Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Skirting Around a Steak Phobia

Cooking does not scare me. There is nothing about a sharp butcher’s knife, a temperamental oven, or a poor measuring calculation that sets me back in the kitchen. Generally speaking, I love the challenges of cooking. I say “generally speaking” because there is one thing about cooking that makes me a bit sheepish, and that is cooking red meat – and by red meat I mean steak.

I guess cooking chicken or pork should illicit similar anxieties, but I seem to have mastered how to properly check the internal temperature of a chicken breast or a pork loin. With meat, on the other hand, I have never gained the culinary confidence I need to slap a sirloin on the grill and cook it to perfection – probably because I lack the requisite cooking experience.

In addition to my lack of red meat cooking experience, I also suffer from a classic psychological respondent condition to cooking red meat. Up until I was 23, I was a red meat cooking virgin. One weekend, and it was a weekend that will go down in culinary history for me, my roommate from college came to visit me in Albany. Having a proper kitchen and dining space at the time, I was looking forward to a gastro-filled weekend with my friend as we were both big foodies. In what I considered to be a moment of genius, I bought a steak at the grocery store thinking it would be nice to have a steak dinner. After all, we certainly didn’t have any steak dinners in college!

As I didn’t have a grill at the time, I decided to broil the steak. Thinking I knew what a broiler was, and how to use it, but in all actuality not having a clue, I put the steak in the broiler and let it cook for 45 minutes. When I took the steak out of the broiler it looked like a man’s leather shoe that fell victim to a major house fire. But, and with a lot of pride, I brushed the sight of the steak off to just a little charring on the outside. I quickly realized when I cut into the steak that my carving knife really needed to be replaced with a chain saw.

Despite this complete culinary break-down, I served the steak still feeling somewhat proud of my efforts, although completely embarrassed for my guest. But, being the true friend that she was, my college roommate said without any hesitation, “this is the best beef jerky I have ever had,” and with that, my disastrous steak dinner turned into a success complete with many culinary lessons learned.

Since then, I have gradually started overcoming my fear of cooking red meat, and this weekend, I think I completely overcame my fear. I grilled some skirt steaks over the weekend that were so flavorful, so juicy and so tender. So what is the key to my success? Take the meat off the grill despite your gut feeling to cook it longer! Because the skirt steaks were so thin, I seared them for just a few minutes a side, removed them when they were still quite rare, and wrapped the steaks in foil for 5 minutes to let the temperature of the meat rise naturally – a lesson I only learned the hard way!

Until next time…

Monday, October 15, 2007

Changes in the Weather Bring Changes in the Kitchen

I love how it feels like Fall. Although Indian summers are not unusual in New York, it has felt like the summer heat has been lingering a bit too long this year. This past weekend, however, it really felt like the seasons had changed and Fall had arrived. The weather was cool and crisp, and if I could speculate, I would imagine the leaves on the trees changing colors and falling to the ground. But, really, how could I know that from my small New York City apartment?

The change in seasons really brings out my best culinary inspirations. In May, for example, I start anticipating the fresh produce, the great farm stands, vine-ripened tomatoes and all the wonders that make summer cooking great. Similarly, in the Fall, I get excited about cooking in cooler temperatures, letting the oven stay on a bit longer and eating heartier meals. The Fall in New York also brings some new vegetables to the farm stands and green markets like beets, brussel sprouts and squash.

This past weekend, on an autumn high, I made a great “Fall” meal complete with a very Fallish vegetable dish. I actually followed a recipe from this month’s Bon Appetite magazine – a brussel sprout and shallot hash. The recipe was so simple to make and took very little time. You begin by sautéing thinly sliced shallots in a bit of butter with some salt and pepper until they are almost caramelized. Once the shallots are near caramelization, add a bit of apple cider vinegar and about a teaspoon of sugar and reduce. After the vinegar has been reduced, remove the shallot mixture and sauté your thinly sliced brussel sprouts (trimmed, cut in half and then thinly sliced) in some extra virgin olive oil until tender. Once the brussel sprouts are just about done, add the shallot mixture and cook it together.

The dish was very hearty, healthy and satisfying. We ate this dish with the apartment window open and feeling the cool Fall night air in the background really made the meal. I look forward to more seasonal cooking this Fall - despite the nasty rumors I hear that the temperature is supposed to reach 72 degrees in New York City this week...

Until next time…

Yes, I am a Pastaholic

I am such a pastaholic. I am constantly craving pasta and lots of it. I am, however, unlike other types of addicts who may take their vices in other forms; for example, an alcoholic would probably settle for gin if a preferred vodka wasn’t available. But unlike your garden variety addict, I am not an equal opportunity pasta lover. In fact, I am quite bias when it comes to pasta. Don’t get me wrong, I will settle for penne or rigatoni, but I like pasta in the spaghetti family; i.e. spaghetti, linguine, capellini or fettuccini. As long as you can twirl it and slurp it, I will eat it and love it.

I also, unfortunately, don’t experiment all that much with my pasta. My favorites are a good Bolognese sauce and I just adore linguine and white clam sauce – both of which are on a heavy culinary rotation in my kitchen. Last week, for example, I made linguine and clam sauce – one of the easiest and fastest pasta sauces to make. My recipe deviates slightly depending upon whether my refrigerator is well stocked for clam sauce night.

If I am in the mood for a little extra bite in my sauce, I will add finely chopped celery, but it is not really for flavor, it is more for texture and color. The base of my sauce, however, does not change. It consists of diced shallots and minced garlic sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil, a dab of butter and a generous amount of red pepper flakes. I find that heating my oil with red pepper flakes infuses the entire sauce evenly, which is quite nice if you like a little heat with your littlenecks.

Speaking of those succulent bivalves, as a general principal you should, of course, use fresh littlenecks, but for a mid-week quickie meal, I rely on canned minced clams. The seasoning of the sauce is very important, especially if you are using canned clams. I liberally season my sauce with salt and pepper, fresh basil and fresh parsley. The fresh herbs really add a crisp and clean flavor to the sauce, giving it a bit of a bite if you choose not to incorporate celery. I also add some white wine to the sauce a few minutes before I am ready to serve.

The entire meal can be prepared in the amount of time it takes the pasta water to boil and the pasta to cook. It is such a quick and easy dinner, but more importantly, it is one of the fastest ways I know to satisfy my pasta cravings.

Until next time…