Thursday, December 31, 2009

Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning's End

2009 was a good year, for a variety of professional reasons:  finishing my Masters degree, passing my licensing exam to be a school principal, starting a successful and popular Forensics Science elective at school, teaching physics, being able to go to work with some of my best friends.

2009 was a good year for a variety of personal reasons:  I watched as two good friends got married to awesome ladies.  I saw my best friend start a relationship with an amazing girl (and a kickass baker!).  I heard amazing news from friends that they are expecting a baby in the new year.  I saw my parents, sister and the rest of my family go through another year in health and happiness, along with the addition of 2 new Great Dane puppies to the family.

2009 was a good year for my cooking and blogging:  All you need to do is go and read my previous posts.  My skills have improved, and I've gotten a bunch of new toys to play with in the kitchen.  I've been trying to be consistent in updating my blog.  I've been taking more and more pictures of my food, both during the process and the finished result.  I'm thankful for all the people from all over the world who have stopped by to read what I've got to say.

All in all, a good year.

While reminiscing is fun, let's look forward.  Here's some things I'm hoping to do in the new year, food-wise:
  • Eat more vegetables:  It's always a goal of mine, and I'm doubly-committed to it with Steph's and my new eating plan for the new year.  Look for me to be cooking and eating with a wider variety of veggies, even some more esoteric ones.  At the top of my list:  salsify (OK, it's a root, but it's a vegetable!)
  • Try to cook more 'on instinct':  I like to follow recipes.  It's probably because I was a chemistry major, and I am a science teacher, and so I like following procedures.  I've read enough cookbooks to know about technique, timing, and flavors that I have the knowledge that I can whip together a meal just by looking at what I've got in the fridge/freezer/closet...I just don't do it as often as I should.
  • Make more stock:  I've done it, I know how to do it...I just want to do it more.  I'm going to try the oven method, as I've done the measurements and my giant stockpot fits in my oven.
  • Ingredients I've never cooked with, but want to:  truffles, skate wing, pork belly, duck, bonito flakes, whole fish, liquid nitrogen, salsify, foie gras, rabbit loin, Cornish hens, smoked salt
  • Eat at the Chef's Table at Nicholas:  not so hard to reach this goal, as Steph and I have already decided that we're going doing this for our anniversary.
  • "Molecular gastronomy":  Love it or hate it, it's definitely changed the culinary landscape over the course of the decade.  It's not something I'll do often, but I bought the Alinea cookbook because I wanted those recipes, so look for me to do a thing or two from there.  I'm also dying to eat at wd-50...maybe for my 30th birthday?
  • Eat more 'locally':  I've got tons of farmers' markets around me, and I'm a lazy ass for not taking advantage of them.  I also need to take the time to go up to Red Bank on Sundays when the weather is warmer for their Sunday market at the Galleria.
Here's a some things I'd like to accomplish, blogwise, in the new year:
  • Write more about everyday eating:  my friend Heather's blog is an amazing chronicle of all the healthy things that she eats on a daily basis.  Since Steph and I are being really on top of our intake, I want to chronicle that more.
  • More pictures:  I've gotten better at playing with the settings on my camera, and have gotten more adept at editing my pictures.  However, I'm hoping the coming year will bring me a fancy new camera.
  • Play around more with Blogger:  There's like tons of things that I can do with this software, I just need to take the time to figure it out.

That's about it for now.  Here's two questions for you:  What other things do you want to see me try (and blog about) in the kitchen in the coming year?  What culinary goals and plans do you have for the coming year?

To everyone reading, a happy and a healthy New Year to you and yours!  Eat well in the coming year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Beef Wellington, for Two

Beef Wellington with Madeira Sauce
Recipe courtesy of Cooking for Two by America's Test Kitchen

It being the holiday season, Stephanie and I have been indulging quite a bit.  We've both made a commitment to get back on track with eating healthier (so expect to see some more Meatless Mondays and maybe even a Meatless Thursday now and again).  However, I wanted to have one more decadent and rich meal before I started counting my points and watching my intake...hence, beef wellington.

Traditionally, beef wellington is a tenderloin roast, smeared with foie gras pate and duxelles, wrapped in puff pastry and baked.  However, there are a few things that can hold a chef back when trying to cook this recipe at home for 2 people, most primary being the cost.  A whole beef tenderloin?  Too much meat for too much money.  Foie gras pate?  Wegmans had D'Artagnan Mousse of Duck Foie Gras for $27 per 8 oz tub (quite the markup, don't you think?).  The other issue is the actual cooking of the dish:  to get the steak perfectly cooked while having the puff pastry baked to completion at the same time is something that chefs go to college for.  Not exactly something I was willing to undertake lightly.

The solution, as elegantly presented by the Test Kitchen, is to cook the beef and the pastry separately, then combine them together in the end.  Not the most elegant solution, but it still provides all the flavors, if not the perfectly gift-wrapped package.

There's the tenderloin filets, trimmed, tied, and browning.  From there, they were destined to go to the oven for a nice 10 minute roast.  While the beef was in the oven, I assmebled my sauce ingredients.  Mushrooms, shallots, Madeira wine, parsley, thyme, Dijon mustard and lemon juice.  All that went into the saute pan after the beef went in the oven.

Those puff pastry squares were made by cutting a sheet of puff pastry into quarters.  The more interesting picture is my liver-smeared beef tenderloins.  Not spending a boatload on duck foie gras mousse, I called my emergency hotline for all things food - my mother (of course).  She recommended that since I couldn't get duck liver or chicken liver mousse, that I just buy a liverwurst and go with that (I chose Schaller and Weber calves' liver pate, since I felt that the flavor should be more complementary to beef than a pork liver pate).  The pate melted on the meat while the steaks rested.  The pastry squares were split, the meat was plated and the mushroom-Madeira sauce was poured all over.  The result?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow Weekend

If the weather forecast calls for snow, it's a good bet that I'll be busy cooking some tasty goodness.  Here's what was on the menu this weekend:
  • Pancakes at my mother's house.  First time I'd made these for her, and she rather enjoyed them, even though she only ate like two of them.  She cooked up a bunch of breakfast sausage, and I made eggs as well.  I'm supremely jealous of her two-burner nonstick griddle, as it was pretty easy and fun to cook on, especially our eggs (over easy, of course).
  • A giant pot of chili.  My chili is a Cincinnati-style, with chopped sirloin (as opposed to the more traditional ground), onions, garlic, a boatload of spices (chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, cayenne, along with some weirder ones like cinnamon and cocoa powder), crushed tomatoes and kidney beans.  Topped with a ton of shredded cheddar (and a giant dollop of sour cream for Steph), I'm rather proud of my chili recipe.

  • A bottle's worth of mulled wine.  An easy recipe - a bottle of light red (I spend $7, my Uncle David said I spent too much), 1/4 cup sugar, the zest of 1 orange (in long strips), 6 cinnamon sticks, 12 cloves, 3 allspice berries, 1/2 a cracked nutmeg and a sprinkle of ground ginger.  Dump it into a saucepan, heat it over low until warm.  Don't let it boil, then run it through a fine strainer into glasses.  Delicious on a cold day.
  • Chocolate chip meringues.  Having a KitchenAid makes making meringues the easiest thing in the world.  These were easy to make and tasted great.  Steph couldn't tell you as well as I could, because I think I ate all but like 3 of these.  Not quite your quintessential 'cold weather cookie' but they really hit the spot.
  • Steph woke up this morning and says "Man, I wish I had asked you to pick up cinnamon buns".  Steph, you see, is a fiend when it comes to Pillsbury cinnamon buns - she loves them more than most things I make.  However, I didn't pick them up, so I figured I'd look up how to make them.  Fortunately, I found this recipe for easy, non-yeast cinnamon buns.  They came out more like biscuits than real cinnamon buns, but they were close enough, especially with the icing on top.  When I make them again (which will most likely be tomorrow morning...thank you, snow day!), I'll work on making them stick together.  I admit - these tasted delicious, but look ugly as hell.

