Saturday, March 26, 2011

Infinite Spatulas

Today was officially Infinite Spatulas Day, a new cooks' holiday celebrated by yours truly. Every time I turned around, I suddenly realized I needed a spatula for something, and I'd just washed the last one I used - or it was too thick / thin / ugly for the next task.

Yesterday, I prepared the infused milk for the ice cream base and put it in the fridge overnight. I spent way longer than I had expected with the infusing process, and I'm still not honestly sure I got it to a simmer - the problem being that milk forms bubbles from vigorous stirring, regardless of heat.

This morning, I almost made myself late for my gig putting the ice cream base together. When I made the first ice cream, I had used a specific saucepan: after whisking the eggs and sugar in it, I realized it would be too large for this smaller recipe (spatula #1). I eyeballed a small additional amount of sugar, as I could see all of it didn't make the transition. After I finally got a good coating on the back of the spoon, I moved it to the ice bath and stirred in the honey. Once partially cool, I had to strain the mixture into another bowl (spaluta #2).

(The ice bath isn't in the recipe and isn't necessary: it merely accelerates the cooling process. I stole it from the previous ice cream recipe. As long as you stir regularly, it very much compresses the amount of time needed.)

At this point, I discovered that the bowl I had chosen was too small, not for the contents, but for those of us not possessing three hands. The strainer couldn't rest on the rim without pressing into the already-strained ice cream, which meant that I had to lever the handle with my stomach while holding the pot and trying to spatula out (still spatula #2) the remaining amounts. This worked. Sort of.

The directions do not explicitly say to whip the cream before putting it in the ice cream base, but they do say "whipped" cream, so I surmised as such and got out my blender ... 'cause dang, I've whipped cream by hand once and I ain't doing it again (spatula #3 for removal). Then ice cream base into the machine (spatula #4) and for a bonus, I got to taste the soft serve before heading off.

Final verdict (ice cream): Very good, but very strong in flavor - mostly the cloves, I think. Steeping the milk overnight isn't wholly necessary, I would say. The consistency and quantity are perfect.

Upon returning from my gig, I started the soup and promptly kicked myself in the forehead (yes, I am that flexible) for not noticing that the water and beans needed to simmer before the chorizo, onion and fennel rib went in. Drat. I could have done that mise en place while waiting for the beans. Drove myself nuts trying to figure out how many beans to scoop out when they floated to the surface. The directions weren't clear whether you remove the ones that rise immediately only, or how long you're supposed to wait before you give up and let the floaters be. I stopped after 3-4 minutes and seem to have gotten it right. Again, eyeballed adding a small amount of supplementary beans.

No spatulas were harmed in the making of this soup.

I started on the lemon raspberry muffins, which were a breeze to put together (spatula # ... oh, never mind). I think I may have used not quite enough lemon juice. Had a moment of panic when I realized the beans were cooking faster than the recipe indicated, but managed to balance out both portions.

I love having a kitchen island. Need an extra counter? Need it close? Yaaaank. One of these days, I'm going to run over the dog's tail or my foot, and there will be no joy in Mudville.

Had some trouble turning out the muffins. After five minutes, the tray was still too hot to pluck them out (I can't afford to burn my fingers), so I tried inverting the tray and managed to drop some on the floor. Miraculously, they landed paper-side down. I went more cautiously about it from then out.

The immersion blending for the soup went very smoothly. It calls for a coarse puree, so stopping short of a full blend. I was surprised how fast the tortilla strips came together: I had been expecting 2-3 minutes, not a matter of seconds. Be wary of this: the oil burns hot and fast. But one good flip, and they're ready for serving with the soup.

Final verdict (soup): A very tasty soup that (I think) could use some spice to jazz it up. I'll try some cayenne next time. I tried a few of the tortilla strips as recommended, into the soup when serving, but they mush right away. For textural contrast, put a plate by the diner to be added between bites. I sprinkled mine with a little chili powder.

It should perhaps go without saying that I used less than the prescribed amount of onion.

Final verdict (muffins): I must have a hot oven - 21 minutes was maybe even a smidge too much for this recipe that advertised 25. That said, because the raspberries are SO moist, you almost want these a little dry. I wasn't getting a lot of lemon out of the muffins, but that's okay. Maybe I didn't juice quite enough of the lemon. It was a massive lemon, and I'm used to holding back a bit because most recipes don't assume the mutant Jurassic-a-saurus lemons available here, but either I overcompensated or it's not a very lemony recipe. Either way, recommended.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 3/26

I'm baaaaaack.

