Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snow days mean one thing...

Not much is better than getting a call at 4:55 AM, looking at my phone, seeing its my buddy Joe, picking up the phone, and saying "What up?" to hear the reply "Duuuuuuuuuuude". I love snow days.

So Steph and I are sitting around, enjoying the fact that we can be mellow in the morning, when she says "Why don't you find a good pancake recipe?" which was surprising, coming from Stephanie. You see, she is a Bisquick Aunt Jemima devotee (as I was just informed), and pancakes is one of the few dishes she is willing to prepare for herself. Whereas I was raised in a house where pancakes were prepared at a thickness that allowed for a nice stack, Steph has always liked ONE BIG PANCAKE. I'll admit, the first time she made me a pancake, I was a bit uncomfortable with a giant, battleship-sized pancake on my plate.

It does need to be mentioned now that watching Steph prepare to eat a pancake is both shocking and hysterical all at the same time. Perfect parallel lines, 1" spaced, rotate 90 degrees, more perfectly parallel lines, 1" spaces. This has got to be how engineers eat their pancakes.

So, I hopped onto eGullet forums, which is a happy home for people who want to talk about EVERYTHING when it comes to food. I found a topic where people were talking about pancakes (92 posts all about pancakes!) and found a recipe that looked both easy and delicious.

taken from paulraphael on egullet

1 1/2 c AP flour
1/3 c sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

1 whole egg
1 egg, separated
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 1/8 c milk

Mix together your dry ingredients. Set aside.

Whisk together the egg and egg yolk until frothy, then whisk in the melted butter and the milk. Whisk up your egg whites until soft peaks form.

Gently mix together the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, then fold in the egg whites.
Take a ladle full of batter, put it into a heated nonstick pan, and cook until bubbles form in the center and the edges look solid. When you flip, use a spatula and don't try to be fancy, otherwise you'll end up with results like this:

Fortunately, I wised up.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wild Mushroom Risotto

I know it's been a while since I've posted, and I know I've been slack on Top Chef recaps (sorry Katya!) but with the end of the marking period coming up as well as the beginning of the *last semester of graduate school*, I've been slightly busy.

So as those of you who keep track of this thing know, I made myself a big batch of chicken stock the other day. I had asked for some suggestions, and I only had one (thanks guys :-P) from Rob, who's blog you should all check out for some more food blogging and some awesome pictures.

He suggested risotto, which I'll admit I haven't made since before I met Stephanie. How ridiculous is that? Therefore, it was decided - I was going risotto alla Milanese which is risotto seasoned with saffron. However, with saffron being horrendously expensive ($16 for like a tsp) I decided to switch gears and go with a wild mushroom risotto. I also made a simple braised chicken breast, as Steph was hesitant on not having a protein, and I was glad to use some more of my stock in the braise and in the jus. However, the star of the show was the risotto.

Wild Mushroom Risotto (makes 4 servings, I scaled it down)
29 oz chicken stock (2 cans, but homemade is best)
1/2 dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
3 tbsp butter, cut into 1 tbsp portions
8 oz fresh mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, chanterelle...whatever you can get your hands on)
salt and pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio rice (the ONLY rice you can use!)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan

In a medium pot, combine the stock, the porcini and 4 cups of water. Bring it up to a boil, and cook the porcini until they are tender. Take them out with a slotted spoon, chop them and set them aside. Put the mushroom stock on low and cover it.

In a larger pot, heat 1 tbsp of butter over medium-high. Add the porcini and the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook while stirring continuously for 4 minutes or so. Dump them onto a plate and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium low, add another portion of butter, melt it down, dump in the onions, season with salt & pepper, and let it sweat for 3 minutes. Pour in the rice, and stir for like a minute until all the grains are nice and coated with fat (this is called the tostatura). Dump in the wine and stir, stir, stir until the wine is mostly absorbed.

Now comes the tedious part. Ladle in a cup of your warm mushroom stock and stir, stir, stir until your stock is almost absorbed. Ladle in another cup and stir, stir, stir (are you sensing a pattern here?). Keep doing this until your stock is gone and your rice is al dente, and your rice is surrounded by a liquid that is the consistency of heavy cream. Take it off the heat, dump in the last portion of butter, the Parmesan and the mushrooms, stir, and serve. If you did everything right, your risotto will spread across the plate but not be liquidy around the edges. Even if you screwed it up, it's going to be delicious!

I'd have had pictures, but alas, the camera was upstairs. Next time, I swear!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Chicken stock, the real way

Needless to say, I don't have any pictures, but I did something I've been planning to do for some time now: make stock.

