Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Archimedes Test

I discovered two vaguely horrifying aspects of my Indian cookbook today. First, it lists all the measurements in metric, then in pounds or ounces, then in American cooking utensil-ese. However, each part is separated by an unspaced splash - like/this - so it's very easy to read measurements as "1 and etc" instead of simply the etc. I'm wondering if this went amiss with my pineapple dish, since it was so spicy ...

The stuff of horror fiction, part two: there's almost no temperature guidelines on the recipes. Occasionally, it refers to medium heat, but most often it's just, "Cook this," and frequently, "Then lower temperature." Well ... it would help to know where I start from.

I don't like horror! I can't even write unhappy endings!

Luckily, I caught the measurements issue before I had really done any more harm than buy too chicken. I then had the bright idea to grind the almonds in the spice grinder. Do not do this. My working theory is that it's too hot in there for the almonds - whatever the case, you get almond paste. This is not even good if you need almond paste, because the spice grinder clogs.

I was oddly cheered by the stubborn flecks of green cilantro that managed to survive being food-processed - extensively - to bob defiantly to the surface. Guessing wildly at the heat seatings seemed to work, because I ended up with a good soup.

Final verdict (soup): This is very good, rich soup with just enough texture - though it reminds me of something else I can't put my finger on. Would make again, no changes. (Might be brave and leave a few seeds from the chilis, but other than that.)

No young carrots, no new potatoes ... let's face it, my grocery store just hates baby items. Unfortunately, I just decided to use Idahos - and must have scrubbed half of Idaho off them; wow, those were some dirty potatoes - and that took me straight into my utter failure of the Archimedes test.

You're familiar with Archimedes, of course: according to legend, he got into his bath, it overflowed, and he leapt to his feet and streaked through town shouting, "Eureka!" after which he was presumably arrested for indecent exposure.

Well, I discovered that potatoes take up a lot of space in water ... and that when it boils, all heck breaks loose. I actually scooped water out while I was working. A second displacement issue occurred trying to get the potatoes in the pan full of yogurt mixture. Note to self: bigger pans. (As an aside, I find frying cumin seeds to be disturbing. They twitch and ooze away from the oil and look rather like maggots.)

Final verdict (potatoes): I think the choice of potato is significant enough that I'm going to have to make these again. I like the yogurt sauce, but I think the way it was cooked prevented it from fully imparting flavor into the potatoes. I'll decide more as I eat these over the week. New potatoes, folks. Not old.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kitchen Amnesia

So today, I had two separate incidents of kitchen amnesia, which had me scrambling to course correct. First, I forgot that I had decided to halve the carrot recipe and chopped the regular amount of herbs. Second, I got distracted by the sheer amount of strength required to use the apple corer and forgot to peel the first apple until I was halfway through chopping the second half. (Come on, you can thread your way through those clauses.)

Having perservered through these difficulties that might have stumped a lesser (or more competent) chef and corrected both errors, I put the carrot dish on the stove and promptly discovered this is not a dish you can halve. After the carrots are cooked, you're supposed to return the liquid to the heat, reduce it further, and pour it on top - well, by the time my carrots cooked, I had only about a quarter cup of liquid, if that. Now part of this is, I suspect, because I used regular carrots and should have cut them into finer strips so they would cook faster ... but even at standard cook time, there wasn't enough liquid for the amount of carrots.

My brown sugar has decided to stick together in a show of stunning solidarity, so mixing it into the dry ingredients for the cake was entertaining. I did catch a potential pitfall in the cake that isn't in the recipe: the apples come off the stove hot enough that I suspected they could scramble the egg. So ... let the apples cool a bit after the puree stage.

In regards to the cake, I noticed some people on FoodNetwork complaining it was too wet. I personally had to bake the cake for an extra five minutes, which made the outside a tad crunchy - but that did result in a nice, moist-but-not-unpleasant texture on the inside.

Final verdict (carrots): Taste was good, despite being off the recipe reservation again. I did use ground coriander rather than coriander seeds. Make again, this time a full batch and with smaller cuts of carrots. I wrote "do not" in big letters behind the "halve" on the recipe itself. Hopefully, I will take myself seriously when I come back to it.

