Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My New Favorite Thing

This weekend, the hubby and I drove out to Pasco for a wedding reception. Now, between Pasco and Pullman (much closer to Pasco) there is this amazing farm stand/specialty food/gift shop where we stop whenever we make the trip (which I have to admit is rarely). Last trip, we discovered little puffs of corn that are a cross between corn pops and churros. This trip, we discovered sweet onion jalapeno jelly.

I have to learn how to make this stuff. It's kind of sweet, mostly savory, with a little bit of spice. We had it on sourdough bread (toasted up crostini style) with goat cheese. I ate so much I didn't end up wanting dinner (Julia Child-style chicken breasts that were wonderfully moist but tasted too much like chicken--a flavor I've been lately abhorring).

I'm imagining applications for this delightful green goo as fast as I can. On a bagel with cream cheese. Sandwiches of all sorts. On crackers, chips, pretzels. Baby carrots? Who knows. I have yet to try. I also have yet to try to make the stuff, but that will be remedied shortly. As soon as I'm back in my own kitchen. Maybe tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fit or Fat?

I've been thinking a lot lately about food--mainly because I'm trying to cut back on it--and more importantly, the portioning of food, the times of day we eat food, the way we purchase and store food, and so forth. So I'm not just sitting around daydreaming about ice cream. Well, sometimes I am. But that's not the point.

I've often thought that meal planning would be the key to weight loss--for me, anyway. I've never really had a firm meal schedule and I tend to eat whenever the heck I want to. When on diets, I try to control my mealtimes, and usually I push breakfast as late as I can stand it, lunch well after noon, a small afternoon snack, and dinner around six. Granted, all of these meals, on a diet, are small. But the main strategy here is to eat as often as possible. To keep less time between my meals, however small they might be, so I don't have as much time between meals to sit around watching the clock. And I do watch the clock. I tell myself, you can have a granola bar at three. So I try to occupy myself. But every five to ten minutes, unless what I'm doing is incredibly engaging, my eye wanders to the clock. It's ridiculous. It's obsessive. But that's what dieting is.

I've never had a healthy relationship with food. We've been somewhat codependent, really. I don't just rely on food for nutrition and energy, but for pleasure--and while I do think that food should be enjoyed, I know that it should be enjoyed in small doses and only when needed. But it's hard to reconcile what I know with what I do. So I try to plan. I try to tell myself: breakfast at eight, lunch at one, dinner at six. I try to tell myself: eat like a king in the morning, a prince at noon, and a pauper at night. I try to tell myself: you can have x, y, and z food items and you can eat them whenever you like, but when you've finished them, that's it. I try to tell myself a lot of things.

Part of the reason I've been thinking about this is that I've gained a few pounds in the last couple of months. Pounds I only recently lost, unfortunately. And I don't want to be a yo-yo dieter. I want to learn healthy eating habits, and from that and exercise I assume weight loss will come. Yes, I would like to have the body of a supermodel, but I am not willing to starve. Nor am I willing to give into food and let my body do what it will. I'm between a rock and a hard place, people. And that hard place is probably a box of fudge.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I like me some garlic.

I've discovered an amazing new way to make mashed potatoes. I've also discovered I need to save it for the holidays.

Last night, Ian and I made the most beautiful pork chops I've ever seen, thanks to Julia Child. I'd only ever seen that kind of color on pork in the movies or on Food Network. It came with a lovely sauce (basically just vermouth, deglazing the pork pan--plus I added some heavy cream at the end because I'm super indulgent). Alongside that, we made garlic mashed potatoes, but not just any garlic mashed potatoes--puree de pommes de terre a l'ail (which is to say garlic mashed potatoes in French).

Now, I realize that garlic mash is fairly mundane. It comes with pretty much any steak you've ever ordered, maybe the pork chops too, and even chicken at some restaurants. It's one of those dishes that kitchens stock in giant metal containers, waiting under a heat lamp to be slopped onto the customer's plate. It's low maintenance. But that garlic mash isn't this garlic mash.

Julia's potatoes start interestingly enough--you separate the cloves of garlic from two whole heads, toss them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, and then peel them. This is the one process in the recipe I would change--I would try, next time, simply peeling them as I normally do (smash with knife, peel) and then move to the next step: saute in butter. You see, Julia says, "Two whole heads of garlic will seem like a horrifying amount if you have not made this type of recipe before. But if less is used, you will regret it, for the long cooking of the garlic removes all of its harsh strength, leaving just a pleasant flavor." Amen, Julia. But--boiling it might take out too much of the harsh strength for my taste. I like me some garlic.

