Monday, February 23, 2009

Squash! That sounds like someone sat on dinner!

Classic line from George Carlin.

Normalcy last week was fleeting. No sooner had Rose gone back to school and Dinah had gone back to work, I got struck down with some kind of stomach bug. I emerged from that over the weekend only to get some kind of head cold. My voice isn't completely gone but it's the wrong pitch and timber and a little squeaky. But we are moving in the right direction.

Every now and then I like to push the envelope and make something I don't like. I think it helps hone the skills and once in a while you get lucky and discover something new you like. Plus, real chefs have to create dishes all of the time that they don't necessarily like. Last time it was a version of meat loaf. I didn't win on that one. This time it was butternut squash and I won.

As I mentioned before, my first issue of Gourmet magazine was Italian themed and I don't really care for Italian food. But I have found a few nuggets between the covers and one that intrigued me was Butternut Squash with Radicchio Pappardelle. I don't like squash but Dinah does. I need to expand my repertoire and include more vegetarian dishes. And I was caught by the ingredient radicchio.

Which I can't find anywhere! Dammit this can be frustrating. I researched substitutes and found chicory, escarole (which I needed for another recipe), Belgian endive and arugula are all possible substitutes. I can't find any of those either. Dammit. My choices are lettuce, cabbage, and spinach. I went with red cabbage. I should mention that I don't like cabbage either. So now I'm really pushing myself.

Can you believe it but this came out pretty tasty! The cabbage wasn't the best choice, not because of flavor but because I really didn't care for the cooked cabbage smell. But it wasn't bothersome enough to ruin the dish. The squash was nice and tender and just a tad sweet, somewhere between a sweet potato and pumpkin. You knew it was there but it wasn't overpowering and the texture was just right. The toasted pine nuts were great. As a general rule of thumb, I do not like nuts in my foods, except desserts. But the pine nuts were tender yet firm and had a wonderful smokey, spicy, salty flavor to them. I've never had pappardelle noodles before but boy were they good. If I couldn't find them I would substitute another egg noodle for that extra richness.

I served this tonight as a side dish. We called it salad but it would easily make a fitting main course. This is definitely something for whenever the need arises for a meatless dish.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Experiment in Toughness

Today we are a little back to normalcy. Rose is still sick but the cough is dissipating. Dinah is back to work though tired. With all that illness in the house, cooking has been difficult. So with time being tight I did what all members of the Huff clan do, I turned to the grill. Last night was pork, the night before beef.

On Valentine's Day part of our romantic celebration was going to the grocery. Corny? I know. I picked up a London broil on sale. London broils are not the tenderest cuts of meat, there is a reason most people marinate them. But it was handy Monday night and I was short on time, so I threw it on the grill. This is not the first time for grilled London broil. My dad grilled them all the time and so have I. Another cheap cut of meat in the long history of dinners that passed for steak when I was growing up. If you cook London broil to medium rare and cut it thin on the bias, I have found that it isn't too bad, still tough but tolerable.

On Monday I seasoned the meat before throwing it on the grill. I knew that added flavor would help. And it did but I overcooked the meat. It came off well done, way over cooked for me, absolutely perfect for Dinah. In my opinion the meat was tough, as expected, but also dry. But since it was cooked to Dinah's preference I still got some brownie points. We ate half and I put the other half in the fridge as leftovers.

I began to ponder, can you tenderize meat that has already been cooked? A quick survey on Google showed that I was not the first to ask this question. However, I could not find a single good answer anywhere. Every reply in a forum where the question had been asked the answer came back as how to prevent cooked meat from being tough in the first place. That's not an answer (major pet peeve is people answering a question with something other than what was asked. Grrrrr).

Tenderizing of meat comes from breaking down the protein fibers through acids, enzymes, salt, slow cooking such as braising or mechanical means such as grinding or cubing. This is why you are supposed to marinate the London broil before you cook it. I think my Mom used to use Italian dressing. The vinegar in the dressing provided the acid for breaking down the fibers in the meat. But would it work with cooked meat?

I took out my leftover London broil and chopped it up. The goal here was to increase the surface area exposed to the tenderizer and to maximize the depth of penetration. If you marinate a thick cut steak, only the outer edge of the steak gets tenderized. The marinade does not penetrate maybe more than an 1/8 of an inch deep. This is why injection marinade systems were created.

