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.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What a Top Chef Taught Me....

I had the pleasure last week of reading Tom Colicchio's cookbook, "Think Like a Chef."  As I've explored new culinary realms, I keep coming back to the same message in so many cookbooks - learn the basics.  What does that really mean?  In case you're not sure, boiling water is probably the most basic!   The idea is that if you learn a technique, say sauteeing, you can saute anything.  Same for roasting.  If you can roast beef, you can roast pork, chicken, fish, etc.

The other idea is to cook for the season with veggies.  Start planning a meal with the veggies and add in the protein and starch from there.  I'm not quite at that point, but I have friends participating in veggie co-ops that definitely have that technique mastered!  This is really a contrast to complicated recipes like those in "The Silver Palate" Cookbook.  I re-read the book after TC's tome and my head was spinning at the level of complication to most every recipe.  While I'm sure the food is faboo, recipes with so many ingredients and complicated steps are not the way to cook most days and have dinner on the table at a reasonable hour!

The idea that stayed with me from the books was to jazz up something simple with a special touch.  It goes back to the basics - use a technique to cook, then add something special to elevate the dish.  I was inspired to try pasta with truffle butter.  What, you ask, is truffle butter?  It is, admittedly, a luxury ingredient.  Pieces of black truffle are mixed into butter adding a rich, intensely mushroomy musky flavor.  A little bit goes a long way, so even though it's a pricey buy, it lasts a while.  In the recipe below, for example, they call for a whole carton.  I used about a Tablespoon and enjoyed a subtle, mellow flavor.

Reading Colicchio's book re-inspired the desire to make a simple dish with great flavor.  I originally saw the recipe for a truffle butter pasta on "Barefoot Contessa" and was dying to try it.  And the taste?  Mushroomy, earthy, cheesy, and a nice touch of onion from the chives!  Here's a pic of Ina's dish and a link to the recipe.  Happy eating!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Breakfast for Dinner - Quick and Easy Hash

Having breakfast for dinner seems almost naughty, like I'm breaking a rule I was brought up to obey.  I made a really delicious beef roast this weekend, but with only two eaters (ok - 2 1/3 since one of the cats loves beef), I had a ridiculous amount of leftovers.  One of our favorite meals is a steak with baked potato and a side dish of sauteed mushrooms and onions.  Why not put those same flavors in a one-dish meal of hash?

Foods cook faster if they're cut in small pieces, so to get dinner on the table fast, chopping up all of the ingredients cooks everything faster.  The beauty of this dish is the use of leftovers.  Anything can go in a hash - vegetables (yes, even broccoli or zucchini), potatoes, meat, etc. 

My kitchen staples include potatoes, onions, and mushrooms, so with the leftover roast, I was set!  I chopped up the mushrooms into rough pieces, cubed the potatoes small (frozen hash brown potatoes would work fine too), and cut the roast into pieces.  I started by sauteeing the onions on medium in a little oil; then when they were translucent, I added the mushrooms and cooked them until their liquid was cooked off.  I moved that to a bowl and cooked the potatoes until browned.  Once done, I added in the meat and the mushroom mixture and heated it through.  Though the potatoes took a while to cook (about 20 minutes since I cooked them at medium heat), it was worth it when the hash came together.  A recipe isn't important - use what you have available - heck, cook breakfast sausages and cut them, use ground beef, whatever!  Add browned potatoes (frozen, refrigerated, or fresh), and whatever vegetables (cooked to your liking).  Voila!

No "breakfast for dinner" meal is complete without an egg, so I fried one up to order (use the same pan as the hash!).  Ice likes his over-medium to over-hard (shown above) with lots of pepper, while mine is over easy.  That allows the yolk, when broken, to run over the hash and make its own sauce.  What elevated the dish to a different realm was the "homemade" ketchup.  This is what separates the kids' dish from the grown-ups!  Ketchup + Sriracha = heavenly hash condiment with just the right amount of spicy and sweet to balance out the richness of the egg, potatoes and steak.

Sriracha Ketchup
1/2 cup store-bought ketchup of choice
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons of Sriracha (based on level of spice preferred)
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1/2 tsp diced shallot (optional)

If using, mince shallot finely and mince parsley finely.  Set aside.  In a small bowl, add ketchup and Sriracha to taste.  Once desired level of heat is reached, add in pepper, parsley, and shallot (if using).  Serve with hash.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Oreo Cake Balls - a Rock Star Dessert!