Tomorrow, the plan is to make more cinnamon buns, some ginger cookies, and a deep-dish pizza.

Here's the question:  what are YOU cooking on a snowy day when you're stuck in the house?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hannukah Gifts aka Why My Cousin Caleb is Awesome

My family doesn't need to work too hard when it comes to me and the holidays - pretty much, anything for the kitchen is a sure way to go.  Whether it's a new piece of cookware, some fun kitchen gadget, or a cookbook, it's easy to go shopping for me, even though I'm not the biggest fan of getting gifts.  Needless to say, this year has been no exception.

First, a Le Creuset risotto pot from my awesome Aunt Tami.  Even though I christened it tonight to make potato latkes a la Nicholas (with quince puree and bacon) as opposed to risotto, I cannot get enough Le Creuset - their stuff is awesome.  Technically, this is a gift for both Steph and I, but I get to 'use' it more, while Steph reaps the rewards indirectly ;)

Next, a super-geeky gift from my Uncle David and Aunt Lisa - a Cylon toaster and a set of BSG mugs.  I don't know how they could have thought that this would be a hit-or-miss, but this was a WIN.  Check out the link for the toaster - how amazingly nerdy is it that I can now have toast that says "Frak Off"?!?  I can't wait to make enough toast to destroy all the human toast on the Battlestar Galactica.

Of course, some great gifts from my parents and in-laws.  Steph and I have been dying for new plates, and we've been fans of the square plates that we've had out at restaurants, so that's what we decided to go with.  We also needed some service pieces, so we picked up a few of those as well.  Finally, like some other people I know, I needed a new blender, so I picked out a doozy of one - probably one of the best you can buy before shelling out $400+ for a Vita-Mix.

However, despite all of these gifts, of which I am extremely grateful, my cousin Caleb gave me the best gift this year.  My Aunt Tami had told him about my blog and about my skills in the kitchen, so he decided to make me a handmade recipe box.  Check this awesomeness out.

Seriously, without a doubt, the best gift I got this year.  Plus, a ridiculous recipe for a panettone French toast that I am going to make for Stephanie on Christmas morning.  Major props to my cousin Caleb for this one - thank you so much!

Butternut Squash Soup - Pictures

I finally got my hands back on our camera, so here are some pics from making the butternut squash soup from the Restaurant Nicholas cookbook.

Here's a before/after of the giant butternut squash that I used.  The smell that my house had while these were in the oven was absolutely heavenly.

In order, here's a celery root (one of my new favorite ingredients), my aromatic mise en place (carrots, celery root, shallot and onion), my sachet of spices (cracked nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves) and the roasted and mashed squash from the oven.

Finally, one of the finished product - 2 gallons of soup!  This was quite the hit, and when I brought up what a hit it was to Chef Nicholas last Friday, he was pleased!  Woot!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sick Chef

I imagine that in a real restaurant, on the rare occurrence that a chef calls out sick, the other chefs pick up the slack and still turn out great food.

Not in our house.

Since Sunday, Alex has been taken down by the flu. Don't know if it's H1N1, but if it is, I love the irony of my pork-loving husband getting the swine flu.

Anyway. . . what happens when the food-provider in the family is out of commission? TAKE OUT!

Sunday: Ibby's Falafel. Great Middle Eastern restaurant right around the corner from us. I finally gave in and tried Middle Eastern food. . . and LOVED IT. Tried their lamb shawarma. It's my second time trying shawarma and it's not just for me. But I wanted to try Ibby's to see if theirs was different. Their falafel is to die for. And so is their hummus and ghanoush.

Monday: Pizza. It's what Alex wanted - I swear!

Tuesday: Chicken noodle soup from Wegman's for Alex, sushi from Wegmans for me. Of course this means that I had to go to Wegmans. Don't get me wrong - it's a fantastic grocery store. But I HATE food shopping. I NEVER go. And I had to pick up some supplies because Alex was so sick, he hadn't been shopping. Of course, I forgot the granola bars, apples, and Gatorade - all of which were on the list in my hands. I'm just not good at this kind of thing.

Wednesday: Tandoori chicken with Major Grey's chutney and an apple-side-thingy. Yes, I kinda cooked. In his infinite charity, Alex cleaned and cut up the chicken while I prepared the tandoori coating. And then it happened. As I was grating the Granny Smith apples on the grater, the food gods demanded a sacrifice. The top half of my left index knuckle. According to Alex, his grandmother swore that food always tasted better with a bit of flesh and blood in it (especially her potato latkes).

So that's it. I cooked (kinda), and he ate. There's a first (and last) time for everything.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From Average to Awesome.

Check out the new banner at the top of the page!  If you're thinking "Wow, Alex, I didn't think you had that level of artistic skill", you would be 100% correct - I'm good at drawing physics diagrams and molecular structures in MS Office products, but not anywhere near that level of sophistication.

So where did this amazing new banner come from?  Major thanks to my blog buddy Rob, who knows a guy.  Who doesn't want to be pals with someone who knows a guy?

Now all I need to do is figure out how to do threaded comments and I'll be a happy camper.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sous Steph: Things I Hear Alex Say When He's Cooking

Hello fellow foodies! Sous Steph here. Alex has finally decided it's safe to let me blog once and awhile. As the title clearly states: he cooks, I eat. That isn't changing anytime soon. Usually, my activities in the kitchen are simple: stir this, hold that, take this out of the oven, get that out of the kitchen/closet, try this, or just sit-there-and-keep-me-company-while-you're-surfing-the-web. I do it all quite well.

For my first post, I thought it would be interesting to give you an idea of what I hear when Alex is cooking. I am usually an observer, which puts me in the same boat as most of you readers. Without much further ado, Things I Hear Alex Say When He's Cooking:

  • "This is coming out awful. We're going to have to order pizza." (We had to do this ONCE, but he says this almost weekly.)
  • "I'm breaking one of Bonnie's Rules."
  • "Can you read the recipe for me?"
  • "Expletive!!!"
  • "It's ruined!" (Again, said often, but never true.)
  • "I'm a genius."
  • "I cook this much better than my mother."
  • "Open the window/door. It's too $%*&)$*$#@ hot in here."
  • "I don't need any more cookbooks. Look at how many I have. I haven't even cooked out of some of these." (One week later, new cookbook gets added to the collection.)
  • "We need a bigger kitchen."
  • "I want to buy a ________ (insert kitchen gadget/appliance here)."
  • "Quick, take a picture! Where's the camera?"
Edit: more sayings I've thought of:
  • "Can you get me _____?" (Always when I'm in my comfy chair in the other room.)
  • "Next time, I'm going to . . . ."
  • "Isn't this fun?" (I respond with a bored look.)
  • "Rachel Ray/Bobby Flay is evil."
  • "Don't you remember, last time this was more/less _____?" (Me: blank stare.)

Butternut Squash Soup

My uncle had called me up a few weeks ago to let me know he was planning on Thanksgiving dinner at his house, which was nice to hear from him rather than through my mother.  When I asked what I could bring, I was expecting the normal response of "just pick up a few bottles of wine", which I was totally fine with since I was going to ask what he was cooking in order to attempt some pairings.  Shockingly enough, he replied "well, what do you want to make?"  Never have I brought anything to dinner at my uncle's, so I was rather flattered that he would ask.  I offered to make soup, he said that would be perfect, and that was that.

