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.