Back to the process--after you saute the garlic cloves in butter until they are tender but not brown, you make a thin roux with some flour, salt, and pepper, then pour in a cup of boiling milk (I used nonfat and it still turned out deliciously--I can't imagine the delight of the full-fat result) and make a white sauce, which then goes into the blender (or you can painstakingly mash the garlic cloves with a sieve and a wooden spoon--I went with the blender). What comes out, and quickly too, is a delightful garlic white sauce that you then stir into the potatoes that have been boiled, run through the food mill, and thinned with some butter and heavy cream. It has the perfect, velvety texture that is so difficult to find in mashed potatoes and absolutely no lumps (thank you, food mill), plus the lovely garlicky taste (which I would be willing to ramp up even more). All in all, the best mashed potatoes ever. Incredibly fattening, but still, best ever. This might become a Christmas dish.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Warning: Do Not Substitute

Ian had a sweet tooth tonight and decided to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. He read through the recipe and thought we had all the ingredients, but when he double checked (after the butter and sugar were creamed, etc.) he discovered we were out of eggs. No problem, I said--for each egg, substitute one tablespoon of flax and three tablespoons of water. That was verified by the flax packaging. So he did.

The cookies were beautiful and smelled lovely, but they tasted distinctly of flax. Not a pleasant bite when you're expecting something sweet. I've substituted flax for eggs in many recipes, mostly muffins, and it's been fine. Until now.

When making cookies, do not substitute flax for eggs. Unless you're vegan and you're used to that kind of thing. Even so, I would up the vanilla and sugar to mask the flavor. Yuck.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chocolate Bavarian Cream: Take One

Once upon a time, I worked for a catering company. At the beginning of my employment there, I was asked to bake a batch of muffins, which turned out beautifully. I could bake! There was much rejoicing in the land. My boss was happy. I was happy. It was just how fairy tales start.

Then came the calamity. My boss--without training me at all or teaching me about the various ovens in her shop--left me alone in the kitchen with a laundry list of tasks and a general lack of knowledge about where everything was. I was tasked with making orange poppyseed biscuits. OK. Were there biscuit cutters? No. Which oven would work best? Who knew. I went to work, frantic to get everything done before my boss returned. I tried cutting the biscuits with a meat knife--incredibly efficient, but when I tried to remove the excess dough from the blade, I cut myself nearly to the bone. The boss had never shown me a first aid kit. I looked everywhere, and eventually fashioned a tourniquet out of paper towels and plastic wrap. Put on a glove, kept going. Baked the biscuits. Let them cool. Some had black bottoms--oh well. I had lost too much blood to care. Made the corn salad. Difficult with one hand. Threw together all the dishes on my list, refrigerated, let cool. Went home before the boss could come back.

Let's just say that this was the first of many bad days at that company, where it became abundantly clear that I do not cook well under pressure and that that particular boss was an absolute dragon when it came to guilt. Every time I did something less than perfectly, she left it out on the counter overnight, knowing that I would walk in with my mistake spread over the counter for all to see. The black-bottomed biscuits. The overcooked cookies. And, once, a crumbled up pile of wedding cake (I had insufficiently greased the pans). I was a dog and she was rubbing my face in my mess. When I had sufficiently ruined the wedding cake--twice--it was suggested I not work there anymore. And so I quit. And there was much rejoicing in the land.

You may be wondering at this point what this has to do with chocolate bavarian cream. You may also be wondering why I would tell you this, since you read my food blog and would hope I knew something about food. Well, I've learned quite a bit from my failures over the years, and I continue to do so. Enter the chocolate bavarian cream.

Yesterday, Ian and I tried to make this most delicious of desserts, pulling the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I read the recipe through a couple of times and got to work, assigning Ian the simpler tasks. Tasks I have taught him how to do. But he didn't remember them. So, while trying to put together the custard, I also had to teach him how to whip egg whites (he insisted that doing it with a machine must be different than doing it by hand--I assured him it was not, except it was faster). Things started to go quickly--the milk was simmering, the chocolate melted, Ian needed help, I couldn't remember the recipe--and so the custard was not properly cooked, the egg whites were over-whipped, and what we have in the fridge is more closely related to pudding--maybe a failed mousse.

