Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas dinner story

Rib Roast
Vegetarian Lasagna
Mashed potatoes
Butternut Squash & Apple Soup
Almost No-knead Bread
Woodbridge Merlot 
Smooth Chocolate Pudding

Christmas dinner should be special. This year for us, as many times before, this meant roast beef. Diane and I discussed the menu during our morning walk on Thursday the 22nd. Caryn (our daughter, home for the holidays, a vegetarian) had already purchased a frozen vegetarian lasagna for her entrĂ©e. I selected several recipes for roast beef using different cuts of beef—rib roast, tenderloin, and eye-round—so we'd have a little flexibility at the supermarket. The shopping list was made and the ingredients purchased on Thursday.

On Thursday evening the the roast was prepared. We did not get an expensive Prime rib roast. What we got was not labelled as to its grade but presumably is Choice, a 4.5 lb "beef rib roast small end". It won't be as tender as a prime rib roast but should be fine and the recipe provides this as an option. I was surprised that the ribs (2 of them) had been cut from the rest of the cut, saving me a step. I cut slits in the fat cap in a cross-hatch pattern. The directions said to cut through the fat but not into the meat. This is easier said than done and I didn't do it very well as I cut through the fat, which was not uniformly thick, and into the meat in several places. The meat was covered with 2T kosher salt, put onto a plate, and placed into the refrigerator, uncovered, to dry out the surface for better browning. This seems odd to me, as food is always wrapped tightly before being delivered to the refrigerator so it doesn't dry out, pick up odd flavors, or being a culture medium for whatever mold and bacteria are around. However in this case drying out is exactly what is desired, so in it goes to sit for several days.

Things that could be prepared in advance, or had to be, were made on Christmas Eve Day. The bread dough was prepared around 3 PM and left to rise until the following morning. Smooth Chocolate Pudding was made, using the same recipe as for dinner on December 4, and put into the refrigerator. It's always a good sign for a recipe when it gets reused! A piece of lightly-greased parchment paper was placed on top of the pudding to prevent a crust from forming, this worked well the last time I made it.

Finally, Butternut Squash & Apple Soup was made. A friend at work at recommended this to me and even provided a recipe he got from the restaurant where he had enjoyed it. Before I could make it, I found another recipe at Gizdich Ranch when we were there buying apples and I decided to use that one. Several modifications were made to the recipe. I generally don't modify recipes, especially the first time I make them. Out of respect for our vegetarian, however, vegetable oil was used instead of bacon grease to cook the vegetables and vegetable broth replaced chicken broth. The recipe called for two cups of broth and two cups of water. Since the store-bought broth came in a 4-cup container I just used 4 cups of the broth. It will be interesting to see how this butternut squash soup compares with the Silky Butternut Squash Soup that we have enjoyed in the past.

On Christmas, after the traditional cinnamon roll breakfast and opening of presents, bread was started early so the oven would be ready for the long roasting time for the roast, filling the house with the delightful smell of baking bread. Once the bread was out of the oven and cooling (I listened to the cooling loaf to hear it "sing", no luck this time.) the roast was seared and placed in a 200° oven until it reached an internal temperature of 110°. The oven was turned off, leaving the roast inside and the door closed, and after another 30 minutes or so the meat had reached 120°, the target temperature for rare beef. The roast was removed from the oven to rest and the oven was cranked up to 400° for the lasagna. Potatoes were peeled and put on to boil; I used red potatoes as we had no russets. After 40 minutes the lasagna was taken out, the potatoes were mashed (using cream, rather than milk, left over from the pudding). Peas and soup were heated in the microwave, and the roast placed under the broiler for a few minutes to finish it.  A granny smith apple was peeled and cut up to garnish the soup. Dinner was served.

