Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ginger vodka

I am in love with this stuff, made by Skyy. I saw it advertised in Rolling Stone and knew this was the drink for me. Unfortunately, my local state store doesn't carry it. I guess Erie isn't included in the initial release. Fortunately, I have a connection in NYC. The way I figure it, if it's anywhere, it's in New York and LA. Darling Husband's uncle is an actor in New York and just happened to be coming this way for family frolicking on the fourth of July. He and his fabulous better half were kind enough to pick me up a bottle.

Now I wish I had asked for a case. It's currently in the freezer so I can ration myself ice cold indulgences. I like it straight and on the rocks, both. I imagine it would be amazing blended with some watermelon or strawberry.

The best, though, was a very grown-up slushie/snow cone we made while on vacation. Using a margarita machine to shave the ice (a great appliance that would gather dust 358 days of the year), my adventuresome brother-in-law and I developed this drink to beat the heat. A ton of ice, a couple shots of the ginger vodka, a splash of Fresca and a bit more ice to replenish what melted and voila! An amazing summer drink reminiscent of childhood but very adult.

I found it funny that the 21 year olds I gave this drink to sputtered and said, "Whoah! That's strong!!" Really? It seemed remarkably smooth to me. Although, come to think of it, beyond shots, how many 21 year olds drink much neat alcohol? Drinks popular in that age group tend to be aimed at masking the taste of any spirits. Martinis are not exactly in high demand. Or, if they are, they're the kind of "martini" that has fruit juice and other nonsense and is only a martini and not a mixed drink because someone thought it would be kicky to serve it in a martini glass.

Personally I like martinis with gin, not vodka, and rather dry. Ginger vodka, no vermouth, would be most pleasant, too. I don't know what the vermouth would do to the taste.

My father's drink is a martini. He has recently begun experimenting, not only with different gins and different garnishes (olives, twist of lemon, caper berries), but with different recipes in general. I tried one that he made which reproduced James Bond's original martini, and that was quite nice. He also collects martini glasses and takes artsy pictures of his cocktails. Hey, he's retired. :o)

Those of us out of our twenties who tried the ginger slush were quite pleased. Someone suggested the "kids" maybe were reacting to the taste of ginger and not the alcohol. Others mused about lemongrass and cucumber flavors.

Skyy, please release your Ginger Infusion vodka across the nation, so that people in rural Alaska can enjoy it as much as those in Manhattan. And if not Alaska, at least Pennsylvania. We butt against New York state; it's hardly any trouble, I'm sure. And do it quick--I'm down to a quarter of a bottle. My self control can't hold out much longer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Crock pot queen

With the weather being hot, nieces and nephews playing softball, Darling Husband rehearsing for a play and other forms of craziness, I've been a crock pot queen lately for dinner. First I made meatballs in sauce. I bought the meatballs frozen from Gordon's Meat, my favorite little butcher shop from when I was a kid. It's at the plaza at the intersection of Peach and Gore and it's so cute there. They also make killer home made andouille and chorizo. The meatballs were fantastic and so convenient. Baby Girl gobbled 2 in one sitting! Plus bread, which she used to mop up the sauce like the little Italian/French girl that she is. :o) The grown-ups had meatball subs with provolone.

Next came gumbo, which was also the first thing I've made using the crock pot bag liners. I HIGHLY recommend these! They sounded like a scary fire hazard at first, but a friend of mine swears by them so I gave it a try. I'm a convert for sure! They make clean up a breeze-- you literally just throw out the dirty bag. Maybe swipe off a little bit that dripped. It's perfect for dishes that might stain or be a pain to scrub, or just if you plan to turn around and use it again the next morning. The gumbo was good but a little... broken down. I'd partially browned the andouille, made the roux and sauteed the onions and peppers in a sauce pan, then put it into the crock with frozen okra, chicken that was picked from a rotisserie bird, stock and spices. Good gumbo often looks a bit swampy, but this time the okra just melted. Perhaps fresh would have held its shape better.

I also made an awesome dried cherry chicken dish with carrots. This was out of a recipe, although of course I had to alter it a bit. Chicken breasts, baby carrots (they wanted me to use whole carrots, chopped), honey, dried cherries, balsamic, chicken stock, 5 spice (although I couldn't find it so I used allspice) and grated fresh ginger. It was zesty, thanks to the ginger, and had a nice fruitiness without being too cloying. Definitely it was sweet, but it worked. We served it with mashed potatoes. My only complaint about this was the chicken was a little dry. Perhaps I should have used chicken thighs? But then again, I don't like chicken thighs. Could've used a bit of sambol olek for spice, too.

Tonight I made an Indian dish with spinach, peas and tofu. It's my version of saag paneer, with the dry farmer cheese and spinach, but I made mine with tofu. I filled the crock on my lunch hour with fresh baby spinach, which I had chopped, then grated in about 6 cloves of garlic, tossed on some frozen peas, dolloped some curry paste and glugged some chicken stock. When I came home from work, all was wilted to an inch of green at the bottom... it wasn't unexpected but still somehow shocking. I added in diced tofu (of which Baby Girl had a bite and pronounced it YUM) and some more curry paste, since it tasted bland. When Darling Husband came home, it was time to stir in some plain yogurt that I had let sit in a coffee filter-lined chinoise, bring back to temperature and serve. Despite my dubious recipe research, this came out pretty close to how saag paneer is supposed to taste! I was pleased. The yogurt kept it creamy and fluffy, not dense, and the tofu picked up all the curry flavor just like it should. I might've liked some more peas, but outside of that, I didn't have any suggestions for myself. And I'm maybe a bit proud of myself, too. Also, despite my surprise at the amount of wilted spinach, it made plenty for three hearty servings (one of us gets lunch). If I'd made rice, it would have stretched much further.

I'm not out of crock pot recipes yet! Tune in for another installment!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day and My mom's brats

bratwurst, that is!

(You thought I meant me and my sister, didn't you?)

In honor of Father's Day, my mom had a picnic. It was great fun, even though Darling Husband was out of town for the weekend and couldn't attend. Baby Girl and I did send a breakfast in bed package along with him, though. Brown sugar and cinnamon pop tarts for "french toast," a citrus flavored vitamin shot for "orange juice," and beef jerky for "bacon." Also, packets of peach mango water flavoring that have caffeine in them. A meal fit for a king! Well... not exactly, but good travel food, anyway.

The best part about the picnic was having cocktails out back while all the kids occupied themselves out front, looking at turtles and playing with bubbles. Ahhhhhh. How relaxing!

For food, my mom kept it pretty simple for once, which was nice. Burgers and bratwurst, a spinach/rice/cheese casserole, cucumbers and then berries and pound cake for desert. It was so pleasant, especially since each element was exceptionally well done. The burgers were the best she's ever made, hands down. My sister and brother in law agreed, and so I decree it to be true. She claims she didn't do anything special, but they were moist and flavorful and wonderful. She had guacamole as an available condiment, which was awesome, but it was the meat itself that carried the burger. The bratwurst had that great snap when you bite into them, and were juicy and meaty. She said she cooked them in water first, then finished them on the grill. Baby Girl ate half of one by herself, and probably would've finished it had it not been for her cousins running around and playing. Then there was the casserole, which is my sister's recipe but (as my sister said tonight) it never tastes as good as when mom makes it (that is the mystery of my mother).

Happy Father's Day to all, whether that's a steakhouse meal or pop tarts in bed. :o) I'm thankful for the daddies in my life.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wild strawberries

My 9 year old nephew found these wild strawberries around my grandmother's house. He brought me one (brought his sister one, too).
Ironically, I was reading an article in the paper about strawberries. This berry was different, though. It was bright, grassy, tart and amazing; it reminded me of wild raspberries. Nothing like the cardboardy strawberries you get in stores, or even like the horticultured local strawberries (which are huge and sweet). Baby Girl loves them--we picked some more today. Nature has some good ideas, people.

