Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Great timing

The trick to making dinner appear in a reasonable amount of time is in the planning. Rachael Ray makes 30 minute meals work because she puts the water on to boil first, gets her aromatics chopped and into a pan, preps the rest of her veg and her protein and before you know it, it's all done. (It also helps that she has herbs and other things pre-washed and chopped. Oh, and that bevvy of professional cooking staff of food stylists doesn't hurt...) In this way she can make a multi course meal or two in just a half hour. It seems like a cooler trick than it really is. If I put a little thought into it, I can make the components of a dish come together fairly quickly.

I have watched people burn garlic because they were busy chopping onions. I have seen people do entree, side dish and salad in turn, start to finish. I have witnessed the workings of the kitchen grind to a halt, waiting for water to boil, while other tasks pile up behind like rush hour traffic. I have committed some of these offenses, too. Then, several years ago, I made a 14 course tasting menu for Darling Husband for Valentine's Day. I took the afternoon off of work to do it, and had planned each step down to the letter. I wrote each step out, then ordered them to be sure I didn't suddenly turn to cook a protein that should've gotten a spice rub 30 minutes ago. It was challenging but rewarding and taught me a lot about time management in the kitchen and being realistic about my abilities.

Studies have shown that people don't multi task well. We think we do, but in reality we give diminished attention to each task. I believe this, and yet I don't see how you can cook effectively without it. While my meat is searing, I'm cubing potatoes. While my asparagus are roasting and my catfish is marinating, I'm making the stove top stuffing. While my pasta is cooking, I'm tidying up the kitchen and putting away the leftover cabbage.

I love when the different components of a meal are all finished and waiting, the kitchen is tidyed up, the plates are out to serve, and I can just take a deep breath. The last bit is finishing up cooking and there's nothing to do until it does. It's a very calm moment.

My page a day "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" calender made this observation (paraphrased): our minds are like snow globes. When we rest and do nothing, we allow things to settle down. We are refreshed and ready to shake up the world again, resources renewed. I like the snow globe moments after the flurry of cooking and before the socialness of eating.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Accidently Atkins(ish)

Made dinner for 1 tonight, as Darling Husband was to get back late and I wasn't up to waiting until midnight to eat.

(Actually, I also made him dinner and made a separate dinner for tomorrow to be just warmed up, but just go with it.)

I decided to let convenience play a role and bought pre-marinated chicken breasts from Wegman's. They claimed to be brown sugar barbecue flavored, but certainly not with barbecue sauce. While I wouldn't have recognized it as such, it did taste very good. I seared it in a pan with a little olive oil over fairly low heat, allowing it to cook and do its thing without rushing it.

This is a new technique for me. Anyone who has gotten food poisoning can understand being a bit gunshy about chicken, and I'm no exception. My mother tends to cook chicken twice just to be sure she's really killing everything. Unfortunately, this can lead to dry, stringy chicken sometimes. And, really, that's not much more fun to eat than the poisoned kind.

This chicken, however, cooked slowly and gently, developed a nicely brown crust but retained all of its moisture. It was phenomenally lean, as well, which was fantastic. I'm a bit fanatical about chicken fat and gristle and I didn't have to reject one mouth full of this.

As an accompaniment, I cut up a Florida avocado. These are the larger, bright green avocados. Most people are familiar with the Haas (which are actually patented and, therefore, grown by grafts to prevent genetic mutation/alteration), but the Florida has a fresher, less intense taste. I would even say there's a watery component, but in a good way. It is less creamy but has a "green" or grassy taste, in a way. I like them. Wouldn't make a good guacamole, as it doesn't have the richness or mouthfeel, but is great sliced.

It also holds up better to bruising. Mine flew across my SUV as I narrowly avoided an accident with a semi truck, hitting my dash and windshield at 40 mph. I thought it would be all bruised to hell and unusable, but remarkably the slightly soft spot didn't turn the whole thing to unusable mush. Not bad!

