Monday, December 24, 2012

Pork Pot Roast, Brioche, and Expectations

December 16, 2012
  • Pork Pot Roast
  • Brioche
  • Boiled Red Potatoes
  • Green Beans
  • 2011 Forest Ville Gewürztraminer
  • Cinnamon Candied Almonds
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." – Alexandar Pope

My ninth grade Earth Science teacher, Mrs. Strong, had some good advice about expectations. She told us that it is better to expect the worst, while waiting for a graded exam to be returned, than to expect that you aced it. It is better to be pleasantly surprised at exceeding your expectations than to be disappointed. I failed to follow her advice when preparing pork pot roast and I was disappointed in the result.

Pot roast is one of my favorites, tender pieces of beef that fall apart,  swimming in a rich, savory gravy. I am also fond of pork so when I saw a recipe for pork pot roast, I was expecting something similar to beef pot roast: very tender meat and a rich, flavorful sauce. Beef pot roast is generally made using chuck, a tough, fatty cut with much connective tissue that contributes to the flavor and moistness of the meat.  However, this pork pot roast was made from the loin, a very lean cut with little fat or connective tissue. It is cooked for a long time in a covered pot with apples, onions, and white wine. Less liquid is used for the pork than for the beef so you seal the dutch oven with an extra layer of foil under the lid to help prevent moisture loss.

The loin that I got consisted of two pieces of meat tied together. The recipe includes double-butterflying the loin, seasoning it, and then tying it back up in its original shape. This procedure gets added seasoning into the thick roast, more than you would get just seasoning the outside. Rather than double butterflying the meat I butterflied each piece, seasoned all sides, and tied them together for roasting. This made for a thick three-pound roast but it still finished cooking in just 1¾ hours.

I was disappointed in the final result because it lacked the tenderness that I was expecting. It was neither tough nor dried out but it had more chew to it, and less moisture, than I would have liked. It was very nicely seasoned though and the sauce, though a little thin, was delicious and greatly improved the dish.

On the other hand, the brioche was a pleasant surprise. I had never made this before and was inspired to do so by the bread that we had at Morton's. I don't know how they make their bread as they neither name it on their menu nor release the recipe. But the yellow color and tender, slightly sweet crumb inspired me to try brioche. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe for "Quick Brioche", so called because the dough only rises once before baking. The bread is not too difficult to make with a food processor doing much of the work. It is soft and rich with a tender crust, in contrast to the chewy,  rustic no-knead breads with crisp crusts that I often make. The flavor comes from the addition of fat to the dough in the form of milk, butter, and eggs.  It is good to have a new bread to add to my repertoire when considering future meals.

For the holidays I also made a snack, cinnamon candied almonds, using a simple recipe provided by Dr. Dan in his blog. I used a combination of granulated sugar, super fine sugar, and brown sugar,  because I didn't have enough granulated sugar. The raw nuts are coated then cooked for an hour in a low oven. They are turned every 15 minutes and I found it useful to rinse the turner with water each time as it gets coated with a sticky mess of sugars and cinnamon. I used an un-rimmed baking sheet as that is all I had that was large enough. I had to use care when turning the nuts to keep them on the sheet. The parchment paper tended to move around and a rimmed baking sheet would have helped to constrain it. I put a small bowl of these out and they quickly disappeared. We've had to be careful about putting more of these on the table as they are quite irresistible. Diane plans to make some more this holiday season, perhaps using walnuts.

I don't know if there was a problem with the pork or my technique or if it was a problem with my expectations. In any case I don't expect to make this recipe again. I hope that my disappointment is not leading me to miss out on a dish that could be truly enjoyable. Fortunately there are many more recipes to try, both new ones and old favorites, so I'm not too unhappy that this one didn't work out as well as I had hoped. On the other hand, the brioche was a great success and I'm sure to be making it again.

Pork Pot Roast from Cook's Illustrated, published as "French-style Pot-roasted Pork Loin"
Brioche from Cook's Illustrated, published as "Quick Brioche"
Cinnamon Candied Almonds from 101 Cooking for Two

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Change can be good: Beef Stroganoff

December 2, 2012
  • Beef Stroganoff over noodles
  • Garden Salad
  • 2010 Doña Sol Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Triple Chocolate Cookies, Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice Cream

There are many foods that I enjoy eating now that I would't even consider eating when I was younger.  I went through four years of college and four years of graduate school without eating pizza. When my mom served spaghetti I would have something else, a hamburger perhaps. When she made grilled cheese sandwiches I would have a grilled PB&J (which I still enjoy). BLT, no, I would have bacon, lettuce, and peanut butter. And I avoided sour cream for a most of my life.

Over time, though, my tastes have changed. While sour cream is not something I would go out of my way to eat, I don't avoid it or dishes that use it, either. Which is a good thing because I would not have considered making beef stroganoff for dinner this Sunday. According to wikipedia, beef stroganoff is "a Russian dish of sauteéd beef served in a sauce of sour cream ...". The exact origins of the name are unknown but it is likely taken from a member of the Stroganov family. In Russian, beef stroganoff is Бефстроганов. You can learn all sorts of stuff, some of it even useful, on the Internet.