The beef was cooked perfectly, tender and juicy. It was a little too salty near the edges, I should have reduced the salt called for in the recipe due to the smaller roast. The soup was good but didn't really have much apple flavor. No surprise, I suppose, since only 1 apple was added to 1.5 pounds of squash along with other vegetables. I'll have to try the restaurant recipe next time. The bread was beautiful, one of the prettiest loaves I've made, and tasty, too.

After a rest following our meal we enjoyed our chocolate pudding dessert. This Christmas story had a happy ending.


Best Prime Rib, Cooks Illustrated, November 2011
Almost No-Knead Bread, Cook's Illustrated, January 2008
Butternut Squash & Apple Soup, Gizdich Ranch
Creamy Chocolate Pudding, Cook's Illustrated, September 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Blueberry boy bait

December 18, 2011
Bacon and vegetarian sausage
Fluffy scrambled eggs
Blueberry Boy Bait
Mimosa and Orange Juice
Weekend activities can take time away from meal preparation. Preparing breakfast for dinner is often a good option for such times as you can prepare a good meal with a minimum investment of time, although you always dirty more frying pans than with any other meal. Breakfast also provides vegetarian options for our daughter who is home for the holidays.

I have wanted to make Blueberry Boy Bait since first reading about it, if for no other reason than the marvelous name. It's a coffee cake submitted to the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest by a teen-age girl in 1954. The updated recipe from Cook's Country calls for 1 cup of either fresh or frozen blueberries. I was happy to find fresh berries, from Mexico, in our regular supermarket at a reasonable cost. The batter is mixed using a hand mixer -- why not a stand mixer, I don't know -- and it takes only about 15 minutes to get it to the oven. The finished cake was good, especially the berries and cinnamon/sugar topping. Diane thought there should be more blueberries, and I was disappointed that most of the berries sank to the bottom during baking rather than remaining dispersed through the cake.

I would normally not use a recipe for scrambled eggs, but in this case I did. They came out with a nice, fluffy texture but tasted bland. Mimosas were made with orange juice and a pink zinfandel champagne, which led to an odd color but still a good beverage for this meal.

I had been planning to serve homemade applesauce that we had in the fridge, too, but I forgot.

Blueberry Boy Bait, The Complete American Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, 2010, p. 435
Fluffy Scrambled Eggs, The Complete American Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, 2010, p. 410

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A satisfying, simple supper

December 11, 2011
Farmhouse vegetable and barley soup
Almost no-knead whole wheat bread
Vella Delicious White wine
Cranberry-apple crisp

Simple meals are often the best. A few hearty courses prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients is all you need for a satisfying supper. Iron Chef meals are entertaining but far from simple involving multiple techniques, tools, ingredients, and a sophisticated palate to really appreciate. They don't work well at home. On occasion it is worth having a sophisticated meal, but for most meals, keep it simple.

Soup is good on cold days, I often have it for lunch on the weekends at this time of year. When I was a kid my favorite canned soup was Campbell's Condensed Bean with Bacon, and it still is. I've made soups from scratch before and the one I made for this dinner may be one of the best. It is hearty and full of flavor and like most home-made soups it gets better every time you reheat some. Preparation was straightforward; as with stir-fry most of the work was cutting up the vegetables. The recipe called for ground dried porcini mushrooms which the store did not have; the produce man said they normally had it but none had come in this week. (My wife let me use her coffee bean grinder to make the powder.) I substituted dried chanterelles; though I found some hard pieces that did not grind up it was easy to pick them out of the powder. I chose to use vegetable broth instead of chicken, partly because our vegetarian daughter is coming home from college. The recipe says you can use either.

When I bake bread it is most often one of the Almost no-knead breads, either white or wheat. They're good to eat and easy to make. Bread is flour, yeast, salt, and water (compare that to the ingredient list of your store bought bread) and these recipes are pretty close to this simple set of ingredients.  They include just a few additional ingredients to provide some added flavor. To make the bread you whisk the dry ingredients together then stir in the wet. The dough sits overnight for 12-18 hours. The next day it's kneaded 10-12 times, shaped into a ball, and baked in a dutch oven which provides a humid environment and a very crisp crust.