BTW when my nephew saw me photographing my strawberry, he looked at me all puzzled. I asked him if he minded if I put a picture on my blog. "Uh, it's just a strawberry. I really don't care." Which is doubly funny because he's not at all a snotty kid, just really happy go lucky and a little in his own world. But I think he thinks his aunt is a bit batty.
This is his berry stained hand just before he ran out to pick more. And contemplate my lunacy.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Beautiful fruit

Thank you to my wonderful sister, who (in addition to nannying my precious daughter for half the work week) is a fantastic friend. She gave me a basket of the most juicy, sweet, luscious strawberries I've ever seen! We're all enjoying plowing through them. I'm thinking of making Baby Girl a strawberry yogurt smoothie tomorrow. Now if I could just find a way to sneak some veggies into it... She's quite the fruititarian (fruitivore?) so it's especially exciting when I'm able to get her to eat spinach, like I did tonight! Putting it on pizza helped.

I can hardly fault Baby Girl's fruit obsession, though. In or about our fridge currently:

Golden raspberries
Red grapes (I like green, but Baby Girl prefers the red)

Also, half of a pear that should probably get thrown away and some blueberries in the freezer from Darling Husband's grandmother from last summer, which we drop into pancakes here and there.

Mmmmmh, makes me hungry already! Personally, I like fruit raw and alone, or thrown into savory dishes, but rarely in deserts. Strange, huh? Darling Husband's grandmother makes a pretty awesome strawberry rhubarb jam, though.

I think, for the grown ups, I might have to make some sort of strawberry daiquiri with fresh strawberries. I just heard about ginger infused vodka (made by Skyy, I believe) and that would be great blended with strawberries, maybe thinned with Sprite. Yummmm... I might have to take a trip to the wine & spirit store tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Quick formatting note

Dear gentle readers,

Due to the large number of Asian porn spam comments, I'm sorry to say I'm now going to review all comments before allowing them to be posted.

Please do not let this deter you from leaving valid comments (aka not porn spam-- I don't care how hot your barely legal girls are).

I intend to censor nothing but spam. All comments, good or bad, are welcome. Compliment my ingredients, shower me with praise, lavish me with well wishes if you must. If you want to tell me you think my blog is pithy, or that my use of cheese is wanton, or that I should be vegan on Mondays, I'll still put it up.

I truly apologize for the inconvenience. I will try to get comments vetted as quickly as possible. Believe it or not, I check this blog more than I post to it.

Your comments continue to be tied into my sense of self worth, so please be assured of the value I place on them!

love and kisses, mary francine

Saturday, June 5, 2010


On Memorial Day, my mom made ribs. She also made burgers, hot dogs, potato salad, corn, and a bunch of other yummies. It's the ribs that stole the show, though. They were flavorful, tender, falling off the bone, but not fatty. They had a great caramelized crust and paired wonderfully with the bbq sauce she served. We all raved.

She told Darling Husband that she made them "just like Emeril"--except with a different rub, of course. And different sauce. And a different cut of rib, because she likes them better, and...

...and you can see why I have trouble following a recipe.

Last night we went to the rib festival in town. It was full of big vendors who traveled from all over the country; pit masters, as such, who proudly displayed their awards. Bands were playing, whole pigs turned on spits, giant inflatable slides and bounce houses enthralled kids, roasted corn on the cobsmelled divine. It was a rib fest with the whole nine yards. I got a pulled pork sandwich to share with Baby Girl, Darling Husband got a brisket sandwich, and we had a couple of ribs to share, too. My pork was so tender and so tasty, I didn't even need sauce. (I had some anyway.) The brisket was also, in Darling Husband's opinion, wonderful. Baby Girl was particularly partial to the corn bread.

The ribs?


They were good...

...but a disappointment, compared to mom's. Great job, Mom. :o)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Salt potatoes

If you've never made salt potatoes, you're in for a treat. How do you turn regular old potatoes into something new and exciting? Loads of kosher salt!

I don't want to know what this does to your sodium levels, so let's just say this is something to eat in moderation and never to feed to a slug, okay?

Salt potatoes are credited to salt miners in the 1800's in New York, near Syracuse. As they boiled briny water to evaporate the water and then scrape up the salt, they would toss in their potatoes and cook them for lunch. Seems like a reasonable thing to do when you've got a bunch of heat just going to waste. Apparently it's the rage to serve them with butter. I tend not to serve anything with butter. Butter, in our house, gets kept in the freezer so it doesn't spoil and usually is only broken out to make a roux. In other words, butter just doesn't occur to me.

I read about salt potatoes in this month's edition of Food Network Magazine. Have I mentioned how much I love this magazine? Thanks, Mom! For that matter, thanks also to Uncle Richard and Patty, because they offered to get the subscription for us and had to be graciously turned down since Mom had already done it. Yay!

They are a snap to make. Start by scrubbing a pound of small potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, Ruby Red or (my favorite) Ruby Gold. I suppose you could use little white ones, too. These are all waxy type, which I tend to prefer, and I think work better in these recipes. Put them into a pot of heavily salted water. How heavily salted? 4 to 1, water to kosher salt. The salt brings the boiling point up and therefore the potatoes cook at a much higher temperature. This leaves the insides ultra creamy. Bring the potatoes to a boil, boil for 20 to 30 minutes (until they're done) then drain them into a colander and let them air dry. A yummy, salty crust will be on the potatoes.

They were great as-is, as the creamy insides cuts the saltiness of the outside. Darling Husband and I both agreed they would make awesome smashed potatoes, too.

Brief Introductions

Just wanted to let you know who we are...


Darling Husband!

Baby Girl!

The whole family. Nice to meet you.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cookout! Beans and sliders

I love that sliders are now such a normal thing that you can buy Wegman's brand slider buns and not have to use dinner rolls which, while often recommended, are just too heavy. Usually, Wegman's even sells little pre-made raw sliders, but last night they were out of them. No bother! We just made our own.

For the burgers, we kept it very simple and made 8 equal lumps of meat from a package that was just over a pound. From these lumps I made meatballs, attempting to handle as little as possible, then squished down until just larger than the bun. Salt and pepper on the outside and they were ready for the grill. They cook up very quickly, so you have to be sure not to overcook your sliders. During the last minute, we put a mound of finely shredded cheddar/"mexican cheese mix" and let it melt.

Darling Husband made a sort of red onion pickle, with shaved red onion in a lime, cilantro and sugar mixture. The whole house smelled awesome. This pickle had crunch but not the strong taste of the onion, with a pleasant sweet/sour taste and a great herby note to elevate it.

We built the burgers as follows: bottom bun, bit of store bought guacamole, burger, thin slice of tomato, onion pickle, top bun. No need to add any other condiments! Spicy, sweet, sour, savory, bitter--we covered them all.

As a side dish, we made a very quick bean dish. Darling Husband doesn't eat baked beans, but this might become our next best thing. Might even be better. We sweated some diced yellow bell pepper and red onion in olive oil, then added a can of drained black beans. Salt, pepper, a bit of cumin and some crushed red pepper flakes comprised the seasoning. We just let this cook and marry the flavors. It was fabulous with a dollop of sour cream. It had that black bean soup quality to it, but the beans really retained their integrity. I wish we'd made more so we could have left overs.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cook more

I was listening to sports talk radio (a slightly inexplicable guilty pleasure of mine. It used to be wacko right wing Republican talk radio) and the one guy was feeling guilty about eating out 3 meals in one day. His basic tone was horrified at himself, but was quickly bolstered by oodles of callers discussing how often they eat out, why, and how much they spend. Someone did the math that $35 a day meant a $13,000 annual food bill.

When I was growing up, eating out was a rare event. Not because we couldn't afford it, or because our family was unruly, but because it just wasn't what you did. Mom cooked. She cooked very well. We had no real reason to go out.

I do remember going to DeDad's, which has long been torn down and turned into a Burger King. I recall a few visits to Rax at the Mall, right next to what is now Pier One. ChiChi's was a big one, too, and my dad would grumble about all the food coming out of the same three 55gallon drums in the back. When I had the day off of school, my mom would take me to the Peking Restaurant for lunch, which was on Peach Street near El Canelo but on the other side of the street, but I can't recall just where. It was just a mommy/daughter thing. I'd get the chicken with oyster sauce, usually. Mom was friendly with the owner and she'd teach us a word here and there of Chinese. I think they (or, possibly, their children) opened up Golden Wok on Pittsburgh and 22nd (ish) Street, which is awesome, by the way. But at the Peking, they had a little gift shop and there was a tiny carved pagoda and dragon made out of cork and encased in a small globe, like a snow globe without the water and sparkles. I coveted it. I would visit it. I dreamed about it. One day I got it. It was everything I could've wanted.

