Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

1,001 uses for leftover pasta

After visiting Italy, I am fundamentally convinced pasta is or should be its own food group. You can add just about anything to a pasta and mix it with a million different sauce options - go Asian, Italian, Mexican, or heck - German. Add a protein and vegetable for a complete, possibly one-dish meal.

Courtesy of wikipedia.com
After making all of those lovely lasagna noodles, I was left with a million possibilities to use the plentiful leftovers.  What to do, what to do.... One option was rollatinis - roll up fillings in the noodles and bake in a sauce.  
Courtesy of foodnetwork.com

Another option was to tear the noodles up into "rags" and make a pasta dish. 

Spaghetti Frittata Recipe
Courtesy of EatingWell.com
A third I considered was a spaghetti fritatta - slicing the pasta into thin ribbons and cooking in an omelet base. 

Any and all of them are worthy candidates, and in due time, I will probably try them all.  But today, when I thought of rollatini, it made me think it was too similar to lasagna.  And when I considered fritatta, I didn't want another baked dish, so pasta rags it was!  How simple is that, to quote Ina Garten? 

Tear (or slice) pasta up into random bites and add to whatever protein and sauce.

I had chicken breasts, frozen peas, frozen broccoli, heavy cream, and parmesan handy, so chicken alfredo-esque pasta it was!  No specific recipe, just techniques of food preparation.

I browned the chicken in a little olive oil after seasoning with salt and pepper.  Setting the chicken aside to rest, and using the same skillet, I added about 1/4 cup of chicken broth and broccoli and cooked on medium heat until done.   The broccoli was added to the chicken in the dish and it was sauce time in the skillet! 

By now, I had these wonderful brown bits in the skillet, so I added in about 1/4 cup of white wine and scraped the skillet down.  After boiling off the wine a bit, I added in 1/4 cup of chicken broth and seasoned to taste.  I made a slurry of 1 Tbsp. to 3 Tbsp. of cool chicken broth and added to thicken the sauce.  A splash (about 1/4 cup) of heavy cream, brought to a boil, salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne, and the sauce was done. 

In about 20 minutes, I had a hearty pasta dish
from leftovers and pantry ingredients! 
Happy eating!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lasagna Debacle, Part II

Hopefully, you've read my love letter to my husband from Part I of the post.  If so, you know that we have a lasagna recipe that continues to bind us together with memories and cheese.  Since our tastes have evolved and I really try and make more things completely from scratch, I was inspired to make as many components myself, including the ricotta cheese.  Ambitious? Yes.  Crazy?  Possibly.  Committed?  You bet!
Lasagna is a great dish because you can make it partially or competely ahead of time.  Last weekend, due to some scheduling limitations, I planned to make the lasagna over two days.  Because I've never undertaken quite this elaborate amount of pre-prep work for a one-dish wonder, I journaled the experience.

The ingredients of ricotta
Day 1 - Got all of the ricotta-making ingredients laid out, along with my trusty copy of The Cheese Lovers Cookbook by Paula Lambert (for those in the Dallas area, check out her store, Mozzarella Company, in Deep Ellum.  They supply a who's who of Dallas restaurants) and a back-up recipe I googled for a second opinion that is anonymous, how can I fail?  Oh wait, I recall now from the class IceDaddy and I took on cheese making that raw milk is best.  Since the Wisconsin family farm is about 2,000 miles away, no such luck on the raw milk (illegal to buy).  Will have to make do with what the grocery store offers.  I remember something Paula said about pasteurized versus ultra-pasteurized and how the ultra won't curdle.  Praying they did not mislabel the milk at the store.

The epic fail - not many curds
I put the milk into a pan, sprinkle on salt, then the lemon juice in circles to hopefully curdle the milk.  Seems to have a little curdling going on... could be a good sign.  Milk is about to boil - remove it from the heat and WAIT!  15 minutes later and we have... milk, with a few curds.  Hmmm... recipe says lemons may not be acidic enough, so adding a couple tablespoons more lemon juice.  WAIT MORE... and, pretty much no curds.  Ok, $3.00 of milk down the drain there.  Must go back to store and hopefully find pasteurized milk. 

Back from store!  Juice the lemons, repeat above process, and... WAIT.  Ok - WE HAVE CURDS!! 
More liquid than curd
Happily draining ricotta... to find that there aren't a ton of curds.  $3.00 of milk (1/2 gallon) and $2.00 of lemons to make... maybe 1/2 cup of ricotta!?  That's pretty pricey ricotta.  Add to that the $3.00 from the ruined batch and the lasagna has cost $8.50 from the ricotta alone.  It only took me 3 hours and $8.50.... Oh, and I have that back-up container of ricotta in case there isn't enough... which there isn't.  Grrrrrr... on to the meat sauce.

Mushroomy good!
Mushrooms & meat
Day 1 3/4 - Hopefully, I'll have better success with the meat sauce.  Browned ground beef - check.  Decided to make sauteed mushrooms to add some flavor and texture - check.  Love adding sherry to the mushrooms for additional dimension.  Wonder if I'll even taste the sherry when the lasagna is cooked.  Added mushrooms to meat and let sit while I make the tomato sauce.

Cost tally: $3.50 for the beef, $2.00 for mushrooms

Day almost 2  - Over 4 hours into cooking and still have at least about 1 - 2 hours since the sauce has to simmer.  This tomato sauce promises to be good - borrowed liberally from a Nancy Silverton recipe in Bon Appetit.  Chopped carrots - baby carrots were flying everywhere!  Had to buy those because I know I can use the rest up another day to make my maple-glazed carrots (really good recipe too).  Diced up celery and really cut the amount because we are not celery people.  Added the monstrous cans of San Marzano tomatoes (there's another $5.00 for tomatoes alone!).  Combined sauce with mushroom/meat mixture and called it a day!  Total dollar tally for the day's lasagna making- $20 (if you count the carrots and celery at about $1.00)

Day 2 - Pasta day!  I found a $20 pasta roller at TJ Maxx, so I'm ready to roll out lasagna noodles.  (That does not count toward the total since I've owned it since this summer).  I go to the best pasta recipe I've found, oddly enough from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian which would not seem like the most authentic Italian food tome, but Maria Guarnaschelli was the editor, so it meets with her exacting standards.  (Her daughter, Alex, is the resident mean judge on "Chopped").  Why is this the best?  Because it involves adding actual semolina flour and not just all-purpose.  Makes it seem more authentic to me and has better texture (more nubby to pick up sauce).
Happy cooked noodles
Dried and ready
 Phew! This actual rolling out the lasagna takes some muscles.  Glad I'm back at Koko FitClub again or I'd need to rest halfway through!  Laid out the sheets by the pot of boiling water and then went all Giada in the trick for cooking and getting the noodles to not stick together - brushed them with olive oil and laid them on a sheet pan!  Brilliant! 

Cost of noodles - about $0.50 total for the flour and minor amount of good olive oil and good salt.  Cheap chic!
Day 2 1/2 - This was a MUCH easier day today.  Ready to assemble the lasagna after only about 2 hours of work (noodles have to cook in batches about 3 minutes each - takes time).  Layer, layer, layer it up!  I splurged on real shredded parmesan, not the stuff from a can.  A little pricey ($3.00 for 3 oz), but worth it!  Oh, and mozzarella is in there too, but I stuck with traditional shredded, not fresh.  Different textures - $2.50 for the mozzarella (on sale).
7:30 pm - Lasagna is DONE baking.  I threw in some garlic bread to toast the last 15 minutes of cooking and we are ready to eat.  After spending about 8 hours (not all the time was actively cooking) prepping, and WAITING, we are ready to eat!  Total cost: $26!  That's probably a little higher than I would want to spend to make a simple pan of lasagna, but it was memorable and I'm glad I tried it! 