I had read the butternut squash soup recipe from the Restaurant Nicholas cookbook, and figured that would be a great recipe to bring to Thanksgiving dinner, as well as an easy first recipe as I attempt to cook my way through this cookbook.  I took my time taking shots of my mise and cooking and what not, and of course I left my camera in East Brunswick.  Apologies in advance for the lack of prep photos, but if you want to see some amazing pictures (and another account of the recipe), check out Rob's post at Cooking Through Nicholas.  No, really, go check it out...I'll wait...

OK, so you're back.  I can't even begin to tell you how easy this recipe is.  Roast some butternut squash, with butter.  Saute your aromatic base of onion, carrot & celery root (my new favorite ingredient).  Make a sachet with cinnamon, cloves and whole nutmeg (my new favorite spice).  Deglaze the pot with cranberry juice (!).  Add broth (I cheated this time and used Swanson Certified Organic, a Test Kitchen favorite) and squash and simmer.  Blend (I went with the stick blender, but if you've got a high-powered machine, use a blender).  That's IT.  Easy.

Here's me making the garnish in my uncle's (the funny-looking one on the right).  The garnish is diced butternut squash sauteed in butter, bacon (!) and dried cranberries.

To plate, Steph added a few drops of lemon oil (which are all that is needed - the recipe called for 1/4 tsp, which was way too overpowering), a Microplane of cinnamon, a mound of garnish in the middle, then a large ladle of soup.  I had my mom pick me up some microarugula at Delicious Orchards, but they looked like (and in fact, were) the last that they had.  We tried it for one plate, then quickly abandoned.  Here's the finished product:

 How did it come out?  The original texture was a bit too thin for some, but (thanks to a suggestion to my blog buddy Rob), we let it simmer for a bit when we reheated it on Saturday night and the texture was much better.  As for the flavor, not surprisingly, was amazing - it tasted like autumn, with the earthiness and spiciness really coming through.  Fortunately, this recipe makes nearly a gallon of soup, so we were able to enjoy it for a few days afterwords, and my uncle ended up keeping a tubful for himself!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pumpkin Agnolotti

First off, I need to thank my sous-Steph, because I could not have been successful in making this recipe without her help.  Even though she swears she doesn't do much to help me out in the kitchen, she definitely does.  Thanks, honey ;)

My mother has been making some manner of pumpkin/squash filled pasta for Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember.  In the past, she's used spinach pasta and made square raviolis, both by free-form and by using a ravioli press.  Just thinking about standing at the Atlas pasta machine and cranking for an hour is making my right arm cramp up.  This year, I was armed with two tools that I haven't had in the past - my mom's KitchenAid pasta rollers, and the Restaurant Nicholas cookbook.

Making the filling was simple - roast a butternut squash and a sweet potato, blend, press through a tamis (which is on my holiday wish list), mix with honey and pumpkin puree and season with salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg.  (Note:  I've never kept whole nutmeg in the house before, I would just buy the ground stuff.  Never again - grating whole nutmeg as you need it is the only way to go).

The pasta dough was rather fun to make - make a well in the middle of flour, add egg yolks and olive oil to the center, and mix until the dough comes together.  Too bad I miscalculated the size of my well, and my wet ingredients went up and over the sides, literally everywhere all over my work surface.  Fortunately, I have cat-like reflexes and was able to save my egg yolks and get my pasta together.  Insert about 10 minutes of hard kneading here:

After the kneading, I was left with a smooth and elastic dough, which I dusted and wrapped for 40 minutes (longer knead time = longer rest).  At that point it was time to let the KitchenAid do its thing and roll out the dough without causing my arm any undue discomfort or pain.

After my pasta was rolled out to the thinnest possible setting, it was time for filling the agnolotti.  I eschewed the pastry bag for a Zip-Loc with the corner snipped to get my filling piped out.  The whole idea, based on the book, was that the pasta was to resemble little 'pillows'.  After a few mishaps (you can see an oozing agnolotti below) and getting the technique down, I got pretty adept at piping, folding, pinching and cutting the individual agnolotti.

The pasta is finished with a brown butter sauce made from butter and Carrot Stock, which I made a batch of this morning from some frozen chicken stock I found in the back of the freezer.  The stuff essentially is a chicken demi-glace, which is then emulsified with 2 sticks of butter and some brown butter to make the sauce.  After the agnolotti get boiled up, they get dressed with the sauce, some sauteed butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, thinly sliced sage leaves, and some grated truffle cheese.

How did it taste?  Damn delicious!  Everything was in balance, even though I swear I didn't get much of the truffle flavor - I think it just all added together into a cohesive dish.  Also, the book calls for "pumpkin seeds", but the picture in the book shows that they are green.  I've never ever seen unshelled pumpkin seeds sold before, so I went with tried-and-true David brand, and they came out great after a nice toast in a dry skillet.

Even though it was time-intensive, this is a dish I would definitely make again!

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Unlike most people, Thanksgiving is an entire weekend activity for me, which suits me fine since it involves my favorite activities - cooking and eating!  I'll be taking lots of pictures and cooking lots of food over the next three days, so expect quite a few blog posts as well.  Here's how the weekend is shaking down:

Thursday - Thanksgiving at my uncle's house.  I'll be preparing the butternut squash soup a la Nicholas.
Friday - 'Thanksgiving' at my mother-in-law's.  Not sure what we're going to be eating, but I'm going to make a spinach salad of some sort.
Saturday - Saturday Thanksgiving at my parents' house.  This is shaping up to be the most ridiculous meal of the weekend, because its when my mom and I really flex our culinary muscles.  I'm planning on Pumpkin Agnolotti (again, from Nicholas), maybe an hors d'oevures or two, and a dessert from the Dessert Fourplay.
Sunday - Leftovers, leftovers, leftovers...and a Jets game.  Awesome.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers, both old friends and new - I hope everyone gets to eat well and have a great meal!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eating Contests

Earlier this evening, I had the pleasure of helping my pal Glenn with the Colts Neck Battle of the Classes, by serving as a judge for the various events.  One of these said events was the ever-so-awful-to-watch eating contest.  Glenn had solicited suggestions during the planning phases and I had suggested a bevy of pastry products - specifically Twinkes... should be noted at this point that I myself once ate 18 Twinkes in 2 minutes as part of an eating contest... this evening, the food of choice was Chef Boyardee.  Room temperature Chef Boyardee.  Yowza.

Here's my question:  If you had to participate in an eating contest, what would be your best food?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nicholas Wine & Cookbook Release Dinner

Steph and I went to Restaurant Nicholas last night for a cookbook release dinner.  I've made my love of Nicholas clear, and Steph and I went into the evening with high expectations.  Needless to say, we were NOT disappointed.

We entered the lower dining room (which has such an intimate ambiance) to a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and some passed hors d'oeuvres.  Lobster Salad with Grilled Scallions on Crispy Wontons were rich and buttery and had great texture. Potato Pancakes with Bacon and Quince Puree were pretty much the most perfect little potato latke, with bacon brunoise (these were both mine and Steph's favorite of the hors d'oeuvres).  Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Soy Sauce were prepared perfectly, although I did not get the 'spicy' in the sauce, but they were still delicious.  Skewers of Curry Marinated Lamb with Curry Yogurt was also excellently prepared, especially since they were just bites, and they could have been easily overcooked (props to Steph who tried them even though she doesn't like curry).  There were Asparagus Crostini with Parmesan and Truffle Vinaigrette, which I tried and didn't particularly like, but Steph was more than happy to eat my share.  All these little bites were perfect to warm up our taste buds and get us ready for the coming feast.

