Sunday, February 28, 2010

Iron Chef Philly

We've got these friends; let's call them Meghann and Aaron.  Let me tell you about them: they are two of the busiest people I know.  Meghann is a founding member of the Flashpoint Theatre Company, and is currently preparing to run the show she wrote, Chlamidya Dell'Arte: A Sex-Ed BurlesqueAaron, an award-winning theater guy,  is a professor at University of the Arts and is currently working on a play called Blue Monster, which he and his friend Fabrizio translated from the mid-18th century Italian manuscript.  They are always running and always working.  They do, however, know how to slow down enough to enjoy delicious food and good wine, and some of my favorite times have involved the four of us sitting around with a bottle of wine, some tasty foods and going on about god-knows-what (usually food, theatre and sports).  This past weekend was no exception.

Since we had hosted Iron Chef Freehold last year, Meghann and Aaron wanted us to come down to Philly to see their place (fulfilling one of Steph's 101) and to host our feast.  We both learned our lessons from last year:  slower pace with the wine, prior planning, lighter food, less courses and smaller portions, in order to avoid a mid-meal crash like we had last year.  Needless to say, not only did we finish all of our food, but we also drank all our wine and stayed awake (mostly) during the entire meal.  Props to us!  Our culinary adventure begins...

Appetizer:  Scallops Two Ways with Lemon & Caviar

This recipe is courtesy of the Michael Mina cookbook, from which I've made a few recipes successfully.  I made a variation of this recipe once before and it came out amazing, so I figured that this would be a great starter for our meal.  The cold portion is a scallop ceviche, which is a fish preparation which involves marinating the fish in an acid (in this case lemon juice).  The fish is still raw - the reaction between it and the acid causes the fish to appear opaque and 'cooked'.  The ceviche is topped with caviar and a small drizzle of olive oil.  The hot preparation is seared scallops over a potato cake with caviar and beurre blanc sauce.  The shallot tried to avoid its fate of simmering in cream and butter by trying to escape behind the refrigerator, but Aaron and I were able to recover it with relatively little bloodshed.  Preparation for this one was easy, easy enough to make on a weeknight if I wanted.  I'll also admit that I've never actually bought my own caviar before, and my hands were a little shaky when I was trying to plate it as I had such a tiny amount to work with.

How did it come out?  Holy cow, it was amazing, with similar flavor profiles with two different temperatures and textures.  The ceviche marinated the perfect amount of time, and the flavor was out of this world.  The hot scallops could have been seared for like 10 seconds more, but I'm not complaining - they had a nice crust on them.  I'd like to point out how happy I was that my sauce didn't break - emulsified sauces can sense fear, and I was trying my best to be confident with it.  Did I mention the mountain of caviar on each scallop?  I got the highest compliments from my friends and wife:  it tasted like it came out of a restaurant kitchen.  I'd like to take some credit, but I guess it really goes to the Mina group - they sure know how to write a cookbook.

Soup:  White Bean Soup with Bacon and Herbs
Picture to be added when I get one.
Like I mentioned earlier, Meghann and Aaron live in Philadelphia, which means that they revere Jose Garces like many Philadelphia foodies are want to do.  They've eaten at every one of his restaurants, and are tremendous fans.  They told us a tale of one night, they went to one of his places, and ordered the suckling pig (omg) and they wheeled out the entire pig into the dining room (OMG) and carved it tableside ().  Why haven't I eaten there yet?  Anyway, according to them, there was this white bean spread that was served as a side, and when Meghann was trying to find the recipe for it online, they found the recipe for this soup.  This recipe was another one that was simple in method, which Meghann did easily and quickly prepped and put up to simmer.

How did it come out?  Ridiculous.  Anything that involves rendering bacon fat, then cooking vegetables in said bacon fat is something that I want a piece of.  Light, smoky with awesome crispiness from the bacon and great texture from the beans and the vegetables.  It was everything I love in a soup, and will definitely be making that recipe sometime soon.

