Thursday, January 27, 2011

Meat and Potatoes

I made a mustard encrusted ribeye with brown sugar sweet potato fries. It was fantastic. 

Apparently the sweet potato is up there with the healthiest vegetable in the whole universe. This is straight from the Center for Science in the Public Interest over there in Washington, DC. These orange roots are full of complex carbohydrates, natural sugars, vitamins and nutrients. More importantly, they're an awesome winter comfort food.

Peel and cut sweet potatoes into desired shape and size. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil, a couple cranks of pepper, a sprinkle of salt and two or three teaspoons of brown sugar. Spread the future french fries on a pan and throw in a few sprigs of thyme. Put the lovely potatoes in a 450 oven for half an hour. Every 10 minutes give the it a big flip so all sides get caramelized, crispy and browned .

And now: the MEAT. Preparing this meal made me realize I need to find a good butcher. While I'm happy with my thin cut boneless ribeye, its not what I had in mind. The ribeye is great for pan frying at home, it's tremendously tender, and it has delicious fat that melts in your mouth when you bite into it. A couple of beef tricks: let meat get to room temperature so the flesh doesn't freak out when it sears on the sizzling hot pan. Tenderize the bologna out of your beef. I stabbed my ribeye with a fork about fifty times on either side. Let it rest after cooking; this will make a world of difference.

While the beef is getting to room temperature rub a teaspoon of honey and a tablespoon of course ground mustard as well as salt and pepper on either side and let everyone get to know each other. In a caste iron pan, start to heat up some olive oil and a few sprigs of thyme. While the oil is heating up, you might as well infuse it with left over herbs from a side dish. Take the empty thyme branches out the the hot, hot, hot pan and throw in that beautiful piece of meat. Don't really throw it though. In fact, be careful of the hot olive oil jumping on your arm. This was a particularly thin cut, so I only had to sear it for 3 minutes on either side. Remove seared steak from the pan, plate and cover in tin foil for 5-10 minutes before you enjoy.

I repeat: this was fantastic. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Glorious Pancakes

I've never really been a fan of pancakes. I'm way more of a french toast kind a gal. I have sad nostalgia of bisquick mix with crappy 'pancake syrup' or late nights of never ending stacks of IHOP whenever I think about this breakfast favorite. It blew my mind, though, that real pancake recipes are so simple. I used dozens of standard and untraditional recipes and came up with two super easy and incredibly different flap jacks. And screw syrup, get excited for blueberry sauce. 

First up: the baked pancake (pictured above). Just look at that puffy piece of heaven! Okay, totally deflates the second you take it out of the oven but that doesn't take away from its deliciousness and easiness. My hand crank egg beater and mini iron skillet were ideal for this delicacy. The hand crank wont over mix the ingredients and the skillet goes in and out of the 425 oven with ease (by the way, preheat oven to 425). I stayed true to about 90% of this recipe from the Essential New York Times Cookbook.

Mix 1/3 cup flour, a tablespoon sugar, and a pinch of cinnamon and salt together. Lightly beat 2 eggs and half a cup of milk in another bowl. Combine dry and wet ingredients. Butter the crap out of your skillet, pour in the batter, and stick it in the oven. I made two batches using my 6 inch diameter caste iron skillet. It should take about 20 minutes or until all the giant heat bubbles around the edges have browned. Now your almost done. Once your baked-cake has reached a stunning golden brown, take it out of the oven. Give it a sprinkle of about half a tablespoon of sugar, a squeeze of lemon and put it right back in for two minutes, or as long as you can make yourself wait. I made it two minutes. The pancake comes out of the skillet with buttery easy and has a crepe like consistency with lovely, crunchy, rounded edges. Lemon sugar crepes are as classic as crepes get so its not a surprise nothing had to be added to this delicious baked pancake. But, like, you totally could add some killer blueberry sauce. I mean, no pressure, but you could.


Speaking of easy awesomeness, this sauce fits the bill. The magnificent Barefoot Contessa is to thank for this recipe. I only had to tamper with one ingredient because I didn't have vanilla infused sugar on hand. Anyhoo, put a pint and a half of pretty little blueberries, a cup of sugar, a splash of vanilla, the juice of half a lemon, and a cup of water in a sauce pan. Bring mixture to a boil while stirring occasionally, then drop the heat down to a simmer for about 15 minutes. The Contessa strains the sauce through "a fine sieve." I enjoy the texture of cooked blueberries and don't own a fancy sleeve so I left the sauce as is. 

While the baked crepe was a deflated delight, I wanted to do the pancake justice. I knew a dairy was going to be the star of the show but I couldn't decide between sour cream or yogurt, so I used both. Combine one and a half cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons baking powder, and a pinch of salt. In another bowl whisk together 2 eggs, 1/4 cup milk, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1/4 cup vanilla greek yogurt, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, a little lemon zest, and a splash of vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, mixing only until combined. Fry in tons of salted butter. 