At this point, Chef Nicholas came out and was ever-so-gracious when thanking us for sharing the evening with him, and promised us he'd hurry so we could get home in time to watch the World Series (side note:  I'll trust the chef who is a Yankees fan).  Turns out he invited one of his friends from Italy, Gianluca Grasso of the Elio Grasso vineyard, who brought a truckload of wine along with him, so we'd be eating food paired with a bunch of his wines, primarily Barolos, but with others in there.  While the chef retreated to the kitchen, Gianluca discussed his family's history with winemaking.  It was clear how passionate he was for his craft, and it really shone through with the wines we were poured.

The first course was Venison 'Carpaccio', Jicama and Fig Salad, Pine Nuts.  Steph is a tremendous fan of carpaccio, but she was especially excited because she had never had venison before and was eager to try.  The venison was very rich tasting, without any overwhelming gaminess that sometimes can accompany it.  The jicama and pine nuts provided a textural contrast, and the figs brought along some sweetness to balance out the richness of the meat.  It was paired with a 2008 Chardonnay that is named 'Educato' since the grapes that Gianluca grows are mostly Nebiollo and they had to 'educate' the chardonnay grapes to grow in an area traditionally ruled by red grapes.  An excellent wine - very assertive and stood up well to the strong flavors of the dish.

Next up was the dish I was most looking forward to, and one that I knew I could make my dear friends Meghann and Mike jealous that I was eating it:  Crispy Braised Pork Belly, Gingered Pluots, Napa Cabbage and Peanut Salad.  In a word - WOW.  I love all things pork, and I love bacon especially, but there's not much better than eating pork belly, which is essentially the cut of pork where bacon comes from, but then braised until meltingly tender and crisped up under the broiler.  All the garnishes on the plate accentuated and cut through the richness of the pork, especially the pluots (which neither Steph nor I had ever had before).  I texted Meghann to say 'I have pork belly in my belly - be jealous!'.  Not to fear, MegWow, I have the recipe!  This course was paired with 2008 Dolcetto, which had a very fruity and slightly spicy flavor.

The third course had my favorite of all fungi - truffles, in a Hen Egg Ravioli, Black Truffle, Truffle Butter Sauce.  This dish was inspired by a dish the chef and his wife had during their honeymoon to Italy (which made me enjoy the dish that much more since I knew his inspiration for creating it).  Essentially, this was a ravioli filled with a small amount of ricotta, topped with an egg yolk, then covered and sealed in the pasta, boiled and topped with truffle butter and some fresh shaved truffles.  One of the greatest things I've ever eaten, the odor alone made my mouth water, and the flavor...unreal.  Every bite was rich and earthy and creamy all simultaneously.  This was paired with not one but TWO wines, a 2004 Barolo Ginestra and a 2000 Barolo Runcot.  The difference between the two was the soils in the vineyards they were planted in - one was more sandy and one was more clay - with a definite change in the flavor.  I don't remember as much about these wines as I should - I just remember they were very strong in flavor (not shocking since they were Barolos) and that I had to slow down because I was going to get rather tipsy if I didn't.  The hazards of going to a wine dinner!

The last course, unfortunately, both Stephanie and I felt was the weakest.  Even though Sirloin of Veal, Scallion Whipped Potatoes, Royal Trumpet Mushrooms sounds amazing, it fell flat.  Don't get me wrong - I love me some baby cow, and the meat was excellently prepared, but I felt that all the components of the dish didn't come together as well as they should have.  I don't think it helped that I thought the potatoes were too 'scallion-y', or that I didn't enjoy the mushrooms as much as I should - I also don't think it helped that I had overindulged in the wine.  However, the Barolos (two wines again) were also very assertive and strong in flavor.  Stephanie liked the contrast between a Barolo in this course and from the last, which were from the same vineyards but different years.  Too bad the dish wasn't as great as the others in the dinner.

Finally, some coffee, a quartet of Molten Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream, Chocolate Creme Brulee, Pumpkin Hot Chocolate with Mini-Marshmallow, and Chocolate Ganache with Caramelized Bananas and Peanut Cookie.  Everything was delicious (minus the banana dessert) and was a great end to a delicious meal.

A note about the cookbook:  AMAZING.  Easy to read, easy to follow, lots of pictures of the end results.  It has recipes for all the dishes I hoped it would:  braised pork with cinnamon jus, parisienne gnocchi with artichokes and peas, scallops with truffle-green apple vinaigrette.  I picked one up for my mother as a birthday gift, and I'm really excited about this, and add it to the 'autographed' shelf, too!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Preview: Nicholas Wine Dinner + Cookbook

Just got home a few minutes ago from Restaurant Nicholas.  Hors d'oeuvres, 4 courses + dessert, a boatload of wines and coffee.  I am satisfied to the nth degree.  I'm definitely planning on writing more tomorrow about this - pretty excellent.

Rob - word of advice:  pace yourself on the wines.  They poured two wines for course 3 & 4 - all Barolos, too.  Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming at some points.  Delicious, though.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Weekend of Cooking

Here's a list of everything that I prepared over this weekend:
  • A batch of soboro, which is now frozen and awaiting consumption for lunch.  I still use the meatloaf mix from the supermarket when I make this, but I'm contemplating using all-beef if/when I decide to start grinding my own.
  • 2 dozen pan-fried chicken burgers, also frozen for future lunches.  I wonder how these would come out if I ground up the chicken thighs, rather than putting them through the food processor.
  • A Middle-Eastern feast for Stephanie and my parents - ezme salata, baba ganoush (thanks to Deborah Madison), baked falafel and tahini sauce.  Needless to say, a fantastic and filling meal.  I'm so happy Stephanie has discovered the joys of falafel - she's got a whole new world of culinary exploration open to her now.
  • 3 dozen pumpkin cookies with brown butter icing - thanks to my mother for letting me borrow her pastry bag and 3/8" round tip.  Ironically enough, she asked me what I wanted to Hannukah this year...pastry/decorating tools would be interesting, but I'm not that into baking anyway.  These cookies were ridiculous - earthy and spicy (but not too sweet) cookies, combined with a rich and nutty icing - there were only 6 left this morning (thanks to my parents, Stephanie and I, as well as Brian and Jenny)...and those didn't even last too long.
  • Bacon - I thought it would be very apropos to cook and eat bacon while watching the NYC Marathon...I don't really know why.  I know a lot of people who were running it today, and I thought it would be funny to post on Facebook that I was eating bacon while they were off being insane.
  • Asian-style braised short ribs - I *always* forget that after the ribs are done braising, that I have to degrease the liquid (my least favorite step in any recipe), then reduce over 1 quart of cooking liquid down to 1 cup.  Honestly, I cheat and use cornstarch, because I don't want to wait to eat my delicious short ribs.  Even though I forgot the orange juices at the end, it was still rather tasty (even for an Emeril recipe)
That's it!  Tomorrow is "Meatless" Monday (we're having leftovers for lunch) but for dinner:  Zucchini-Chayote Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce.  Here's my question:  What did YOU cook this weekend?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pasta e Fagioli & Caesar Salad

No pictures this time.  Just a warning.