Beef stroganoff is a good, cool weather dish, rich and satisfying with the sour cream sauce and egg noodles. Made from the Cook's Illustrated recipe it is a one-skillet dish so you don't end up with a kitchen full of dirty pots and pans to wash. The recipe calls for sirloin steak tips which I believe is a regional cut of meat from New England, sometimes called flap meat in other parts of the country. I went to Whole Foods and asked for sirloin steak tips. The butcher left the counter and went into the back to prepare my order and returned with a package labelled "top sirloin". After getting home and opening the package I am sure this is not the cut of beef that the Test Kitchen cooks had in mind when they published this recipe. Perhaps this is why the meat in our finished stroganoff was a little tough, though still edible and good tasting. This was not the only error in this recipe as I forgot to quarter the mushrooms before microwaving them. Thus they probably had more moisture than envisioned by the author. I thought the finished dish may have had too many mushrooms, perhaps quartering them before microwaving would have reduced their volume in the finished product.

To accompany the stroganoff I made a salad using mostly ingredients from our monthly box of local organic produce from Farm Fresh to You. The salad included red leaf lettuce, spinach, carrots, cucumber, celery, and cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were the last of the season from our own tiny garden.

For dessert I made triple chocolate cookies. Searching on the web turns up a lot of different recipes for this cookie. The way I made them they were double chocolate cookies as I added whole Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips to the finished dough rather than using milk chocolate chips. The same chips were also used, melted, in the dough. I used a stand mixer and so I added the flour to the other ingredients rather than doing it the other way around as described in the recipe. The cookies are rich with a deep chocolate flavor. They're soft and slightly chewy and lack any crispness. I thought my dough was not quite as thick as the recipe describes but the cookies are still good. I don't think they're as good as chocolate chubbies but these perhaps have a deeper chocolate flavor.

This was a real satisfying winter dinner. The warm, rich stroganoff and noodles were just the thing for a winter dinner. These were was nicely complemented by the fresh garden salad and hearty wine. I've learned to like pizza, spaghetti, BLTs, and even sour cream. I could probably learn to like grilled cheese sandwiches, too, but so far I have stuck with my grilled PB&J.

Beef Stroganoff from Cook's Illustrated 
Ultimate Triple Chocolate Cookie from Kitchen Trials

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anniversary Dinner at Morton's The Steakhouse

December 9, 2012
  • Baked Five Onion Soup
  • 6 oz. Center-Cut Filet Mignon
  • 6 oz. Filet Mignon with 3 Grilled Shrimp & 2 Bacon Wrapped Scallops
  • Grilled Jumbo Asparagus
  • Chicago Style Horseradish Mashed Potatoes
  • 2010 Mirrasou Cabernet Sauvignon
When I called to make our reservation for dinner at the San Jose Morton's The Steakhouse, I hesitated when they asked me if this was a special occasion. After a pause I said yes, it was for our anniversary. The hesitation came because our anniversary was three months previous and we were just getting around to celebrating, in part because Diane was out of town on our anniversary date. I'm glad that I said yes as we were greeted with "Happy Anniversary" several times. We had special menus which also celebrated our anniversary, they snapped a photo of us and presented us with a print, and we got a free dessert. They went out of there way to make our special dinner special and we appreciated their efforts and the very good service that we received.
I love onion soup (I need to try and make it at home, I have several recipes to try) and so ordered Morton's version to start my meal. Diane, having ordered a mixed-grill platter, felt that her entreé effectively included her appetizer. The delicious soup of caramelized onions and rich broth was topped with a thick layer of Swiss cheese and slice of bread. I enjoyed the soup and bread and cheese but I would have preferred there to have been more broth and perhaps less cheese. 

A round loaf of bread was part of the meal. The bread was soft with a soft crust and it was garnished with poppy seeds and sweet caramelized bits of onion. It had a slightly sweet flavor enhanced by the onion which I enjoyed as it provided a pleasant side note to the savory meal. It has a yellow crumb, probably from the use of egg and/or butter in the dough, and so might be related to brioche. We didn't finish the loaf and asked our server to pack the leftovers for us to take home. Rather than do this, they generously gave us a whole new loaf which we enjoyed with several dinners this week at home. One complaint is that they only provided one knife, a steak knife. The knife was poorly suited to cutting the bread and to spreading butter (which was served at the perfect temperature, it makes no sense to serve frozen pats of butter that you can't spread without destroying the bread).
Our dinners were both very good. We both ordered our steak medium-rare and that is how it was delivered. The filet mignon was very tender, it hardly needed a steak knife to cut. The seafood was also very good, especially the scallops which Diane noted as being very sweet.

Side dishes are ordered separately at Morton's and we chose two. The portions are generous enough so they easily serve two people. The grilled asparagus was nicely cooked and served with a balsamic glaze. (Though Diane preferred the steamed asparagus served with her entreé.) The horseradish potatoes went very well with the beef. We ordered a bottle of wine, one of their lower-priced bottles, and we were very pleased with the very smooth and drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon. The sommelier who served it shared some stories about visiting the old Mirrasou winery in San Jose. It is only a few miles from our home and we had visited it often before it closed when the brand was acquired by Gallo.