I've been collecting various chicken parts and pieces over the course of the last month or two - thigh bones, wing parts and wings, extra chicken skin, bits of trim and a chicken carcass from my cutting up a chicken into parts this morning. Everything went into the biggest pot I own, turned on the heat, brought it up to a low simmer, then just chilled out while skimming gunk and foam every now and then. Easiest thing in the world.

In the meantime, my parents rung me up to meet them in Freehold for some falafel, and I was mightily impressed. Actually, I ordered chicken shawarma, and it was extremely tasty. Nice break from sitting around and watching The Dark Knight for the 11th time.

Got back, tossed in about a pound or so of mirepoix (that's 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot and 1 part celery) and a sachet of peppercorns, parsley, thyme, garlic and a bay leaf. Simmered for another hour (OK, maybe a bit more), then strained through some cheesecloth. Done and done, with Mom taking the chicken and vegetables home for Sidney the Great Dane.

How did it come out? Well, right now it is cooling outside, covered in foil in a giant bowl, while it is snowing...and there's this big circle of melted snow around the bowl on the table. Too funny. Seriously, though, it did come out rather clear, maybe a little more cloudy than I'd have liked, but I don't think it's going to be a big problem. I'll probably go out in a few hours and check to see if its cooled down enough.

What to do with it? Well, I'm making Chicken with 40 Garlic Cloves tomorrow, so that's a start. The rest...who knows? Anyone have any ideas?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Candied Almonds

A tasty snack, quick to make, delicious to eat. Just whipped myself up a batch. Awesome.

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 Tbsp cinnamon
1 cup almonds

Mix the water, sugar and cinnamon in a saucepan, and heat over medium until boiling. Dump in the almonds, then stir.

Keep stirring.

Did I say stop?

You're going to want to keep stirring until all the water is gone. That means when it starts to thicken, keep stirring. That means when it starts to turn to syrup, keep stirring. That means when it seems like there's a little bit of liquid left, keep stirring. You want solid lumps of cinnamon-sugar crystals on your almonds and the pan to be completely dry before you stop stirring.

Pour the goodies out on a wax-paper'd plate (I used my quarter-sheet) and let cool for 15 minutes or so. YUM.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Iron Chef Freehold

A few weeks ago, I had received a message from Aaron, the boyfriend of one of my oldest friends, the incomparable Meghann Williams. They wanted to head up to scenic Freehold for an evening of cooking and eating and drinking. Oh please...twist my arm! I met Meghann during orientation during our freshman year of college (10 years ago!) as she lived down the hall from me and I was desperately in love with her roommate, but I lucked out in ending up with a great friend. I don't get to see her as often as I'd like, so I was definitely looking forward to this event. Oh yeah, Aaron's pretty cool, too! (Here ends the sappiness).

So after a bunch of traded Facebook messages and phone calls, we sort of semi-finalize our menu...which of course gets changed a bit when we get to Wegmans, and definitely altered once we realized our stomachs couldn't keep up with our will to keep eating. Either way, it was an absolute blast spending the day with Meghann and Aaron, and we can't wait to do this again soon! After the break, there's a full description of everything that was eaten, with pictures, thank you Stephanie!

Aaron's cooking repertoire resides in Italy, which presented a short mental roadblock to me, as my favorite flavors to work with usually involve soy sauce, citrus and ginger. However, I'm always down for a trip to the Mediterranean, so I scoured some cookbooks and came up with some good ideas. Here's how things went:

Course 1: Haloumi with Peppers and Honey

I'd never eaten haloumi before, and it was definitely a tasty treat. Aaron had also brought some special honey from California to go with this dish, which was simplicity itself. He cut up the cheese into bite-size pieces, then sauteed them in a little bit of olive oil until golden brown, then mixed in some sauteed diced peppers and the honey. The cool thing was that the cheese didn't melt, but maintained a firmness that was pleasant and made this fun squeaky sound when we bit into it. Definitely something I'm going to work into my repertoire.

Course 2: Butter-Poached Garlic Shrimp

Here's an old stand-by of mine. Big 13-15 count shrimp, marinated quickly in a bunch of minced raw garlic, olive oil and some red pepper flakes. A big pan of butter (with some olive oil) heated up over a low flame with 5-6 crushed garlic cloves, until they are nice and golden. In goes the shrimp, and they are poached slowly and carefully until they are tender and delicious. Pour the whole thing out on the plate, and serve with some crusty bread to sop up the sauce. Could've used a bit of lemon to cut through the rich butter, though. Alas, forgot it.