I'm a big fan of pasta e fagioli - nothing much better than beans, tomatoes, veggies, broth and pasta simmering together to make a filling meal on a cold night.  Literally meaning "pasta and beans", this is yet another dish that originated as a peasant dish (much like cassoulet, corned beef, beef stew, etc) that has transcended its humble roots and become something that is served in restaurants and homes all over the world.  I've usually made this from a mix of dried beans and seasonings - one of the few times I tend to make soup from a mix (admittedly, because the mix is *really* good),  However, like always, I had a Test Kitchen recipe that I wanted to give a whirl and (surprise, surprise) it came out amazing.  Combined with a Caesar salad, it was a great meal.  I liked it so much, I'm posting the recipe.

Pasta e Fagioli (adapted from America's Test Kitchen)
2 slices bacon, minced
1 small onion, minced
1 celery rib, finely chopped
pinch of salt
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 tsp dried oregano
pinch red pepper flakes
1 can diced tomatoes w/ juice
1 can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed (the recipe originally calls for 3/4 c, but I wanted more)
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
2 oz ditalini

Cook bacon in large saucepan over medium-low until fat is rendered and just starting to crisp, 5 minutes.  Add onions, celery, pinch of salt and cook until soft, 5 minutes.  Stir in garlic, oregano and red pepper, cook 30 seconds.
Stir in tomatoes and juice, scrape up fond.  Add beans, heat to simmer, reduce to low and cook until slightly thickened, 5 minutes.  Add broth, water and 1/4 tsp salt, increase heat to high and bring to a boil.  Add pasta and cook until al dente.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

See?  20 minutes for some of the most delicious pasta fagioli you'll ever eat.  Trust me on this one, folks.

Monday, October 26, 2009

After last week absence, we're back and better than ever!

Udon with Stir-Fry and Five-Spice Tofu
Recipe courtesy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Last week, I had planned on making a giant pot of pasta e fagioli, using the most awesome Bean Cuisine mix as a base.  However, the weather was rather unseasonably warm, and the idea of making a giant pot of bean soup didn't really appeal to me so much.  As the week went on, my desire to cook dropped even more, so no true meatless (although I did eat pizza on Wednesday since it was D&D night, technically meatless, but a bit outside of the theme of eating meatless).

In the meantime, I had picked up the Sunday Dinners at Moosewood cookbook, since I've made a dish or two that have come out well from Moosewood.  Too bad this cookbook had way too many side dishes and appetizers, as opposed to more meatless main dish recipes that I was looking for.  Enter Vegeterian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, which has literally TONS of main dishes that I am all about.

It took me literally 20 minutes to cook this meal from start to finish.  I sliced the leeks, peppers, shiitakes and tofu all while the water was boiling for the udon.  The sauce was a mixture of vegetable stock, hoisin, soy sauce, tomato paste, garlic, crushed red pepper and lemon zest.  Once the udon was dropped into the water, everything was stir-fried together.  You saw what the dish looked like plated, this is what it looked like when we were done:

Absolutely delicious - between the textures and the flavors, everything was in contrast but yet still in balance.  If I was going to change anything, I'd add even more mushrooms, and I'd cut the tofu into chunks instead of into strips.  Other than that - I may just make this again next week.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

Grilled Cheese with Portobello, Red Onion and Tomatoes, Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Recipe courtesy of the Top Chef Cookbook

There's not much I like more in this world than grilled cheese and tomato soup.  I'm a bit particular about it, too - white bread, American cheese, tomato soup made with milk (not with water), and dunking my sandwich in the soup.  Awesome.  Nothing I want more when the weather turns cold.  Stephanie is especially partial to my tomato soup recipe, but I wanted to give this one a try.  Plus, it's a great recipe for a Meatless Monday.

First step was to saute and roast some thinly sliced portobellos, grape tomatoes and red onions with some white wine and balsamic vinegar.


Next, I melted some butter with some fresh thyme to get some awesome infused flavor.

Finally, the sandwich assembled on sourdough with some shredded Monterey Jack and provolone, brushed with the infused butter, topped with the roasted vegetables, grilled up in the frying pan.

The red pepper soup is nothing more than a traditional tomato soup base, but with a couple of roasted red peppers and some basil thrown in, then blended.  The verdict - AWESOME!  Then, for dessert:

Grilled cheese, tomato soup, warm and chewy cookies for the win.
What is your favorite cold-weather comfort meal to cook?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One from Michael Mina

Olive Oil-Poached Rack of Lamb
Harissa Ratatouille, Rosemary-Scented Potatoes, Rosemary Gremolata
Recipe courtesy of the Michael Mina Cookbook

My school is off for Columbus Day for the first time ever, I believe, so I took the opportunity to cook up something a little more involved than my usual Sunday fare.  Needless to say, involved doesn't really do this recipe justice, as I ended up using practically all my pots and pans, completely dirtied up my kitchen, and ended up having my entire sink filled to the brim with dirty dishes.  Was it worth it in the end?  Well, keep reading.

I've had poached fish and chicken before, but this recipe intrigued me:  a rack of lamb poached in olive oil, along with traditional aromatics for lamb:  garlic, shallots and rosemary.  I set up one of my bowls over a simmering pot of water, very much the way I'd melt chocolate, but instead dumped in a half a head of garlic, some rosemary sprigs, a halved shallot and 3 cups of olive oil.  I brought it up to heat by bringing the water to a simmer, trying to level my oil temperature at around 135-140...too bad it jumped up to about 160 and I couldn't bring it back down.  Alas, I figured it would drop a bit when I put in my lamb, and it ended up leveling off at around 150, which is a little high a temperature for lamb to be cooked to, but I risked it.  After poaching for 25 minutes in the oil, I pulled the meat out of its bath, then browned it quickly for a minute or 2 on each side in a screaming-hot skillet.

While the lamb was cooking, I made the harissa sauce (roasted red pepper, garlic, red pepper flakes, cumin, coriander, caraway, parsley, olive oil, salt) in the blender and the gremolata (lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, chopped rosemary, olive oil, salt & pepper).  The potatoes were cooked very similar to the lamb, but at a simmer as opposed to a poach, in a bunch of olive oil with some rosemary and shallots.  When they were done, they were fork-tender.

Let me tell you a bit about the ratatouille.  Red and yellow peppers, zucchini and eggplant all diced and sauteed, then set aside.  In the same pot, some onions, garlic and tomato paste, which is then supposed to get mixed into the vegetables.  However, this is where our story turns sour, because I burnt my hands on the pot where I was cooking the onion/garlic/tomato, and dropped the pot, which proceeded to spray tomato ALL OVER my kitchen.  I was PISSED (at myself), and I don't do to well when I'm that mad.  Fortunately, I still had some red onion and my tomato-paste-in-a-toothpaste-tube, and I was able to whip up some more real fast...but I was still really annoyed.  After the ratatouille was made, the harissa got mixed in, and it was time to eat.

How did it taste?  Well, the lamb ended up being perfectly cooked, and was flavorful and rich.  The ratatouille was interesting but enjoyable - Stephanie kept on saying she was surprised by it because the harissa was such an interesting flavor that was unexpected (but not unpleasant) when eating ratatouille.  The potatoes were...well...rosemary-scented and awesome.  I did have a Top Chef moment though, because I totally forgot to spoon the gremolata over the lamb - but Steph didn't even notice so I didn't say anything until afterwords.

The verdict:  DELICIOUS.  Would definitely make it again, and hopefully without the mess ;)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Meatless Tuesday?

Baked Falafel
Lettuce, Tomato, Tahini Sauce
Recipe courtesy of ChowVegan 

My cooking schedule got a bit thrown off this week, so we ended up delaying our Meatless Monday into a Meatless Tuesday-into-Wednesday.  Oh well, no big concern, especially since we had falafel *again* this week.  Don't get me wrong - I am not complaining by any stretch of the imagination.  I would eat falafel every night, I absolutely love the stuff.  However, I think Stephanie might not be too happy (although she is a confirmed falafel freak, she did the happy dance when I told her I was going to make it again this week.)

