Friday, March 29, 2013

It's Spring! Sort Of...

If you live in the midwestern United States, there are a few things you know to be true.

a.) Seafood, which you love, is expensive...and if it's not, then the quality is doubtful.

b.) People who live outside the Midwest aren't usually quite sure where exactly your state is located.  They know general area, but Iowa is Idaho is Ohio is North Dakota for them...and it's totally whatever, you know.

c.) Weather is a capricious, capricious thing.  Snow one day, sixty degrees and sunny the next.

After the first day of spring a couple of weeks ago, we were hit by five inches of snow shortly afterwards...Mother Nature's way of reminding us not to put our faith in psuedo-prophetic burrowing rodents.  Of course, the snow was gone in about three days - and I think I can finally, finally say that spring is definitely, permanently, here.

And when I think of spring, I think of asparagus.

I am preparing a Celebration of Spring event for the winery next month (see link here), and the menu includes salmon with arugula sauce, spring risotto, and gingered baby carrots.  Now, I always try to do a test run of all the recipes before show time, and thankfully, my husband and kids are willing guinea pigs.  Two nights ago, I attempted the risotto.  Before culinary school, I'd never made risotto before, mostly because I didn't want to spend 25 minutes stirring it.  I mean, risotto is needy! And it's a little complicated because you need, like, three pans at once.'s also totally worth it.

Forget for a moment that the plate says "My mom is nice", and that there's a chicken breast on top of everything, and try to admire the risotto underneath.  Asparagus and spring peas all bound up in a yummy, creamy, Arborio rice goodness.

If that's not spring, then I don't know what is!

1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp butter
Half an onion, diced (shallots would be better, but I didn't have them at that moment)
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice

Sauté onion for 4-6 minutes, until tender.  Add rice and stir, coating all grains.

2/3 cup white wine (I used a Chardonnay)
4-5 cups chicken stock, simmering on stove

Add the white wine and simmer, stirring often.  Even all wine is nearly evaporated, stir in two ladles of the chicken stock.  When the most of the stock absorbs (a little liquid will be left in pan), add more stock.  Continue this until either stock is gone, or rice is cooked to desired tenderness.

1 lb. asparagus, tough ends trimmed
10 ounces fresh or frozen peas (if frozen, thaw first)
Pan of boiling, salted water

Blanch the asparagus and peas briefly in the water, long enough to bring out the brilliant color.  Immediately place into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

1 tbsp lemon zest
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

When risotto is nearly done (and you'll have to taste to know this), add the vegetables, and the above ingredients.  Let risotto continue to simmer, adding more chicken stock if needed.  Risotto should take on that "creamy" texture.

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice 
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Gently stir in these two ingredients when risotto is completely done.  Serve while hot.

I'm not going to lie - risotto is time-consuming (this particular recipe adds a couple of extra steps).  But...sometimes, delicious things take time.  And I guess it's worth it to me!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

No Small Feat...Searing Meat

First of all, hail to my readers in France, Sweden, Canada, Germany, Spain, and Ukraine!  Welcome to "To Thine Own Self, Be Food"!

It looks like I'm in a rhyming mood today...which I've just now gotten out of my system.

Today we're going to have some choice words about that most primal protein: beef.

If I had a dollar for every time a restaurant made a misteak on cooking my piece of meat, I'd have enough money for a half-tank of gas. 

The solution was to learn how to cook meat to my exact specification.  But, it was daunting.  I mean, meat and fire is the domain of man, right?  Man grill, bring woman food!  I didn't want to emasculate my husband by taking that away from him, but, by golly, how many times was he going to give me a medium-well steak when I wanted medium-rare!? the words of Shakespeare, sometimes you have greatness thrust upon you.  I am doing a cooking demonstration for the winery folks tomorrow that consisted of preparing a red wine reduction sauce for steak.  That's not the problem.  Boil liquid until thick.  However, I've got to serve this sauce with meat.  Steak.  The recipe calls for searing it before finishing it in the oven. 

