Friday, April 29, 2011

Back in the Swing

I thought I’d dip back into the slow cooker this week and bring you up to speed on what we’ve eaten the past couple of weeks.

Most recently I made pot roast. My in-laws were visiting last weekend and they love my pot roast. Usually I just do the roast in the crock pot, but since we were going out and leaving the grandparents to feed both themselves and the G-man dinner while we went to see Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart in concert, I thought it would be best to give them the full experience, potatoes, carrots and all.

Next time? I won’t add mushrooms. Let me ‘splain.

No wait. Is too much. Let me sum up.

I’d decided to go to Trader Joe’s and get the veg since they always have lovely pre-sliced and diced packages of veggies. Like the bagged, sliced crimini mushrooms that are so wonderful.

I got little bags of fingerling potatoes, baby carrots and sliced crimini to go in the pot with the roast. Fabulous! I wouldn’t have to do a thing except open bags and pour them into the pot.

Well, I was reminded why I don’t usually add veggies in the crockpot for this particular roast preparation.

I like the resultant gravy from cooking just the roast with the mushroom soup and onion soup mix. But with the veg, especially the mushrooms, there was just too much added water and the gravy was not only way too thin, but it was bland as well.

The in-laws still appreciated it, but I was a little bummed. It just wasn’t the flavorful deliciousness I’m used to.

The week before, Nancy found a great recipe for us to try. It was titled Chicken Provencal.

Comparing it to some more traditional recipes for the classic stew, it came somewhat close. The chicken, tomatoes, garlic, thyme and basil that are the basis of the dish were there.

The crock pot recipe added yellow and red bell peppers and an onion but did not include any white wine or broth, nor did it have olives, which would certainly have deepened and rounded out the flavors.

The most fascinating thing about this crock pot version was the strips of orange peel which cooked until they practically melted. The lovely floral and citrus flavor was so mellow by the time I found a piece, I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. It was a very pleasant surprise! The traditional recipe calls for lemon, which I think would be equally as tasty and would add a tartness that I was really looking for in this dish.

Nancy and I were so happy to be eating so many vegetables. It was chock full of them!

But next time, I’m adding some olives and using lemon instead of orange peel. It will give me an excuse to get some herbes de provence. And a bottle of white wine (like I need an excuse). It needed the additional flavor!

I’m finding that the all-day-long cooking is robbing my dinners of bold flavors (unless condensed soup of some sort is involved in the cooking process). Hopefully my next new cookbook (which I haven’t purchased quite yet) will help with that. America’s Test Kitchen, the people who bring you Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, has put out a slow cooker cookbook. If you think I’m passing that one up, you are crazy.

Meanwhile, we’ll try something new again this week and perhaps be a little more liberal with the salt shaker, the herbs and the citrus. And I’ll hope that the recipes from America’s Test Kitchen are as simple as I want them to be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Getting Schooled

This week, thanks to the quick thinking and generosity of my dear friend, Marty (and a coupon from LivingSocial), I took a cooking class. It was a fun chance to spend some time with Marty and, perhaps, learn a new skill or two.

The class was Italian Home Cooking at Dish It Up, a housewares store with a beautiful teaching kitchen as a focal point. Adjacent to the retail space there is a design shop where you can get help designing your dream kitchen.

They have Viking appliances and cookware, Shun knives…it’s a great place to cook!

The set up of the class is part demo, part hands on. The chef/instructor, the entertaining and skilled Karen Binkhorst, did some demonstration, talked us through some basic knife skills, then had volunteers come up and help with the prep and cooking.

The first order of the evening was to make pasta dough.

We each got an egg and some flour and went to town. It was fascinating…it had been probably nearly twenty years since I’d made fresh pasta. But Chef Karen kept talking about the alchemy of making pasta as we kneaded our dough. The magic moment when you feel the dough turn from rough to silky. Where it has just the right amount of flour, enough so that it doesn’t stick to your hands or the counter anymore, but is not dry, and the action of pushing and turning and folding creates this beautiful, golden, tenderly resilient piece of wonder. And it did.

I am used to bread dough, which you never work to that point. But I could tell the moment my dough started to change. It was indeed a revelation.

Once we were all done with that bit of excitement, we got straight to the appetizers so we could eat something before it got too late.

The antipasti course included roasted eggplant stuffed with herbed goat cheese, fried cauliflower with pine nuts, golden raisins and chile flake, and roasted peppers with olives and capers.

It was fun watching some of the other students who were less familiar with chopping and slicing. Two gals worked on the goat cheese filling for the eggplant, one of them getting busted for licking her fingers after working the herbs into the cheese by hand. To her credit, she did not put her fingers back into the cheese after she licked them.