Having finished Nigella Lawson's book, I'm now forging through Rick Bayless' evocative, information Mexican Kitchen. I refuse to punctuate it as Bayless's, as the book itself does. To me, that's grammatical sacrilege. One word of caution to the potential reader: lots of specialty ingredients. Bayless seems to have overmuch faith in the reader's ability or wherewithal to seek out unusual items such as avocado leaves ... and I live an area that has a lot of obscure and /or ethnic ingredients commonly available at the grocery store. I hate to think how my mother - in Baltimore - would fare.

Anyhow, on to the game plan for this weekend, and I am probably biting off more than I can chew - figuratively, not literally. I've got:

Oaxacan Black Bean Soup - Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen
Lemon-Raspberry Muffins - How To Be A Domestic Goddess (Nigella Lawson)
Honey Ice Cream With Cinnamon and Cloves

To supplement that ice cream portion, because at a glance, it doesn't seem to make much, I'm also making Reese's Dessert Bar Mix from Betty Crocker. This no-bake concoction makes what appears to be a miserly portion of a rich, addictive little chocolate-peanut butter bar. It's intense enough that the little pan is plenty.

Since I have an early afternoon gig, the plan is to shop early (or today, if I can find the time), get the dessert bars in the fridge and the infused milk prepared so it can sit - before I leave. The worst part will be the beans: they need to cook for 1.5 - 2 hours. So the first thing I do when I get in the door from my gig will be to prep that.

It will serve me right if it's Sunday by the time I actually eat. Ahem.

And yes, I know that lemon-raspberry muffins aren't the most obvious combination for Mexican, but they sounded so much better than corn hoecakes that I had to spring for them.

Also, I prepare for round two with the all-mighty immersion blender ...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Calorie Counting Mad Science

Clearly, boredom, hunger, frustrated writer instinct, and the necessity of sticking to a particular calorie count are forces to be reckoned with ... and possibly banished to the frozen wastes. Preferrably aforesaid wastes should not include a pantry with plenty of also-frozen goodies.

Dinner started out sensibly enough, albiet with a slightly radical idea: I decided to have ravioli with a yogurt-and-pesto sauce. As I mixed the sauce, I decided it needed a little something else, so I added a little fresh rosemary and some dried thyme. (I added way too much thyme due to a shaker malfunction. As in the bottle, not as in the religious order. I managed to scoop some of it out.)

Then, however, I started pondering what else I could add. Rummaging in the freezer, I found frozen blueberries, and for some reason, that looked perfect. I also found peas, and decided that green vegetables were obligatory. Or at least one green vegetable, rosemary presumably not counting. Half a cup of each, defrosted and mixed in. I taste-tested again, and decided it needed a little sweet, so the next contribution was cinnamon.

The result? Surprisingly tasty. A tangy blend of acid and sweet. The yogurt and the cheese in the ravioli blends together with two different creamy textures. I slightly undercooked the peas, but that's not an ingredient issue. My only gripe is I'd like to thicken the sauce - it's a bit too runny. But the better to lick it off the plate after.

No, really. The better to lick it off the plate.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Weekend of Deprviation

Having not yet chucked the pounds I put on the previous week, I will not be cooking this weekend. However, I did want to comment on a restaurant adventure yesterday, in which I very bravely followed my flutist friend into a Japanese restaurant. I usually avoid these because I'm not fond of fish, and many other kinds of seafood seem "wrong" to me because they have that same, slimy texture - and because as a less-than-vegetable-lover, other forms of sushi have me squinting dubiously and taking exceedingly tiny bites.

I had a great time and a good lunch. Had two little California rolls (I think!), a mysterious pork dumpling, sticky rice, and spicy chicken. My friend showed me how to mix the wasabi in with the dipping sauce, and of course, I promptly made a mess of the table.

I discovered a further revelation in the form of pickled ginger. I adore ginger. I'm obsessed with ginger. It's amazing pickled, and I almost succumbed to the urge to buy some today, but refrained as my next's week dining doesn't really have anything like an Asian flare. Except for the Indian dish, and I think I'd better stick to regular ginger there.

Of course, I'm all proud of myself for trying it and not wimping out. My friend was very understanding when I asked her to taste-test the mysterious nibbles first - we had ordered the same package, just with different main dishes - because she knows I'm allergic to actual fish. Could not stomach the chicken-and-shrimp balls ... shrimp is too fishy for my tastebuds.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuts! (And Other Things Nigella Lawson)

In luxuriously drifting through the divine Nigella Lawson's divinely humorous How To Be A Domestic Goddess, I've noticed how frequently nuts appear in the recipes. Now, I used to be opposed to nuts in dessert, and I still dislike them in brownies: I hate having the silky smoothness interrupted. However, I've grown fond of nuts in both cooking and baking, though my favorite nuts are pine nuts and pistachios. I love the sneaky sweetness of pine nuts in particular; they're excellent baking nuts.

