Thursday, July 31, 2008

Things I Like to Cook & Eat: Blueberries

Ahhh, Vaccinium caesariense. Summertime in New Jersey means fresh blueberries in every supermarket, all the time, usually at a pretty good price. There's something comforting to me that I'm helping to support the agriculture in my home state by buying and eating tons of blueberries with the "Jersey Fresh" sign on it. How do I like to eat blueberries? When they're extremely fresh, I like eating them raw, with a pinch of sugar if needed. Also, a quick squirt of lime juice and a little bit of sugar provides a nice acid counterpoint to the sweetness.

However, it's the perfect time for things like blueberry crumble, of which I have become extremely adept at making. I experimented with individual portions in small ramekins tonight, and the results came out extremely well, although I've got to lower the cooking time by like 10 minutes because the filling got a little overcooked and lost too much moisture. It's a recipe I adapted from Cook's Country (which I'll talk about in another post), and I'm still trying to tweak the crumble topping - I think I need to add more butter.

Aside: Even though it's summer in Jersey, you won't find me writing about Jersey corn anytime soon. Do I love the fact that I can drive down the road and get corn from a stand right next to the field (coincidentally enough from the father-in-law of a friend of mine)? Absolutely. Do I cook corn for Steph? Sure do. However, it's just something I don't like. Don't ask me why - it's just the way it is.

Something I messed around with a few weeks ago was an idea stolen from my uncle - blueberry chutney to be served with chicken sausage. Now from what I remember, my uncle reduced down a mixture of blueberries, cilantro, and onion, but I went on a different path. Into my saucepan went blueberries, a 2:1 ratio of water to white vinegar, a minced shallot and a bit of sugar. Spices included ground ginger, some allspice and a pinch of cloves. Simmer, simmer, simmer, reduce, reduce, reduce. Served with some tasty chicken apple sausage, it was a big hit, both amongst the HHS Science Department as well as the parents.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Roasted Artichoke Dip

Made this for Stephanie to bring to a party, adapted from a recipe from the Test Kitchen. Tasty *and* low in fat.

2 boxes frozen artichoke hearts
olive oil, salt and pepper
1 cup minced onion (1 small or 1/2 a medium onion)
2 minced garlic cloves
1 cup reduced fat mayo
1/2 cup light cream cheese, at room temperature (this is important!)
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp fresh thyme, minced
dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs + 2 tbsp Pecorino, mixed
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 450. Toss frozen artichokes with 1 tsp oil, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper and spread on foiled baking sheet. Bake 25 minutes, rotating once and tossing artichokes haflway through cooking, until artichoke edges are browned. Let cool, then chop coarse.

Reduce oven temp to 400. Heat tsp oil over medium-low heat, add onions and garlic and cook until soft, 8-10 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add mayo, cream cheese, Pecorino, lemon juice, thyme and cayenne and stir until fully combined. Fold in roasted artichokes and season with salt and pepper. Scrape into an ungreased 8x8 square dish, sprinkle the top with the bread crumb/Pecorino mixture and spray the top lightly with the cooking spray. Bake 20-25 minutes, until topping is browned.

I think it came out nice, but I premade it up to right before topping and baking and refrigerated it for a day. It might need some more cayenne, and I wouldn't mind experimenting with fresh artichokes as opposed to frozen.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Restaurant Report: Restaurant Nicholas

I'm all about going out and paying for a good meal - thank goodness Steph is very much the same way. She's turned into a bonafide foodie since we've met, and I can't be happier about that. So, to celebrate both the anniversary of our wedding, as well as to celebrate our love of some good food and drink, we went to Nicholas on Wednesday. We knew that we wanted to order the tasting menu, ordering one of each dish per course, and that we wanted to order the wine pairings as well. The plan was that we'd eat a little, drink a little then switch plates and wine glasses.

Our seats were not really seats, but a couch/booth that allowed us to sit next to each other (well, at a 90 degree angle) while we ate, and had pillows and cushions for us to lounge back on. Very chic. There was also this amazing chandelier, that I'm pretty sure was a Dale Chihuly (awesome glass-blowing sculptor - Google him). We put in our orders, enjoyed a glass of champagne and waited for the fun to begin.

Amuse: Heirloom Tomato with Red Wine Gastrique
Three teeny bites of tomato, with a tasty sweet/sour sauce drizzled around the outside. How could you not have something like this in New Jersey during the summer? Outstanding taste, really warmed up our taste buds for the meal.