Darling Husband and I eat out more than I did growing up, and now that we have Baby Girl, that's more turned to take out. She's best at Eat & Park for brunch, and good at a bunch of other places, but our eating has gotten a bit strange since she was born. And, now, mobile.

But 3 times in a day? That's like when you're on vacation and you can't wait to go home and have fresh vegetables cooked right.

The guy made a good point, which was that he's divorced and doesn't have the inclination to cook. I started thinking about people who say they don't cook. In a lot of ways, I don't believe them because I think, well, but how do you eat? Although between frozen pizzas, skillet meals, rotisserie chicken, ready made sides, take out from Applebee's and Max and Erma's and TGIFriday's and Olive Garden and a ton of other places, I guess it's pretty easy not to cook.

If you make yourself PB&J, is that cooking? If you heat up soup?

When it comes down to it, I feel each person (or family) needs to do what's right for them. As for the price? Eh, if you have it, what do I care? You might spend that much at the grocery store, I guess. Frankly, I still like to eat out. I'm unlikely to do it 3 times in a day, though. I like cooking too much.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Genius, perhaps?

I have two things to share tonight, and while neither is earth shattering, both have some merit which borders on genius.

Firstly, what to do with the dilemma of leftover queso dip with soggy and/or stale tortilla chips. The solution? Some chicken stock, a little cornstarch slurry and a dash of hot sauce and you have tortilla soup. Leftover chicken (or, even, a can of it) would make it hearty enough for a meal. I didn't happen to have any pollo and so my Cinco de mayo soup was supplemented by a salad.

Side note: my mother is from France, and my loyalties lie that way when a choice is to be made. It helps in how to choose World Cup qualifying teams to cheer for. I found out today that the battle celebrated by Mexicans on this day was in defeat of the French. So, why does this country celebrate a battle which was lost? Silly Americans. :o) Of course, I'm not exactly sure how much history or even patriotism is celebrated on this day in this country. It's a little like St Patrick's Day. In Ireland, it's no big deal. Here, it's a reason to start drinking beer with food coloring in it at 7am. Also, have you noticed the curious affinity for Mardi Gras beads that these holidays seem to have picked up? St Patrick's Day, Cinco de mayo, actual Mardi Gras, uh... okay, I've run out of examples. But surely you've noticed it, too. Or is it just bars in Erie that do this?

Anyway, the second kitchen tidbit is a technique I picked up from Alton Brown. Instead of scoring, blanching, then shocking tomatoes to remove the skin, if he's making sauce he recommends using a box grater. Just cut the tomato in half along the horizon, seed it, then grate it on the coarse side of the box grater. The pulp is efficiently removed and you're just left with the skin. Works quickly and is fun to do, too.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Chocolate covered bacon

My brother in law heard about this and was quite intrigued, so I made him some for his birthday. Before we'd left the party, he had finished all of it. My niece, however, tasted it and proclaimed it to be a way to ruin both bacon and chocolate. I wish I could weigh in, but I never got to try it!

That being said, I'll share how I made it. I cut bacon strips into 3 pieces, then baked it until crispy. I let it cool completely (I prefer baking as a method, but I also wanted to get the rendered fat away from the bacon). Then I melted half milk chocolate and half dark chocolate disks, and dipped each piece of bacon in it. Finally, I finished with a light sprinkle of smoked sea salt.

Anyone else make this? I understand it's a tailgate delicacy, and it's so easy to make. Darling Husband's asking for a batch.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Curried carrot soup

I was able to use up some of the fridge's ingredients in this meal:

Curried Carrot Soup and Gnocci with Fresh Pesto.

Ingredients bought: half and half, gnocci, garlic.

Ingredients used from fridge: carrots, half an onion, stock, ginger ale, curry paste, arugula, basil, parmasan.

To make the pesto, I put basil and arugula in a food processor with a clove of garlic and some olive oil. Once the whole thing was nicely green and saucy, I seasoned with salt and pepper and made the gnocchi.

For the soup, I caramelized some onion and then added the carrots (conveniently in match stick form). After allowing them to cook and soften a while, I added in some ginger ale and covered, allowing it to simmer and reduce. A bit of curry paste, a bit of stock, and the newly formed soup bubbled away happily for a while. The final touches were some half and half for creaminess, and a stick blender to smooth out the texture. Personally, I thought it was great. Complex flavor but not too spicy, with a lot of natural sweetness from the carrots to balance it. I might have preferred the texture to be more smooth, but that would've required longer cooking of the carrots and/or straining the soup. Darling Husband only ate a bit of his, but he was also suffering terribly from allergies, so perhaps that was it. Baby Girl had some the next day with oatmeal stirred in.

To finish the gnocchi, I poured the pesto over the cooked gnocchi and tossed them around a bit. I micro planed in a bunch of parmasan, then added a bit of half and half as well, because it looked a bit dry and needed something to help. They were lovely but, in retrospect, the raw garlic was a bit overly assertive. These happy little pillows were emerald and fresh, but the garlic sort of slapped you on the face as you went. Oh well. Live and learn, eh? At least I made a pesto.

Carnita-style Yummies

Last night's dinner was intended to make use of the newly discovered items in our fridge and freezer. Cleaning it out and reorganizing for THE NEW FRIDGE helped us get a better idea of what we really had. I made a list as I went of what we kept, and we're using it to meal plan.

Since we had a bell pepper, taco sauce, queso fresco and a bunch of jalapeno slices, I thought latin cooking was the way to go.

Darling Husband agreed. And, as he was passing by the store, fully realized the plan and bought the few necessary items. My only stipulation was that it be on a tortilla and that he buy enough to make quesadillas for Baby Girl, as she loves them.

Fortunately, Darling Husband sort of forgot that we were making use of what we had. It's possibly I never really made the intention clear to him. Regardless, I say "fortunately" because instead, he made a really fantastic dinner that was way better than what we could've made with the above ingredients. And he even used the queso fresco.

He cubed pork and made a dry run with cumin, cayenne and some seasoning flour. After searing, he braised it in passion fruit nectar and added habanero hot sauce (from the fridge). The pork became moist and soft, but still had enough toothsomeness to it not to be easily pulled. It was a nice texture, actually, but not what he thought it might be. The sauce thickened up wonderfully and clung to the pork like well draped fabric. I loved it. I would also love it on popcorn chicken as a rip-off of Buffalo Wild Wing's Mango Habenero sauce (if we used mango instead of passion fruit).

Onto a tortilla, therefore, went some pork, fresh cilantro, thinly sliced red onion, guacamole and crumbled queso fresco. The flavors were sweet and spicy, with the sharp onion and the freshness of the cilantro blending perfectly with the creamy avocado. I absolutely adored it. There were no leftovers. (Well, except the tortillas for Baby Girl!)

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Fridge!

Tomorrow we will be having a new fridge delivered, and we're tickled pink. It will be a side by side model with water and ice in the door. Compared to our current fridge, it's practically space aged.

Our current, energy inefficient fridge came with the house. It's a fairly basic, freezer on top, white fridge. It has worked tolerably well, and part of me feels guilty for buying a new one. However, it only fulfills its function by the grace of duct tape.

Ah, duct tape. Silvery plastic fabric, easily ripped, often lauded duct tape. People have written poems, raps and yodels about it. Cars are held together with it. Shoes, too. Presents are wrapped with it (trust me on this one, I kept the box for a few years). On Mythbusters, they built a cannon out of it and even a functioning sailboat. In our house, it has been serving kitchen duty.

The shelves in the door are falling off and cracked. Duct tape lashes them together and anchors them to the door. The freezer doesn't seal well. No worries, duct tape holds it shut. We never did fix the veggie drawer, mostly because I don't know how to do it with duct tape (there's a crack somewhere that makes it fall off the rails and stick open).

I'm not feeling nearly so bad about buying a new fridge when I look at it this way. It also gave me the motivation to clean out the current fridge (and find a bottle of marinade that I swear we moved from the old house, as well as two jars of banana peppers I didn't know we had). Also, new fridge we chose was on sale and came with a mail in rebate.

