Friday, August 29, 2008

The Ubiquitous Cookies

These cookies are everywhere. It seems like everyone in the food-blog-iverse has tried out these cookies recently, and with good reason. David Leite basically proclaimed them to be THE definitive chocolate chip cookie in The New York Times. That's a pretty big statement. True, he did go through a fair amount of trial and error, research and tasting, and he called in some big star-power to help him out (Jacques Torres, French confectionary god), but that's still a pretty big statement. People everywhere have taken the bait and tried his cookie. Who am I to fight the tide? 
Four things of note in this recipe: It calls for 24-36 hours of chilling time, to allow flavors to develop in the dough. It lists two types of flour, neither of which is all-purpose. It also calls for sea salt to be sprinkled on top of the cookie before baking. As a big fan of sweet/salty combos, I'm fine with that. Lastly, it requires bittersweet chocolate feves to be used. Feves are (expensive) oval disks of high-quality chocolate. They can be difficult to find, and for many, a lot more than you might want to spend to make a cookie. 
I made the dough on a Tuesday afternoon, and decided to do a little research of my own. I would bake off a few cookies after the dough had sat for 3 hours, then a few more 24 hours after that, and the rest after the full 36 hours. I also varied the timing of the salt topping. All in all, I discovered that while delicious soon after making the dough, it does benefit from the chilling time specified in the recipe. The freshly made dough is a little salty, before the sea salt even gets sprinkled on, and the rest time allows that saltiness to disperse and round out the other flavors. I also found that I preferred sprinkling the cookies with sea salt about 3/4 of the way through the cooking process, instead of on the dough before it goes into the oven. 

Conclusions? These are great cookies. They have crisp buttery edges, but maintain a soft chewy center. Hubband thinks they should replace the standard recipe in my repertoire. Mom loves them, including the salt topping, which is a little surprising considering she doesn't eat much salt. And my niece? Well, let's just say these cookies are:

"Blogger tested, niece approved."

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from The New York Times, David Leite, and Jacques Torres 

The original recipe calls for cake flour and bread flour. I actually had cake flour, but not bread. Bread flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour, and thus makes things a little chewier. I think it would be worth trying the bread flour another time, but I didn't feel like making a trip to the store just for that. I used all-purpose instead, and the texture was still very nice. I also didn't want to go looking for chocolate feves, so I used some dark Ghiradelli chips I had on hand. 

8.5 oz cake flour (2 C minus 2 Tb)
8.5 oz all-purpose flour (1 2/3 C)
1 1/4 Tsp baking soda
1 1/2 Tsp baking powder
1 1/2 Tsp kosher salt 
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
10 oz light brown sugar (1 1/4 C)
8 oz granulated sugar (1 C + 2 Tb)
2 large eggs
2 Tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 lbs dark chocolate chips or chunks

Combine dry ingredients (flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt) in a bowl, mix, and set aside. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars together, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until it is lighter in color and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla extract. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula, add dry ingredients, and mix on low until just combined. Add the chocolate, and mix just until incorporated. Press plastic wrap on the surface of the dough and refrigerate as long as you can resist the oven's siren call, hopefully 24-36 hours. 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and remove the bowl of dough from the fridge to slightly soften. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or some parchment paper. I used an ice cream scoop to portion the dough; mine holds about 2.5 Tb. Scoop 6 balls of dough onto the baking sheet, evenly spacing them. Roll between your hands for a smoother looking cookie. Bake for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake for 4 more minutes, or until golden brown but still soft. Let sit on the baking sheet for a few minutes to firm up, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Repeat with remaining dough. 

Monday, August 25, 2008

Makin' Bacon, Part 2

Those of you familiar with this blog know that I made my own bacon a few weeks ago for the first time. You may also remember that one of the mini-slabs that I cured was destined to become pancetta, the unsmoked Italian form of bacon. After being steeped in a flavorful cure of salt, sugar, garlic, thyme, juniper berries, bay leaves, black pepper and nutmeg for a week, then rinsed and dried, I rolled the slab into as tight a cylinder as I could muster, and tied it with cotton twine. I hung it up in an old beverage fridge that maintains a constant 58 degrees, no matter what, for 2 weeks, and Voila! 
My very own pancetta! Hanging it up for the two weeks dried and firmed it a little, and will supposedly deepen the flavor. I haven't had an opportunity to use it yet, but I couldn't wait to share with you. 