They both were tentative at first when chopping herbs, but quickly built confidence and did a great job with the chopping and mincing. They looked so excited, like a whole new world was opening up to them.

I got to help strip the roasted peppers of their charred skin, then chop them and put them into a bowl. Chef Karen told a story about her only attempt at roasting peppers on an electric burner (quickest method to roast a pepper is to turn your gas burner on high and put the pepper right on the flame, letting it get black on the outside).

So she and a buddy in the kitchen were trying to roast peppers on an electric stove. If I remember the story right, someone else came into the kitchen and asked who was smoking. It was then they realized that the charring peppers smelled like weed. She never roasted peppers on an electric stove again. :o)

While we ate our antipasti, Chef Karen made the filling for the ravioli. Peas, mint, a bit of salt and pepper. Then we all got up again, some of us to start rolling out our pasta and some to work on making the fennel cream sauce to go with it.

I was proud to pick up a knife and follow her directions to notch out the core on the fennel and cut the bulb in half, putting one half on each of two cutting boards. My knife skills are nothing to write home about, but it was easy to take the top off the fennel, notch out the core and split the bulb with the nicely sharp chef’s knife. I did so with no fear, and with a little excitement to be able to show off what skills I do have for someone who would recognize that I was no stranger to a kitchen.

What made it even more fun was that Marty was at the other station doing the same thing. We got to simultaneously work on two pans of sauce. It was really fun to cook with him! I hope I get to do it again soon!

Once the ravioli were cooked and sauced, we sat down to eat again. So delicious, so fresh. Beautiful for a spring night. And lovely with the wine they poured.

Oh. Did I forget to mention that they were serving wine as well? A white and a red. Which they poured pretty liberally. If your glass was empty, they offered to fill it.

The antipasti was also wonderful, by the way. I’m not usually a fan of either eggplant or cauliflower, but I LOVED both of the dishes! Roasted peppers I liked already, so there was no surprise. But the other two? I would totally make them at home and they were fabulously tasty!

Our final course was the meat course, which consisted of chicken breast with prosciutto and sage. Very classic Italian flavors.

We pounded the chicken fairly flat, laid on a slice of prosciutto and some sage leaves, rolled it, sliced it in ½ inch pieces, skewered it and put it in the oven to bake.

While we waited for them to cook, Chef Karen showed is a neat trick with grape tomatoes. Put a layer of them between two plastic lids (like from a Glad or Ziploc container), take a sharp knife and slice between the lids. Voila! A bunch of halved tomatoes! She talked and made a quick tomato compote which was served with the chicken.

I have to say, this was my least favorite part of the meal. The chicken was overcooked, so it was dry. The fat from the prosciutto wasn’t enough to help. But, they would be great on the grill, so I might have to try the recipe this summer when grilling season finally arrives.

It was such a fun evening! I got to spend time with Marty, which never happens! I got to cook in an amazing kitchen with a lot of fun people and I learned at least one new skill.

I want to go back and take their knife skills classes. Chef Karen teaches them. And I’m going to take my knives there to be sharpened when I’m off work for my birthday. They’re having their monthly knife sharpening event on May 2. Take your knives in and for 3-6 bucks per knife, you get them well sharpened. Pick them up the next day.

Again this week I was reminded that my love of cooking and eating is tied so tightly to my love of my friends and family. It is true that I love to cook. It is more true that I love to do it for and with those I love.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Harvard Day in Review

No, you haven’t stumbled on the wrong blog. The title of tonight’s episode is in honor of my dear friend, Sheila, the Harvard graduate, with whom I got to spend a bit of the afternoon. A rare occasion because she lives in San Diego.

Why is this food-worthy? Well, we did meet for lunch. Originally intending to go to Serious Pie, Tom Douglas’s pizza restaurant, as we drove up First Avenue from Pioneer Square, we crept past the Seattle Art Museum and I was reminded of the wonderfully peaceful, tasty meals I’ve had there. So we amended our plans and ate lunch at Taste, the restaurant in the museum.

It was the quiet place we both needed. And the classy comfort food wasn’t bad, either. I had a burger and fries, which were very good, suitably messy, but nothing remarkable. The dipping sauce for the fries, however, I could eat by the gallon. Sheila had their take on grilled cheese and tomato soup, which looked and smelled delicious. According to her the soup was very flavorful and had a good body to it. It was a beautiful, deep red soup with flecks of herbs floating in the broth. The cheese in the sandwich looked wonderfully melty and pulled like it was mozzarella.

