Patience Rewarded

This weekend I decided it would be fun to practice some classic French cookery.  For me that meant making some traditional small sauces to dress up a perfectly cooked steak — a mission made all the more urgent by a freakishly awesome deal I got on some filets mignons at the grand opening of a new store here in town.  For steak, unless you’re making a béarnaise, the next likely candidate will be something from the Espagnole sauce family, and I thought a Bordelaise sounded like a splendid choice.

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For the home cook, however, that presents a minor challenge — the need to make demi-glace.  Yes, I know Knorr’s makes a passable dry demi mix, and there are other purveyors of pre-made but very expensive sauces, but where is the fun in that?  So, with resolute will and a big stock pot, I set about the all-day process of making a brown sauce (about two hours) and then a demi-glace (nearly four hours of reducing).

Ah, but it was well worth the effort.  That rich, delicious and unique sauce base was transformed into a lip-smacking Bordelaise in no time flat.  Here’s a quick recipe:

  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 oz. minced shallot
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1/4 tsp. cracked pepper
  • 2 cups demi-glace
  • 1 oz. whole butter

Combine the wine, shallot, bay, thyme and pepper in a small saucepan.  Cook over medium heat until reduced by three-quarters.  Stir in the demi-glace and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until the desired thickness is reached.  Strain the sauce and then swirl in the butter for that lovely creamy finish.  Spoon some of that luscious brown goodness over your beautifully seared mid-rare filet, and munch it down with a big happy grin on your face.  That’s what we did — grins all around.  And tomorrow night?  More filets with a Poivrade sauce — damn, but I love grand opening specials!  Until then:  Eat well, my friends!

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Cooking Off the Cuff

Have you ever had one of those days when you find yourself groping for inspiration?  That was my whole weekend.  As much as I love to cook, sometimes the muse is silent, leaving me to decide for myself what I should put together not just as a plate, but more importantly as a means of self-expression.  Yesterday I was feeling a bit Cuban — I’m allowed to cook that stuff now that the embargo is lifted — so I made some classic dishes:  ropa vieja and Cuban black beans.  They were delicious and I enjoyed sharing them with my nearest and dearest peeps, but those are old hat recipes that didn’t send a thrill up my leg in that Chris Matthews fashion.

I started the day thinking that I must, yes must, come up with something better today, something worthy of a blog post.  I spent some time reading “Culinary Artistry” and was feeling scallops — big old honkin’ diver scallops, pan seared with simple seasonings and a shot of fresh citrus.  Throw in some horseradish and chive potato fritters, and some asparagus with Mornay sauce.  Yeah, I thought, that would be a plate worth sharing.

But it wasn’t meant to be.  I couldn’t find any decent scallops, so I had to come up with Plan B, which turned out to be broiled salmon.  And those green beans looked a damned sight better in the produce section than the asparagus.  So two of my three dishes were a no-go.  Thankfully the potato fritters hung in there to save the day, and Mornay works with just about any green veg.  So here is what I came up with on the fly, no recipes, no inspiration, just cooking for the sake of cooking — because you just have to do that sometimes.  The thought of throwing in the towel and paying someone else to cook for me was, well, unthinkable.  At the end of it all, it was simple and yummy — an expression of what makes me tick and of my desire to give of myself to my Laura.  Those are good reasons to be in the kitchen even if that bitch of a muse is giving me the cold shoulder.

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It also goes to show that even an amateur can manage just fine without recipes once a few culinary fundamentals are tucked away in one’s fertile noggin — my chef instructors will be glad to know their time wasn’t completely wasted on me.  Anyway, we munched it down with a big happy grin on our face.  Hopefully I’ll be feeling more inspired next time.  Until then:  Eat well, my friends!

The Sanctity of Garlic

“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Please treat your garlic with respect. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas; don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press. I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellower and sweeter if you roast it whole, still on the clove, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown. Nothing will permeate your food more irrevocably and irreparably than burnt or rancid garlic. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”

— Anthony Bourdain

 

Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Honeyed Chevre

I like beer. In particular I like British beer. Ergo I like places that serve British beer (note the unassailable, ironclad chain of logic here – my law school professors would be so proud). Fortunately for me, in the Cincinnati metro area we happen to have a couple locations of the British-themed pub chain which, in an epiphanous stroke of fiendishly brilliant marketing creativity, is called “The Pub”. It’s one of my preferred places to hang out with my wife and friends to enjoy adult beverages and, of course, some delicious victuals. I have included a link below to The Pub’s homepage for your viewing pleasure.