Thursday, August 21, 2008

'Pig'ging Out

As much as I love to cook, I also deeply enjoy going out to great restaurants, and last Saturday Hubband and I tried a new one: The Ravenous Pig. After having read great reviews in various magazines several months ago, we'd put it on our list of places to try. We still hadn't gotten around to it until we found out that Bottle Shock (a movie about the headline-grabbing 1976 California wine victory) was in limited release and playing in Winter Park, just down the street from The Ravenous Pig. It seemed serendipitous. 
We arrived just after 5:30, opening time, and were seated right away without a reservation, although typically I would recommend one; this is a popular place. The decor was warm and cozy, and we immediately felt comfortable. The restaurant, which prefers to be known as an "American Gastropub", has an ever-changing seasonal menu, sourced locally and organically as much as possible. We started with a house-made Salumi platter, which included traditional prosciutto, fennel salumi, chorizo-mole salumi, duck breast prosciutto, and tallegio cheese, along with garnishes of toasted bread, pickled okra, and arugula salad. All delicious, and of high-quality. We followed with salads; the Gatherer for me and the Gardener for him, but of course we shared. Sharing is caring, people. The Gatherer consisted of greens tossed with beets, goat cheese, pistachios, avocado and an herb vinaigrette. Absolutely delicious. The Gardener, however, was a totally different animal. It was more of a tart: a thin round of crisp, buttery dough topped with soft onions and oven-dried tomatoes. The tart itself was then topped with a small salad of greens, fennel, almonds, roasted garlic, and a sherry vinaigrette. The tomatoes though...oh my heaven those tomatoes. Obviously of perfect quality to begin with, they had been slowly oven-dried for hours, resulting in dense, sweet, RICH tomato flavor. They were closer to the flavor of tomato paste than fresh tomatoes. Hubband immediately asked that I experiment with that technique at home. That tart/salad was so good, I could eat one for lunch every day, no problem. 
Our entrees followed, and didn't disappoint. I had seared diver scallops with pork cheek hash and charred corn relish. But honestly, how could I be anything but happy? So many of my favorite things on one plate! And done so well! The scallops were seared to perfection, the hash was tender and and deeply porky, with the body to stand up to those buttery scallops, and the smokiness of the charred corn pulled it all together. Hubband had black grouper, with a saffron-chorizo broth, clams, and fingerling potatoes. It was just as great. Tender clams, moist fish, and a rich, lip-smacking broth. The fingerling potatoes were drizzled with a tiny bit of lemon aioli, which added a really nice acidic contrast. We of course perused the wine list as we made our way through the meal, and it was a very interesting one. They prefer organic and biodynamic wineries, and our server was very knowledgeable. He had great recommendations, and very generous pours. As we wanted to be sure we were going to make our movie, we skipped dessert, but I have absolutely no doubt we will be back again and we will be sure to make time for it. 
The Ravenous Pig, overall, was great. Cozy and friendly, with smart staff, imaginative food, and an eclectic wine list. It's a little pricey, but in my view, it's worth it. 
I do apologize for the lack of photos, and I hate to leave a post so unadorned, so here's a little one to make up for it: 
"Did you bring home a Doggy Bag?"

Monday, August 18, 2008

Keeping It Cool

A few weeks ago we went to dinner at a local Greek restaurant with good friends T. and J. The restaurant was insane; the loudest place I have ever tried to eat in, with servers throwing napkins everywhere and belly dancers sidling up to, and sometimes on top of, tables. Needless to say, it was a good time. Another plus? The sangria was excellent. We had hummus, Tzatziki, and Saginaki, a flaming dish of broiled salty cheese, for starters. We followed with various entrees, mine being a lamb kebob. I enjoyed the oregano and lemon on the meat, and put it on my mental list of flavors to play with at home. The Tzatziki, a combination of thick yogurt, cucumber, and dill, reminded me of a simple cucumber salad I used to make, which was just sliced cucumbers, sour cream, and dill. I added it to my mental list as well. 