How was the taste?  Well, the ricotta has a lemony freshness and is pillowy soft, not like the grainy texture of store bought... when you taste it by itself.  In the lasagna, it wasn't distinguishable from the store bought.  The mushrooms had a nice flavor and meaty texture (baby bellas are the best), but couldn't really taste anything special from the preparation with the sherry once in the lasagna.  Tomato sauce did taste different than store bought, even in the lasagna.  Had a nice freshness and the carrot added a great sweetness and dimension.  Noodles were different - they had more flavor. 
Yummy yummy $26 in the tummy!
Overall, there are things I WILL do next time I make "Date Lasagna" from my experiment - I probably will make my own noodles and add mushrooms.  I might even make a homemade tomato sauce, especially since you can make that ahead and freeze it.  Each of those components add something special to the dish.  Plus, the noodles made leftovers I turned into a pasta dish the next day.  Loved that option! Everything else?  Less likely.  That said, it was a delicious experiment.
Happy eating!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Lasagna Debacle, Part I

Lasagna, at it's soul, is a simple dish - meat, cheese, sauce, and noodles are its fundamental components.  Yet, there are endless ways of complicating (and simplifying) this wonderful dish.  There is something comforting about the familiar Italian flavors and hearty, substantial personality.  There are 1 billion variations on a classic and countless reasons for them.  In a fit of nostalgia following, I recount the only date meal my husband ever learned to make to impress girls (it impressed me).  Next blog post, I "gourmet" up our tried-and-true (and easy) recipe for something more "artisinal" and completely from scratch.  The debacle?  Does 100% "from scratch" lasagna taste better than the lasagna with pre-made ingredients (i.e. spaghetti sauce, store-bought ricotta, pre-made noodles)?  Results to come in Part II!

My sweetie does not cook much.  He grills great, but never really learned to cook things on the stove.  Maybe I need to challenge him to cook on the grill... hmmm. :)  Since it is rare for him to don the chef's hat for the day, it was very memorable to me when he made me the one-and-only "date" meal he knew - lasagna and garlic bread.  Why did he know how to cook lasagna and nothing else?  I can thank the J.J. Pearce High School College Survival class!  His teacher, far wiser than her students, knew that a guy would eventually want or have to impress his sweetie with a nice home cooked meal.  So, she gave them a reliable lasagna recipe and instructed them to use it!

Over the years, the "Date Lasagna" has morphed from something IceDaddy made for me to something we made together, and, most recently, to something I make for us.  How did this happen????

What I love about the receipe is the simplicity and easy-to-assemble ingredients.  Nothing complicated and aside from a one hour plus cooking time and three basic assembly steps (cook meat and combine with spaghetti sauce, mix ricotta with eggs, and assemble the lasagna), it's pretty easy. 

It's almost like a non-recipe, which is why it's stayed a family favorite.  I can assemble it from memory.

"Date Lasagna"
Serves 6 - 8; inspired from a recipe courtesy of JJ Pearce H.S. Home Ec
1 lb. ground beef, cooked and drained
1 jar spaghetti sauce
1 cup water
1 - 15 oz container ricotta cheese (regular or part skim)
2 eggs
2 tsp.. dried parsley
Salt and pepper
1 box no-boil lasagna noodles
1/2 lb shredded mozzarella
3 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

Combine cooked ground beef, spaghetti sauce, and water.  Mix to combine and season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.  Combine ricotta, eggs, parsley, and about 1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper.  Mix to combine and set aside. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray 9x13 pan with non-stick spray.  Spread about 1/2 cup of meat sauce on bottom of pan.  Place about 5 lasagna noodles (uncooked), edges overlapping in pan.  Cover with 1/2 of the ricotta mixture; spread over noodles.  Top with 1/2 of the mozzarella and 1 Tbsp. of the parmesan, finishing with 1/2 of the remaining meat sauce.  Repeat the layering through the meat sauce.  Top with remaining parmesan cheese.

Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.  Uncover and bake 15 - 30 minutes longer.

Yummy tomatoey goodness
I hope you consider making this for your sweetie.  It's also a great dish to assemble as a family.  Happy eating!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pot Pie Please!

The weather shifted ever-so-slightly to cooler evenings and still-pleasant days.  Though trees don't all change colors here, fall is in the air.  The start of fall has me craving nourishing, hearty soups and, of all things, pot pie! 
Now, I am not a fan of store-bought pot pies.  They are so salty and fat-laden, plus there tends to be a killer amount of peas, one food I can usually skip entirely.  I've come to like peas again over the years... but just a little, so pot pie can go either way for me.  One of the few I did like growing up is the Swanson Chicken Pot Pie.  My mom would buy it in mass quantities at Sam's Club and voila! dinner.

Happily, when the craving hit this week, I had a recipe in mind.  Real Simple, bless their simple cooking heart, offered up a mushroom pot pie with a puff pastry topping.  As I think puff pastry can be its own food group, I was intrigued.  The recipe calls for pretty standard pot pie ingredients - carrots, celery, and onions (called a mirepoix if you want to get fancy) and mushrooms (white or baby portabella), plus the rich and tasty puff pastry.  It's a great base that could be modified to different tastes, which is what I did. 

I liked the basic recipe, but I was inspired to try and improve it with a few "secret" ingredients. 

Puff Pastry Shells  - These are fantastic to make appetizers, but for my purposes, I thought it would be great to make individual pot pies like those that we grew up eating, but tastier.  If you're cooking for only one or two people, this is a great way to make just what you plan to eat and freeze the rest. (NOTE: I receive no compensation from Pepperidge Farm, but they make a great product)

Tio Pepe FinoSherry or wine - Any time I cook with mushrooms, I think it really adds something to the flavor with  just a splash of wine.  I know there is science behind it, but bottom line is that the French really are onto something cooking with wine!  Want to learn more about sherry?  Go here:  http://wine.about.com/od/winebasic1/a/SherryWine.htm

Any liquor store will carry sherry, but PLEASE do NOT buy "cooking sherry."  It's disgusting and salty.  If you don't want to buy sherry, use whatever wine you drink and add in a few tablespoons to the mix.

Italian parsley - Parsley punches up the flavor with a mild herbiness and freshness. I cannot think of a savory recipe that doesn't taste better without parsley.

Gold medal <em>wondra flour</em>, 13.5 ozWondra Flour - We all usually keep flour in our pantries, but if you're looking to create the smoothest sauces and avoid the typical clumping with all-purpose flour, consider buying a canister of Wondra.  It's very finely ground flour that is made for sauces.  It made the gravy in the pot pie super smooth and luscious (without ANY butter or cream!).

With my "secret" ingredients at hand, I began to cook.  Thank you to Real Simple for the basic ideas in the recipe; I took their inspiration and made it my own.  Here is my new favorite (and versatile) pot pie recipe. Don't be deterred by the long list of ingredients.  The vegetables are necessary to form the flavor you know and love for pot pie and you can omit the parsley, sherry/wine, and green onions and it will still be good.   I've given ideas at the end of the recipe for different add-ins to fit your taste.  Don't like an ingredient?  Leave it out!

Heather's Homemade Pot Pie
Serves 4, about 1 hour cooking time total (including baking)

2 Tbsp. olive or canola oil
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms (such as white or baby bella), sliced, halved, or quartered
3 carrots or 10 baby carrots, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 4 strips and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1 medium onion, diced
2 green onions, sliced small
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup Wondra or all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth (low sodium preferred)
1/2 - 1 cup frozen petite peas
1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. dry sherry or white wine
1 sheet puff pastry (1/2 package), thawed, OR 4 puff pastry shells (pictured above)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the carrots, celery, onion, green onion, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.  Cook until vegetables soften, about 3 - 5 minutes.  Add in the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 12 - 15 minutes total.  Sprinkle the flour over the vegetable mixture and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.  (It will look very dry).  Add the broth slowly, stirring to incorporate the flour.  Add the peas, parsley, and sherry.  Bring to a bubble.

Remove from heat and transfer the mixture to an 8-inch square baking dish.  If using the puff pastry sheet, lay the pastry on top and cut several vents.  Alternatively, place the 4 puff pastry shells on the mushroom mixture.  To make individual pot pies, divide the mixture into 4 oven-safe bowls and place one puff pastry shell on each.  Place the baking dish(es) on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in the oven until the crust is golden, 25 - 30 minutes.  Let rest a few minutes before serving.

Additional variations/add ins:
- Add 1 cup of shredded or chopped cooked chicken or turkey
-  Add 1 cup of pre-cooked potato
- Add 1 cup of pre-cooked chopped green beans

Get inspired to create your own twists on a classic and you will think of endless variations!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Still Time for Ice Cream?