We have certain favorite menu items that we regularly like to order as accompaniments to the aforementioned adult beverages, such as the oh-so-delightful-but-not-so-good-for-my-girlish-figure Cheese Bollocks – those round, deep-fried balls of breaded, melty, cheesy goodness. They also had [note the past tense] bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese and served with a spicy ranch dip, but sadly those little drool-inducing beauties were recently dropped from the menu. It is this latter dish that my Laura will, on occasion, practically beg me to make at home, her eyes wild with bacon-inspired lust as she shakes me by the shoulders screaming “Make the dates! Damn you, man, for the love of all that’s holy, make the [bleep]ing dates!” Okay, maybe that’s a tiny bit of hyperbole, but the point is that she really likes those [bleep]ing dates.

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My rendition of this appetizer recipe is super-simple but stunningly delicious as it brings together the natural, succulent sweetness of Medjool dates with the salt and smokiness of the bacon, and the unique texture and flavor of Chevre, the classic French goat cheese. If you’ve never had Medjool dates, crawl out from under whatever rock you’ve been living under and remedy that unspeakable deficiency forthwith. Biting into a fresh Medjool is – how can I describe it? – on a par with certain sensual pleasures that are generally consigned to more disreputable websites, but without the need to delete your browsing history.

Our ingredient list to make two dozen dates, enough for about 6 servings, consists of only three ingredients:

  • 24 Medjool dates
  • 12 slices of bacon, cut in half
  • 4 oz. Chevre with honey

If you can’t find Chevre already made with honey, you’ll need a fourth ingredient, which is: yep, you guessed it – honey. Just stir a tablespoon of honey in with your regular Chevre, or use none at all if you prefer, since the dates are already pretty sweet in their own right. You’ll also need a couple dozen toothpicks.

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Start by slicing open each date lengthwise with a paring knife and removing the pit. Next, stuff the dates with enough Chevre to just fill the cavity. Lastly, wrap each date with one of the half slices of bacon and skewer it with a toothpick to hold it together during cooking. Arrange the dates in a large skillet over medium-low heat, and slowly cook until well browned on all sides.

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You will probably notice that the toothpick gets in the way a bit as you cook, so you can just push it all to one side to allow better maneuverability, or just remove it altogether partway through cooking if you can do that without the bacon falling off the dates. When you’re done cooking, drain the dates on a paper towel for a few minutes while you make your dipping sauce, which is just a half cup of Ranch dressing with 1-2 tbsp. of Sriracha stirred in, depending on how spicy you like it.

There you have it – the dish that makes my sweet, gentle Laura turn into a ravening, bacon-crazed fanatic. Munch it down with a big happy grin on your face. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

http://experiencethepub.com/

 

 

Your Greek Word of the Day: Avgolemono

It’s cold here in Cincinnati today. That great prognosticator, the woolly worm, told us we would have a mild winter, and so far the fuzzy little dude has been spot on. But it’s still the middle of January in Cincinnati and that means I’m cold and I want something warm, hearty and yummy to make me feel toasty from the inside out.

There are lots of great comfort food options for just such an occasion, but today my irresistible hankering on this fine Saturday was for some avgolemono, that classic, quintessentially Greek soup that combines a few readily available ingredients to produce one of the most simple, delicious, pinch-me-to-make-sure-I’m-not-dreaming-‘cause-it’s-that-freakin’-awesome soups you’ll ever enjoy.  The prep time is short and so is the ingredient list:

  • 1 boneless chicken breast
  • 2 qts. chicken stock
  • 1 cup long grain white rice
  • ¾ cup lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp white pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • Lemon slices for garnish
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish

Start by dicing the chicken breast into about ½ inch cubes. In a large pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the diced chicken and cook thoroughly, which should only take about 10 minutes. Stir in the rice, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper. Continue cooking until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes or so.

Next we want to finish the soup by thickening it with the eggs. We’re going to use a tempering technique to get the eggs into the hot soup without turning them into an impromptu omelet. This method will slowly bring up the temperature of the eggs without cooking them too rapidly. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and start gradually whisking in a total of 2 cups of the hot broth, half a cup at a time. Now you can add the egg mixture back into the main pot. Simmer for about 5 minutes to thicken – be careful not to boil – and your soup is now ready to serve with a garnish of sliced lemon and a generous sprinkle of fresh chopped cilantro leaves. This recipe scale will serve 6 people.