Plus, when I was glancing through Food Network Magazine, I noticed that Ellie Kreiger has our new fridge in her home kitchen.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Amazing soup

Those of you who are regular readers know I'm not a big soup fan. I'm going to have to stop saying that, though, because I think 5 1/2 years of marriage have finally converted me. If it hadn't, this soup would have done the trick.

Darling Husband made a wonderful, yet simple soup out of asparagus, lite coconut milk and green curry paste. Want the rest of the ingredients? There aren't any! Oh, he might've salted and peppered, but that's it. The whole thing was pureed and had the most exquisite, balanced, creamy, comforting, round, delicate flavor imaginable. I had it hot and I had leftovers cold, and I'm not sure which I liked better. He paired it with just a little raw asparagus salad. Using a vegetable peeler, he shaved some raw asparagus and tossed with salt and pepper, grapefruit zest and olive oil. Raw asparagus has a grassy, fresh taste that complimented the down-comforter feeling of the soup nicely. It was a fantastic palate cleaner, not unlike the pickled ginger you get with sushi. When we open our imaginary bistro, this is definitely going on the menu.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Apple pie, cheese sauce, jerk seasoning, egg nog: they all contain nutmeg. The flavor is recognizable but the seed it comes from is quite forgettable. Plus, in large quantities, it's a hallucinogen (although, side effects are pretty bad and too much will kill you). It's best grated fresh with a microplane, but have you ever bothered to do so? We were gifted whole nutmeg, which is why we do. The coolest thing is what it looks like inside.

Roasting a whole snapper

I bought a whole red snapper from Marine Fish Market. It was frozen, so I defrosted it in some running water. I didn't have a ziplock bag big enough, so I put two on and duct taped them together for fridge storage. It looks like a kidnap victim.

Nasty set of teeth on it, huh? And although it should be obvious, it never occurred to me that fish had tongues. This was probably the creepiest thing about it. I was pleased to note that the fishmonger had not only gutted the fish, but removed the gills and scales, too. I was not looking forward to taking those off.

This fish is prepared for battle! I used kitchen shears to remove all the fins (dorsal, pectoral and anal) and the tail. They would only have charred. If this were Japan, though, I'm sure I would've created a delicacy with them. Probably not the spines, though.

To promote even cooking, I cut some deep slits into the flesh. This also let me season inside the fillets. I overall seasoned the fish with salt and pepper. Then, I arranged parsley and thinly sliced lemon, fennel, garlic and onion under it, in it and on top. We drizzled a bit of olive oil over the whole thing and popped it in a 400 degree oven.

Ready to go into the oven. It seems unhappy, somehow. You know, gashed and clipped with lemons in its belly. Personifying this fish didn't help me eat it later, by the way.

Here it is out of the oven. The parsley burned, which is fine because it actually lent an interesting flavor. It took much longer in the oven than we thought it would.

Butchering the fish (carving the fish? I think that's probably more the term) was an adventure. In all of our pieces, we only found 2 bones on our plate. I was a little impressed with myself. The best part was being able to carve away the tenderloin in one piece. You can see it in the middle of the plate, there. We served with hominy cooked in coconut milk. It was a little bland, but a very interesting texture. Would've been better if we'd remembered the ginger.
I looked up the proper etiquette for serving whole fish. One is to transfer to a platter, and carve at the table. Otherwise, you don't get credit for making a whole fish for your guests/family. First, you carve the upper fillet into portions and serve. Then you lift the spine and head up and off of the platter. Finally, you serve the lower fillet. That's all well and good, but I wouldn't have been able to do this. My fish looks much worse for the ware after hacking into it. Just as well we didn't have guests. :o)

Grilled salad

Well, spring sprang and then sprang back again. In the past month, it's been 80 degrees and it has frozen. Today there were white, wet, yucky blobs falling on us as we tried to shop for a new refrigerator, prompting Darling Husband and I to decide that "sleet" should be a swear word.

On a side note, those of you who don't know me probably would be shocked to hear I have a terribly unladylike habit of swearing like a sailor. I take full ownership of it, and credit it to having a sister who is 9 years older, friends who similarly swear, a boss who swears, parents (well, parent) who swear, and a love of British comedians who pepper their language liberally with the F-word. It's cathartic and about as second nature to me as breathing. It's also a terrible burden for my poor mother, who thinks women swearing is particularly crude and tasteless. Sorry, Mom.

But it is for Baby Girl's sake (and not my mother's) that my language has taken a turn away from the purple. We now use the same swear words as Sponge Bob; mostly, that's "barnacles." Barnacles, fish paste, tartar sauce... it makes for some interesting phrases. I added my own, "mother of pearl," to the list. Unfortunately, I still say "bugger" which is quite a naughty word but doesn't flash the same color in my head and so I don't edit it out the same way. Ever hear a 21 month old in pigtails and butterfly festooned bib overalls say "bugger?"

Now that spring is trying to raise her head, our cooking is venturing away from hearty winter fare and towards brighter dishes. A new one we made was grilled salad. We didn't invent it; this technique is all over food network. Still, it's an interesting departure.

I split a heart of romaine in two, preserving as much of the core as I could without being gross so as to hold the thing together. Then I smeared about a teaspoon of olive oil on the cut edges (using my hand. I couldn't think of a better way) and pressed the oiled lettuce into freshly shredded parmasan to coat it. This immediately went on a very hot grill pan, cheese down. I don't know how long it took, but it certainly wasn't more than a couple of minutes. In that time, the cheese browned and toasted and the lettuce wilted somewhat. We served immediately, dressing the salad by splashing the whole with olive oil and white balsamic, then microplaning lemon zest and sprinkling with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper. It was a wonderful mix of crunchy and soft, brittle and flexible, bright and bitter. I think it would make a great ceasar salad or a nicoise, as a fancy lunch item. I particularly enjoyed the greens that wilted, as they tasted wholly unlike lettuce and more like, well, "greens" that you use to cook. What is lettuce, but a green of course. But a wilted salad doesn't sound nearly as appetizing as it really is.

The drawback to making this salad is it leaves you with quite a bit of hearts of romaine left over, since the smallest package we could find was a 4 pack, and we used one out of it. I chopped up the rest and made stir fried salad, with pork. Darling Husband wasn't nearly as sold on this one. He said it was a little strange. Personally, I think it was just the fact that he knew it was romaine that was the problem. Escarole is a salad, too, and he wouldn't have blinked if I had used it. When stir fried, the romaine ribs keep their crunch much in the way bok choy does. In fact, it's quite a bit like bok choy. I do encourage you to think outside the box with romaine. You just might like it better than raw. I found that I do.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Calzones, of a sort

On day four of my cooking for one experience I made calzones. Or, was it stromboli? What's the difference between a calzone and a stromboli? I really don't know. I read some things that suggested it's about whether the sauce was on the inside or the outside, but that might be just one person's opinion.

Okay, back to me. I made (I'm deciding to call it) calzones. I used turkey pepperoni, diced red bell pepper and provolone cheese, served with jarred marinara for dipping. I had enough left over for Darling Husband, who arrived home in the middle of the blizzard at 11:30pm and needed a fortifying nosh.

Cooking for one has perks and drawbacks, but for me part of the joy of cooking is sharing what I make. When I'm feeling particularly loving towards someone, I tend to cook for them. It's an investment of time as well as an expression of myself. Beyond that, it's caretaking, nourishing, nurturing... all that female stuff. :o) It makes me feel good. I'm glad Darling Husband's home to cook for in the coming days.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I gave up

On this third day of on my own cooking, I gave up, I gave in and I ordered take-out.

We get Chinese from Cathay Express, at 18th and State. (814) 456-6615 and yes, I rattled that off my heart. The ladies at my office order from here, my parents order from here, and we do, too. They're friendly, they put up with us ordering wacky special requests (my boss gets chicken and broccoli with no chicken and pork fried rice without the pork) and 99% of the time get it right. Plus, they are convenient.

Tonight I worked late, and this cold is kicking my butt. I placed an order for delivery and promptly fell asleep on the couch waiting for it. I wish I could say I loved it, but I have to say, I won't be ordering Orange Beef again. I've had their orange chicken before numerous times and like it, but I wasn't prepared for the beef to be breaded and fried. It gave it a really strange texture that I didn't really care for. Sauce was still good, though, and I was hungry enough not to be too disappointed.