For dessert there were many delectable choices. Diane and I both love chocolate and there were several tempting dark chocolate treats. However, our anniversary dinner included a complimentary dessert which this night was a lemon soufflé. So we controlled ourselves and shared the soufflé wondering if we could return some evening just to try the double chocolate mousse or hot chocolate cake.

Morton's is a restaurant we would return to. It was a very expensive meal so we would only come here for a special occasion, but the pleasant atmosphere, excellent service, and the special attention they gave to us for our anniversary leave us with fond memories.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A quick and easy Italian dinner

October 13, 2012

  • Panzanella
  • Spaghetti with Quick Tomato Sauce
  • Bolla 2011 Chianti
  • Gizdich Very Berry Pie

Several years ago my family gathered at Green Lakes State Park to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday. Food was prepared by a variety of people including my son, who was trained in Culinary Arts at the Culinary Institute of America. He made panzanella, an Italian bread salad, using Ciabatta bread and heirloom tomatoes. I loved it, as did everyone at the party, and I've wanted to try making it myself.

This Sunday dinner was on a Saturday as we would be spending Sunday at AT&T Park for the first game of the National League Championship Series. (Our San Francisco Giants lost this game but won the Series, beating the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.) Diane was finally back from Oregon and Caryn was home from college for the weekend.

I would have preferred making my own bread but didn't have enough time, so I bought a two pound loaf of sweet French bread at Le Boulanger. You have to have fresh tomatoes for panzanella and I got these at our local fruit stand, J&P Farms. I picked up some fresh basil there as well. It was the availability of fresh tomatoes which led me to make panzanella this weekend. I made a mistake with the dressing, using Raspberry Vinegar instead of Red Wine Vinegar (hey, they're both red!) but the result was still very good. Everyone enjoyed the salad and Diane had seconds. I should have made the cubes of bread smaller, they were bite-sized and did a good job soaking up the dressing but some were a bit of stretch to eat in one bite.

To accompany the salad I made a quick tomato sauce which was served over spaghetti. The sauce is very easy to make and takes very little time. Though not quite as convenient as sauce from a can or jar I think it's worth the small amount of extra effort. The tomatoes come from a can but it turns out these provide more flavor than you would get from grocery store tomatoes. The latter are picked green, before they are ripe, while tomatoes that are canned are allowed to ripen before they are picked. Thus canned tomatoes are a more flavorful choice. It took less than an hour to prepare the full meal, tomato sauce plus salad. We heeded the old phrase, "when you eat Italian, drink Italian" and accompanied our repast with some Italian Chianti.

For dessert we had a wonderful fresh berry pie. Earlier in the day we visited the Gizdich Ranch, mostly to buy apples. We weren't the only ones who thought this was a good day to visit as the place was quite crowded. We purchased some sandwiches and enjoyed a picnic lunch next to the apple orchard. We gave in to temptation and purchased one of their Very Berry pies to take home along with all the apples fresh apple juice.

Panzanella from America's Test Kitchen
Quick Tomato Sauce from America's Test Kitchen

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pork Roast and Homemade Applesauce

November 25, 2012
  • Savory Sage Pork Roast with Apple Pork Gravy
  • Boiled Red Potatoes
  • Green Beans
  • Applesauce
  • Chocolate Chubbies with Ben and Jerry's Vanilla Ice Cream
This was our second Sunday dinner while in Central New York as we visited family for Thanksgiving. Once again I enjoyed the opportunity to cook for more than two people as we were joined again by my middle sister (we were staying in her house. after all), brother, and my dad. Also joining us this week was my brother's wife, herself a middle sister, so we again had a full table with six diners. (Alas, Diane is not a middle sister but she has one.)

The menu fell into my lap, not requiring much planning on my part. In my post for the previous week's dinner I had asked what I should make this week. My sister commented on the post (I wish more people would leave comments on my blog posts) that she had a pork roast in the freezer and some homemade applesauce. Nothing goes better with pork than homemade applesauce. Our oldest sister sent e-mail with the recipe. Thus all that remained was picking the side dishes and preparing the meal.

The recipe was from McCormick's and, not surprisingly, called for many McCormick products. I followed it pretty closely. We didn't have all of the ingredients for the dry rub but we had most of them. I used: 2½ teaspoons ground sage, 1 teaspoon garlic salt, ½ teaspoon parsley flakes, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, ½ teaspoon black pepper.  The pork was a three pound "center loin roast" but, bone-in. The recipe was for a boneless roast. I contemplated removing the bones but not being certain of the anatomy and how much hacking I'd need to do, I left them in place. I used a 13x9 inch cake pan, lined with heavy duty non-stick aluminum foil (my sister has an incredible amount of this, but that's her story to tell) to cook the roast and this worked fine. A probe thermometer was inserted into the meat and the alarm was set for 150°. The recommended temperature for cooking pork is now 145° but my sister was uncomfortable with the idea of eating pink pork so I increased it by 5°. The result was good, the center was still a little pink but the edges were not, so everyone was able to select a piece of pork that matched their preferences. I was disappointed in the amount of flavor provided by the dry rub, this may have been due in part to the bones which covered one side of the roast. Also, the rub wasn't on the meat very long before the meat went into the oven. The gravy, made from a mix and apple sauce, was a nice, sweet addition to the meat and potatoes.