When I was thinking about making falafel, I wanted to avoid the traditional method of preparing it, which is deep-frying.  Now, I make no bones about my love of all things deep-fried, but I was looking for a baked version for 2 reasons:  eating a deep-fried meal negates the whole point of a Meatless Monday, and I hate deep-frying inside my home.  I perused a number of recipes, and settled on this one - even more non-traditional since it calls for canned beans.  The only change I made to it was I didn't use as much onion, and I jacked up the oven temperature to 450, so they formed a crispy crust.

My only issue is the pita bread - I'm in need of a good Middle Eastern market to get quality pita, since Wegmans brand just isn't up to snuff.  Throw the falafel in a good pita with some shredded lettuce, diced tomato and a heaping spoonful of tahini sauce, and I (and Stephanie) are happy people.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Decadence in a Brownie Pan

Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies
Recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart Cookies

For my friend Brooke's birthday.  She's a sucker for the peanut butter-chocolate combo, so I figured this would be the perfect dessert to bring to a impromptu surprise potluck dinner.  My first tray (this one) came out ever-so-slightly overdone, but that's the problem with using a dark baking tray.  I'm planning on getting all new bakeware sometime soon...shiny and light is better!

Other than that, this was absolutely ridiculous in terms of flavor, and my friends should be prepared for these to make many appearances in the future.

Top Chef Shrimp & Scallop Burgers...

As a pioneer with educational technology in my building, I'm continually telling teachers that it is a good thing to struggle and make mistakes with technology, and that it teaches students an important lesson to see us growing and learning, just as they are.  In that vein, I'm writing this post, and you will hopefully understand my point by the time you get to the bottom of the text.

As part of my Top Chef dinner, I decided to make CJ's Scallop Mousse and Shrimp Burger with Tangerine.  All the ingredients were things that I like:  shrimp, scallops, lime, ginger, sugar, chile pepper, citrus...color me stoked.  The shrimp were halved lengthwise, and the scallops were pureed into a mousse with some pepper flakes, lime juice, and scallions.  Lining one of my Ateco circle cookie cutters with Saran, I layered 6 shrimp halves on the bottom of the ring mold, then spread over some mousse, then topped it again with 6 more shrimp halves.

Here's them wrapped up and ready for the fridge:

A close-up, ready for pan-frying:

Here's a picture of the garnishes, taken by Stephanie (she's rather proud of this photo).  Clockwise from the right is thinly shredded radicchio, thinly shredded spinach, and a sauce made from pickled ginger, pickled ginger juice, lime juice, rice vinegar, scallions and cilantro.  After that sauce came out of the blender, Stephanie started freaking out because of how good everything smelled.  She couldn't wait to eat, and I had to restrain her from just eating the sauce straight from the bowl.

So after the burgers were pan-sauteed, they were placed on a egg twist bun over a slice of tangerine, topped with the radicchio, spinach and sauce.  Looks delicious, right?

Problem:  I didn't like it.  I don't know what it was, but this did absolutely nothing for me, and in fact, I only ate half of it (much to Stephanie's delight, a surprising role reversal with her finishing all the food on my plate).  I don't know if it was the texture of the burger, or the flavor combinations, but everything that I had hoped this dish would be.  Needless to say, I won't be making it again.

I had not planned on writing about this - who wants to write about a dish that they didn't enjoy eating?  Well, Steph pointed out the whole "having people watch you struggle is good" thing to me, and so there you go.  What I want to ask of you, my hidden and silent readers, is this:  tell me about a time that you thought you would absolutely love a recipe and it came out terrible.  I'm curious to hear your stories about this.

Monday, September 14, 2009

(semi)Meatless Monday

Polenta Pie
Recipe courtesy of The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

Welcome to (semi)Meatless Monday, where poor planning and forgetting tortillas at the supermarket yesterday caused Steph and I to have to take our leftovers (Sichuan-style Orange Chicken) for lunch today.  Alas, we'll be taking this meal tomorrow, so it's a Meatless 24-hours, I suppose.

Being that this is a challenge to myself to learn to try different vegetables, I decided on this recipe since it includes zucchini, which is a veggie that I have not learned to like, although admittedly I have passed on it so often, I don't think I even remember just why I don't like it.  It seemed like a good place to start.

This is a polenta crust that is baked, then set up with a thin layer of mozzarella, some sliced tomato, then a mixture of sauteed onions, red peppers, cremini mushrooms, zucchini, garlic and herbs, then topped with more mozzarella and broiled until nice and melted and toasty.  I made the crust with the Quaker cornmeal I had in my pantry, but I think it'd have come out better if I'd used coarse-ground cornmeal like the recipe suggested.  I'd add more tomato as well.  As for the zucchini, I actually don't think I know what it tasted like, but since I ate two helpings, I must've liked it.

I'd like to mention here that I've gotten really good at seasoning my food, and I take pride in the fact that most things I make don't need an extra dose of salt, but this is the 2nd of Katzen's recipes I've made that are underseasoned.  I think I might just write "+1/4 tsp salt" on the cover in Sharpie.

The final word:  Good, not great.  Might make it again.  I'd like suggestions, though - what kind of fillings would you use in a recipe like this?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dinner with the Chef @ Piccola Italia

Disclaimer: The camera battery died. Damn!

We hit up the most awesome Piccola Italia in Ocean, New Jersey for a "Dining with the Chef" culinary demonstration of using mushrooms, one of my favorite ingredients. A cool experience, with a large communal dining room and the chef up front showing us how to prepare all the food we were eating. I liked the idea of being able to ask questions of the chef as he was talking and cooking, and I'm proud to say that my questions (differences between white/black truffle oil, the best way to save mushroom stems and prep mushroom stock at home) were a little more insightful. Whatever - let's talk about the food.

First Course:  Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Strudel, Truffle Butter, Pears
I'm not the biggest fan of working with phyllo, but I'd do it just for this recipe.  Sauteed "wild" mushrooms (a misnomer since all mushrooms are cultivated these days) mixed in with some goat cheese (and cream cheese for body), then encased in the phyllo and roasted.  Truffle butter provided awesome flavor, and some diced ripe pear was a nice foil.  We drank some 2007 Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir.  Delicious.

Second Course:  Cream of Porcini Soup
I love mushroom soup.  Absolutely freaking love it.  This was even more amazing than my normal recipe for mushroom soup.  This is where I was able to sneak in my question about making my own mushroom stock, because I think that it just makes the final dish that much better (you may very well see some for the upcoming Meatless Monday), so now I'm saving all my mushroom stems.  Porcini powder?  Buying it as soon as possible.  I also need to pick up some white truffle oil as well.  The end result was a dish that I was sponging every last bit of soup up with bread - my plate was clean, literally.

Third Course:  Fresh Perciatelli with Crab, Chanterelles, Roasted Corn and Shaved Truffles
I've paired seafood with corn and truffles in the past, but I would not have thought to add mushrooms to the mix.  My shortsightedness - this was absolutely ridiculous in flavor.  The truffles didn't add too much to the flavor, but the aroma really kicked the dish up to a whole new level.  I don't particularly like corn that much (I know, I'm a bad Jersey kid), but this is the 2nd dish in the last few weeks that has had corn as a component that I've really enjoyed.  I'm going to add it to my list of veggies to find ways to like.

