Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Porridge at Home

For breakfast, I had some semolina porridge with butter, molasses, and salt, and some Earl Grey tea to drink.

I was feeling creative, I guess. It was an odd breakfast, as I'm not a huge fan of breakfast, or cereal, or hot soupy things early in the morning. And I have awful memories of my grandmother making me Cream of Wheat as a snack and me dousing it in heavy cream, butter, and brown sugar, just to make it edible.

Even the dog wanted in on this. Weirdo.

Dousing did ensue, but the result was remarkably tasty. I don't think of semolina as having much flavor, but the molasses brought out a rich, earthy quality in it, and provided contrasting mineral overtones. Sort of a non-alcoholic morning Guinness. The meal was balanced beautifully by my Earl Grey: floral black tea flavors, with a refreshingly sharp citrusy zing that prevented the porridge's creaminess from becoming boring.

One cooking note: the ratio I found everywhere online is really wrong, assuming you want porridge and not semolina-flavored water. I used less liquid than recommended (2 cups water- our milk smelled funny...) to a quarter cup semolina, and it was still quite watery after 20 minutes of cooking. Maybe it has something to do with the grind of my semolina (pretty fine), but I'd go with 1.5 cups liquid next time, or maybe even less. I didn't miss the milk, though added a few tablespoons butter to compensate.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Odd Ingredient du Jour: Lard

So, for someone who likes food a whole lot, I'm not really into the Cult of Pig that's hit the food world in the last few years. I like my jamón, I like proscuitto di San Daniele, I madly love these people. But I maybe cook bacon once a year. It's ok, but I could take it or leave it. Especially since lamb bacon is way tastier.

In any case, Jon decided to cook traditional Hungarian goulash last night. The recipe called for the meat to be browned in a few tablespoons of lard or shortening, and we had neither. The sensible thing would've been to buy that scary shelf-stabilized lard, or to buy a can of Crisco, or just use butter or oil. Or maybe even to head to the Dupont Farmers' Market and hope Red Apron Butcher had some posh lard on hand. Me being me, however, this went in a different direction.

That's two or three pounds of fat, skin, and god-knows-what the local Whole Foods nicely scraped up for me from their butchering remnants.

I knew my kindred spirit Chichi Wang over at Serious Eats had done a tutorial on rendering lard a few years back, so I figured it was manageable enough. Of course, I wasn't starting with a nice, pretty chunk of leaf lard, so I just loosely followed her procedure and hoped for the best.

First, I chopped that pile of pig into approximately 1" chunks. Next time, I'd dice them to get a faster render and maybe even some useful cracklins. The fat was still pretty cold from the butcher's cooler, but if I were dicing, I'd probably pop them in the freezer for awhile to make the process easier and less messy.

Then I tossed them in my large (4 quart?) dutch oven, and added 1/4 cup of water. The water's just there to help the fat evenly heat, and to prevent scorching at the beginning.

The tutorial says to start it over very low heat, covered, for the first ten minutes. Presumably this is to help it heat up quickly and evenly, but mine was over such low heat (stupid new apartment burners) that nothing really happened. I removed the lid and kept heating, stirring regularly.

10 minutes.

15 minutes.

20 minutes.

75 minutes.

105 minutes.

The whole process seemed to take forever. Especially between the 20 and 75 minute photos, change was very incremental and slow, to the degree I wondered if it was working at all. The important thing to remember is very low heat, at least until it has mostly melted. This yields a nice golden fat, without browning or developing off-flavors.

I quit at about two hours, though I could've gone longer and maybe yielded some cracklins. At that point, I (precariously) tipped everything through a mesh strainer into a measuring cup, then into jars for storage.

It's unfortunately a messy business.

It cooled to a nice creamy white, and made Jon's goulash extra-delicious. Now I just need to figure out what to do with the rest of it...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Holiday Food Roundup, Part II

The deliciousness continues.

One of the more brilliant things I discovered over the holidays is the magic of dry brining. I'm a somewhat fanatical advocate for dry brining turkey, and was severely remiss for not recommending it in my Thanksgiving post, but hadn't ever tried it for other meats.

Enter, the Tenderloin.

My MIL was cooking Christmas dinner for eight. This was a seven-pound hunk of meat, which she chose to dry brine. Basically, toss a bunch of salt on it, and leave it in the refrigerator, uncovered, for a few days. The meat turns from an opaque blood red to a (slightly creepy) translucent dark burgundy. The texture gets leathery and stiff, and you wonder if you've just mangled an $80 piece of cow. We were both terrified. But it roasted into an addictive, amazing meal. The dry outer layer browned more easily and became a little crispy, while the inside cooked normally to a nice medium rare.

Also in the magical MIL bag of cooking tips? Roasting shrimp.

Unless you're making me gambas al ajillo, I'm not a huge shrimp person. But these were pretty tasty. The olive oil + roasting gives them a nice texture and a more interesting flavor than most cocktail shrimp.