Yes, we are technically in the realm of fall throughout the country.  Down here in Texas, the seasons are not very well defined.  In San Antonio, I can still recall sunbathing in December and wearing shorts on Christmas some years.  That means we have lots of time each year to enjoy ice cream.

As far as I'm concerned, dairy is a little bit of heaven.  As a Wisconsinite and a person whose extended family includes about 100 dairy cows, I am a believer in all things milk, cheese, and ice cream.  When IceDaddy and I found the heaven that is Italy and, more specifically, the amazing gelato, we were inspired to buy an ice cream maker. 

I can't say that it churns out restaurant-quality ice cream (too many ice crystals), but I can control what goes into every batch much more and I'm willing to sacrifice some mouth feel for flavor.  In that vein, when I came across a recipe for banana ice cream, I was completely intrigued.  First off, it was NOT the heaviest or least healthy ice cream recipe I've seen

(thank you to Ina Garten for that one - but oh-so-good chocolate gelato recipe), and it was versatile.

With Ice's birthday just past, I wanted to make him a special meal, including something for dessert.  Rather than going for the usual banana puddin' cake (which is AWESOME - thanks Cake Mix Doctor), with 100+ degree temps still a possibility, ice cream logically won.  And hey, if the ice cream was good, it might find its way into a banana puddin' ice cream cake at some point....

In my humble ice cream making experience, here are some hints to consider:
- ice cream is usually just a "custard" base; that is, milk, eggs, and sugar
- sweetened condensed milk is a great product to thicken the ice cream without having to add eggs (pasteurized egg product is an option if not cooking the custard before freezing); if you're averse to uncooked ice cream, this may be a good option.  It does add a distinct flavor though
- vanilla, vanilla, vanilla - just about any ice cream benefits from a splash of vanilla
- some recipes call for cooked custard, while others do not.  If you do cook the base, make sure to cool it down in an ice bath before putting into the ice cream freezer.  Better texture of the final product that way

So, with that, I took myself over to my 'hoss blender and threw in a cup of 1/2 and 1/2, 3 very ripe bananas, a couple tablespoons of sugar, and 3/4 cup of sweetened condensed milk.  That was the entire recipe given to me.  I chose to "embellish" with a little pinch of nutmeg and, ahem, vanilla (what else!).  The bananas can vary in sweetness depending on the level of ripeness, so you may need to add more sugar to taste.  This got served with a yummy and sweet chocolate sauce, so the lack of sweetness of the ice cream was a terrific balance to the overly sweet chocolate.

Now, when you eat a bite of sweet, creamy perfection, whether fall, winter, spring, or summer, is there really any time NOT appropriate for ice cream?

Magazine Management - recipe organizing

I talked in a prior post about figuring out how many recipes I can clip in a month and finding a way to manage them and not just keep accumulating piles of recipes. 

http://www.target.com/   At my local Tar-jay (aka Target) , I browsed the school supplies aisle and came across an accordion folder that fits my criteria - enough space to fit a month's worth of recipes, organize the ones to try by month, and have extra space at the back for the recipes I've tried and have to "evaluate."  Sound complicated?  Not really.  Here's a picture of the organizer:

Best $5 way to organize recipes
For about 5 bucks, I now have an organizer that takes up 1/2 inch of space on my shelf, lets me sort recipes by the season and month in which to try them, and store the ones I tried at the back.  So here's how I'm doing so far:

Month 1/2 - Clipping crazy
I manage to clip recipes from five different magazines (yes, I think there should be a support group), and because my cookbooks and recipes are threatening to take over the pantry shelves, I have to do something.  At the end of September/beginning of October, I've perused the magazines and clipped out the recipes I want.  I throw the recipes into the "October" tab after grabbing ones I want to make for the week.

I wrote in my last post about a complicated formula for figuring out the number of recipes I can clip.  Before I sorted them into the folder, I divided them into categories - lunches, breakfasts, dinners, and miscellaneous.  I counted them since I'm not making 30 dinners in 30 days - a girl's gotta have a night out sometime - and since I came in at a realistic number of recipes, I paper clipped them in categorized bundles.

I pulled out recipes for the week, cooked them, and filed the ones I made and considered worthy of considering keeping.  End of the month, I can review the recipes and my notes to figure out what goes in my permanent collection.  Now that's another whole series! :)

Back to cooking!  Coming up next... homemade lasagna with from scratch pasta, ricotta, and tomato sauce!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tough Love on My Recipes

Be Tough! No Clip Crazy

If you've followed this blog (all 10 of you) since day 1, you know I started the blog to "tough love" my cookbook collection.  While I would love to say that's a success, honestly, it's an epic fail.  However, the reason why is that I've shifted to cooking most (but not all) of my recipes from cooking magazines. 

As I don't ever want to be featured on the tv show "Hoarders"

for holding onto cooking magazines for years, or let's face it, decades, I clip recipes from the magazine pretty soon after receipt.  That said, I do tend to let those same recipes continually accumulate and I end up throwing out probably 50% of them a couple years later after I realize I won't try them.  Oops!

For those of you that love "Extreme Couponing," a key them is organization!  Organization will keep things from spiraling out of control and consuming your life.  Ok, maybe it still becomes all consuming, but it's a more organized approach.

So, with that, here is the first in a series of cooking magazine recipe clipping rules and its implementation:

"Re-ClipR" (Recipe Clipping Rules) (c)

Re-ClipR #1:
You may only clip as many recipes as you will realistically cook meals in one month.

Fiskars Scissors - Great Clipping Option
Translating this - if you only cook breakfast on weekend mornings (Saturday or Sunday(, don't clip more recipes than weekend mornings in a month.  If  there are 4 weekends in a month, then you clip up to 8 recipes approximately.  Cook only on Sunday?  Limit down even further.  Why limit yourself?  Realistically, life gets in the way of the best-laid plans.  You may intend to get up every Sunday morning and cook breakfast.  Then, the kids are sick, or you wake up late and want lunch, or you make brunch plans, etc.  So, rather than clip 10 recipes you may never make, clip 5 you love.  You're more likely to make them, and more likely to want to make them again and again!
Lipper International 8814 Bamboo Recipe Box
Lippert International Recipe Box - Eco-friendly organizer

Same for dinners or lunches.  Never cook lunch?  Then don't count that as a meal you'd clip a recipe for.  If you cook 3 meals per day x 30 days, that's up to 90 recipes a month.  Would I ever clip that many recipes?  Most likely not, but I also don't cook 3 meals per day every day.  Realistically, I cook 4 dinners per week and homemake about 2 - 3 lunches and maybe 1 - 2 breakfast recipes a week. 

Multiply that x 4 weeks per month, and I can clip 16 dinners, 12 lunches, and 8 breakfast recipes.
Still quite a few recipes, but not the overwhelming amount that I will never conceivably make.  Now, I stretch the rule a bit since I make multiple recipes in one meal (i.e. meat, starch, and vegetable at dinner, so I give myself leeway to clip 3 - 4 for one single meal (if I plan it out).  Again, adjust the totals based on YOUR cooking habits.  This is a guide, not a must, but it's a guide intended to help me "tough love" my recipes.

Starting in October, I will be keeping count of what I clip and categorize!

Future rules: special occasion meals, recipe rating systems, and storage/organization!  Stay tuned....

Monday, September 26, 2011

Burger Bonanza

Burger Please!

Everyone has a food vice.  Mine tend to be anything involving salt, fat, and sugar.  But if I must be more specific, salt = french fries or salt & vinegar potato chips, fat = cheese, and sugar = dark chocolate.  While this might inspire me to consider chocolate dipped potato chips from time-to-time, I generally keep my food obsessions separate and distinct.

Right now, the food I cannot stop thinking about is a hamburger.  I am DYING to try a juicy, medium rare burger at a good burger place (and that doesn't mean fast food).  I want to sit down and enjoy a rich, medium-rare burger char grilled or flat-top butter basted, with a toasty bun and cheese.  My mouth is salivating at this thought.  I would actually make my own burger, but didn't buy what I need at the store for the week, so I won't make one myself.  I just can't get this out of my head.  What to do?