The applesauce that my sister made was very good. She used some local Central New York apples and added just a little cinnamon and sugar. Dessert was simple and very good, Chocolate Chubbies is my recipe find of the year and I've made them several times already.

Savory Sage Pork Roast with Apple Pork Gravy from McCormick
Chocolate Chubbies from serious eats

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Appalachian Cider Baked Beans

October 7, 2012
  • Hot Dog
  • Appalachian Cider Baked Beans
  • Sun Chips
  • Koko Brown Ale (Kona Brewing Company)
I like baked beans but I am still searching for the perfect baked bean recipe. A major reason this is a challenge for me is that I don't really know what I am seeking. I think that I'll know the perfect beans when I eat them, but I can't really be sure. Is it the beans that my mother would occasionally prepare that I remember so fondly? Is it the flavor of one of the many brands of canned baked beans that I am searching for? I'm pretty sure it's not Grandma Brown's Baked Beans which I remember from my childhood, and which you can't buy in San Jose except by mail order, but which now seem pretty bland to me. (My mom would bake them with a frosting of browned sugar, probably my favorite part of the dish.) Thus I was intrigued and excited when a Facebook friend posted a recipe for Appalachian Cider Baked Beans. I hadn't considered that parts of the country outside Boston would have their own baked bean traditions. Could this be the Holy Grail of baked beans I seek? I had to try.

On this particular Sunday, way back at the start of October, I was still home alone. It was also the day of the San Jose Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon, an event I haven't missed since its inception six years ago. I generally get home by noon so I should have plenty of time to fix dinner. However, I knew I would not have a lot of energy. The beans take some time to prepare, but not much effort, so I was confident they would be doable. And they pair well with other dishes that are easy to prepare.

The use of apple juice (easier to find than the apple cider called for by the recipe) for baking the beans wasn't the only thing that was different from the other recipes I have used (generally for Boston Baked Beans). Instead of small white, or navy, beans the recipe called for pinto beans. I associate pinto beans with Mexican fare, not with baked beans. The recipe also recommended using sorghum molasses. I didn't have any of this so used normal molasses.

When eating baked beans for dinner I generally enjoy them with either hot dogs or hamburgers. While shopping at Whole Foods I perused their selection and purchased Fork in the Road Honest Dogs with Pasture-Raised Beef. These were uncured hot dogs. I did some research after I got home and discovered that "uncured" means no nitrates or nitrites were added.  They were a little expensive, about $1.25 each, but that's not too bad for a main course, especially when you consider how many times I've spent $5 for a hot dog at a ball game. I enjoyed these hot dogs, they have a nice flavor and are just a little bit spicy, on a toasted store-bought bun with Dijon mustard and sweet pickle relish.

The beans were good: firm and not too sweet. I didn't notice they had much apple flavor though, perhaps because I had used processed juice rather than fresh cider. However, I can't say that I was crazy about them. I think the baked bean recipe I am seeking is for something a bit sweeter and perhaps with more molasses flavor. I will need to continue trying new baked bean recipes until I find the right one.

Appalachian Cider Baked Beans from Leite's Culinaria 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A New York Sunday Dinner for Six

November 18, 2012
  • Easier Beef Burgundy
  • Garlic Mashed Potatoes
  • Creamy Chocolate Pudding
  • Glenora Yellow Cab Red Table Wine 
  • Castel Grisch Finger Lakes Estate Reserve Burgundy
As those of us north of the equator are heading into the colder months of the year, we have headed to colder climes to spend Thanksgiving with family in Central New York. As the weather gets colder heartier fare becomes more and more appealing, warm rich food to fuel the body and keep us warm and comfortable. Chef John at Food Wishes must have been thinking the same thing a few weeks ago as he re-published an older video recipe for an easier version of Beef Burgundy. So even though I wasn't home but rather staying with one of my sisters, it was Sunday so I volunteered to cook dinner, and beef stew, for that is what Beef Burgundy is, sounded good to all. We were joined for dinner by my dad and brother making a hearty party of six.

I made a few small changes to the Food Wishes recipe. It called for Merlot instead of burgundy, but we had no Merlot and when we went shopping, Sunday morning, we were unable to buy wine. (New York still has blue laws in effect limiting when and where you can purchase wine.) But my sister had a New York burgundy from the Finger Lakes region, Castel Grisch Finger Lakes Estate Reserve Burgundy, so I used it in the stew and also served it with dinner. I simmered the stew by placing it into a 300° oven rather than on the stovetop as this provides more even heating and lessens the chance of burning. I also added a cup of frozen peas just before serving to improve the appearance of the stew and provide another vegetable with almost no extra effort. I used three carrots, rather than two, as they were a little on the small size, and my diners thought that the stew could have used even more.