My next-favored nut is the more common almond. Chestnuts, walnuts and pecans, I can generally take or leave - I'm not fond of either the taste or the texture.

I was pleased to discover in the Chocolate chapter that Ms. Lawson shares my feelings about said substance: she's not inordinately fond of it, but believes when put to best use, it should be quality and subtly applied.

The Chocolate chapter, as in recipes that include it as an ingredient, was followed by the Children chapter, as in recipes that ... darn. Well, it's hard to get ripe children for dissection in this neighborhood anyway.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lemon, Lemon and a Side of Lemon

Life is uncertain: make dessert first. (Don't just eat it first: that's a waste. Eat it first, second, third and fourth.)

The cookies were simple to throw together until I reached the direction to press gently down on the cookies with the bottom of a brown-sugar-coated glass. I'm not sure whether there was a subtle, insidious rim on the bottom of the glass I was using, or whether this is just one of those things that works better in Perfect-Chef-Land than it does in real life, but I had a bear of a time accomplishing this and the sugar wasn't distributed very evenly.

Final verdict (cookies): They're growing on me, rather like fungus. My test-taste cookie was a disappointment: they're rather dry, even when done under the advertised time. My oven does run hot - in the sense of heat, not in the sense of winning America's Next Top Appliance Model - but I don't believe I overdid them. But then ... there's something in the taste that sends you back for another, and another ... this cookie gets my vote for sneaky addiction of the month. Another complaint is it doesn't make enough. Nigella Lawson claims about thirty; I cry foul. I got twenty-four, and they were fairly small. Next time, double. For this time, glad I still have ice cream.

For dinner, I came up with an elaborate villainous scheme for timing the spaghetti and the meatballs so I could be working on one while the other was in a baking stage. Alas, my plot was foiled by the reluctant hero / pasta pot, which took far longer to boil than I had anticipated.

Prep-work was a long haul. I hadn't anticipated how long it would take to chop the herbs. (Is that why they call it thyme?) I had bought three lemons, then realized that the recipe probably meant normal-people-lemons, not the massive, mutated spheres of perfection that seem to show up in Ohio grocery stores. Or at least my Ohio grocery store. So I still have one lemon left to use for world domination.

My mother and I discussed the meatballs yesterday. It's a good thing she didn't place money on it: she was convinced I wouldn't be able to find ground chicken, but bam, there it was. I soon discovered that there was barely enough pan for the meatballs. I have no idea how they didn't manage to stick to each other and metamorphisize into a chicken burger, but I managed thirty-ish lovely small meatballs. Next time, would do two batches, separately, so I could watch and flip them more easily.

Final verdict (pasta): Very good - but I love lemon. The amount of lemon in this pasta is not for the faint of heart. It's a very strong, distinct flavor. Makes way too much.

Final verdict (meatballs): Pretty tasty - they're quite moist, and one doesn't miss the beef. I don't think I chopped the garlic finely enough, but that still somehow managed to not be a problem.

Actually, this maybe should be "lemon, lemon and a side of brown sugar," as both the cookies and the meatballs included it ... but that just doesn't have the same ring.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 3/12

Leftover potato-fennel gratin joins forces with one of my favorite tastes, lemon, in the following menu:

Lemon Spaghetti - Everyday Italian (Giada De Laurentiis)
Zesty Chicken Meatballs
Sweet and Salty Peanut Cookies - How To Be A Domestic Goddess (Nigella Lawson)

Substitution notes:

Meatballs: 1 definite, 1 possible. I am not buying a new can of bread crumbs just so I can have whole-wheat breadcrumbs, use approximately half a slice worth, and have a loaf-in-a-can left. Dubious as to whether I can find ground chicken, so ground turkey is a likely substitute.

Lemon Spaghetti: 1. I have a lovely amount of fresh-grated peccorino romano, so will be using that instead of parmesan.

Great Gratin

Made today, along with steak, broccoli, cherry tomatoes and corn:

Tried out my new mandoline, and thought it wasn't working, because it was so smooth and easy. Then I noticed the slices of potato beneath it, and - triumph! Watch your oven (it might dance around the room): mine took significantly less than the recipe suggested to cook.

A very creamy, cheesy, smooth concoction. We (hi, Mom!) used less than half the amount of onions. More might increase the grease quotient.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mmm ... Ice Cream

Tonight, made kitchen-sink Indian and, for dessert, Raspberry Stracciatelle Ice Cream" ... without the stracciatelle. The best thing you can do for mixing hot cream into cool eggs is have four pairs of hands. I was skeptical, but an ice bath really does cool the mixture down - it's not a fast process, but it's effective. We used a roasting pan filled with ice water. (Note to self: make more ice in advance.)

