Monday, August 26, 2013

I'm Hungry: Learning from a Cooking Disaster

Tonight was another night of scrounging the fridge for one lonely little eater, but I pulled some really great stuff together for a quick pasta dinner: a few fresh mozzarella balls; basil leaves and fennel fronds and our first tie-dye tomato from the garden; and a lemon that needed to be used. Sounds like the makings of a really tasty dish, right?


Total fail tonight.  I mean, like—if I was a beginner cook, I would have stopped cooking—forever. Dropped the wooden spoon and ran, never to return.  I think the only thing I got right was the pasta texture.  The rest of it? God-awful.

I don't know what went wrong.  The flavors totally, TOTALLY didn't blend.  I kept thinking maybe the cheese was turning, but I had tasted it before I used it, and it seemed fine.  Maybe putting lemon juice in a cast iron pan was wrong? Anyone know? Alton Brown?

I ate a salad to make myself feel better, but it didn't work. Even the last of the wine from the other night didn't work; it was off, too.


I'm going to bed.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cooking Dinner for My Very Clean Colon: A First Meal Post Colonoscopy...

It may sound funny, but it's true. After my colonoscopy yesterday, my body is empty.  It's rather a strange feeling. I kind-of feel brand new—like starlight and rainbows...  (I'm just kidding. It really just makes you feel ice-cold, being poop-free.)

So tonight, when I thought about the fact that the ginormous organ inside of me didn't have anything to work on except what I tossed in there for my evening meal—I couldn't help but think twice about dinner.  The idea of gulping down a big spicy dish of somethin'-somethin' or a meaty hunk of whatever didn't sound so great as I stood in front of the open fridge.  I wanted veggies, but even the broccoli looked daunting to digest.  What did I have that was vegetarian but with minimal fiber for this first substantial dinner of mine after being made clean as a whistle?

Well, this is what I pulled out of the fridge, out of the garden, and off the counter:
  • that damn box of pea shoots from Trader Joe's again (I was determined to finish it off—only a handful were left.)
  • a lemon
  • a small zucchini
  • a clove of garlic
  • a baby bella mushroom
  • bacon fat
  • 3 little sprigs of cilantro
  • kosher salt
  • fresh cracked pepper
And here's what I did with it all:

1) Over medium-high heat in a 10-inch skillet, I melted a teensy little teaspoon of bacon fat.  I added the minced garlic clove and the finely chopped mushroom, tossed them in the fat, and let them sizzle, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes.

2) I then added the zucchini, quartered lengthwise and chopped into 1/4-inch thick slices on the bias, to the skillet.  I tossed the zucc with the fat to coat the pieces, sprinkled on salt and pepper, stirred it all again, shook the skillet to create an even layer, then let it all sit for 3 minutes.

3) With the bottom side of the zucc nicely browned, I stirred the skillet then scattered on top the handful of pea shoots (gathered up in a bunch on the cutting board then chopped right below the leaves to get rid of the stem portion) and the torn-up leaves of the cilantro sprigs.  I squeezed a quarter of the lemon over the whole mess, then stirred it all to wilt the shoots.

4) I plated the veggies, garnished it with lemon zest from the butt of the lemon, and ATE.

Time to prep? 5 minutes (if you are a slow prepper, like me). Time to cook? 6 minutes. And, oh! What a great surprise! By cooking from my gut (I'm learning!), I prepared a dish for the transition of seasons: deep and earthy from the mushrooms, bacon fat, and garlic. Light from the zucchini. Zingy and bright from the cilantro and lemon.  It was like summer and fall mingling on my plate, both vying for my tongue's attention—and both happily getting it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

An Experimental Recipe for Bob and Jerry: Mini Blueberry-Lemon Cakes

To start off this post, I must begin with: BOB AND JERRY, YOU ARE the BEST!!!