Here's hoping tomorrow night brings me back to the kitchen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Just a sandwich

It's day two of my cooking for one experiment. I took Baby Girl to the doctor today... she's grown two inches in three months and didn't cry at all when she got her shots. What a trouper. I, however, don't feel as brave. I think I'm coming down with a cold, so my plans for dinner changed. I decided to just make a sandwich.

And yet, this is such a misleading statement, because it started off with baking bread. (My mother in law is a nurse, and sometimes when she comes home from her long shifts, she makes a pb&j and calls it a night. She's more of a grown up than I am and so she has staples like bread in her cupboard.) Okay, so the bread wasn't from scratch, but I still say baking bread from a tube is baking bread and gets you some points. I didn't have regular bread. I also didn't have lunch meat, so I used tomato and avocado. This is one of my favorite summer combinations. Sometimes we skip the bread, topping our little tomato towers with monterrey jack cheese and popping under the broiler. Yum. I didn't have monterrey jack, so I used cheddar for my little open faced sandwiches. After broiling, I sprinkled salt and pepper and liberally dashed white balsamic vinegar.

You can keep your chicken noodle soup. To me, this is comfort food.

Monday, February 22, 2010

All by myself

Darling Husband is on a business trip. When this happens, I often pack up kitten and Baby Girl and decamp to my parents' house. When I don't, such as now, I generally don't end up cooking much. I decided to do things differently this time. On my lunch hour, I went grocery shopping for a few meals worth of fast but yummy food.

Tonight was spicy turkey sausage and shrimp with asparagus and red pepper. It helped me use up asparagus I forgot I had. I didn't make a starch to go with (orzo might've been nice) so I mopped up extra sauce with bread. The sauce, by the way, is just a splash of white wine and a bunch of sambal olek. It might not be as fun cooking for one, but it is gratifying nonetheless. Plus, fewer dishes to clean.

I had planned on making tomorrow night's dinner tonight, to save time, but got too tired. Oh well!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tuna steaks and swiss chard

In honor of Valentine's Day, we decided to make a splurgy dinner at home. Okay, okay, that's a bit of a lie. We actually went out and had a splurgy dinner. I even intend to blog about it. But then two days later, made another one anyway.

It featured tuna steaks, which are a beautiful, rich shade of reddish pink. Tuna should never be cooked through and is best, in my opinion, when it's lightly seared on the outside and sashimi raw on the inside. I didn't invent this, of course, but I'm a huge fan. We dusted ours with searing flour and some sicilian seasoning that was meant to be mixed with olive oil and used as a bread dip. It had basil, oregano, garlic and sundried tomato, but was powdered in consistency. When we seared the steaks, they got a nice crust and the herbs released a lot of flavor and aroma.

As a side dish, we sauteed some assorted swiss chard (it came prewashed and chopped in a package) and served with agnolotti. Swiss chard is a relative of the beet, and has many varieties. Our bag had lovely green leaves with red, yellow and orange ribs, as well as purple leaves and white ruffle leaves with a bit of green on the very tips. Nutritionists tell us to eat a rainbow every day. I think we had one in this bag. We sauteed the chard in a little olive oil, salted liberally and sprinkled with crushed red pepper.

Agnolotti pasta is a filled pasta, similar to ravioli, but shaped in a half moon crescent. Often they are made with meat (some say a true agnolotti has meat and all others are ravioli, regardless of shape), and are a good way to use up leftovers. Ours were bought fresh and had six cheeses inside. The fontina was the strongest flavor, and they were sinfully rich and wonderfully complex. We simply cooked the pasta in water (five minutes flat) and then tossed with the cooked chard.

What do you think? It tasted amazing. Oh, and we also reduced some balsamic for a little sauce for the tuna.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dried cherry magic

How to elevate a ho hum roast to fantastic, using things you might just have around anyway.

1 small beef roast
1 handful dried cherries
4 cloves of garlic
2 sprigs rosemary, bruised
Salt, pepper
Enough red wine
Couple tablespoons of butter

Season the roast with salt and pepper. Sear in an ovensafe skillet, or dutch oven. Throw all the other ingredients into the pan, filling with enough red wine to come about half way up the meat. Transfer pan to 350 degree oven. Cook until it's done, flipping the meat once or twice. Remove the meat and let rest on a cutting board. Return pan to stove top and crank up the heat. Fish out the rosemary and the garlic; bring the liquid to a boil and reduce. Stir in about 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into chunks. Serve slices of meat with risotto, topped with pan sauce.

Recipe writing takes skill, time, measurement, patience... in other words, things I can do if I try but can't muster up tonight. Yet, even with my vague direction, couldn't you make this dish? If you did, you'd be rewarded with moist, tender meat and a savory sauce studded with plump, juicy, tart cherries.

Roasts can be done so many ways, based on the aromatics, the liquid and the finishing. Root vegetables and stock, onions and beer, mirepoix and chianti, each brings their own personalities to the table. Try a few--hey, try my red wine and cherry combo!--and you'll jazz up a Sunday night staple.

I found out the next day that my mom had made a roast that night, too.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Son of a gun, gonna have some fun...

...on the bayou!

Mardi Gras is just around the corner and the Saints played the Super Bowl. What better excuse is there for indulging in a few of the delicacies of the Big Easy? We chose cornmeal dusted, fried okra, etouffee with chicken, shrimp and andouille and bananas foster. We just didn't have room to eat all of it, so we didn't actually make desert.

The okra was great, though... nutty and slightly chewy. Darling Husband said he could just chow on a whole bowl of it, watching a movie. It did have a popcorn quality to it.

Our etouffee was good, but very different from last time. Before when we made it, it was all about the peppers and onions. This time, it was all about the sausage. Oh, that's not a bad thing (believe me) but it just made for a different sort of dish.

More posts to come soon, gentle readers... I keep composing them in my head but not getting a chance to sit down and write them. My computer time tends to be after Baby Girl's in bed, after dinner, after dishes, sitting in bed before I crash. Some nights that works better than others.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Indian food

As I've already noted, Raj Mahal is one of our favorite places to eat. They have a fabulous lunch buffet, which is great for those of us who don't know what the dishes are and want to try new things without committing too much. Last weekend we had a great chopped cabbage and pea dish, pretty straight forward and heavy with turmeric.

Speaking of turmeric, have you ever seen it fresh? It's a root, much like ginger, although smaller and with the color bursting through the thin skin. The little sections look like fingers or creepy worms. I bought some at the Erie County Farms today and plan to freeze them, in order to microplane them as needed into dishes. I do this with ginger, too, and find it keeps really well and incorporates easier into my food than if I used it fresh.

This weekend, we decided to make our own fantastic Indian food. (But not with the turmeric. I'd already started dinner when I found it. Next time!) I found a recipe for tandoori rub, which we made and shared with my Fabulous Sister. Paprika, cumin, sugar, salt, cinnamon, saffron, coriander, ginger, black pepper, cayenne... we ground them all ourselves with a coffee grinder we've designated for spices. It's amazingly fragrant. (I think it would taste great on roasted potato wedges, too, but that's another day). Instead of being a slave to a traditional "tandoori," we decided to make a dish that made sense to us, but kept the spirit in tact. To that end, we marinated large hunks of chicken breast with plain yogurt which was liberally seasoned with our spice mixture until it formed a paste.

I seared the chicken hunks, then removed them and sauteed veggies to pick up the fond. For vegetables, we combined onion, red bell peppers and zucchini, all in a small dice. Then we added the chicken back in, poured some milk and water into the ziplock bag which had been used to marinate the chicken (in order to get every last molecule of the marinade out) and added it to the pan for a simmering liquid. We also put in another container of plain yogurt. After simmering until the chicken was done, we allowed the liquid to reduce. You should smell my kitchen. It is to die for.

Of course, we served rice. But the more interesting thing was the homemade naan. This was a recipe from the February issue of Food Network Magazine (thanks, Mom! I'm enjoying my subscription) and I followed it exactly. Well, I lie. I followed it almost exactly. I used unbleached flower for the whole of it, instead of whole wheat. It doesn't have any leavening agent (if it did, I wouldn't have tried it, as I'm yeast-challenged when it comes to cooking) but it does need time to rest. I'm including the recipe here:

3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. all purpose flour
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 c. water
pinch of salt

Combine the flours and the salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the wet ingredients. Mix together until a sticky mess [note: I'm taking a few liberties with the wording here, but it's more true my way. Actually, we used more water than this to get it to come together correctly]. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until pliable, about 5 minutes. Put dough ball in a lightly oiled bowl and let sit 30 minutes to rest.