Salad:  Bibb Lettuce, Haricot Vert, Honey-Citrus Vinaigrette
Picture to be added when I get one.
Aaron told us he was trying to emulate a salad they had eaten at another of Garces's restaurants.  Tender lettuce, crunchy 'haricot vert' and a tangy and sweet dressing.  I believe he said this was the 3rd time he was trying to get the recipe down, playing with different types of vinegar (white vinegar this time).

How did it come out?  Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of green beans (though I tried them!), but Steph said they were cooked perfectly.  There was a sweetness and nice acidity to the dressing, without being overly tart.  Also, the perfect amount to dress the salad - not much more I can't stand at restaurants when they drown the salad in dressing.

Meat:  Slow-Cooked Lamb Shank with Israeli Couscous and Tomato-Herb Sauce

Both Steph and I are big fans of lamb, and I've been cooking it more and more of late, as it's a dense, filling and lean protein.  Our lamb consumption has been primarily of either rack of lamb or ground lamb loin, so I was definitely intrigued when Aaron said he was preparing lamb shoulder.  It should be mentioned that when Meghann went to buy the lamb, they wheeled out an entire lamb and asked her which part she wanted - she went with shanks because it was a smaller portion than the entire shoulder, which they were more than happy to lop off for her.  These were seared then put in the slow cooker with carrots, celery, tomatoes and herbs, and left to simmer away in their moist heat.  Aaron then toasted the hell out of the couscous and added already-simmering stock to it (a new technique to me, I usually bring the couscous and broth up to a simmer together.)  Plating was a cinch.

How did it come out?  Let me put it like this - I need to start sourcing lamb shanks ASAP (fortunately, I think Wegmans carries them).  It never ceases to amaze me how low-and-slow cooking can break down a tough cut of meat into something that is so tender that it can be eaten with a spoon.  The meat was flavorful and the texture was perfect, and the vegetables in the sauce were tender and soft without being mushy.  It was a good amount of meat, and the couscous (in place of the pasta that the recipe called for) was a perfect compliment and allowed for all the sauce to be eaten up.  This was definitely a win, and I'm going to definitely give this and some other lamb shank recipes a whirl.

Dessert:  Mango Lhassi, Coconut Pain Perdu with Papaya-Lime Compote & Cream Cheese Ice Cream

Dessert was put in my court, and I definitely did not want to disappoint.  I'd bought the Dessert Fourplay book a while back, and had made a dish from it, but it had been seriously gathering dust on my shelf.  I figured this would be the perfect time to brush it off and make something from the "Tropical Fruits Fourplay" for the winter season.  The lhassi was a combination of mango puree, yogurt, skim milk, cinnamon and rosewater, then poured over diced kiwi, mango and papaya.  The pain perdu is made from challah (I eschewed making my own brioche) dunked in a custard made with coconut milk, heavy cream, eggs and sugar, with a bit of vanilla and coconut rum thrown in.  The papaya-lime compote is nothing more than papayas, simple syrup, lime juice and lime zest.  The ice cream was made from a base of whole milk, sugar, corn syrup, nonfat milk powder, some lemon juice and a pound of cream cheese, chilled then frozen in the ice cream machine.

How did it come out?  This was another course that I was extremely proud of.  The plating and presentation was not as refined as the scallops was (I couldn't get carrot juice to form a froth to top the lhassi) but I was exceedingly pleased with the flavors and textures.  The lhassi was cool and creamy, and I loved the different diced fruits.  The pain perdu came out much better than I expected, and was cooked perfectly, despite the dark color in the picture.