In honor of my obsessive thinking, and perhaps anticipating my burger decisions when I satisfy the craving, here are some ideas for tasty burgery treats:

American cheese
Onions sauteed in burger fat or butter
Beef patty
Steak sauce

Westward Ho
American or cheddar cheese
Sauteed onions
Barbecue sauce
Sour pickles
Beef patty

Southwest and Spicy
Tabasco/Cholula sauce
Sliced ripe avocado
Swiss or pepper jack cheese

And because I'm feeling like having someone else actually cook these burgers for me, here are my favorite burger joints at which to eat:

Five Guys Burgers - they do burgers, they do fries, and that's about it, but they do them well!
Various Five Guys Locations

Mooyah - quirky disposition plus burgers, fries, and shakes adds up to family-friendly deliciousness

Twisted Root - chef-designed burgers, homemade pickles, and saucy disposition make this a foodie fave

So, now that I've made you drool, I would love to hear about your "vices" and what killer burgers you love (and where).

Perfect Panzanella

Living in Florida, light and healthy fare seems the most appetizing after a long day or week at work. Looking through my Cook's Illustrated one day and came across a recipe for Panzanella. What, exactly, is that? Panzanella is a bread salad traditionally made with leftover bread and summer tomatoes.

Well, if you are frugal or plain old cheap, it's the perfect way to use up day old French or sourdough bread when you cannot think of what to do. If you happen to be blessed with a bounty of summer tomatoes, then you have THE most critical ingredient to the dish. If you have both of those items plus some produce you need to use up, you, my friend, have hit the jackpot.

The secret to great Panzanella, according to CI, is toasting the bread, not just letting it go stale. Other recipes call for soaking the bread in water first. Personally, water soaked bread is a mushy goo, so I prefer the thought of toasting the bread until crouton-like. Aside from that, a simple technique of using the juices from the tomatoes (minus seeds) plus an acid and olive oil gives a great and well-flavored dressing.

Here is how to make my version of perfect summer Panzanella, both vegan or meat-loving:

Clear-the-veggie-drawer Panzanella

4 cups French bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 lb. Ripe summer tomatoes
Chopped veggies of choice, up to 2 cups*
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp fresh basil (or 1/2 tsp dried)
2 Tbsp fresh parsley
OPTIONAL additions - cubed fresh mozzarella and/or cubed salami or ham

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut up French bread and place on baking sheet. Drizzle bread with 2 Tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss cubes to distribute olive oil. Bake in oven for approximately 3 - 7 minutes or until toasted (not too dark). Remove from oven and cool.

Meanwhile, core tomatoes and remove seeds (squeezing out seeds is easiest). Chop tomatoes coarsely and place in colander. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and place colander over bowl to capture juices. Let sit 10 minutes. Chop other vegetables into chunks and place in bowl. I suggest peeled and seeded cucumbers, chopped bell peppers, green onions, some olives and the tomatoes.

Once tomatoes have sat 10 minutes, squeeze them over the colander to release the juices, then add tomatoes to the other vegetables. Combine the tomato juices and red wine vinegar, garlic powder, and then whisk in the oil, adding up to 3 Tbsp. Season with salt and pepper.add the bread into the vegetables and pour over dressing. Add in Basil and parsley, if desired Mix to combine. Let stand 10 minutes. Just before serving, add in cheese and meat if desired.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Where have I been? Culinary re-inspirations....

If you've been wondering, strange things are afoot at the Circle K.  Actually, since February, my life has changed dramatically.  The hubs and I are dealing with the challenge of living in two separate cities due to a job change I undertook.  As a result, I primarily live in a temporary housing situation in Florida while he maintains the homestead in Dallas.  Aside from completely demotivating me to cook since there is no one for whom to cook, I don't have my knives, utensils, or kitchen (or my sweetie for inspiration).  So, as a consequence, I have honestly cooked very little in the past four months. 

After finally getting settled a bit (with permanent digs coming soon), I finally feel inspired to cook again.  So, welcome back readers as I immerse myself in some new directions (I cooked fish!!) and experiment some on recipes that Ice wouldn't consider trying.  My welcome back present is actually an old favorite that I took from "Real Simple" magazine and adapted.  It is PERFECT for a summer bbq or potluck and I promise you will inspire others to make it too.  It is the ultimate recipe celebrating improvisation and versatility.  Don't like whipping up cream?  Omit the cream and powdered sugar and use Cool-Whip like my mom did.  86 the chocolate chips for different types of crushed up cookies (mint Girl Scout Thin Mints are a fave) or chopped candy bars.  Any way you make it, you won't want to put it back in the freezer!

Simple Ice Cream Cake
1 box (about 12) ice cream sandwiches, frozen
2 cups heavy cream
4 Tbsp. powdered sugar
1 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

In mixing bowl, whip up heavy cream with hand blender or mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form.  Add powdered sugar and whip until stiff peaks form (almost overbeaten).  Set aside.  Line a bread loaf pan with plastic wrap and wax paper.  Place a layer (about 1/2 of mixture) of whipped cream on bottom and sides of loaf pan.  Unwrap ice cream sandwiches.  Make a single layer of ice cream sandwiches (about 1/3) in bottom of loaf pan (can cut sandwiches to fit).  Top with half of remaining whipped cream.  Sprinkle 1/4 cup of chocolate chips over whipped cream.  Layer with more sandwiches (another 1/3).  Top with remainder of whipped cream, then 1/4 cup of chocolate chips and finish with rest of sandwiches.  Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for one hour or more.  Remove from loaf pan, flip (so that last layer of sandwiches is on the bottom), place on plate, and unwrap.  Let soften 2 - 3 minutes, then sprinkle whipped cream layer with remaining chocolate chips.  Place in freezer until ready to enjoy.

This makes a fantastic option with different types of chopped candy bars (probably need more than a cup of candy) and really gives you versatility based on the crowd.  Enjoy!

What is comfort food? An ode to ground beef

The foods of my childhood that I consider "comforting" are decidedly European in style - lots of "wursts" and potatoes to be found.  Ok, and ground beef, lots of it.  I still think fondly of the meals in Berlin, Munich, Prague, and Slovakia that evoke those same feelings of comfort and satisfaction. 

I know some of you that read this may turn your nose up at ground beef. From a foodie snob perspective, I can see the point. But really, some of the best food I've tasted has ground beef in it and even the most stuck-up food snob goes slummin' from time to time (generally under the guise of eating some authentic "ethnic" cuisine previously unfamiliar). What they don't know won't hurt them, right? I have news for food snobs - ground beef has tons of flavor! That burger you chow down - ground beef! Those empanadas you love at 2 am after leaving a club? Ground beef too! If you're a purist, you could grind your own (and yes, I have a meat grinder and I can do that), but honestly, on a random Tuesday night when I get home at 8:45 pm from work, do I REALLY want to bother?

I found myself thinking tonight about what would make me "comforted" after yet another LONG and trying day at the office.  Instead of my expected yearning for sausages (the "wurst") and 'taters (the potato component) that my husband would probably have requested, I found myself longing for Tex-Mex flavors.  Unwilling to purchase yet another bad version of fajitas at my local Chili's (they have great fajitas in Texas, not sure what the problem is in Florida), I turned to my pantry and another childhood staple - ground beef.

Yeah, didn't think you would want to bother either....  So, with that, I went to the subconscious part of my brain craving some comfort and asked it what it really might want on a night I'm missing my sweetie and generally feeling down.  The answer?  Tex-Mex flavors wrapped up in a ground beef package.  While our culture has decidedly focused their "versatility" monniker on chicken breasts, and deservedly so, an unsung hero in the home cook's arsenal is ground beef.  I'm not suggesting you go out and get some insanely fatty ground beef.  Ok, maybe for a juicy burger since you really need some fat to make that work, but for everyday use you can choose a variety of fat content options and yes, even lean versions with only 7% fat. 