Even though I haven't seared anything before, I understand the concept.  A skillet is heated (no fat or liquid added) to medium-high heat.  Throw in meat in pan and brown (the fancy word for 'browning' is Maillard reaction, by the way) on both sides.  The sugars on the meat's surface brown quickly (caramelization), which means the outside cooks fast, leaving the insides rather raw.  Some people like eating their meat this way.  Most don't, hence the little extra roasting time in the oven.

First up, a skillet.  Cast-iron works nicely, if you got it.  Salt and pepper the meat liberally.

And, then the important part...don't touch it the meat for about 3-5 minutes.  If you lift it up too early and it sticks to the pan, the caramelizing's not happening. Another 3 minutes on the other side, and voila! - Seared Meat!  I threw the slabs on a baking sheet, covered them with foil, and banged them in my 200 degree oven to finish cooking while I made the reduction sauce.

Two cups of red wine (Merlot) and shallots were added to the hot, crusty cast-iron skillet.  Boiling immediately begins to reduce the amount of liquid, and I let it go until about half was left in the pan.  Then, I added a cup of beef broth (reduced down from two cups) to the mess.  At this point, the sauce is still pretty runny, so I did a cornstarch slurry (teaspoon cornstarch and water) to thicken things up.  This whole sauce is roughly a 25-30 minute process, mostly consisting of liquids that are boiling down in the pan.

And here it's spooned over my perfectly cooked, perfectly pink meat.  I feel pretty good - I am on my way to conquering meat!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Center of the Plate

When I say Midwest, you say....?

"meat and potatoes"?

Wasn't that a fun word association exercise?

Typically, the phrase "meat and potatoes" is an adjective that represents stodginess, unexciting, unimaginative.  The phrase is most often used to describe diets, mostly of people my parents' age and older (but is by no means exclusive).  This diet usually consists of three items: a portion of meat (beef or pork usually) and a starch (read: potato)...and sometimes a vegetable (often another starch, i.e. corn).

However, this three-way approach to meals should not be limited to an older generation, because according to a report called "Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report" Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm, relays some interesting information about the way we arrange and plan our dinners:

When dining out, beef choices make up about 33% of consumers' choices for protein.  Chicken is another popular choice at 29%, while seafood and pork come in third and fourth (12% and 9%, respectively).

It would have been interesting, indeed, to see a further breakdown of this data.  For example, how is the 33% dispersed throughout the country?  Where are a majority of these protein eaters located?  Also, a noteworthy little tidbit, this article was written by "Meat&Poultry Staff" at a website called, which touts itself as "The Business Journal for Meat and Poultry Processors".  And if you're anything like me, a sarcastic little buzzer sounds off in your head, followed by a scathing voice that says, "Oh finally, a completely unbiased piece of journalism!"  While I'm reluctant to lean heavily on this particular essay, I don't doubt there is likely to be some validity to eaters, Americans rely a great deal on protein being at the center of our plates.

Then again, according to this piece, ""Innovate Your Center of Plate" courtesy of High Liner Foods, seafood popularity is on the rise.  Of course, High Liner Foods journalists are unable to write this piece without advertising its boldly flavored, minimally processed "Fire Roasters" line of seafood products.

Of course.  You all know it's just a matter of time before The Vegetarian Awareness Council produces their highly researched report that claims vegetarian entrees are gaining momentum with American diners.  (Of course, it's worth noting that since no such report turns up on the Google, the claim is likely to be true.  Ah, the paradox of the Internet.)

At any rate - what is Center of the Plate?  It's the protein showpiece.  It's usually the dominant element on the gets the most attention, it's what diners pay the big bucks for (which is not Maple-Glazed Baby Carrots, by the way).  How did protein get to be the impresario of the plate production?  I have no idea, and there's no crappy, biased journalism available on the Web that will tell me.

But, I will make it my goal to research this further and get back to you about it.  Then, maybe it would be worthwhile to explore some options to this tri-prong standard?