Friday, January 27, 2012

Why I use recipes

January 22, 2012
Slow-Cooker Beef Burgundy over Noodles
No-knead Sourdough  Bread with Steel Cut Oats
BV Coastal Estates Pinot Noir 2009, Vella Merlot
Meyer Lemon Bar Cookies with Rosemary

Beef Burgundy, from this recipe in particular, is one of my favorite dishes. It has a rich, earthy, beefy, umami flavor that can't be beat for a winter's dinner. I've made it several times before and have found it to be very satisfying. The beef is tender and flavorful and the sauce delicious. It is great served over noodles, boiled potatoes, and mashed potatoes and the leftovers are as good, or better, than the original.

Prior to nine hours in the slow cooker, this dish requires some preparation. Not wanting to spend Sunday morning in the kitchen I was happy to see from the recipe that most of the prep work could be done in advance. I bought a 4-pound chuck roast at Whole Foods and cut it into large pieces, as directed in the recipe. I removed and discarded the hard fat that runs through a chuck roast. I cut up and cooked the vegetables, browned half the beef and a half pound of bacon, and mixed the wine (the same Pinot Noir that I served with the meal, though most of the bottle went into the Beef Burgundy) with soy sauce and chicken stock. It took me about an hour and a half to get everything ready and stored in the refrigerator. This work paid off on Sunday morning when it took only a few minutes to retrieve items from the fridge, put them into the slow cooker, add bay leaves and tapioca (a thickener), turn it on low, and leave it for nine hours. When the meat was tender a garnish of wine, pearl onions, fresh parsley, and mushrooms was prepared and added to the stew which was then served over noodles.

It was good, with all of the qualities described above. Sadly, though it was too salty. It's common for a recipe to tell you to adjust a dish's seasoning as the last step. You can add salt or you can add  pepper or you can add both. However, if there's already too much salt or too much pepper there isn't much you can do. This dish had many sources of salt: bacon, chicken broth, soy sauce among them. I didn't use a low-salt chicken broth as the recipe called for. I couldn't find any at the store without buying much more than I needed so I settled for a smaller container that wasn't low sodium. The other source of salt, over which I had significant control, was what I sprinkled onto the meat. Given all of the other sources of salt, in hindsight I should have been less generous in salting than I was. It might have helped if the recipe had specified quantities for salt and pepper, but that's no excuse. You can always add more seasoning later, but you can't remove it.

The bread was also a bit of a disappointment. On Wednesday I took the starter from the refrigerator and let it come up to room temperature. I fed it on both Friday and Saturday, adding ½ cups of flour and ⅓ cups of water. The sourdough was bubbly each day and had a more distinct sour smell than when it was new. The recipe is the same no-knead sourdough I had used before, except for the addition of steel-cut oats. I made the dough on Saturday night and let it ferment for 18 hours. It doubled in volume overnight, as expected. I turned it out and even with a generous sprinkling of flour it was still very wet and sticky. No-knead doughs are meant to be wet, but perhaps this was too wet. I shaped it gingerly and placed it on a sheet of parchment paper to rise. The loaf didn't rise as high as I would expect and the resulting bread was a too dense. I'm thinking the main problem may be with the process I used to reactivate the starter. Rather than doubling the amount of starter with each feeding, as described at Breadtopia, I only give it small amounts of flour and water. Also, the next time I make this I might add some extra flour, enough so that I can knead it a few times by had as in the America's Test Kitchen "Almost no-knead" recipes.

Once a month we receive a box of produce from Farm Fresh to You — we get the Mostly Fruit box. We had four Meyer lemons in the refrigerator from our most recent box with no plans for using them, until I came across the blog, Patty's Food, and her recipe for Meyer Lemon Bars. Patty's recipe was adopted from one in America's Test Kitchen Light and Healthy 2012.  I used all of the zest from our 4 lemons and most of the juice. The lemon bars were easy to make: Ingredients for the dough were mixed in a food processor, pressed into a pan, and baked. After the crust cooled the lemon filling was made, poured on top, and baked.  The end product was very good, though the crust was a little tough. Rosemary is included in the crust but I can't really taste it in the final product. I wonder what this would have been like if it hadn't been made with a Light and Healthy recipe. As is, it is worth making again.