The stew was served over garlic mashed potatoes. I purchased "butter potatoes" at Wegmans, I believe these are similar to Yukon Gold potatoes, low-starch potatoes with a rich, creamy texture. Making garlic mashed potatoes is about the same as making plain mashed potatoes. The potatoes were peeled and boiled in salted water. Also added to the water were peeled garlic cloves; I used two cloves of garlic for each potato. The potatoes were drained and mashed along with the garlic. I added some melted butter (I didn't add much since it would be served with the stew), hot milk,  salt, and pepper.

For dessert I made chocolate pudding from scratch. I even planned ahead and brought some ingredients, which I thought my sister might not have, along with me from California. I should have known better, my sister is an accomplished baker and she had both Dutch processed cocoa and espresso powder. I used a Pyrex sauce pan which was a new experience for me. It worked fine but it did seem to take a little longer to heat up as it took longer for the pudding to come to a boil.

One of the great benefits of my Sunday cooking is the leftovers which make for good, easy to fix, weekday meals. This hearty Sunday dinner for six had no leftovers: no stew, no potatoes, and no pudding. It was a pleasure to fix food for my family, and for them to have enjoyed it. We'll be here next Sunday, too. What should I fix?

Easier Beef Burgundy from Food Wishes
Creamy Chocolate Pudding from Cook's Illustrated

Friday, November 16, 2012

Into the fryer

November 11, 2012
  • French Fries
  • Sloppy Toms
  • Appalachian Cider Baked Beans
  • Vella Merlot
  • Gordon Biersch Czech Style Pilsner

From time to time I see a recipe for deep fried food that I would like to try. But deep frying is such a hassle! What kind of oil do you use? What do you do with it when you're done cooking? Can you keep it and if so how and where? Do you throw it out, and if so how do you do that? How do you pour it without making a mess? How do you control the temperature? How do you remove the cooked food from the hot oil? So many questions.

For many years we have had a deep fryer but we haven't used it for quite a while. The oil it contains is who knows how old and probably not very good. The fryer had a convenient basket to drain and remove the food, a thermostat, and a lid so you could store oil in it between uses. However, it had significant disadvantages: it takes up a lot of room in the cupboard, is difficult to keep clean, has a thermostat that I don't really trust, and exposes the used oil to air which would shorten its life. I've reviewed possible replacement electric fryers but I've never found a satisfactory solution.

The Test Kitchen uses a Dutch Oven equipped with a candy thermometer for deep frying They never show what to do with the left over oil which I think is the biggest challenge to deep fat frying, though they have said that unless you're cooking fish you can reuse it. Earlier this year I found a solution to my deep frying challenge, though, in a somewhat unlikely place. I made sourdough starter which is kept in a glass jar in the refrigerator. It occurred to me that this re-sealable glass jar would be a good place to store used oil. I have a dutch oven and I can use my instant-read thermometer to control the temperature, suspending it in the oil using a rope made of foil. If I had a 2-quart glass jar (2 liters, to be more accurate), a funnel to help transfer the oil, and a "spider" to transfer the food, I should be all set. A few weeks ago I ordered these three items form Amazon and picked up a gallon of peanut oil. I was good to go!

This week, after throwing the old electric fryer into the trash, I made us some french fries for dinner.  I had several Test Kitchen recipes to choose from and I chose "Classic French Fries" as being the simplest, most basic recipe. A russet potato was peeled and cut into long  ¼-inch fries using the mandoline (A scary tool, Diane and I both have cut ourselves on it.) to ensure uniform thickness. The potatoes were placed in cold water with ice and then went into the freezer to chill for 20 minutes or so. (They would have gone into the refrigerator but once again I neglected to read the recipe ahead of time and so needed to chill them faster than otherwise.)  The potatoes were fried twice, first at 325° to cook them through then at 350° to crisp the exterior. I set the dial on our electric stove to 4 or 5 (out of 10) until the proper temperature was reached. I then put in the potatoes and increased the burner setting to 8 or so. I liked the fries, thinking they were better than frozen and having more potato flavor. Diane likened them to the fries you get at In 'N Out but she prefers larger fries, like "steak fries".

She also prefers the convenience of frozen fries to the still significant effort involved in deep frying at home.
After the oil cooled, we filtered it though a fine mesh strainer and a coffee filter and stored it in a sealed glass jar in the refrigerator. I found that pouring it from the dutch oven without spilling was not possible and so used a ladle to transfer the oil to the filter. Deep frying at home is still a hassle.

To go along with the fires I made a turkey version of sloppy joes appropriately called Sloppy Toms using a recipe from Food Wishes. Since in my mind the fries were the main course, I wanted something that would be pretty easy to prepare, would keep well for leftovers, and which could be frozen as we will be going on vacation in the not too distant future. The Sloppy Toms were pretty easy to make, requiring just one pan. The sandwiches were nice and tender, thanks to a long simmer, and were nicely seasoned. I used about ½ teaspoon of cayenne but should have used only half this amount, they were a little to spicy for us. For the final course we used up some leftover baked beans which I'll get around to writing about one of these days.

