Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February's Five Course Meal

This was my first chance to see the gang since before Christmas because I missed last month. It was a lot of fun! We all chose a course to make this time around, so we would hopefully have what would be a proper five course meal. I think it turned out pretty well! We had a salad course, appetizer, bread, main course, and a dessert. Yum. If we get any better, we are going to get our own writeup in Zagats. ...A 24 for food!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Weeknight Quickies, Part II

I was watching “Everyday Food” on PBS the other day and got a little inspiration for a quick and easy weeknight meal. I am always looking for new pasta dishes as pasta is by far my most favorite food, and such an easy food to prepare during the week. I consider myself to be a pastaholic, if there could be such a thing! The recipe shown on Everyday Food was a pasta dish with shrimp, tomatoes and fresh basil. I really liked the idea of using shrimp as an alternative to ground meat or chicken.

This recipe was very minimal. Aside from the shrimp, the sauce was really just a bit of garlic, olive oil, a can of diced tomatoes and some cherry tomatoes used as a garnish. The recipe also called for two cups of water to thin the sauce.

Although the recipe, which I downloaded off the PBS website, looked tasty and it seemed very easy to make, I thought I could use the recipe as a template and build on it without compromising the ease and convenience of this weeknight meal.

I began by sautéing some garlic and red pepper flakes, or pepperocino if you prefer, in extra-virgin olive oil. The Everyday Food recipe didn’t call for red pepper flakes, but the sauce seemed a bit spice-baron and I thought it needed a little pick-me-up with a healthy helping of red pepper flakes. To this, I added a 15oz can of diced tomatoes, about ¾ of a pound of 26-30 count (a.k.a large) shrimp, some fresh basil, and salt and pepper to season. Rather than adding the 2 cups of water the recipe called for, I decided to thin my sauce with white wine and chicken broth. I eyeballed the amounts of each liquid, but I thought wine and chicken broth would thin the consistency of the sauce to my liking, but also add a nice flavor to it. The sauce cooked for about eight minutes. At the very last minute I added a handful of sliced cherry tomatoes and served this sauce over linguine.

This was a very nice meal for midweek. The sauce had a nice kick to it from the red pepper flakes and the shrimp added a nice meatiness to the sauce making it feel hearty and healthy. I also liked the freshness and texture that the cherry tomatoes added. It was a very easy, very quick and very tasty home cooked weeknight meal.

Until next time…

Friday, February 16, 2007

Reducing It Down To Love

This year’s Valentine’s Day celebration was spent at home grilling a pork tenderloin. So you all know that my real Valentine this year was my new indoor grill and that I had to proclaim my love for it by grilling something nice, something tender and something very juicy.

The inspiration for this meal came from a recent craving to make a reduction, or sauce, for meat. As I have been trying to limit my consumption of red meat, I decided to make a reduction for a pork tenderloin. I tried to base this meal around the themes of Valentine’s Day and therefore wanted a piece of meat and a sauce that was sensual, sweet and maybe a bit red for Valentine’s Day. I came up with a pomegranate and balsamic vinegar reduction, which really was reduced down to pure love!

Before I made my reduction, I made a quick rub for my pork so that the meat itself was flavored independent of the reduction. The rub consisted for four cloves of chopped garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil. I let the pork marinate in this mixture in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about an hour.

Because I did not have a recipe for either my rub or my reduction, I wanted the flavors of each to compliment each other, instead of contrasting with each other. For my reduction, I began by sautéing a finely diced shallot in olive oil. To the diced shallots, I added the same spices as my rub - thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. To this, I added about a ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar and 2/3 cup of pomegranate juice. I let this reduce, with a little help from some cornstarch, for about 45 minutes.

Once I was ready to grill my pork, I heated my new indoor grill to a high temperature. I grilled the marinated pork tenderloin for about 25 minutes or so until the meat reached 160 degrees. When the meat was perfectly done, I let the meat rest so that the juices would be reabsorbed and sliced the pork on a diagonal. I then drizzled my pomegranate reduction over the meat. Both the pork tenderloin and the pomegranate reduction were perfect for Valentine’s Day. The pork was so juicy and tender and had hints of rosemary and garlic infused throughout it. My reduction, which had a deep red color for Valentine’s Day, added a nice sweetness to the pork from the pomegranate juice and balsamic vinegar.