Final verdict (cake): I enjoyed this cake, though it isn't something I would go for often. Let it cool completely before frosting - really, really, really. If you can detect even the slightest mote of heat, leave it. If you cut it and there's heat inside, leave it. (I actually thought the cake was vertically challenged enough that trying to cut-and-frost the interior was problematic anyhow - it doesn't hold up like a layer cake.) Unless you're allergic, no need to omit the nuts: the proportion is small enough that it's an occasional texture rather than a nutty cake. There is, in fact, nothing particularly nutty about this cake: it's a quick, straightforward recipe.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 2/26 and Bonus

This week, I've decided to try something different. Having discovered some recipes that have calorie counts (sacrilege!), on Saturday, I will be making a dessert and a side to have with the rest of the macaroni and cheese from last week ... and on Sunday, I will be making two dishes to eat throughout the week. Four servings each, minus dinner on Tuesday because the cooking class has the audacity to feed me, should take care of the week.

For the weekend:

Greek-Style Carrots - The Mediterranean Cookbook (Parragon Publishing)
Apple Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

For next week's eating pleasure:

Potatoes in Yogurt Sauce - 500 Indian Recipes (Shehzad Husain, Rafi Fernandez, Mridula Baljekar and Manisha Kanani)
Chicken & Almond Soup - Same


Yes, I am rather fond of my odd little exhaustive Indian cookbook. Why do you ask?

In the interests of substitional disclosure:

Greek-Style Carrots: 2 significant substitutions - regular honey rather than Greek honey, and I sincerely doubt I'll be able to find young carrots, so already I'm figuring this is a ballpark recipe. Three strikes and you're out. Less a substitution as a holy-mackerel: noticed this recipe used almost two pounds of carrots and decided to halve it.
Apple Spice Cake: 1 minor substitution - pre-ground nutmeg rather than fresh.
Chicken & Almond Soup: 1 minor substitution - ground black pepper rather than crushed peppercorns.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Revelation

One more important discovery occurred during the cooking class yesterday:

I discovered it was possible to like asparagus.

See the "My Palette" post and observe that asparagus is high on my list of irrational dislikes. It's not just a vegetable I don't care for, it's always been one I can't stand.

I kind of zoned out last night when the chef was talking about the asparagus, because I figured you'd have to hold me at gunpoint to get me to make it, and at that point, I would be too nervous to remember cooking techniques anyhow.

But then I tried the dish ... and wow. Steamed with lemon juice / zest? I actually enjoyed the asparagus, though it still has a bitterness I don't care for. I might make it, in the interests of green vegetable-hood.

I just hope I didn't miss anything important whilst tuning out ...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cooking Class (Part I)

I completely forgot to mention that I signed up for a three-part cooking class a local store. It's a demonstration class with sampling portions, not hands-on - which is probably a good thing, because at some point you'd probably find my detached hands on someone else's station. Of course, because I was going to be eating / taking notes, I promptly sat on the right side of the room closest to the wall ... and then moved. Left-handed. Don't need to be elbowing my tablemate throughout.

Of course, I was one of only two people who even had a notebook, and I was the only person who used it, scribbling assiduously at points, so I'm sure I looked like a nut ... but who really thinks they're going to remember everything? It's possible I won't even read the notes, but the physical act of writing helps imprint it in my head.

I learned a lot from the class. For instance, for those uncertain with a knife, leave the tip on the board while cutting. More importantly - surprisingly basic, but I never thought about it - your basic cutting position should be comfortable. Sweating is not just an issue of personal hygiene: it's cooking in the juices with oil, on a lower heat setting than sauteing. Eggs should be cracked on a flat surface (not the edge of a bowl) to better avoid getting shell in the white / yolk.

Proof I'm a geek: while notating that table salt is in the form of a cube, I wrote "is (superscript 3)" - to the third power or cubed.

Skill quiz: pronounce zabaglione while looking at the word. I dare you.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mise Not En Placed Sufficiently

Started with the brownies, as is my wont, the logic being that if I fill myself up with sugar and batter, one of these days I will keel over the stove. No, wait a minute ...

Soon discovered the reason I marked these as time-consuming - not so much because they take a long time, but because it's time which requires you to babysit the mixture. You cannot do anything else. It's 20-some minutes of stirring the espresso mixture on low heat until it boils. The reason these are double espresso brownies is because there's prepared espresso in both the brownies themselves and the frosting. If I were naming them, I might call them Espresso Yourself Brownies.

I think the use of mini-morsels rather than regular morsels messed up the melting time a bit, so a few strands of the egg cooked. The recipe doesn't call for it, but it might be a good idea to temper the eggs. (I am exceedingly proud of myself that I know what that means.) In other words, pour a bit of the mixture into the egg to let it heat it up gradually before dumping it into the pan. Per egg.