1st Courses: Marinated Pemaquid Oysters, Creme Fraiche, Red Onion; Crab and Avocado Salad, Gazpacho Sorbet, Smoked Paprika Crisp
The oysters were on the small end of the oyster spectrum, and were velvety in texture and taste. Not quite sure just what they were marinated in, but it was delicious. It was paired with a rather mineral-y sauvignon blanc, which was perfect. The crab and avocado salad was equally as delicious, cool and creamy, with the frozen gazpacho providing a nice spiciness to the dish. That was paired with a chardonnay that was pretty out of this world.

2nd Courses: Parisienne Gnocchi, Sugar Snap Peas, Braised Artichokes; Seared Day Boat Scallop, Green Papaya Salad, Red Curry Vinagrette
The scallop was perfectly cooked, the vinagrette was pleasingly spicy, with the green papaya really providing nothing to the dish. It was good, but relatively one-note and unremarkable. The only thing that made the dish remotely interesting was the super-sweet Riesling that it was paired with - I could never drink it on its own, but was the perfect counterpoint to the spicy scallop. The gnocchi dish was the opposite of the scallop - it was complex and
nuanced in flavor and texture. The gnocchi were pillow-light and slightly crispy, the snap peas were delightfully sweet and the artichokes were creamier than any artichoke I've ever had. Outstanding, and wonderfully paired (again) with a white I can't seem to remember.

3rd Course: North Atlantic Halibut, Chilled Heirloom Melons, Avocado Puree
Notice we ordered the same dish: Stephanie definitely does not like cooked salmon, and I'm really not always the biggest fan of it, so why would we order it? Out of everything we ate, this was probably the most surprising: a square of perfectly cooked fish over beautifully cut 1/4" diced melon, paper-thin radish slices and a smear of avocado, finished with a chilled melon broth (which was served tableside by the waiter - I love tableside service). Fish, melons and avocado? I would never have thought so, but it was absolutely delicious. Paired with another sauvignon blanc that was more citrus-y and grassy (and more along my personal tastes in that grape).

4th Course: Sirloin of Veal, Hand Rolled Tristi, Roasted Garlic Butter Sauce; Braised "Pulled" Sucking Pig, Poached Quince, Cinnamon Jus
I'm not the biggest expert on veal, because I'm not the biggest fan of it (not because of mistreatment or anything like that, just a taste thing). However, it was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious, especially with the braised escarole, wild mushrooms and sauce (again, tableside service!), paired with a tasty California Cabarnet. The "pulled" pig really stole the show in this course - rich and fatty and delicious, with a cinnamon-scented sauce that smelled and tasted like October. The poached quince and parsnip puree was a nice fresh counterpoint to the rich pork. Paired with a red, honestly can't remember what it was, but it was perfect, yet again.

5th Course: Cheese Tasting: Pecorino Toscana-Stagionato, Valencay, Epoisses, Montbriac
BEHOLD THE POWER OF CHEESE! Oh man, talk about my favorite part of the meal. Not one, not two, not three, but FOUR cheeses! The Pecorino was dry and nutty, the
Valencay was creamy and delicious (and covered with ash that's part of the rind formation), the Montbriac was equally as creamy and Epoisses...Epoisses...Epoisses...what can I say. Only the stinkiest, smelliest, tastiest cheese on the planet. Served up with 1989 Vouvray that was absolutely out of this world.

Intermezzo: Passionfruit Pot de Creme
This was a surprise course, as it wasn't on the menu. A tiny little bowl of passionfruit curd, pot de creme, with a bit of raspberry puree at the bottom. The perfect warm-up to the dessert course.

Dessert Tasting: Warm Valrhona Molten Cake, Creme Brulee, Hazelnut Crepe, Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Tuille
It needs to be mentioned here that when I made the reservation for dinner, I wasn't going to mention that it was our anniversary, but I did when Steph prodded me to do so. I was glad I did, because on each of our plates, on a marzipan slab, was written "Happy Anniversary" in chocolate. Talk about awesome. The mini-desserts were pedestrian, with the creme brulee being the highlight for me. The marzipan well-wishing made the dish for sure, as did the fortified Grenache they served with it. (I'll post a pic of the marzipan later).

BONUS: As we're settling the check, they bring us over a mini-loaf of banana bread and a box of chocolate truffles to bring home with us. Apparently the banana bread is standard for every table, but the box of truffles were a bonus to us because it was our anniversary.