To say I love sugary, chocolately treats would be an understatement.  I'm generally dreaming of chocolate morning, noon, and night.  I also love to bake and cook (if you haven't noticed).  A few months back, I jumped on the cake ball bandwagon and made some traditional cake balls - cooked up a cake in a pan, let it cool, turned it into crumbs, mixed with frosting, chilled, then dipped in melted chocolate.  It's not complicated, but it does take time since you have to first BAKE the cake, THEN cool it (overnight is best), THEN crumble and add frosting, THEN chill it for at least 15 more minutes before dipping.  All told, it was a two day process!  I'm not opposed to spending that time for special occasions, but if I need some instant gratification, I now have an easier way... Oreo Cake Balls!

My sister-in-law shared the recipe and it earned two thumbs up for both simplicity and taste.  Truth be told, I ate half of them before ever sharing!!  I also love the versatility of chocolate options for dipping.  To experiment, I used two different types of chocolate for dipping - some in milk chocolate and some in semi-sweet.  Bake sale, chocolate emergency, whatever the situation, MAKE THEM! :)  You will be a rock star to your family, bake sale, and tummy.

Bet you can't eat just one!
Oreo Cake Balls
1 package Oreo cookies (regular kind)
1 (8 oz) package cream cheese
2 packages chocolate chips of choice (white, milk, or semi-sweet)
Assorted decorative sprinkles

Place Oreos in food processor and grind until crumbly.  Cut cream cheese into 8 squares and add to Oreo crumbs.  Run food processor until cream cheese is incorporated into Oreo crumbs and mixture starts to form a ball.  Line a sheet pan with tin foil or waxed paper.  Using small cookie scoop or teaspoon, portion out mixture and roll into balls.  Chill in freezer for 10 minutes to firm.  While chilling, place chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 2 minutes to melt.  Stir and continue microwaving in 20 - 30 second intervals until all chips melted.  Remove Oreo balls from freezer and dip each in chocolate.  Place dipped balls back onto lined sheet pan.  Sprinkle with decorative sugar or sprinkles.  If using different types of chocolate, melt them separately.

Happy eating!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

No-So-Ordinary Grilled Cheese

This winter, comfort foods are my craving and soup/sandwich suppers are tops on my list.  They can be both quick and satisfying with about a zillion combinations.  Around our house, grilled cheese rules the dinner hour, so I've come up with some creative variations on the traditional grilled cheese.  I'm a big fan of cheesy sandwiches, so I use a 2-1 ratio of cheese to meat, but you can use a slice of cheese to two slices of meat if you prefer. 

I came across a recipe from Cooking Club of America that inspired the whole idea of grilled cheese with special ingredients. 

The inspiration sandwich, from CCA
The keys to making a good grilled cheese great? Plenty of meat and cheese and a special sauce to fit the sandwich.  The best part of a sandwich and soup supper?  You can have a hot sandwich ready in 15 minutes or less.  Pair that with a canned soup of choice (microwaved in about 2 - 3 minutes) and dinner is served!  Here's a few ideas to turn grilled cheese on its head; directions are the same - only difference are the ingredients.  Happy eating!

Roast Beef, Cheddar, and Horseradish Panini (serve with tomato soup) - Makes 4 sandwiches
8 slices sandwich bread or sourdough
8 slices deli roast beef
8 slices sharp cheddar
8 slices mild cheddar or jack cheese
1 tsp creamy horseradish
3 Tbsp mayo
1 cup arugula (optional)

Heat a grill pan, panini maker, or skillet to medium heat.  I like to put the meat in the skillet and warm through before assembling the sandwiches (this is optional).Meanwhile, butter each slice of bread on one side.  Mix horseradish and mayo in a dish (can use less horseradish for a milder sandwich).  When pan is hot, spread non-buttered side of bread with mayo/horseradish mix and place butter-side down in skillet.  Add one slice of  sharp cheddar cheese and 1 - 2 pieces of roast beef.  Add 1/4  of the arugula and 1 slice of the mild cheddar or jack.  Top with other slice of bread.  Repeat to make one more sandwich.  To cook like a panini, put a heavy skillet on top of sandwich and cook 2 - 3 minutes.  Remove heavy skillet and flip sandwich.  Turn down heat to medium-low and cook 2 - 3 more minutes until cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 2 more sandwiches.