Realizing that I only wanted to spend about 20 minutes cooking, I searched ye old pantry.  I found a bunch of spices with a Tex-Mex flavor, canned black beans, frozen corn, salsa, and ground beef.  Guess what?  They make a pretty tasty "kitchen-sink" dish, only took 20 minutes to cook, and satisfied my craving.  So here's my tribute to ground beef, a la Tex-Mex style:

"Kitchen Sink" Tex-Mex Main Dish
1 lb 85% lean ground round
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup frozen corn
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup store bought salsa
2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. minced garlic or garlic powder
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
Salt and pepper
Tortilla chips and shredded cheese for garnish

Cook onion until translucent; add ground beef and brown over medium heat until cooked through.  Once cooked, add in corn, black beans, salsa, and spices through oregano.  Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low.  Cook over low heat five minutes or until heated through.  Add cayenne, salt, and pepper to taste.  Serve in bowls with crushed tortilla chips and shredded cheese as a garnish.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Packers win the Superbowl! Football food

Being a lifelong Packer fan, I just had to get that said. :)  In preparation of the Packers first trip to the Superbowl since 1997, I prepared a series of appetizers and a signature dessert - French Silk Pie.  Made some simple sausage rolls, homemade salsa, guacamole, chili, cowboy caviar, buffalo chicken dip, artichoke-olive dip, and the aforementioned dessert.  Yes, I break every rule Ina Garten taught when it comes to quantity of food.  But I listened to her rule about not cooking while guests are present - everything was done ahead.

I agree with the principles of easy entertaining.  By that rule, I should have done 3 - 4 items, max.  Why didn't I?  Partially, because this is a send-off of sorts and was my final chance to cook for friends for a while.  Partially, I had the ingredients already handy for so many of the items it seemed silly not to use them.  Lastly, because I wanted to.  As moms all over the world say, "do as I say and not as I do!"

I've covered some of thes recipes before, but the one that is my absolute "signature" item that I think everyone will remember me for is my French Silk Pie.  I based it on a recipe from the cookbook "Recipe Hall of Fame" but I diverge in two key areas - 1. the crust - they use a meringue crust.  I find that's a recipe for soggy, so I create a cookie crust; 2.  the whipped cream topping.  Not that I'm looking to save calories on a dessert made of butter, sugar, and heavy cream, but I like to lighten up my whipped cream by adding beaten egg whites.  Cuts the sweetness a bit since the chocolate mousse is sooo rich. 

While I won't give the WHOLE recipe, here's the recipe for the chocolate mousse.  I hope you enjoy!

Heather's Very Chocolatey French Silk Mousse

1 cup butter, room temperature
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar (superfine is best)
4 eggs

Beat softened butter about 1 minute or until fluffy.  Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in a double boiler or microwave.  Add the chocolate to the butter and beat at medium-high speed 2 - 3 minutes, scraping bowl halfway through.  Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to incorporate.  Add eggs and beat on high for 15 minutes (color will change from light to darker brown). 

Pour into container(s) to chill.  Let chill 2 to 4 hours and serve.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reinventing the classics of our childhood

My post the other day on Facebook about the ground beef and rice dish of my childhood reinvented gave me inspiration to try another old favorite in the middle of Snowpocalypse 2011.  I brought out a skillet version of tuna noodle casserole.

My mom's tuna noodle casserole was egg noodles, tuna, peas, and cream of mushroom soup topped off with potato chips and baked.  I'm not a person into peas, but aside from that, I started making my version in college and it's still something I make from time-to-time and Ice loves it.

Pretty simple variation - one box of Kraft Mac & Cheese (whole grain version), 1 large pouch of tuna, 1 can cream of mushroom soup and some cracked black pepper.

I cook up the pasta al dente (just under the time recommended on the package), then add the cream of mushroom and the cheese package.  Once mixed, I flake in the tuna and add pepper.  Simple and hearty.

I sometimes add shredded cheese and heat to melt, but other than that, I pretty much stick to tradition.  Yum!

Herbes de Provence - medicinial or tasty

Because of the winter weather, I cleaned out the freezer in the garage without concerns for thawing.  If you can leave the freezer door wide open for 25 minutes without it coming on, you know it's cold in the garage!  After getting rid of a ton of old items, I uncovered some frozen chicken that was only a month into storage (and thus fair game for dinner!). 

Cooking Light inspired a dish of sauteed chicken with Herbes de Provence.  The original recipe called for "fines herbes" which are parsley, thyme, tarragon, and chervil.  Not having those items all handy (darn chervil!), I thought I could take the concept of an herb-crusted piece of chicken and make it more French-inspired (rather than Mediterranean). 

What I did have were Herbes de Provence (Provencal herbs).  Traditionally, it has savory, fennel, basil, and thyme, but for some inane reason the American herb blend has lavender as well.  I love the smell of lavender, but it's a tad medicinal as well.

I used about a teaspoon per chicken breast (about 6 oz each) of the Herbes de Provence, just sprinkled it on, along with salt and pepper.  I sauteed it in a pan with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat for about 12 minutes, turning after 7 minutes.  It browned up nicely and the toasting of the spices via the saute mellowed and enriched the flavor.

I served it with a side of orzo pasta mixed with some butter and I added some more herbes to that.  That's where I missed the mark.  Where the sauteeing of the chicken mellowed the herbs, mixing it into the pasta intesified the pungency of the lavender in the herbs.  That was just a bit over-the-top - if smell is 90% of taste, I tasted Vick's vapo-rub and I would not do that again.  It was still edible, but just maybe too intense. 

So, the verdict is - make your own Herbs de Provence and consider leaving out the lavender to start.  Do consider this dried herb blend for a nice chicken saute - it's a great flavor to expand your palette.

Herbs de Provence seasoning blend:
1 1/2 teaspoons Savory
1/4 teaspoon Fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon Basil
1 1/2 teaspoons Thyme

Mix spices and store in a cool, dry place.  Try it in a chicken dish!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Creativity with leftovers and buying the specials

Did you ever see something in the "reduced" section at the meat counter?  Have you ever found yourself after eating a meal with bits and pieces that barely would make a helping of anything or such random pieces of items that you have no idea how to make a cohesive meal from them?  I found myself in that position TWICE this week.  Like usual, I planned my meals for the week and went grocery shopping on Saturday.  But the Market Street by my house had some unplanned specials, so I ditched a few of the original ideas and went with the money-saving strategy of buying the clearanced items and building meals from that (thank you Melissa D'Arabian for that tip).  In Rachel Ray (5 meals in a day) style, I ended up getting part of three meals out of one package of sirloin steaks wrapped in bacon.  I also was able to turn over some leftover bits into a tasty meal as well.

Meal one was bacon-wrapped sirloin steaks, baked potatoes, and sauteed onions and mushrooms.  Sirloin is a very lean meat, so the bacon helps to keep it moist and add flavor.  Because it was frickin' freezin' outside, I opted for pan sauteeing in some olive oil.  The steaks were aggressively seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper and sauteed over medium-high heat to get a nice crust on the meat.  My favorite trick I did with the bacon was to UNWRAP it from the meat when the sirloin was done.  My pet peeve on bacon-wrapped meats is that the bacon never really crisps up well and it's just kind of gross texture.  So, while the meat rested, I went ahead and cooked up the bacon to a crisp texture (about 5 extra minutes). 

The onions and mushrooms are a take on a recipe from my mother.  We always ate onions and mushrooms with our steaks growing up.  Her version involved in heating up sliced onions and canned mushrooms witn lots of margarine or butter.  Tasty and rich.  Mine is slightly different.  I saute chopped onions in some butter and then add sliced mushrooms (fresh preferred) and brown them slightly.  I add some additional flavor with worcestershire sauce, which I think gives it a different dimension of flavor.

For the second use of the sirloins and bacon, I actually took the bacon off of the other two sirloins and cooked it until crisp.  I reserved the bacon fat and the crisp bacon.  For dinner the other night, I used the bacon fat to saute' some shallots and created a vinaigrette with mustard and balsamic vinegar and tossed that with cooked broccoli and the crisped bacon.  It was a zesty mix of sweet (balsamic), sour (mustard and vinegar), and rich (bacon) that I paired with a rigatoni pasta and vodka-tomato sauce.