Florida is hot in August. I may have mentioned this before. It's most likely something you could have guessed on your own. Still, it provides motivation to look for meals that aren't going to completely negate the effects of air conditioning. On a scorcher of a day recently, I decided not to turn on the stove at all, and turned to those refreshing Greek flavors to make a simple grilled dinner a little more interesting. I mixed chopped oregano with lemon zest, minced garlic, salt, and pepper and rubbed it beneath the skin of a chicken, letting it marinate for an hour or so. I made a simple oregano-infused oil to brush on the vegetables, and mixed up some Tzatziki for dipping. The chicken went on the rotisserie attachment to the grill, the veggies beneath, and the Tzatziki came together in about 5 minutes. It was a great summer evening dinner.


Greek yogurt is getting easier to find, but if you can't, it is possible to use regular yogurt. Be sure it doesn't have any added stabilizers like food starch, gelatin, or gums. Line a strainer with a few coffee filters and put 2 cups of regular yogurt in it. Set the strainer into a deep bowl that will allow drained liquid to sit without touching the strainer. Cover the setup tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate 10-12 hours, or until about a cup of liquid has drained out of the yogurt. 
Feel free to add more or less dill to your taste. I find it to be a very strong herb.
I use 'English' cucumbers, which have fewer seeds and thinner skins. If you have a regular cucumber, you may wish to peel the thick waxy skin.

1 medium cucumber, halved and seeded
1 C plain whole-milk Greek or Greek-style yogurt
2 Tb olive oil
1 Tb + 1 Tsp chopped dill leaves (try mint for a change)
2 Tb lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced 
Salt and pepper, to taste

Shred the cucumber on the large holes of a box grater. Whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, dill, lemon juice, garlic, and salt and pepper. Mix in cucumbers. Check for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, dill, or lemon as you like. Serve chilled. 

Friday, August 15, 2008

Makin' Bacon

Way back in May I mentioned on this blog that I was noodling over the idea of making my own bacon. The idea never really went away, and as soon as I secured the meat (hard to find!) and help from my brother-in-law to smoke it (easy once I said 'Bacon'), things got underway. 
This is a slab of raw, uncured pork belly, about 6 lbs. I used two.

After trimming the slabs to square off the edges, and cutting them in half so they would eventually fit into gallon-size bags, and later, the smoker, I turned my attention to the cure. The cure is what makes bacon bacon, and not pork belly. It is a combination of salt and sugar, along with a little sodium nitrite to preserve the pink color and ward off any nasty microbes. I decided to try various flavors among my 4 hunks of pork. Two had a mix of brown sugar and cracked black peppercorns added to their cure. The third had 1/2 cup of pure maple syrup added, and the fourth is becoming pancetta. (Pancetta is an Italian form of bacon. Unsmoked, with a very aromatic cure, it adds amazing flavor to whatever you put it in.)
Here are the mini-slabs after being rubbed with cure:

On the left is a brown sugar-black pepper slab, in the middle is the maple syrup slab, and on the right is the pancetta. You can see how much seasoning is on the pancetta: thyme, garlic, peppercorns, juniper berries, ground nutmeg...I can't wait to try it! After sitting in the cure, flipping the bags every other day and checking for firmness, rinsing, drying, and letting them sit to form a smoke-absorbing pellicle, I packed them up and went over to my sister and brother-in-law's house to smoke them. We used applewood chips in a propane-fired smoker, and cooked at 200 degrees until the bacon reached 150 degrees internally. The pancetta, as mentioned earlier, didn't get smoked. It got rinsed, dried, sprinkled with a little more pepper, rolled, tied, and is currently hanging in an old beverage fridge in my laundry room. The fridge tends to stay at 58 degrees no matter how hard it works, which just happens to be in the perfect temperature range for curing meats. It will hang there for about two weeks to firm up a little, and then will be sliced into portions and saved. After a little taste test with brother-in-law, I sliced them off a big hunk of brown sugar-black pepper bacon, and brought the rest home to portion out. 

Didn't the smoke make it pretty? 