Fourth Course:  Foie Gras French Toast with Truffle Zabaglione (FTW!)
They should've just called this "Decadence on a Plate".  A chanterelle-foie mousse piped into a brioche block, then soaked in eggs/rum/cinnamon/awesome and fried up?  Then topped with a Madiera and truffle oil-laced zabaglione?  Holy crap.  It was everything I was hoping for (and more) when I read it on the menu.  Plus, we had a tasting of a ridiculously super-sweet Hungarian dessert wine called Tokaji (or Tokay, in English).  Really strong honey flavors in the nose, carried through the the taste, along with a lingering nuttiness.  The only way this would be able to be consumed is with a super-rich dish like the foie gras french toast, as it cut through all the flavor nicely.

I find it funny how my own job as a teacher affects my life outside of the job.  Every time Brian started talking, all I wanted to do was shush everyone so we could give our attention to the 'teacher' in the room.  Every time I had a question, I had such a hard time just yelling it out, I found myself raising my hand at one point, waiting to be called on.  Silly me.

Props to Chef Brian and to manager (and our friend!) Andrew for a phenomenal evening!  There's a beer event going on in October (natch), but something tells me that Steph and I will be back before then.  If you live in the area, you should go eat there too!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Meatless Monday!

Szechuan Tofu Triangles with Triple Pepper Sauce

Talking with a few people and reading some stuff online has influenced me to try to make a change in the meals I eat during the week.  My college friend Heather, at Running Leaner and Greener, as embarked on a mission called Simple Changes September - little things to do to improve ones health and eco-friendliness.  Now, I'm not an environmentalist by any stretch, but I do my small part here and there (reusable Sigg water bottles and lunch bags, reusable grocery bags, not driving an SUV, etc).  I asked myself - what little change can I do?  My answer?  Meatless Mondays.

Not so little of a change!.  Pretty much everyone who knows me knows there's not much more I enjoy than cooking and eating meat of all kinds.  Really, if I wasn't meant to eat animals, then I wouldn't be genetically predisposed to thinking that they are so damn tasty.  I'm especially partial to all things pork, pig being the magical animal that practically every part is edible.  Even though Steph and I eat a good share of chicken and seafood, there's not much better to me than a delicious pork chop or rib-eye.

Why make a change?  As silly as it sounds, it all comes back to being a teacher, the need to model positive behaviors and make good choices as an example to my students.  Being a public school teacher, I see firsthand the problems faced overweight children, the extreme eating habits (by both the grossly overweight and underweight) and the generally poor choices that my students make when it comes to food.  I can use this choice for a Meatless Monday to live healthier myself, and so in the end I can talk to my students how small changes in their own lives can benefit not only themselves, but others as well.  (Wow, I'm such a cheeseball.)

Lastly, I'm looking at this as a challenge to myself.  While my palate has grown by leaps and bounds as I've gotten older, I'm still very picky when it comes to my vegetables, and there are plenty of veggies out there that I still don't eat.  Doing the Meatless Monday is going to give me incentive and an avenue to try new recipes and find dishes in which I'll be able to (hopefully) learn to like some of those elusive veggies.  Currently, I think eggplant is at the top of my list.

So tonight, I made sauteed tofu triangles, stir fried with onions, peppers, and a nice sauce of honey, soy and garlic.  I've got to tell you - damn tasty!  Everything worked well, and I was satisfied with the texture of the extra-firm tofu, which held up in the cooking.  I'd definitely make this one again, although I'd cut the tofu into cubes and cut the peppers into uniform chunks as well, as opposed to strips and triangles.  Steph and I are off to a good start!

Next week, I'm thinking it's almost autumn, so that means it's time for the fungi to shine.  However, anyone out there have any real tasty meatless recipes they can share?  If something catches my eye, I'll definitely make it!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Spice-Rubbed Chicken Breast Tacos

No pictures tonight, kids.  Apologies in advance.

Here's the recipe, and I followed it pretty faithfully where I could.  The only subs I made was I used Mexican-style hot chili powder vs. ancho chile powder (here's a nice post about the difference), and I used less cumin to compensate.

As I was prepping dinner, I was not happy with some of the individual components of the dish.  The poblanos, while prepped easily, came out tasting horrendously bitter, so I didn't use them.  The guacamole, usually something I prepare well and enjoy, was a bit too citrusy for my tastes.  The slaw was tasty, but had too much mayonnaise than my standard cole slaw recipe.  The only thing I was really happy about was the spice rub for the chicken, which was a clever combination of chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, brown sugar, salt and pepper.

Honestly, Stephanie and I were prepared wanted really wanted to dislike this dish, simply because of the guy who came up with it (I've made my dislike of Bobby Flay very clear).  But let me tell you something.  This recipe was awesome.

Like every dish that ends up being delicious, it was the perfect balance of sweet/spicy, warm/cool and soft/crunchy.  I'd have stopped to take pictures, but it wasn't really photogenic, having chicken, guac, coleslaw and onions jammed and folded into a tortilla.  Absolutely delicious, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tandoori-Spiced Chicken Breast

Tandoori-Spiced Chicken Breast
Grilled Tomato Jam, Herbed Yogurt, Grilled Naan

 Recipe courtesy of Food Network
Had an amazing inservice today with Will Richardson, pretty much the guru of online social interaction with the aim of improving education.  Hearing him speak about the power of the Internet, the goal to have students talk to strangers online, and how people of common interest can get together to exchange information in groups and improve themselves...well, it was really inspiring.  Trust me when I tell you, if you are in any way in the education field, you will want to check out his blog.  I'm buying what he's selling, and I'm not just talking about his book (which I've read, and is awesome).

What does it have to do with food?  Nothing really, but I did get to sneak in my blog address during our discussion.  Inspired by Will, I've got a little map on the right side of the blog now.  I want to add more dots to my map!

I was looking for some clever ways of using some defrosted chicken breasts, and this seemed to fit the bill, despite the fact that Steph prefers another recipe for tandoori I make more often.  The spice paste was rather pungent, and I used a tenth of the cayenne that the recipe called for, and the tomato jam had a nice sweetness from the balsamic vinegar.  Even though I used cilantro and mint in the yogurt (two of Steph's least favorite herbs) it was still refreshing and cooled the heat from the spice paste nicely.  I was a big fan of this dish - lots of flavors coming together nicely.  The only change I'd make (and you should too!) is to halve the spice paste recipe - for 3 chicken breasts, it is far too much.

Would I make it again?  Only if I was cooking for myself - I thought it tasted amazing.  However, I got the "good, but not great" from the wife, so this is one that won't necessarily be going into the recipe file.  If anyone else decides to give it a whirl, please let me know!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Top Chef Dinner

Corn Sopes with Char Siu Pork and Pickled Asian Slaw

Since Steph and I are celebrating the return of Top Tattoo...err...Top Chef, I've decided I'm going to do my best to make a dish from the cookbook on Wednesday nights. Yes, I'm a geek. No, you shouldn't be surprised. This recipe is from the 1st season challenge that required the cheftestants to fuse two SF cuisines, in this case Mexican and Chinese. It was originally made by LeeAnn and Stephen, so we were expecting greatness, which we eventually reached. However, if all of the recipes are going to treat me the way this one did, I'm going to abandon this idea real quick.

Unlike real char siu pork, which is made with pork shoulder, this was made with center cut pork loin. I used the same marinade as my recipe, instead of resorting to the bottled stuff (longer in the kitchen, I know, but well worth it). The slaw is cabbage, carrot and jicama, cooked in boiling vinegar-sugar solution, then drained and chilled. I really liked the jicama since it maintained its crunch up until we ate. The green sauce is an avocado cream (avocado, sour cream, chili oil, lime juice).

