Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Finger-Lickin' Good

Lamb. What images does that word conjure? Fuzzy little ones kicking up their heels in a meadow? Rosy roasts for Easter dinner? A tough, stringy mess served with a neon green mint goo? I didn't really eat lamb growing up. We had some family friends who really enjoyed it, and always accompanied it with mint jelly. I recall thinking something along the lines of, "Whatever you have to put that green goo on, I am NOT eating." Some years later, as a college student, I went out to dinner with family, and my uncle raved about the rack of lamb at the restaurant we were going to. I decided to try it, as he is a trustworthy man, and I was presented with a lovely plate of frenched rack of lamb; rosy, juicy, with a savory crust and no trace of a gamey smell. It was an eye-opening dinner, and I have enjoyed rack of lamb many times since. Eventually I decided to try my hand at making it myself, especially after I found out that Hubband had not had the pleasure of trying it. I have made it several times, always with happy results. I hope to graduate to a leg of lamb attempt sometime this year. 
For now, this is my go-to rack recipe. We ate this Monday night paired with a spicy V. Sattui Zinfandel. The wine went beautifully with the lamb, and really picked up the earthiness of the wild mushroom barsotto beneath it. The lima beans had a dash of red chili flake added, again picking up the wine flavors. I finished it off with a drizzle of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, the last of a bottle that my sister gave to me for my birthday two years ago. (Sounds like a long time to hold onto vinegar, but this is a powerful elixir. A few drops will do!) The vinegar also paired wonderfully with the Zin. All in all, a dinner that made up for it being a Monday. 

Rack of Lamb with Shallot-Thyme Crust
adapted from Gourmet Magazine

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large shallots, chopped
Pinch salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (not the 25 year old!)
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs or panko bread crumbs
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme
1 rack of lamb, frenched and trimmed of as much fat as possible
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons dijon mustard

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and take out a small roasting pan. 
In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then saute the chopped shallots with salt and pepper until they are aromatic and golden brown. Turn the heat down to medium low and carefully add the balsamic vinegar. It will boil pretty rapidly and the liquid will evaporate. Don't let the pan go completely dry. Remove the pan from the heat stir in the breadcrumbs and the thyme leaves. Place the breadcrumb mixture in a bowl and set aside. Wipe out the same medium pan (as long as your rack fits into it) and heat the vegetable oil while you sprinkle some salt and pepper over all sides of the rack of lamb. Sear the rack of lamb on all sides until brown, then remove from the heat. Transfer the rack, rib side down, to the roasting pan, and spread the dijon all over the meat. Press on an even coating of the crumb mixture. Roast lamb 25-30 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers about 120 degrees at center. Let the rack rest 5-10 minutes before slicing. 

Friday, June 20, 2008

Free-Form Food

When I was younger, I liked to watch my mother cook. My favorite spot to watch from was a bend in the counter. I sat there, on the counter, taking up precious work space and swinging my feet into the lower cabinet when something was interesting. Why always the corner area on the counter? I don't know. My sister, my mom and I all still like to sit in the counter-corners in our respective kitchens. Sitting on the counter gave me an excellent view of everything going on. I could see into the pots, watching the sauce burble and bubble away happily. I could watch my mom cutting ingredients or opening things. I could sniff each seasoning as she put it into the pan. I loved those times, and I know that those hours spent on the counter are the times that this love affair with good food began. I don't remember Mom cooking from a book too often. She used them for baking, when exact measurements are needed, and she did have a little box of index cards, and although she would take out a card for a dish, she usually didn't look at it very much. She seemed to cook by memory and by taste, by look and feel. Maybe she would dispute my childish memory, but to me, Mom just knew that this needed a little more garlic, and that needed 2 more minutes. 
As I grew older, I began making what I called 'experimental food'. No recipes, no rules. Sometimes they were versions of dishes described on television, sometimes they were a thought as nebulous as "Well, ham and cheese sandwiches are can I put together ham and make the cheese sort of saucy and I like broccoli with cheese sauce too, so I'll put that in..." Some of those dishes turned out much better than I expected, and of course some were just a learning experience. One has even evolved over time into my signature soup recipe. 
These days, I've got more confidence, and I no longer feel the need to add the warning label of "experimental" to my recipe-less creations. Occasionally though, I do still label something as a 'fridge-cleaner'. Fridge-cleaners are recipes that can be twisted and turned to fit anything that's lying around in that crisper drawer or languishing in the freezer. This pasta can take any vegetable you throw at it. Here's what I used the other night: 

