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, 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.