Final verdict (Double Espresso Brownies): Very rich brownies, worth the hassle.

I determined that to have both portions of dinner warm, I needed to make both dishes roughly at the same time. This is a new one on me: I've always made something with lengthy oven / cooker time and then a quicker dish after I've thoroughly cleaned up after the first.

Well, I had a major episode of mise en place failure. I did have the sense to do the time-consuming work ahead, grating the cheeses and ginger and chopping the pineapple, but I completely forgot to do the simpler stuff, such as measuring other ingredients (or indeed knowing what those measurements were supposed to be) or taking things out of the pantry / fridge. This stuff is quick enough that it wouldn't have been a problem with one dish, but with two, it had me running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

In the middle of all this, I realized my stove-side salt shaker was on the verge of empty. Also cue some potential cross-dish pollution as I had to chop the sage fast and the only cutting board handy was the one I had used for the pineapple.

I kept being sure that one dish was going to be made way ahead of the other, but the unforeseen time delays kept balancing each other out. The pasta water boiled early, the mustard seeds took a long time to pop, then the macaroni took a while to broil ... I even had time to frost the brownies before I ate.

Final verdict (Sweet and Sour Pineapple): I don't know if it was the use of the regular mustard seeds, the red pepper flakes over dried chillis, or merely the intention of the recipe, but this was spicy! But the basic flavors were excellent, so I would make this again. I did use onion powder rather than onion seeds.

Final verdict (Sage Butter Macaroni and Four Cheese): Mmm ... cheesy, but not overwhelmingly so. The sage butter is quite strong. I might consider making my tablespoons scant. (As opposed to scarce, which would involve them running away.) Not enough crumbly-crunchy topping for my tastes. Next time, I will use a 9 x 13 baking dish and increase the amount of topping. I did use a small handful of regular parmesan with the other cheeses - my piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano was 4oz, but had a pretty significant crust on it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 2/19

This weekend's menu plan comes from territories west of left field, but they're all tastes I enjoy:

Sage Butter Macaroni and Four Cheese
Sweet & Sour Pineapple - 500 Indian Recipes (Shehzad Husain, Rafi Fernandez, Mridula Baljekar and Manisha Kanani)
Double Espresso Brownies - Source unknown


... or more accurately, source I-am-too-lazy-to-find. Though there is nothing distinctly Christmas about them, these came out of the Christmas cookie file (they're also not cookies, but go with me here) and so, presumably, from one of several dozen cookie booklets my mother passed on. I am not exaggerating. They are labeled A - Z ... AA - ZZ ... and I think there might be an AAA floating around, with stands for Alliterative Anal-Retentives Anonymous. (Actually, it doesn't, because "anal retentive" only has a hyphen when it's used as an adjective, so technically that would be AARA ...)

In any case, I made these cookies years ago. They're very rich and more espresso-y than sweet. At the time, we marked "time-consuming" on them. I figured it was time for another try.

Substitution notes: the pineapple dish requires crushed dried chillis. A little Googling suggested that red pepper flakes would be adequate, so unless I happen to see these and they are reasonably priced, I'll be substituting. The same recipe calls for black mustard seeds. After another search engine hit (over the internet, no one knows you're an addict), I discovered that the black seeds are the mildest, so I decide given my love of spice, I'm safe substituting regular mustard seeds.

Onions have seeds? And you can eat them? I may be using onion powder instead. Same with cumin seeds - I'm not sure whether I want to buy whole seeds for one recipe. This recipe is rapidly not looking much like the original.

As always, I'm pleased to provide recipes for the curious.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Side Salads

Between the necessary substitutions and other changes made due to my boneheadedness or other, I can say with ninety percent confidence that I did not make the pear dish to specifications.

Let's start with accidentally making a full serving of the filling, rather than the two-thirds I needed for my two pears. Follow it up by not reading ahead in the directions and tossing the lemon juice before I realized I needed it for the dressing. I was actually able to salvage them, but I'm not sure I got enough lemon juice. For an encore, miss the fact that you need a baster to redistribute the liquid during cooking and frantically improvise with a pastry brush. (This actually worked out decently, methinks.)

By this time, I've gotten moderately less incompetent with a paring knife, but the melon baller utterly defeated me in the kitchen colloseum.

(FoodNetwork: Kitchen Colloseum sounds way cooler than Kitchen Stadium.)

