Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving Aftermath

I'm still at home in Missouri and in the handful of days since Thanksgiving several things have happened:
  • The Missouri Tigers beat KU (M-I-Z---Beat-K-U!) and are now ranked #1 in the AP and BCS polls after winning the Big 12 North Championship for their first conference title in 38 years. Next Saturday, they play Oklahoma in San Antonio for the Big 12 Championship. A win there puts them in the national championship game.

  • I've finally gotten over forgetting to cook the brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving. (I was so annoyed at myself for that one!)

  • I've eaten pie (One small slice each of pumpkin, pecan and buttermilk with a huge glob of Cool Whip) for breakfast every day since Thanksgiving. Yeah, I know it's not so healthy, but pumpkin is a vegetable...

  • And I've made a burn-your-face-off Southwest turkey and corn soup with some of the Turkey day leftovers:

Southwestern Turkey and Corn Soup

1 onion diced
4 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1 cup cooked corn kernels (leftovers)
1 cup black beans (canned, rinsed)
2 cans (20 oz. total) Rotel or canned tomatoes with chilies (choose spiciness based on preference)
2 cups shredded turkey (leftover)
2 qts. chicken stock
salt to taste
juice from 1 lime
handful fresh cilantro (for garnish)
cotija or monterey jack cheese (crumbled for garnish)
tortilla chips (for garnish)

  1. Chop the onion and garlic and saute in the vegetable oil with a pinch of salt until soft and fragrant. Stir in cumin and chili powder to coat and cook a couple minutes longer to toast spices.
  2. Add corn, beans, tomatoes, turkey and chicken stock, and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Adjust seasoning with salt and add the lime juice.
  3. Serve and garnish with the cilantro, cheese and tortilla chips. I like to serve the chips on the side and add them as I eat so they don't get too soggy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Takeout (aka, pre-Thanksgiving laziness...)

Well, I got home for Thanksgiving yesterday and in preparation for the big day, we've been taking it easy in the kitchen. Tonight, that meant ordering Chinese takeout. In New York, I would have simple ordered online through Seamless Web where I have my credit card info conveniently stored in my profile for eazy ordering. But in Jefferson City, MO, that's not really an option. Imagine that... A city of less than 40,000 people, surrounded by even smaller towns. Yes, it's the state capital, but that's apparently not enough to get us an interstate highway. You have to drive 30 miles north to get to one of those...

I know you're probably wondering what all that has to do with takeout. Well, in a city this small, there isn't exactly a thriving food delivery culture. There's certainly no centralized, Web-based takeout "middleman" service like in out nation's larger metropolitan areas. When people in Jefferson City want takeout, odds are they'll have to get in the car and pick it up themselves. It's not that big of a deal since you can drive just about anywhere in less than 15 minutes. That is, it's not that big of a deal until you order dinner and then try to pick up that order from a different restaurant. Yeah, that's right...

It was just myself and my parents (my sister stayed in Chicago for the holiday) and we had decided to order from Happy Garden. After a discussion about what to order, my mom called in the order. Five minutes later, my dad left to pick it up. But when he got there they didn't have the order. Now, normally he would have called home to see if we had made a mistake, but his phone wasn't working so he reordered on the spot and waited for it to be cooked. Mom and I didn't realize what happened until he got home. Well, turns out the menu for Hunan's was still sitting out by the phone. So out headed mom to go pick up that order.

It's still unclear where the communication breakdown happened or if the wrong menu was simply grabbed inadvertently from the file, but now we had two identical orders from our two favorite Chinese restaurants. In the eyes of a food blogger that only means one thing: side-by- side taste test.

Well, Hunan's is on the left and Happy Garden is on the right. From the top there's egg drop soup, crab rangoon (why can't you get those in New York?), fried potstickers and, in the middle, happy family is on top and chicken with broccoli is at the bottom center of the plate. In ever case except the crab rangoon, Happy Garden was the clear winner.

The Hunan's crab rangoon, which is folded in a flatter shape, actually had a smoother filling with actual crab flavor. The other simple tasted like gritty cream cheese with scallions in it. The soups were drastically different, too. The Hunan's was a celery based broth with just the slightest hint of egg sitting at the bottom, while the Happy Garden soup was a thick, gelatinous base made with real chicken fat that, according to my mom, is good for arthritis, and large, obvious ribbons of egg. The happy family from Hunan's seemed like it had all been individually frozen and then tossed into a wok after it had been given sufficient time to develop freezer burn. The Happy Garden version was much fresher. It's only bad point was the use of obviously imitation crab meat. I would have preferred they had simply omitted the "crab."