It was an excellent meal and a very appropriate meal for a quiet Valentine’s Day spent at home. I look forward to sharing Valentine’s Day next year with my indoor grill, and of course with a meal that is reduced down to love!

Until next time…

Monday, February 12, 2007

Taking Big Bites in Small Spaces

In all my time living in New York City I have never hosted a dinner party. Concededly, you might ask, how is that possible, you host your supper club every few months at your apartment? Well, there’s a slight distinction, it’s splitting hairs, but there is a distinction. In New York City catching up with friends has always involved a dinner, but never one that I have cooked. Perhaps constrained by space, proper cooking utensils or a table that seats the dinner party, my friends and I, like most New Yorkers, meet at restaurants to see each other and catch up on life events. But, at the same time, why wouldn’t we eat at restaurants? This is New York City – the restaurant capitol of the world.

Despite the allure of trying a new restaurant or enjoying a favorite dish at a favorite restaurant, I decided to forego the traditional New York City dining experience this weekend and opted to entertain at home. Casting all apartment insecurities aside, I committed to a dinner party for four over the weekend. The prep work for this dinner, which far exceeded just a trip the grocery store and liquor store, turned the ease of a home-cooked meal into a challenge: how to make a small New York City apartment conducive for a dinner party?

Having a dinner party in a small space is not easy. With little storage, New Yorkers become packrats, storing items in small crevices, on top of each other in closets, under the couch and bed and of course under anything that has a little space. For me, my apartment, although always clean, isn’t very neat. The apartment needed a complete makeover before I could begin making my dinner.

On Saturday, I scrubbed from top to bottom, threw out unnecessary items and shoved everything I had aimlessly lying around – including my vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, large stock pot, puffy winter jacket, handbags and books into my one closet, which was already experiencing an aneurism from what was already stuffed in there.

After a full day of organizing and shopping, I finally was able to think about cooking, which was the only thing I really wanted to do that day. Given the recent cold weather I decided to make my beef bourguignon again (hereinafter BB). Once again, I paid homage to Anthony Bourdain and bought some great tender meat at his restaurant, Les Halles. For a detailed description of my BB, please see Beef BourguignYum.

After all of this – cleaning, scrubbing, purging, organizing, decorating, buying and preparing – we were finally able to entertain. The BB was just as good as the first time I made it. It had a strong and powerful flavor that seemed to undermine the small space we were eating in. Sitting around my small coffee table in a space that is about the size of a suburban walk-in closet we were loving the food, the wine and most importantly the company. So despite all the constraints about dining-in, we were able to take and enjoy our big bites in a small space.

Until next time…

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

No Need To Stew Over This Stew

Oh the winter outside is frightful, but inside my stew is so delightful...

I have been on the lookout this winter for a hearty stew that doesn’t take all day to make. A hearty stew is a wonderful thing. Hearty stews are filling, satisfying, fragrant, flavorful - they are just wonderful. But, if you do not have all day to stew over a slow-cooked stew, when can you enjoy one?

I recently found a recipe for a fast and easy white bean stew. The recipe was so simple, calling for only garlic, white beans, ham, tomatoes, a leafy green of some sort (recipe called for spinach or arugula), chicken broth and pepper to season. This stew is so simple, so savory and so satisfying.

The entire stew took under twenty minutes to prepare and is really the perfect winter weeknight meal. In a large pot, begin by sauteeing a few cloves of garlic in olive oil. To this, add a 15oz can of stewed tomatoes, 2 cans of small white beans, a few cubes of baked ham, a can of chicken broth and pepper. When the mixture comes to a boil, add your leafy greens. Although the recipe called for either spinach or arugula, I decided to use escarole thinking it would be a bit heartier. This ingredient swap really worked well - the escarole added a nice earthy flavor that I don’t think spinach or arugula would have provided.

For the ham, I asked the butcher at the deli counter to cut a ½ inch slab (for a lack of a better work, but it really looked like a slab of ham) for me. At home, I cut this slab of ham into little cubes and put them in the stew. The ham added a nice meaty texture to the stew that didn’t seem to compromise the slow-cooked taste that this quick stew had.

I served my stew with some crusty Italian bred and called my twenty minute meal a fabulous winter weekday feast.

