Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Of Beef and Beer and Other Gelatinous Things

It's possible today's post will offend and nauseate animal-loving vegetarians.  And while I am sorry about that, I can hardly apologize for stating that Cows are amazing things.

Mostly we love cows because they are tasty between two pieces of bread or covered with a nice chasseur sauce.  Cows are also considered cute and invoke feelings of nostalgia (i.e. a return to a simpler, more pastoral life that involved really exciting county fairs).

But beef is so much more than that.

These are beef bones, which are filled with a savory, fatty substance called marrow. It's a good spread on toast, with pickles or cheese.  As you can imagine, though, it's not a terribly popular snack item.  I mean, it is a little out there.  This picture below might provide the less weirder way to utilize beef bones.

This is a beef stock I made this last weekend.  See the lovely roasted bones bobbing alongside the carrots, celery, onion?  After simmering for a bunch of hours, I got this yummy, dark broth that will be perfect for beef stew or chili.

There's a lot of collagen and fat in beef marrow, so as the fat boils down, the flavor and jelly texture is transferred to the liquid.  When I do use the beef broth, it will have cooled into a semi-solid gelatinous mass...which seems like a real nasty aspic...but have no fear, the jelly will return to its liquid state.

And speaking of jelly, this article from Splendid Table came through my inbox a few days ago: Beer Jelly.  A little confusing at first, until I realized that the author was British and what British people call 'jelly', we call 'Jell-O'.  And what we call 'jelly', they call 'jam.'

But anyway.  And once I realized I was excited about making Beer Jello, my euphoria subsided.  Was I about to make Jello Shots, for crying out loud?  Was I about to go there?  Me?! Who tries to keep things respectable and somewhat academic - was I actually contemplating making beer jello shots?

Um. Yes.  I'll own it.

I settled on a sour ale and a Belgian-style blonde ale.

And I did not cook out the beer, so the full flavor is present in each wobbly bite.  The typical alcoholic Jell-O shot tends to run sickeningly sweet, and that's where I feel I can be vindicated a little bit.  These jellies are hard to eat, really, just by themselves.  But...alongside a meat and cheese board?  With a salty meat, smooth cheese...and this fun, tasty, textured treat in the mix as well?

How uniquely tasty would that be?!  You don't have the words?!

Me either, really.  (I was searching the brain for a clever beef-beer pun, but alas).  We'll just have to settle for really cool.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Carrot Soup Car Wreck...One in Which The Car Actually Turns Out Okay

I love carrots.  I always have...

oooh, wait.  Raw carrots.  I have always loved raw carrots.  From birth, practically.  Even now, almost forty years later, I rarely pass up the carrot sticks on a relish tray in my vicinity.  I love the vibrancy, the color, and the health value (something I was unaware in my early, early years, alas).

Cooked carrots, though, I feel very differently about.  I have young-person memories of pot roast with potatoes and carrots, and I distinctly remember eating with a 1:2 carrot-potato ratio mindest.  One carrot piece for every potato piece.  It helped me cope with what I felt was a great loss in taste and texture during the cooking process..

While I'm confessing my neuroses, I'm the exact same way about cooked green peppers, peas, and green beans.  Raw, definitely...cooked, uh, only if I have to.

To present day. I have an excess of carrots these days around Chez Nelson.  And there are only so many sticks I can chop up for snacking, so I turned to Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food for help.  Carrot soup is a pretty simple thing: One sliced onion, two pounds of peeled and chopped carrots, salt and pepper, thyme, and chicken or vegetable broth.  Sweat onions in butter or olive oil until tender, add carrots and seasonings, add broth.  Simmer until carrots are soft.  Puree and serve, heated through.  So easy.

Naturally, I was dubious.  After all, I am well-aware of my aversion to cooked carrots...which is probably why I opted for I did one of her "variations" that she lists after nearly every recipe.  I added a jalapeño in with the onion-carrot mix, and I tossed in a handful of cilantro just before pureeing.  In the end, I got this freshly flavored soup that had a hint of heat (should have added more jalapeño).  Waters didn't include straining the soup, and I wish wish wish I would have.

Because this carrot soup here is roughly the consistency of Gerber's baby food.  Not what I was shooting for. I'd prefer something a little more velvety here, and that wouldn't happen unless I ran it through a strainer or tamis or whathaveyou.  And maybe a little more heat in the form of cayenne, maybe some lime juice, I think would have really made this soup spectacular.