The chicken and broccoli from both were acceptable, but Hunan's used chunked chicken with bits of fat and cartilage present, while Happy Garden went with thinly sliced, perfectly trimmed chicken breast. The potstickers were both OK, but side-by-side I preferred those from Happy Garden.

So, now there's a ton of Chinse food in the spare fridge and it might not survive the day with all the refrigeration needs of the Thanksgiving holiday. And now that I've sampled the restaurants off the same plate, I can honestly say I only care to eat half of them anyway...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Just 4 days to go...

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. You get family and good food without all of the crazy spending and gift-giving of Christmas (or Hannukah, if that's your tradition). The decorating is much more low-key and hassle-free, too. I realize that many people get stressed about the idea of hosting Thanksgiving and having to feed the multitudes. And do you stick with the same recipe every year, or try to vary it with some new ideas garnered from magazines? The same dilemma all those magazine editors face with every November issue... (Hire me! I'm up to the task!!)

Well, I absolutely love fixing Thanksgiving dinner. Granted, I say this after only technically hosting one such holiday—last year in the Manhattan apartment I shared with my sister and a friend with all of our parents sitting on the couch and floor around the coffee table. What the event lacked in furniture it made up for in good food and good times—even if the general concensus was I went a little too heavy on the lemon juice, which, coincidentally, might be the single most relevant event leading to the naming of this blog, but I digress...

I look forward to and thrive on the challenge of planning multiple dishes to be cooked with limited resources all timed so that everything is finished as close to the actual meal as possible. Some might call me a masochist, but I'm sure there are plenty others out there who get where I'm coming from. If it were up to me, I'd cook the entire meal myself or at least manage my brigade of family "staff" in whatever kitchen I happen to be in. I don't mind the responsibility. I love it, in fact. But I have to remember to balance my enthusiam with that o everyone else. Just because I recently graduated from culinary school doesn't mean that I have the right to take over (even if I want to).

This year I'm lucky. I'm flying home to Missouri and my parents are hosting the big event. And do you know what that means? I get to cook in a nice large kitchen and take advantage of two huge refrigerators, two large ovens, a 6-burner stove and a sink that's actuall big enough to wash pots in. New Yorkers, you know what a treat this will be! Oh, and bonus, my parents will be footing the bill! Does it get any better than this?

Now, I'm a member of Slow Food, but even if I weren't I'd still be cooking everything from scratch. This year I'll allow myself the exception of using store-bought chicken stock, but that's only becaue I'm not flying in early enough to make my own. There will be no powdered gravy mix, no just-add-water stuffing mix and no bakery-bought pies. Yes, a can or two of cranberry "sauce" will be opened, but I have to allow my family their traditions too. You can be sure, however, that I WILL NOT allow anything so utterly lazy and I-don't-care-enough-to-even-try as a Jenny-O Turkey In a Bag. "Goes directly from freezer to oven—no thawing!" Over my dead body! This product breaks just about every commandment of turkey cooking known to man and I want no part in it. (Although, I suppose it's at least a step above a Thanksgiving microwave meal....)

So what will we be cooking? Well, my mom bought an organic turkey of some sort and promises me she has it thawing in the fridge already. I'll probably stuff it with an orange, lemon and onion (all quartered) as well as some fresh sage. I'll rub the outside with olive oil and heavily season it with kosher or sea salt (no iodized table salt!) and start it in a 450°F oven for 30 minutes and then finish it at 350°F until it's ready. (This gives it a crispy skin without drying out the breast too much.) With that, we'll make a yet-to-be-determined bread "stuffing" that won't actually even be stuffed inside the turkey—it just slows down the cooking and greatly increases the chances of food poisoning. I'm also planning for brussels sprouts cooked with bacon and shallots, and maple roasted sweet potatoes. There will be pumpkin and pecan pies and cranberry-walnut biscuits. Probably a double batch of those since they'll be perfect for making next day turkey sandwiches. Of course, there'll be gravy too.