I sauteed some pancetta that was hiding in the freezer, chopped asparagus, broccoli, red bell peppers, and cremini mushrooms, and julienned some zucchini. Lots of yellow onion was already caramelizing on the stove as I took this photo. With some tiny tomatoes and fresh basil from our patio garden, I had the makings of a great fridge-cleaning comfort meal. I must confess, though: our fridge didn't really need cleaning. All of these vegetables were lovely and fresh, and fridge-cleaners are supposed to make greatness out of wilted, neglected veg. Why, then, did I make this dish? Because there was a lot of cutting to be done, and I really, really wanted to use this:
Isn't it gorgeous?! Hubband got me some surprises this week, and this was one of them. It's a Shun Ken Onion Santoku, and let's face it people, this is a sexy knife. It goes through veggies as if they're soft butter, and I just love it. (Yes Mom, I know I'm spoiled. And yes, I enjoy it.) Hubband got me other thoughtful gifts as well: a Santoku sharpener, a second bowl for my stand mixer, some silicone Le Creuset ingredient cups (see top photo), and one other thing that I think I'm going to save for another post. I know, the suspense is murder! After everything was sauteed, mixed with a little olive oil, garlic and chili flakes, tossed with whole-wheat spaghetti, and topped with crunchy sea salt, this is what we had:
It really is an adaptable dish, so I don't think I will put up a recipe. Just take your favorite veggies and saute them, caramelize onions for some sweetness, and mix it all with pasta. I used pancetta this time, I've used a sun-dried tomato-basil chicken sausage in the past, or you don't need any meat at all. Free-form food. Embrace it! 
And in just another example of the circle of life, a few weeks ago Hubband went away on a business trip and Mom came over for dinner and a movie. I made this dish for her, just chucking the ingredients in the pan willy-nilly, spending time with my mom in the kitchen again. This time, she sat on the counter. 