Homemade ice cream is, indeed, obscenely good. I definitely will be delving into the murky deeps of other flavor possibilities. I may never been seen again.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cooking Class (Part 3)

Smile, you're on camera! This evening, someone had a fairly professional camera set-up, recording the class. I'm not sure what it was for - blackmail material? I don't think my hair was that bad. Or maybe they'd heard about my seafood allergy and were hoping to catch a dramatic first aid scene.

Through this class, I have discovered homemade ice cream, and it may be the death of me. (Maybe that was what the recording was for.) Other tastes I didn't realize I would like: watercress and bamboo shoots. (Though I learned that you don't see raw bamboo shoots because they contain a low level of cyanide. Again with the trying to kill me.)

More cutting tricks, including the idea of holding broccoli upside down and cutting the florets off along the path of least resistance. I succumbed to the lure of all these knife tips and bought myself a knife steel. Huzzah for sharp cutlery!

Some parts of this class were a refresher for me. I was already familiar with the principles behind mixing butter into flour in pea-shaped pieces, creating a flaky, layered crust, and the fact that fruits like mangos and pineapple have enzymes that break down gluten. In the end, however, it was all very satisfying.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Weekday Wilderness

Today, my mother and I cooperated to make Creamy Sweet Potato and Rosemary Soup. By cooperating, you should read that I conned her into doing all the knife-work. The shallots were intense - so much so that after they hit the pan, I had to close my eyes and almost couldn't open them again. Opened my eyes. Leaned over the pan. Went spinning away again. Yowsa.

Massive dutch oven had a bit too much surface area for easy use of the immersion blender. (Of course, immersion blender is older than my harp, which is starting to get long in the tooth itself, so I'm sure that didn't help.) The rosemary leaves aren't unpleasant, but it's worth getting some of the individual leaves out as well as the stems. The maple syrup and mascarpone may be gilding the lily, but it's a lily that tastes so perfect with gold plate.

Final verdict: Too sweet? No such thing. The soup is well-balanced for dinner and I wouldn't change a thing, except using a stew pot. My mother and I paired it with cinnamon raisin bread turkey sandwiches. (Another combination well worth trying.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Let Them Eat ...

The rosemary cake? Better than you could imagine possible with so few ingredients and such a simple construction process. I put it together with ease (which is a recommendation in itself, with my clutz level) this morning. Only note of ... note: Nigella says to bake for an hour. Mine was entirely done at fifty-one minutes. I am very glad I decided to pick a conservative number to do a doneness check. (Though I suppose fifty-one isn't conversative. I bet prime numbers are wild and carefree.)

My mother thought some chili would enhance it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Menu (Non) Plan: Weekend of 3/5

This weekend, my mother is flying in to visit, so I don't have a firm dining plan. I have a few dinners pulled from my file that I think she might like, and I'm going to ask her what she would prefer. I will also be throwing together one of my Indian creations ... which are getting to be a structured dish in of themselves, so perhaps I will post on the construction thereof.

However, on Saturday morning, I will be making a Rosemary Loaf Cake from Nigella Lawson's "How To Be A Domestic Goddess." This book is sheer joy: I could simply sit and read it for pleasure. Her commentary on the recipes, and even the way she phrases the directions within, is hilarious and occasionally poetic. And a book that talks about easy ways to look (or rather, cook) impressive? Sign me up.

I don't feel like buying self rising flour separately, so I am taking a small risk by looking at high-rated recipe / substitutes for it online. It's not any more complicated than adding baking powder and salt to the recipe. Stay tuned to find out if I eat my words (and not the cake).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cooking Class (Part 2)

Another informative cooking class with a hearty, delicious and versatile Italian menu. Once again, I learned a lot and had to restrain myself at times from licking the plates. I feel as if I spoke up a bit too much and asked too many questions ... and at the break, the instructor and I had some entertaining confusion when I tried to ask him how I could tell if there were recipes I couldn't cut down or "halve" - he thought I was talking about stuff I couldn't eat, given that I had already mentioned a shellfish allergy. Blasted homophones!

More knife tips and tricks: when cutting anything with a skin, make one cut through the skin and then make future cuts flesh first. Discussion of slurries (1:1 cornstarch and water, used for thickening pasta sauces) and emulsifications. The chef recommended measuring dry ingredients by weight whenever possible ... and did something simple but rather nifty, shaving cheese for the pasta using a vegetable peeler. Simple, easy.

The key lime pie recipe was really strong - as pleasantly bitter as sweet. I loved it, but I suspect people looking for a sweet dessert would not feel the same. I showed off my particular obsessions by taking the pasta primavera recipe and writing, "*Pine Nuts*" on it.