I had to take the pears out of the oven finally because the liquid had started to burn to the bottom of the pan, not because they were one hundred percent tender. I managed to salvage a bit of it for the dressing, but not quite enough. I used less arugula than recommended: I started mounding it on the plate, stared at the sheer amount of greenery, stared at what was left in my box o' lettuce, and gave up.

Final verdict: The way I made it, changes and all, it came out perfectly. Seriously. Somehow. I don't know whether the port makes it too sweet, but I can say for certain that even using candied walnuts does not. Would definitely make again, but would not cut portions: I suspect the extra fluid is needed to avoid the burning-on-dish issues mentioned above. I actually think the listed amount of filling was perfect for two pears, so would increase it for three.

On to the polenta, where I discover that, despite it being above the label that said gorgonzola in the grocery store, I had not grabbed gorgonzola, just garden variety blue cheese. Luckily, blue is fine for our purposes. I learned that cornmeal bubbles fast - you want to get the heat down as soon as possible or you have a giant cornmeal monster sencing tiny streamers of polenta handwards.

Final verdict: The recipe is good and easy, but I'm still on the fence. I'm trying to decide if this is really a taste I'm into. (Cue a movie trailer for the love-lorn polenta: She's Just Not That Into You.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Life is Uncertain: Eat Dessert First

Noticing that lemon zest is again required, I firmly lectured myself that - having to play for three hours later tonight - I couldn't afford to zest off my knuckles. So for variety, I cut my pinky finger opening a new roll of parchment paper. But hey, one doesn't play with the pinky, so no harm, no foul.

Embarassing transcription error discovered as I went to pre-heat the oven. I took this recipe out of the Cook's Country year-end compilation, which means it's a massive hardcover book and virtually impossible to photocopy from. The cookie recipe was conveniently situated right on the fold, so I was forced to hand-copy it. Come on, why would you construct a book like this? Isn't the assumption that people are going to photocopy so they can view the recipe while cooking?

Or does everyone have a bookstand in their kitchen with magical cleaning gnomes to prevent it from getting dirty, and no one sent me mine?

So - yes. The oven needed to be 375, not 275. I knew that was fishy. This is a quick, easy recipe, but it is one of the stickiest, densest doughs I've encountered in a while. I made the mistake of chilling it in plastic wrap. Do not do this. I probably lost at least another cookie to the plastic. Next time - the bowl just goes straight in the fridge.

Final verdict: ... and there will definitely be a next time. These are light, fluffy and really good. Says to bake them for 15 minutes, but they dry out quick, so I wouldn't give them any more than thirteen and a half. They're also not terribly lemony - by the time it bakes, it's a subtle flavor. And I was pretty generous with my 2 teaspoons, so I'm thinking about stepping it up next time.

... and there will definitely be a next time.

(Recipe available upon request.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pears!

Late night cravings prompted me to add this to Sunday's menu:

Roasted Pears With Blue Cheese

Sounds like an excellent contrast to everything else I'm making and gets away from the starch attack. Oven-roasted fruit is awesome. However, there is still cheese. Already decided - even though reviewers have mentioned the sweetness - that I'm going to use my remnant amount of candied walnuts instead of regular walnuts. Bring it, sugar.

Then I defeat my own purpose by deciding to use a "regular" red wine (which begs the question what irregular red wine is) rather than the port. I can't justify cracking open a fairly expensive reserve port for a couple tablespoons. Specifically, I'll be using my Tractor Shed Red from last week.

I'm having a bit of trouble trying to figure out how to cut this recipe down, six servings (three pears) being a bit too much for little ol' me. I can't halve it, as I think the grocery store would object if I brought a knife and procured myself one and a half pears. Trying to figure out what two-thirds of the recipe is promises to be eye-crossing. Well, this is why math is important.

Yes. For cooking. Who needs to balance a checkbook?

Menu Plan: Weekend of 2/12

I have a gig tomorrow night and no money until after aforesaid gig (ahem), so shopping will wait until Sunday - though I've already bought a lemon and sour cream for dessert to make tomorrow.

This weekend, the thought was to make a side dish I could finish up on Sunday, but possibly horde through the week if necessary. Using up leftover ingredients, also a plus.

So for this weekend:

Lemon Sour Cream Cookies - Cook's Country April / May 2009
Creamy Polenta with Gorgonzola Cheese - Everyday Italian, Giada de Laurentiis

I'm going to use up the rest of this cornmeal if it kills me.