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Night Out

Some nights I just don't particularly feel like cooking. It's not that I really don't want to, but I just don't feel super-enthusiastic about it that night. Those are the nights that we go out, and because they don't happen very often, we tend to pick an upscale restaurant. Last Thursday was one of those nights, and we sat around for a while trying to pick what restaurant to go to. We are lucky to live in an area where there are quite a few nice places to choose from, which also makes things difficult occasionally. 
We decided on Todd English's bluezoo, which has some nice sentimental value for us. It was one of the first really nice dates we went on, and was also the place where I got Hubband to finally try some fish. (His horizons have, I'm happy to say, expanded greatly, and now he enjoys sushi all the time!) 
I called at 6pm for a reservation, and got one for 7pm, reinforcing our notion that this place is a bit of a hidden gem. It gets busier later at night, but for a place of such ambiance and quality, I'm shocked at how easily we've always managed to slip in. 
I started with seared diver scallops that were paired with a meltingly tender piece of braised beef shortrib on top of cauliflower puree. I've had this starter before, and it never disappoints. The scallops were seared and seasoned to perfection, with fabulous texture. The reduction sauce on the plate was intense and flavorful, and the garnish of pickled onion adds another layer of flavor, a little zing to the richness of the plate. 
Hubband started with a plate of hamachi (yellowtail) crudo. Sashimi-style hamachi, topped with slices of frozen grapes, accompanied by house-made coconut yogurt with a basil-lime center, watermelon, and 'nitro-ed' pineapple. (Todd English has begun dabbling in the current molecular gastronomy trend.) The fish was perfectly fresh and firm, and well seasoned. The first bite I stole from Hubband's plate was just fish and grape, and seemed salty, but when I quickly snagged another forkful with watermelon and yogurt, that salt made sense, as it was immediately cut by the sweetness of the other components. This plate was gorgeous, refreshing, and addictive. I want some right now. 
My entree was a deconstructed morel lasagna, with house-made pasta and herbed ricotta. I couldn't pass up the morels, as their short season is ending, and I was not disappointed. The morel pasta itself was obviously fresh-made, tender, and delicious. The ricotta was lighter than air, mild, creamy, a fabulous foil for the earthiness of the morels. Dressed generously with a sherry-butter sauce, fava beans, and more sauteed morels, it was wonderful, earthy, and powerfully satisfying. 
Hubband had the dish that introduced him to fabulous fish in the first place, miso-glazed sea bass. A block of snowy white, moist and tender sea bass with a glossy golden glaze, some of the most delicious sesame spinach you'll ever taste, (Honestly, I need to attempt to clone the recipe. If I was successful, I'd make it at least once a week.) and a delicate pea tendril salad. Excellent, as always. 
Feeling cheeky, we went for a dessert, which is really what forced this whole post. I should have taken pictures of every dish, as they were all beautiful, but to be perfectly honest, I was just thinking about enjoying the dinner and the evening, and not really thinking about this blog. (Shame! Shame!)
When this dessert came out, we were just so amused that I asked Hubband to take a picture with his phone. I apologize in advance for the less-than-pristine photo quality, but how could we resist this? 
That was our dessert. They call it a "zweet burger", with fries and ketchup. The burger bun is lemon cake, perfectly formed into a bun shape, with the top rolled in sesame seeds. Inside is a berry compote, with the 'cheese' composed of sheets of mandarin jelly (molecular gastronomy at work again!) The patty itself is citrus cream, dipped in hazelnut chocolate. Beneath the patty is another slice of mandarin jelly 'cheese' and the bun bottom. 
The 'fries' are beignets, fabulous alone or dipped in the berry-orange zest sorbet that's posing as ketchup.  I could have eaten at least a bathtub full of the sorbet alone, but berry flavors are an admitted weakness of mine. Raspberry coulis decorated the plate. Here's a view of all the layers inside the 'burger':

It was delicious, light, and fun, a great ending to a wonderful meal.
Some nights, it's just so nice to let someone else do the cooking. 

Friday, June 13, 2008

For the Man With Everything

It's a classic question: What to get for the man who has everything? 
My humbly submitted answer: A little bit of your time, energy, and chocolate supply.

Father's Day is coming, and my dad is hard to shop for. If your dad is as hard to shop for as mine is, you have my deep sympathy. I never know what to get him, and there's nothing he really needs, so I fell back on my old standby: cookies. I made two varieties, a classic peanut butter topped with a chocolate kiss, and a triple chocolate sandwiched with sweetened peanut butter. The first is a sentimental favorite of his from when I was very young, and the second is one that I introduced him to early this year as sort of an inverted form of the old favorite. 
I found the recipe in a cookbook I received last Christmas (Thank you Mom-and Dad-in-law!) and at first tried making it exactly as specified. It was tasty, but even with the three types of chocolate I found that the flavor, while satisfyingly chocolate-y, lacked some depth. I played around a little and found that with the addition of two little flavor enhancers, the chocolate really sang. They may raise an eyebrow when you read them, but your tongue won't pick out those two distinct flavors of salt and coffee. You'll only taste rich, deep chocolate. Besides, who can argue with a plate of these? 

Triple Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies
adapted from Trish Deseine

These cookies are very rich, and better if made small. 

4 ounces very good quality dark chocolate
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
scant 1 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup quality natural cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp instant coffee granules
4 ounces milk chocolate, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

2/3 cup peanut butter
7 tbsp confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Melt the dark chocolate and the butter in a large microwave-safe bowl. Let it cool for a few minutes, then stir in the sugar. Add the eggs and mix. Add flour, baking powder, cocoa powder, salt, and coffee granules and mix well. Stir in the milk chocolate pieces. Take a teaspoonful of the mixture at a time and place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. If you want very regular cookies, roll the dough into a ball with your hands before placing it on the sheet. Personally, I don't mind the rustic look. That's up to you. Repeat for the rest of the mixture, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between the cookies on the sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, cool on the sheet for 2 minutes, then gently move to a wire rack to finish cooling. 
While the cookies bake, mix together the peanut butter and confectioners' sugar. Spread a little on one cooled cookie, top with another, and press together lightly. Repeat, and eat. 