I'm going to dedicate an entire paragraph to the cream cheese ice cream.  It was all I could do to not eat this stuff straight from the bowl before I froze it, not to mention after it was done chilling and then frozen in the ice cream machine.  This stuff was absolutely amazing, a bit sour, and not overly sweet - when I was done licking the bowl that the base was chilled in, it looked like one of my mom's Great Danes had gotten a hold of it and cleaned it out.  Stephanie definitely did her part in helping lick the spatulas and bowls.  This stuff was so good that Aaron couldn't get enough, went back to the kitchen and got the rest of it for all of us to nom on.  When we woke up this morning, apparently the first thing we all talked about was how good this ice cream was.  I can't wait until summertime to eat it with some fresh raspberries.  I'm not even upset anymore that I bought 5 lb of nonfat milk powder for .08 lb of the stuff (although I am taking suggestions if anyone knows other stuff I can make with the nonfat milk powder, other than milk of course).

Saturday night we devoured 5 courses and 4 bottles of wine, then partook in some of Harry Potter Scene-It (won by the incomparably knowlegeable Meghann), some Olympics and Costas-bashing before we finally passed out in a blissfully tipsy and satiated haze.  This morning, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, french toast and leftover potato cakes before Aaron and Meghann had to run off to be busy theatre people once more.  Fortunately, I was only 8 blocks from Pats, so I finished my Philadelphia weekend with some Wiz wid'.  I probably used up my entire weekly allotment of WW points, but it was so worth it.

I'm just glad Stephanie and I got to spend such an amazing time with such amazing friends when they were both able to be on 'pause' at the same time.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Can you guess what this is?

18 cups all purpose flour
6 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
17 teaspoons baking powder
6 teaspoons baking soda
2 ¾ teaspoons salt
14 ½ pounds unsalted butter
12 cups sour cream
41 teaspoons vanilla
9 egg whites
32 eggs
12 cups sugar
126 ounces bittersweet chocolate
9 cups Crisco
54 teaspoons butter flavor
3 ¾ cups heavy cream
22 pounds powdered sugar
4 tablespoons Crème of Tartar
30 pounds fondant
16 ounces piping gel
Various color gels and edible glitters

Click here to see a picture of the final product.

I will be collaborating with my mother on a blog post sometime either this week or next week.  I, for one, am simply in awe of that list of ingredients...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why I Cook

Friday, Ruhlman posed a question for other food bloggers to answer:  "Why do you cook?"  Needless to say, I've been thinking about it for the past day or so, and I think I've got some good answers.
  • I cook because I enjoy the step-by-step method of following a recipe.  Must be the science geek in me.  Also, probably why I read cookbooks for fun.
  • I cook because I love having a pile of ingredients get broken down, chopped, whisked, sliced, measured, diced, trimmed, brunoise and what not for the mise en place.
  • I cook because with every new recipe, every new ingredient and every new technique, I'm improving myself and honing my skills that much more.  I'll never be as good as the star chefs you see on Food Network or the line cooks toiling away in good restaurants, but I'm damn well going to try my hardest.
  • I cook to bring pleasure to my friends and family.  Not much better than hearing the sounds of people trying to tell me how good a dish tastes, but not being able to because their mouths are full.  Even better when my uncle keeps the leftover soup from Thanksgiving because he liked it so much, or when my mother comes to me for some of my recipes.
  • I cook because my friends probably wouldn't be too happy if I showed up empty-handed at parties.
  • I cook to relax (see item #2 above), but Steph will tell you I'm never relaxed in the kitchen - I just get frustrated when I make stupid mistakes that I shouldn't make.
  • I cook to eat healthier meals than I would if I ate out every night.
  • I cook because of the lessons learned from my mother, my grandmother and my uncle - all highly accomplished cooks in their own right who have greatly influenced how I approach meal preparation and planning.  I can't ever thank them enough!
Really, in the end, I cook because I enjoy cooking, and my wife doesn't.  Enough said.

So that's the question:  Why do you cook?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Candy.

According to this National Geographic article, 47% of consumers in this country will exchange candy this upcoming Valentine's Day, which totals up to a billion dollars in sales.  That's a lot of candy!  Instead of spending a bunch of money to buy your significant other some candy, why not impress them with some homemade goodness, made with ingredients readily available in your cabinets and refrigerators?