The final use of the sirloins was tonight.  A meal that I made growing up involved Minute Rice, cream of mushroom soup, and ground round or sirloin.  Basically, the meat was browned, cream of mushroom and some water added, brought to a boil, and the rice added and simmered until cooked.  It was a STAPLE in college because it was quick and cheap.  To this day, it's a meal Ice requests and enjoys.  Well, with the ice and snow we have here, I wasn't willing to head out to the grocery store, and realized that I had something to work with in my own pantry - sirloin, arborio rice, onion, garlic, beef broth, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese.  Those ingredients put together a dish that reminded me of the classic one-pot staple of my youth and college, but with a sophisticated edge that I would serve to any friend of mine.  And now, you can serve it to yours:

Sirloin Beef Tips with Mushroom Risotto
2 - (4 oz) sirloin steaks
8 oz cremini (white) mushrooms, sliced or 1 can mushrooms, drained
2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2/3 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
2 cups beef broth, warmed
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

Slice the sirloin steaks against the grain into strips.  Salt and pepper the meat and set aside to come to room temperature.  Heat 1 Tbsp oil in saute pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and saute until translucent, about 2 - 3 minutes.  Set to the side in the pan and add half of the beef strips to the pan.  Saute over medium-high heat until browned on one side, about 2 minutes.  Flip the strips over and saute on the other side another two minutes.  Remove from pan and repeat with remainder of beef adding more olive oil as needed (remaining Tbsp of oil).  Set aside. 

To same pan, add 1 Tbsp. butter and arborio rice; saute until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes.  Add vermouth or wine and garlic.  Stir until liquid is almost absorbed.  Add mushrooms, 2/3 cup of the beef broth and stir, reducing heat to medium.  Continue stirring periodically until liquid is almost absorbed.  Continue adding liquid in 1/3 cup increments until liquid is almost absorbed after each addition.  After adding 1 1/3 cups of beef broth, taste the rice to see if it is cooked or needs additional liquid.  It will take about 1 2/3 cups (approx). for that amount of rice.  When rice is cooked, turn off the heat and add Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Add beef back to rice and stir to incorporate the beef and re-warm it. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 3 - 4.

Well, that was $7.00 well spent - two meals and a side dish out of one package of 4 steaks - that is an amazing achievement, especially since it also saved me from having to open a whole package of bacon for the two slices I needed to make the broccoli.  More money in our pockets!  Since I ended up splurging on a wedge of Manchego cheese for a tapas-style Spanish meal on Sunday, I guess it basically evened out.

I recently bought a cookbook, "Fine Cooking Volume II" from Half Price Books.  I picked it up because over the summer Ice found a magazine devoted to grilling by the fine folks at "Fine Cooking" and we LOVED 95% of what we saw there.  For Ice to get excited about a cooking magazine meant it was a winner.  With that in mind, I had to buy the cookbook figuring if even 25 - 50% of it was that tasty, I was in for a treat.  The cookbook was well organized and had a section on appetizers.  In there was a series of Spanish-style appetizers (tapas).  Inspired and remembering our trip to Spain in 2009, I decided to make a series of tapas - sauteed mushrooms, roasted potatoes with tomato sauce (papas bravas), marinated manchego, and sauteed Spanish chorizo in red wine.  I won't detail those recipes here, but I had bits and pieces of all of these items left over.  When we were snowed in yesterday, I turned those into a tasty fritatta.

Fritattas are a great (and cheap) meal that you can literally add anything to.  If you would eat it in an omlette or for dinner, you can probably make it into a fritatta.  I like fritattas because they are so low maintenance.  Unlike an omlette, you don't have to flip them or do anything fancy.  Saute up the fillings, add the eggs (mixed like you would for scrambled eggs), cook on the stove and finish in the oven.  Voila!!  Here is my favorite fritatta recipe made with leftovers:

Leftovers Fritatta (serves 2 - 4)

1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

2 - 3 oz meat (I used sliced Spanish chorizo)
3/4 - 1 cup chopped cooked potatoes (I used leftover roasted potatoes and 1/2 of a leftover baked potato chopped into 1/2-inch pieces)
6 oz sauteed mushrooms (cremini mushrooms quartered and sauteed in olive oil)
4 eggs, slightly beaten with 1 Tbsp ice water
2 oz shredded cheese (I used leftover manchego)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat an oven-safe skillet over medium heat and add olive oil.  When olive oil is shimmering, add onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add chorizo and saute to render slightly, about 2 minutes.  Add potatoes and mushrooms to heat through and brown slightly, about 4 minutes. 

Distribute filling throughout saute pan and add eggs.  Turn the pan to distribute the eggs and cook about 3 minutes or until bottom is set (top will still be soupy).  Add shredded cheese to top and place in oven.  Bake 5 minutes or until eggs are set and top begins to brown.

Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes.  Cut into wedges and serve with a crisp green salad dressed with vinaigrette for a well-rounded meal.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Big changes coming, and more cookbooks gone

Over the past month, my immediate family has experienced a number of dramatic changes.  With all the changes, I was motivated to take on a top-to-bottom clean out of the house.  Over the course of 4 days, I managed to tidy up drawers in two rooms, clean up cabinets, clean a closet, and organize last year's papers.  One of the other projects was to downsize a few more cookbooks.  I still consider this a work in progress (and frankly may NEVER get to a point of only having 10 cookbooks or less), but there is definitely an opportunity to continue editing down the collection.  I had already decided to part with Food Network Kitchens: Making it Easy, but I took a hard look at others and came up with the following cookbooks:

Emeril's Creole Christmas.  Love the idea and the perspective on a New Orleans-style holiday, but when will I ever cook a New Orleans-style Chrismas?  Probably not.  Beautiful book though.

Cooking with Master Chefs.  I know - this was already on the chopping block.  I took a hard look at it and just did not find recipes that I really wanted to make.  Just not going to use the book.

Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2001.  This may surprise people since I am working to cook healthier.  The problem is that the way we cooked in 2001 and how we do in 2011 has changed.  The style is different and CL recycles their best recipes anyway.  Since I get the magazine, I generally pull current recipes to cook anyway. 

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.  I have to say, I bought this because it's considered a legendary cookbook.  Unfortunately, it just didn't have anything remarkable that grabbed me when I took a good look.  Maybe it's because I've advanced beyond where I was 10 years ago.  Back then, I probably would have used it as a reference more frequently.  It's probably a great book, but I love my Joy of Cooking and I turn to that as a reference instead.

It's funny - I'm really not a packrat in my personal life - I don't keep many things for sentimental value, but when it comes to cookbooks, I have a harder time letting go.  I can't figure out why - it's not some obvious reason - daddy issues, mommy issues, Freudian psychoanalysis, etc.  I just enjoy reading and re-reading cookbooks and I get ideas.  That said, one good recipe does not equal a good one.  So, in the name of change, I have to press on and keep culling my cookbooks.  Onward and downward with the total number of cookbooks!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I wish I could quit you...

Thanks to a conversation with a colleague about a joke t-shirt with that line, I can't seem to stop thinking of that line when it comes to my "vices," namely chocolate, cooking shows, and... reading cookbooks.  Now, I'm sure many of you can relate to chocolate, some kind of tv show you can't stop watching, whether it's "Glee" or perhaps a reality tv show, but there are about two of you that I know who read cookbooks for fun. 

I read a lot - business books, biographies, mysteries, literature, etc.  Something I've always done and hopefully will do as long as my eyes work.  But cookbooks?  I know.  I'm weird.  One of my original goals of this blog was to edit down my cookbook collection.  Unless IceDaddy is willing to let me turn one of the bedrooms into a cookbook library (NOT HAPPENING, he says), I need to keep them to a controllable amount.  Having acquired three cookbooks for Christmas, that means I have to make an effort to get rid of at least one, if not more. 

I have to admit, I've strayed from the goal of cooking just from the cookbooks.  It's hard for me to just look there when I have these wonderful cooking magazines tempting me with seasonal goodness.  But I still look at them for inspiration and for recipes.  There are three cookbooks in particular that I can't seem to get rid of and yet I realize they're probably not useful overall. 

So, with that, I present the cookbooks and my dilemma in which ones to downsize.  By talking through this with you, I hope to convince myself of the same.