Divide dough into 6 pieces. Roll or manually stretch each piece out, then fry in a pan with the barest hint of oil 2-3 minutes on one side and 1-2 minutes on the other, until lightly charred and bubbly.
I think I could eat this every single day. It would make a rockin' pizza, with some sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella and torn leaves of basil. I could happily just layer on some lunch meat and call it a sandwich. A flavorful salad could be wrapped up with craisins, canned tuna, avocado and some queso fresco. I could go on and on. I loved this bread.

The whole meal was wonderful. The veggies were wonderfully soft but full of color and flavor, a nice counterpoint to the solidness of the chicken. Our rice drank up the sauce, which was a robust color and had quite a bit of heat (Darling Husband admitted he doubled the amount of cayenne called for. That would do it.). I would happily order it in a restaurant, but I'm doubly glad to be able to call it home made.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What's the marrow with you?

What could be better than slowly braised meat? Slowly braised meat with MARROW!

Okay, okay, I admit that marrow is a frightening thing. There's something too primal, too intimate about it. Eating marrow seems like a violation. (If you read Julie/Julia, the description of extracting the marrow was absolutely chilling.) That being said, so many chefs go gaga over that bone-covered goo--what don't I know?

We found beef shank slices at the store and realized immediately this was an opportunity. As I don't eat veal, osso bucco never much crossed my mind. It was Darling Husband who noticed the potential to try this classic dish. Basically, osso bucco is a slice of veal shank, bone and all, slowly braised in white wine with mirepoix and a bit of tomato product. We used pino grigio, a dollop of tomato paste and pre-cut mirepoix (which I first browned to a henna-hued perfection in the dutch oven).

Osso bucco is served traditionally over risotto, and who am I to argue with tradition? It makes for an unspeakably rich and sinful tasting food, which is fine by me. The sauce was thick like gravy, saturated with flavor. The meat fell off the bone. We couldn't help but notice the marrow in the bone was reduced. Presumably some cooked out.

When asked for their favorite dish (or "last meal" type question), according to Anthony Bourdain, many chefs come up with pretty simple fare. Marrow on bread with a bit of sea salt is, so he says, at the top of that list. I can't comment on that specifically, but Darling Husband and I were brave enough to try a taste of the marrow on it's own. It's a bit... spongy... but not in a solid way. It's very meaty but almost...metallic? Well, truth be told, it was hard for me to identify. That being said, I enjoyed it. I just didn't want any more of it. It was a little too much Night-of-the-Living-Dead for me. But I believe I'm missing something awesome.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cuba Libre

Is a drink, made (so Darling Husband tells me) with lime, rum and Coke. We didn't have lime. We didn't have Coke. We did have rum, and lots of it. Rum leads to brilliance, fortunately, and so we discovered forgotten Pepsi in our kitchen. No one here drinks Pepsi. We drink Diet Pepsi. My father in law, however, drinks the original and so my mother in law thoughtfully dropped some off to us a few weeks before Christmas so that we'd be prepared for his holiday visit. He drank half of one. Five bottles remained.

As for lime, well, I remembered one lonely packet of True Lime in the cupboard that fell on me serendipitously the other day. Have you tried this stuff? It's awesome. It is to lime what Equal is to sugar. In that, it's a little, convenient packet to be used when you can't find the real stuff. Et voila. Cuba Libre. I drank two and could have downed a few more. (Here's a thought: if you made rum and Coke with Coke with lime, would you have made a Cuba Libre?) Apparently, by the way, they also make a True Lemon.

We made this drink to go with our cuban sandwiches and pan fried plantains. The other night we roasted an extra pork tenderloin (the perils of not separating your tenderloins before you freeze them) and so had some roast pork on hand. It had been glazed in hot pepper jelly, so what could be better? We thinly sliced it (easy because it was chilled) and layered it on bread with sliced ham, swiss cheese and a little smear of whole grain mustard. Traditionally, it should have had pickles but Darling Husband never eats them and I think they have no place in this dish. However, per tradition, we sliced the loaf of bread horizontally instead of building from slices. It took some mashing to get it into the George Foreman grill, but it came out crisp, dense, flavorful and insanely hearty. They were simply delicioso.

This is the sandwich you pack to get you through your day of physical labor, and for good reason. Oof, I am full.

I might be able to find room for another Cuba Libre, though.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Etouffee, you say?

I really wasn't sure what etouffee was. Or, rather, how it differed from gumbo. Creole/Cajun food, to me, has many similar ingredients for different dishes. It's a culinary arena I'd like to learn more about. I heard about a cook book titled, Who's Your Mama, are You Catholic and can You Cook a Roux? which, I have to say, is one of the funniest titles of a cook book I've seen. I've never glanced through it. Does anyone know if it's any good?

Creole and cajun are used interchangeably but actually refer to the two different backgrounds in the New Orleans culture. One denotes the upper class, French derived land owner type people and the other the native people and those from Africa who blended their cultures in. In other words, the haves and the have nots. Although, I have to confess I know very little about this and can never remember which one is which.

Etouffee is a little like gumbo, but with a lighter roux and less soupy. It can have almost the same ingredients (onion, bell pepper, chicken, shrimp, andouille, even okra) but is a separate dish. At least, this is what I concluded from my research of recipes. We made it last night and I'm not sure how, but it didn't taste like gumbo. It did taste awesome, and was the perfect meal to eat while cheering the New Orleans Saints on to victory.

I first browned some andouille slices and rendered out some of the fat. I hadn't had a chance to go to my favorite local meat place, so I made do with chicken andouille from Wegman's. It was nice and more cohesive than the fresh made sausage. The flavor was more subtle, but there was still plenty of it. After removing the slices, I added a bit of butter and started to build my roux. I let it get to about a lightly milked coffee color before adding in onion, pepper and garlic. I also generously shook in some cayenne and dropped a palm full of file powder (powdered sassafrass). The only other spice element I added (copious amounts of black pepper don't count) was about a teaspoon of habanero hot sauce.

When the veggies had cooked a bit, I added just enough chicken stock to make a gravy, but not so much as to flood it. This I covered and simmered to let everything soften. Part way through, I threw the sausage back in. When it was just about done, we tossed in some shelled shrimp until just cooked and served over rice.

As a full disclosure, I could probably eat a bowl full of onions cooked in roux. That taste is intoxicating. As a dish, our etouffee was phenomenal. Complex, hearty, warm and comforting. I don't know if it was authentic, but I like to think it was. Darling Husband suggested we might have to make it again for the Super Bowl.

Culinary Christmas Present

The newest addition to my kitchen is a fantastic grill pan bought for me for Christmas by Darling Husband. It's a big rectangle that takes up two burners. Yippee!

So far we've made steaks, burgers, quesedillas, grilled ham and swiss, shrimp, um... pollenta... that might be it. I really like it. I will admit it took some getting used to, and the steaks we made had to go back on the grill twice until I managed to cook them the way we like them. And we like them medium rare. Quesedillas were easiest (Baby Girl is a big quesedilla fan. She likes the pineapple salsa. She also was munching happily on couscous the other day, so it balances out. I despair at times that she likes buttered noodles, cheese, nutrigrain bars, ham and graham crackers best. Presumably at some point this will all work itself out and she'll eat a lovely variety of things. Right?)

The grill pan is perfect for winter grilling and I'm so glad Darling Husband got it for me!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A perfectly poached egg

I never bothered much with poaching eggs, probably because I'm not all that crazy about eggs in the first place. I mean, they have their uses (most definitely) and contexts. Rarely will I crave them, however, and I am probably about 50/50 when offered one.

Poaching eggs seems ridiculously hard and not worth it for water logged eggs. Still, it seems to be a thing and so I wanted to learn to do it and get it right. What I discovered was, in fact, it's almost ridiculously easy to poach eggs and yields soft, pillowy packets of wonderfulness. It might just be the perfect way to cook an egg.