These were some killer flap jacks. The yogurt and sour cream gave them this wonderful consistency of fluffy and full at the same time. I used Chobani vanilla greek yogurt, which turned out to be a surprisingly commanding yet welcomed flavor. Its subtle sweetness balanced perfectly with the salty butter the batter was fried in but didn't overpower the lovely blueberry sauce. Hints of lemon in the batter and sauce really brightened up the whole dish.

I like pancakes a lot now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Zesty Fettuccine

I wanted pasta today. Delicious noodles with tons of flavor and texture and cheeeeeeese. Nothing too heavy or over-sauced though, I craved the perfect balanced of heartiness and brightness. A buttery cream sauce, check. Broccoli with a bite, why not? Juicy grilled chicken, clutch. A touch of red pepper flakes to spice it up with tons of lemon to bring it all together. Bon appetite.

I washed, chopped, and threw some broccoli in a small baking pan. Toss the little green trees with salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon love (a sprinkle of zest and the squeeze of a lemon half). Stick the pan in a 400 oven for about 15 minutes. Give the broccoli and shimmy or two while roasting.

I had big fat chicken breasts. I wanted to give them a nice sear before sticking them in the oven so they'd be super juicy. Seasoned the same as the broccoli (salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon love), I seared the chicken on a sizzling hot pan until each side had a gorgeous, crispy, brown skin. I gave the chicken one more lemon squeeze, threw the lemon skeleton in the with the chicken, and stuck my favorite little caste iron pan right in the oven.

I use the finger trick to check for doneness when cooking meats such as chicken or thicker cuts of beef. Touch your thumb to your pointer finger without tensing the muscles in your hand. With your other hand poke the fleshy pillow at the bottom corner of your palm and base of your thumb; this is the density of raw meat. Feel the bounce? Touch your thumb to your pinky finger; this is the density of well done. Touching your middle and ring fingers is medium and medium well. Compare the bounciness and firmness of your palm to the meat. Don't forget it's always a good idea to let meat sit a bit after it's taken off the heat. As the meat sits it will continue to cook. In this case, don't keep a thick chicken breast in the oven past a ring finger. At 400, my chicken took about 15 minutes. After the chicken sits a few minutes, slice and set aside.

There are a few golden rules when cooking pasta. Don't add pasta until water is HOT. A bubble or two is not a rapid boil, wait until that water is going crazy. Always add a splash of olive oil; this helps stop the noodles from sticking to each other. Stir! This will really help stop the noodles from sticking to each other. Add a heavy sprinkle of salt, because salt makes life delicious. Utilize pasta water. Noodle infused H2O is great when fiddling with sauce consistency; for example, if a sauce is thickening up just add pasta water to thin it out without destroying the flavor.

Using the golden rules, make a serving of pasta. In the meantime, melt two tablespoons of butter in a little saucer on a low heat. Throw in a clove of chopped garlic, stir around and cook slowly. Before the garlic browns add about a quarter cup of heavy cream, pinch of salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Stirring often, let the concoction simmer and reduce a bit. Once the pasta has that perfect al dente bite, strain and immediately add to sauce. As you mix the pasta and sauce, start to sprinkle in grated parmesan cheese. Keep mixing! Melted parmesan clumps together easily. Too thick? Well its a good thing you saved some pasta water. You're so smart. After you add a nice handful of cheese, squeeze the juice of a lemon half all over the pasta. One more stir and it's ready to plate. Top with chicken, broccoli and a lemon wedge.

I think it goes without saying that a final sprinkle of parmesan finishes the dish. While you're at it, go ahead and squeeze some more lemon love if you like.

The broccoli, chicken, and sauce all have a bright lemon pep that is beautifully balanced by the salty cheese and red pepper flakes. The crunch from the roasted chicken and broccoli is a great texture countered by the soft fettuccine. A smooth Chardonay is a lovely pairing, something velvety with a hint of citrus.

Well, I'm satisfied.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Grapefruit with honey

That's it. Two happy ingredients. 

When life gives you lemons you make lemonade. Lemons are awesome, you just have to add a little sugary love to bring out its natural goodness. Same goes for Grapefruits. When smothered in yummy honey, this pink citrus is just delightful. 

Depending on the bitterness of the grapefruit, I'll give it a sprinkle of sea salt. Salt is magical like that. It will enhance the beautiful sweetness of the fruit and mellow its bitterness. The best and easiest way to enjoy a grapefruit is cut in half. Use a paring knife to cut along the edges of inner skin making for adorable individual triangles. A spoon with a sharper point will get the most rosy flesh. When you're done, you'd be a fool not to drink the mother of all juices waiting for you in the citrus skeleton.