I walked into my little middle school library this morning, ready to help Bob and Jerry move some bookshelves—and they were done! I immediately yelled for no one to hear, "You guys are AWESOME!" and plunked the cake carrier I had in my hand down on the floor to survey their work.  They literally left nothing else for me to move.  Every other item on my floor plan, besides the bookshelves, had not only been put into place but thoroughly cleaned.  I'm telling you, school custodians ROCK.

So, what was in the cake carrier I had set on the floor? An experiment that came to mind a few days ago while I was at the grocery store, gazing at the plums.  They were on sale, and after making that frickin' amazing semifreddo for our anniversary party, plums have become my new friend.  I bought two, along with some peaches, blueberries, and blackberries.

Later that evening, as I was thinking of meeting Bob and Jerry and wanting to bake them something to thank them, I had this idea: what if I made little mini pound cakes in muffin tins, and what if I took slices of plum and laid them in the muffin tins first before I put in the batter, so that when I inverted the pan, I had this luscious slice of fruit on top of a golden, buttery cake?

In the book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman that I am reading (I told you it was going to come up again), he has a recipe for pound cake.  I decided to use that and then tweak it to include the fruit.   I love baking his way because he has you weigh almost everything.  I even weighed the eggs! If you don't have a kitchen scale, yet, you must acquire one.  Once you own one, you will not know what you did without it.  You can get a good one that does both grams and ounces and has a tare key (so you can weigh things in a bowl without accounting for the weight of the bowl) for under $25 on Amazon.

Anyway, with pound cake, the fat, flour, eggs, and sugar are all equal parts.  Easy squeezy to remember.  It's called pound cake because you used to use a pound of each ingredient to make the cake! That's a lot of pound cake.  So here's what I did (mildly adapted, once again) with Ruhlman's guidance:

1) While I heated the oven to 325 degrees, I gathered all of my ingredients and weighed them out or prepped them.

I buttered (with real butter) one nonstick muffin tin at this point, too.

Interestingly, Ruhlman says that allowing a finished batter to sit releases the air that you just beat into it, so you want it to go into the pan as soon as you are done beating it—hence buttering now and NOT later.

Here are the ingredients:
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) of unsalted butter at room temperature (ideally between 65 and 70 degrees.  Never knew that before! I actually stuck a digital thermometer in it to check! Ha!)
  • 8 oz. sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 8 oz. eggs, which is about 4 large eggs plus 1 yolk, also at room temperature (I cracked them into the bowl and allowed them to come to room temperature), whisked lightly to combine (which I forgot to do and it was okay)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 Tblsp. of lemon juice from that lemon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 8 oz. flour
  • 72 blueberries
  • ground cinnamon
2) Now I loaded the muffin tin: in each cup I dropped 6 blueberries then sprinkled a dash of ground cinnamon on top of them.

3) With the oven hot and everything ready to go, I now made the batter.  (Note: I use a KitchenAid stand mixer which uses a paddle.  This mixer is incredibly efficient and knocks the socks off of any hand or stand mixer that you can buy.  Again, I know they are pricey, but if you can get one, or get people to pool Christmas/birthday money together to buy you one, BEG for one.  They will change the way you cook, I swear.  Anyway, because of its power and efficiency, the times I am listing will be different, i.e. longer, if you are using a regular mixer.)
  • for 1 minute -- beat the butter on MEDIUM speed
  • for 2-3 minutes -- add the sugar and salt to the butter and beat it all together on MEDIUM-HIGH until the coloring is very pale yellow and the butter mixture has grown in volume about a third
  • for 1 minute-ish -- add the eggs slowly so they blend well into the butter mixture
  • add the lemon juice, zest, and vanilla and mix in well
  • turn the mixer down to MEDIUM-LOW and add the flour, mixing only long enough to blend the flour in--which isn't very long
That's it.  Ruhlman doesn't say anything about scraping down the sides, but I stopped the mixer a few times to do so, and then ran it again to make sure everything was mixed together well.

4) Using a number 40 ice cream scoop (I use this all the time to portion out dough and batter), I plopped a heaping scoop of batter into each cup, smoothed the tops a bit, then put the tin in the oven.