Hot Italiano (Makes 4 sandwiches)
8 slices of Italian bread or 4 crusty rolls, halved
4 thin slices salami or 8 thin slices prosciutto (may substitute 8 slices pre-cooked bacon)
4 slices of honey ham (if small or thin slices, use 8 slices total)
4 slices of Provolone cheese
4 slices of Swiss or mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 tsp Italian dressing
3 Tbsp mayo
4 thin slices tomato (optional)

Heat a grill pan, panini maker, or skillet to medium heat.  Once heated, add ham and prosciutto (if using) to the pan and heat through, 2 - 3 minutes.  This helps cook off some of the extra moisture.  Meanwhile, butter each slice of bread on one side. Mix Italian dressing and mayo in a dish. When pan is hot, spread non-buttered side of bread with mayo/dressing mix and place butter-side down in skillet. Add one slice of  Provolone cheese and 2 pieces of prosciutto/salami or bacon. Add 1 slice of tomato, 1 slice of ham, and 1 slice of the Swiss or mozzarella. Top with other slice of bread. Repeat to make one more sandwich. To cook like a panini, put a heavy skillet on top of sandwich and cook 2 - 3 minutes. Remove heavy skillet and flip sandwich. Turn down heat to medium-low and cook 2 - 3 more minutes until cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 2 more sandwiches.

Mediterranean Turkey with Pesto (Makes 4 sandwiches)
8 slices whole-wheat bread
8 slices deli smoked turkey
8 slices Provolone or mozzarella
4 tsp crumbled Feta cheese (preferably with mediterranean herbs)
3 Tbsp mayo
2 tsp store-bought pesto
1/2 cup fresh basil or 1 cup baby arugula

Heat a grill pan, panini maker, or skillet to medium heat.  Meanwhile, butter each slice of bread on one side. Mix pesto, Feta and mayo in a dish. When pan is hot, spread non-buttered side of bread with mayo/pesto/Feta mix and place butter-side down in skillet. Add one slice of Provolone or mozzarella cheese and 1 piece of turkey. Add 1/4 of the arugula (if using), 1 slice of turkey, and 1 slice of the Provolone or mozzarella. Top with other slice of bread. Repeat to make one more sandwich. To cook like a panini, put a heavy skillet on top of sandwich and cook 2 - 3 minutes. Remove heavy skillet and flip sandwich. Turn down heat to medium-low and cook 2 - 3 more minutes until cheese is melted. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 2 more sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pork ribs - versatile, economical, and TASTY!

I'm a self-proclaimed pork hound.  I love me porky goodness in just about any form.  Friends and family have swooned (literally) over my pork candy (for the unfamiliar, it's bacon coated in brown sugar and cayenne pepper and baked), and I grew up in a household that cooked more pork than chicken.  In other words, I come by it honestly. 

The one pork product I didn't really eat much was a bone-in pork rib.  Mostly, in my head, it was a great bbq option, but not an everyday item.  Was. I. Wrong!  In the last six months, I realized how economical, versatile, and tasty pork ribs can be.  Any flavor works well - Mexican, Italian, whatever your taste.  Finding some pork ribs discounted ($5 for $9 worth!), I decided to experiment, but what to do....

It's January, so braised dishes are comforting and seasonally-appropriate.  Braises also make food both flavorful and tender, cooking low and slow.  Looking in the pantry, I decided to cook the pork in beer with a little OJ for flavor and brightness.  I cut the ribs into individual portions, sprinkled them with a bbq rub, and browned them to get the flavor jumping.  Then, I added 1 can of beer and 1/2 cup of oj.  I cooked it on high in the slow cooker for about 4 hours and they were falling-apart tender.  But I wasn't done there!  I wanted to get even more flavor into the ribs.  How?  Really simple - I boiled down the sauce, thickened it with some flour, and added sriracha!  Five ingredients for dinner?  Yes please!  If you don't like my combo, use the combos that work for you!  I served the ribs with a side of steamed broccoli and mac and cheese.

Beer, OJ, and Sriracha Pork Ribs
2 1/2 lbs pork ribs, cut into individual pieces
2 Tbsp barbecue rub of choice
1 can lager beer
1/2 cup orange juice
1 Tbsp Sriracha or Chinese hot garlic sauce
2 Tbsp flour

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 Tbsp oil.  Season the pork ribs with the barbecue rub or salt and pepper.  Brown the pork ribs on all sides, about 2 minutes per side.  Remove from pan.  Transfer the pork ribs to a slow cooker or oven-safe pan.  Add beer and orange juice to slow cooker or baking pan.  Cook on high heat in slow cooker for 4 hours or up to 8 hours on low.  Alternatively, bake covered at 250 degrees for 2 1/2 hours or until done.  Once ribs are done, remove from sauce and wrap in tin foil to keep warm.  Bring cooking liquid to a boil and add 2 Tbsp flour mixed with 2 Tbsp. cold water to braising liquid.  Boil until thickened.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and add Sriracha.  Add ribs to sauce and reheat 5 minutes.  Drizzle sauce over ribs.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Phyllo Perfection, Mediterranean Style