When I was active as a general aviation pilot, I came across the saying (aviation has lots of sayings), "Learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself." While the consequences of making a mistake while cooking are not as severe as when piloting an aircraft, the sentiment provides some of the reason why I usually follow a recipe rather than throwing things together myself. I don't have the time, skills, equipment, or money it takes to create a good recipe. I leave that to the professionals and then use the results of their efforts. With this meal I had two dishes that were disappointing. In both cases this could have been prevented if I had more carefully followed  the instructions.

Why do I use recipes? Because it results in better food.

Slow-Cooker Beef Burgundy, The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, p. 269
No-knead Sourdough Bread with Steel Cut Oats from Breadtopia
Meyer Lemon Bar Cookies with Rosemary from Patty's Food

Note: You may need to be a member to see the recipe on an Americas' Test Kitchen web site.

Chili is one of those dishes that is better as a leftover. We had only enough left over for one dinner and then the portion sizes were a smidgen too small. I could have stuck with the original recipe which used two pounds of ground beef instead of halving it. Having chili four times over the course of a few weeks would not be a bad thing.

I used up much of the cornbread as a breakfast dish. I warmed it up in the microwave and served it with butter and either jam or honey. It was a little dry, perhaps another indication that it had been slightly overcooked.

Kitchen tip
What do you do with leftover tomato paste? I measure out the leftovers in 1 Tablespoon portions, put them onto a small baking sheet lined with plastic wrap, and freeze them overnight. The next morning they go into a zipper storage bag and back into the freezer. The next time a recipe calls for tomato paste I can just pull it out, thaw it out, and cook it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In 'N Out of the Kitchen

January 15, 2012
Simple Beef Chili with Kidney Beans
Cornbread No Chaser
Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen, Vella Merlot

I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on the road &emdash; about 21 hours in a car. We drove to Arcata, California, and back, returning our daughter to college (we have plans to get her a car of her own to save us some of this travel) and to Clovis, California, for Destination ImagiNation, an educational organization for whom I do a lot of volunteer work. After three days in the car I didn't want to spend all day Sunday in the kitchen. Not only was I tired from the travelling, but I usually use Saturday for meal planning and shopping, and I didn't have that opportunity. Also, the other normal weekend chores and activites were begging for my attention.

I had been thinking of making chili for some time. Since I had received the Cook's Illustrated Cookbook for Christmas I opened it to see what recipes it offered and found several pages of them. This isn't surprising, given the many different ways to make this dish, and the passion that it inspires. I've made it with ground beef and with stew beef, using dried spices, dried chilies, fresh chilies, with beans and without beans. I even experimented for a while, trying to develop my own recipe, but with little success. Reading the first of the several chili recipes in the book, "Simple Beef Chili", I had found what I wanted: a really simple recipe requiring a minimum amount of my time. It called for ground beef; onions; garlic;  red bell pepper; canned beans, tomatoes, and tomato puree; and dried spices: chili powder, cumin, coriander, cayenne, oregano, and red pepper flakes.  Prep time was minimal and cooking time was only a few hours during which I was free to attend to other matters. The recipe called for two pounds of ground beef but to create a dinner for two with a reasonable quantity of leftovers I halved it. I think I even remembered to halve every ingredient. It also said to drain the tomatoes and reserve the liquid, but then didn't say what to do with the liquid. I kept it to add if the chili dried out but it wasn't needed.