Sloppy Toms from
French Fries from The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook, p. 287, "Classic French Fries"
Appalachian Cider Baked Beans from Leite's Culinaria (these were leftovers, I haven't written the blog post about them, yet.)

The pork tenderloin was a good leftover. I cut fairly thick slices, about ½ inches, and heated them in a skillet with a little oil over medium heat. This heated the meat through but didn't dry it out. These were served with the maple glaze that had been reheated in the microwave oven.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Our Favorite Pork Tenderloin

September 30, 2012
  • Maple-Glazed Pork Tenderloin
  • Boiled Potatoes
  • Green beans
  • Vella Chardonnay
  • Tarte Tatin
For many months I was able to keep up with these blog posts. But I've somehow found a way recently to fall behind. Being home alone for two months is part of the problem as I had not only my own chores to do but Diane's, too. She's been home for several weeks which should have provided me some chance to get caught up, but alas that hasn't happened, as other obligations got in the way. First it was some volunteer work for Destination Imagination, then I was spending time deciding how to vote on the score or so ballot propositions for this year's November election. Then I was too ill to sit at a computer. Sigh.

I try to make notes after each Sunday dinner, and I have many photos, but still it will be a challenge to think back and remember enough about the dinners to write something intelligent, but I'll do my best (the Cub Scout motto) as I endeavor to catch up. I think the blogs are better when I write them immediately after the meal while the story is fresh in my mind, so this should provide some additional motivation to clear the back log.

This dinner featured our favorite recipe for pork tenderloin. Pork tenderloin is a very lean cut, the absence of fat makes it easy to overcook leading to a dry, bland main dish. Brining the meat can help add moisture and flavor but this recipe eschews this step, instead using a delicious sweet glaze to add flavor plus careful cooking to avoid dryness.  The recipe is for two tenderloins but, as I was still home alone, I cooked a single tenderloins which weighed just over one pound without reducing the quantities of the other ingredients. Doing so would be difficult as it is hard to have a half pinch of something and it would have been difficult to control the temperature of the smaller amount of sauce as it cooked in our large skillet. I purchased a Grade B maple syrup, something I'd been wanting to do for some time, for its richer, deeper flavor in comparison to the more common Grade A. Instead of whole grain mustard I substituted Dijon because that's what was in the refrigerator.

The pork was cooked to an internal temperature of 145°. This matches a recent USDA recommendation which also provides assurances that it is OK to eat pink pork to long as it is cooked to this temperature. The resulting pork was indeed a little pink and it was also very juicy and flavorful. We've all been conditioned to be wary of under cooked pork, and the color of this pork can be a little unsettling. However, I will trust the Test Kitchen's recommendation, my thermometer, and the USDA.

Fall is apple season and apples go very well with pork. Chef John apparently agrees with me as he published a recipe for Tarte Tatin, an apple dish that I was not previously familiar with and which is similar  to Skillet Apple Pie and Apple Pandowdey. It's a pretty simple dish to make: you smear butter on a skillet, cover it with sugar, than place apples on top. You cook it on the stove to caramelize the sugar and apples, add a crust, and bake. The recipe is for a 10-inch skillet but I only have a 12-inch skillet. So, I used 4 medium Granny Smith apples instead of 3 as called for in the recipe and after caramelizing the sugar and apples, I scooched everything towards the center of the pan before adding the crust. After baking the tarte is turned out onto a place so the crust is on the bottom. As shown in the Food Wishes video, some of the crust and apples stuck to the pan but they were easily scraped out and added to the serving plate. I was concerned before making the recipe that it would be too sweet with the caramel overpowering the flavor of the apples, but this didn't turn out to be a problem. The dessert is very good with the caramel complementing the flavor of the apples and with a nice, flaky crust. The recipe contains no spices but I didn't miss them, the caramel was sufficient.

Maple-glazed Pork Tenderloin from Cook's Illustrated
Tarte Tatin from Food Wishes

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Quick Chicken, Quick Cookies, Quick Cookbook

September 26, 2012  
Not a Sunday, not for two

  • Quick Orange Glazed Chicken
  • Steamed Rice
  • Peas
  • Vella Chardonnay
  • Quick Chocolate Chip Cookie with Chocolate Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

The new America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, has arrived. It's a big book with over 750 recipes in a ring binder. I appreciate this format in our kitchen where counter space is at a premium: it's easier to find a place to put a few pieces of paper than it is to find a safe, clean place to put a cookbook. In addition to recipes the book includes summaries from Test Kitchen reviews of kitchen equipment and common ingredients, a section on knife skills, and "Test Kitchen Tips" scattered throughout. Every recipe in the book can be completed in 45 minutes or less and some are labelled as "super fast", designed to be completed in under 25 minutes. This book reminds of the Betty Crocker Cookbook that we've had on the shelf for over three decades and which is still Diane's favorite, the book that was so worn I recently went online to buy a replacement copy of the same edition. 