When it was all said and done, one of the greatest meals I've ever eaten. If you're feeling flush and you're in the area, definitely worthwhile to experience.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pre-Review: Restaurant Nicholas

Today was Steph's and my 2nd wedding anniversary. Odd to think that it's been that long already - many more years of cooking and eating to go!

To celebrate, we went to Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank. I had heard about it from a number of different places: Jenny-O had eaten there and said she'd enjoyed it, and I had also read that it was the highest-rated restaurant in the NJ Zagat Guide. Looking at the menu, I'm a sucker for tasting menus and wine pairings, so it was decided that that was where we were going to head.

After a 2.5-hour, 8-course meal, I'm pretty satisfied. Honestly, I'm going to write about this tomorrow.

Dry-Aged Beef - Steak Nirvana

Like cheese, wine, and cheesy 80's movies, everything gets better with age. This holds true as well for beef - steak actually tastes better 5 days removed than if you went out, slaughtered your cow and cooked it fresh (something off of the shoulder, perhaps, braised in a white wine sauce). The reason is that natural enzymes continue to eat away at the muscle fibers after the beef is butchered, causing the steak to tenderize. There are two types of aging - dry and wet. Wet-aged steak is what you get in the supermarket - beef that's vacuum-packed in individual packages and sold 5-7 days after slaughter. Dry-aged steak is what you get at good butcher shops and restaurants - steak that's been hung and air-dried in controlled conditions, which allows for both the enzymatic tenderization as well as moisture loss, which concentrates flavor. Dry-aged steak becomes darker in color, richer in flavor, juicier and more tender - it's one of the big reasons why steak at a good steak restaurant taste better than what you can cook at home.

I bring this up because I've been reading a bit about dry-aging steak at home and I've been talking this over with my mother - we're going to give it a try in the mini-fridge at her house. I'll even be taking pictures.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Things I Like to Cook & Eat: Rib-Eye Steak

I like steak. It's tasty, it's delicious, and it's really easy to cook (and just as easy to screw up, but that's a different story). In my humble opinion, the tastiest part of the cow is the rib-eye steak. Check out where the rib-eye is on the cow - far enough away from the shoulder and the rump to be tender and fatty and delicious.

For whatever reason, it seems like most of the uninitiated really love filet mignon, for whatever reason. I suppose its the whole "so tender you can cut it with a fork" idea. Now, I bear no animus to filet mignon - I definitely enjoy it from time to time, but here's my issue: taste. Ever have a filet on its own? It's got little to no flavor. Look at the menu the next time you go out to a restaurant: it's always served with some sort of sauce or wrapped in bacon or what not. Not the delicious ribeye - all you need is salt and pepper and a hot grill.

How to cook it? Easy. Season with salt and pepper. Heat the grill to high, cook on one side for 6-8 minutes, then flip over and cook 4-6 minutes more. That'll cook to a nice medium-rare. If you like it cooked to medium, then extend the cooking time for 2 minutes longer on each side.

Want it well-done? Go fuck yourself.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pretty much, this sums up my feelings

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More on pork

OK, so as Stephanie has pointed out to me, I erred in the fact that obviously PORK is the magical animal, bacon is one of the many holy gifts that it has bestowed upon man. I am suitably chastened. However, I'll chalk it up to being doped up on oxycodon that caused my oversight.

As to bacon - it's probably the most delicious of all meats. I heartily maintain that anything that has bacon tastes better than the same dish cooked without bacon. I was worshipping at the altar of this magical food when I was rendering down some lardons (that's fancy French cook-talk for 1/4" chopped up pieces of bacon) and getting them nice and crispy, to put mix into my mac and cheese.

The mistake most people make is that they get their pan real hot while they cook the bacon, and they end up scorching up both the bacon and the bacon fat, which is pretty much a kitchen sin. Granted, some people like their bacon practically burnt (*ahem*Sean*ahem*) but not me. So I cook my lardons over medium-low, so all the tasty fat gets oozed out of them, and it takes a while more to cook (almost 10-15 minutes) but they get nice and crispy and tasty. Then, I drain off all the fat and store it in the fridge in a Rubbermaid. For what, you may ask? That's a story for next week.

So the moral of the story is this: respect your bacon! Cook it no higher than medium so you can get all the tasty fat rendered off and stored use at another time. Cook it no higher than medium so you can get it nice and crispy without it being completely cindered. Love your bacon!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


It's the magical animal.