So now I have this soup that I'm pretty lukewarm about eating by itself, but I really don't want to throw it out.  So...what do I do in the particular predicament?

Well, since you asked...

This was breakfast this morning.  Scrambled eggs with a nice generous dollop of the carrot soup thrown in.  Obviously, the texture I disliked so much was lost in the fluff of the egg, so, yay.  And, the color change was nice.  But, I lost most of the flavor.  This soup was pretty subtle anyway, so it's no surprising I couldn't taste them in the eggs.

Then, for dinner tonight, I did a chicken noodle soup, and guess what I added to the broth base?  Carrot soup.  Again, loss of texture (good), but no discernible color or flavor of carrots (bad).  I should have added more, maybe.

And for dessert tonight...

Haha!  Carrot cake! A favorite here at home, but I figured the herby spice of the soup would alter the cake's sweet profile in an undesirable way.  Why?  Because I'd tasted the batter, and there was a definite weirdness to it...not the usual nutmeg-cinnamon-carrot culprits.  However, some kind of strange magic happened in my oven during the baking, because that unusual flavor was NOT present in the final product.  Or maybe it was the cream cheese frosting and almond side-masking that distracted my family from the weird flavor.  Sugar does that sometimes.

What started as a mediocre-ish vegetable puree actually turned into a fun kitchen game of Hide The Carrot Soup.  I think I will try straining it tomorrow and reheating it for a straight up bowl of soup to see if I like it better.  After all, I really did spend too much time chopping and sweating and simmering and pureeing to be throwing it into a cake where it loses much of its integrity. No matter HOW much fun that is.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Carbonara Car Wreck

The sun will be going down here in a few hours on the fourth day of the No-Restaurant Challenge.  While one member of Nelson tribe found the news of the deprivation a little hard to take, the other four have bore up rather well.


Brent and I decided to modify the rules a little.  We don't often have a concurrent lunch hour together, so when we do, we've decided then it's okay to eat out if there's no other plan for dining.  In other, complicated pastoral words, what's good for the goslings is mostly good for the gander and goose, but sometimes being the gander and goose has its benefits.  And going out for lunch is one of them.

However, I have other plans cooking as well (har har), including a batch of chicken noodle soup and carrot soup to carry us through the lunch hour.

But today, let's discuss carbonara.  It's a rich pasta dish that comes from Italy (shocker, yes?), and mostly includes eggs, cheese, and bacon (or pancetta or similar).  The purists will say there is no cream in carbonara, that the cooking of the egg by the pasta's residual heat will provide the creamy "sauce" texture...but, plenty of carbonara recipes out there include cream. I suspect this is an American phenomenon - our deep-rooted need to have a saucy pasta.

And now, I wish I'd tried the authentic version before doing the one I tried today.  Then I'd have a frame of reference.  Oh, but don't get me wrong, the one I made turned out delicious enough...

Breaking out the fine china - paper plates.  Don't judge.
A recipe for Winter Squash Carbonara from Epicurious came through my inbox and I was certainly intrigued.  And I thought, maybe, just maybe, I could substitute the squash for pumpkin, since I still had plenty of frozen puree left in my freezer from earlier in the fall.  (Remember that "real" pumpkin is much less orange than canned pumpkin, and that's why my carbonara above is more yellowy than orangy.)  Real Italians use pancetta or a pork belly called guanciale, but I had a few strips of bacon to get rid of first.

I opted for milk instead of cream, and I found myself wishing I'd left it out altogether since I had a nice amount of sauce without it (and more of the pumpkin would have probably shone through).  I chopped up some sage (a nice compliment to the pumpkin), but I didn't really taste it, and the richness contributed by the eggs was a little lost due to the cream

So, yeah, I see why the purists get bent when they see versions of carbonara with cream, vegetables, and other herbs and fungi, because I'm wondering the same thing: what's really happening in this dish here?  What, really, am I supposed to be tasting?  Again, I think it's another American thing - we like to toy with recipes so that we can write cleverly creative blog posts about how we made carbonara with pumpkin or squash or fava beans or truffles or whatever.

So, naturally, my next adventure will be to make real carbonara...and go from there!

Incidentally, the pasta was a distant second to the roasted Brussels Sprouts also served with lunch today.  Cut the sprouts in half, toss with melted butter, salt, pepper, and garlic powder and roast at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes, tossing halfway through.  Look for the browny, roasty spots.