This dinner was not prepared on a Sunday as I was at the California International Air Show in Salinas with friends, an event I've attended every year since 2001. This was a full-day outing and we had dinner at an Outback Steakhouse on the way home. Thus, this meal was prepared on a weeknight and it took just 40 minutes to complete; the chicken recipe was categorized as "super fast". I would have been faster but for the thickness of the chicken and pausing to take photos along the way. Buying boneless skinless chicken breasts at the supermarket that weigh less than 8 ounces was nigh on impossible. I ended up buying a tray pack containing three "Breast Fillets" weighing a total of 1.5 pounds. What is a chicken "breast fillet" or, for that matter, a "breast steak", which they also had for sale?

The chicken was very easy to prepare, requiring a small number of ingredients and no complicated techniques. I didn't have any apricot preserves so I substituted orange marmalade in the glaze. The chicken took an extra five minutes for the thinnest piece to reach 160° because the "fillets" were so thick. It came out really well, moist, juicy, and tender. The simple glaze provided a nice, bright accompaniment though the mustard might have been a little too strong, dominating the orange flavor. I prepared steamed rice as I had described recently, however I rinsed the rice before cooking it as suggested in the comments to my post. This removes starch from the surface of the grains, which acts like glue when it is cooked in water. Thus the cooked rice grains don't stick together so much ... I liked the result. The meal was finished with frozen peas and a glass of our standard box white wine.

This recipe even works with some significant changes. Diane, still out of town, fixed this dish without shopping, using what she could find in the kitchen. Bone-in thighs instead of boneless breasts, so it needed to cook longer (probably no longer "super fast"). Blackberry jam replaced the apricot preserves and produced a pretty pink sauce. Finally, spicy jalapeño mustard instead of Dijon which made the sauce spicy but not too much.

For dessert I made Chocolate Chip Cookies using a recipe from the Quick Family Cookbook. This recipe differs in several ways from the standard cookie recipes. For example, instead of creaming together the sugar and butter in a stand mixer, the butter is melted and just stirred into the sugars. This not only allowed me to make over two dozen cookies in 40 minutes (and this counts picture taking) but it also generates far fewer dirty dishes to wash. The cookies are very good. They are soft, chewy cookies with just a bit of crispness. I accidentally cooked a few longer than the recipe calls for, cooking them until they were set almost all the way through instead of just at the edges, and in some ways I like these crispier cookies better. Are these my favorite chocolate chip cookies ever? No. Are they my favorites that can be made in 40 minutes. You bet!

Quick Orange Glazed Chicken from The America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook
Quick Chocolate Chip Cookies from The America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook

The Meatier Meatloaf is very good left over. To reheat, I cut ½-inch slices and warmed them gently in a small skillet with a little vegetable oil. If the sides browned a little bit, that was OK, it added a little extra flavor and texture. The result was still flavorful, tender, and juicy. I froze about half of the meat loaf and I expect it will continue to be good when thawed.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Meatier Meatloaf Revisited

September 16, 2012
  • Meatier Meatloaf
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Braised Beets with Orange and Walnuts
  • Vella Merlot
A few months ago I wrote about testing a new recipe for "Meatier Meatloaf" for America's Test Kitchen as part of their recipe development process. The final version of that recipe has now appeared, in the September 2012 edition of Cook's Illustrated. I like meat loaf, it's comfort food for me, and it makes for good leftovers. Rereading my blog post, it seems we weren't particularly impressed with the test recipe and thus made several suggestions in the survey provided with the test recipe. Comparing the published recipe with the test version, I noted several changes that were consistent with our suggestions. I don't know how much influence our particular suggestions had, the Test Kitchen solicits comments from many home cooks, but it is gratifying to see the changes. The best part, of course, is the meat loaf was better.

If you like working with your hands, meat loaf can be fun to make. I followed the recipe closely, using 1 pound of ground beef and 1 pound of ground pork, both labelled as 85% lean.. The other ingredients, after some cutting and chopping and cooking to develop their flavor, are added to the meat. You use your hands to combine them and then to mold the meat into a loaf of the desired size and shape. Somehow, I just can't see my mom, for example, using her hands to do this. When she made meat loaf she mixed it with a spoon and then cooked it in a loaf pan. It was good meat loaf, of course, and the reason why I think of it as a comfort food. It was perhaps something in the way they taught people to cook in the 1940's, when my mom was in high school, or maybe just my mother's preference, but I don't recall her ever using her hands to mix food. 

The Meatier Meatloaf was very good: moist, juicy, and tender. It took just 75 minutes to reach the recipe temperature of 165°.  I liked the ketchup glaze used in the published recipe (my mom also glazed meat loaf with ketchup) much better than the mustard glaze in the test version. The addition of a little hot sauce (I used Tapatío Salsa Picante) was a nice touch, providing just a hint of heat. 

This was not a particularly quick recipe to prepare, it took me about three hours from start to serving. It probably won't take you as long unless you pause to take photos along the way, too.

The mashed potatoes were made without referring to a recipe. I peeled and cut up a couple or russet potatoes and cooked them in salted water. While the potatoes cooked I combined some unsalted butter and milk in a Pyrex measuring cup and warmed them in the microwave until the butter melted. When the potatoes were tender I drained them and let them sit for a few minutes to dry. I mashed them, added a little freshly ground black pepper, then gradually stirred in the milk mixture until achieving the right consistency. I made extra because I love left over mashed potatoes which I fry in a little butter. (I think I should try oil, I could get it hotter and perhaps form a nice crust of fried potato.)