I had a nice glass of tempranillo with my burger and then had their Black and Tan ice cream sandwich for dessert. This was the most interesting part of the meal for me. It was an ale ice cream and a stout cookie with an herbaceous sugar syrup drizzled on the plate and a pool of mustard crème anglaise underneath the sandwich.

Mustard crème anglaise? What? Wait a minute. Yep. Those little things are mustard seeds.

The mustard flavor was subtle, but added an amazing dimension to the dish. And there were three little little salty, toothsome crackers in the corner of the plate.

So my dessert? Was beer and pretzels with mustard. Now that’s a creative dessert!

We ran a couple of errands and headed back to Elliott Bay Café where she was helping family and friends prep for a breast cancer fundraiser event tomorrow night.

It was a delightful afternoon topped off by just chatting while we buffed glassware for tomorrow night’s party. I am really looking forward to reading my new book, Tender, Chef Tamara Murphy’s cookbook. It looks beautiful and the recipes I’ve looked at sound delicious!!

Spending the afternoon with Sheila reminded me of a concept that is not new to anyone, but that I think we all forget sometimes. Food is best shared in the company of loved ones. Sitting around a communal table is one of the most pleasurable and intimate things we do as human beings.

It is a place of peace, of ideas, of joy. Even the saddest of occasions is lifted when people gather around to share a meal. It is humbling, it is equalizing. It can be an education, as it has been many times at the tables of my friends. I always learn to like new things when I eat food prepared by my friends.

So thank you, Sheila, for reminding me of one of the reasons I love to eat and cook. Because it is a place and a reason to bring together the people I love and spend quality time with them. Next time you’re in town, karaoke! We will make it happen!!

Friday, April 8, 2011

But I Digress....or A Break from the Slow Cooker

I’ve been watching a lot of food tv lately. Chopped All Stars and Top Chef All Stars have captured my attention and my heart. Sadly, they are both over. For now. But I suspect they will be back.

But watching all of these highly trained, very talented chefs compete, cook, and explore their culinary roots has made me question “Why do I cook?”

Beyond the obvious reason of needing to eat, that is. Because if I didn’t want to cook, I really wouldn’t have to. There are plenty of places where I could get prepared meals either already hot and ready for me, or requiring very little other than a pop in the microwave to call them dinner (or breakfast or lunch). And for a while, I did that. It was hard to find time to cook with such a busy life.

Some have said that is the 83-year-old Jewish woman inside me that makes me not only want to cook, but to feed people. Now, I’m neither 83 nor Jewish, but I do love to feed people. I love to make people happy and watch them enjoy something I’ve taken care and love to make for them.

It’s why I’ve made wedding cakes for family and friends. It’s why I used to do a little small-time catering in college. Why I used to make candy at Christmas time and why I still try to give something yummy and homemade for the holidays today.

The next question that begs to be asked is then, “What or who instilled this love in me?”

That’s an easy answer. My parents. My love of food and cooking and baking is ultimately tied up in them. I think one of the reasons I haven’t cooked as much the last few years is because it was hard to cook without thinking of them and I missed them both terribly. As the years go by and the sting of loss dulls, it has been easier to try to be creative in the kitchen again.

Still, many of the things I really love to make are the things I watched them make when I was a child. The crock pot extravaganza is really sort of a tribute to my mom, who was the Queen of the Crock Pot. She made these things called Tijuana Sandwiches. The recipe called for ground beef, refried beans and seasonings. You let it cook for a few hours and right at the end, you add crumbled Fritos. It was so wrong and yet so delicious.

When I cook fried chicken or chicken livers or when I put Tabasco on my eggs or when I cook biscuits and gravy, that’s when I pay tribute to my dad, the King of Skillet Suppers. He taught me how to make milk gravy (for such applications as the fried chicken, sausage gravy for biscuits or the ever popular shit on a shingle) so long ago I don’t measure anything anymore. I can eyeball how much fat, flour and milk need to be combined with the crispy bits in the pan to make nirvana in a skillet.

Pork tenderloin sandwiches? Mom again. She cooked them all the time when we were kids. I remember when the sight of French’s sandwich rolls would make my mouth water because it meant we were having tenderloin sandwiches for dinner.
What makes them so special, you ask? Perhaps it’s that they’re Iowa soul food. A medallion of pork loin pounded very thin, dipped in flour, egg wash and cracker meal, then fried crisp and served with A-1 (and later, American cheese) on a sandwich roll. I’m whimpering a little right now just thinking about it.

When I eat a dill pickle, I long for my dad’s spicy hot dills along with the pickled pearl onions and pickled garlic cloves in the jar. I’m certain I was a stinky child because of it.

I’m sorry, Mom, but you know I never liked your sweet pickles.