My favorite side dish with chili is cornbread. I found a box of corn meal in the cupboard and looked up  my favorite cornbread recipe from Alton Brown's baking book, I'm Just Here for More Food.  The batter is prepared using the "muffin method". The dry ingredients are whisked together in a large bowl. The corn meal is soaked in milk for 15 minutes and the other wet ingredients are added. The wet is then added to the dry and mixed until just incorporated. The batter is then, and this is key, poured into a preheated cast-iron skillet to bake as the hot pan produces a lovely, golden crust. The bread was done sooner than the recipe suggested, which I had anticipated so I was watching it, but it had a higher internal temperature than called for in the recipe. It wasn't burned but perhaps a bit overdone.

The chili and the bread were both very good. The chili had a bit of heat (sometimes your food should bite you back) but not too much; Diane and I are not big fans of spicy foods but the degree of heat was OK. We topped it with some shredded cheese. The cornbread was topped with butter and honey. It was a comforting meal to eat on a winter's evening. I probably spent about an hour, maybe less, in the kitchen, all told. A nice result for a relatively modest investment of time.

Simple Beef Chili with Kidney Beans, Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, America's Test Kitchen, 2011, p. 96.
Cornbread No Chaser, I'm Just Here for More Food, Alton Brown, 2004, p. 118. 

Last week's homemade hot dog buns were frozen. Since they were made we've had hot dogs and baked beans twice. The first time I took two of the buns out of the freezer and thawed them, gently, in the microwave. They came out great, almost as good as the day they were made. We also tried them lightly toasted and that worked well, too. The more I have these the more I like them and the more likely that I will make my own hot dog buns again. I will certainly consider trying the King Arthur recipe next time.

The left over baked beans were fine just warmed up in the microwave, though a little dry. I added some ketchup which, like bacon, improves almost anything. The second time we had these we added some water before microwaving which also helped.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Make or Buy?

January 8, 2012
Hot dogs, with homemade buns
Dont Sleep on Boston Baked Beans
Steak fries
Brownies with Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Gorge
Pyramid Breweries Snow Camp Winter Warmer

Businesses face make or buy decisions every day. Should our software engineers design, build, and maintain a computer program needed to run the business, or should we pay a vendor to provide the solution to our problem? There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches and it can be a difficult decision to make.

Home cooks regularly face the same decision. Should I invest the time and energy needed to prepare something from scratch or should I buy the same thing at the supermarket or take-out joint and pop it in the microwave oven? Preparing from scratch usually leads to better tasting and much healthier food but at the expense of time, time that we don't always have in abundance. Cost can  also be a factor: some things will cost less money to make yourself, others will cost more. For me, since I cook because I enjoy it, and mostly on the weekend, preparing food from scratch is really the whole point, though I do have my limits! I may elect to make some items on my menu from scratch but purchase others. I often come across recipes where I have to doubt that the time and effort are not justified by the expected result.

I recently listened to an interview of Jennifer Reese on NPR. Jennifer has explored this issue in a new book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. It contains over 120 recipes for items that you may, or may not, have considered making at home. For each there is not only a comparison of the cost of store-bought and home-made goods, but also a "hassle factor" evaluating how much trouble it is to make the item yourself. The book includes a handy table which recommends what you should buy (e.g. hamburger buns, hot dogs, burritos), things you should make (e.g. hot dog buns, dill pickles, yogurt) and things you can do either way (applesauce, mayonnaise, graham crackers). The article on the NPR web site  includes, in addition to the radio interview, three of her recipes: Marshmallows, Hot Dog Buns, and Worcestershire Sauce.

My menu this week has a mixture of homemade and store-bought items. I was intrigued to try making my own Hot Dog Buns so I printed a copy of Jennifer's recipe to try out.

However, the main course was not the hot dogs, rather it was the Boston Baked Beans. I make these at least once a year, usually in the winter. I love to eat baked beans and sometimes open a can to have for a weekend lunch. They're so hearty that I think of the beans as the main course for any meal where they are served. The hot dog or hamburger that is also provided is a side dish complementing the beans. 