For comparison, I cut the meat into two different sizes. One pile was roughly pea sized, maybe a 1/4 inch cubed. In the other pile the meat was cut into slivers three times as long as the cubes. I dumped all of the meat into my crock pot, probably about a pound's worth. Next I poured in a 1/4 cup of vinegar and half a bottle of barbecue sauce plus enough vinegar to wash out the bottle. I probably had between 1/3 and 1/2 cup total of vinegar. Slow cooking pork ribs in barbecue sauce results in tender meat because of the vinegar in the sauce. Since my meat was already cooked I thought I might need an extra bit of vinegar to work some magic. As a bonus, I added a couple shakes of Worcestershire sauce, mainly for flavor but it's main ingredient is vinegar too, so it couldn't hurt.

After two hours on high, the small cubes of meat cut easily with a fork but the slivers were still resisting, soft but you couldn't cut them with a fork. At four hours the slivers of meat cut with a fork but the cubes had now shredded. My goal of this experiment was to see if the meat could be tenderized post cooking. I was not looking for taste, however the meat was good, though maybe a little vinegary which is OK with barbecue.

While I was able to tenderize the meat I was not able to restore moisture. This means that we need to keep the concepts of meat being moist and tender as separate. Sure, a forkful was moist from the wet barbecue sauce coating the meat, the meat itself was still dry. This tells me that meat behaves somewhat like clay. Prior to heating, moisture can be added. With a little bit of heat, the clay dries out but can be restored by kneading in water but at some temperature point the moisture is driven out and cannot be restored. Your clay has now becomes a coffee cup. Same with the meat. We can add moisture with a method like brining but once we have cooked the meat until it is dry, no amount of moisture can be added back, even if the piece is swimming in moisture.

So, next time you accidentally over cook that roast or steak and end up with a tough piece of leather, don't despair. Chop it or shredded it and find an acidic marinade to break it down. It won't be moist but it will be tender and edible and you won't be throwing the meat away.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Strata Revisited or My Little Helper

I brought Rose home from school early today. I figured might as well since she had her Valentine's Day party and it was Friday after all.

So now the difficulty was how to prepare dinner with an active 2 1/2 year old? Chicken Strata is easy, but just how easy. Everything came together very well for Sous Chef Rose I have to say.

Another Use for Leftover Mashed Potatoes

Last night while I was burning up my scale on my stove, I was baking four loaves of bread. Two were sourdough, two were mashed potato bread. All four loaves came out great. I'll freeze the sourdough to get me through the next two weeks.

According to my cookbook, you are supposed to use "freshly mashed potatoes" which seems to indicate using boiled potatoes fresh out of the water. I had left over mashed potatoes from dinner the other night when I made polenta crusted chicken. When I make mashed potatoes I add in milk and butter and sometimes salt while I whip them in my stand mixer. This was not quite what the recipe called for but I decided to use my leftovers anyway. I wonder if the content should be upped just a smidgen to 2/3 of a cup since part of that 1/2 cup of mashed potatoes is milk and butter. But then again, it probably wouldn't be a significant change anyway.

The recipe called for scalded milk. I really see no reason to scald milk but I couldn't remember why. I was pretty sure scalding milk hearkens back to days of unpasteurized milk. In her book Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed, Shirley O. Corriher basically states the same thing. However she does reference a study at Michigan State in 1975 that identified a protein in milk that inhibits rising in bread. This protein I guess is destroyed in the scalding of milk. Ms. Corriher then hypothesizes that it is the quantity of the protein in the milk used for cooking that makes a difference and that maybe a 1/2 cup of milk is the threshold level, depending on how you read her paragraph. So to be safe, I thought I would scald my milk but I hate scalding milk on the stove. Scalding milk means to take it just below a full boil which I believe is around 190°F. Pasteurization of milk is around 163°F. This seems like a perfect application for a microwave. I chose to split the difference in temperature. Two minutes in the microwave heated the milk to 175°F. Of course I have nothing to compare to, so who knows if all that effort made a difference.

I used my stand mixer to make this bread because part of the directions call for beating the batter for 10 minutes by hand! Not! I think an electric mixer would have been fine for this stage as it is more of a batter than a dough.