So this is another situation I can learn from. With the wedding cake I learned that the bigger the pan is, the thicker the layer of butter it requires. With the cookies, I learned not to follow your boss's recipe if it doesn't appear to be working. With the biscuits I learned that one batch at a time might be slow, but it will give better results. With last night's dessert, I learned prepare, prepare, prepare. Read the recipe three times if you need to. Get every element done ahead of time that you can. The egg whites can sit there, whipped and ready to go. The eggs and sugar can be combined before the milk goes on the stove. There's no need to panic.

So next time, I'll know.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Sous Chef

Tonight, Ian and I made Bifteck Saute Bercy (pan-broiled steak with shallot and white wine sauce), Champignons Farcis (stuffed mushrooms), and a blue cheese iceberg wedge salad. Two out of three French dishes ain't bad.

I let Ian take a good amount of control on this one. He made the salads (with a homemade dressing, courtesy of Giada DeLaurentiis) and the steaks (medium-rare, lovely). I made the shallot and white wine sauce (though to a certain extent I screwed it up) and the stuffed mushrooms. For once, Ian's batting average came out higher than mine. I don't know how to feel about that.

It isn't that the sauce I made wasn't delicious. It's just that I didn't quite follow instructions. I was in a bit of a hurry, and instead of creaming the flavor elements from the pan into softened butter, I melted the butter into the pan drippings. It was great; it just wasn't what Julia ordered (this was a recipe from my new favorite book: Mastering the Art of French Cooking). The stuffed mushrooms were amazing. I'd stuffed mushrooms before, but Julia's stuffing was more complicated than any I'd ever tried. And the salad (which we ate last, in an attempt to be French and also because the steaks and mushrooms were hot and ready to eat) was amazing--a salad course and a cheese course in one.

Now, I'm not saying that Ian is a master chef (and don't get me wrong--neither am I), but we are starting to find which dishes he can master and which should be given to me. He's the meat man--there's no doubt about that. I'm the baker. He can chop; I can fine dice. We're learning a balance. But it's taking a while.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Dad, if you're reading this, I have the recipe for your birthday cake. This time, it will work.

(Everybody else who's reading this--last year, I made my dad a pineapple upside down cake for his birthday, which turned out to be more of a pineapple upside down mush because it wouldn't come out of the pan. This made me wary of all sticky upside down applications--see previous post. So when I volunteered to make a cake for my friend's birthday party yesterday and she wanted pineapple upside down--inspired by the last post's plum cake--I needed a sure-fire way not to make pineapple upside down mush again.)

The recipe is partially mine, partially from Ina Garten's plum cake. OK, most of the credit can be given to Ina. I really only changed a couple things.

One: instead of boiling one cup granulated sugar with 1/3 cup water, boil 1 cup brown sugar with 1/3 cup pineapple juice (there will be enough in the can if you use canned pineapple slices). Don't boil it particularly long though--just until it's dissolved and then a couple minutes more.

Two: replace the plums with pineapples.

Three: don't dust with powdered sugar.

So Dad, follow the link above (or maybe I should be telling Mom--no one should have to make his own birthday cake) and use my substitutions. It will be great. I can't be there to make it for you, but I hope you know that this recipe has 20% more love than the next leading recipe.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sticky Situations

I have a confession to make: I recently cooked with another man.

Chastise me if you will. Call me a cheater. Slap me with a wooden spoon. I deserve it. Though, since my husband doesn't mind, I don't know if it's any of your business. Or that I should tell you at all. Who are you to judge me?

Okay--enough silliness. Let's get to the food.

A few days ago, a friend of mine needed help making a plum cake. Being the enthusiastic cook that I am, I was thrilled to help. It was a recipe I had never tried before but had long wanted to--a plum cake tatin from an episode of The Barefoot Contessa--and even though I'm not the biggest plum eater, this cake wasn't for me so I didn't feel wasteful in baking it. It was a somewhat challenging recipe, and yet we pulled it off. I wish I had taken a picture.

One of the most challenging parts of cakes like this--similar to pineapple upside-down cake in execution--is getting the cake to turn out, plums and all, without sticking to the pan. The last time I tried it was my dad's birthday pineapple-upside-down mush a couple years ago, when I misread the recipe and melted the sugar and butter together instead of buttering the pan first and adding the sugar second. It still tasted good, sure, but you eat with your eyes first--and if this cake hadn't been meant for my family, I'm not sure anyone would have eaten it.

The problem is the caramel in the bottom of the pan, which ends up on top--in the plum cake recipe, it was actually caramelized sugar that bubbled away on the stove while I put together the batter. This sugar did leave traces in the pan--a lovely hard candy that tasted of caramel and plum liquor--but most of it came out on the cake. I might have shrieked when it turned out. I get excited when things work in the kitchen, as my friend now knows. He probably thinks I'm a nutcase now. But he probably thought I was a nutcase before.