Avocados, for anyone who is interested, never ripen on the tree. They only mature, but must be picked to ripen. Thus growers can literally store the fruit on the tree for about 7 months. What this does for the tree in a biological/botanical/evolutionary sense, I don't know. It does make it darned convenient, though. Oh, and also? "Avocado" is a European bastardization of the Aztec word for the same fruit. The Spanish thought it sounded much like their word for "lawyer," but the Aztecs word meant "testicle."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bowl full of comfort

Meals around here have been a bit bizarre lately, eaten at odd hours and sometimes clubbed together from strange sources. (Which is not to say bad, but maybe a little strange. We had meatballs in marinara over creamy polenta the other day, too. I love crock pot cooking.) That being said, I do have one meal I'd like to discuss.

Fall has arrived with a vengeance; snow even fell on Friday. This is cozy food weather! The other day I made spinach risotto with harvest compote on top.

The risotto was straight forward enough: toast the arborrio, grate in a couple cloves of garlic, add chicken stock gradually, stirring quite often, until rice is cooked but not mush. To this I added a generous amount of parmasan (we ran out of our hunk of parm so I had bought pre-grated shakey cheese instead. I added more to compensate for flavor loss). Just before serving, I wilted in a bunch of baby spinach.

Meanwhile, in another pan, I browned some sage sausage. I removed the sausage, but made sure to leave all the drippings in the pan. In this liquid yum I softened onion and garlic, and then began to cook diced butternut squash. To allow the squash to steam, I popped a lid on it and let it do its thing. The squash softened but didn't fall apart, but something was missing. I added the sausage back to the pan but was still not satisfied. It so happened that I had a surplus of stock in the risotto, so I scooped some out and put it in with the squash mixture. It was a perfect idea! The stock had a lot of the rice starch in it, so within a minute the squash had its own thick, rich gravy.

Darling Husband and I each got a bowl full of risotto with wilted spinach woven through, topped with goey, steamy squash and sausage. For added color and flavor punch, I tossed a handful of craisins and glazed walnuts on top. The flavors were well developed but not terribly complex. The walnuts were sweet and crunchy, the craisins tart and chewy, the squash and sausage very savory, the spinach slightly bitter and the risotto decadently creamy. It was stick to your ribs food and I, for one, adored it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Anniversary dinner at Mi Scuzi

For our 5th anniversary, Darling Husband and I decided to try Mi Scuzi, an Italian restaurant in a very unassuming location. It's a converted house near the corner of 26th and Myrtle Streets. Fortunately they have valet parking, as there's not much around. It's a residential area right near Saint Vincent hospital; I wonder where they put the cars. (As a side note, I enjoy handing a standard transmission over to a valet. It's silly, I know, but I feel like they have to reevaluate what they think of me. Plus, I think it's good to hone their driving skills.)

The restaurant was lit with a bunch of white Christmas lights in the bushes and such, which is always fun. There's an awning over the walk ways leading up to the door, which unfortunately was populated by several large, creepy spiders. Gladly, I didn't notice until we were leaving. Ewwwww.

I had a terrible dining experience once at The Crazy Parot, which is at the North East Marina. We were seated outside on the covered porch area and I noticed the ceiling struts were populated with hundreds of big, fat spiders. Darling Husband convinced me to stay and I tried to relax. That is, until I felt a tickle on my neck and swatted away a huge mother of a spider. I remember screaming and jumping up and smacking at myself, then excusing myself to the ladies room to have hysterics. We were reseated inside and I got a huge, ridiculous, blue mixed drink to calm myself. I will never go back there. In addition to the arachnic attack, I remember the meal itself being a bit "eh." It would have to be pretty amazing to get me to go back and it was merely fine.

But back to Mi Scuzi.

Reservations are pretty much a must, and even so it was busy enough that we needed to wait at the bar for our table to be ready. When we made the reservation, the gentleman I spoke to made a point to ask us not to come early due to their business. He wasn't just whistling dixie. The dining area (formerly livingroom type area) was crammed with tables. I'm sure that's because they want to accommodate as many people as possible, but it seemed challenging for the wait staff.

While we didn't have a ton of elbow room, I also didn't feel super crowded. Perhaps that's because we were against a small partition instead of just out in the open. I did have to be careful not to put my chair too far back, lest I trap the woman seated behind me at her table.

We had a coupon for a bottle of wine with the purchase of two entrees. We chose the red, a very pleasant concha y toro blend. They seem to have these coupons a lot and I recommend them. You're already splurging on the meal; it's nice to have a bottle comped.