I'll post more later.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My least favorite cephalopod

Since we've been sitting at the sushi bar rather than at a table lately at our local Japanese place, Oyako Tso's, they've gotten to know us and they usually hook us up with some sort of tasty amuse, that no one else seems to get (even people who sit at the sushi bar). Sometimes it's really good, but more often than not, it's octopus.

I always try it, because I feel that it'd be a horrible insult if I didn't even try it. However, I just can't seem to get myself around eating octopus. The flavor is a bit off-putting to me, but its definitely a texture thing. One of the reasons why I like sushi so much is because of the silkiness of the fish - octopus is way too chewy for my tastes. Also, I hate the fact that sometimes I find myself eating one of the suckers, and I don't particularly care for it.

That said, when I finally make it to Japan, I'm hoping that the octopus tastes better over there.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The sublime joy of grilled pizza

I've spent the last 26 years of my life (save college) living in western Monmouth County, where I've been fortunate to have never been wanting for quality pizza. Attilio's, Romeo's, Mama Lina's, Marlboro Pizza.....the list goes on.

However, a number of years back, I had read a blurb in one magazine or another about Al Forno in Providence, RI, and their delicious grilled pizzas. Pizza...and grilling!?!? Two of my favorite things in the world, together? Oh man, this I had to try. Of course, not being independently wealthy, I wasn't about to plan an impromptu jaunt to Rhode Island for nothing more than pizza. So, my mother (of whom I'm going to have to write an entire post about at some point) and I read and browsed and tested and developed our own method of making grilled pizzas.

Here's a little aside: I don't have the time nor the inclination nor the patience to be a breadmaker. Honestly, I also am not the biggest fan of baking. It's not like cooking where if you mess something up you can usually see what you did wrong and fix it relatively quickly. In baking, you really can't tell if you've muffed things up until you open the oven after 30 minutes and see that your cookies aren't spreading/cake isn't rising/souffle is falling. Therefore, I cheat - I use store-made pizza dough, and I freely admit it. Wegman's frozen dough is best, but I used the Pillsbury Thin Crust dough tonight and it came out fine.

Set the grill to medium-high, shape your dough into whatever shape and thickness you desire (we prefer thin crust) Brush with olive oil on one side (the oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes works wonderfully, nice find Mom!) and the oiled side goes down on the grill. Grill until crispy on the down side and bubbles form on the up side. Take off the grill, dress the crispy side up with whatever you wish, lower your grill to medium, then throw it back on, and cover it up. Cook until your toppings are ready and your bottom crust is crisp and the dough is cooked through. Let cool for 30 seconds, then eat.

Steph is a big fan of a new recipe I found: ricotta, roasted asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes. I'm partial to fontina, crumbled sweet sausage, thinly sliced onion and roasted shiitakes. I'd love to hear any other suggestions to try.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The problem with lemon-lime soup

The biggest problem with lemon-lime soup is that it I had wanted to make sorbet. Think on it: it's a warm summer evening, you've just eaten some tasty grilled meats and Jersey corn (well, not me, but that's another story) and for dessert, some cool and tasty lemon-lime sorbet. So I follow what looks like a good recipe:

6 c sugar
3 c water
1 1/4 c lemon juice
1 c lime juice
3/4 each lemon and lime zest

Make syrup out of the sugar and water, cool to room temp, mix in the juice and zest, then freeze in the ice cream maker for about 30 minutes. Then pour into a Rubbermaid and let set for 6 hours or so. Easy, right?

WRONG. I made this batch of sorbet back on Friday evening, and it's still soup. After thinking about this for a bit, it hit me as to why: it's science, of course. Freezing point depression occurs when you mix a solute (in this case, sugar) into a solvent (in this case, water) in proportion with a constant. In the case of the recipe above, the freezing point of the sugar syrup is about 14 degrees F. Hence, I've got a partially frozen lemon-lime soup.

Next time, I'm going to lower the sugar down to a 1.5:1 ratio. Stupid colligative properties.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

...but you're a chemistry teacher, Alex...

...what makes you think you can be a writer/blogger?

Well, the truth is that I'm not much of a writer, when compared to many of my friends (the incomparable Meghann Williams jumps immediately to mind). However, I've been rolling this idea around in my head for some time - that I need a space somewhere to jot down all the crazy ideas I have in the kitchen, dazzlingly successful , tales of kitchen disasters and a spot to talk food with my friends and other cool people. So here we are.

I make no promises that this will be a daily thing, and I make no promises that this will remain solely on my exploits in the kitchen, and you may just see my lovely wife pop in for some posting fun as well. I just hope that you enjoy reading what I have to say.