Other family members are bringing corn, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and an assortment of pre-dinner snacks. I'd be cooking more dishes and trying even more new recipes if the family let me, but it's a family holiday and the point isn't to cook a meal that pleases me, it's to cook a meal that pleases the family, and I'm happy to do that. I still manage to sneak in a new dish or two every year and, as long as the basics are covered, no one seems to mind. My hope is that eventually the fancier dishes will become the new family traditions, but until then, I simply have to get away with as much as I can. And it's not that I don't appreciate mashed potatoes, too, it's just that there are so many different things to try and only so much room on the buffet counter. (Or in my stomach...)

For now, I'm going to watch Iron Chef America: Battle Thanksgiving and see if I get any more ideas for the big day...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Farro with Italian Sausage

OK, so I didn't get home until 8:00 tonight and I was at work until 11:30 last night. Translation: It's a wonder I managed to cook at all when Seamless Web is so damn easy. So, I apologize (sorta) for this being more of a method than an actual recipe, but I'm sure you'll figure it out anyway. It's not rocket science (or baking) after all. Nothing's going to happen if you use a little less of one thing and more of another. Cooking without recipes is the most relaxing way for me to cook (why I don't bake much), so just give in and make this non-recipe work with whatever you have on hand.

Farro with Italian Sausage
(note: all amounts are very rough approximations)
1 cup farro (an Italian grain)
3 links spicy Italian sausage (sliced)
3 cloves garlic (chopped)
2 shallots (chopped)
1 Tbsp. extra light olive oil
1/2 giant horse carrot (about 3/4 cup chopped)
1 stalk celery (chopped)
1/2 small red bell pepper (seeded and chopped)
4 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine (I used a cabernet sauvignon)
2 cups chicken stock (use one with the lowest sodium possible)
2 Tbsp fresh thyme (stripped from stems)
salt (to taste)
OK, so I cooked the farro in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes and then drained it ina colander. While that was cooking, I sauteed the sausage. When it was fairly browned, I added the shallot and garlic as well as the oil since the sausage hadn't released enough fat. After a couple minutes, I added the carrot and celeryand then the red pepper after that. After another three to four minutes I cleared a space in the middle os the pan and added the tomato paste, which I smushed (yes, that's a technical term...) into the hot pan to get it caramelized. After that I poured in the wine and gave in a couple minutes to burn off the alcohol. (The pan was on a high flame this entire time.) Then I added the farro and chicken stock to cover. At this point I let everything bubble away while I sorted my mail, washed as much as I could and drank a glass of the wine that was in the dish. About 20 minutes later, most of the liquid had reduced down and I served myself.
Overall impressions... This dish was a little too salty (probably becase the sausage was so salty on its own) and my vegetable chopping was a litle too sloppy to go ver will in a restaurant, magazine or culinary school. Although, I guess you could just call it "country" and everything is forgiven.
Well, I'm here if you have questions. For the record, the technique I used here could be applied to any number of ingredients. Different meats, particularly ground meats, could be used. Other vegetables could be added. Beef or vegetable stock are fair game. You could use a white wine instead. And other grains could be used although not all need to be pre-cooked in wated bfore adding to the main dish. You get the picture...
Bon Appetit!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lentils and Squash ~ a Veggie Main Course

I know I've writing a disproportionate amount of posts about bacon—so yummy!—but in all honesty, I eat a lot of vegetarian meals. No, I'm not a vegetarian. No, I don't limit my meat consumption out of hippy-inspired concern for the earth (they have a point, though...). And, no, I don't do it because steak is more expensive than lentils. I just like vegetables and beans. Yes, I said it. I LIKE BEANS!

Yeah, yeah... Lentils aren't beans, they're legumes. For the record, according to The Penguin Companion to Food (also published as The Oxford Companion to Food), by Alan Davidson, beans are "any legume not classified separately as a pea or lentil," but that's splitting hairs in much the same way people talk about a tomato being a fruit and not a vegetable. And something is what it is no matter how you prefer to categorize it.