I baked them for 25 minutes, let them cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then inverted them out onto a cutting board.

Will I be doing this again? YES.  These babies are firm but tender, bright from the lemon and blueberries, buttery and eggy and just perfectly sweet.

But I'll try it a bit differently next time.  What I had wanted was to be able to flip these out of the muffin tin and serve them bottoms up.  I put too much batter in the cups, though, so the tops were mounded; they didn't lay flat upside down.  I need to use less batter next time.

And—did you notice? I used blueberries instead of the plums that I had mentioned. (The plums I bought weren't looking as pretty as I wanted when I sliced one open.)  Next time I'll try it with plums with a different spice and see how that goes.

So happy with these, though.  As I bit into the first one and began to chew, I felt a big smile start to spread across my face...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Transubstantiation....of Eggplant: Learning to Coal-Roast

I may get struck down by lighting with that post title, but I cannot think of another way to describe what I just ate.  Like, JUST.  The table isn't even cleared yet.  And I'm so in awe that I cannot help but ignore the dirty dishes on my dining room table, pull out my laptop, and write.  If you knew me, that's a BIG deal.

To reference, once again, the Grilling Issue of Bon Appétit's July 2013 issue: GOD BLESS MELISSA HAMILTON AND CHRISTOPHER HIRSHEIMER.  Their article, "Into the Fire," in which they describe fire-roasting eggplants--it's just changed my life.

This is one of those food experiences where I just want to go on and on and on, etc., etc., etc.  But I'm not going to.  I'm just going to tell you--no, order you--to go witness and partake of this unbelievable transformation of the world's most disgusting vegetable, and you will be a believer of being YOUR OWN PERSONAL CHEF, I promise.

Here is my experience, including recipes (gasp!), of my dinner, this evening, for one--that is me.  Here are the ingredients you will need for ONE PERSON, and then the directions.  And they are mildly adapted--just an FYI.

For the eggplant:
1 small purple eggplant
2 plum tomatoes
2 anchovy fillets, drained of oil and chopped finely
1 small garlic clove, chopped finely
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tblsp. olive oil
kosher salt to taste
fresh cracked paper to taste
1 tsp. torn cilantro leaves

For a very yummy side dish:
1/2 Tblsp. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
2 ears of sweet corn, kernels sliced from cobs
1 small cayenne pepper, seeded and minced
1 small zucchini, quartered and sliced
1 small garlic clove, minced
kosher salt to taste
fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 Tblsp. torn cilantro leaves

1) Make a hot, smoldering bed of coals (no real fire, here; too much heat).   DO NOT USE BRIQUETTES.  Use real, natural hardwood charcoal.  It's chunks of wood that have been carbonized, not pressed with glue and chemicals that you ingest and get cancer from.  I buy it in the grill section of Menards.  Anyway, you want the coals glowing red, covered in ash.  I did mine in the fire box of our smoker, but I don't see why you couldn't do this on a bed of coals in your firepit.  (Kind of romantic, in a foodie kind of way... Make yourself a nice cocktail while you are waiting for your coals to get perfectly hot.  I made a new beer/booze cocktail.  Will blog about it later...)

2) Take your average, everyday firm purple eggplant from the grocery store and throw it on the bed of coals.  (I didn't even rinse it.  Why bother? It's going on a frickin' bed of coals.)

3) Set your phone timer to 4 minutes.  Have a conversation with your dog while you are waiting.

When it goes off, flip the eggplant with a big ol' pair of tongs 1/4 turn.  Do this 2 more times.  Here's my progression of flips:

Straight on the coals:

After Flip 1:

After Flip 2:

After Flip 3:

4) After the second flip of the eggplant, put a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil directly on a patch of  coals not taken up by the eggplant and drop 2 plum/Roma tomatoes on the foil.  Flip them every once in awhile until the skins are split, and they are sizzingly hot and squishy.