I'm not entirely why I was looking at David Lebovitz's blog, but I was browsing along and came across this delicious recipe for chocolate-almond buttercrunch toffee.  I was hooked by the name alone!  However, I was held back by the fact that I've been really good about sticking to my eating plan (and losing 20 lb since Christmas), but with the day off today, I couldn't resist the call of sweet and delicious toffee.

I found a sealed bag of slivered almonds in the back of my freezer, so they went into the frying pan to get lightly toasted, then spread half of them onto a quarter sheet that was extremely lightly oiled with about a 1/2 teaspoon of grapeseed oil.  Looking back, I could have toasted the almonds a little more, but I didn't want them to burn.

Into a saucepan goes a stick of butter, sugar, brown sugar, salt and water, then it gets brought up to a nice and toasty 300 degrees.  As an aside, I love my digital thermometer, but I need to get me a traditional glass candy thermometer - more reliable and easier to deal with.

After reaching temperature, in goes some vanilla and a little bit of baking soda (which causes the stuff to foam up like crazy).  It gets poured out onto the sheet with the almonds, then gets topped with semisweet chocolate.  The chocolate sits for about 2 minutes, at which point it gets all melted and then spread over the toffee...

...and sprinkled with the rest of the almonds, cooled and broken into pieces.

To say that it is decadent and delicious would be an understatement - this stuff is just as good (if not better) than anything you could buy in the store, and was made with ingredients that probably added up to about $4 or so.  Do yourself a favor - put down the Old Monmouth and go get yourself candy-making tomorrow.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snowtorious B.I.G.

Nothing better on a snow day than to make a meal that warms you to the core with one bite.  Today would be a perfect day for cassoulet, but my recipe involves massive amounts of meat, sausage, onions, tomatoes and beans, all cooked in delicious bacon fat.  Too bad that's not in the cards these days.

Diced tomatoes, white wine, garlic, thyme & a bay leaf, cannellini beans, kielbasa, tomato paste, minced onions and chopped kale...


...all added to the pot at various points in time, along with a bit of chicken stock...

...then topped with torn baguette and thrown into the oven to brown, and you've got one of the better meals you could possibly have on a snow day (except for braised short ribs, of course).  For dessert?  Brownie sundae, for 7 points!

What did you cook today?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Crusted Bass with Sherry Broth

Tonight, I attempted my third recipe from the Restaurant Nicholas cookbook, one of the better dishes I've had at Nicholas:  Crusted Black Sea Bass with Banyuls Broth.  At the restaurant, you get a perfectly cooked fillet of fish (I've had only the bar portion, so it was a very petite fillet!) resting on a sliced fingerling potato, some halved grape tomatoes and a chopped up haricot vert or two.  Then, one of my favorite aspects of dining at Nicholas occurs - tableside service!  The waiter brings over a sauce boat filled with the most delicious mushroom-Banyul vinegar flavored broth, and pours it around the fish, at which point you get to dig in and enjoy the deliciousness.  Sadly, I don't think this measured up to my previous attempt from this book.

First obstacle - finding Banyuls vinegar.  Know your food (with some help from here):  Banyuls wine vinegar is made from grapes grown in the French region of Banyuls-sur-Mer.  Aged in oak barrels, it matures for over 5 years developing a somewhat tart or sour tasting vinegar that develops a complex nutty flavor. It's been ridiculously hard to source locally - I tried Wegmans and Whole Foods (Chef Nicholas's personal suggestion), as well as Delicious Orchards and Sickles Market - all to no avail.  Now, you are saying to yourself  'Alex, order it online!' but it was a bit of a stretch when all I needed was 2 tbsp of the stuff.  I ended up substituting some tasty sherry vinegar I had in my cupboard.

Second obstacle - finding black sea bass:  I had planned on heading to Woolley's after work to pick up fish, but I ended up getting roped into a 'curriculum meeting' with some fellow teachers.  Somewhere along the way, I got it in my head that I could get skin-on bass at Norkus, so I went there first..  Nope!  I then remembered one of my coworkers told me Top Tomato had an excellent fish selection.  Nope!  Finally, I ended up going where I had originally intended - Woolley's Fish Market.  The only whole bass they had was striped bass, so I bought one, and had the fine workers there fillet it for me - I'm not quite confident of my skills in handling a whole fish just yet.