I have tried several recipes for this classic American dish but I have yet to settle on one that is my favorite. Chef John from Food Wishes published his recipe recently so I gave it a try. I bought 1 lb of navy beans at Whole Foods; they're not available at our local Lucky Supermarket. I soaked them overnight, and then some, as I didn't start cooking until early afternoon. Since both the hot dog buns, fries, and brownies also required the oven I wanted to get the beans done early. The recipe did not provide specific times for baking the beans, just approximations. I cooked them for 2½ hours covered at 300° and then 1 hour uncovered at 350°. To keep them warm while the other items cooked I placed them on the stove on low. I should have watched them more closely as they dried out, but didn't burn, and the "sauce" was lost. They were good, but I think I will need to continue searching for that perfect baked bean recipe. Perhaps I should try some that are not from Boston. If you have a favorite I'd love to hear about it. 

Next: make the hot dog buns. I made the dough when the beans had been in the oven for two hours. The procedure couldn't be much simpler. You put all of the ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer, mix them using the dough hook until a smooth dough results, let the dough rise until doubled, make buns, raise again, and bake.  The dough used a mixture of all purpose and whole wheat flour which was a promising start as I anticipated the extra flavor the whole wheat flour would provide. 

After mixing I found the dough  to be very wet and sticky, so wet that it would be almost impossible to work with. I mixed in an additional ¼ cup of flour. It was still sticky but improved. The extra mixing could led to the development of more gluten and thus tougher, chewier buns. I found myself wishing that the recipe provided more guidance on how long the dough should be kneaded and how wet it should be. Perhaps the initial wet, sticky dough was the expected result. 

After the dough rose I turned it out onto a well floured counter as it was still sticky. However, after coating it well with flour, I found it was easy to work with. I used my bench scraper to divide the dough as well as I could into 12 pieces The recipe calls for 10 but it's much easier to divide something into twelfths than it is to divide it into tenths. I shaped them as best I could and set them on the top of the stove (warmed by the heat from the oven) to rise. Dividing and shaping were the most problematic parts of the procedure for me. I ended up with buns of various sizes and shapes, not quite what we're used to from a lifetime of uniform store bought buns. They did taste good and had more texture and flavor than store-bought. We had Ball Park Brand Bun Size Franks which I cooked outdoors on the gas grill. The all important bun-to-dog ratio worked out OK with the buns I selected which were among the larger ones in the batch. The rest were put in the freezer to have on another day.

I served French Fries, frozen ones that I reheated in the oven. Deep frying is a topic for another day.

I found a recipe for flourless brownies on the Whole Foods web site. I was thinking they would be rich and extra chocolatey but I should have been thinking they would be healthy and gluten free considering the source or the recipe. They have one very odd ingredient, for brownies: a can of black beans, They were very easy to make. The beans were drained and rinsed and then added to the bowl of a food processor along with the other ingredients. (I ignored the "gluten-free" specifications for some of the other ingredients, just using what we had on hand. Does vanilla extract really come in a gluten-free form?) A few seconds of processing provided a smooth batter to which some chopped walnuts and chocolate chips were added before baking. The brownies, served with a little ice cream, turned out to be very good. If you think about it you can taste the beans but unless someone told you they were there you probably wouldn't taste them. The brownies were certainly superior and much more chocolatey than anything you would make from a box and they took no more effort.

So for this menu, make or buy? I am not tempted to make hot dogs, so buy. Baked beans as the main course of a meal have to be made. The buns: I don't know. They were good but I'm not convinced they were worth it, especially given the difficulty I had  dividing and shaping the dough. I am tempted to look up the original King Arthur's recipe they are based on to see if it provides more detail. Finally, the brownies: there is no question these should be made from scratch and this recipe is something I would use again. The whipped cream served as part of dessert came from a can, I can't remember the last time I made my own. I've tried making my own ice cream on several occasions but I've never been happy with the results.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cooking with Santa

January 1, 2012
Braised Pork Shoulder
Butternut Squash Apple Soup
Sourdough Bread
Hogue Late Harvest Riesling