I've waxed poetic before on puff pastry.  It elevates an ordinary dish into something extraordinary.  Phyllo dough has similar charms, but requires much more work.  With puff pastry, the butter is already worked into the dough, so it's perfection without the work.  Phyllo requires the cook to layer tissue-thin dough with melted butter to create the flaky texture that comes from baking.
Since we plan to entertain during the holidays, the more items I can make ahead and have chilling (or chillin') out in my freezer now, the better.  I love Mediterranean flavors - tomatoes, olives, and feta, so a recipe that I can make ahead AND look like a rock star for making it sounds good to me! 

I found inspiration from my Fine Cooking cookbook.  I'm "retiring" the cookbook to Half Price Books, but I snagged a few recipes before parting. 

Portioned bites
Filling time!  Chopped up some kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil), and mint.  Added chopped parsley on a whim and incorporated frozen spinach that was thawed, drained, and squeezed dry.  Added the feta cheese for a salty tang and mixed. 

Layering begins
The phyllo was hanging out in my fridge ready and waiting to be rolled and folded into triangles of crispy perfection.  A warning - phyllo is fussy!  I had to keep it covered with plastic wrap so that it would not dry and crack.  I took out one sheet, brushed it with butter, topped it with a second sheet, brushed that with butter, then cut the sheet into three strips. 

Ready to roll!

Two teaspoons of filling per piece later, I had triangles of Mediterranean munchies fit for a casual get-together or fancy soiree.  Well, at least I had unbaked, ready-to-freeze munchies.... They still required covering to prevent cracking and drying out, but they were at least done and ready to bake.
Once I had the triangles ready to freeze, it was time to bake and taste.  A cook always does a quality check, right?  Sometimes, my quality checks cause me to make a double recipe in the case of chocolate chip cookies and other desserts! 

Protect me!  Hungry people are around
All I had to do was wait. Since I actually squeezed in making these while also cooking the tomato sauce for The Lasagna Debacle Part II, I actually finished up the tomato sauce work while these baked. Once done, I could get off my feet and enjoy.
But, I'm ahead of myself.  Once I pulled these babies out of the oven (not the prettiest triangles of the bunch, but that's why they were my taste-test triangles), I wanted to sink my teeth in right away.  Since I've learned tongue and mouth burns are both painful and tastebud killing, I waited a few minutes for them to cool.  The results?  Well, I think the picture tells the story.  They tasted as good as they looked.  Happy eating!

Phyllo Perfection!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Tribute to Family

I know those that read the blog probably wondered where I've been for 2 months.  Sadly, I've been absent due to some family events.  Unexpectedly, my Uncle Dale passed away the afternoon of October 30th.  That same week, I lost my Grandmother, Ruth.  The events were a true tragedy for my family as those were the only two immediate family elders on that side remaining.  With them passing, a part of me was lost as well.  I am amazed the entire clan passed in the months of September, October, or November and I will probably be forever fearful of family losses in those months.

While I haven't posted on my blog (words failed me), I was busy working on a culinary tribute to the family - a cookbook.  So many family memories centered on the food and family gatherings - what better tribute to a family legacy than a cookbook!  You may wonder whether I used a software program or other "template" to make the cookbook.  Actually, I didn't!  It's easy to format your own in Word.  Using "landscape" setting and 8.5 x 11-inch paper size, I formatted the cookbook using two columns per page and size 8 font.  Family photos were scanned and incorporated, as well as essays on family events and other recollections.  What I love is that there is no right or wrong - the recipes are those we loved and remembered as well as others that I believe were made for my father and uncle when they were children. 

The cookbook project was part of my grieving process, as well as a way to remember and honor the memory of this family.  What I will continue with is to make and document the heritage recipes of the family.  I will still write in this blog from time-to-time, but I'm creating a new blog for heritage recipes that I will make as a celebration of our loved ones now gone.  I hope you'll follow my blog www.recipesoffamilyheritage.blogspot.com and comment/contribute your own heritage recipes as well.  Help me to create a blog that becomes a living tribute to our loved ones and their treasured family recipes.

Happy New Year and keep cooking!

Jazzing up home cooking, inspired from "twisted" comfort food

This post isn't as much about a recipe I've made as it is a celebration of turning tradition on its ear.  IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to dine at an amazing restaurant, Rathbun's Blue Plate.  This isn't our first time there, but it was good enough  the first time to have a date night this week and go back. 