Anyway, here's the eye candy with the recipe to follow:

Lentils with Butternut Squash and Walnuts
1 butternut squash (peeled, seeded and cut into half-inch cubes)
1 shallot (chopped)
4 Tbsp. extra light olive oil (not to be confused with extra virgin olive oil)
2 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
1/2. tsp. salt
1 cup dried lentils
1/4 cup English walnuts, pecans or both (roughly chopped)
4 Tbsp. fresh cilantro (chopped)
Juice from half a lime
1. Preheat oven to 425°F and set a pot of unsalted water to boil.
2. Prepare the squash. In a bowl, combine the oil, salt and five-spice powder. Toss squash and chopped shallot in the mixture and then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. (Line it with foil for easier cleanup, if you wish.) Roast for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. When the water reaches a boil, add the lentils and cook until they soften but still hold their shape. (About 20 minutes.) Drain then in a sieve and place in serving dish.
4. Add the walnuts to the squash and roast another 5-10 minutes. Remove when the squash is tender and walnuts are toasted.
5. Add squash to the lentils and add lime juice and cilantro. Stir to combine or toss with flick of the wrist if feeling confident. Adjust seasoning with additional lime juice, salt or five-spice powder if desired.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

WD~50 Made Me Obsess About Mayo and I Hate It!

OK, I didn't actually revisit WD~50, but I did come across a New York Times slide show—Nouvelle Chimie—that shed some light on a few of the techniques he uses. For instance, to fry mayonnaise, you have to make the mayo with gelatin instead of egg and basically create a Jell-O that can withstand the heat of frying. That's the basic concept anyway. It sounds simple in theory, but since I don't like mayo, I probably won't be experimenting too much with this idea.

You know, during culinary school making a mayonnaise from scratch was something we were tested on a couple times. Texture I could swing by touch, sight and the amount of resistance against my whisk, but the flavor was something I just guessed on. Somehow I always managed to drop just the right amount of salt into it without even tasting it. Not that it would have mattered. It tastes gross to me both under- and over-salted...

If you care to ty it yourself, here's the basic recipe we were taught at The Institute of Culinary Education. Honestly, it's pretty easy...

(Makes 1 cup)

1 egg yolk
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. dijon mustard
1 cup canola oil
salt a needed

1. Whisk together the yolk, lemon juice and mustard.
2. While whisking, slowly stream in the oil until it is all incorporated.
3. Add salt to taste.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pork Tenderloin: Bacon's healthier cousin

I usually don't have much protein on hand. And, yes, I called it protein, not meat, fish, beans or anything else. That's a relic from culinary school, but in all honesty, it's not a bad way to think of food. Our bodies don't need beef, pork or chicken (the midwest's three food groups?), they just need protein no matter how we get it. So, I have a lentil recipe I'll share another day, but tonight I'm going to show you the nice pork tenderloin I picked up at Fairway.

Now, pork tenderloin is not to be confused with pork loin. You wouldn't confuse filet mignon with strip steak, would you? I didn't think so... Generally, an animal's tenderloin is the leanest, purest cut of meat. It runs along the back unerneath the loin and is the cut most often used for tartare and other raw preparations. It's also usually the most expensive cut. Anyway....

Tonight I cheated and looked up a recipe to use for my pork tenderloin. I was looking for a recipe that incorporated miso paste since I had some of that on hand as well, but instead I came across this recipe for pork tenderloin with roased apples and onions. I fudged it and used macintosh apples instead of granny smith, balsamic mustard instead of whole grain dijon, and thyme and rosemary instead of fennel seed, but the technique was more or less the same.

I seared the pork in olive oil, took it out of the pan, sauteed the apple and onion slices and then placed the pork back on top with a smear of mustard and a healthy sprinkle of the dried herbs. Then I popped that into a 450°F oven until a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the thickest point reached 150°F. Then I put the pork back on a clean cutting board to rest while I added some wine to the apple/onion mixture and cooked it down a bit on the stovetop. After a quick slice—I should have waited longer becuase I lost a lot of juices when I sliced it—I tossed it onto a plate and sat down to eat.

Overall, this recipe needs some revision. The apples cooked down into something resembling a savory applesauce. Granny smiths and thicker slices would have probably helped that. Also, the pork didn't have a lot of flavor, probably because it's hard to get a really good sear on a piece of meat in a home kitchen. (Home stoves often don't get near as hot as a commercial range and you have smoke detectors to deal with instead of a huge hood vent—not fun!) And then there's the splattering... The pros don't worry about this and just hose down the kitchen at the end of the night, but grease splatter in the home isn't so easy to deal with given the lack of stainless steel surfaces and waterproof floors with drains. My mom (the most frequent commenter on this site so far) hates it when I cook in her kitchen. Nevermind how the food turns out, it's the cleaning that she dreads. And I admit, I'm not able to clean as well as she'd like. Sorry mom!