The mashed potato bread was wonderfully soft and flavorful. The sugar addition made it just a tad sweeter than a regular bread but nothing like say Hawaiian bread rolls. Just something a little bit different.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stupid Human Tricks

I have a bad habit of using our flat top electric stove as extra counter space. If we had the counter space, I probably wouldn't need to. We have to have the biggest kitchen with no counter space.

I melted my beloved scale tonight :(

I like to use it on the stove because it's a flat surface. We've got stupid tile counters so I don't have a stable base. I was boiling water on the stove, or so I thought, when Dinah calls out "something's really hot!" Black acrid smoke was billowing over the stove. I had put the scale over the front burner and had thought I had turned on the rear burner to boil some water. The large one right under the scale. Melted it right to the stove. Did I mention I'm not a big fan of the stove either? I loved my flat top in Michigan but it had indicators to tell me which burners were hot. This stove only tells me by the glowing circle of heat under the pan. I make this mistake all the time. And to top it all off, when I attempt to turn the burner back on for the water, I turn the damn front burner on again, burning the black plastic white.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Memory of Hops, 1994-2009

I don't know where all of the pics from her younger days are. This is just a few from my digital camera days. She and I had been through a lot together, truly the best of times and the worst of time. It's soooo quite here. I miss her.

Grit-ty Chicken and Herb-y Broccoli

Last nights dinner menu consisted of:

Polenta-crusted Chicken in a Balsamic Caper Sauce
Broccoli Tossed in an Italian Herb Sauce
Mashed Yellow Potatoes

I gave up trying to find escarole and broccolini but decided to make this dinner anyway.

This was a fabulous meal, the kind you might serve for guests. I used chicken tenderloins instead of chicken breasts but the results were still fine. Actually a bonus because Rose loved the chicken tenders without the sauce, dipped in "red dip" (ketchup). I ended up with probably three servings and I think two pounds of chicken would have yielded four servings. Or just get four chicken breasts.

Luckily I know that polenta and grits are the same thing. That still didn't help me in the grocery. I had to ask Dinah to show me where the grits were located. Being a true Georgia girl she was able to steer this Yankee to the breakfast aisle and point out that they are right next to the cream of wheat and oatmeal. There was one bag marked polenta but I was looking for "quick-cooking." So if you don't see grits up North, look for polenta.

The sauce is deep and complex. Very good on potatoes also. The balsamic vinegar adds a nice sweet tangy-ness. Dinah described it as having hints of blackberry. I like capers but if they are not your thing, don't leave them out just strain them out when you serve. Since I couldn't find any escarole which is used as an edible garnish on top of the chicken, I just left it out. I think some wilted spinach tossed in the balsamic caper sauce would be good next time around.

The broccoli was outstanding. The herb oil is somewhere between a Caesar dressing and an Italian dressing, easy to make and fresh and light. Don't be turned off by the addition of anchovy paste. You won't taste it. The anchovies add a savory saltiness to the oil. It's the main ingredient in Caesar salad dressing and Worcestershire sauce so you've proabably had it before and didn't mind. I'm sure broccolini would have been good too but I wasn't interested in making a two hour drive to Publix just to find some.

Monday, February 09, 2009

On Coffee

I like coffee. I don't HAVE to have it. I'm not my parents who can't function without their morning coffee. I can go days without. I think for me it is more of a ritual. I like the routine of preparing it every day. I guess I am a coffee snob but I don't know if I qualify as a connoisseur. I usually do not get coffee at restaurants or gas stations unless I am desperate for caffeine. And if I do I have to, I load it up with sweetener and cream, just to be palatable. Once exception, ALL of the coffee I had in Europe was superior to anything I have ever had over here. I don't know why. And no, McDonald's, Hardee's and Dunkin Donuts do not have the BEST coffee. If you think so then your palate has not been fully developed.

I do have a routine. I French press my coffee. I have three presses. I splurged when we moved to Bainbridge and bought a kick ass KitchenAid burr grinder. It is massive overkill for my purposes but the key to French pressed coffee is even and consistent grind and it does that. I prefer my coffee in glass. Don't know why. Maybe because it cools faster. Maybe because I like to watch the cream swirl. It is my belief that old people are the bane of good coffee and coffee shops. There is no need for coffee to be lava hot or even boiling. It should be just hot enough to drink. Technically it should be brewed with water at 190°F, not boiling water. It really sticks in my craw when some old lady wants her coffee microwaved. I digress. My choice of choice at home is to drink my coffee out of my two Coors' Killian's Red beer pints. Because I drink pints at a time, I only get two cups worth. The first I always drink black, the second with cream no sweetener. I don't stir. I like to watch the thermal currents swirl the cream through the coffee. I have the same routine at coffee shops.