All in all, I'd say it was a very successful first attempt. The salt level was good, the smoke was detectable and tasty, and the thick slices (after cooking) were crisp on the outside, and chewy on the inside. Very satisfying. I do want to do a little more work on the flavoring side, to make it more intense. I'm pretty proud of the finished product though, and I will absolutely be making it again. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Taste of Summer

I've always been the kind of person that craves. When I was young, if I really wanted a certain breakfast cereal, and we were all out, I didn't stop thinking about it until the next trip to the store. (Sorry Mom, that had to be annoying.) Sometimes a mouthful is really all I need; just a single taste of that one deeply wanted thing is enough. Chocolate is a perfect example. If I really want some chocolate, and I can't stop thinking about it, I can go to the pantry, pop 4 or 5 little chocolate chips in my mouth, and that's it. Craving satisfied, crisis averted. I plan a menu for the week based on what I think I might want, but it's flexible. If a craving hits, I try to satisfy it, within reason. Ignoring it has never really worked out, but for some reason, I still try. 
For a few weeks in July, I couldn't stop thinking about watermelon. Not just a chunk of watermelon though...I wanted watermelon with red onions, and some firm, salty cheese. With a tang of vinegar, maybe. I had no idea where this concept of flavors was coming from, and it seemed a little odd to me, so I attempted to ignore it...totally unsuccessfully. Every trip to the store, I lingered near the melons. I picked up red onions for quesadillas but couldn't put them in the basket without thinking of my salad. Finally, just before the end of the month, I realized that I had had a salad similar to my watermelon daydream at a restaurant here in Orlando...the restaurant we were planning on eating at that very week! I had had it just over a year before, and forgotten all about it until suddenly that mix came into my mind. Unfortunately for me, that salad was no longer on their often-changing seasonal menu, but it was compensated for by some of the best heirloom tomatoes I've ever had. 
Finally, I gave in, bought a little seedless watermelon, and made my salad. It was so light, summery, and refreshing that I made it again two days later for Hubband. And then I bought another watermelon and made it again yesterday for lunch. It's so simple that there isn't a real recipe, just a list of ingredients. 

Watermelon Salad
Inspired by the California Grill

Watermelon, seedless, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
Tender greens: I used mache, but try baby spinach or arugula too!
Firm, slightly salty cheese: I used ricotta salata, but feta would also be nice. 
Red onion: sliced as thinly as possible
Sherry vinegar

Toss the washed greens with the cubed watermelon, crumbled or shredded cheese, and onion in proportions that look appetizing to you. Use less onion if you like, or more cheese. Sprinkle the salad with a little bit of salt, then drizzle it with some sherry vinegar. Start with just a little, and add more until you get to your desired level of 'zing'. Some herbs would also be nice: try adding mint or parsley!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bursting with Potential

I guess there must just something about the color green. When I was young, I asked my mom to paint my room that color. I've always liked green shirts. I have a big green blanket that I snuggle under on the couch. Most people would say my eyes are green (although Mom likes to needle me by saying that the few yellow-brown specks around my pupils make them hazel). One of my favorite things about Florida is the year-round green landscape. My kitchen is painted green. And this is my second post featuring a steak with a green sauce. 

The first post featured a brilliantly bright green, spicy, garlicky sauce to be used in small, potent quantities. This green sauce, however, is a whole different animal. It's a beautiful deep green, herbal, with a smooth flavor that can complement so many things. It's a Chimichurri. 

Chimichurri is a popular condiment, most often associated with Argentina. There are as many recipes as there are people, but it is always heavy on the herbs and mixed with garlic, salt, pepper, and oil. Typically it is used on grilled meats, which is how I paired it the night I made it, but since then, I have been using the leftovers on scrambled eggs. (Yes, I had green eggs and ham for breakfast yesterday.) I think it would be great not just on steaks, but on chicken, pork, pizza, as a dipping sauce for great bread, or drizzled on fresh tomatoes. The herbal freshness is just perfect for a hot Florida summer. 

1 cup parsley leaves (pack into the cup to measure)
1/4 c shallot, very finely minced
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 C olive oil
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
2 Tb water

Place parsley and garlic in a food processor and process until finely minced, stopping as needed to scrape down the bowl. (You can also do this by hand. Just mince them together as finely as possible.) Remove from the food processor and whisk in the oil, vinegar, shallots, salt, and pepper. Thin with up to 2 Tb water as you see fit. Taste, adjust seasoning to your liking, and serve. 

Note: All of the pictures in this blog blow up to a larger size if you click on them. If you happen to do this with the photo in this post, you may notice a book in the corner of the photo. Lest you get the wrong idea about this household from the title, let me explain that is called "Porn for Women", and is a book of postcards featuring shirtless men doing things like vacuuming, ironing, and buying chocolate. Next time, I will check the photo more closely for unwanted props before diving in for dinner. 