To begin, we shared a "grilled pizzette" appetizer with caramelized onions, pears, gorgonzola and mozarella. Oh, yummy yum yum yum! It was crusty, sweet and wonderfully gooey. The gorgonzola provided a fantastic bite and kept it from being too sweet. It was so magnificent, we're planning on making something similar for dinner soon just to get to taste it again.

We also shared a salad, which was HUGE. It's a good thing we shared it, because it was not a little side salad. We chose the fennel, arrugula and citrus salad. The fennel was paper thin and in a wonderfully fluffy mound. It was adorned with ribbons of aged provolone, which I thought was a slightly moist parmasean until I looked up the menu to write this. There were supposed to be black mission figs, but the figs we got were golden and round... which was fantastic, but not a black mission fig unless the fresh looks much, much different from the dried. It was drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette, which was very subtle in flavor but robust in color. The salad also had big slices of orange, which was nice but I feel the execution could have been improved by removing the pith and taking the slices down from 1/2 inch to 1/8th inch. Darling Husband would have preferred the oranges cut into supremes, but we both acknowledge that we're splitting hairs at this point. The salad was refreshing, flavorful and crisp.

For the main course, Darling Husband and I both ordered off the daily special. Unfortunately, they had run out of scallops and so I had to choose another dish. Darling Husband had crusted Chilean sea bass over Parmesan scallion risotto with an anisette cream. I had the cioppino, a traditional Italian pasta dish with various sea foods in a tomato sauce.

Darling Husband's dish was phenomenal. The fish was flaky and had the taste of butter--perhaps butter poached? And yet the outside had a crispy sear to it. Hmmm. The risotto was so decadently rich, I could've cried. There must've been some sort of mascarpone or something in it. It was ridiculously tasty. On top of the fish were shoestrings of zucchini and carrot, just perfect for dragging through the anisette cream. What can we say about the anisette cream? It rocked. I'm at a loss for words.

My cioppino had delicate calamari, not even a little overdone. Perfectly tender. Joining the calamari were huge shrimp, ruffly clams and Sicilian muscles that tasted like the ocean. I ordinarily am not a fan of the thin, almost tomato juice style of sauce. This one, however, changed my mind completely. Much of this probably had to do with the homemade pasta under it. Home made pasta is the sort of thing you think isn't that big of a deal until you have it and realize it really does matter.

It was a fantabulous meal and a wonderful celebration. The very fact that our criticisms were so small is evidence of the level of culinary skill. I don't know who the chef is. The co-owners are Barry Grossman (the one from all the political signs in all the yards) and Rick Scalise. Barry actually seated us and seemed quite the presence in the restaurant, sitting with various diners and sharing their wine, their limoncello or just their company. It seemed their were several tables of regulars. Good for them. We could never afford to be frequent fliers there, but the next big event we need to celebrate, I'm there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Odd, manly chili

It's a brrrrr cold day, just right for a pot of chili. At the end of a busy week, a crock pot meal is where it's at. Here's what went into the pot:

Cubed beef
Dark chocolate with cherries and cayenne
Bell pepper (softened in a skillet)
Celery (ditto)
Onion (ditto)
Tomato paste
Brown sugar
Red wine
Corn meal
Dried peppers

Smells heavenly... had a little nibble and seared off my taste buds from the temperature. Hope it tastes good!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meatballs, tiny round loaves

I've decided meatballs are tiny, spherical meatloaves. Meat spheres. Hmmm.

I made something like three dozen tonight, in order to help out my friend who is recovering from surgery. I'll keep one bag for me (in the freezer) and deliver them after work tomorrow.

Probably everyone has a recipe, but I've actually never made a meat loaf and have somewhat limited meatball experience. I took a page from my mother's book and used packet of dry onion soup mix, and one from my mother-in-law and used crushed Club crackers. An egg to bind and not much else, and before you know it I'm rolling out meaty golf balls.

I baked them for ease, after deciding on the afore mentioned eureka moment of lilliputian loaf concept. This unfortunately made them flat on the bottom, but I guess that won't matter when they're covered in marinara. I hope.

Having made the meatballs, a separate pasta dish for dinner, as well as prepped crock pot chili tomorrow and made lunches, I'm beat!