More than coffee I love coffee shops. My favorite of all time is still L.A.'s Coffee Cafe in Three Rivers, MI. I used to spend an hour every morning I wasn't on the road, sipping my coffee and reading a book. It would be my breakfast, usually bacon, egg and Swiss on a well toasted English muffin. Sometimes I'd change it up and order sausage or splurge and get my sandwich on a toasted everything bagel. One year I ate oatmeal everyday. Don't believe the commercials. On weekends I'd get their Spanish tortilla which was quiche-like except made on a layer of thinly sliced red potatoes. I'd order an extra side of spicy ranch dressing for it. God it was good. They graciously gave me the recipe when we moved but sadly I have lost it in all of our moves. For special occasions you could not beat their giant cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls or my favorite, cheesecake for breakfast. Lunch was good too. My personal favorite being the veggie burger with bacon and cheese on an everything bagel. And they had an awesome spinach salad. L.A.'s cooked all of that without even a real kitchen. Everything had to be done in a microwave. This was my routine for nearly seven years. I became close with the family and staff there, some of the friendliest people you would ever meet. And if you ever saw Tori smile, you'd have to go back again and again to see that smile again. She has to be the sweetest, purest person to ever walk this earth. Since I left TR, L.A.'s has moved to a new location and from what I hear is much bigger sporting a real kitchen and even a drive through window.

When I traveled I would always stop in on my way out of town and get two large sugar-free Hazelnut breves to go. Good memories.

When we moved to Bainbridge, I was sans coffee shop. It was a good chunk of my depression. Eventually a coffee shop opened up and I was able to re-establish my routine. It wasn't the same. The coffee was good, the breakfast so-so. Lunch was great though. Unfortunately Donna closed up shop within a year of opening.

In Blarisville, a coffee chop opened two miles from my house the summer we moved here. I was a regular from the second week they opened. I tried to re-establish my reading routine but the atmosphere wasn't conducive to that. Instead I ended up sitting at the coffee bar and socializing with a few regulars every day, I even had an unofficial reserved seat just like I had in Three Rivers. And just like in Three Rivers, I had a standing order, an everything bagel with butter every day. On weekends I would go wild and get the sausage, egg and cheese croissant. The coffee wasn't as good. The only choice was Colombian because the uneducated palates of the area wouldn't drink anything else. One day I suggested that instead of asking customers if they would like Colombian or Sumatran, ask if they would like light roast or dark roast. I bet they would sell more Sumatran. I was right. Everybody that came in switched.

Speaking of coffee roasts. My favorite of all time is Cuban. Not Cuban cafe con leche that you get at Cuban restaurants (which I love) but Cuban beans roasted in Cuba. I had it at Brûlerie Tatum Café in Quebec City. They served coffee in my favorite way, in a French press, just like I do at home every day. Café piston I believe is how they call it. I even smuggled two bags home. Tatum also served what is called a pousse-café which is like a coffee parfait, and fun to order because it just sounds dirty. At L.A.'s I would splurge and get Jamaican Blue or Hawaiian Kona on Fridays, no free refills on those. Otherwise I would get whatever their coffee of the day was.

The funny thing is I never drank coffee before living in Michigan. Even in college, where students are true addicts, I never drank it. And Madison has one of the best coffee shops around, Steep & Brew. I would even hang out there, just for the smells and the classic atmosphere, but I didn't drink any coffee. I even had the ubiquitous Union coffee mug. These were red plastic travel mugs that you would see attached to probably 2/3 of the student back packs on campus. You could get coffee for a buck at either of the two unions when you presented the mug. I always got hot chocolate. I still have my mug though (the new ones aren't as cool). Fast forward to now, when Mountain Java here in Blairsville closed after a year and a half in October of this year, I bought out their remaining coffee stock, which consisted of Colombian and the Italian roast they used for espresso (it makes great coffee, don't let that word 'espresso' fool you). I used up the last bit on Saturday. I had to make a weak pot. But delight of delights my package from Coffee AM arrived Saturday afternoon. Five pounds of Indian Malabar roast. FIVE POUNDS! It was cheaper than ordering three pounds of three different roasts.