Yeah, the green cabbage-family vegetable was the real favorite at the table today, not the cheesy, creamy, bacony pasta dish.  Go figure.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ugh. I Just Don't Have The Words.

Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman, Alice Waters, Deborah Madison...ET AL...would be so so so disappointed in me these days.

You know, if they knew me and hung out with me regularly to survey my recent eating and drinking habits.  Which I know they don't, won't, and never will.  And I know *you* won't tell them, but that doesn't mean I don't feel like I've let them down.

As of the last month...

...we have dined out entirely too much
...we have imbibed entirely too much craft beer
...we have not practiced sensible portion control
...we have not exercised regularly

Consequently, I have let me, you readers, and my role models down (I don't care if they'll never know!).  It's obviously time for a refocus, reprioritizing, and reestablishing of goals.

And if it were as easy as that, I'd of course be doing it.  But see...it's really not.  For example, I have the ingredients for Alice Waters's Winter Minestrone Soup from her The Art of Simple Food...and it really would be very easy to make.  True, there's a fair amount of pre-chopping and dicing and such, but I actually enjoy that kind of mise en place.  And really, it's probably only an hour from start to finish...

so why, when I came home from an eight-hour day at the cafeteria, did I *not* feel like making this soup?  When my daughter and youngest son volunteered to make pancakes and scrambled eggs, why I capitulate so easily?

Because. Because. Because. Because!  Pancakes sounded really delicious and amazing, and all I really wanted to do was look a National Geographic magazine and drink a cup of coffee.

So I did that.  Then, I ate pancakes and eggs.  And talked with my kids.  And it was great!  Then I went to yoga class and thought about how it's time for another No-Restaurant Month Challenge, not attempted in this house since Fall 2010 (read the post here).

Here's to a good, healthy, happy, refocused weekend!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cookbooks and the Art of Letting Go

It's a new year and a good time to cull the unnecessary items from our lives.  Habits, possessions, etc.

And when I wake up at 5:00 a.m. for no earthly apparent reason, it is this particular task I feel inspired to do.  Especially cookbooks.

I really am of two minds about my cookbooks.  With nearly every imaginable recipe available on the Internet, cookbooks seem to be a thing of the past.  Why limit yourself to a few dozen in one book when a hundred dozen are readily available in a few clicks?  And sometimes, websites can give you search and filter capabilities that just aren't possible in a book.  Consumer habits are also contributing to a decline in cookbook/recipe quality (no empirical evidence here, just a hunch...I never said I was a scientist).  People want cookbooks with their favorite Food Network personality's recipes RIGHT NOW, that sometimes I wonder how much testing can really be done for a quality finished product.

It would be seem so so so simple to throw out all the books.  A conversion to the dark side would be so easy.

But.  It's books.  About food.  By people or institutions I respect in the industry. And those three simple things alone are enough for me to hang on to some of my food tomes.

One cookbook, though (out of the three I eliminated this morning), that did not make the cut was a Food + Wine cookbook.  I think I blogged about it earlier in the year when I found it at a consignment store...but ultimately, the recipes weren't that inspiring or some of the ingredients were nearly impossible to find around here.  It's a shame, yes, because Food + Wine is a great, credible source of recipes for me...but I'd only used a handful of so-so recipes in the last few months, so...bye-bye book.

When I began this task this morning (way too early this morning), I thought one major criteria would be: if I hadn't picked the cookbook up and used it in several months, then it was time to go (after all, I often use this criteria when sifting through my wardrobe every few months).  But, as I began to compile my cookbooks for the cull, I realize that particular criteria meant I'd be parting with books especially close to my heart, namely: Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food, Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy, and the cookbook from Thomas Keller's restaurant ad hoc.  And I had no intention to throwing those books out, because a.) they contain some time-tested wonderfully classic recipes and b.) not only do they contain recipes, but anecdotes and information that I consider invaluable.

And naturally, as I flipped through each of these books, I found several new recipes I wanted to try, namely an Orange and Olive Salad and a Winter Minestrone in the Waters book and a Chickpea-Tomato soup and a Sweet Potato Flan in the Madison one.  Naturellement!  And as I flipped through these books, I was re-inspired to play around in my kitchen!  That's what Alice Waters does for me!

Other sacred tomes I own include three textbooks from school (one cooking, one garde manger, and one baking), Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and two by Michael Ruhlman (Ratio and Ruhlman's Twenty).