But I did admire the work she put into them. And some days I wish I had gotten one of her pickle crocks even though I would never make a 14-day pickle in it. Fourteen days? Yes. Seven days in the brine. Take the plate off the top, scrape off the mold. Rinse the pickles and put them back in the crock with a hot, spiced sugar syrup. Each day for the next seven, drain the syrup off, bring it to the boil and pour it back over the pickles. On the final day, while the syrup heats, put the pickles into pint jars and then ladle the hot syrup into the pickle jars. Apparently, according to the kids from my high school drama picnic, they’re good dipped in cheese whiz.

So along with sharing crock pot recipes, which I know we will all get bored with after so long, I will be sharing food memories as the mood strikes. One thing I learned about people who have a passion for food in the past several weeks, it is a visceral, soul-deep feeling. And the more often you tap into that place when you’re making food, whether it’s for yourself, for your family or for a panel of judges, the better and more satisfying the experience is going to be.

I think the same goes for writing about it.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Perfect Crock Pot Recipe (and some Top Chef spoilers)

I’ve mentioned my ideal crock pot recipe before. It involves opening packages and cans, dumping stuff in the cooker and leaving it to cook for upwards of 10 hours while I’m at work.

Most of the recipes I’ve been making recently haven’t been that simple. Some have been tasty, some have been downright delicious. But none of them have been as easy as the infamous pot roast of my childhood.

Until now.

Last weekend we were trying to find something that didn’t have tomatoes or beans because our aging digestive systems needed a break. It surprises me how many recipes had one or both of those ingredients in them.

Then I hear Nancy say “Hey! Easy Beef Stew!” And I think, “How easy can this be?”

As easy as the pot roast, actually.

In fact, it was the pot roast.

Let’s compare recipes, shall we?

Pot Roast – 2-3 lb beef roast, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 envelope onion soup mix, 1/4 - 1/3 soup can of water. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Easy Beef Stew – 2 lbs stew meat, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 envelope onion soup mix, 1/3 cup red wine, 1 package sliced mushrooms. Cook on low for 8-12 hours.

The stew got a little fancy, adding wine and extra mushrooms. But essentially they’re they same recipe. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before on my own. It was brilliant!

So Monday morning I dumped the ingredients in the crock pot and turned it on; Monday night I got home from work to a house redolent with the fragrance of hearty stew. I started the rice cooker to cook some rice to go with the stew, added some frozen peas and carrots to the stew for some extra veg.

Et voila! Thirty minutes later dinner was ready. The stew was delicious!!! Particularly over the rice. The recipe says to serve over noodles, which is fine, but there’s something about pouring meat and rich gravy over rice that gets to my culinary soul. My father would definitely have approved!

It was so good, we were sorry when it was gone Thursday night. Next week, we’re going to try it with chicken, cream of chicken soup and some other kind of powdered soup mix. I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Now to completely switch gears, I have to express my congratulations to Richard Blais for winning Top Chef All Stars!! I have never been so excited or invested in a reality show. Ever. It was like watching old friends (or enemies), seeing some of my favorite chefs from previous seasons competing again.

I was a fan of Richard’s when he was on Season 4 of Top Chef. He was the guy to beat then, but he choked in the season finale, letting his head get in the way of his gut and letting his self-doubt cripple him.

Going in to All Stars, he was the man to beat, I thought. It was his title to lose. His combination of exquisite taste and knowledge and the playfulness of a little boy make him unique among the men who have come to the top of Top Chef. He is a NICE guy. He’s not an over-confident prick with anger issues.

His lack of confidence in his own ability makes him both endearing and a little irritating sometimes. Sometimes I wanted to hug him and tell him it was going to be okay. Other times I wanted to Gibbs-slap him.

I was so happy for him when he won, I cried as if he was a member of my own family.

That being said, Mike Isabella surprised the hell out of me. I didn’t know until last night’s episode that he had worked for Jose Andres, had run one of his restaurants for two years. Mike took the break between the ‘regular season’ and the ‘post season’ in the Bahamas to study, hone his skills, train and make himself ready for the finale. And it showed. He won the majority of the challenges in the Bahamas. He came out with a truly impressive menu for the finale and really showed his knowledge of how a restaurant runs during the set up portion, talking to the servers, choosing wines. He showed everyone that he really belonged there.

Both chefs presented amazing meals I wish I could have eaten. In the end, what separated those two chefs was very little indeed. During the celebration/consolation shots at the end of the show, Tom Colicchio hugged Mike and said “You may not have won, but you did great and you have a great career ahead of you.”

I am so proud of Richard and I really hope he is able to make his culinary dreams come true!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go add a bunch of chefs to my Twitter.