The cookies are baked, carefully packed, and mailed. I hope you enjoy them Dad, and have a great Father's Day. 

Thursday, June 12, 2008

CPK Copycat

Florida is a nice place to live. It's warm, there are always some sort of flowers blooming, there's no state income tax. Of course, there are some downsides to living here as well. The most unfortunate of these downsides is the lack of good pizza and chinese take-out. We do have CPK's around here, but as those of you familiar with 'California Pizza Kitchen' know, they do not deliver, and I don't always feel like going to the mall to get it. Luckily, several years ago my sister gifted me with a pizza stone and peel, and I have made good use of them. 

One of my CPK favorites is a Roasted Pepper and Goat Cheese, so that's what we made Wednesday night. I slapped together a whole-wheat dough, and we roasted eggplant, red and yellow bell peppers, mushrooms, and broccoli while I caramelized some onions and made a quick spicy red sauce. This is what we came up with:

Deeeeelicious! I know making our own pizza isn't exactly original, but people really seem to be surprised when we tell them that we do. All I know is that when we make pizza for friends and family, they really seem to love it, and that's what matters. 

Whole Wheat Pizza Crust
adapted from Silvana Franco

This crust is filling, so don't be surprised if you eat a piece less than you might normally. I like to roll it out nice and thin, and it gets quite crispy and delicious. I use yellow cornmeal on my pizza peel to keep the dough from sticking as I slide it into the oven. It works much better than just sprinkling flour on the peel, but if flour is all you have, be liberal. If you want to use all-purpose flour, reduce the water to 1/2 cup. 

1 2/3 cup whole-wheat flour, plus extra for sprinkling 
1/2 tsp salt
1 package active dry yeast (1/4 oz)
2 tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup tepid water

Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix just until combined. Make a well in the center and add the water and oil. Gradually work the flour into the liquid to create a soft dough. If it feels sticky, add a little flour. The dough should be pliable and smooth. If it is too dry, add a little water. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, sprinkling with flour as necessary to prevent any sticking. When the dough is smooth and elastic, rub a little oil on it and place back into the large bowl. Cover with a clean towel and place in a warm spot to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size. Remove dough to a lightly floured surface, knead for a minute, then roll out into a thin approximation of a circle. 
(If you have a big kitchen mixer, you can do all of the mixing and kneading with the dough hook attachment. Huzzah!) 

Sprinkle cornmeal or flour on the pizza peel and place the rolled-out dough on top. Thinly spread sauce or garlic oil on, then add your favorite toppings and cheese. Slide the pizza off the peel, onto a stone in a preheated 425 degree oven (be sure to place the pizza stone in when the oven is cold and let it gradually heat!) for 17-20 minutes, until cheese is melted and crust is crisp. 
Hubband and I also love barbecue chicken pizza with red onions and cheddar, or Thai chicken pizza with mozzarella, peanut sauce and bean sprouts. Sometimes we put on onions and wilted greens, and halfway through the cooking we crack a few eggs onto the pizza for breakfast-style. What are your favorite combinations? 

Prepare for the Deluge!

First off, I must apologize for taking so long between posts. I cooked nearly every day last week, but somehow, nothing was really photogenic. This week though, be ready. There's just a lot in the pipeline. Blog news, pizza, cookies, etc, etc. 

First off, blog news. 
You may have noticed there's a new addition to the sidebar on the left. That is the Foodie BlogRoll! I've been accepted as a member now that my food-centric blog is more than a month old. It's a fun thing; it will refresh to keep showing you the newest blogs added to the Foodie BlogRoll, as well as some that get randomly selected. It's a good way for us to get more traffic onto our blogs and share what we love with more and more people. So go on, click on some links, and explore what's cooking in the Foodie Blog World! 

And now, back to the eats!