This is plum cake, from the cookbook-that-shall-not-be-named. Apparently, it's the most-requested recipe in the history of the New York Times. I baked it with pluots, because plums are quite out of season. It's delicious, and extremely easy to make. Best dessert I've ever had? Nope. But if we're doing a results:time ratio, it's pretty far up there.

Finally, there's this:

We were spending the night in Fayetteville, NC on the way home from Florida. Jon had found some barbecue place online that sounded reasonably tasty. So we were wandering around darkened streets, when we passed this sign. Fred. Chason's. Grandsons. Intriguing. We drove another two miles or so, and gave up on barbecue. Fred Chason's. It just sounded awesome.

We walked in, and immediately saw a guy with a handgun in his waistband. I knew then we'd made the right call. It was a buffet. Maybe $12 a person? But oh my god, the food.

Really good fried chicken. Really good. Also mac n' cheese, greens, cracklins (which I'd never had before), sausage, pretty much every part of a pig you can imagine, and reams of cobbler (multiple flavors). Oh, and sweet tea. Your stomach might explode, but it's definitely worth a detour.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spain in a Bowl

For dinner, I adapted this Catalan fried noodle recipe. I made it more delicious, and, I daresay, more Spanish.

This was taken pre-paprika.

So, what is it? Cappellini noodles, tossed with olive oil and roasted to a toasty light brown. Then cooked in fish broth and topped with mussels, paprika, and garlic aioli.

I was on the fence about which seafood to use. The original recipe calls for neither, but it uses fish broth. Seafood broths usually only take a few minutes to make from scratch, and they're hard and expensive to find. Using shrimp would create a neat take on gambas al ajillo, but I like mussels better. Also, for some reason that doesn't even make sense to me, I find shrimp more viscerally disgusting to work with.

The results? Awesomely rustic, like something the little old rural ladies of Volver would make. The paprika, not normally my favorite spice, made it all come together perfectly. Next time, I'd pan-fry the noodles rather than roast, just for user-friendliness, and butter, instead of olive oil, might be interesting to try as well.

The best part of all this? I somehow, inexplicably, did the impossible and made beautiful thick aioli with only a bowl and a wooden spoon.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Blini Brunch at Home

For breakfast, I made blini with blueberry jam, with coffee to drink.

Making blini is messy, as you can see. I based them on this recipe, from the ubiquitous (at least around here) NYT Cookbook. I, however, used Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, baking powder instead of soda, didn't provide for an overnight rest, and halved the recipe. They were still awesome.

The idea is to barely cook them through, so the middle stays super-creamy. The Greek yogurt added a sour tang that played well with the Bonne Maman wild blueberry preserves (my new obsession), but would have been too much otherwise.

The actual cooking process was frustrating- you have to flip them while they're still quite liquid, and they don't hold together very well. My first batch was easiest to flip because of the lower heat and slower cooking time, but the last batch developed a really nice buttery, crispy skin from the higher heat. I hate making most pancakes, due to the large number of ingredients and finicky behavior of most batters...it just seems unnecessarily combative to attempt something that complex when you're in a half-awake brunch daze. Despite their issues, I found these much easier to deal with, and would highly recommend them.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Completely Obsessed

...with baking bread. Seriously, this old NYT recipe is so easy. And I've baked, and been frustrated by, a lot of bread. Easy. I googled around to see if anyone had put the recipe online (they had), and was really depressed to see everyone else is getting much prettier results.

Whatever. It tastes great, even when made completely from white whole wheat flour, and it takes no time at all. I mixed up a batch, walked the dog, rolled it around a little, waited awhile, and baked it perfectly in time for dinner.

Still warm, with some shallot butter? Brilliant.

[Digressive edit: one of those links, the one with the prettier-than-mine bread, is actually an awesome-looking blog. Jon's sort of crushed my longstanding live-in-the-Rustbelt-and-build-stuff fantasies, but now I know where to go to get my fix...]

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

French Onion Soup-ish

For dinner, I kind of had French onion soup. Not nearly as deconstructed as this, but almost.

It all started when I tried to make a baguette. I'm still madly in love with the New York Times Cookbook, which I received as a Christmas present. And bread is one of those things I wish I made more often, just because you miss it if you don't have it, and homemade is always best.

So I used the Craig Claiborne/Pierre Franey recipe (couldn't find it online...buy the cookbook, you'll like it. Or borrow mine) for French bread. I used wine yeast, because I happened to have a little lying around. I don't think it really makes a difference though.

It has to be the technique. It's a really simple recipe, and, per usual, I messed with it by using mostly white whole wheat flour instead of white. It still turned out well. I was concerned that the inside was so dense in appearance:

But it turned out perfectly. The dense texture held well when I used it for almond butter & blueberry jam sandwiches at lunch, and was a nice counterpoint to the onion jam at dinner.


