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?