Course 3: Fried Zucchini and Mozzarella

Pretty straightforward course from Aaron, with the tomato sauce being full of onion and garlic flavor. I'm not a fan of zucchini, but I still gave it a try.....and I'm still not a fan of zucchini. I'd have passed the mandoline over to Aaron, as it's way more fun to cut vegetables using the mandoline than with the knife. The mozzarella was tasty and gooey and everything it should've been. A very successful dish!

Course 4: Potato, Bacon and Rosemary Pizza

Something I had read about, and was definitely interested to make. I rendered down the bacon and cut it into lardons (should've reversed that), sliced my red potatoes super-thin on the mandoline, picked some rosemary leaves, arranged it oh-so-artfully over a pizza crust, sprinkled with parmesan, then threw it in the oven. I'd have liked the potatoes to crisp up a bit more, but I was afraid of overcooking my crust. Despite that, a successful dish, one I am definitely going to be making again.

Course 5: Roasted Cream of Tomato Soup and Grilled Four-Cheese Sandwiches

This was a combination of our efforts, with Aaron making the sandwiches and me prepping the soup, which is a recipe I've made before. I dont' recall the three cheese in the sandwich, but it was coated in egg and parmesan then fried. The combo was delicious, and you can see how much we enjoyed it here and here.

Course 6: Transparency of Manchego Cheese

This was something from the Alinea cookbook, which I've been dying to cook something from. In this case, it was a dish that had a super-thin slice of manchego cheese melted over a pool of olive oil pudding, squares of roasted peppers, cubes of sourdough, some chopped anchovie fillet, roasted garlic and dehydrated olives. I dehydrated the olives at 350 while I roasted the garlic, and they came out crunchy and super-concentrated in flavor (Meghann and Aaron loved them). My first attempt at the olive oil pudding did not work out quite the way I had hoped (as I believe I did not get it up to the proper temperature) but my 2nd attempt came out way better. So on the plate went some of the pudding (squeezed out of a mustard bottle), with the various garnishes over, finished with a super-thin slice of manchego, melted with a blowtorch.

Unfortunately, Steph, at this point, was nursing both a pretty fierce buzz and an upset stomach, so she didn't snap a pic. Meghann, did you? This was really rather interesting, with some cool temperature contrast between the cool pudding and the warm cheese. Each of the flavors was extremely complementary and was all-in-all a delicious dish. I was very happy how it came out...and even more happy that I had made my first recipe from the Alinea book!

Course 7: Gnocchi with Parmesan Cream and Prosciutto

At this point in the meal, everyone was flagging, and this was bad because we still had tons of things left to serve - spinach with cara navels and candied almonds, spincah-ricotta dumplings with pecan-sage-butter, sole with lemon and capers, meatballs with amaretti, sous-vide lamb tenderloin with wine-braised red cabbage, date compote and rosemary (another Alinea dish), chicken stuffed with locatelli and cheese...but this dish was where we drew the line.

The gnocchi were soft and tender, and the sauce set up and thickened very nicely after a few minutes. I'm a tremendous fan of gnocchi, and I never eat it, and these made me very happy to nosh on. What's not to like about starch, cheese and pork products?

So at this point, we decided to call it an evening, even though we had a refrigerator filled with prepped food. That's what we get when we start eating tons of starch and cheese and don't pace ourselves as well as we should. Cooking with Aaron made me reflect a bit on my own practice, as I was amazed watching him just throw ingredients together, without much regard for amounts...simply cooking on feel rather than on strict method. I, on the other hand, am a bit more OCD, making careful measurements and going so far as to use a kitchen scale to portion out my ingredients (something I have become more and more of a fan of as I have grown as a home chef). Steph points out (rightly) that it's the science vs. art dichotomy, where I'm more driven by measurement and precision (as the scientist) whereas Aaron can exercise that creativity and freedom from rigidity (as the artist). I didn't think of it quite like that, but as I've mulled it over, she may be on to something.

Despite the stuffedness and the 3 lb I put on, I had a great time cooking with Aaron and getting to spend time with him and Meghann. Can't wait to do it again!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to whoever it is that happens to be keeping tabs on my little corner of cyberspace. I'm not one for resolutions, but I am going to try to write more and take more pictures. I can promise you that there will probably be an amazingly long and picture-filled post on Sunday because our good friends Meghann and Aaron are coming up, and Aaron and I are going to be cooking up a veritable feast. I'm looking forward to it, as I think I'm pretty talented...but Aaron is that much better. Stay posted.

