colony temperature! Hence the blow torch.

The recipe calls for the outside of the rib roast to be seared with the blow torch - unseasoned. That should kill any surface bugs. Then the meat is transferred to the oven, and cooked for 16 hours after the internal temperature has reached 115-120. In my oven it takes about 8 hours for the meat to get to 116. I warm the oven before the meat goes in (at the lowest setting) and then turn the light on. That holds it at the right temperature for the requisite period.

Once the meat is "cooked", it is sliced off the bones, and then recooked to the desired doneness on a grill or cast iron griddle. We typically eat medium rare, so I cook the meat on the grill to an internal temp of 130.

Madame was, of course, not impressed by all of this. She was convinced that she would be poisoned, so we invited our family doctor to dinner as well. He came armed with great wines (the ulterior motive for inviting him) and the emergency room telephone number. Other friends were advised of the dangers, but they were up for the experience too. Their appetizers and desserts provided the perfect start and finish to the dinner

The meat was the star! Blumenthal was right. Tender, juicy, flavorfull, Perfect. Served with mushroom ketchup (also from Blumenthal's book), Pommes Anna (from the Cooks Illustrated recipe - and an iceberg salad. Wow! Who needs to go to a steakhouse?

It takes a long time, but little effort. And it gives an excuse to buy a blowtorch. What more could a guy want?

The Parmigiano Reggiano - and where it led

My favorite cheese store in the Dallas area is Sigels - on Inwood Rd. and Beltline in Addison. The heart and soul is Theresa Magee who stores wonderful cheeses and is always ready with a story (or 3). The Saturday before Thanksgiving she cracks a wheel of aged Parmigiano Reggiano and gives all the assembled company a taste. This year it was a 7 year old wheel. Of course Madame and I had to be there. Naturally, while we were there, we had to taste what was on offer and buy some other cheeses too. We came away with some beautiful Colston Basset Stilton, an Epoisse, and of course the some of the Parmigiano Reggiano. It was the Stilton that provided inspiration for Monday's dinner, though.

I had been recently to the Dallas Farmers' Market as well and had bought some rather disappointing pears. So, the question was "How do I make the pears edible, and incorporate them into a dinner?" With the Stilton it was a no brainer. Poach the pears (the left over red wine from the night before helped here), toast some walnuts, make a simple salad, and pan cook chicken breasts, using the pear poaching liquid as the sauce for the chicken. Shopping time (for the salad ingredients and chicken 35 minutes), prep+cooking time 80 minutes. The pears were poaching while I was at the store buying the salad and the chicken.

3 firm pears
1/2 bottle dry red wine 6 oz Port
1 dried red chile pepper
1T Sugar
5 oz walnuts (toasted)
2 oz Stilton (could use other blue cheese)
Assorted salad leaves
3T Vinaigrette (made with a mild vinegar and no onion/garlic)
2 Chicken breasts (skin and bone on)
1T Canola or other neutral oil

Peal and core the pears - I use a melon baller from the bottom of the pear to core them, leaving them whole. Bring the red wine, port, sugar, and chile to a simmer, and lower in the pears. Poach for about 30 minutes. Turn the pears over after about 20 minutes to ensure they are poached evenly.

When the pears are poached, remove and reserve the poaching liquor.

Toast the walnuts until slightly crunchy on the outside. Be careful, they burn easily.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 - the chicken breasts will finish in the oven.

Remove the bones and the tenderloin from the chicken breasts. (I buy the breasts with bone and skin because I want the skin). Save the tenderloins and bones for another use - I freeze them and make stock, but then I am a bit compulsive! Pat the chicken breasts dry and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. The breasts need to be dry or they don't brown properly.

Add the oil to a hot skillet (preferably not non-stick). When the oil is showing wisps of smoke add the chicken breasts skin side up to the hot oil and sear for about 3-4 minutes. Flip the chicken over and sear the second side. Once the chicken has seared on both sides, transfer to the oven and cook until done. This depends on size of chicken breasts and their starting temperature, but for the cold, medium sized breasts that I used it was about 7 minutes in the oven.The FDA recommends an internal temperature of 185 for poultry.

Remove the chicken from the skillet, and leave to rest - covered with foil. While the chicken is resting, empty most of the chicken fat from the skillet, and then deglaze with the reserved poaching liquor. Reduce the liquor to around 3/4 cup - it should become quite syrupy. Transfer the chicken back to the skillet and coat with the sauce.

Assemble the sliced pears, Stilton, and walnuts on a plate. Make a small pile of the salad leaves, and drizzle the vinaigrette over. Take the chicken out of the pan, remove the skin and slice the breasts across the grain in 1/2 inch slices. Place the hot chicken on top of the dressed salad leaves, and serve.

For further eye appeal, some redness - maybe some cherry tomatoes or roasted red pepper would be appropriate.

Serve with the same red wine as in the poaching liquid.