So--here's my tip for all upside-down cake makers: BUTTER! I used an incredibly heavy layer of butter on this cake, and it turned out perfectly. And you know what? Butter tastes good. Nothing is better than butter. So you can't have too much. You really, really can't.

Everything's better with butter.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dinner Party Gold

We live in the age of vegetarianism. There are ovo-vegetarians, pesca-vegetarians, people who eat chicken and call themselves vegetarians (white meat vegetarians?)--and don't forget the vegans. No meat, no eggs, no dairy, no Jell-O. No marshmallows. No fun at all. I'm sure they're incredibly healthy eating all that soy and beans and veggies. I'm sure they have incredible skin and amazing digestive tracts. Though, of course, there are still plenty of unhealthy options for them--soda and booze and sugary treats made with flax seed instead of eggs, soy milk, etc. But do vegans drink beer or wine? Yogurt? Live cultures or yeasts of any kind? I'd have to read up on that, and frankly, I don't really have the time.

So--vegetarians. Vegans. People with wheat allergies, gluten allergies, lactose intolerance, etc. They must have a terrible time finding good things to eat. And when they come to your dinner parties, you must have a terrible time find them good things to eat.

Two options I recently discovered:

1. Vegan lemon cake. Buy a box of lemon cake mix and in place of the wet ingredients, mix in a can of Sprite. Bake as directed. Totally delicious.

2. Mushroom (vegetarian) enchiladas. Now, these still have cheese in them (lots of cheese) and sour cream (lots of sour cream), but for people who just don't like food with a face, it's an incredible option.

The grocery list:
1 lb crimini mushrooms
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup sour cream
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1 cup shredded jack cheese
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 small can sliced olives
1 small can diced green chilies
1/2 yellow onion, shredded
8 green onion tops, chopped
~12 flour tortillas

The instructions:
Clean, chop, and saute the mushrooms in the olive oil. Drain away extra liquid.
Mix mushrooms, sour cream, half the cheeses, mushroom soup, olives, chilies, and onions together in a large mixing bowl.
Fill tortillas and roll, enchilada style, in a 9x9 pan. Reserve some of the filling to spread on top of finished enchiladas. Top with remaining cheese.
Bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted and bubbly.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Everything Tastes Better in Paris

I've been thinking about wine pairings lately--mainly because Julia Child dedicates several pages of her book to them--and I'm just not sure about them. Granted, I know that some things definitely do not jive (for example: last night's dinner was, as recommended by Julia, paired with a rose--but Julia did not recommend the rose to accompany the blue cheese appetizers). But I think sometimes--well, you might as well do what you want.

Last night's bottle of wine was a special one, if only for one reason: it came from France. It was one of Ian's and my souvenirs from our European trip last summer, and we finally found a good use for it. French dinner, French wine. It was a Bordeaux Rose--le Rose de Malartic. Before our journey to Paris, I'd never heard of such a thing, and I certainly never would have ordered a rose with dinner--or any other time, for that matter. But while dining out at a fancy restaurant near l'Opera, we thought we ordered a regular Bordeaux and got a rose instead. Domage. Well, actually, not domage--the wine wasn't half bad. In fact, to our surprise, we liked it. So we bought a similar bottle and brought it home.

I wish I could remember exactly what that wine tasted like. I wish I could compare. Because while last night's rose wasn't revolting, it wasn't as delightful as I remembered, either. It wasn't as hopelessly sweet as White Zin (thank goodness) but it wasn't particularly complex, either. Generally, I just felt that it was a little flat. Not offensively so. But still--flat.

This, of course, makes me wonder about other things. We ate pre-packaged Madeleines in Paris, from a sealed plastic bag--were those as amazing as we thought they were? We bought cheeses that made our tongues melt--were those as amazing as we thought they were? Were we in a food haze? Because we loved everything in Paris--with the exception of a very expensive, very disgusting meal, which I swear included Pace in my appetizer and Ragu in my entree--a revolting meal in any country.

Still, I have to wonder--was last night's wine really flat, or was it because it was drunk in an American apartment with improperly trussed chicken while Ace of Cakes played in the background? It could have been in a bistro, with violins and accordions in the background, and lovely people wearing fancy shoes that click on the cobblestones as they arrive. Maybe it was pouting. Or maybe everything tastes better in Paris.