The corn sopes gave me the most trouble. Could it have been that I didn't use fresh masa harina? Possibly, and maybe my lazy ass should've driven to the Mexican grocery...but it didn't. When I put the sopes into the oil to fry, they literally melted away into a mushy, oily mess. Not pleased at all, especially since I had been planning on eating at 6 and it was pushing 7:15. So I busted out a little Martha and found her recipe for corn cakes. Hence, we ended up eating a Southern-Mexican-Chinese fusion dish.

How did it taste? Pretty damn good. Great textures, lots of flavor, with everything in balance. Definitely a keeper, and definitely how I'm going to use up leftover char siu come wintertime.

Why My Wife and Parents Win

Anyone who's known me for any reasonable length of time knows that I'm pretty apathetic towards my birthday. Don't get me wrong, it's not an age thing - in fact, I am pumped for my 30s and I think they are going to be awesome. Nor is it because my parents never made a big deal about my birthday - my birthday was the night where I got to choose the meal (whether cooked or out) and I always had great parties as a little kid. Here's where my problems lie:

1. My birthday is September 4th, and it's just a downright awful time of the year. Summer is over, and everyone is usually away or chock full of plans for Labor Day Weekend. Also, since I'm in public education (as is my wife and many of our friends) it is a crazy & stressful time as we're all scrambling around getting everything together for the start of the school year. To that end, I'm usually too stressed out to relax and enjoy my birthday with my friends. I used to get really upset by that, but these days I'm usually just worried about other things that I don't need a party/dinner out/get-together/whatever.

2. It's a double-whammy of not really wanting people to buy me gifts, and not really knowing what I'd want when people insist. My theory is this: if I really wanted something, I'd buy it. Simple. Unfortunately, this facet of my personality has driven my parents and Stephanie crazy over the years.

So, why do my Stephanie and my parents win? My mother had made a suggestion for a birthday gift, one that I had blown off due to lack of need and lack of storage space. She seemed surprised, seeing this item is something I've always wanted, and have resigned myself to the fact that I won't buy until we move into a bigger house. However, Steph won when she made a suggestion about clearing out some knick-knacks into storage and giving me room for said present. Needless to say, I'm actually getting excited about getting this present.

Here's the challenge: The only hints I'll give you are that it is something for the kitchen (shocking, right?) and I need a good amount of storage space for it. Can you guess what it is? Steph, Mom, Dad, Rory, Mike & Laurie are prohibited from answering ;)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Top Chef Food Bonanza

Our friends Mike and Laurie, fellow fans of food and Top Chef, had suggested a few weeks ago to get together for the night of the Top Chef Las Vegas premiere and the Top Chef Masters finale, complete with lots of good food and snarky comments about the cheftestants. Having experience with a get-together like this, and the need for pacing and small bites, I planned my contributions accordingly.

Cucumber, Mango, Several Aromatics

This is from the Alinea cookbook, from which I've been dying to try some recipes out. This one has lots of little components (like most Alinea recipes): thinly sliced English cucumber, mango leather (pureed mango & sugar, spread thin and dehydrated), coriander salt & clove salt (salt + ground spices), candied lemon zest, ginger slivers and saffron threads. It also called for juniper berries, which I could not get my hands on, so I just added a few drops of tasty Hendrick's gin. The cucumber takes a 1-minute bath in a vinegar-sugar solution, then gets rolled up with the mango leather, then topped with the aromatics.

To say that this was bursting with flavor is an understatement. When we ate it, we immediately got the tang from the vinegar, followed up by the cool and sweet, but then the aromatics did their thing, and it was amazing that each flavor kicked in distinctly and individually. It really was a wake-up to our taste buds, and an absolutely delicious bite. I'd make them again for sure.

Jicama Slaw

I'd only had jicama a few times before, and I was let down by those dishes. However, this dish provided a nice crunch and a tangy dressing. I liked the addition of the apples, but I still am not a fan of carrots. I'd make this as a side dish for BBQ.

Italian Meatballs with Sweet-Sour Sauce

Mike had found a recipe that had an interesting twist - along with the standard ingredients (meat, parsley, bread crumbs) this recipe contained minced olives. Steph and I are both pretty strong in our dislike for olives (not for a lack of trying, either) but I was not put off by them in this dish at all. I tried the meatball before saucing, and the olive contributed a subtle saltiness and flavor that really rounded out the flavor of the meat. With the sweet-sour sauce (which was good on its own but 10x better with the meat), this was a great course.

Oysters: Raw, then Deep-Fried with Lemon Cream, Tomato, Capers and Bacon

Wegmans loses again because they would not shuck my oysters, nor did they know when the oysters arrived at the store. However, a call to Wooley's allowed me to pick up a dozen oysters delivered that morning, and shucked 5 minutes before I arrived. Win. I only needed 8 for the fried oysters, so we were able to each devour one raw, much to Stephanie's delight. Mike and Laurie had never eaten a raw oyster before, and we were more than happy to open their eyes to this gastronomic delight. They all had a squeeze of lemon, and Mike added a little hot sauce to his at my suggestion. Note: there are only 3 oysters in the picture above because I got greedy and impatient and scarfed mine down almost immediately.

These oysters were deep-fried (not as crispy as I'd like - I blame the batter) then topped with a salad of tomatoes, capers and shallot, and some crumbled bacon. Again, lots of ingredients working together here: briny oyster, tangy lemon cream, smoky oyster - all added up to a delicious bite that exploded with flavor in the mouth. I'd make these again, but (oddly enough) I would not use as much bacon, as the flavor was a bit overwhelming at times.

Lamb "Lollipops" with Saffron Rice

Seared in the pan, then smeared with Dijon and coated with bread crumbs, rosemary and garlic (both from Mike's garden) then roasted to a perfect medium-rare. This preparation, while simple, provided lamb that was ideally cooked, and full of flavor. I've never really cooked lamb like this before, but I'm inspired to try seeing how easy the process was, and especially if it comes out this good when I make it!

Scallop, Potato-Chive Cake, Corn-Truffle Pudding

This was probably the tastiest thing I ate all night, and one of the easiest, too! The potato cake is nothing more than a fancy potato latke formed with a ring mold, then fried up crisp. The scallop is pan-seared until crusty on both sides & about "medium-rare". The sauce was 2 ears worth of juiced corn kernels, heated until thickened, then spiked with some black truffle butter. Sweet, crispy, earthy - great combination of flavors and textures. Did I mention this was also super-easy to make?

Dry Caramel

For whatever reason, I don't have pictures of the result of this Alinea recipe. Essentially, it's a liquid caramel base that gets dried out by mixing it with tapioca maltodextrin, which is a fat stabilizer. What results is small pellets of dry caramel that reliquify in your mouth. These were served in shot glasses with a little bit of salt. A familiar flavor, served in a unique and playful manner that is as surprising as it is tasty.

Dark Chocolate-Peanut Butter Molten Cakes

By the time we got to this course, it was SO late and both Steph and Laurie were fighting off a food coma. However, I was able to convince them to devour this last course. Unfortunately, I did not know where Steph's camera was, so I was not able to snap a picture of this. However, I really do believe that this is one of the best things I've ever baked, and I'm not much of a baker. The batter was very fudge-like, with a big scoop of peanut butter ganache in the middle that melted down in the oven. Served with vanilla ice cream and homemade whipped cream.

By the time we were all said and done, it was 10:30 and we were stuffed! This first Matassa-Rosenwald collaboration was a great success, and we can't wait until the next one to try out some new recipes.