Also, apparently I am still stuck on dairy / cheese. My body is trying to tell me something.

Or maybe it's my writing side. My work needs more cheesiness?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Close Encounters Of The Slow Cooker Kind

Hail!

That's not a greeting: that's a description of the weather when I went shopping this morning.

Painful on the wallet. Stew beef and detergent are a lethal combination. In more ways than one.

I hadn't realized how little usable leek there was in comparison to the sheer amount of greenery. Undecided whether I liked that part of the stew, but the undeniable fact is that the stew smelled heavenly as it cooked. Meanwhile, grating chocolate turned out to be way messier than I had imagined. I broke off more than two tablespoons, but had to eat the rest because I had melted it with my hand. So tragic.

Of course, I realized right before I went to turn the slow cooker on that I hadn't checked it in months and wasn't sure it would work ... but I lucked out. Of course, then I noticed that my indoor temperature gauge said it was 76 ... I turned the space heater down ... then it said it was 80. I finally noticed that aforesaid gauge was sitting right next to the slow cooker. Yep. That would do it.

Final verdict: The stew is wonderful. There's a faint bitterness to it, but it's a pleasant bitterness and holds up well with the beef. To be honest, you can't tell it's chocolate, and I'm not even sure it was the chocolate imparting that taste - it might have been the wine. I ended up using some extra carrots in lieu of the mushrooms, and I might add more next time.

(Sidebar: I vastly overestimated the amount of red potatoes I would need for three cups. So now I have a boatload of red potatoes. I'm going to have to start plotting ways of incorporating red potatoes into everything. Red potatoes and meatballs? Red potatoes and gnocchi? Wouldn't that be redundant?)

On to dessert, wherein I discover that however difficult you think it will be to get marshmallow fluff out of a measuring cup into a bowl, multiply it by three. And that eight ounces of marshmallow fluff really is an incredible quantity of fluff. Between that and cream cheese, you'd think the electric mixer would have a fit, but it was actually easy going.

Final verdict: This is very decadent and cheesecakey. However, the crust is too crumbly - if you try to pick up the cut bars, it makes a mess. Assuming you're not wanting to follow people around with a dust-pan, I would increase the amount of butter in the crust to get the ingredients to adhere / bake more cohesively. I didn't have a mini-torch for the topping, but that's just for the look of the thing.

The last thing I made was the corn spoon bread. Since I only have one grater, I had some concerns about getting chocolate in the bread, but I think I avoided this. Small modification here: I decided to add some extra red pepper flakes to taste. This bubbles and oozes around the edges, even when fully baked. It looked a bit like an alchemical experiment gone horribly wrong.

Final verdict: I wouldn't bother. The texture is creamy, which is nice, but it's rather bland - and that was after adding additional red pepper. I used some of my leftover herbed cheese spread from last week, and it tasted decent, but just not enough kick for my tastes.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 2/5/11

Landmark: I now have a recipe box! It's just one of those grommet boxes sometimes used for storage with a bookend in it, and the recipes currently don't even fill the bookend (pressed flush to the near side), but I will overpower it, mark my words.

This weekend, I strike up a friendship with my slow cooker. We have been acquaintances before now, with the occasional outing to keep meatballs warm, but given the name - slow cook - I think we will become good friends indeed.

Here's the plan, in rough chronological order of preparation, albiet not consumption:

Beef Stew With Chocolate
S'mores Cheesecake Bars
Corn Spoon Bread

I seem to be craving cheese: I set out dessert recipes to choose, realized of the four I had chosen, three had a cheese base, and then when I turned to dinner, first started to drool over a sage butter and four cheese macaroni dish. I decided to go with the stew because I haven't had red meat in a while, and because I couldn't find a recipe that used cat meat.

Substitutions: 2, all in the stew

At my mother's recommendation, I am using beef consomme and a bit of beef bouillon instead of beef broth. I am neglecting the mushrooms. (No one call social services on me.)

Trawling for wine, I found in my inherited wine box: Sangria, a reserve port, two ice wines, a $30 Riesling, a moscato, a rose and more red blends than you can shake a stick at. Especially if you're drunk. Lacking a pure Merlot (that's an oxymoron), I chose a 2006 Tractor Shed Red, which is a Sangiovese / Merlot / Zinfandel blend. I had to Google how to use a corkscrew.

Oh, I wish I were joking.

Anyhow, I need to make sure I get to the grocery store earlier than usual tomorrow so I can get the soup started. Cheerio!