Here's what the eggplant looks like when it is done:

5) When everything is roasted to death, put the veggies on a platter and let them all cool slightly so you don't burn yourself when you skin everything about 5 minutes later.  When you skin the eggplant, you are going to feel like you are peeling off too much, but the skin is really thick, and only the soft juicy center is what is left.  Here's a pic of the eggplant skinned:

6) After you skin the veggies, put the eggplant on a cooling rack over a plate (to drain more water--see pic above).  Put the tomatoes into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl.  Let the eggplant cool while you smash the tomatoes through the sieve.  There will be a lot of gunk left in the sieve, with a pool of fine delicious tomato juice in the bowl.

7) Add the garlic, anchovies, olive oil, salt, pepper, and vinegar to the tomato juice.  Stir/whisk well.

8) Pour half of the tomato sauce into a platter.  Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and lay the pieces side by side in the juice. (The top just kind-of came off while I was slicing it.  If it doesn't, pull it off.  You don't want to eat charred eggplant skin/stem.)  Sprinkle the flesh with a pinch of kosher salt.  Pour the rest of the sauce on top and let it all soak for a good 20 minutes.

9)  While the eggplant is transubstantiating, prep the veggies for the side dish.  When ready, heat the  olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat until hot.

10) Add the zucchini, corn kernels, cayenne, garlic, salt, and pepper all at once to the pan, tossing with  the butter and oil mixture until coated.  Shake the skillet to create an even layer of veggies, then let it sit for 2 minutes.

11)  Toss, shake, and let the veggies sit for another 2 minutes.

12)  Add the torn cilantro, then toss, shake, and let the veggies sit for another 2 minutes, then plate the veggie mixture.  (I like my veggies with a bite--California style, as my mom says.  If you like yours squishy, let them go a minute or two longer.)

13)  Now back to the eggplant.  Add another fine sprinkling of kosher salt, garnish with the torn cilantro, then SERVE.

My thoughts on dinner? Sooo amazing.  Smoky, yet fresh from the tomato.  And the cilantro opens up the flavors in a way that I've never experienced before.  And the corn dish with its sweetness...  I am becoming a believer in vegetarianism.

Disregard that it looks like fish.  You have to taste!  GO.  And cook as you deserve!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mickey's Diner — St. Paul, MN — A Restaurant Recommendation

There has always been an allure for me when it comes to old-fashioned diners (real ones, not the fabricated types). I don't know what it is about them, especially since I've never eaten in one.  Well, we're up in St. Paul, my hubby and I, for a mini  "us" weekend and a Postal Service concert, and look what popped up on Google maps as I was lounging in bed this morning, looking for a breakfast joint? 

YAHOOO!! Mickey's Diner! I couldn't believe our luck. And only a few blocks away!  Even better. We headed out for our short walk, visions of crabby old waitresses and a row of hunched shoulders dancing in my head. 

As anticipated upon entering, I was faced with a line of hunched backs and customers lining up against the walls. Who could expect anything else? The place is tiny. There's a counter and four booths--that's it. Red laminates the walls, and the woodwork, mirrors, and tableside jukeboxes look all to be original. 

The food was a long time coming, but our coffee refills were not, thanks to Chris.  He took the barking orders from the head waitress with a smile and could not have been more pleasant to his guests. 

Presentation didn't seem to matter at the diner, but after taking those first bites of piping hot food, I suddenly realized that it didn't matter to me, either.  

How can I explain it? The food was exactly what I always wanted diner breakfast to taste like; it was like eating in a dream: This is the way I've always imagined pancakes should taste. How is it that I'm tasting them for real?!? Somebody, pinch me, please! No, wait! DON'T! Everything was fried in butter.  You could smell it in the pancakes, see its golden brown influence on the tender omelet crust-- the fluffiest omelet I had ever seen. The bacon was real bacon, with my favorite mix of crunch and chew. 

I've died and gone to diner heaven, I thought as I forked one last bite into my mouth. There was still a quarter stack of cakes left, but I couldn't do it. My virgin diner experience was going to have to come to a close. 

I sighed and exhaled a "Yum." Yes, a very, very happy close. 
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