Cranberry-apple crisp is a dessert we've enjoyed before. I had never eaten cranberries other than as a relish on Thanksgiving until a few years ago. Now we always buy some extras when they're available in the stores to use for desserts like this one.

An interesting side note about this menu: all three courses used the dutch oven: the soup was prepared in it, the bread was baked in it, and the cranberries and apples were cooked in it prior to baking.


Almost no-knead whole wheat breadCook's Illustrated, January 2008.
Cranberry-apple crispCook's Country, October 2006
Farmhouse vegetable and barley soupCook's Illustrated, November 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011


December 4, 2011
Baked jewel yam
Simple applesauce
Baby peas
Fetzer Riesling
Smooth chocolate pudding

I like ham. It makes for a great dinner and great leftovers. There is reheated ham, ham and eggs (not green), ham sandwiches, grilled ham and cheese, scrambled eggs with ham, omelets  scalloped potatoes, and more. It's super easy to prepare as you buy it precooked so it just needs to be heated. You can glaze it (I fondly remember my mom's mustard and brown sugar glaze) or not. The bone and the small bits of meat that stick to it are great for making soup.

However, a ham weighs weighs six or more pounds, way too much for two people even with all of the possibilities for the leftovers. Ham steaks are an option but they don't have the versatility that a roast has, especially when it comes to leftovers. There are various smaller, packaged hams available (I don't even consider canned hams) but I'm suspicious of just what these things are -- can you say "parts is parts"?

Thus, we don't have ham nearly as often as I would like. I decided it was about time to remedy this. I went to Whole Foods and purchased a 1.6 pound "ham". While I still am not sure just how this was made, I'm trusting Whole Foods to not sell something that has been extensively processed. The label would seem to bear this out.

I warmed up the ham using the instructions on the FAQ at the Wellshire Farms web site:  place it in a 325° oven in a covered pan with 1/4 inch of water oven until the internal temperature is 130°. The instructions didn't say anything about using a rack to keep the meat out of the water so I just placed it in a Pyrex baking dish with some water and put on the lid. They estimated it would take 7-8 minutes a pound. After close to half an hour the temperature in the center of the ham was still less than room temperature. Perhaps they had started with a room temperature ham? In any event, since the rest of the dinner was ready we ate the ham before it got as warm as planned. I should have checked our old dependable Betty Crocker Cookbook which suggests more like 30 minutes a pound to reheat a cooked ham.

I served it with jewel yam which I baked following some on-line instructions. The yam was large and took 90 minutes to cook through. It was the completion of the yam that indicated to me it was time to take the ham out.

I like homemade applesauce with pork and ham is no exception. Usually I just peel and cut up a few apples, throw them in a pan with a little water and maybe some cinnamon. This time I followed a recipe for Simple Applesauce (The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, 2010, p. 386) using Pink Lady apples. The recipe called for coring then cooking the apples with their peels then running them through a food mill. Since I prefer my applesauce to be lumpy I peeled them and just mushed them with a spoon as they cooked. It came out well.

Frozen baby peas served as the vegetable. They're our favorite vegetable and the color provided a good contrast for all of the pale foods that made up the rest of the menu.

Our beverage was a nice, inexpensive (not that we ever buy expensive wines) Riesling from Fetzer.

For dessert I made pudding. Not from a box, mind you, but from scratch, using the recipe for Creamy Chocolate Pudding from the September 2011 issue of Cooks Illustrated. I don't think I've ever made scratch pudding before; mousse, yes, but pudding, no. It wasn't that much harder to do than making pudding from a box, the only tedious part of the process is the stirring and you have to do that for both. The result, however, was infinitely more satisfying. The pudding was smooth and chocolaty and delicious. This is a dessert we'll definitely be having again. It kept well, too, and we enjoyed it for dessert several times during the week.