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But wait, there’s more! As an added bonus, we’ll include this amazing recipe for honeyed flatbread to serve alongside your soup! That’s two recipes for the price of one! And if you call in the next five minutes we’ll double the flatbread recipe, absolutely free! [All you pay is $19.95 shipping and handling.] So have your credit card ready, and call now!

Or just ignore all that and read on for the recipe:

  • 1½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2½ tsp. baking powder
  • 3/8 tsp. fine sea salt
  • 1¼ cup Greek nonfat yogurt (plain)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup honey

Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Gradually stir in the yogurt until fully incorporated, and then do the same with the olive oil, followed by the honey. When everything is mixed, knead the dough by hand for about a minute to be sure all the ingredients are evenly blended, then shape it into a rough ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and set it aside to rest for 45 minutes to an hour.

When the dough is rested, divide it into 6 pieces. Preheat a non-stick skillet over medium flame. Lightly flour your work surface and roll out a piece of dough with a rolling pin until it is evenly thin and about 6” in diameter. You may also need to flour your pin to keep the dough from sticking. Place the rolled dough in the heated skillet to cook, about 2-3 minutes per side. You’ll know when it is ready to flip because the bread will begin to rise gently. You will want to cook each piece until it begins to brown lightly on each side and the dough no longer appears moist. As each piece is cooking, use the time to roll out the next one.

If you make your dough a little before you start working on the soup, you will be find it easy to cook up your flatbread while the rice is simmering in the pot, so both dishes will finish at about the same time and your bread will be warm and tasty alongside that yummy Greek soup.

That’s it – Greek goodies on your table that are quick, simple and stupidly delicious. Munch it down with a big happy grin on your face. It may still be January in Cincinnati, but I’m coping much better now, thanks. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Tuesday Night Italian

Who says you can’t have a great dinner at home on a work night? For this next installment I’m feeling decidedly Italian. Not ethnically, of course, considering I don’t have an Italian bone in my body. I’m as plain-vanilla English as they come, except for that little smattering of distant Irish ancestry that I use as an excuse to drink lots of Guinness – preserving my heritage, and all that. But when it comes to styles of cuisine, Italian is my hands-down favorite. I’m fascinated by it and irresistibly drawn to it – the culture, the color, the range of ingredients, the vibrant flavors, the passion, and of course, the pasta, which makes a beautiful canvas against which to highlight a wide range of culinary delights. Throw a nice Sangiovese into the mix and we’re cooking with gas, as they say.

As I considered what to make on this Tuesday, I decided to stick with a classic – chicken parmesan with my own personal take on red sauce. Now, there are about as many different ways to make a red sauce as there are people on the planet, maybe more, considering that I have several different favorite recipes myself and I’m sure many others do too. I do not presume to say that mine is the way to make red sauce – heaven forfend! No, this is just one of many ways, and probably inferior to gazillions of others out there, but I happen to like it and I occasionally receive compliments on how stupidly yummy it is (my oversimplified and slightly self-aggrandizing distillation of the comments I receive).

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I personally have several versions of red sauce, and the one I make depends on how energetic I’m feeling and how much time I have to make it happen. On a free Saturday afternoon I like to make my “long version” — a variation on a recipe that I picked up when taking classes at a local culinary school, which involves about 5-6 hours of low simmering and reducing. I may share that in a later post. However, when I need to whip something together quickly on a Tuesday night I’m probably going to us this “short form” recipe, which takes about an hour, maybe a little more with total prep time.

I’m giving fair warning to all the purists out there, you’re probably going to cringe when I suggest using canned tomato products instead of fresh plum tomatoes, but trust me, you can get a great result even with my heretical method.  Remember — Tuesday night after work.  The only caveat to that is that you need to be sure to use genuine San Marzano tomatoes as your starting point. There are several readily available brands such as Cento or Delallo, which have some modest variations in their flavor characteristics, but as long as the can has the DOP seal you can feel confident that you are getting a quality product since San Marzano is generally recognized as the world’s premier tomato growing region.