1.  Cooking with Master Chefs by Julia Child.  Originally, a companion to the PBS series.  Any cookbook with Julia Child involves gets me to pick it up.  Finding it on clearance at Half Price Books made me buy it.  When I actually started cooking with it, the challenge is that it attempted to simplify down restaurant recipes, and that does not always translate well.  I made a recipe by Charlie Palmer, a venison steak and some baked potato "chips" sandwiched with fresh herbs.  The verdict?  The steak was actually improved by my technique of wrapping in bacon for the cooking (to keep a lean piece of meat moist) more than I thought it was his ideas.  The potato chips were "interesting" but I would not call them a success.  In looking ahead to other chefs and their recipes, they are just not really a fit, other than maybe Lidia Bastianich and her Italian recipes.

2.  Biba's Italian Kitchen.  Also a Half Price Books acquisition.  I was reading some bad press on the "Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian" and thinking I needed to consider getting a book actually written by an Italian chef that had lived in Italy.  Biba had a tv show on "The Learning Channel" (aka TLC now) back in the 1990s and this book was based on the show.  The food I prepared is tasty, but I keep having a crisis with myself because I feel like the food is very "Americanized" and for some reason that really bothers me.  Should it?  I don't know - I was looking for authentic and I can't seem to get past that idea.  I've liked some of what I cooked, but again, it's just not authentic.

3.  Food Network Kitchens Making it Easy.  With this pedigree, you would think that this is the best cookbook ever for me.  I think it has good intentions - use of crock pot, pressure cooker, or quick recipes.  In this case, I think it's simply a case of taste being subjective, and I don't see enough recipes that I want to make

4.  Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmey Aboy Valldejuli.  This is the biggest heartbreaker.  I purchased this cookbook in San Juan after falling in love with the cuisine of Puerto Rico and especially the dish Pernil (pork shoulder).  While I think it probably represents many good recipes and a variety of the repetoire of the cooking, it did not have that may appealing recipes.  That said, it is THE cookbook reference for Puerto Rican food, much like Mastering the Art of French Cooking or the Escoffier Cookbook are regarded for French cuisine.

So, with all of that, what to choose...  At this point in my evolution as a cook, I am notivated to learn new techniques, cuisine outside of my comfort zone, and challenging myself with more sophisticated food.  Each of these cookbooks fills a criteria; however, having a finite space for storage and ability to retain every cookbook, alas I have elected to say goodbye to FN Kitchens and Julia.  My love affair with Julia's cooking will continue via some of her other tomes.  You may think my choices are arbitrary, but because of my pasta and sausage making, I'm interested in Italian food and its related techniques and I still retain a spot of affection for the Puerto Rican cuisine and cannot part with it.  It will motivate me to revisit the cookbook and make some specialties again.  I will report back on that in the future.

Happy cooking!!  

A new year, a clean slate in the pantry

Last month we hosted a holiday potluck for our hockey friends.  At the party, I was proudly showing off my crazy custom pantry.  It's honestly as big as an average bathroom.  When I showed it to one of my friends, a comment was made about its organization.  This person did not mean it to sound terrible, and I did not take it as her being rude, but it did shame me into looking at the pantry and realizing that the organizational work I did about 3 years ago simply isn't functioning now.  Like anyone, over time I just lose focus on sticking to my organizational plan, and, like many, I get more stuff as time passes.  More decor items, more cookbooks, etc.  It made me realize that I was LONG overdue for a spring cleaning and it seemed like a good time with the start of the new year looming.

The next day, what started as an effort to slowly revamp the pantry with a simple purge of expired canned goods (proud to say, only 5 items disposed of for that!) turned into a revamp of all 5 pantry shelves, the storage shelves, and the wine storage.  About 4 hours later, I had every shelf back in order and a full trash bag and full bin of recyclable items.  I can honestly say I didn't get rid of much relatively speaking, but what I did do was create SPACE between items.  If nothing else, that creates the illusion of organization.  I'm fortunate to have a large enough pantry that it was possible to do that.  I was also able to repurpose a cookbook holder as a much more useful platter organizer!  It lined up platters sideways in an easily accessible manner.  Most importantly, I spent the next few days reexamining my cookbooks (again).  It seems like eternal vigilance, but I'm constantly acquiring new books, so I also have to work to keep the cookbooks from overwhelming the space.  General rule of thumb is that for every cookbook I acquire, I generally get rid of two. 

Now, I have all of the cookbooks repositioned and room for expansion (without complaints from IceDaddy).  I'm fortunate to have a colleague who enjoys cooking and entertaining as much if not more than me.  If I have cookbooks that I think she will like, I generally offer them to her before re-selling to Half Price Books.  There were two in particular that, while they didn't work for me, they are worth sharing - a cookbook for spending one weekend to create a month of meals.  Great idea, but really best for a family with children.  Second was a book of creative mixes in a jar.  Something that is awesome for teacher gifts doesn't really help me since my homemade items are candies and cookies.  But I'm truly glad someone else may be able to get use from them, and if she doesn't she has my blessing to pass them on again.

For those that may want to play along at home, here are my top 5 hints for updating your own pantry.  Total cost for my makeover? $3 for one plastic storage container.  (Although will have about $20 more for a labeler).

Don't know why it's sideways, but this is the redesigned shelves. 
Top - lesser-used containers;  second shelf - baking center;
Middle shelf - cookbooks and plastic bags/trash bags/foil
Fourth shelf - more cookbooks and root vegetable basket
Fifth shelf - more cookbooks
Bottom - wine racks and large bag storage

1. Look for items that you can repurpose - I used a cookbook holder (that was poor in the function of actually holding a cookbook) as a terrific organizer for my decorative plates and platters.  It lined everything up nicely and was a great way to not have to get rid of the item.
2.  Buy a labeler - Now, this is a "do what I say not what I do" item, as I still need to get one of my own, but they are great to remind you of where something should actually go.  It keeps you in check when you start to get lax.  Plus, when you have identical jars that you store different ingredients, it's a handy reminder of which is what.
3.  Put space between your items - if your pantry is like most, the back parts of the shelves can get dark (unless you have lighting installed on the shelves, and I don't).  To let light in toward the back of the shelves and make it easier to grab items, try keeping space between them.  I usually leave 1 inch between different canned goods and several inches between other items such as my cookbooks and decorative items.  It really makes it look more organized (see middle shelf)
4.  Organize by section - I have areas in the pantry for canned goods (and I have sections for items such as tomato products, canned veggies, canned soups, etc), snack foods, and baking items.  Items used more frequently are in areas that are more convenient and accessible (second shelf is my baking center, for example).
5.  Use... plastic shoeboxes - these are perhaps my favorite item for organization.  They cost about $2 at any typical supercenter and allow for stand-up storage of items such as packaged mixes or little items that could get loose and lost if not corralled.  $10 worth of shoeboxes makes all the difference for me

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Embrace the Sunday Supper

Not that I need to have any more cooking magazines come to my door, but a friend of ours recommended "Cook's Illustrated" to me as one of the best.  As this person is a passionate homebrewer and cook, I respected his advice and sent away for my free issue.

Something that I've made an effort to do the last several months is to cook a full and special Sunday supper.  I plan a main course with starch and vegetable that is slightly more elegant and time-consuming, hopefully with planned leftovers.  I find that really taking the time to make things from scratch on Sundays gives me some relaxed down time (cooking is a zen activity to me) and lets me celebrate food with a meal that I prepared from scratch and gives me an opportunity to try new techniques that I would not do on a week night.

One of the reasons why I tend to cook out of my magazines is the seasonality - they feature recipes with food of that season, and it's just the most appealing.  Cook's certainly does present recipes of the season, but they really focus on deconstructing and improving many classic recipes and optimizing techniques.  That scientific method approach and style of writing is infinitely appealing to someone that has authored scientific papers before.

I tried several recipes from two of the three issues I now have (they sent me the December issue after I received January - strange).  First, I went back to basics with sauteed mushrooms.  What I love about their hints is that they don't require you to set heat so high in a pan that you smoke out your kitchen.  It's ok to cook them longer to let liquids out and then commence with browning.  The secret at the end?  A splash of sherry or wine, quickly evaporated.  That is now my go-to method to prep mushrooms for just about any recipe - concentrated flavors and intensity abound!

I also used their basic green bean recipe with similar success, but because Ice likes his green beans overcooked, I have to admit that I tend to prep toward a softer texture.