So now I am back to my routine. I'm on my second cup and the cream is swirling on its own. A good start to the week.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Dip and Roll

Yesterday I also made cookies. On their web site, Gourmet Magazine put up cookie recipes taken from their December issues from 1940 to present. I went with the Navettes Sucrees from 1951, because I had those ingredients.

There's is a good chance that people don't remember what a shuttle is. For those of you, here is a picture:

At one time, the textile industry in the US was centered in the Northeast and later moved to the Southeast. I don't think I need to explain why. In the 1990's I worked in South Carolina and at that time much of the textile industry was closing down as jobs and work was outsourced to foreign countries. Remember the Evil Empire's Buy American campaign, with shirts tagged as made in Honduras? I do. At the time, I was melting down looms left and right as mill after mill in the South closed. Milliken took a beating. Sara Lee gone (you didn't know they made clothes?). Too many others to count. We melted a bunch of them.

Anyway, these cookies a named after the shape of the shuttle on the loom they resemble. Perhaps it would be better to describe them as flattened footballs for those that don't know what a shuttle is but Sugar Flattened Footballs doesn't have the ring that Sugar Shuttles has.

The sugar shuttles were a pretty neat cookie to make. Much different than the usual cookie fare. The recipe only made 18 so I sent them off to work with Dinah. Because you dip the cookies in egg whites I found it much easier to form all the cookies first, then go back and dip and roll them.

It has a nice candy crunch that you get on the outside of the cookie:

My version of the recipe is here. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Sautéed Beef with Rosemary and Garlic in White Wine

I mentioned before that I have a subscription to Gourmet magazine this year. My first issue was the the January issue which had an Italian theme. Bummer. I'm not a big Italian fan, especially pasta. My taste preferences are Mexican and Latin (any), German, Eastern Europe (any), Asian (any). Probably in that order. I am learning an appreciation for French cuisine from my trips to Canada. Italian is probably my least favorite which often makes me a less than desirable dinner companian as it is a popular cusine for dining out with friends or at friends' homes.

I found this recipe for sauteed strips of steak in my magazine, non-pasta, could even be non-Italian. Not quite stir fry but almost. I had to use dried rosemary and it might have been a little too powerful. As you can see in the picture from Gourmet, this dish is simply served on the plate with a side of pasta. I think the beef would have been better on a bed of rice or egg noodles. I had intended to make that same pasta dish as pictured but I didn't have any parmesan or romano cheese.

Here is my version of the recipe. Regardless of what Dianne Jacobs says in Will Write for Food, I think my style of writing is superior, if I do say so myself (the Gourmet version is considered "correct").

My February issue rocks. Toom nay great looking recipes. Where to start?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Happy as a Clam

In another lifetime I had another family. And in that family I had a wonderful father-in-law. We were quite close, close enough that I think my then-wife was sometimes jealous of us. He taught me a lot in life. How to hunt, how to dress a deer, how to butcher a deer. He taught me the joys of casinos and nightly card games. He taught me cribbage and bad jokes. He introduced me to Korbel and Coke and many, many cheap beers. And most of all he taught me the joy of a close family.

Rocky had a clam dip that he would make, it seemed like every time I visited, and when I lived in Madison, that was quite often. I can't imagine the pounds of this stuff I have eaten over the the years. He took great joy in making and serving it. I can still see him hunched over the bowl with the special bent fork he had just for making this and the crooked smile he'd have on his face.

Sadly Rocky had a massive heart attack in 1999. And shortly after that I found myself divorced. But I still have fond memories of him and I still make his clam dip, though I now use my food processor and a bit more onion than he ever did. Of course, you have to like clams and onions to enjoy this dip. Not a problem for me.

I have everything I need here at the house except for the Pringles so we'll be making a run to the grocery this afternoon so that I'll have my clam dip ready by the Super Bowl. I know the Steelers look good on paper but something unseen is forcing me to pick the Cardinals. Maybe it is from growing up in Ohio and hating Pittsburgh my whole life. Some things you just can't shake.

Rocky's Clam Dip