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?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A "Simple" Grilled Pork Chop Dinner

September 2, 2012
  • Grilled Pork Chop
  • Steamed Rice
  • Apple Sauce
  • Steamed White Corn
  • Vella Chardonnay
I'd been thinking that it has been too long since we've had pork chops. Pork chops can be very easy to prepare yet still make a delicious meal. The weather is still good for grilling (though this is California and we can grill pretty much year round) and as we transition to Fall we are starting to get some local apples. I like apple sauce with pork so this seemed like a good time to combine the two for dinner. It was dinner for one as Diane is still away helping her mom.

I got the basic technique for cooking the pork from The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook but I skipped the spice rub they used. I purchased a "pork loin center cut chop" at Whole Foods, only $3.98.  (When I was at the store it seemed a little sad, buying just one pork chop.) I soaked the pork chop in the refrigerator for 30 minutes in a brine made with ¾ quart of water and 1½ tablespoon each table salt and sugar. The chop was removed from the brine, patted dry with a paper towel, and seasoned with freshly ground pepper. It was placed on a preheated gas grill and each side browned for about 5 minutes. One of the burners was then turned off and the pork moved to this cooler section of the grill and cooked, with the lid closed, until reaching an internal temperature of 145°. The resulting chop was warm, juicy, tender, and nicely seasoned.

For the apple sauce I bought 4 Gala apples. The apples were peeled,  cored, sliced, and then cooked in a covered sauce pan with a few tablespoons of water, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of cinnamon for about 25 minutes until they were tender. I mashed them with a potato masher but not too much as I like my apple sauce to be a little lumpy, kind of rustic. The sauce was good, especially for early in the season, though a little bland which I blame on the apple variety as much as anything.

I steamed rice: ⅔ cup water with a pinch of salt was brought to a boil in a small sauce pan. The heat was turned to low and ⅓ cup rice was added. The pan was covered and the rice left to cook for 20 minutes until tender. Before serving a fork was used to fluff the rice and the lid returned to the pan for a few more minutes.

To round out the four-course meal, an ear of white corn was cooked in the microwave for 4 minutes. It was placed in a shallow baking dish with a little water and covered with plastic wrap. The corn was good but perhaps a little over done.

The meal was served with an inexpensive but tasty white wine.

This turned out to be a nice, simple dinner. But I have a theory about the meaning of "simple".  I have found this can be a very subjective term. In school I was a chemistry major and I studied  subjects that most people would say are far from being simple. However, if I studied well enough so I internalized and understood the complex subject matter, what was originally complex would become simple. Whether something is simple often reflects your mastery of the topic and it may or may not reflect the objective complexity of the subject. I always thought of baseball as a simple game until I tried to explain it to a visitor from Norway who had never been to a game. It was simple for me, but not for him.

Grilled Pork Chops, The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, p. 507

What should I do with leftover rib eye steak? I had enough from our dinner last week that I could try several different things. First I just made thin slices of cold steak for a sandwich. Second, I reheated a portion in a skillet with a little oil. Third, I reheated it in the microwave. It is very hard to reheat the steak without overcooking it and my favorite was the cold sandwich. The reheated meat was good, it was still reasonably juicy, but it lacked the beefy flavor of either the freshly cooked steak or the cold slices.

The Test Kitchen had an on-line chat  this week over Twitter featuring Julia Collin-Davison, one of the chefs that frequently appears on the TV shows. I asked about reheating steak and was gratified by Julia's answer:

  What's the best way to reheat leftover steak without overcooking it?
 Is hard to reheat without re-cooking. Would make sandwiches or add to a salad. -Julia 

Perhaps even more exciting, I was one of four participants in the chat chosen to receive a free copy of the Test Kitchen's latest cookbook, The America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook. I look forward to cooking and writing about recipes which are promised to take 45 minutes or less.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Not Steak Diane, but Steak for Diane

August 26, 2012
  • Pan seared rib eye steak
  • Baked potato
  • Grilled asparagus
  • Green salad
  • Guglielmo 2008 Private Reserve Zinfandel

Diane was home for the weekend. She has been out of town, caring for her mom who has limited mobility while recovering from an injury. Our nephew, Kyle was  thankfully able to fill in for a few days, giving Diane a chance to spend a weekend at home. Since it had been almost a month since I had cooked for her, I wanted to fix a special meal featuring dishes that were sure to please her. I was thinking steak and when I asked her for suggestions the answer I got was steak, settling the question for the main course. Selecting side dishes that go well with steak and are Diane's favorites was then easy to do.

I went to Whole Foods to buy some really nice steaks. After perusing the contents of the butcher case, I decided on two one-pound rib eye steaks. They were expensive but I comforted myself at the register by remembering that I could have spent more if I'd selected dry-aged rib eye steaks. I was pretty sure we wouldn't consume both of these in one meal but I anticipated some really good leftovers. The steaks were about 1½" thick and well marbled with fat so they promised to be tender and juicy, so long as I cooked them properly. The pressure was on.

The longest-cooking item on the menu was baked potatoes. Two large russet potatoes were scrubbed with a vegetable brush and placed in a 350° oven for 75 minutes. I never checked them for doneness, I trusted the time and temperature and just took them out after 75 minutes. Fortunately they were fine, perhaps a little underdone, but not so much to be a problem. I could have cooked them in much shorter time in the microwave but they wouldn't have been as good. Oven baking is especially good for producing a nice, crispy skin.

To prepare the steaks I used instructions in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook in the recipe for Steak Frites, I just skipped the Frites (a.k.a French Fries) part. I followed the directions for cooking the steaks and I made a simple yet rich and tasty herb butter which we used to garnish both the steaks and the baked potatoes.

The steaks were pan seared. I used a cast iron skillet which is ideal for searing because it holds heat so well. My directions had me add a tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. I am never sure which setting on our electric stove, which has a dial marked 1 through 10, corresponds to "medium-high". I tried 6½ but this was too hot as it produced copious amounts of smoke from the oil. I retreated to 5 before adding the meat which seemed to work out well. I cooked the steak for 4 minutes then turned it over, cooking for 6 minutes on the second side. At this point the the internal temperature was about right. I was shooting for 120°-125° for medium rare got reasonably close. The thinner parts of the steak were a little more done and the thicker a little less. All in all, though, the steak had a nice crust and was pink and warm in the middle.

Asparagus was cooked on the grill and nothing could have been simpler. The thick ends of the stalks were cut off and the spears drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with some kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. (I use only freshly ground pepper, I believe it's been years since we had a can of ground pepper in the house.) I didn't get the timing quite right with the asparagus, it was done too early and so was overdone when served, being a little limp without the crispness that you would like with a fresh vegetable.

We had some lettuce and tomatoes on hand and so we had a little green salad on the side. We opened a nice bottle of Zinfandel from the Guglielmo Winery which is just down the road in Morgan Hill.

I enjoy making elaborate dishes but I think I enjoy even more the simpler ones which take less time to prepare but are still wonderful to eat. This meal didn't take a lot of time, there was minimal prep needed, and it was all wonderful. I think Diane enjoyed it.

What about Steak Diane? Well, she is partial to that too, but it will have to wait for another day.

Herb Butter from America's Test Kitchen