The beet recipe was, coincidentally, another recipe that the Test Kitchen had sent us to test. Diane made this during her recent visit and I still had some left over in the refrigerator. The beets went very well with the meat loaf. They have an interesting flavor with the fresh beets combined with orange, not something I would have thought of doing myself. The walnuts added a nice crunch to the original dish though that is lost in the leftovers. I thought the orange flavor was a little too strong and Diane thought there were too many walnuts, we'll see how it turns out in a few months.

Meatier Meat Loaf from Cook's Illustrated
     For another home cook's take on this recipe, see this post from My Year Cooking with Chris Kimball.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Home-made Mexican Meal

September 9, 2012
Simple Beef Fajitas
Refried Beans
Chunky Guacamole

How often do you build the menu for a meal around the choice of beverage? Perhaps if you're a wine or beer connoisseur you'll create a menu to complement some special drinks, but in general home cooks choose the entreé first then choose side dishes and beverages to complement it. One of our favorite drinks to have with dinner (and Diane was home this weekend to share this meal) is sangria, an easy-to-drink, fresh tasting, wine punch made with wine, sugar, and fruit juice. For some reason I wanted sangria for Sunday dinner. I even went to the supermarket a few days early and purchased a bottle of one of our favorite brands to have on hand. We usually drink sangria with Mexican food but I wanted to do something different than prepare our usual (though very good) tacos. Sitting on my night stand was the September-October 2012 issue of Cook's Illustrated. The cover listed the contents including a new recipe for chicken fajitas. This provided the inspiration I needed. I went to The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook and found four recipes that I used to create this meal. This included making Sangria, but, not to worry, the store-bought stuff didn't go to waste.

The first thing made was the sangria as the mixture of wine, sugar, and citrus needs time for the flavors to mix and meld into a delicious, mellow final product. For wine, which is the base for the beverage, the recipe calls for Merlot and specifically says that an inexpensive wine is good for making sangria. Our everyday red wine is Vella Merlot. It comes in a 5-liter box which holds the equivalent of 6⅔ bottles and you can usually get it for less than $15. (We normally also have a box Vella Chardonnay on hand as our everyday white wine.) Wine deteriorates quickly when it comes into contact with oxygen but this is not a problem with a box wine where the wine resides in a plastic bag. As you remove the wine the bag collapses, no air is introduced to replace the liquid, and thus the wine is in an oxygen-free environment.  The wine keeps well for as long as it takes you to finish off the box. The recipe also calls for the orange liqueur, Triple Sec, and I substituted a different liqueur, Orange Curacao, because we had it on hand. The end result was a very good sangria that was notably better than any of the store-bought brands that we drink. It was much fresher tasting and more fruity though there was also a slight bitter note from the pith of the oranges and lemons. It is not as convenient as a bottle of store-bought sangria, but the extra effort is worth it for a special meal.

In the late 1970s we lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, having moved there from Irvine, California. We were accustomed to buying refried beans at the supermarket but, to our great surprise, they weren't available in Pittsburgh in 1978. Fortunately we could buy canned pinto beans which  we mashed and fried to make our own refried beans. The recipe I used here is similar in using canned pinto beans but it adds onions and peppers and pork fat to boost the flavor. I included the japapeño pepper called for in the recipe; Diane thought the beans were too spicy while I thought the level of spice was OK. They were a little dry but that was my fault; the beans were done too early and dried out sitting on the stove over low heat while other components of the meal were prepared.

I'm not a big fan of avocados and thus of guacamole, but it is a favorite of Diane's and I thought it would make a good side dish or condiment for the fajitas. One of the keys to good guacamole is getting ripe avocados. This was a challenge. I did the shopping the same day as I was going to be making the guacamole so I had to get ripe fruit from the store, I didn't have time to let it ripen on the counter. I found one good ripe avocado and two that were probably a day or two away shy of ripe. I left the spicy jalapeño and cumin out of the guacamole so the focus would be on the flavor of the green creamy fruit. Despite the less-than-ideal avocados it came out well. Diane and I both ate it on the side rather than adding it to our fajitas.

These fajitas were simpler than those we have made at home before which used one of those gravy-mix packets you can get in the supermarket. Grilled beef, onions, and peppers on a flour tortilla is all there is to it. There was no sauce and nothing spicy and just a few good ingredients. We both thought they tasted a lot like that County Fair staple, the pepper steak sandwich, and for good reason as the ingredients in the two are essentially the same. We used some store-bought salsa and sour cream as condiments for our fajitas.

Sangria from America's Test Kitchen
Refried Beans from America's Test Kitchen
Chunky Guacamole from America's Test Kitchen
Simple Beef Fajitas from America's Test Kitchen

Like steak, pork chops are difficult to reheat without overcooking them, but even more so, I think. The nice, juicy chop that I started with ended up tough and dry. Not good. I warmed it up in the microwave, gently, but it still came out overcooked. Perhaps a gentle warming in a low oven would work better?