Until next time...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Upgrades... for my cupboard and our blog

I upgraded our blog to the beta version! I think they'll eventually do away with the old version so I thought I'd just give in early. Apparently you can do a lot more with the upgraded blogger... so yay! You might need to change your sign-in to a google account for some unknown reason so I'm sorry for the hassle chefs.

The upgrade that is even more exciting is to my ever-growing list of kitchen acoutrements. I bought a pressure cooker! While I was looking into an indian dish to make for our last meeting, I thought I would tap into my Aunt Ann who is a master Indian chef. She's not Indian but she raised her kids next door to another housemom who happened to be Indian. Being like all of my family, she soaked up as much as she could from this kind woman. Now I could reap the benefits! After asking Aunt Ann which dish I should make, she took no time to suggest Dahl Mahkani. Making this dahl would require yet another purchase of cooking equipment which was perfectly fine by me. Shopping...

I'd never seen a pressure cooker in action so I didn't have the slightest clue what to expect. One fine wintry Sunday I picked up my express fagor cooker and lugged it home to my apartment. Upon opening the box, I saw my big 4 Qt Steel cooker and the thick instruction book that hid underneath. I figured I should follow the instructions since there were exclamation marks and promises of harm if they were not followed to the letter.

I added my ingredients and locked the lid in place and waited to see what would happen. While researching pressure cookers, I read testimonials of fellow chefs who had their cooker blow up and explode the meals inside to a million splattering pieces... so I was a bit unnerved watching my pot gain momentum. I kept my eyes on the prize and waited for for something to happen. It came alive! The hissing that the steam escaping the lid creates is very strange and unnatural at first but like anything else you get used to it.

In a fraction of the time it would normally take, I can now cook meals in my trusty little pressure cooker. How can you not buy into this from the fagor site: "In today's time-starved world, any item that allows for quicker food preparation while retaining essential nutrients and vitamins is something everyone can appreciate- and that's what we offer our customers." As with any new purchase, I'm dreaming up ways to get some use out of it right now...


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Meatballs: Marvels and Mutinies

A good meatball is like a soufflé: if it isn’t perfect, it just isn’t. I have been thinking about what makes a good meatball recently. A meatball, as simple as it is, evokes some sort of excitement in me. They are like little gastronomic gifts. The anticipation of having one, the smell of making them and the rush that the first bite brings is almost euphoric. But, conversely, an imperfect meatball is like a birthday with no cake – it just looses its significance.

I began thinking about meatballs in two different ways the other day. The first was in the anticipatory form of receiving this gastronomic gift. I was having spaghetti and meatballs that night and knew the meatballs would be perfect. The specialty store in my neighborhood occasionally sells their own meatballs and they are so fantastic. On the other hand, the second way I found myself thinking about meatballs was about the regret or disappointment associated with a bad meatball.

One of my food sources told me about a bad meatball incident, and although his bad meatball experience is perplexing, my heart still mourned for his meatball loss. The incident concerned a poor choice in cheese or something to that effect. This story got me thinking about what makes a good meatball.

The ingredients in a meatball are somewhat standard. Although many recipes vary on ingredients, the vast majority of meatball recipes call for the following: ground meat, chopped onions, chopped garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley, an egg and salt and pepper. So just using these ingredients – what makes a good meatball?

When researching this blog, I polled several friends and family to get their sense on what makes a good meatball. The responses were very interesting and very similar. Many who responded to my poll said that using fresh herbs, like fresh parsley or basil was the key to a good meatball. Others said that the meat was critical. Most recipes I found while researching meatballs called for a meat medley of beef, lamb and veal. Most of the responses I received to my poll stated that a tender meatball, one made with three types of ground meat, is best. These responses also indicated that a good meatball is a meatball that can be cut with the side of a fork, never with a knife.

Others who responded to my poll discussed the use of breadcrumbs; some preferring less, some preferring more, and one preferring fresh breadcrumbs. But, the overwhelming majority of people who responded to my poll said that the meal is nothing without the sauce. It’s true – the sauce really makes the meal great. The way the sauce coats a meatball really does help create that euphoric experience. There are few finer gastronomic things than the smell of meatballs cooking in a pot of bubbling sauce.

So what makes a good meatball? Well, that is obviously a personal question as my poll indicates. But, for me, a good meatball is one that I can sneak from a pot of boiling sauce when no one is looking and sink my teeth into the tender meat surrounded by a roof-of-the-mouth burning sauce.

Until next time…