The last time I'd poached an egg, I ended up with a rubbery disk which tasted like vinegar. I won't go into all the things I did terribly. I'll just tell you what I learned to do right.

First, I got the water to a nice boil. In the entire pot of water, I put a splash (about a cap full) of rice wine vinegar. I would have wanted to use white vinegar, but I didn't have any at hand. The three important points to remember are...

1. Swirl the water.
2. Crack the egg into a little bowl.
3. Watch the clock.

I'm now convinced if you keep these three in mind, you will have a perfectly poached egg, no matter what.

The biggest problem with poached eggs is making egg drop soup instead. In other words, the egg goes into the water at different points, resulting in independent gossamer ribbons of whites and a glop of yolk. The first two points address this problem. By swirling the water, you create a whirlpool which pressures the egg (once you slide it into the middle of the pan) into staying together. By cracking the egg into a little bowl before sliding it into the water, you come closer to ensuring the egg entering the water whole. I found that the rolling boil helps the egg tumble around and become a more formed thing, too, although it's important to keep an eye on the boil so that it doesn't boil over.

The moment the egg goes in, start the timer. For a large egg, you want about two and a half minutes to three minutes, depending on how runny you like your egg. I find about two and a half minutes to be perfect, with a molten center surrounded by set yolk. When you remove the egg (for example, with a slotted spoon) you want to dry it off. Place it to drain briefly on a pad of paper towels. Serve immediately, because residual heat will continue to cook the egg.

You can also do this ahead, and put the eggs into an ice bath. When you're ready to plate, simply slide back into hot water to heat. I've never done this but it's a chefy tip that I've heard at least three times on Food Network, so I'm passing it along.

Just now, I'm convinced that a couple of poached eggs over a bed of wilted arrugula is a perfect light lunch.

On a side note, can I just complain for a moment how frustrating it is that the egg people seem to have adopted the fast food fry and drink phenom? You used to be able to get small, medium or large things. Now it's large, really large and good God it's huge. They used to sell medium eggs, right? And, presumably, small eggs? I could've sworn I've even bought medium eggs. The last time I was at the store, I found large, extra large and jumbo. It's frustrating. And what makes a chicken lay a bigger egg? A bigger chicken? Mood music? Hormones?

Perhaps it's best not to think of it. Go poach an egg.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Iron Chef Me

Today's secret ingredient is..... HAM!

Darling Husband presented me with prosciutto, spec, a huge ham steak and a big hunk of capicola.

So, I had to make three dishes. The happy part was Darling Husband offered to be my sous chef for the evening. First, though, I had to decide what to make.

The first thing I noticed about the ham steak was that it had a ham bone in it. I have to confess, for as frightened as I am by bones and as weirded out as I am to cook with them, I am smart enough to know that's where all the flavor is and it's a huge asset. My first thought is to pop that ham bone out and use it to make a broth. I decided to make a creamy white bean puree, cooked with ham bone and decorated with crispy ham of one description or another. Sounds pretty good, but that's just a side dish.

As a main course, to go with my bean puree, I decided to go old school and make ham wellington. This is particularly appealing to me for two reasons. First, because I have multiple tins of pate of various description in my cupboard and sheets of puff pastry in my freezer. Second, because it reminds me of a calzone meal my mom used to make when I was little, with ham, swiss, ricotta and spinach encased in a pizza type dough and baked. I didn't want to recreate this exactly, but I thought this would be a fun dish. Plus, I get to make duxelle. Who doesn't love that? The scary part of beef wellington is getting the pastry done without being doughy or overcooked while still cooking the beef through. I would be using the ham steak, which is already fully cooked. As long as I don't dry it out too much, I should be okay.

Baby Girl loves us to read books, and I've read Green Eggs and Ham too often not to have that pop into my head. She also loves ham, and asks for it all the time. She just likes it diced, not fancy, but I'm making Greens, Eggs and Ham just for her. I decided to poach an egg, and serve it with a white pizza with wilted greens and oven crisped prosciutto and capicola.

The spec is very dry, very pretty, wonderfully flavored. It's thinly sliced and screaming to be wrapped around something. My instinct was to wrap it around asparagus, but that wasn't special enough. I came up with the idea of using the spec like nori in a maki roll.

The sushi rice was surprisingly easy to make. To flavor, you just put a little rice wine vinegar and sugar. I made a solid wall of speck, then pressed on some sushi rice. It's sticky, and the key is to moisten your fingers when you do it. I filled it with a couple steamed asparagus spears, sliced mango and cucumber spears. Darling Husband helped me roll it, because I couldn't get it tight enough. I cut it with a sharp knife, but it was hard not to rip the spec.

The next dish was the Greens, Eggs and Ham. I wilted some baby arugula in oil rendered from cubes of capicola (more about that later) and used them as a nest for a poached egg. I served it with slices of pizza, which I made with naan, a tiny smear of farmer cheese, the shaved prosciutto, thinly sliced capicola and some tasty, earthy brie. I was blown away. It was a simple dish, but the flavors worked magnificently together, though I say it myself. Darling husband piled the greens and hunks of egg on his pizza--and yummmm.

For our third and final dish, the ham wellington. I made the duxelle by sauteing minced onion and cremini mushrooms and kept cooking until it was dry. I had cut the ham into a couple of same sized hunks and so spread the duxelle on top. Between the slices, we layered the foie gras. The individual wellingtons were gift wrapped into puff pastry and popped into the oven. Meanwhile, I had simmered the beans with the ham bone. I also rendered cubed capicola into crispy, wonderful lardons. Instead of actually pureeing the beans, I just mushed them a bit until they fell apart, then added in the capicola lardons.
I thought everything turned out really well. The foie grasmelted into creamy wonderfulness, and the ham was perfectly moist. The pastry absorbed all the different flavors wonderfully. I thought the beans were tasty, too, but not nearly as good as the rest of it and I was hammed out. We still have a lot of ham leftovers. I don't know how I did on my challenge; we'll have to hope Darling Husband posts to give me a critique. Personally, I had fun cooking and I ate well that night. I'll post pictures soon!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My baby cooks

Last night, Baby Girl helped cook her first meal.

She's a tremendous help around the house, actually. She does laundry and dishes, as well as feeding her fish. Well, I say "does" but before you accuse me of exploiting my 17 and a half month old, let me explain. What she does is follow directions very well. With laundry, she ferries clothes from a pile to the washer, provided you lift her up so she can throw them in. Once I've poured the detergent into the cup, she pours it into the washing machine. She also loves to be handed the wet clothes, mostly one garment at a time, and put them into the drier. She loves it? Yes. She actually asks to do laundry. When the clothes are dry, she can be persuaded to put them into a pile, but has less patience for folding (mostly she unfolds my piles, but I fold faster than she unfolds, so it works out). I credit my sister with this domestic turn, as she watches Baby Girl two days a week and laundry is one of their chores together.

As for the dishes, she can hand you clean dishes from the dishwasher to be put away. I tend not to load dirty ones in with her there, but she'd be happy to help out then, too.

Baby Girl is also the owner of a fish tank, populated by a merry little contingency of platys, hatchet fish and guppies. Every night she says "bye-ee" to them when we shut off the light, and every morning she helps to feed the fish. I put the flakes in my palm and she transfers them, a pinch at a time, to the fish tank.

Thinking back on all these skills, it dawned on me that she could certainly help cook! She is interested in what we do in the kitchen, of course. She has played in her high chair while we've cut vegetables and such, and she's even perched on my hip and watched in rapt attention while I assembled and cooked her quesedillas (I do many things one handed, the other holding her). But she's never actually helped.

I decided to capitalize on her established skills and have her help make spaghetti and meatballs. Okay, so it's not exactly marinara from scratch here, but I'm so proud of her. We had some leftover jarred sauce, which she poured into the oversized stock pan (to minimize splashes). She added the salt, basil, pepper, crushed red pepper, and oregano. She stirred it all up and then dropped in the meatballs, one by one, that we bought at the meat counter at Giant Eagle. She also added in extra water to thin out the sauce. Baby Girl then decided the meatballs were in the wrong place, so she picked a few back out and repositioned them elsewhere in the pot. I put an end to it there. Fortunately, she loves washing her hands (read: I have to limit her to ten minutes a wash, after each diaper change, project, meal, etc and whenever else she notices the sink) so we could clean up pretty well. Plus, Baby Girl will gladly clean up any drips or messes if you hand her a paper towel. My kitchen wasn't the worse for the wear and we had yummy dinner. Moreover, we have leftover meatballs, and that's right up her alley.