It was sort of the same confit recipe as before. This time, I measured to make sure I was slicing the onions more or less uniformly at 1/4". My new general rule is to use approximately a tablespoon, or a bit more, of butter per pound of onions. And to cook them very, very slowly. These I removed from heat after 1.5 to 2 hours, when they had barely changed to a light toffee color. I added a little kosher salt toward the beginning, and a little red wine towards the end. This time, I also chose to puree them a bit in the food processor, to yield nicely uniform bits.

To make the "soup", I covered some caramelized onion puree with sliced cubes of bread and shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano and briefly heated it. I can't overstate how awesome slow-cooked onions are- it's pure umami goodness. You don't need to use a ton of butter for a smooth, savory flavor. The bread was also a success, though maybe I'd add a little more water next time- I always forget the white whole wheat flour soaks up more moisture and you have to adjust.

To drink, I had a Dogfish Head "Raison d' Etre". It's becoming one of my local-ish go-to beers for complex, interesting flavors. It has a Belgian feel, with some light banana/clove flavors and heavier 'green' flavors- apple, maybe pear? Unique and interesting and substantial, but it still goes well with most foods.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Holiday Food Roundup, Part I

Over the holiday season, I had a lot of tasty, and/or bizarre, food. Here's a brief roundup, from the first part of my vacation.

I was tempted, but ultimately resisted, these freaky little things. I love red velvet cake (actually, one of my unspoken New Year's resolutions is to pin down a great recipe for the cake I so love), but this was just scary.

Instead, I had bread pudding French toast:

The location was Denny's, in case you were wondering. It was attached to our hotel, otherwise I wouldn't have been caught dead there. It's not snobbery, it's just that I don't remember eating at a Denny's without getting full-on, three-days-of-stomach-flu food poisoning. Not kidding; it had been ten years at least since I set foot in a Denny's. Thankfully, I emerged unscathed from this experiment. It was extremely dense, slimy yet dry, and strangely textured, but it didn't kill me. Success?

Once we got to Florida, I was intrigued by this bit of pretentiousness:

A "cranberry bog", from which you can fish your very own cranberries. Fresh Market kind of pisses me off for what they're up to in suburban DC, but I understand that they're a rare beacon of enlightenment in rural Florida. Still, pretentious.

Then there's the random office I visited with the in-laws. You know, you visit an accounting or legal office or whatever, and they ask you if you'd like something to drink? At this office, I was offered a menu:


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Yay, cookware!

Sorry I was gone so long! I didn't plan on that, but hooking up internet at the in-laws' proved to be more trouble than it was worth. Don't worry, I'll be punished enough when I try to make a roundup of all the tasty food I've had in the last three weeks.

In the meantime, I thought I'd talk about cookware. Fun, eh?

A few months ago, I was trying to candy some lemon slices, in my absolute favorite size pot. Favorite because it's perfect for everything but really big or really small jobs. It's a two quart Le Creuset, part of a 70s brown set I "borrowed" from my mother and never gave back. You can guess where this is going, no?

I was cooking them over low heat, and it was time to take my dog for a walk. And it was such a gorgeous day, the nicest day in so long, that I took her for an extra-long walk, completely forgetting my lemons. I came home to an apartment full of dense smoke, and an apparently broken fire alarm.

And this. This was taken after I spent about an hour chipping carbonized chunks of lemon out of the pot, actually.

I spent the next month chipping away, and zapping it with oxalic acid, but it just wasn't the same. I heard scary internet rumors of glass chunks in my food, and got freaked out about trying to rehabilitate it. So, on our drive back from vacation in Florida, we decided to stop at one of the Le Creuset factory stores for a replacement.

The store itself was an interesting cultural experience. Hello, dainty old southern ladies. Hello, temptation. I managed to escape just over $100 poorer, for the pot, a specialized potholder, and a large bottle of enameled cast-iron cleaner. Not bad.

The blue happened to be on sale, happens to go nicely with the chocolate brown 70s set, and is kind of sexy. Win.

But I noticed some interesting differences I feel compelled to note. Maybe it'll help out if you ever find a vintage pot somewhere and wonder what it is?

They started enameling the bottoms! As you can see from the wear on my 70s pot, this is probably a good thing. I'm looking forward to easier cleanup, without worrying about whether my pot bottom is fully dry. Also, the enamel surface is much easier to thoroughly dry.

They posh-ified the lids! Older lids don't have any markings, while the new one is cast with a large "Le Creuset". I guess this impresses people watching me cook? Yeah.

On less exciting notes, you can see that they slightly changed the shape of the handles, and that they still insist on selling pots with "phenolic" knobs. My 70s pot has a nice looking knob only because I've melted the plastic off the metal base with use over the years. You can purchase stainless steel knobs from Le Creuset to replace them for high-temperature oven cooking, but seriously?! I fail to understand why plastic-covered metal is still standard.