With the holidays long gone, winter has lost its pizazz....and we still have at least one more month of cold grey coldness with a guarantee of even colder to come. Grapefruit and honey is like a bright bowl of sunshine for breakfast. Yum, sunshine.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vinegar Strawberries with Vanilla Whipped Cream

Even after the heaviest of heavy meals, there is always room for dessert. It is a scientific fact that there is a separate, secret stomach in all humans that is meant for sweets and sweets alone. If you're feeling the pressure from a particularly hearty meal, pour a stiff aperitif and enjoy this incredibly satisfying fluffy treat. Your dessert stomach will thank you.

I was lucky enough to stay with a short, cranky, old patriot named Enriqueta while living in Spain. For five months I lived with a fleeting temper and no tolerance for anything American. She had a hell of a sense of humor mocking the U.S. and our inferior ways. Of the biggest inferiorities? Cooking. So I wouldn't taint her cooking with American mistakes, I was only allowed to cut fruits and veggies and watch her do the rest. She was my Spanish grandmother; my abuela from anotha' motha'. Vinegar Strawberries was one of my first lessons.

Cutting strawberries for dessert was a daily duty. I would put the cleaned, trimmed, and cut strawberries in a bowl. Enriqueta would add a splash or two of good vinegar, a spoonful or two or granulated sugar, a pinch of sea salt, and a couple cranks of a pepper mill. I much prefer eyeing the ingredients, but for the meticulous folks out there: when using one pint of cut strawberries add 3 tablespoons vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, pinch of salt, 2 cranks of pepper. Then let it chill out for a bit at room temperature. This is super important. All the juices and flavors need to get to know each other for at least an hour. Once an awesome syrup comes together at the bottom of the bowl, give the berries a big stir and stick it in the fridge. 

When I pester my real grandma in her kitchen, to this day, she has me make the whipped cream. She uses a hand-crank egg beater so it only makes sense that I put my young joints to good use. I bought and use the same tool for economical and nostalgic purposes. By crank or by electricity, whipped cream is super easy to make. Stick a bowl in the freezer ahead of time. Put heavy whipping cream and a splash of vanilla extract in chilled bowl and start cranking. Add one or two spoonfuls of sugar to the cream throughout the whipping process. When the cream starts to thicken, give it a taste. If you think it needs more sugar, by all means add more sugar, but be careful not to over do it! Heavy whipping cream has a natural deliciousness that only need a bit of sugar to enhance. Crank away at a fast and steady pace until firm peaks form when the egg beater is held upside-down. Voila. 

I enjoyed the marinated strawberries and cream with some whiskey. Specifically, The Knot. This Irish whiskey has the qualities of a cordial or liqueur. It has a deep caramel color, and smells of vanilla. The Knot's chocolatey taste paired perfectly with the traditional berries and cream combo while its smokey whiskey flavors complimented the stellar vinegar syrup. 

Thanks grandmas, abuelas and irish whiskey. And don't ever ignore your dessert stomach! This dish is light and airy enough to be fully enjoy even on a full stomach. A 100 proof aperitif (such as The Knot) will also make digestion that much more pleasant, at least temporarily. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mmmm Brussels Sprouts.

It took me 20 years, but I finally fell in love with brussels sprouts. I remember the brussels sprouts dish that changed my brussels sprouts life forever. At Crispo, an Italian restaurant in the West Village, my dad (a life-long brussels sprouts devotee) ordered "Caramelized Brussels Sprouts, Maple & Almond." Now that would have been good enough as described but this restaurant specializes in prosciutto and they do it right with big, fat, smoked piggy legs hanging on the walls. After the little cabbage balls caramelize in a bit of maple syrup and are sprinkled with toasted almonds, it's dumped in a craft, covered in thin strips of mouth watering prosciutto, and baked until salty, hammy, pig fat steams and drips down on the brussels sprouts. yum.

This dish epitomizes the universal rule that bacon flavored vegetables are awesome. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But in general, how do you make guaranteed delicious roasted veggies? Add bacon. Brussels Sprouts tossed in the fat from frying bacon and roasted for around half an hour  at 400 are just delightful. Same goes for asparagus, green beans or broccoli. 

I made this side dish a meal as a frittata. Eggs, cream, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, parmesan cheese, and bacon fat sauteed brussels sprouts. I use a fantastic mini cast iron fry pan when I make frittatas, which is becoming more and more often. I can lightly scramble everything, smother it in cheese, and stick the whole pan right in the oven under the broiler for a few minutes. Nom nom nom noms.