I'm very, very proud of her in so many ways. I hope to have a little helper in the kitchen for many years to come! When she leaves our home, she'll know how to feed herself and her family well--at least, that's the goal!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Shrimp bisque, sans legs

I'm coming around to soup. It's been a long and slow process for me, and I still have some places in the Kingdom of Soup I just won't go (that oft-walked alleyway of chicken noodle haunts my nightmares) but in general, it's not so bad.

Tonight we made shrimp bisque. It all started with a can of Cream of Shrimp condensed soup we bought probably a year ago because we saw it in Wegman's and were intrigued. It's sat, unloved, in the pantry since then. Occasionally I look at it and think, "uh, I don't know... a sauce base? For...something? Chicken stuffed with crab and... oh, I'll think about it later," and then pass it by.

For some reason, it popped into my head the other day as a possible base for shrimp bisque. In fact, that's probably why Campbell's makes it and I'm just so soup-averse that it never occurred to me. Darling Husband will probably read this and laugh at how ridiculously dim I can be, but honestly I was thinking casserole and coming up short.

We decided it would need more shrimp, fresh herbs, onion, some wine and some heavy cream. Actually, I probably would've used milk or maybe half and half, but we had cream left over from the souffle and so in it went. I minced the onion and caramelized it in some olive oil, before Darling Husband deglazed with white wine. When we added the cream it occurred to us that we hadn't needed the can after all, but that was the whole point of the exercise so we put it in. After it had all come up to temperature, we slid in the shrimp and let them become pink and lovely. I pureed with a stick blender for consistency, added salt and voila. Bisque. Top portions with chives.

Incidentally, I used to love Wegman's shrimp bisque until they put out recipe cards on how they made it. Apparently, they peel the shrimp and then saute the shells and use them to make the stock. I'm fine with that. But then they puree the shells and everything together into the soup. Uh, eww! There's legs and stuff there!! I'm sure it's great calcium and probably that's where the color comes from and all the rest, but I have to draw the line somewhere and pureed exoskeleton is it. I haven't eaten it since. I choose not to think much about the origins of the can of cream of shrimp soup, by the way.

Our shrimp bisque was thick and slightly coarse, which was a lovely rustic touch. It had a strong shrimp flavor but was, I felt, nicely balanced. In January, my office has a soup party, where several of us make a crock-pot full of our favorite and everyone in the office has soup buffet for lunch. I might just make this. Actually, I won't, because the people in my office wouldn't eat it. Nevermind then. This is private soup.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year, New Game!

Darling Husband and I have by no means exhausted our home-version of Chopped, but we've decided to play the home version of Iron Chef.

Here are the rules:

The mystery ingredient shall be one ingredient, chosen by the other person. The person cooking, then, will prepare three dishes using the secret ingredient. The dishes are to highlight that ingredient, and will be "judged" on taste, originality, presentation and technique.

To kick off the game, I chose the secret ingredient... SPINACH.

In true Iron Chef tradition, Darling Husband picked up baby spinach and regular spinach, both. His three dishes included seared scallops with spinach oil, spinach fettuccine with pancetta, and a spinach and chevre soufle.

First of all, I love seared scallops. If they're done well, that is, and oh my goodness does Darling Husband do them well. A properly seared scallop is not tough or stringy, but spongy and yielding. The crust is brown and nicely crunchy; the middle is cooked but definitely more rare than the outside. These scallops were sitting in a verdant pool of spinach oil. (Pool? "Pool" sounds like they were overwhelmed, but they weren't. I toyed with words like puddle and smear, but none of them fit. Pool is the closest, but it's a shallow, tasteful pool.) Darling Husband put mature spinach and olive oil in the blender with a pinch of salt, then put through a sieve to separate the solids. The oil itself was a beautiful pale moss color, flecked with solid bits of emerald. I could just eat the oil itself, sopped up with some nice french bred. In fact, I think I will do that tomorrow, as we have left over oil and it was scrumptious. When Darling Husband left the room, I actually licked the plate. In a ladylike way, of course.

The next dish presented was the fettuccine. Darling Husband said his inspiration for the pasta dish was the traditional spinach salad with hot bacon dressing. I can remember my mom making this for her friends at dinner parties. She has these shallow, dark wooden salad bowls and I remember them lined up, ready with the spinach and waiting while she encouraged guests to sit. As my father poured wine, she would render chopped pieces of bacon and so be able to serve the first course still sizzling. It seemed terribly posh when I was 10 and, come to think of it, still is.
Darling Husband bought fresh (as in not dried) spinach fettuccine, which was for the sake of time and sanity. In a real Iron Chef situation, he assures me he would have made his own. I don't fault him for it. I often buy pre-shredded cheddar.
His pasta sauce was, essentially, rendered pancetta with red onions, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, a splash of white wine and a little butter to mount it. He crumbled fresh farmer cheese on top and garnished with deep fried baby spinach leaves. Have you ever deep fried spinach? Of course not, but you should. It becomes beautifully brittle and crunchy but not actually hard, the green color popping out and looking very inviting. It's nutty and doesn't taste much like spinach at all. Deep frying herbs is in vogue now, and I seem to feel it was a thing that was done back in the 60's but I can't find any reference to it so I might be making that up. Goodness knows, though, people will deep fry anything--so why not leafy greens!
The pasta, as a dish, was wonderful and tasty. I'm looking forward to the leftovers.

And now, the soufle. I have to award him chutzpa points for making a soufle. We've made them before, but rarely and always by recipe. I don't understand soufles yet. I know there's a sort of creamy, yolky base which is folded into, essentially, meringue and then baked. But it includes an alchemy I just don't get. I'd like to, though, because mmmmmmmh soufle....

The big debate with a soufle is whether to do individual portions or one large one. Darling Husband opted for one large one (done in a casserole dish given to me by my grandmother, who is 92. Every time I use it to serve at a dinner party or to bring along to a pot luck, I get asked "where did you get that?" followed by "my mother/grandmother had one just like it!" They used to be sold by traveling salesmen). The soufle was beautifully brown on top and nicely puffy. It fell in the middle, of course, because all soufles will once the steam escapes and also because I accidentally opened the oven while it was cooking. Oops. Inside was wonderfully yielding egg yumminess with whole spinach leaves suspended. How do I describe the taste? I have no idea, except to say this:

It's cold today. The temperature is about 18 degrees with a wind chill below zero and wind gusting to 40 mph. It has been snowing all day. It is, in fact, blizzarding. Our house, while nearing it's 100 year birthday, is usually toasty but today we both felt chilled. When Darling Husband served the soufle, I had one blanket wrapped around my shoulders and another across my lap. (We have a rather nice, radiator style space heater. It's in Baby Girl's room.) I was shivery and dreading the meal ending, because I offered to Darling Husband that I would shovel the driveway and sidewalk after dinner since he cooked and would later take out the garbage. When he served the soufle, and I bit into it, I felt warm and comforted. The creaminess enveloped me like another blanket and I stopped caring about the weather. It was goooood.

Dinner was an unmitigated success. I congratulate Darling Huband on excellent interpretation of the secret ingredient, outside the obvious choices, and look forward to my turn. :o)

In case you're wondering, though I hadn't complained or rescinded my offer, Darling Husband proposed we swap shoveling for cleaning up the kitchen. I barely let him get the sentence out before I was agreeing to it with a little dance. He said he couldn't face the kitchen but would be willing to shovel, which was remarkable because I had the exact opposite urge. It was divine. Days like this make me wish we had a snow blower, but each year we get through it fine and never get around to seriously discussing such a big purchase. Oh well. Today was a lovely dance of give and take, actually. He got up Baby Girl while I took an extra half hour to lie in bed, I entertained Baby Girl during the Steeler's game, he gave her bananas and snacks while I showered, I put her to bed while he cooked, etc. In between we all hung out, happy to be without too many obligations on a Sunday after such a busy time of year. And to cap off such a day with a subtly tangy chevre soufle? Well, it was divine. Thank you, Darling Husband.