Interestingly, I have been making this sauce for years but this is the first time I have ever written down the recipe, so I hope I get it right. To make this dish you’ll need two key pieces of equipment – a large straight-sided skillet about 3” deep, and a food mill. Without further ado, here is your ingredient list:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, small dice
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 carrot, small dice
  • 1 celery stalk, small dice
  • 1 can (28 oz) whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ tsp Kosher salt
  • 1-2 tsp sugar (depending on taste)
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
  • ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • Fresh cracked pepper (to taste)

The inclusion of sugar and cinnamon is my own personal preference, something I learned from my grandmother, as I like that little bit of sweetness and the softened acidity that the sugar promotes, so don’t feel constrained by that if your taste tends toward something a bit zestier. Whatever floats your proverbial boat.

Heat the oil in the skillet on medium and sweat the onions, garlic, carrot and celery for a few minutes until the onions become translucent – don’t caramelize them. Add the tomatoes and use the back of a fork to break them up into smaller pieces. Don’t worry if there are chunks because we’re going to mill the sauce later. Same thing with your garlic – if you don’t get that fine mince cut, no worries because when it comes to knife work the food mill covers a multitude of sins. Next stir in the tomato paste and dried herbs, followed by the bay leaf, salt, sugar and cinnamon. Bring your sauce to a simmer and let it cook for about 30 minutes to blend the flavors, stirring every few minutes. Adjust the seasonings to suit your own personal taste.  Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf at the end of your cook time.  Here’s a picture of the sauce when it’s done simmering.

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The next step is to run your sauce through a food mill, preferably on a coarse blade, because if you go too fine you’ll get tomato juice instead of sauce. Also, the coarser blade leaves a beautiful toothy texture to the sauce. You’ll probably notice that the onions and maybe the carrots don’t pass through the mill very well. That’s perfectly fine. These were added mainly as mirepoix to infuse some flavor, so they have served their purpose. If you can get some through to add some texture to the sauce, so much the better.

After milling, hold the sauce warm over low heat. At this point you can reduce for a while if needed, but that probably won’t be necessary because the tomato paste serves to “deliquify” and give some structure to the sauce. If your sauce seems a little too thick, give it a splash of that red wine you’re sipping as you cook (or a little chicken stock if you’re a teetotaler). Once you’re satisfied with your consistency, finish the sauce by stirring in the fresh chopped basil and giving a couple turns with the pepper grinder just before you’re ready to serve. If you’re feeling really racy you can swirl in a pat or two of whole butter.

While your sauce is simmering, it’s time to make the chicken and start your well-salted pasta water coming up to a boil. Speaking of pasta, my personal preference for this dish is capellini (a/k/a angel hair) because I want something with a lighter mouthfeel that will complement the chicken without becoming the focal point of the meal. Capellini also has a very short cook time, so you can dunk it quickly when the chicken and sauce are ready to serve. Here is the ingredient list for 4 moderate or 2 large servings of the chicken:

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • ¼ cup grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp clarified butter
  • ½ cup ricotta
  • Fresh basil, chiffonade, for garnish

We’re going to be breading the chicken, so you’ll need to set up your breading dishes: 1. Combine the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow dish for dredging. 2. Eggs are next in a second dish. Beat them like a rental and feel free to blend in a couple tablespoons of milk to thin your egg wash a bit if desired. 3. Combine the bread crumbs, garlic powder, oregano and parmigiano in a third dish.

Place chicken breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them with a meat mallet to an even thickness of about ½ inch. I normally cut each breast into two equal portions, but you don’t need to do that if you want big, manly cuts of chicken on your plate. Dredge each piece of chicken in the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Dip it in the egg wash to coat thoroughly, and then toss it in the bread crumb mixture to cover completely.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat, and pan-fry the breaded chicken pieces until moderately browned on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked chicken to a baking dish, top each piece with a few spoonfuls of the red sauce and a healthy dollop of ricotta – don’t be shy – and grate on a bit more reggiano for good measure. Place under a high broiler until the cheese just begins to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil, serve with a side of pasta and red sauce, and munch it down with a glass of Chianti and a big happy grin on your face.

There you have it, my own personal spin on chicken parmesan and red sauce. Not the authoritative standard by any means, but hopefully enjoyable enough that you’ll want to make it again to share with the special peeps in your life. If you like it let me know. If not, well, keep it to yourself, okay?

Can’t wait to join you in the kitchen again next time. Until then: Eat well, my friends!

 

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