And I will try, the very best I can, not to purchase any new cookbooks for the duration of 2015...because obviously I have enough recipes and techniques right here at home.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Braisin' Asian: The Line Up

Braising is one of my favorite techniques.  And it didn't always used to be.  In fact, I spent a great portion of my life not really knowing what it was...and if a recipe I was using called for doing it, I was more likely to change 'braise' to 'roast'.

And up until a couple of years ago, I was able to get away with it, because I didn't know what I was missing out on.  In the end, I surmised, I got a cooked, edible piece of meat...end game achieved. 

I was a fool back then, folks.  A plain and simple-minded fool.

It has occurred to me, though, that doing things in the slow-cooker is sort of a form of braising.  You take a foodstuff and cook it at low heat for a few hours, letting it stew in its own yummy juices.  Yeah, braising is a lot like that.  Maybe I was more familiar with the technique than I thought...

For these shredded chicken sandwiches, I turned to the condiments in my fridge (high Chinese influence).

From right to left I've presented them in the proportion I've used them, although a word of caution...lime juice and oil (sesame if you've got it, really) should make up the largest percentage of the marinade.  The rice wine vinegar really should be just before the soy sauce.

Three chicken breasts, 1/4 cup of oil and lime juice, each.  A good couple of splashes of vinegar, followed by smaller splashes of soy and fish sauce.  A generous squeeze of cilantro (freshly chopped would be best, but use what you got, people) with a squirt of sriracha.  The two powders (five spice and cayenne) are sprinkled on the breasts before I poured the marinade over. 

Here's what I just realized is missing.  Two cloves of minced garlic and two generous tablespoons of sugar (to balance out the acidity).  Whisk together and pour over three chicken breasts in a shallow glass baking dish.  Cover with foil and pop into a 250 oven for about four or five hours.

Yes, yes, this could all be done in your crockpot.  I, however, have ginormous crockpots, and making sandwich meat for four people does not require that much space.  So, my oven it is.  There's not much of a risk of burning, if you make sure at least the bottom of the dish is covered with liquid.  Also, the foil covering will help prevent evaporation and keep the juices in the dish.  Where they belong!

After about three hours, remove the dish, uncover the chicken, and use two forks to shred the meat.  Of course, taste the meat and season as needed!  Pop it back into the oven for another little while...how ever long you can bear to wait, I guess.

This would be good with some rice, but I'm going the sandwich route today.  Shredded carrots, fresh cilantro leaves if I had them, red onion slivers on a toasted, split, hoagie bun.  I added an egg to my daughter's and my sandwich, because why the heck not!?

And derned if I didn't almost forget to get the final product.  Again, it's worth noting...food stylist and professional photographer, I am not.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Meating Of The Minds

January 1st is a great time to thoroughly examine the contents of your refrigerator and pantry and play the culinary version of Tetris.  This ingredient fits into that slot, you flip this item on its side and wedge it between two other pieces...

...okay, really, the Tetris thing is not quite the right metaphor in this case, but my brain seems stuck on it right now, so...

In my freezer, I discovered some fairly well-wrapped beef tenderloins...and the date on the package? March 28, 2014.  Yep, these guys were nine months old.  Thank goodness they smelled fine, albeit their color was a little darker than I'm used to seeing, but we'll call that aging, okay?

Also in my freezer was a random, lone sheet of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry.  Probably left over from some cream puff-type project earlier in the year.  Puff pastry is like a little fussy old lady, very particular and must be handled carefully.  Frankly, I don't like messing with it very often.

Beef tenderloin + puff pastry?  Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Beef Wellington!  Or Filet de boeuf en croute, as they would say in France.  It looks fairly complicated, but using the premade puff pastry makes it pretty easy really.  I did a quick saute of mushrooms, spinach, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary until mushrooms were soft (then pulsed quickly in the processor and cooled).  In a hot skillet with a little oil, I seared the tenderloin steaks on both sides (to get that yummy brown crust), then I let them cool.  I rolled out my thawed pastry (on a well-floured surface, mind) and just before I wrapped the meat in the pastry, I spread a layer of the mushroom mixture on the bottom.  Then, washed with egg wash and banged into the oven at 425 until golden brown.

You know, I'd always been nervous about Wellingtons, but actually are quite simple, yet impressive, entrees.  Corking good!

The grand Beef Wellington armada without its sauce