Steph and I, being the recipients of some generous gifts from relatives, decided we would go out to a really fancy dinner for New Years Eve, before meeting up with friends. We decided on Piccola Italia in Ocean, for a good number of reasons. First off, Stephanie had eaten here over the summer for Laura's bachelorette dinner, and said the food was amazing. Second, we'd met the general manager through Joe and Brian and company a few times, and we'd had some good talks about good food and good eating, and I wanted to renew the acquaintance. Finally, everyone I've talked to (other than Steph) has raved about the food. So away we went...

So we arrive to a practically dead dining room, but I was OK with that because it only meant better service for us! The New Years Eve menu was a three-course prix fixe, with an app, entree and dessert. Very straightforward. We say hi to Andrew (the manager) and talk to our waiter about food and wine, saying we'd like pairings for the dishes we were choosing, but only by the glass. I do have to say up front that Andrew (who I believe also acts as the wine captain/sommelier) did an amazing job. So here's where our meal went (you can see the menu here):

Amuse: A 'gift from the chef', a baby tartlet of asparagus, truffled cheese and mache with basil oil. Creaminess, earthiness and tastiness, all wrapped up in a single bite (which is something those Top Chef people still don't get about an amuse). I'm no fan of asparagus, but this was delicious, and got us warmed up (along with a glass of house prosecco, which definitely helped)

App: Since it was New Years, and I felt like celebrating with my awesome wife, I decided to buck the low-cholesterol diet and order the seared foie gras with apricot corn bread and the cranberry gastrique. If you've never eaten foie gras...there's really nothing like it, and there's no way to describe it. Amazing. Paired with a moscato that was perfect and cut through the richness of the foie. I'd eat this every day if my cholesterol and wallet would hold up. Steph ordered the "Fire and Ice" oysters (paired with a Sauvignon Blanc) which was 3 polenta-breaded fried oysters with a chili sauce and 3 half-shell raw oysters. I am happy to have turned Steph on to eating oysters, as she always enjoys them. Last night was no different.

Salad: A bonus course from Andrew, baby field greens with goat cheese, walnuts...and something something something because at that point I stopped paying attention. However, both Andrew and the waiter were extremely apologetic, and brought me out what was probably the most tasty Caesar salad I've ever eaten. 3 planks of romaine hearts stacked with shaved Piave and white anchovies, with a tomato confit and some garlic croutons. I've never had anchovies when they weren't mashed or blended into a sauce or a soup...but this was out of this world. I am a changed man and am willing to open my mind to the world of anchovies (mind you, *quality* anchovies like these). It needs to be noted that noone else seated around us (as we were observing later in the evening) was brought out salads :)

Entree: Steph ordered porcini-dusted scallops with mushrooms, truffle butter and mache, paired with a Chardonnay (might have been a white Bordeaux) that was unoaked, to let the subtle sweetness really work with the earthiness of the mushrooms and the sweetness of the scallop. Out of this world. I got the double-cut veal chop (out of the norm for me, but tender and delicious) with a chestnut truffle bread pudding (amazing), hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (unreal) and a marrow/truffle reduction, which was just about the most luxurious and amazing sauce I've ever had (the asparagus on the plate sat lonely and ignored). It was paired with a California meritage Syrah/Cabarnet blend, which I really enjoyed, despite the fact that I am usually not a fan of Syrah, as I find it to be far too spicy and bold. In this wine, however, everything was balanced and was an excellent complement to the meal.

Cheese: After our entrees were cleared, our amazing waiter comes back to ask if we would be interested in a cheese tasting before he had to ask. Of course we agree, and out comes a plate for 2, consisting of some Piave, Taleggio, aged sharp Provolone and a ball tasted like chevre, which was a bit of a bummer seeing we were in an Italian restaurant. Steph enjoyed the Piave quite a bit, as well as the provolone, leaving the good stuff (the taleggio and the chevre) to me. It also should be noted at this point that, even though we paid for the cheese, no other tables were being offered the option of supplementing their meal. Woot!

Dessert: A "teardrop" of chocolate and espresso mousse, with vanilla gelato and a raspberry coulis. Pretty standard stuff, but still delicious. Maybe the portion was a bit too big, but I'm not terribly upset. With a cup of coffee, it was the perfect ending to the meal.

So that was our New Years dinner, one with which we are still extremely satisfied. We will definitely be back to Picolla, hopefully sooner rather than later!