It wasn't by design, truly, but I ended up using Christmas gifts to prepare several of the dishes on this menu, most notably sourdough bread. I received a Sourdough Starter Package which is marketed by Breadtopia.  The Starter Package included a packet of dried sourdough starter and a nice jar for storing the starter. On the Monday following Christmas, after reading the printed instructions and watching the video instructions, I added warm water to the dried starter. Day after day I cultivated it, tenderly feeding it (just flour and water but it wasn't being punished, that's what it wants to eat) and keeping it warm. Before going to bed I would leave it on the stove near the oven vent and turn on the oven, turning it off after reaching temperature. I was rewarded at the end of the week with several cups of sour, floury-smelling, bubbly starter! On Saturday evening I used ¼ cup of the starter in a no-knead bread recipe which has been modified to use sourdough starter instead of yeast. The dough was wetter than my usual Cook's Illustrated recipe for no-knead bread, but it rose nicely during its 18-hour rest and produced a delicious loaf of bread. It had good flavor and texture. It was not as sour as a San Francisco Sourdough bread that you may have had in a restaurant or purchased on Fisherman's Wharf. Some of those breads are made with starters that have been in use since gold-rush days. I am looking forward to learning how my starter changes over time, I plan to make frequent use of it.

When I made Butternut Squash Apple Soup last week I used only half of the squash, so I made it again using the other half of the squash. This provided an opportunity to try the  suggestion for upping the apple flavor made in the comments of  my earlier post.  I used 1 cup apple juice, 1 cup water, and 2 cups vegetable broth in place of the 4 cups vegetable broth I had used before. The resulting soup is still good, and it had a lighter, brighter taste than the first version. Nonetheless, the apple flavor is still very subtle. I don't think this soup is as good as the Silky Butternut Squash Soup that I've made in the past which has a more pronounced squash flavor. I have several other recipes for Butternut Squash soups, with and without apple, which I want to try. I don't know if I'll get to it this year, though. We're near the end of the hard squash season and there are lots of other soups I'd like to make. I don't want to go through the whole winter having only variations of one type of soup.

While cooking the soup I used two new Christmas gadgets. The first is a spoon holder that clips onto the side of the pot. It is clever and handy though this particular spoon turned out to be a tight fit. The second Christmas gadget is an immersion blender which I used to puree the vegetables into soup. The immersion blender was very convenient and much easier to clean up than a standard blender. It didn't really save much time other than for cleanup and it didn't do as good a job as the blender, but it was certainly good enough.

The pork shoulder was braised in apple juice using a slow cooker. The recipe called for a 4-5 lb roast but Whole Foods was able to sell me a 2.5 lb roast. With just the two of us eating it the availability of a smaller cut was a pleasant surprise. I modified the recipe appropriately but forgot to reduce the amount of vinegar. This resulted in a somewhat sour sauce which was OK with me but not as OK with Diane. The cooking time was not reduced by having a smaller cut of meat, it still took 6-7 hours. I got it started late and we were getting pretty hungry after many hours of cooking. I ended up removing the roast from the slow cooker a little earlier than I might have preferred. While it rested I used a fourth Christmas present (this one I bought for myself), a fat separator. This not only strains the solids from the braising liquid (though the strainer is fairly coarse) but after letting the liquid sit for a few minutes I could pour off the broth leaving the fat behind. This saved me from having to skim fat off of the sauce while it reduced. Again I hurried as I reduced the de-fatted braising liquid to create a sauce, since it was pretty late and people were hungry, so the sauce didn't thicken as much as it should. I finished it off with butter and fresh rosemary and thyme because I had those herbs on hand. The roast, though it could  have cooked a little longer, was still very good. As advertised in the video recipe it was tasty and fork tender.

Sourdough No Knead from Breadtopia
Slow Cooker Braised Pork Shoulder Roast with Apple Butter Sauce from Food Wishes
Butternut Squash & Apple Soup, Gizdich Ranch

Note: for recipes from Americas' Test Kitchen you may need to be a member to see the recipe on their web site.