Many people unfamiliar with the Dallas restaurant scene may not know how casual you can be when dining on fine cuisine.  Good food does NOT mean pretentious decor, snooty service, or tie/jacket required.  There are places known and celebrated for that level of expectation and service, but I think, especially in a down economy, casual atmosphere with five-star food is a smart twist on tradition.

Comfort food is iconic - almost anyone can name a classic comforting dish from chicken fried steak to collard greens to sushi (hey, if you grew up eating it, that counts as comfort food to you!).  The food is generally hearty, satisfying the soul and the appetite.  While I enjoy tradition, tastes have evolved and chefs draw influences from all over the world.  Blue Plate personifies this style.

What I hope you take from this blog postThe rest of the blog will be devoted to describing the food, and giving suggestions for how to turn tradition on its ear in your home kitchen.  While you may never make lobster and truffle risotto, you just might take a technique and jazz up your own rice dish.

Twist on tradition #1: Scallops with lobster and truffle risotto
Rathbun's Scallops with a Lobster and Truffle Risotto
I confess - I LOVE scallops passionately.  IceDaddy was still jealous from the phenomenal scallop dish I ate in Key West last May, so he attempted to best me by ordering the above entree.  Most everyone has a comfort dish with rice.  Risotto is an Italians' comfort food  rice dish, so it's natural to have it on a menu.  How did they "twist" it?  First, they used a rich lobster stock to cook the rice.  Second, big, buttery chunks of lobster were found mixed in.  Third, they added a lot (A LOT) of butter and cream.  Finally, they mixed in truffle oil, adding an earthy punch.

What lessons can we take from this?
1) Use stock when cooking!  Make your own, buy some, whatever.  It adds a punch of flavor.  That lobster added to the dish?  I bet the chef used the shells to make the stock!  I guarantee you, the next time I make risotto, it's with stock, not just broth.

2) Buy truffle oil.  Unless you're Tony Bourdain and believe it's an abomination, it's an inexpensive way to add some "gourmet" flavor to almost any savory dish.  What is a truffle?  Sparing you the scientific explanation, it's like mushroom flavor on acid.  Super earthy with some funk, restaurants shave delicate slices onto food as a garnish.  Truffle oil may not capture the full essence, but at $5 - $10 a bottle versus $200 a pound, it's an affordable choice.  A small drizzle at the end of cooking or when plating is all you need.

Twist on tradition #2 - Seared duck breast with white beans and greens

Tried duck?  If you haven't it's worth considering.  It's rich like dark meat chicken, but with a spicier flavor.  While I could make duck at home, I usually reserve the treat for eating in a restaurant.  That said, what I loved about this dish are the Asian-inspired flavors of the sauce.  Stewed white beans, toothy and tender, braised greens, tender and flavorful, and this rich brown sauce made with duck jus (read; pan drippings and essence) and star anise. 

What lessons can we take from this?
1) Experiment with proteins.  Like chicken? Try cornish game hens.  Have a hunter friend?  See if you can get doves.  Meat lover?  Try buffalo or venison.  Just changing the protein brings a whole different dimension of flavor

2) Spice it up - try spices that are somewhat unfamiliar.  Buy spice blends from the store or make your own.  Adding Chinese Five Spice powder to chicken breasts changes up the normal sauteed chicken considerably!

And finally, the absolute, "the best I ever ate" menu item that twisted up tradition....

Twist on tradition #3 - Duck confit mac and cheese

Duck fat rules!

OMG is this amazing!  I've heard the gourmet crowd praise french fries cooked in duck fat as one of the best foods you can get, but this mac and cheese elevates duck to another level.  Duck confit is a duck leg cooked slowly in duck fat until it's meltingly tender.  By iteself, it's rich, somewhat gamy, and flavorful.  With the mac and cheese, it adds a flavor dimension combined with the tang of aged cheddar and melt of gruyere.  I thought I might have to fight my sweetie for even one bite.

What lessons can we take from this?
1) Ok, aside from how good this was and that you have to try it for yourself, elevate your mac and cheese.  Add a specially aged cheddar, splurge on gruyere.  Use bacon fat to make the roux for the cheese sauce.  Incorporate flavor everywhere you can. 

2) Make your own pasta.  It's so simple - flour, eggs, salt, oil, and water.  30 minutes - that's it!  Try it and you'll always want fresh pasta.  Sauce clings to it and begs for more!  It makes that everyday dish more special.

I hope these ideas inspire you to think about how you can "twist" your favorite home cooking and comfort foods to make them different.  Happy eating!