For our Special Sunday Supper (now a tradition), I chose two other recipes - Chicken Fricassee and Roasted Smashed Potatoes.  The chicken was simple - sauteed chicken with a sauce of mushrooms and onions cooked and then sauced with chicken broth, thickened with flour and a mixture of sour cream and an egg yolk followed by a touch of tarragon.  I have to say - the sour cream and egg yolk made the sauce silky - fabulous texture and the tarragon is just an amazing herb.  If you haven't tried it, put it in a chicken dish - it's a mild herb that is almost floral.  The taste was excellent - IceDaddy really gave it high compliments.

The potatoes are an interesting recipe.  It is a take on a very classic French potato preparation using small new potatoes - I've seen similar recipes prepared by Jacques Pepin and Rachel Ray, so you know it's hit the mainstream!  All other versions involve cooking the potatoes in water until tender on the stove, draining the water, smashing each potato flat like a pancake and then browning in the pan on the stovetop.  Those results looked good, but perhaps not very crisp. This recipe sought to get perfectly cooked spuds, with intense crispness.  Their secret: steaming the potatoes in a high heat oven, then smashing and seasoning with loads of olive oil and some herbs, then baking more in a searingly hot oven.  YUM! 

Paired together with some simple sauteed broccoli, it was a great meal.  The best part is that I cooked the recipe for 4 portions of the chicken for planned leftovers.  For that, I sliced the chicken into pieces and mixed with the sauce.  I will serve that later this week with packaged long grain and wild rice cooked up with more sauteed mushrooms and onions and a side of those perfect green beans.  With a meal that tasty, it's something that will make you want to come to the table to spend time with the family.  A Smashing Sunday Supper!

Party Central

I watch plenty of shows that help cooks have quick-fix solutions for their holiday hostessing.  No Sandra Lee shortcuts for me, but there is one guaranteed easy way to entertain even during the busy holiday season - potluck!!  Everyone has minimal cooking (1 - 2 dishes per couple/person) and yet there is a plethora of food and options for every taste.  In our circle of friends, perhaps there's an overabundance of porky goodness, but hey, we're not complaining! 

The key I've found to a holiday potluck (or any potluck) is to coordinate what food people are bringing.  Don't leave it up to chance that you'll have a good mix of entrees, appetizers, sides, and desserts.  Take the time to ask and coordinate.  As the hosts, IceDaddy and I chose to provide a main-dish meat (the quick fix option of a Honeybaked Ham) and round out the menu holes with an appetizer dip and a dessert.  I contacted the guests to find out what they planned to bring and where there were gaps, made requests.  Our group of friends were more than happy to bring whatever was needed and I would guess most potlucks are much the same.  We had a plethora of items and more than enough food (leftovers for DAYS) from that. 

With that, here are the helpful hints that we found made a huge difference in the success of our potluck:

1. Make sure there are 1 - 2 main dishes (meats or hearty fare) and a variety of side dishes.  Unless you want a specific theme (such as Italian food), let people bring what they want.  That way, people know there's at least one thing they will eat and generally people make items they enjoy creating (signature items).  We had kick-butt banana pudding, an Italian pasta dish, and sweet potato casserole, to name a few.  Random?  Perhaps, but VERY tasty.  Note: if people have special dietary needs, it's especially important to be aware of what people bring.  If someone has a food concern, suggest they bring a dish they can eat.
2.  Don't overcomplicate the drinks offered.  Besides water and a non-alcoholic beverage, we supplied beer and one signature drink - limoncello.  Additionally, plenty of ice and coolers were available to chill down beer and drinks brought by others. 
3.  Goodie bags - 'Tis the season, so have your guests leave with some goodies.  I make some candies and nuts and put some gift bags together for guests to take with them. 
4.  Have a theme and decorate - our food theme was a general dinner potluck, but you can do one with just drinks and desserts, appetizers, or anything in between.  To decorate, I took a tablecloth and bunched it up in the center of our island.  I decorated around that with vases filled with ornaments, candles, and decorative platters.  Nothing fancy or complicated, but I did have platters available to transfer food from the guests onto.  That way, it fit on decorative plates and allowed for clean-up of guest items before the party was over (where practical).
6.  Party games or activites - Keep everyone busy!  Whether it's a cookie swap, ugly sweater exchange, or white elephant, it's a good way to incorporate everyone into the festivities.  We had a white elephant gift exchange and set up the Kinect to play party games. Even the worst dancer or least competitive person can get in on the fun with a Wii or a Kinect.  Good times....

Here's to your own holiday fiesta!

Rathbun does it again!

In our holiday traditions, one is particularly important - a visit to the Dallas Symphony to attend their annual Holiday Concert.  It's a fabulous way to spend a Saturday in December getting into the Christmas spirit.  Since the concert ended about 5:00 pm, and we were downtown, it gave us an opportunity to try a restaurant that normally would take an act of Congress to want to drive to for a meal that will take as long to eat as it takes us to get there in traffic.

Sideways view of the restaurant
 As one of our favorite restaurants to eat is Jasper's (especially on an expense account), and since Kent Rathbun is the proprietor, we figured we would look at his other offerings.  He has a range of options from chic chic fine dining (Abacus) to a down-home cousin of Jasper's called Rathbun's Blue Plate.  IceDaddy being who he is, we felt that both from a price perspective and appeal of the food, Blue Plate was the preference.

Getting there just before 5 pm, we were THE first people to enter for the evening service.  The decor was like an upscale bar - taupes, with accents of black and chrome.  Very soothing, romantically lit palette.  The restaurant has a focus on sourcing ingredients "locally" (translation: Texas) and features products in that manner.  For beverages of the alcoholic variety, for example, all beers on tap were Texas beers.  IceDaddy enjoyed a Shiner and I took advantage of one of their signature drinks - a concoction of house-made sweet and sour mix combined with both orange and lemon vodkas.  Yummy!

The menu is an interesting mix of gourmet "country grub" and healthier fare.  That's likely a reflection of Rathbun's weight loss success and his ongoing efforts to maintain it juxtaposed with creating indulgent food he loves.  Since we needed to objectively cover the menu, we chose appetizer, entrees, and a dessert.

For starters, we chose something slightly outside of Ice's typical fare - Texas Blue Crab Gratin.  It was basically a crab dip with crab and garlic/herb cream cheese topped with crispy breadcrumbs and served with crisp toasted bread.  A mini Tabasco bottle was provided alongside to add to taste.  The dip was rich, and the hard toast was  needed for a textural contrast to the soft dip.  Before adding the Tabasco, the flavor was good, but that hint of spice elevated it much more.  Perhaps my only complaint was that the breadcrumb topping was a bit too towering - they could have nixed about a tablespoon of the crumbs and I would have been fine.

For entrees, we decided on the indulgent fare.  Ice did Grandma Minnie's country fried chicken with chunky red potatoes and maple cream gravy.  I chose the Ancho barbequed pulled pork with Cabrales blue cheese grits and crispy tortilla strips.  The country fried chicken was a crispy breaded drumstick, boneless breast, and tender piled on a bed of absolutely heavenly mashed potatoes.  The breading had a peppery bite (which is to our taste), the mashed potatoes were hands-down the best mashed potatoes this side of Ice's stepmom's and the maple cream gravy was a great riff on a classic.  It wasn't overly sweet - just a hint of maple flavor and sweetness paired with a peppered cream gravy.  The ancho pork was delicious and tender shredded pork with a vinegary bbq sauce.  By itself, it was a bit puckering, but when you eat the grits with the pulled pork, it really offsets the richness. 

Since one of our Jasper's favorites is their ham and gouda mac and cheese, we had to try the Brazos Valley cheddar mac and cheese as a side.  I have to say, it was good - homemade pasta, sharp tangy cheddar, and bits of mushroom and shallot detectable in the baked goodness, but it just isn't the same as Jasper's.  I'm sure if I hadn't tasted the Holy Grail of mac and cheese at Jasper's, my opinion would be higher.

We rounded out the meal with a decadent chocolate lava cake and a side of ice cream, both very good.  The chocolate cake was moist with the lava-like fudge center and a definite taste of espresso to enhance the dark chocolate all nicely offset with the vanilla ice cream.

The verdict?  If you're in the area, Rathbun's is a must-visit, especially since you can spend half the prie of Jasper's and still have a belly full of goodness.