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.