Third obstacle - crazy shoppers preparing for the Snowpocalypse:  It's not a surprise that this snowstorm just popped up, people.  Did you think of maybe going to the supermarket yesterday?  Also, let me point out the absurdity of buying tons of milk, eggs and bread - you should be buying things like carrots, potatoes and cheap roasts, or beans and tomatoes and chili spices!  That's sustenance on a cold day (unless you are planning on making tons of French toast or bread pudding, and in that case I forgive you for buying all that stuff).

First step was to get my broth up and going.  Into the pot went mushrooms sauteed in butter, honey, soy sauce, sherry vinegar, lemon juice and some water, brought to a simmer for a decent amount of time.


While that was simmering on a back burner, I prepared the crust for the bass, which consisted of hazelnuts, almonds, coriander seeds, peppercorns and sesame seeds (not pictured) all toasted and then ground in the spice grinder.  At this point, the smell of the toasting nuts and spices combined with the odors from the simmering broth were highly intoxicating.

Making 1/2 a recipe of the spice mix made TONS of crust for the fish.  I mean, like enough for a double recipe.  This is also my screw-up of the evening, where I didn't halve the amount of peppercorns.  I couldn't figure out why there was such an overwhelming pepper flavor in the finished dish, then I went and rechecked the recipe, only to realize my blunder, aka Screw-Up #1.

At this point I got a water bath boiling and cooked up my fingerling potatoes, as well as blanched some small green beans and a few grape tomatoes. 

I then crusted the fish on the flesh side with the spice mix, and dusted the skin side with Wondra flour.  They went into the saute pan with some grapeseed oil.  Screw-up #2 occurred at this point, turning off the wrong burner - I couldn't figure out why my fish skin wasn't crispy after 3 minutes - could it be that I had the burner off?!?  Idiot me.  Anyway, got the heat back, cooked the fish and plated, resting the fillets above my garnish.  At that point, I finished my sauce by heating the strained broth with some brown butter (Screw-up #3 - burned 1 batch of brown butter, undercooked another, didn't have enough time to solidify, so my broth broke) and added some chopped oregano and tarragon.  Then, tableside service!


The finished dish - I was very doubtful as to the successful outcome of the dish, so I was not as careful to try to get a picture that matched the book.  I was also extremely hungry at this point, and I didn't have much of patience to wait to compose a picture!

Stephanie thought the dish was a success, but I am a bit harder on myself (per usual).  The dish had way too much pepper in it (see Screw-Up #1) and I wasn't a fan of the way the skin finished up (see Screw-Up #2).  I also tend to think that there was too much tarragon in the broth, the flavor was a bit too assertive.  Would I try it again?  Sure, now that I know where mistakes were made and how I could improve upon the technique.  I may very well blow $30 for that bottle of Banyuls vinegar, too :)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pickles, addendum.

I could go into some long-winded description about the pickles I made last weekend, but here it is in one word.


Seriously, folks, it is well worth the time and little bit of effort necessary to make your own homemade pickles, finding whatever recipe suits your fancy.  In our household, it appears that Stephanie is a big fan of the slightly sweet dill variety, but I'm hoping to experiment with some other recipes that are a little bit more spicy to pair up with the sweetness.  I'll probably experiment with some crushed red peppers, or maybe throw some hot long green peppers in with the pickles to marinate.

Things I'd change from the recipe:  Chuck the slices, spears are the only way to go.  Other than that, I'd also put the dill at the bottom, then stick the onion slices between the spears.  Not so much a change in the recipe, but rather the construction.

We're already through 1 jar, and we're working on #2.  Something tells me that by this weekend, I'll be making another batch...perhaps to bring along to a Super Bowl shindig?