Monday, August 4, 2008

Pillowy Pretzel-y Goodness

Lately I have been hearing pleas from my dedicated readers (namely Hubband and very good friend T.) to post more often.  I have gotten out of sync as far as menu planning and shopping thanks to some home improvement projects recently, but for the next few weeks time is going to be on my side and I'm hoping to update this pet project more frequently. I've got a few ideas in mind that I hope will translate to shareable, photograph-worthy meals. No guarantees...I have a slight perfectionist streak, and if you're going to take time out of your busy day to read this blog and look at my photos, then you deserve only the best. I don't like posting something that didn't work out unless I've got a solution or alternative. This is my last catch-up post, at least for a little while. 
I made these rolls for our July 4th celebrations, continuing my habit of planning on a recipe I've never tested to feed guests. Those golden rules of entertaining were meant to be broken, right? Fortunately for me, the gamble paid off, and everyone seemed to enjoy these little beauties. They had a real pretzel flavor and a slight sweetness, and I loved the moderately dense, chewy texture. We served them as a dinner roll, but I think they lend themselves to endless uses. I'm dreaming about making a breakfast egg sandwich with them. Hubband has casually mentioned them several times since, so I think I'll have to make them again soon. 

Bavarian Pretzel Rolls 
slightly adapted from RecipeZaar

I shaped them into typical round buns, but a knot or old-fashioned pretzel shape would be fun to try. I did actually end up making this recipe twice in a night thanks to unreliable yeast in the first batch (shame on me for trying a new brand), but I really didn't find this recipe to be difficult. Just be sure to closely read the instructions before beginning. I prefer a heavy sprinkling of salt on the dough to really enhance the flavor, but I'm leaving the amount open for your personal preference. 

1 1/3 c warm water (between 100 and 110 degrees F, if you're inclined to check)
2 Tb warm milk (same temp as above)
2 1/2 tsp (one packet) active dry yeast
2 Tb butter, melted
1/3 C light brown sugar
4 C all-purpose flour (next time I'm going to try substituting half whole-wheat flour for fun)
kosher salt or pretzel salt
3 quarts water 
1/2 C baking soda

Fit the dough hook attachment to a stand mixer. To the bowl, add 1/3 C of the warm water and the yeast and let stand 5 minutes or until foamy. Add the remaining water, the milk, melted butter, and sugar and mix to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the mixer and add the flour, then begin mixing on lowest setting to prevent a flour cloud from erupting. Increase the speed to medium low, and continue mixing until the dough forms a nice, pliable but firm dough ball. It shouldn't be very sticky, so add a few Tb of flour more if necessary. 
Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and place on a lightly floured surface. Knead by hand for about 2 minutes, until the dough is nice and smooth, and then use your hands to form the dough into a 12-inch long cylinder. Cut into 12 even pieces. Cover the pieces with a damp paper towel, and then place a piece of plastic wrap on top of that. Let sit for 10 minutes, during which time they should start to rise. 
Set aside the plastic wrap for later, and discard the paper towel. Pat each piece of dough into your desired shape and arrange on a lightly floured surface, leaving about an inch of space between them. Lightly spray the piece of plastic wrap with cooking spray, and cover the rolls. Let them rest and rise for an additional 30 minutes. 
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425 F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly spray the parchment with cooking spray. 
In a large stockpot, bring two quarts of the water to a boil. Keep the remaining quart nearby and hot. The water will diminish as you boil the rolls, and if you don't add water to the pot as you go, the last rolls will taste unbearably of baking soda. I learned this the first time I attempted pretzels a few years ago. Keeping the fill-up quart of water hot just means you'll have less time waiting for the pot to regain the boil. Once the first 2 quarts of water boils, carefully add the baking soda. This will cause a big profusion of bubbles, and if you haven't used a nice big pot, you will likely have quite a dangerous mess on your stove, and possibly your person. Please be careful. Drop two rolls into the boiling water at a time and boil for 15 seconds. Turn them, and boil for 15 more seconds. Carefully remove with a slotted spoon, let drain over the pot, then place on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Repeat with the remaining rolls, adding water as necessary to keep the pot at the same level you started with. 
Bake the rolls on the upper and middle racks of the over until they are browned all over, anywhere from 8-15 minutes depending on your oven. Rotate pans from back to front and top to bottom halfway through baking for even browning. Let cool for about 5 minutes on the pans, and then transfer to a rack.